Celebrating A New Evangelical 'Religion': Atheism

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Email sent 15/3/10

Miriam Cosic
The Australian

RE: 'Celebrating life beyond belief'', The Australian, 15/3/10  

I noted with some amusement your excellent coverage of the Global Atheists Convention (on 'The Rise of Atheism' - apparently as a new evangelical 'religion'),  and have summarised it on my web-site. There seem to me to be some problems associated with participant's endeavours to promote belief in Atheism. For example:

  • it is not clear what atheism is 'defined by an absence of belief' in. Adherents seem to reject both God and all religions, though some religions are non-theistic;
  • 'science and reason and critical thinking', belief in which the Convention's originator apparently aspires to spread, are not infallible alternatives for simple faith;
  • Richard Dawkins (apparently regarded as like a 'high priest' in the new 'religion') may not be correct in proclaiming evolution as a sufficient explanation of creation;
  • as a matter of faith, Atheism needs to be treated the same as other religions (eg preferably kept out of politics, to maintain the separation of church and state);
  • Richard Dawkins' strange resistance to debating Islamists effectively amounts to advocacy of militaristic alternatives, and inhibits any rapid reduction in violence.

The above speculations are outlined in more detail on my website, and may be of interest.

John Craig

Outline of Article
Outline of 'Celebrating Life beyond Belief'

Participants came from everywhere - annoyed ex-Catholics; an Iranian who had seen unspeakable things done in the name of religion; A. C. Grayling (who wondered why people could be kind to, and also kill, others). Atheists are defined only by their absence of belief - so their congregation seems strange. David Nichols (Atheist Foundation of Australia) had been asked if they would thus have nothing to talk about, or whether would worship the devil and plot a world takeover. But the convention was lively. Stuart Bechman (a political activist with Atheists Alliance international) had first proposed the convention. He suggested that 50% of atheists had been raised that way, while the others came out of religion and were angry for being deceived. Bechman's goal is to counter that harm, and build a community of science and reason and critical thinking. Previous conventions were held in US. Speakers included: Richard Dawkins (who likened the pope to a Nazi); philosophers A. C. Grayling (received like a rock star) and Tomas Pataki (who cautioned against seeking end to religion - because of emotional need to be heard / loved by a non-existent personal deity); a biology lecturer P.Z. Myers; a lesbian former Mormon Sue-Ann Post; ex Catholic columnist Catherine Deveny; a comic Jamie Kilstein; a bioethicist Leslie Cannold. Most speakers were tough on religion (while respecting progressives who cared for the poor and sick). Both established religions and those who invented their own were attacked. Taslima Nasrin (a Bangladeshi women's rights activist who had been exiled, and then also attacked in India) had expressed doubts about Islam as a child, and saw all religions (especially Islam) as only for the comfort of men. Senator Lyn Allison, social commentator Jane Caro and Tanya Levin (formerly of Hillsong church) spoke of women's experiences in Australia. Myers took issue with the idea that a good and all-knowing God would favour circumcision, but not require hand-washing. John Perkins (an economist) spoke of the relationship between Islam and terror. Peter Singer (philosopher at Melbourne and Princeton universities) saw both believers and non-believers in God in ethical universe. The golden rule, he suggested, predates religion and is a universal product of human development. New testament requirements for the rich to give to the poor are less practiced in more-religious US than in more -secular Europe with its extensive welfare measures. Singer also noted that most recent great philanthropists were atheists. Many noted that the conference's request for government funding had been refused - despite recent government payments to support religious events. Payments for chaplains in state schools was also questioned by Ian Robinson (Rationalist Society of Australia). Richard Dawkins: (a) spoke of the wonders of evolution and the glories of the material world (b) criticised Catholics and Muslims; (c) likened the creation of saints to Monty Python - suggesting that sophisticated theologians were no better than fundamentalist wingnuts; and (d) refused to contemplate dialogue with Islamists (as resorting to violence indicated intellectual weakness). (Cosic M., 'Celebrating life beyond belief'', The Australian, 15/3/10)

Detailed Comments +

What is Atheism?

It is anything but clear what 'atheism' is 'defined by an absence of belief' in. The name suggests that 'atheists' are opposed to 'theism' (ie belief in God), but many adherents seem to profess opposition to religion generally. 

The problem with this is that:

  • Atheism itself is clearly a religion (ie it is a shared / organized belief system based on its adherent's un-provable assumptions from which those adherents derive principles for living) - as noted below in Should Atheism be recognized as a religion? (and as illustrated further Atheism as a New Religion);
  • some increasingly influential traditional religions (especially those of East Asia) are non-theistic (see Philosophy and Religion: The Case for a Bigger Picture View). Does this mean that believers in 'Atheism' should also be in favour of some traditional religions? This an important question for Atheists to resolve, because those non-theistic religions involve:
    • a view on 'spirituality' in terms of relationships within particular ethnic communities, rather than as a characteristic of individuals or as of 'universal' relevance; and
    • techniques for problem solving that owe nothing the the West's classical Greek heritage (eg see Background Note and Competing Thought Cultures) and are arguably the most incompatible with what the original promoter of the 'Rise of Atheism' event apparently rely on as the foundation of their apologetics (ie reason and critical thinking - op cit).

The Limits to Science, Reason and Critical Thinking 

Stuart Bechman, who reportedly originally suggested the Global Atheist's Convention, seemed to be thereby hoping to promote belief in 'science and reason and critical thinking' - and rely on this as the foundation of Atheism's apologetics. Likewise, when examined in 2015, the website of the Atheist Foundation of Australia featured the slogans 'Atheism: Celebrate Reason' and 'Promoting Scientifically credible and factually reliable evidence'.  It also suggested that 'Atheism is the acceptance that there is no credible scientific or factually reliable evidence for the existence of a god, gods or the supernatural'.

However those who believe in human efforts to understand reality (such as reason, science and critical thinking) are not standing on completely solid ground, because:

  • while the methods (ie observation and experimentation) that scientists use in attempts to develop positive knowledge frequently produce highly beneficial results, those methods also suffer limitations. In particular, it is noted that:
    • some limitations have long been recognised by philosophers of science (eg see 'What is this thing called science?'). The latter referred, for example, to: 
      • the theory dependence of observations (ie observations which are the basis of developing theories and conclusions, depend on the assumptions scientists make about what they are searching for)
        • [For example: Hubble N., Priming Your Investment Returns, (Daily Reckoning, 11/6/12) recorded claims (which the present writer has no way to assess) that conclusions have been accepted in the social sciences and in medical research based on experiments that others could not reproduce or were used because the results best suited their favoured theory];
      • the logical invalidity of induction (ie identifying universal laws from limited observations); and
      • the concept of falsificationism - which implies that scientific conclusions are never proven true, merely not yet shown to be false;
    • there are increasingly problems in gaining reliable conclusions through science - and it has been credibly argued that about half of the contents of the scientific literature is likely to be untrue. Problems arise because of "studies with small sample sizes, tiny effects, invalid exploratory analyses, and flagrant conflicts of interest, together with an obsession for pursuing fashionable trends of dubious importance" . [1]
    • though science is useful in describing how things are, it is out of its depth in explaining how they got to be that way - a fact that arguably requires another revolution in the philosophy of science related to the limits of the determinism that science traditionally seeks in laws of nature. The goal of science (by observation / experimentation) has been to discover laws which govern / explain the behaviour of both 'physical' and 'living' systems - such that the future state of any system can be predicted from a knowledge of that law and the initial state of the system. However the initial and end state of any system is almost always partly determined by outside influences - so the laws of (say) physics are always inadequate to some extent. Moreover 'living' (ie biological / ecological / social) systems depend heavily on a constant inflow of information / free energy / neg-entropy from their environment to maintain them in stable disequilibrium states. Similarly external information is vital for change (and the emergence of new causal relationships in complex non-living systems), and science's internally-deterministic laws simply can't deal with this (see Problems in Sciences' Internally Deterministic World-view). The internally-deterministic time-reversible laws of physics in themselves neither predict nor explain change, development, evolution or creation - because they don't explain (or in themselves even allow) loss or gain of information within any system. Even the systems studied by quantum mechanics do not allow for any random loss or gain in information. Scientists seek to prove that such systems are deterministic. And attempts to build 'quantum computers' would be futile unless they were deterministic (ie the state of quantum systems may be unknowable but not random). Thus there must be other sources of the gain and loss of information (eg as illustrated by presumed random events). The inability of science's deterministic laws to adequately explain observed reality and where indeterminism / information  (including the information embodied in those 'laws' themselves) come from indicates that there is 'something out there', but doesn't help in identifying the nature of that 'something'.  Atheists' inability to obtain 'credible scientific or factually reliable evidence for the existence of a god, gods or the supernatural' is perhaps a necessary result of the limitations of the methods that they use to seek such evidence (ie they look for determinism rather than indeterminism);
    • Events that are not explained by scientific study of the way nature behaved in the past are a not uncommon occurrence (see also What is a Miracle?);
    • these intrinsic limitations seem to have been amplified by the emergence of dogmatism in some areas of science (eg see Bauer H. Dogmatism in Science and Medicine, 2012). This suggests (p5) that: (a) science has become a sort of church, and scientists are in that sense also priests; (b) science is now like the church in earlier centuries in feeling responsible for the intellectual orderliness of society; and thus (c) views pseudoscience as heretical belief - not merely wrong but an actual danger to the proper functioning of society and the welfare of humankind. Examples appear to the present writer to include:
      • an apparent bias against non-anthropogenic theories of climate change (see Finding the Truth on Climate Change - which canvassed the unpopular notion of intentionally trying to falsify prevailing theories);
      • the one-eyed view of the causes of homosexual behaviour taken both by those who favour social causes and those who favour biological causes (see A Comment on Causality); and
      • the reported suggestion by a prominent scientist that hypotheses involving a singularity associated with the origin of the cosmos should be avoided, because a singularity would require considering the possibility of God's existence (see Grossman L., 'Death of the Eternal Cosmos', New Scientist, 14/1/12);
    • arguments that lead to a conclusion similar to the above have apparently been put forward by Robert Shelldrake in The Science Delusion (see review );
  • there are limitations like that associated with induction in the philosophical principle known as Occam's Razor, which suggests that simple explanations are to be preferred to those that are more complex (see below);
  • there are similar limitations on rationality - a limitation that is widely recognised in:
    • mainstream economics - where the primary rationale for distrusting economic planning and endorsing a market economy revolves about the originally-Hayekian recognition (in The Use of Knowledge in Society, 1947) of the limits to rationality because of potential central planners' inability to acquire all of the necessary information to make appropriate decisions;
    • public administration - noting observations of the counter-intuitive responses to policy initiatives affecting complex systems that arose in the 1970s from US Great Society programs (and similar elsewhere),  because unrecognised relationships often caused policies to produce the reverse effect to that intended;
    • management theories - noting, for example, the shift by major corporations from their 1970s' emphasis on 'strategic planning' to 'strategic management' in the 1990s;
  • the limitations of rationality are also implicit in the use of 'fuzzy logic' in control systems. Rather than using (say) temperate in degrees Celsius to control some process, a distinction is made only between whether temperature is 'hot', 'warm' or 'cold'. The simplification produces results that are not constantly changing - and can be computed very quickly - thereby preventing 'hunting' (frequent positive and negative corrections) in the way the process is controlled. Though more accurate information may be obtained about a system by taking account of complex factors, simplified concepts (equivalent to the use of natural language) may be good enough for practical purposes and better than trying to gain more detailed understanding through the use of complex concepts;
  • 'tacit' knowledge can be valid and important (ie that which is not ever expressed but is embodied in the way things are traditionally done as the result of unanalyzed experience of what works and what doesn't work);
  • the notion of rationality as the basis for decision making is by no means universal. Western societies (the 'realm of the rational / responsible individual') have adopted this as their ideal on the basis of: (a) their classical Greek heritage; and (b) the creation of artificially simplified social spaces in which individuals are confronted with environments in which rationality (ie the assumption that abstract ideas usefully model reality) can work reasonably well. Such artificial simplification is created through: individualism; a rule of law; reliance on financial outcomes / profitability as a basis for coordinating economic activities; and democratic political debate. And those artificial simplifications have been critically dependent on the individual freedoms that widespread Christian adherence in Western societies has made possible – see Cultural Foundations of Western Strength. However, there is no confidence in rationality as a means for problem solving in societies with an ancient Chinese cultural heritage in East Asia – see East Asia (in Competing Civilizations) and Competing Thought Cultures . The fundamental precept of Daoism (the closest that East Asia comes to a philosophy) is that ‘The Dao (truth / way) that can be known is not the true Dao’) – which is basically a statement of distrust in the abstract concepts that are the building blocks of Western-style rationality. And a core feature of the Buddha's 'enlightenment' involved a recognition of the complexity of real-world relationships (which unfortunately led to affected communities' traditional inability to make the constructive practical use of abstract concepts that Western societies did). And in East Asia (the realm of the intuitive / hierarchical / autocratic group) the artificially simplified social spaces that Western societies rely on for rationality to work do not exist (except as a 'face' for the benefit of Western observers) - so that their traditional distrust of 'rationality' is self-justifying;
  • there are many examples of problems in the real-world application of principles that were derived through scientific methods. For example:
    • economics has aspired to be a science like physics (ie to be able to produce laws governing the behaviour of economic systems). However:
      • Keynesian methods of macro-economic management that seemed adequate in the 1940s failed in the 1970s (because of the emergence of inflationary feedbacks and recognition of difficulties in getting the timing right so that what were intended to be counter-cyclical variations in public spending turned out to be pro-cyclical, and thus to accentuate, rather than smooth, business cycles);
      • socialist economic planning failed, and the need for decentralized economic management (ie through market mechanisms) has been almost universally accepted since the 1980s;
      • Economists seem to have been unable to develop adequate theories of economic growth and development because they believe that economic systems are lawful and thus subject to rational analysis. Growth theory focuses on trying to discover a production function, whereas it is likely that growth occurs because the the way the economy works (and thus the production function) changes - see Probable Breakthrough in Understanding Economic Development. Economic ‘miracles’ have emerged in East Asia because the methods used for economic management have the effect of changing the way the economy works, rather than attempting to understand how it works as the basis for rational policy development;
    • attempts to apply 'modern' scientific / rational methods to other social systems have periodically been unsatisfactory. For example:
      • the French Revolution - which started as an attempt to apply 'reason' to social and political affairs - generated manifest excesses; 
      • attempts to apply systems understanding to the advancement of society during the 1970s failed (eg Johnson's Great Society programs in the USA, and similar efforts elsewhere);
      • the professional competence of governments in Australia was eroded during the 1990s by political efforts at rational reform (see Decay of Australian Public Administration);
      • severe difficulties are reportedly experienced in getting replicable results when different analysts seek to produce conclusion from the same economic data sets (ie only 1/3 of analysts reproduced the original conclusions). This problem had previous been found in psychology.  This arises from differences in what are assumed to be relevant variables - and sometimes from outright fraud. The views of respected economists affected how the data were analysed  [1].
    • similar failures have arisen in biological / ecological systems not only because of unforeseen consequences (eg the destruction of the cod fishery on the Grand Banks, because it was not recognised that the relationships built into the models that were used to control that fishery had become outdated by changes in fishing methods - see Mackenzie D., 'The cod that disappeared', New Scientist, 16/9/95);
    • a failure of rationality was one (though by no means the only) factor in giving rise to the global financial crisis (see GFC Causes). Firstly there was presumed 'rationality' in financial markets which proved unreliable, and secondly there was a failure of rationality by those who entered into complex financial arrangements without realizing the way in which unrecognised feedbacks could render the situation unstable in unforseen ways. As noted above calculations of financial outcomes is one of the methods that Western societies have used to create a simplified environment in which individuals can apply rational decision making without the extreme errors that arise in complex systems. However when finance ceases to be merely a means of keeping economic score and becomes the means whereby the economic game is played, that simplification of the environment for individual rationality is inevitably reversed (see also Restricting the Role of Financial Services?);
  • there has been a trend towards post-modern views in the social sciences and humanities. The primary emphasis is on the limitation of human attempts to discover truth (positive knowledge), and this can be viewed as a reaction to the 'positivist' views about knowledge traditionally associated with 'science, reason and critical thinking'. Though post-modernism represents an over-reaction and has identifiable adverse consequences, this trend in the social sciences and humanities reflects concerns about real limitations in 'positivist' assumptions about human knowledge (see Eroding the Foundations of Western Culture and of a Liberal International Order' in Competing Civilizations, 2001+ and A Case for Restoring Universities, 2010).

