The Road to Rationalism part 4

So what's so good about Science anyway?

As we saw in earlier 'Road to Rationalism' posts, we can quite logically reject the metaphysical claims and creation stories of all of the World's religions, by the simple expedient of realising that, since all of them have them, they can't all be right, and that since dedicated followers of all the myriad sects of each religion claim that their interpretation is the only true account, basing this claim on absolutely no evidence but their own blind faith (and of course the fact that they were told, again and again, that it was true, before they even found out that the tooth fairy wasn't real) it should be quite obvious to all that the likelihood of any of these interpretations actually being correct is vanishingly small.

Obvious to all, that is, but the individual members of each of these sects, who of course just 'know' that they are right. Were it not for the sheer number of these people, the deeply worrying amount of power, money and influence (particularly over their own poor children) that many of these people hold, in some cases individually as well as collectively, we could dismiss them as being simply anachronistic and irrelevant. Tragically, we atheists and humanists are a very small, but growing, minority, able to exist (almost exclusively to the best of my - admittedly partial - knowledge) only in wealthy democracies.

"What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence" is one of my favourite quotes from Christopher Hitchens' fantastic book, 'God is not Great'. I could fill a very large post with excellent quotes from this book but I'd probabaly get in trouble for it, so, read it yourselves.

What then, are we to do with evidence?

If you adhere to a religious sect, chances are you will either ignore it, supress it (if you can) or (eventually) incorporate it into your teachings.
If you don't subscribe to any religious ideas, you will either change your world view to include this evidence or, if you have a cherished idea based upon earlier evidence or a different interpretation, you will attempt to challenge it or wait until more evidence arrives before accepting it.

This, to my mind, is what is so good about science.

Our view of the universe, the world, life, in fact everything is constantly being updated and refined as new evidence comes in.

We have amazing theories that tell us more about who we are and our place in the world than any religiously inspired story can ever hope to do.

It really breaks my heart to know that so many people around the world are missing out on all this discovery, all this knowledge, all these ideas, hypotheses and theories, by believing in ancient rubbish.

They cling on to their comfort blankets, wishing, willing, praying that they are right, most dangerously, 'knowing' that they are right, as reality briskly passes them by.

The best I can say, with my layman's knowledge of current scientific theories, is that we have a very good idea of how old the universe is, but this is subject to review; we know how old the solar system, and therefore the world is, to within a few million years; we know how long ago life began here and have a very good idea of the chemistry that made this possible; we know how life developed and evolved to produce the diversity we see today; we know that we are an intrinsic part of this life and the only thing that sets us apart from the rest of life is our relative intelligence and our level of consciousness. There are many, many things we do not know, but the one certainty about the gaps in our knowledge is that the scientific procedures of evidence gathering and empirical testing are the only ways in which we can hope to fill them.

Some things we may never know, but to say 'hey, don't worry about these gaps in our knowledge, God did it!' is nothing more nor less than intellectual suicide, and those who would reject evidence simply because it contradicts the teachings derived from some ancient text or other, deserve to be ridiculed as the simpletons that they are.

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Entertaining reading on the tube

How amusingly bizarre a recent journey of mine was.

I normally travel to work by tube, which at peak times is something of a nightmare. In fact one of the few positive things about my line of work is that I am rarely forced to become a sardine and join in the twice-daily mass experiments to see just how much human flesh it is possible to fit inside a small cylinder...

No, I prefer the more sedate journies just after rush hour when its actually possible to get a seat and read the paper in some semblance of comfort.

People-watching on the tube is a fantastic pastime, and I always take an interest in what other people are doing - be it the slightly dodgy looking bloke perving at the girl opposite (oh no, sorry, that's me) or the old woman talking to herself, or the guy who looks like he's going to start talking to you (avoid eye contact at all costs - he who shows an interest is lost). I always pay mild attention to what other people are reading, particularly if its my newspaper that they're reading over my shoulder.

The vacuous ads posted around above the seats occupy your attention for a few minutes, and also give you a great excuse to pretend to read whilst keeping the talkative looking chap in your peripheral vision, ready for you to make a rapid escape if it looks like you're going to be his victim. Our flight response may have evolved hundreds of millions of years ago, but it is certainly not redundant even now in the age of mass transit.