Christianity traditionally teaches that it is wise to build understanding on a different 'rock' (Matthew 7: 24-29), while recognising: (a) that some would not do so though a man were to 'rise from the dead' (Luke 16:31); and (b) that those who trust in human understanding will regard any such claims as foolishness (1 Corinthians 1: 18-25).

The above is not to suggest that reason, science and critical thinking are not extremely useful, merely that they are limited and those limitations need to be recognised (see also Philosophical and Religious Implications of the Limits to Science). A useful analogy might be with Newton's Law of gravitation which remains adequate for most practical purposes, even though the acceptance of Einstein's theory of General Relativity showed that gravity was the result of the the curvature of space-time around massive objects, rather than a force acting at a distance. The practical value of 'approximate truth' is argued further in The Advantages and Limitations of Rationality.

Science is not supposed to be like comments section of online news articles (ie inflexible and truculent). Science is supposed to be an arbiter of fact - and have procedures that are impartial (if not infallible). But when different scientists reach different conclusions, it implies some subjectivity. This is a necessary part of reasoning about evidence (eg what evidence is relevant; what answers are admissible a priori; which answer does evidence support; what standard of evidence is needed; and does evidence justify belief). There are no universally accepted standards for doing this.  Induction involves generalizing from particulars - and this requires personal judgment. Hume argued that inductive reasoning was justified because it worked well in practice - thought this in itself was an inductive argument (ie it took for granted what was the point of the argument). Popper showed that it was only ever possible to falsify a theory - never verify it.  However in practice science does not work through falsification - because scientists won't let go of their theories. Also engineers demand more of theories that that they be seen as a working hypothesis. Some have seen probability as a way around this - however probability does not remove subjective judgment from science - it merely channels it into the design of models which requires personal judgment. This eliminates what was special about science - if science was seen to remove personal element from search for truth. Sciences claims to authority should not be misrepresented. Non-scientists should subordinate opinions to experts - but only if the experts have earned it. It is the minutiae of science that makes its special (lab protocols, recording practices, publication / peer review). This allowed science to reveal truth.  [1

Is a Materialistic View of Creation Adequate?

Believers in 'atheism' (whatever this actually means) probably need to resolve the question of whether Richard Dawkins is correct in proclaiming that evolution is a sufficient explanation of creation - as the emergence of sustainable new order in a given system apparently always depends on information from outside, and this seems likely to limit the plausibility of any purely materialistic world view (see Problems in an Internally Deterministic Scientific Worldview).

Should Atheism be Recognised as a Religion?

As argued above 'Atheism' is a matter of belief rather than being objectively demonstrable and thus classifies appropriately as a religion. It needs to be recognized as one of the world's non-theistic religions rather than as the absence of religion.

Wikipedia provides a reasonable definition of 'religion' ie as 'an organized collection of beliefs, cultural systems and world views that relate humanity to an order of existence'. And as noted above, the beliefs, cultural systems and world views that Atheists seem to subscribe to involve a level of faith in the reliable scope of human reason and science that goes beyond what can be objectively provable (while some other contestable features of Atheists' world view are listed below).  Also, noting events such as Global Atheists Conventions and the formation of organizations such as the Atheists Foundation of Australia, it is clear that Atheism is increasingly organized to promote Atheists' beliefs (eg in the unlimited reliability of reason and science).

Wikipedia also suggests that 'From their beliefs about the cosmos and human nature, people may derive morality, ethics, religious laws or a preferred lifestyle'.  And numerous Atheists certainly seem to be trying to do this (though, as noted in The Re-emergence of 'gods', Atheists are certainly not alone in promoting human claims of moral authority). For example:

  • Atheists have increasingly suggested that teaching people how to live (a traditional role of religion) should be a focus of Atheism (see references in Can Enlightenment be found on the Road from Atheism to Religion?; Secular Angels To 'Care for our Souls' Would Kill off Liberal Values; and Godless Morality Would Raise Devilish Difficulties);
  • an Australian organization called Progressive Atheists has expressed its concerns about diverse issues many of which concern morality, ethics, laws related to religion and lifestyles (ie the issues that the Wikipedia definition of religion stated that religions derive from their beliefs). Also its website stated that, in determining matters of concern, Progressive Atheists would: 'seek to apply critical thinking and rational thought; refer to material gained via the scientific method; and use moral reasoning based on empathy and compassion". In other words  conclusions about what are often seen to be 'religious' concerns are being derived on the basis of Progressive Atheists' faith in reason and science. And, while the latter are often useful, they also suffer limitations (see above). Thus Progressive Atheists' claims about the 'religious' issues that concern them must be to some extent a product of their beliefs and assumptions - and this (under the Wikipedia definition) is a characteristic of religions. For example, it is certainly possible to derive moral principles on the basis of critical thinking and rational thought. However it is unlikely (because of the complexity of the issues involved and differences in local circumstances) that the conclusions reached by everyone who applies those methods will be identical (ie as objective as Progressive Atheists implied that their conclusions would be).

Moreover books that are specifically on religion seem to be increasingly authored by Atheists (eg Dawkins' The God Delusion, and Christopher Hitchen's God is not Great). It is noted in passing that some skepticism about such theories is appropriate for reasons outlined in Some Reactions to Richard Dawkins' Religious Beliefs below.

Despite the limitations of their core non-theistic beliefs, the one thing that is very clear is that Atheists are now establishing a new 'religion' (perhaps with Richard Dawkins in a role equivalent to that of a 'high priest') and are seeking converts. Thus claims that Atheism is a 'secular' viewpoint (ie one concerned with everything apart from religion) are clearly invalid (see also A Battle About Belief).

It would seem appropriate to treat Atheism legally and by governments in the same as any other religion (eg being entitled to provide 'chaplains' for Australian schools (eg qualified social workers); and being entitled to favourable tax treatment if Atheists becomes involved in (say) establishing and staffing non-profit social services or places where believers can assemble).

Moreover Atheism should desirably be excluded from explicit reference in politics for the same reasons that separation of church and state is desirable as a general principle (see Keeping Religion out of Australian Politics).

Is It Wise to Refuse to Debate Islamists?

Though there are many other relevant questions that could be raised, Atheist believers need to consider whether Richard Dawkins' apparent preference for a security / militarist response to Islamist extremism is to be preferred to talking to Islamists. There seems little doubt that, as Professor Dawkins reportedly suggested, Islamist extremists come from a weak intellectual position (see About Arabic Thought and Islamic Science). However it is also doubtful that such persons are likely to learn much by being shot at or imprisoned (which are the most obvious alternative ways of responding to those who practice random violence). A great deal could perhaps be achieved by engaging the spiritual leaders of those who advocate violence in serious debate (see Discouraging Pointless Extremism). However such debate would be futile unless those involved understand the advantages (especially individual liberty) that Western societies derived from their Christ-ian foundations (see Cultural Foundations of Western Strengths), as they would presumably also be unable to recognise the practical (ie social, political and economic) dis-advantages that flow from the communal oppression of individuals that Islamic scholars have apparently regarded as necessary to enforce the religion of Islam and that Islamists apparently seek to impose more rigidly.

Addendum A: Atheism as a New Religion (Atheism's Claims) +

Introductory note: the following (inconclusive) exchange of views with the president of the Atheists Foundation of Australia (David Nicholls) is reproduced, with permission, as an illustration of the complexities involved, and the tactics likely to be used, in seeking to debate the implications of Atheism as a new religion (ie as a shared belief system based on its adherents unprovable assumptions).

The supposed-to-be final response from David Nicholls and a CPDS conclusion illustrate how the exchange almost ended. But wait ....  there was more and more (almost ad infinitum) ,,,. and then a subsequent exchange about the relationship between Australian and Asian Atheism.

Amongst other things these exchanges highlighted Atheism's apparent claims that:
  • it has no dogma (ie claims) [and thus presumably should be the default position for states where separation from the church is valued];
  • there are no scientific and philosophical problems with claims that a purely materialistic process of evolution explains the existence of things;
  • Atheism's claims must be accepted as true unless theists can prove God's existence through scientific methods;
  • Atheists can reach collective agreement through purely rational thinking;
  • theists (ie those who believe in God) don't criticise Atheism fairly - but rather construct 'straw men' which don't properly reflect the Atheistic view;
  • theists have been brainwashed and are highly emotional (mainly because of their fear of hell) as well as being selective in considering evidence [rather than having come to a considered decision based on reasonable consideration of available evidence];
  • most of the world's problems can be ascribed to theists' enforcement of rules based on their 'god hypothesis', which are damaging to individuals and civilization;
  • evidence exists that social dysfunctions are greatest where 'religion' is strongest;
  • Confucianism (a non-theistic originally-Chinese religion) is fundamentally different from Atheism because Confucianism "follows the rules laid out by a person" whereas "Atheism ... follows no person or the rules of a person".

Other points perhaps worthy of note include:.

  • the fact that the above claims are not self-evidently true, which make such claims into Atheism's 'dogma'. For example:
    • the rationality that seem to be one of Atheism's 'deities' is subject to major limitations (and the limitations are more obvious to those who study complex, rapidly changing, information-intensive social systems than to natural scientists);
    • thus any attempt by Atheists to reach purely rational conclusion must result in claims that are not self-evidently true, so Atheistic claims (eg about how life should be lived) based supposedly on pure rationality would invalidate claims of having no dogma;
    • there are non-trivial scientific and philosophical problems with claims that a purely materialistic process of evolution explains the existence of things;
    • scientific methods, which are appropriate to the study of the natural world, have limitations which makes it unreasonable to require evidence of God's existence to emerge through those methods;
  • the consequent necessity to view Atheism as a religion just as much as (say) Islam;
  • indicators that Atheists are no less subject than anyone else to selective use of evidence, emotional rejection of inconvenient evidence and erecting 'straw men' to rhetorically demolish;
  • the traditional / autocratic religions (mainly in East Asia) that seem equivalent to Atheism in being non-theistic, and even stronger in their efforts to avoid being seen to have 'dogma' because of their general rejection of abstract concepts and consequent orientation to a 'rule of man' rather than a 'rule of law';
  • Atheism's apparent parallels with conspiracy theorists - who typically focus on blaming scapegoats for the world's problems, rather than proposing solutions (because of their limited knowledge of practical human affairs). To Atheists (who seem focused on scientific study of the natural world and to be little involved in practical human affairs), theists seem to be the 'evil forces' that need to be eliminated to make the world a better place. This seems similar (in a less extreme form) to the motives of various historical tyrannies - such as elimination of China's elites during Mao's cultural revolution; the killing of 'aristocrats' in the terror that followed the French revolution; and Hitler's extermination of Jews).

Atheism as a New Religion (email sent 3/4/10)

David Nicholls
Atheist Foundation of Australia

Re Madden J. and Owen J., 'Church leaders unite against the `idolatry' of atheism", The Australian, 3/4/10

I noted your reported reaction to views expressed by the Anglican Archbishop of Sydney (Dr Peter Jensen). Dr Jensen was said to have suggested that 'atheism is every bit of a religious commitment as Christianity itself' which 'represents the latest version of the human assault on God ....', and in response you reportedly argued that:

  • this claim was 'preposterous';
  • Christianity should be condemned for a spate of child sex scandals; and
  • suggesting that atheists 'hate or are attacking his god is nonsense .. (because one can't) .. hate or attack that which does not exist'.

However I must agree with Dr Jensen's claim that Atheism is no less a 'religion' than Christianity. Your suggestion that god does not exist (like the alternative view that God does exist) is simply a matter of faith. Both points of view can be supported by strong logical (and scientific) arguments, and both fail to be completely conclusive on the basis of logic and science. Thus ultimately belief in either theism or atheism is a matter of faith, and the creation of organisations by Atheists (such as the Atheist Foundation of Australia) does therefore represent the establishment of an alternative religious order (see also Celebrating a New Evangelical 'Religion': Atheism).

Moreover might I suggest that if Christian churches are to be criticised in relation to child sex scandals it should be for their failure to address the apparently widespread incidence of such abuse in the community generally. According to organisations that have studied the phenomenon (eg Australian Child Protection Alliance), the abuses that arise in church institutions are only the tip of an iceberg, though they are all that church leaders seem to care about.


John Craig

Response #1 from David Nicholls (received on 3/4/10)

Hello Craig,

Thanks for your email. As much as you would like it to be, Atheism is not a religion. It has not deity or supernatural component, it has no dogma or holy books, and it has no traditions, churches or ceremonies. But, if you would wish to convince the taxation department that we are a religion, allowing us to have the same financial privileges as religion, then please feel free to do so.

Atheism is not accepted on ‘faith’. Atheism simply says that if your particular god, out of the 4,000 that have been invented by humans exists, please supply proof, which will have universal acceptance.

When child sexual abuse happens at the instigation of someone professing to have absolute moral authority, it is the ultimate betrayal of trust. It is not just child sexual abuse at stake it is also the abuse of women by the clergy, which is widespread but unreported. Maybe you should do some research on this.

Best wishes,


More on: Atheism as a New Religion (reply sent 3/4/10)

David Nicholls
Atheist Foundation of Australia Inc

Thanks for your email.

However Atheism is a 'religion' and, as you wished for, it should be accepted as such by the ATO. It should also be kept out of politics (as ideally applies to any religion).

Not all 'religions' have deities or supernatural components. As noted in Philosophy and Religion: The Case for a Bigger Picture View, some very significant traditional East Asian religions are non-theistic, and like Atheism they are simply concerned with the material world. Moreover, contrary to your suggestions:

  • Atheism does have dogma - eg that God does not exist, and that a materialist explanation of creation is sufficient;
  • Atheism is simply a matter of faith. As noted in my email, proof based on reason or science can not conclusively establish the existence of God, but neither can proof based on reason or science conclusively prove that God does not exist. It all comes down to faith, no matter what you choose to believe.

I suspect that you are wrong in suggesting that anyone in a Christian church would have to claim moral authority (quite apart from absolute moral authority). The Bible teaches Christians to refrain from judging others - because all are sinners (eg Romans 3:23), and God alone can judge (eg see Matthew 7).

Moreover the phenomenon of sexual abuse of children (and of women) in the community generally seems massively greater than that in churches - though the latter gets much more attention.

John Craig

Response #2 from David Nicholls (received 3/4/10)

Hello John,

If you stay within the bounds of rationality I will continue. Is not accepting that fairies exist a religion? Is Afairyism a religion.? Is not collecting stamps a religion? Is Aphilately a religion?

Of course no one can prove that a god does not exist as no one can prove fairies do not exist. Rational argument does not include trying to prove negatives.

Whatever the Bible says about judging others is irrelevant. Religious people of most faiths judge others on the tenets of those faiths.

No, sexual abuse of children is not massively worse in general society. But you have intentionally missed the point. The self proclaimed arbiters of right and wrong should not be using their positions of influence to procure children for sexual gratification.

But none of this playing with words proves your particular god exists. Please send universally accepted proof.


Even More on: Atheism as a New Religion (reply sent 3/4/10)


This could become bigger than Ben Hur - though I will try to be brief.

On Rationality

Though it is not relevant to the rest of my response, I note that rationality fails quite often - and thus the 'rationality' that you suggest would be central to proving anything, is not a particularly relevant criteria.

Why: Rationality works well in systems characterised by simple relationships, but is not necessarily reliable in complex systems and is not universally given the status that it enjoys in Western societies (eg see note on the limits to rationality). In Western societies rationality works reasonably well for individual decisions (partly because a simplified environment has been created by a system of laws and the use of money as a measure of value) but it fails often in broader social / economic contexts. In East Asian societies with a Chinese cultural heritage (ie a large segment of humanity) such an environment for individual rationality does not exist, and rationality is not trusted.

Moreover rationality only works within a given state of the universe - as the concepts that are the basis of any rational argument describe relationships that may exist at one point in time, but not apply later. An example of this involves the breakdown of the (so called) Phillips' Curve which used to describe a causal relationship between inflation and unemployment - but which ceased to do so when relationships within society and the economy changed. And economics (which seeks to be a positive science like physics) arguably fails to gain relevant understanding of economic development (ie of economic change) because it seeks to find a 'law' explaining how the economy works, rather than recognising development as involving changes in the relationships within the economy (see A Probable Breakthrough in Understanding Economic Development).

On Assuming that God does not Exist

Contrary to your suggestion, proving negatives (eg that something can't exist) is not impossible. Consider the logical tactic of proof by contradiction (reducio ad absurdum). One seeks to prove 'A' by demonstrating that 'non-A' is ridiculous. Furthermore many analysts (eg Richard Dawkins) have sought to do this (ie prove that God is an unnecessary hypothesis by demonstrating that evolution explains the existence of the universe we observe).

However such purely materialistic / naturalistic explanations of the reality we observe are not firmly based.

Examples: One obvious difficulty with materialistic / naturalistic explanations is the problem of 'irreducible complexity', but there are apparently even greater difficulties (eg see Is a Materialistic Explanation of Reality Adequate?). And intellectual debate about this point rages (eg see 15 ways to refute materialistic bigotry: A point by point response to Scientific American). Though the 'anti-materialistic' case presented in the latter does not reach conclusions that I would support, it is not by any means clear (except subjectively) that the 'science' conclusively favours either side in such a debate.

Thus it is unreasonable to claim that it is necessary to prove that God exists, but not necessary to prove that God does not exist. Supernatural (ie beyond the natural) explanations of the universe we observe are no less reasonable than assuming that we have not yet fully understood the natural. One might choose to dismiss the God hypothesis (as Atheists do) or accept it (as Christians and believers in some other religions do) but either choice is a matter of faith (ie of 'religion').

If my understanding of the biggest problem with a purely materialist explanation of the reality we observe is correct (ie if the emergence of new order in any system always depends on information from outside the system - see Problems in an Internally Deterministic Worldview), then it can reasonably be concluded that: (a) it would never be possible to prove God's existence by means of logic or traditional science (as these merely concern how the universe is, not how it changes); and (b) principles such a Occam's Razor (ie the simplest explanation of events is to be preferred) are invalid.