The other day there was a remarkable juxtaposition of conflicting texts, that fair tickled me pink.

A rather dour looking middle-aged woman was sitting next to me, reading a book entitled 'Teach Yourself Biblical Hebrew', which, excitingly for her no doubt, aimed to do this by listing Old Testament verses, in English, followed immediately by their Hebrew counterparts (originals, perhaps? Or were they re-translations of the English verses? Who knows, or indeed cares?).

I'm sure she had very good reasons for learning Hebrew, though none immediately occur to me. I looked at the book for a few moments, as one does, and may even be able to tell you how to write 'Daniel', if pressed (I think it goes 'vertical line, horizontal line, bendy line' but I'm not sure, it could have been something else). My overall judgement was that if I wanted to learn how to write Hebrew, I'd do it by studying modern, relevant language rather than the supposed rantings of deranged, long-dead prophets written many years after their uncomfirmed existences came to an end.

Opposite my seat was a mildly irritating and utterly vacuous advert from 'Lamb of' which was simply a quote from a New Testament book (I didn't bother to check which one) - something about Jesus gathering all to him, I think. I really wonder what goes through the minds of the people who commission these adverts; I mean, I know the copy is cheap to produce, but what do they think it will achieve? Will the bed-sheet clad gentleman with the serene look on his face glance at the advert and put down his Koran, muttering to himself 'Dear me, but I have been wrong for all these years, of course Jesus is my saviour!' Will the middle-aged dragon learning Hebrew see it and think 'Hmmm, I must learn Aramaic next, Hebrew is so passe'? I think not.

Opposite and slightly to the left of me, I clocked a youngish man reading 'The God Delusion'.

Shortly after I spotted it, the Hebrew student glanced up, copped a sight of it, and sort of froze... I could almost feel the iciness spreading out from her... the silent indignation, then, with truly classical religious behaviour, the re-gathering of dignity, the return of the eyes to her book - her knuckles were white - an almost imperceptible shake of the head, the staunchly pretending that nothing had happened. Forget the nasty Dawkins monster, concentrate on what Daniel did instead.

But her natural curiosity (for even the deeply religious cannot supress it all of the time, except by trying to silence other people) kept getting the better of her. She kept glancing up, eyes darting from 'lamb of god' to 'no god' and back again. Back to Daniel, then a long hard look at the offending man. He looks up, catches her gaze briefly, impassively, glances at the title of her book... a wry smile turns the corner of one lip as he returns to his book.

Haughtily, coldly, she returns to her book and turns the page. The tension in the air was palpable (though it might be that it was only me who noticed) but all one-sided.

The young man couldn't have cared less, by the look of it, what she was reading. For the student though, anything that made her think about, perhaps even for a moment question, the veracity of her beliefs was enough to send her into icy tension.

I studiously returned to my newspaper, trying hard to keep a grin from spreading across my face.

If it makes you feel better, I had a shit day at work.

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More evidence of the direct corelation between religiosity, bigotry and xenophobia

(Link to full story in title)

A little note tucked away in the world section of my newspaper yesterday tells us that a group of Orthodox Jews in the Israeli town of Or Yehuda burnt hundreds of copies of the New Testament that had been distributed by missionaries...

A little research leads me to and their coverage of the story, to which I have linked in the title.

Following complaints, the deputy mayor of the town, Uzi Aharon, apparently drove through the town with a loudspeaker car urging residents to hand over the Testaments and other material to 'Jewish religious students who went door to door to collect it.'

The books were then burned in a pile near a synagogue, presumably so that God could look on and be proud of his chosen people. After all, anyone familiar with the Pentateuch can scarcely deny that God is rather keen on burnt offerings - He just might be a little disappointed that they were only books.

He later said that he regretted the burning of the books, but called it a commandment to burn materials that urge Jews to convert, so, thats alright then. A jihadist suicide bomber may regret the slaughter of innocents (collateral damage - lovely phrase) who happen to get in the way, but he or she is following a commandment, so, thats alright then. A doctor-murdering 'Pro-Life' nut may briefly regret the killing of a full grown human to save 'babies', but he (I doubt women will object to my use of the male pronoun in this instance) is following a commandment so, thats alright then. In short, you can do whatever you damn-well like to other people, so long as you do it in the name of God.