On Moral Judgments

Judging the morality of others' behaviour is not only a characteristic of 'religious' people. It is traditionally a role undertaken by social elites in all societies. The emergence of liberty in Western societies is unique - and arguably dependent on Christendom's Judeo-Christian heritage - under which social elites were first blocked from exercising arbitrary moral judgments by God's law (ie the Mosaic Law) and and later by locating moral responsibility in individual consciences responsible to God (as a consequence of Jesus' even-more-liberating life and teachings) - see Cultural Foundations of Western Strengths.

As those means of blocking exercise of arbitrary moral authority by social elites are breaking down in countries like Australia, the political system is under increasing pressure to enforce individual morality and political leaders are increasingly also claiming moral authority (see Moral Foundations of Individual Liberty).

If you are concerned about Christian churches promulgating God's moral laws, just wait as the separation of church and state that this allowed breaks down further.

In Australia it has tended to be federal politicians who seek to claim a role equivalent to that of a 'high priest' (eg see If Government is just about values, would the leader be the 'High Priest'? and Restoring 'Faith in Politics'). However under Confucian traditions (ie those that prevail in societes such as Japan and China which increasingly impact on Australia) it is expected that bureaucratic social elites will determine the nature of, and autocratically enforce their interpretations of, moral behaviour (witness the case of Stern Hu).

On Child Sex Abuse

I personally know nothing first hand about this subject and found it extremely implausible that the level of sexual abuse that organisations who have studied the phenomenon claim exists eg affecting something like 25% of girls and 12% of boys, apparently because family breakdowns now result in children living with adults who are not their biological parents (see The Problem of Child Sex Abuse). However I subsequently met a former police officer who had been involved in investigating such abuse, and his comment was that the figures I was quoting were conservative.

The fact that the Christian churches don't want to confront such apparent consequences of their failure (presumably by not speaking out against divorce) is understandable, but undesirable.

Might I respectfully suggest that you keep an open mind on this matter also.

John Craig

Response #3 from David Nicholls (email received 4/4/10)


Way over the top. Because some things are difficult to work out does not mean everything before them is. You have created a page of mental gymnastics to placate your mind that you are going to live for ever.

A mixture of quasi science, notions that are on the edge that humans do consider and distortion of actual science and abracadabra, there is a god. Using the hackneyed ‘irreducible complexity’ argument shows exactly from where you are coming.

Bible thumping fundamentalist Christianity. A whole page of pompous twaddle to end with the result that Yahweh/Jesus exists, two of the gods out the 4,000 that have purported to have existed.

No mention of the geographical location of your god, your culture and why other gods from other cultures are believed in with similar rubbish arguments. No mention that children can be made to believe anything if caught early enough and indoctrinated. No mention that the fear of annihilation can be played upon and enhanced by a terror of the hell scenario. (That one kept a bit of a secret by fundamentalists – Oh no we aren’t fearful of the devil, demons, hell etc because we are not going there)

I ask for the last time, please supply proof which will be universally accepted that your particular gods, Yahweh/Jesus exist.


RE: Even More on: Atheism as a New Religion (reply sent 4/4/10)


As I have noted several times, proof of God's existence (like proof of a purely materialistic process of creation - which seems to be a foundational dogma of Atheism) seems impossible. Either belief is a matter of faith. Your repeated requests for something that is presumably impossible can't get us anywhere.

However, if you genuinely want to get the best evidence for God and Jesus, then I would suggest that the only way to do this is to seek them directly. Little can be learned through science. The simplest way to make progress would be through: (a) reading the gospels (probably starting with Luke); (b) recognising the extraordinary nature of Jesus' life and teachings, and the massive and ever increasing impact that they have had on human history; and (c) approaching a local church to seek advice about learning more. You may not want to do this, but it is the only way to find out for yourself what it is really all about.

I find it disappointing that you did not seem to even try to understand the points I was making. My emails were addressing the fact that Atheism has to be recognised as a new 'religion' because its core dogma are a matter of faith. The argument I presented was not based on the teachings of Christianity of any other religion.

The claims of 'pseudo-science' and 'Bible thumping fundamentalist Christianity' in your latest email suggest a closed mind, and are not constructive. In particular you suggested that my reference to 'the hackneyed ‘irreducible complexity’ argument shows exactly from where you are coming' - but if you had looked at the document I referred to you would have found it speculated about what seems likely to be more fundamental obstacle to assumptions about a purely materialistic explanation of evolution (though one that needs a lot more exploration and development than I have yet been able to devote to it). As far as I can see, while the problem of 'irreducible complexity' has currently 'put the ball back in the court' of those who believe in materialistic process of evolution, this obstacle could well eventually be circumvented.

There is no doubt that children are vulnerable to being misled - and that it is important therefore to try to give them information that reflects reality / truth as far as we can tell and which is likely to benefit them. For what it is worth, Jesus was apparently not too impressed by people who seek to lead children astray (see Mark 9:42). And there is increasing evidence of serious social dysfunctions in Australia partly as a consequence of the fact that many children are now often not getting any credible understanding of the deeper / spiritual context to the other things they learn about from their parents and schools.

If what the Bible says is true (or the teachings of other religions - including Atheism - are true), then this is what children need to be taught. Moreover, if it is true that there is punishment for evil through 'hell' (which Jesus reportedly said was the case, eg Matthew 18:9), then it would surely be irresponsible not to ensure that children understand that they face both judgment and the possibility of redemption. The only way to assess what children should be taught is to properly understand Christianity and alternative world-views - and, as suggested above, most of this understanding can't be gained only by considering what can be learned from science.

Happy Easter

John Craig

Response #4 from David Nicholls (email received 4/4/10)

Hello John,

I do not know how the universe came into existence and neither do you. Desert tribesmen from a few thousand years ago knew nothing about nature and their writings are not a good guide.

Sorry, John, saying little can be learned from science is as opposite as it gets. Scientific method is the best by far way of concluding if a statement is correct, incorrect or indeterminate. All other methods are guessing.

Reading the Gospels, although I have done so, is a waste of time. Demons, devils and other such mentioned things are a product of the superstitious time from which they came.

You love calling Atheism a religion. Of course that is something you have to say. No god, no dogma, no sacred books, no tax exemption etc etc. It might pay you to look up the definition of religion.

Point me in the direction of unchallenged peer reviewed articles in credible scientific journals supporting ‘irreducible complexity’.

Dysfunction in society is greatest where religion is also.

And the real drive for you comes in last, the fear of hell. You are so frightened of it you do not mind distorting children’s minds with this unproven concept.

Neither I, you nor anyone else is in need of ‘redemption’. This is a result of indoctrination. I could help you escape from it but I don’t think you would take up my offer. You have gone too far into fantasy and I do not think you can be redeemed. Such a pity as this is the only life you are ever going to have and you are wasting it on stuff other people have placed into your head.

Yes, John, other people have fiddled with your brain when you didn’t know what they were doing and created a world of unreality for you. That is child abuse.

Still waiting for the universally accepted proof for the exitence of Yahweh/esus. Please don't say you have supplied it as that is nonsense. If such proof existed, none of us would just believe in your gods because we would all know they are true. But, I suppose you have noticed, that is not the case.


RE: Even More on: Atheism as a New Religion (email sent 5/5/10)


The fact that desert tribesmen a few thousand years ago (who would have no basis for knowing about how the universe was created) came up with Genesis 1 is most interesting. Firstly it described a beginning of the universe - which no one else took seriously until early in the 20th century. Second it described stages in creation - and seemed to get the order in which things emerged roughly right. Thirdly it spoke of creation being triggered by a 'word' - and my suspicion is that external information is vital to explain how new order can emerge in any system. Not bad for people living in tents in the desert without benefit of any scientific instruments.

One can get a great deal of information from science, but it doesn't prove or disprove the existence of a 'beyond-the-natural' creator. Strobel's book 'The Case for a Creator' assembles many indicators based on apparently serious science / philosophy suggesting the existence of such a being - but doesn't prove it. Moreover significant limits to what can be achieved by science are well recognised. The fact that the debate about the process of creation so often degenerates into name calling (evolutions / creationists) and others' arguments are rejected out of hand simply on the basis of prejudice is part of that limitation. Also the fact that the issues are so complex that it is beyond any human mind to be adequately across them all (so that everyone discredits themselves by making mistakes about details in some field they are not familiar with) is another limitation.

Reading the gospels is not a waste of time if you consider the context. Jesus presented what is widely regarded as the greatest moral philosophy of all times - and which no one ever seems to dispute on that basis. He also claimed to be a manifestation of God. His followers were so convinced that he had given a demonstration of this by his reincarnation, that they took on the 'world' to spread his message and were mostly killed because they refused to deny what they believed had happened. Moreover Jesus message had more influence in the world than that of anyone else - and the gospels record Jesus' claims that this would happen.

However more than reading the gospels is needed. One needs to actually reach out to see if God will reveal himself.

Atheism is a religion. Confucianism and Shinto (for example) are religions though they have no god. Atheism has dogma (ie there is no god, and a purely materialist explanation of creation is sufficient) - though Confucianism and Shinto (for example) deny the relevance of abstract concepts - so that dogma would be inconceivable.

I have no idea of the status of 'irreducible complexity' in the scientific literature - but it is a sufficiently potent argument to encourage those advocating a materialistic evolutionary line (eg Richard Dawkins with Climbing Mount Improbable) to make efforts to defend against it.

Point me in the direction of a peer reviewed article in the literature which supports your claim that 'dysfunction in society is greatest where religion is also'. There are umpteen different religions, and those differences affect how societies work. Thus generalized conclusions about the effect of 'religion' would be impossible. Moreover religion is universal in human beings. All seek some sort of understanding of the universe they perceive, though a former Hindu / Brahmin priest once suggested to me that Christianity alone is not really a religion - because he perceived religions to reflect man's attempt to find meaning (or God) whereas Christianity reflected God's efforts to communicate with man.

Sorry to disappoint in relation to your interpretation of my motivations - but I have never seriously thought about 'hell'. The intellectual dimension (ie trying to understand and then eventually recognising the limits of human understanding) and the spiritual benefits in the 'here and now' have been my motivation.

However, if Jesus' teaching about judgment and that all are guilty are valid, then redemption is a universal human need, and the long-term risk in turning one's back on those potential benefits is finding that life in the 'here and now' is not all there is. Jesus portrayed God as keen to accept those who repent. No one is beyond redemption - though many will never seek it.

Finally a quote: "As I have noted several times, proof of God's existence (like proof of a purely materialistic process of creation - which seems to be a foundational dogma of Atheism) seems impossible. Either belief is a matter of faith. Your repeated requests for something that is presumably impossible can't get us anywhere."

John Craig

Response #5 from David Nicholls (email received 5/4/10)

Hello John,

Let me be straight with you. I dislike discussing religious texts of any kind in depth. From my point of view, it is a childish endeavour. I don’t mean that in a nasty fashion and if religious folk wish to talk about such thing endlessly, then I really don’t care.

The trouble is, religious folk tend to be very selective about that which they accept and do not in religious writings. That is why such discussions can be endless and that is why there are innumerable interpretations of such texts. The alleged Yahweh/Jesus did not make themselves very clear where all could agree except on some very basic points.

The problem you are having with me is that to you it is axiomatic that a god exists and your argument follow that train of thought. This allows you to build a straw-man argument that states that religious people have an axiom that Yahweh/Jesus exists and Atheists have an axiom where these gods do not. This is misrepresenting the Atheist position.

I am not going to go on about this endlessly, as you believe in the existence of Yahweh/Jesus on emotional grounds and not evidential ones. That is the exact reason I have asked you for evidence. You admit you can supply none, therefore, you have accepted the gods’ story on emotional grounds.

As an Atheist, I am not opposed to the idea of a god, eternal life etc on emotional grounds. All I expect is that evidence be produced for any particular god or gods. None has been forthcoming for all of history, which has universal acceptance such as the law of gravity has, to use but one example.

I quite like the notion of extended life (Not eternal but a long time) but wishing for it will not bring it about.

Working on this straw-man argument, religious people have no qualms in indoctrinating children with fearful concepts, loading them up with guilt for just being humans and the end result is skewed political discissions when they are old enough to vote.

So the ramifications falling for the straw-man argument are serious. That is not how it should work. If religious people have a system they wish to inflict upon society whose consequences are as above, then a huge amount of evidence that they are correct is needed. This faith stuff is crap, sorry to inform you. Faith is all right if it is practiced between consenting adults in private, and not used to go against empirical evidence when making political decisions. Of course, this does not happen and religion attempts to impose its own precepts at every available moment and by any means possible.

An example in Australia for you to contemplate: 80% of the population in consistent surveys want a system of legal voluntary euthanasia. Religious politicians at the behest of religious leaders have disallowed this (So far but that will change)

As for dysfunction in society and the correlation between that and religion, read here:


John, you a probably a nice guy etc but I feel you need to expand your reading to take in what is going on in science and the natural world. You show all the sign of self restriction in what you read and absorb. The world is not full of ‘evil’ people out to destroy your gods, it brimming to overfull with average Jill’s and Joes who want nothing more than to live a happy and cooperative life with their fellow humans. Religion is not necessary for that.

I live a very busy life and I think I have shared a goodly amount of it with you and it is now time for you and I to move on.


Conclusions on: Atheism as a New Religion (email sent 7/4/10)


Thanks for your final email in relation to our recent exchange of views. My final conclusions (about: a selective approach to evidence; the problem of proof; the intrusion of emotion; and the status of Atheism) are presented below.

I have added our exchange of views to my web-site, with your comments provisionally ascribed to An Australian Atheist (AAA) - though I would be happy to change this to ascribe them to you personally if you would prefer.

Thanks, by the way, for your reference to the preliminary study of the relationship between societal health and religiosity / secularism. It raised many interesting questions that require deeper consideration at another time (eg about what it means by 'religiosity' and 'secularism', and what the mechanisms by which these 'variables' relate to societal health are presumed to be).

Thanks also for your advice about expanding my reading about what is going on in science and the natural world. This sounds both exhausting and of uncertain benefit. My career started in civil engineering with a reasonable grounding in science, and since 1970 I have devoted a lot of effort to broadening and deepening my knowledge in the areas you suggest. Furthermore I started expanding my interests in around 1980 by systematic study of leading ideas related to government, economic development and society - with an ever increasing emphasis on the consequences of differences in human cultures and traditions. Ultimately this led to increasing recognition of both the limitations in the hard-science methods used to study the natural world, and the critical contribution that Christianity makes to Western societies,

Might I respectfully suggest that you also might usefully expand your reading in areas outside the study of science and the natural world.


John Craig


On a Selective Approach to Evidence

I thoroughly agree that 'religious' folk are very selective about which texts they accept.

There is also no doubt that 'religion' of some sort (ie an attempt to find meaning in life, whether or not it involves theism) is a nearly universal human attribute. So a selective approach to texts is also presumably almost universal. For example, you noted that you find certain types of texts childish, and so don't like discussing them.

Moreover selectivity is one of the well recognised limitations on the scientific method via the so-called theory dependence of observations - ie people have a lot of trouble seeing what they don't expect to see, so that an inadvertent selective approach to texts is also likely to characterise even the most disciplined scientist. In particular anyone who takes it as axiomatic that God does not exist must have trouble perceiving indicators suggesting the opposite (eg in the Bible record, and in the ever-strengthening scientific / philosophical indicators that theories of mechanistic evolution might not be a sufficient explanation of the existence of things).

On the Problem of Proof

There is no doubt that the latter indicators, though they point to the existence of something beyond the 'natural', are not absolute proof that God exists.

However the philosophy of science now recognises that absolute proof of anything is impossible - noting: (a) the logical invalidity of induction (ie deducing universal laws from a limited number of observations); and (b) the emergence of the concept of falsificationism (ie that theories are never proven true, merely not yet falsified). The law of gravity, that you suggested has long had 'universal acceptance', is an example of a once-accepted law being shown to be overly-simplistic (ie when Newton's concept of gravitation as a force acting as a distance was shown by Einstein to be an over-simplification of the effect of the curvature of space-time). Similar falsification of theories of purely materialistic evolution seems to me to be likely to be emerge in coming years (perhaps resulting in theories of externally influenced evolution, with it being open to conclude that God-dun-it). As with Einstein's reinterpretation of gravity, this might not make the practical outcome of the theory much different, but could lead to a new understanding of how it works.

From the earliest times, Christianity seems to have held that absolute proof is impossible - so faith is essential. It has also been argued that the things on which Christian faith is based will appear foolish to those who trust in human wisdom (1 Corinthians 1:17-28) - a view that your arguments seem to verify.

On the Intrusion of Emotion

However, contrary to your suggestion. faith in God is not necessarily just a matter of emotion (though for some people it is). Faith in God can also result from reasonably considering the evidence available from many fields of knowledge to conclude that this is the most likely truth. Others may reach different conclusions from that body of evidence, but it is unreasonable to label theism as necessarily the result of emotion.

However anyone who states that they won't seriously consider particular types of evidence because of an emotional reaction to them (eg assuming some texts to be 'childish', though others perceive them to contain important wisdom) can not reasonably claim to have reached a conclusion that is unaffected by emotion.

On the Status of Atheism

Atheism's primary claim seems to be that materialistic explanations of the existence of things are adequate (and this is seen to prove that there is no god). Yet those materialistic explanations clearly suffer great uncertainties (as noted in my previous email). so Atheism can not validly argue that its beliefs are more than a matter of faith based on: (a) a particular interpretation of inconclusive scientific evidence; and (b) a preference for not considering other types of evidence.

Religious faith (including Atheism) ultimately is best left for individual decision based on publicly available information.

Thus Atheism, like any religion, must be entitled to publicly state its beliefs to attract converts and perhaps even develop educational material for children based on those beliefs, However, assuming that the contention about Atheism having no dogma is valid, any Atheistic educational material would presumably be very brief. It would not take long to simply say that there is no god and that a purely materialistic view of evolution fully explains the existence of things.

The state should not be involved in arbitrating on such questions of belief - because otherwise liberty, and its many practical advantages, would be lost. The 'church' (whether it be Christian, Atheist, or any other) seems best kept separate from the state. Public policy decisions can not reliably be based primarily on religious considerations - because the social and economic systems that governments deal with are usually too complex to be evaluated in terms of the relatively simple rules of behaviour that are taught through religions.

This unreliability as a basis for public policy seem particularly to apply to Atheism - noting again that Atheism has been said to have no dogma and thus no uniform views about how life should be lived or anything else. The opinions that individual Atheists express about diverse matters (other than the non-existence of god) should presumably not be seen to have any collective weight. 

However, if Atheism not only contends that theism is wrong but also seeks to reach conclusions from this about how life should be lived, then claims about not having (more than a coupe of) dogma would be invalid. Moreover if Atheism seeks to advance its cause by attacking believers in other religions rather than by dealing with the issues objectively (as unfortunately seems to happen at times), then Atheism must expect that its efforts will be characterised by controversy and conflict.

Response #6 from David Nicholls (received 7/4/10)

Hello John,

You can use my name and title if you wish and please include the below response. Possibly if I had known you were to publish my words I would have waited to respond until I am over an acute head, chest, body type cold or flu which has plagued me since our first interaction. But, I would not wish to go over it all again as it is obvious you do not understand that any proposition can be argued against if language is stretched to the limits to support a prejudice. Atheist have no need of such method as we are still waiting for evidence for one, some or all of the claims of the 34,000 religions and some 4,000 gods purported to have existed. So far, no such evidence has been forthcoming.

You state that I should expand my reading. You would be surprised by the amount of reading I have done on a number of religion but such writing become boring as most subjective writing on a single theme does. I’m sure you would feel the same way if you had to endlessly read about the Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist or Mormon religions etc.

People living in fish, talking snakes and donkeys, universal floods, the Exodus fantasy etc, are very childlike stories. I would be lying if I did not state that.

The question about science and god being axiomatic is the root cause of your problem in understanding anything. It raises the immediate question of which god, as there are many. When I ask for universally acceptable evidence for your particular god, you supply none. To use your particular god in working out reality is irrational. There is no ‘strengthening’ evidence that evolution might be wrong. This is a wishful and totally inaccurate statement and nothing else.

A recent survey at the National Academy of Sciences had only 7% of respondents who had any belief in a god at all. The number who had creationist views is therefore much less. With the population of the USA, claims of up to 90% belief in a god are often made. What this clearly says, is two things. One, the more scientific knowledge the less likely the god delusion will be your friend and two; creationism is not even on the radar of credible scientists.

Of course, science does not work in absolutes; it has never said it does. It relies on the highest probability of any given statement being correct, incorrect or indeterminate. Newtonian physics is still used and is indispensable to science. Space time is an enlargement of the theory, not its destruction. To indicate that, is falsification.

It is no good saying that Christianity doesn’t believe in absolutes. It’s whole basis is in absolutes. Need I explain that?

Religious belief is an emotional response to culture and the human condition. If there were evidence, as with gravity, it would be universally accepted. It is not. End of story.

Please desist in making straw man arguments about Atheism. Atheism does not claim anything. It merely asks religious folk to supply evidence for their particular god. It does point out the importance of this as folk all around the globe are making rules from their beliefs without any evidence to the detriment of individuals, certain groups and it has the potential to threaten the very existence of civilisation.

That you call Atheism a religion after what I have said shows you have a comprehension problem brought about by religious delusion possibly. You want to believe something so bad, you fail to analyse Atheism correctly. Atheism is not after converts. People make their own decision to be an Atheist, mostly after some form of religious indoctrination.

I am glad we agree that church and state should be separate identities. Have no fear about Atheism and State separation, as the concept is nonsensical, as I have pointed out. Atheists are people without a god in their lives. How does one separate that from State? That is exactly what the State should be, without a god in it.

There is a collective ‘weight’ in Atheistic thought. It is an opposition to social and political views, in line with keeping church and state separate, which are based only on religious notions not supported by empirical evidence. It is called a rational approach to decision making and not a dogmatic one. Reliance on particular dogmas, as they all vary, is very bad recipe for making rules for everyone.

Your last paragraph is pure bunkum. An Atheist can think using empathy, compassion, an understanding of cooperation, fairness, etc in making decisions. There is no dogma involved.


Reply (email sent 7/4/10)


Enough already. I will add your name, title and (second and hopefully last) final response to my web-site.