"I certainly don't denounce the burning of the booklets, he said. I denounce those who distributed the booklets."

Personally, I would denounce anyone who would burn something that anyone holds dear, be it a book, a flag, or a building. That may be because I'm prepared to accept that everyone has a right to live in the way that seems best to them, PROVIDED THAT IN DOING SO IT IS NOT NECESSARY TO HURT OTHER PEOPLE. I know this is a vague and naive interpretation of the ancient Golden Rule, but a form of this rule is the basis by which all secular humanists live their lives, and needs little definition from me.

So, the more religious an individual is, the more faith they have in whatever nonsense they have been brought up to believe is true, the more likely they are to be racist, bigoted xenophobes. The more one is prepared to take instruction and law from ancient texts, the more cruelly do they treat their fellows.

Conversely, the more secular a person is, even if they have faith but accept that their faith must not take precedent over the temporal laws of their country, the more likely they are to live peacefully and constructively with those of other opinions.

Faith itself is not a virtue, and absolute faith is positively destructive.

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A note on the definitions of 'theory' and 'hypothesis'

I occasionally enjoy debating the faithful on the subject of their particular beliefs. I won't say 'chosen beliefs', as nine hundred and ninety-nine times out of a thousand these beliefs are held simply because the person concerned has been told from a very young age that a) 'x is true' and b) 'questioning x is wrong and you will be punished for it'. Unfortunately powerful memes that do much to perpetuate faith.

It is a constant uphill struggle for those of us who value truth obtained through the analysis of evidence to get these people to look beyond their blinkers at the real world, but a rewarding one when it succeeds. One intelligent person saved from the darkness and superstition of blind faith is worth a hundred foolish converts.

Since Darwin (and Wallace) opened our eyes and showed us how all life could have arisen from simple origins, religiously inspired (or funded) researchers have been trying to show that evolution is wrong. They have had almost a hundred and fifty years to provide us with evidence that disproves the theory of evolution - none is so far forthcoming.

In the other direction, the more we learn about life, the more we study it, from the level of ecosystems, to whole organisms, right down to the level of their constituent molecules, the more evidence we find to support evolution. In fact, this evidence is now so overwhelming that even the Vatican has had to incorporate evolution into its official teachings of how God made us all. This fact might surprise some of the catholics I debate, and I would simply ask that they take a look at what the Vatican has said rather than listen to their own parish priests.

I say that this will surprise many catholics, because when I debate them, I often get asked 'if you don't believe in God, where did we come from?' or something similar. When I reply 'We evolved' I often receive the rejoinder 'but evolution is just a theory, right? it hasn't been proven.'

I have written this post specifically so that I can direct people I am debating with to it, in the hope that it will clear up this pernicious little mis-understanding.

When scientists speak of theories, they mean this in a technical sense. In its non-technical sense, a theory really is just an untested idea, like if I have a theory that the Conservatives will win the next election, for example.

In science, a theory is defined as a coherent group of general propositions used as principles of explanation for a class of phenomena.

When scientists have an idea that they want to test, they call this a hypothesis.

A hypothesis is defined as a conjecture put forth as a possible explanation of phenomena or relations, which serves as a basis of argument or experimentation to reach the truth: This idea is only a hypothesis.

(Source: - link in title.)

In short, when lay-people think that evolution is not a fact, because it is only a theory, they have not understood that the word theory is used here in the technical sense of the term. They are thinking that evolution is in fact a hypothesis.

I note that this mis-understanding does not apply to other theatres of scientific endeavour: - I have never heard of a creationist who is scared to use a computer, or indeed switch on a light, because they doubt the theory of electromagnetism, or one who is scared to fly because they doubt the theory of aerodynamics.

Why, then, does this stupidity persist when it comes to the theory of evolution?

So please, after reading this, do not you tell me that you doubt evolution because it is only a theory, and remember, that in the technical sense, the idea of God is just a failed hypothesis.

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