Briefly some (more and hopefully final) concluding observations are:

  • Straw Men: building straw men to demolish seems to be a common practice. For example you referred to (a) others stretching language to its limits (b) "The question about science and god being axiomatic is the root cause of your problem" (c) "Christianities' whole basis is absolutes" (d) "Religious belief is an emotional response to culture and the human condition"; (e) "You want to believe something so bad, you fail to analyse Atheism correctly". and (f) "Reliance on particular dogmas, as they all vary, is very bad recipe for making rules for everyone.";
  • Conspiracy Theories: broader reading should not just be about diverse religions - but rather about practical human affairs. It occurs to me that there is something of a parallel between the way you are criticising theism and the way conspiracy theorists approach the world (see About 'Grand Conspiracy' Theories, 2002). Conspiracy theorists characteristically seem to be idealists (those who presume that ideas should determine reality, and who thus can be contrasted with 'realists'). They seem to have little practical experience and to know little about how the world actually works. They blame the world's problems on their favoured scapegoats (typically all-powerful organisations or secret societies) and limit themselves to criticising those scapegoats rather than proposing practical solution to the world's problems (because they don't know enough about the world of practical affairs to make credible suggestions). Islamists seem to adopt such an approach (blaming external 'oppressors' for what are apparently the consequences of 'internal oppression' related to communal constraints on individual liberty). And Atheism also seems to do this in relation to theists (ie scapegoat theists for the world's problems, because of a lack of real knowledge about those problems). This is passing strange as Atheism seems to 'worship' science, which is a 'realist' (rather than 'idealist') approach to the natural world
    • [Further comment added later: the case of Islamism may be instructive in perceiving how those with a 'realist' commitment to science in relation to the natural world, may take 'idealist' approach to human affairs (ie one that starts from ideology rather than real-world experience). Islamists seem to believe not only that the problems which have plagued the Middle East are the fault of 'external oppression', but that Islamism (ie adopting the religion of Islam as the basis for government) would be a constructive solution. Furthermore it seems that leadership in Al Qaeda is mainly associated with those having engineering and medical qualifications from Western universities. This is significant because the understanding of the natural world gained from basic physical and biological sciences (which involves a strict compliance of the world with the laws of physics) parallels the Islamist view that human behaviour must conform strictly to Islamic law which is God's will.   However understanding of the limitations of rationality and a simple 'lawful' approach emerges from a study of complex, rapidly changing information-driven social and economic systems - study of which is resisted by Islamists and outside the area of interest to many natural scientists]
  • A Universal Flood? at the end of the last ice age, global sea levels rose about 100m - as the northern hemisphere's continental ice sheets retreated. This sounds like to basis for a very real 'universal flood' to me. I have also seen speculations about very fast collapse of ice sheets (rather than slow melting) associated with vertical holes developing in the ice and allowing in warmer surface water to reach the bottom and collapse the ice sheet from within.
  • Scientists' belief: The number of scientists found to believe in God, depends on who asks the question and how (eg see Scientists' belief in God varies by discipline which suggests 2/3, and How scientists really feel about God which suggests 40%);
  • Falsificationism: your interpretation of falsificationism is too obscure for me
  • Atheism's Dogma: you suggested that 'atheism does not claim anything. It merely asks religious folk to supply evidence for their particular god. It does point out the importance of this as folk all around the globe are making rules from their beliefs without any evidence to the detriment of individuals, certain groups and it has the potential to threaten the very existence of civilisation.'. According to Wikipedia 'atheism' involves the position that there are no deities or rejection of belief in deities. This sound like a claim to me. You furthermore seem to be claiming, on behalf of Atheism, that the type of evidence appropriate to efforts to understand the natural world would be the sort of evidence that has to be presented in relation to God;
  • Atheism and the State: your comment on 'atheism and state separation' (ie that the concept was nonsensical) was too deep for me. Does this mean that Atheism would be separate from the state, or inseparable. The state should not favour any one religion over another. The original meaning ascribed to 'secular' was 'of no particular denomination'. 'Secular' can not imply state support for Atheism any more than it applies state support for Anglicanism or Roman Catholicism or Shinto without breaking down the separation of church and state. Shinto by the way has no concept of god and thus would have a good claim to becoming the official state religion under the principles you seem to be suggesting;
  • Atheistic Thought: The notion of Atheistic thought that is rationally based on evidence rather than dogma sounds great. But it is a utopian dream rather than real world. It is Mr Rudd's protestations about 'evidence based policy' which is followed by a 'dogmatic' commitment to a $43bn National Broadband Network without any supporting evidence / analysis. As I previously noted, there are massive limits to rationality. I didn't, by the way, suggest that Atheists could not think 'using empathy, compassion, an understanding of cooperation, fairness' but that (ignoring the fact that such ideals tend to be difficult to apply to real world situations, and are interpreted by different people as leading to different conclusions) once an idea had been formulated in this idealistic way and then publicly proclaimed, then Atheists would have another item in their collection of dogma.

John Craig

Response #7 from David Nicholls (received 7/4/10)


You can add this one also. It will be short. Rhetorical shot-gunning of ideas is a sign of not having a rational case. I’ll cut to the chase, which I know will only incite you to produce more rhetoric but rational and productive conversation with people who say they have an invisible friend in the sky is difficult to have. Try telling a child there are no fairies at the bottom of the garden to see what I mean.

You are living a fantasy and we all know humans are well capable of that. Just think of the 34,000 other religions, all held is the same esteem you hold yours. However, the interesting thing is that it is not your fantasy; it has been placed into your mind without you even knowing when you were a child. Evolution can explain the process but you will have to do your own investigation as I have given you enough of my time already.

Forgive me saying but this prattling on about creationism is a pathetic pastime for a rational mind. If you wish to convince me on the merits of creationism, all you have to do is reference me, from credible accredited scientific journals, the peer reviewed studies showing evolution to be an invalid theory. Please don’t misuse the word theory in you response. Lying for your god is possibly not something it wants.

You have only one life to live and if you wish to live it in fear or awe of a human-made mind construct then that is your decision but it is certainly not mine.

Nice talking to you and I will hope for you.


PS I look forward to seeing the total conversation on your web site.

Reply from John Craig (email sent 8/4/10)

[This reply took the form of a copy of 'Comments sent to contacts for your interest' which included an earlier draft of the outline of key points emerging from this exchange that appears above]

And more with ever increasing futility

Response: Yes, John, interesting but not quite accurate but I'm willing to leave it for now. The real world calls. Oh, I think you should mention the way one geographically located region, ahem, yours, is the true one and the other 34,000 are false. I wonder if you know what the word arrogant means? David

Reply: David .. Given that there are mutually-exclusive claims involved, no more than one of the 34,001 religions (ie including Atheism) can be true. However don't look at me as the source of (what you regard as arrogant) claims that Jesus is the source of truth (see John 14:6). I hope you can find a way to consider this possibility. ... John Craig

Response: 34,000 religions and one Atheism. I know this irks you John, but they are the fact. ... David

Reply: 34,001 religions including your interpretation of Atheism (which is by no means the only non-theistic religion). I know this irks you David, but this is the reality. ,, John Craig

Response:  John, I am only trying to stop you looking stupid in educated company with such ignorant and baseless utterances. .... David

Reply: David ... Thanks. But it was ever thus. My career was in strategic public policy which meant that (a) I needed an interpreter to communicate with political system and (b) the work I did typically did not become well understood until 15 years later. ... John Craig

Response: Sorry, but that won't happen with this novel idea. David

Reply: Wait to be amazed ... John Craig

Response: If only I should live so long :))


Asia's Rising Atheism? (Email sent 9/5/10)

David Nicholls,
Australian Atheists Association

I thought that you might be interested in thinking about whether the Australian Atheists Association should align itself with the 'non-religious' religion that China seems likely to promote as it seeks to increase its regional / global power beyond the economic domain.

Outline of Articles that May be of Interest

In a communist country obsessed with capitalism and devoid of religion, the once reviled Confucianism is admired again. Confucius is making a comeback after Mao tried to purge him. President Hu Jintao has mentioned harmony (a key Confucian concept) in all major speeches. While wealth and nationalism have driven China after the Cultural Revolution, there is also a search for deeper value. While Christianity and Buddhism have grown, the Communist Party remains suspicious of religion. Confucianism is safer - as it matches their emphasis on quality of life, balanced development (recognising the environment) and reducing inequalities - rather than simple rapid growth. China has launched Confucian Institutes to promote China's culture. Ordinary Chinese know at least a pop version of Confucianism, and it has been promoted widely by academics. It has more impact than Marxism, liberalism or Taoism (China's traditional religion). In the past China belonged to one imperial dynasty, now it belongs to one Party. Confucianism is not contrary to free market economy that Deng introduced, and China needs. The Communist Party's formal embrace of Confucianism is proceeding slowly. One advocate suggests that getting rich is not enough - one must also have courtesy, knowledge and culture and government which is kind, with low taxes, high education and less punishment. Confucius would focus on morality in modern China, as it is lower than before. Confucius tolerated diversity and thus laid the basis for harmonious society. China can't be a world power on the basis of its economy alone. It must also be culturally strong (Callick C. 'Seeking out the sage', Australian, 1/10/07)

Pierre Ryckmans (Canberra based sinologist) suggests that Confucius was not a 'Confucianist'. Imperial Confucianism only accepted statements that prescribed submission to established authorities - and essential notion (eg ideas of justice / political dissent / moral duty of intellectuals to criticise rulers) are ignored. Confucius was man of action who created a link between education and political power. It affirmed a humanist ethic and the universal brotherhood of man; and the analects inspired all nations of eastern Asia to provide cornerstone of a civilization. Two of China's leaders (Shi Huangdi, 2200 years ago, and Mao) have failed in attempts to destroy it. (Callick R. 'The philosopher whose teachings couldn't be silenced by tyrants', Australian, 1/10/07)

My suspicion is that China's adoption of a neo-Confucian path to modernisation is going to lead it into serious difficulties (see Time May not be on China's Side), and if so the Chinese Communist Party's attempts to promote its preferred atheistic religion (eg through the 180 Confician Institutes it has established worldwide) will fail. However, if it doesn't, your association will have a potential ally ... or competitor.

John Craig

Response 9/5/10

Hello John, Who is the 'Australian Atheists Association' and why would they be interested in Confucianism?

David Nicholls, President, Atheist Foundation of Australia

Reply 9/5/10

David, My apologies for getting your Foundation's name wrong. My mind must be failing - as you suspected all along!!

However your Foundation needs to look at Confucianism, because it is coming at you as an alternative / Asian Atheism. In particular: (a) as I noted previously, Confucianism is a prominent example of an atheistic religion; (b) it is being promoted internationally by China - and will be promoted widely if the wheels don't fall off China's wagon; and (c) in a very few years China's Communist Party will thus perhaps either be a potential ally (or competitor) for organisations such as your Foundation in promoting an atheistic values system.

The link I referred to (Time May not be on China's Side) also contains references to: (a) the limits to the rationality which you argued previously was the basis on which Atheists could reach collective positions; (b) the simplifying social constructs (eg a rule of law, and money as a measure of value) needed to make rationality work in Western societies; and (c) the centrality of limited rationality to the way in which 'communitarian' decisions are derived under Asian-style atheism (eg Confucianism).

John Craig

Response 9/5/10

John, Yes, you may be right about your mind. Confucianism follows the rules laid out by a person. Atheism is without a god and follows no person or the rules of a person. Do you get it now?


Reply 9/5/10

David, Yes I get it now. Australian-style Atheism (as compared with one Asian-style atheism, ie Confucianism) does not follow rules defined by a person. This is a useful addition to my collection of the characteristics of 'Atheism'.

However, I think that you will find that Confucianism does not follow 'rules' either. The notion of 'rules' (in the sense of general principles / laws) is a Western concept. The Confucian notion (as I understand it) involves 'traditions' rather than 'rules' - and these are always considered flexible, never fixed. Also I am pretty sure (though I may have gotten this mixed up) that Confucius did not himself define those traditions - but rather (in the tradition of a true Confucian scholar) he merely assembled and promoted elements from the writings of widely respected earlier sages.

John Craig

Response 9/5/10

John, I do not need the name of any person as an inspiration for critical thinking to demonstrate the lack of evidence for the existence of a god. Nor do other Atheists.


Reply 9/5/10

David, This just leads back in a circle to (a) the limits to critical thinking and (b) questions about what sort of evidence should be sought or relied upon that have already been visited.

However I don't think that atheistic traditions in Asia rely on the name of any person. It seems to me to be a consequence of a way of thinking that is radically different to that in Western societies and focuses on the material world, without notions of universals or abstracts (or critical thinking for that matter) - see East Asia in Competing Civilizations.

Confucianism arose within that way of thinking - but I don't think that Confucius invented it. Confucianism is merely one example of 'Asian-style atheism'. Shinto seems to be another.

John Craig

Response 9/5/10

John, So, to overcome this confusion of Confucianism, (No pardon for the pun) we should follow the words in a book written by ancient and ignorant goat herders and selectively so. Do you hear what you are saying? Or do you think that witches (Sorceress) should be killed? Exodus 18:22


Reply 9/5/10

David, It all depends on what the goat herders had to say. However for me, John 14:6-9 sums it up. For Atheists the problem is not so simple. Asian-style atheism is rising - and decisions need to be made about whether this is an ally ... or a competitor.

John Craig

Response 9/5/10

John, Competitor or ally, is irrelevant, just give us sanity. That most livelily with work Gobbledygook from goat herders, will not as is proven. David


Addendum B: Should that be Atheist with a capital "A"?

Addendum B: Should that be Atheist with a capital "A"? (email sent 19/9/10)

Margaret Wenham and Alex Dickinson
Courier Mail

Re: 'He's playing with fire', Courier Mail, 13/9/10

Your article stated that:

"A Brisbane-based evangelical atheist has risked inflaming political and religious tensions by posting a video on YouTube showing him burning pages from both the Koran and the Bible"

On a point of grammar, surely the word 'Atheist' should be spelled with a capital 'A' when applied to those who adhere to the emerging Western religion of Atheism. Though 'theism' and 'atheism' are words that describe belief or non-belief in God / gods, it is clear that for some people Atheism has now become a religion in its own right - see Celebrating a New Evangelical 'Religion': Atheism. The latter refers to Atheism's beliefs / dogma, and to the fact that non-theistic belief systems in Asia (eg Shinto, Confucianism, Taoism) have long been recognised as religions.

Thus where Atheist refers to an adherent to the new Western religion, Atheism, a capital 'A' is surely needed.

John Craig

Addendum C: What is a Miracle? Addendum C: What is a Miracle?

This addendum records an exchange in response to the following suggestion to an Australian commentator (David Marr) that it was unrealistic to suggest that 'faith' was needed to recognise 'miracles'.

What is a Miracle - Email sent 14/10/10

David Marr

Re: Mary quite contrary, how miracles grow, 14/10/10

While I am not into Roman Catholic approaches to sainthood, I have to suggest that claiming that 'miracles don't happen' as your article did (or saying that they don't believe in miracles because they are not a person of faith) simply doesn't reflect an understanding of how the universe works. The 'laws of nature' are quite limited in their ability to explain the world we experience (see How solid are 'science, reason and critical thinking').

Miracles (ie the emergence of outcomes which are not predictable on the basis of the laws of physics or the way in which ecological / biological / social systems have been organised in the past) are an almost everyday occurrence - because the way in which such systems are organised changes in response to information from their environments (eg consider such phenomena as evolution and economic development). Whether miracles might result from praying to saints is an open question, but recognition of miracles (ie events that are inconsistent with the 'laws of nature', ie the way nature behaved in the past) should not be controversial.

John Craig

Email response to a copy of the above received 14/10/10 from XXXX (See About XXXX)

Subject: Re: What is a miracle?


About XXXX

XXXX is an internationally prominent advocate of Atheism. The following further inconclusive exchange resulted when XXXX was asked whether [his / her] name should be associated with the exchange, or whether [he/she] had further thoughts that should be added. 

Emails (Email sent to XXXX on 17/10/10)


I have taken the liberty of adding our recent exchange of emails to my web-site (see What is a Miracle? and Christian Foundations of Liberal Western Institutions) though I have done so while maintaining your anonymity (as XXXX). I would be very happy to amend this document to include your name, or any further thoughts that you may have on these issues.

John Craig

Re: Emails (email response from XXXX received on 17/10/10)

Yes, that is a liberty indeed. It is customary to ask permission from a correspondent in a personal correspondence for the use of his or her words in public. As a matter of courtesy from you I ask you to add the following at the head of the exchange: 'Without asking [XXXX's] permission I here make public what [he / she] wrote to me in a brief email exchange'.

Re: Emails (email reply to XXXX sent on 17/10/10)

That would not be quite correct - because I did ask your permission to refer to you as the author of those emails (rather than leave them as the work of an anonymous XXXX) and I also offered to include any further thoughts that you might have on the substantive issues.

Perhaps I could add this as a note: "This exchange was initially presented as being with XXXX, a person whose name was not disclosed. When asked for permission to refer to [his / her[ name and whether [he / she] wanted any further thoughts [he / she] might have on these issues included, the initially-anonymous XXXX indicated that [he / she] was not happy to have what [he / she] wrote made public and requested that as a matter of courtesy the following be added at the head of the exchange 'Without asking [XXXX's] permission I here make public what [he / she] wrote to me in a brief email exchange' "

Alternatively XXXX could just remain anonymous.

John Craig

Re: Emails (email response from XXXX received on 18/10/10)

But I did not say that I was not happy to have what I wrote made public; I said in effect that I was not happy not to be asked for what I said to be made public. I understand that logic is not the first priority among folk of faith: so by adding your comment to what I asked you to add to your use of what I have said, you have succeeded in creating a suggestio falsi. - And my original emails to you were not anonymous, but the information lines carried my name and email address. As we have not been personally introduced I did not sign the emails as if we had been.

Re: Emails (email reply to XXXX sent on 18/10/10)

I am sorry if I misinterpreted the situation. Does 'About XXXX' (which still leaves your name undisclosed) adequately present your concerns? I note that debating the finer points of such protocols adds nothing in relation to the substantive issues involved.

John Craig

Reply to XXXX 14/10/10

RE: What is a Miracle?

Does 'Blimey!' mean that the light has dawned, or that the light has gone out? In any case I will elaborate on the off chance that it is  of interest.

The scientific belief that the 'laws' of behaviour of living systems persist is the basis of economists' attempts to mathematically model economic phenomena - and of their failure to develop adequate theories of economic growth. Information is recognised as the key factor in economic growth, but (even under the latest economic theories) it is treated as an input to a production function (because economics strives to be a 'real' science like physics) rather than being treated as a means of changing the production function (which would make mathematical modelling superfluous).

This view does not prevail in East Asia where societies lack a Western cultural heritage - and the main element in exerting power and strategy involves manipulating information flows in order to change social systems (rather than provide information as an input to  'lawful' systems). The consequence of this is that East Asia has achieved economic 'miracles' (ie apparently impossibly fast rates of economic development and growth). An attempt to outline the world view of the huge fraction of humanity that would not say 'Blimey' in response to my suggestions (because it would neither be news nor seen as foolish) is in a section on East Asia in 'Competing Civilizations'

In the latter it is noted that even the traditional process of education was conceived in ways that were compatible with the view that the way in which things behave can be changed. 'Anything can be anything' is a traditional Japanese precept. I have engaged in ongoing debates about such matters with Professor Martin Wolf (chief economics commentator at Financial Times). His view (which is similar to that of Alan Greenspan as US Fed chairman) is that economics has inviolable laws which will eventually bring East Asian economies to heel. However, the fact that it was not perceived that 'anything can be anything' made it impossible for Western observers to see that a financial system could become a means of producer protectionism (and thus a means for creating huge real-economy strengths) because such things are impossible under the Western 'laws' of economics (see 'Resist Protectionism: Your Call is Decades Too Late')

The way in which it is possible to change the behaviour of social / economic systems (ie have 'miracles') can be generalised in relation to all living systems is suggested in 'Probable Breakthrough in Understanding Economic Development'

John Craig

Email response from XXXX received on 14/110/10

Subject: RE: What is a miracle?

As you will gather from my subsequent email, 'blimey' was intended to indicate that I found the view you express a remarkable instance of the way people with an antecedent faith commitment - to which everything must be bent to conform - can persuade themselves, as you do. Just one example: observed regularities in nature (described as natural laws) are not comparable to the generalisations of economic models, which explains the great difference in predictive power of both. The key to the former is that testing hypotheses turns on predicting experimental outcomes, on the basis of whose satisfaction or otherwise the given hypothesis can be refined or rejected. Thinking (paradoxically: but that is a different matter) that miracles happen daily (as you claim) is inconsistent with the tested, and testability-invoking, large regularities that underwrite our understanding of physical law. Next time you are in an airplane give thanks not to your deity's withholding his erratic interference with what keeps you aloft, but the physicists and engineers who have successfully appreciated and applied the relevant knowledge. - I am with David Hume in thinking that there is, however, one miracle: that anyone continues to believe today what was dreamed up by illiterate goatherds 3000 years ago. -

Regards, XXXX

Email reply to XXXX sent 14/10/10

There is no doubt that physical laws have different predictive capacity to economic models. However my point is that Western economists try to work with economic models in the same way that physicists deal with physical laws, and thus can't really understand economic development. However those who don't assume that there are such things as definite regularities in the behaviour of social systems can achieve 'miracles' - which those who don't see the possibility can't either do or understand.

'Miracles' (of various sorts) do happen constantly in social systems, but they also occur periodically in biological systems. For example, the phenomenon of evolution also involves a change in the way the world behaves (eg the world works differently after there are elephants to the way it did before) and such changes appear to be driven by information from the environment of pre-existing systems. Such changes do not emerge internally (eg through random variations) in systems governed by the laws of physics - as those laws conserve information, are time reversible (the Second Law of Thermodynamics excepted) and do not thus permit randomness that could lead to qualitative changes in the system.

In talking about the 'laws' that are seen to govern living systems, I was not referring to the different situation of non-living (physical) systems. However, it has been validly argued that the laws of physics explain everything about the universe, except for those things that are interesting (eg the workings of living systems). The behaviour of the latter is not only influenced by the laws of physics but also by internal feedback relationships that are created and have to be maintained by flows of neg-entropy from their environments or else the system 'dies'. The fact that the laws of physics don't change (or at least don't change quickly) is not in dispute - so my aeroplane stays up also. But when it comes to living systems, the scope for behavioural regularities observed in the past to be different later (ie for 'miracles' to emerge) is much greater.

I am not at all convinced that those who believe in the power of their own reason are really any wiser than the most ignorant goatherd - a view that is anything but original (see 1 Corinthians 1: 18-25). The advantage that ignorant goatherds have is that they probably don't make unjustified claims about their wisdom.

John Craig


Addendum D: Christian Foundations of Liberal Western Institutions + Addendum D: Christian Foundations of Liberal Western Institutions

This addendum records:

  • an exchange with a prominent evangelical Atheist in response to CPDS' comments in support of an Australian commentator's claim that attacking Christianity would undermine Western society;
  • comments on suggestions that Christmas is a waste of time.

Christian Foundations of Liberal Western Institutions (email sent 14/10/10)

Greg Sheridan
The Australian

RE: Attack on Christianity will undermine society, The Australian, 14/10/10

I should like to provide constructive feedback on your article, which raised very important issues by noting that:

" ..... the church is a central component of Western civilisation. All of the good things in our civilisation, from its greatest institutions to the unconscious grammar of its ethics, flow ultimately from the Judeo-Christian inheritance on which it is based, and which is welcome to and enriched by the inflow of people from sympathetic religious traditions.

The professional denouncers of Christian orthodoxy are trying a new experiment in their desperate search for a universal secularism, to create a society that lives permanently off the moral capital of its founding institutions, which it hopes finally to destroy. I'm not sure it can be done."

One of the key ingredients of legal and government institutions in modern Western societies is the assumption of individual liberty, and that assumption arguably emerged because the morality of interpersonal behaviour was taken to be guided by individual consciences responsible to God - which is a unique feature of the Judeo-Christian tradition (see Cultural Foundations of Western Strengths: The Realm of the Rational / Responsible Individual). As the latter also noted:

  • the assumption of individual liberty is critically important to the effectiveness of rationality (a means for problem solving inherited from Western societies' classical Greek heritage) - because rationality tends to fail as people try to deal with more and more complex (eg whole of society) problems;
  • individual rationality (and social institutions, such as a rule of law, which have helped make it effective) have been central to the economic and political benefits enjoyed by Western societies.

Moreover, it appears that erosion of the Christian ethical foundations of interpersonal morality is (in Australia at least) contributing to: (a) serious social symptoms; and (b) consequent pressure on, or a desire by, political leaders to themselves claim and enforce moral authority - an outcome that places at risk the benefits that flow from the separation of church and state and from individual liberty (see Moral Foundations of Individual Liberty).

Furthermore, it seems to me that, those you called the 'professional denouncers of Christian orthodoxy' who are preaching 'universal secularism' do not seem to be standing on very firm foundations in doing so (see How solid are 'science, reason and critical thinking').

There appears to be a need for renewal of Australia's institutions (see Recognising the Need for Nation Building and A Nation Building Agenda) and reminding churches of the importance of the success of their mission to the viability of Australia's legal and governance systems needs to be part of that renewal.

John Craig

Email response to copy of the above received 14/10/10 from XXXX (see About XXXX)

To: John Craig

Subject: Re: Christian Foundations of Liberal Western Institutions - !!

The canard that 'all good things in Western civilisation flow from its Judaeo- Christian heritage' deserves to be stopped in its tracks once and for all. Christianity became the dominant ideology of Europe 1,000 years after Periclean Athens established the basis of European civilisation. Christianity is an Oriental religion that irrupted into the Western civilisation and hijacked it for nearly a further millennium, retrogressively losing the achievements of classical civilisation (the engineering skills that built the Dome of Maxentius in Rome 4th century CE were not recovered until a thousand years later in Brunelleschi's Duomo in Florence 15th century CE: the Dark Ages, Christianity's first great gift to mankind, are properly so called). And in order to become the dominant ideology of Europe, Christianity first had to capture the levers of power in the Roman Empire - and did so - and it had to import wholesale the metaphysics and ethics of classical civilisation through Neoplatonism (the Platonic doctrine of the immortal soul - before then Christians thought, as did the Jews, that our dead bodies lie in the earth until resurrection) and Stoicism (the unlivable Christian ethics of 'give away everything you own, make no plans, let bad people do more bad things [turn the other cheek], reject your family if they don't agree with you' etc was premised on the idea that the end of the world was imminent; some centuries later, the alleged deity being apparently forgetful or dilatory, some better ethics were needed: they come straight from Greek philosophy). So as all this shows, the claim that 'Judaeo-Christian influences' formed Europe is mostly nonsense. The story of modern Europe - Enlightenment, human rights, democracy, abolition of slavery, rights for women - is the result chiefly of a struggle AGAINST the absolutist 'Christian heritage' which kept the European mind in thrall for so long, burning people at the stake for disagreeing with it. Once this is understood, the claim Christians make on the rest of us for our taxes and legal exemptions and acceptance of their "right" to proselytise young children in schools (why must they try to push their antediluvian views on everyone else?) will be seen for the snivelling self-interest it is. Let them believe what nonsense they like: but let them pay for it themselves, and keep out of everyone else's faces.


Email reply to XXXX sent 14/10/10

Thanks for your observations about the relationship between Western civilization and its Judeo-Christian and classical (Greek and Roman) heritage.

A couple of counter-points occur to me in relation to your observations.

As I understand it, the European Dark Ages were ushered in by the collapse of the Roman Empire - a collapse that was due to reaching the limits of its strategy of building an empire by military conquest and then drawing upon the wealth of the conquered regions to support the centre of power. Rome had not been a source of intellectual enlightenment - as most of its notions of civilization had been derived from imitation of Greek philosophers. Christianity did not create the Dark Ages when the Roman Empire failed and one role of the church during that time was to attempt to preserve some of the classical learning [though ultimately the significant elements of the latter that contributed most to the Renaissance centuries later were regained primarily from the Muslim world].

There is no doubt that Christianity has many oriental features. This appears to be one of the reasons for its explosive growth now in China (currently about 10% of the population and expected to be 30% by 2030) and elsewhere in Asia (eg South Korea has apparently become a major source of Christian missionaries).

Christianity certainly gained access to the levers of political power in Europe for many years but this: (a) was clearly incompatible with Jesus' teachings embodied in the Christian Bible; and (b) did not contribute to progress by European nations relative to the rest of the world.

As I understand it there is a lot of similarity between notions of ethics that arises under all of humanities' successful traditions. The important contribution of the Judeo-Christian tradition to the success subsequently achieved by Western societies was the view the responsibility for ethical behaviour resided in individual consciences responsible to God (ie in the Kingdom of God) - as this allowed the development of legal and government institutions based on assumptions of individual liberty (which was not possible in the Roman Empire or the 'East' generally when moral authority, and at times god-ship, was claimed by social and political elites). And, as noted, that liberty allowed the intellectual heritage of classical Greece to be more powerfully used.

The difference this makes can also be illustrated by the historical failures of Muslim societies, which had retained ideas gained from classical Greece for far longer with little to show for it. The problem appears to lie in the view that enforcement of ethical principles (which in the Qu'ran are similar to those in the Bible, Greek philosophy, Buddhism etc) lies not in individual consciences but rather in communal pressures on individuals - and this results in major constraints on the effective and rapid change that is critically required for economic prosperity. That view also apparently influences Islamic scholars' approach to science - which makes no progress because, presumably for consistency with Arabic / Islamic social views, it views God as an autocratic micro-manager of the universe. (see Islamic Societies in Competing Civilizations, and About Arabic Thought and Islamic Science)

The story of modern Europe (eg in terms of Enlightenment, human rights, democracy, abolition of slavery, rights for women etc) is very much a mixed bag. The church maintained traditional ideologies - but Christians were often the leaders in making change (a reflection both of individual liberty and the Judeo-Christian tradition's unique tolerance of self-criticism). And the 'goods' associated with modern Europe are not without their limitations. For example the Enlightenment not only led to a belief in reason - but also to an over confidence in the power of reason (see How solid are 'science, reason and critical thinking')

That overconfidence in the power of reason was notably exhibited by the terror which accompanied the French 'Enlightenment' / Revolution and in the Soviet Union's inglorious history - though I have also seen very recent examples in Australia.

Human rights are not an unmixed blessing, as the emphasis given to protecting the 'rights' of indigenous peoples worldwide is arguably the main impediment to bettering their position (see 'UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples: Perpetuating Disadvantage?')

Democracy was a useful way of spreading widely the wealth generated from the deployment of capital for mechanisation and ultimately mass production in industrial society - but in a post-industrial environment (in which wealth is now created primarily from knowledge rather than deployment of capital) democracy is at risk because it tends to be an obstacle to the deployment of advanced knowledge. Democracy is currently at risk in Western societies because it acts as a source of demands for benefits that societies can not afford to provide, and thus of ever increasing debts. There are probably ways to defend democratic traditions (because they have many advantages) but the required adjustments have not yet been put in place.

I have no particular problem with Atheists evangelising their particular faith and, if they use their resources to provide services for the less fortunate in the community, I see no reason why their organisations should not gain a tax free status. However the tendency by some Atheists to adopt an abusive tone towards those who don't agree with them seems a negative feature.

John Craig

Christmas a Waste of Time? (email sent 14/12/10)

Adele Horin

Re: Christmas a waste of time, money and presents, 14/12/10

While your article is undoubtedly correct in suggesting that some Christmas presents are a waste of money, the implication that Christmas itself is a waste of time, money and presents does not seem well informed. Presents are an inconsequential diversion from the purpose of Christmas.

Christmas celebrates the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, who is almost universally acknowledged to be the greatest moral teacher ever and whose teachings have had more influence on human history than those of anyone else and, in particular, created the foundations for many of the advantages that Australians and many people elsewhere now enjoy (eg see Christian Foundations of Liberal Western Institutions).

It would seem ungrateful not to celebrate Jesus of Nazareth for these contributions.

But there is more. Christians believe (eg because of Jesus’ miracles, what he said about himself and his resurrection) that humanity’s greatest moral teacher was also a manifestation of the God who created life and the universe, and that those who accept it can have the gift of salvation and eternal life he promised. Those who enjoy those benefits would clearly be ungrateful if they did not celebrate Jesus of Nazareth for that reason also.

Perhaps the title of your article could have been better chosen.

John Craig

Not only Christmas would be Missing without Christianity - email sent 27/12/11

Rev Peter Kurti,
Centre for Independent Studies

Re: It wouldn't be Christmas without Christianity, The Australian, 23/12/11

Your article pointed to secularist concerns about the Christian dimensions of Christmas festivities, and went on to make a case for maintaining that link. In the course of this you pointed out that:

“Freedom of Religion and Belief in 21st-Century Australia, a report prepared earlier this year for the Australian Human Rights Commission, found a strongly held view that Australia is historically and currently a Christian country, and that Christian values lie deep in the Australian psyche. But the report also identified a strongly emerging secularist voice, a voice that calls not just for freedom of religion in Australia but, more emphatically, for freedom from religion.”

A point to note is that freedom of religion (and liberty for individuals generally) seems to be a by-product of widespread acceptance of Christianity in the community – as the Judeo-Christian expectation that moral behaviour will be promoted primarily by individual consciences responsible to God creates an environment which uniquely constrains enforcement of humanly determined moral standards by human authorities. This point is explored further in Christian Foundations of Liberal Western Institutions which includes reference to indicators of rising moral authoritarianism in Australia, eg by politicians, as the influence of Christianity has declined. If this hypothesis is valid, then ‘secularists’ seeking ‘freedom from religion’ are facing an impossible challenge. As suggested in Get God out of the Classroom: Good Luck with That! the best way for ‘secularists’ to promote a separation between the state and the church is for them to encourage / help churches to be more effective independently in ensuring widespread acceptance of Christianity in the general community.

I would be interested in your response to the above speculations.

John Craig


Addendum E: Where to for the godless?

Where to for the godless? (email sent 2/6/11)

Dick Gross,
c/- MAV

Re: The devil wears evolution, The Age, 30/5/11

I should like to comment on your (wearing-a-non-MAV-hat) suggestions about advancing the cause of godlessness.

My interpretation of your article: Evolution is the enemy of godlessness. Though atheists are supposed to love this theory, and the theory promotes atheism, humans have an evolved predisposition to faith (because of a need for consolation about death / suffering; the need for rituals and meaning; and the need for a collaborative moral framework that works best if enforced by Gods). There is thus a need for faith, any faith. Atheism is weak on: death; ritual; morality; organisation; philanthropy; and assisting others. Humanism has tried to replace religion, but apart from some ceremonies has been a fizzer. The New Atheists spend too much time on debating whether God exists – which is intellectually soft as repudiating religion is so easy. Rather there is a need to find alternatives. I wrote an atheistic bible years ago, but this went nowhere. Humanists such as Dawkins and Hitchens try the hard tasks. A better option would be collaboration with religion, rather than conflict. Atheism should move from trying to prove that it is wrong to making unbelief a part of general life even in the mainstream faiths. Humanism will need centuries to insinuate itself into human institutions. Many deep thinking religious leaders are trying to transform their faiths into less magical and more thoughtful places – and they are more inspiring than angry atheists. Humanism should be tried, while re-joining faiths and transforming them from inside. The godless should find benefits from stealing the good ones of faith, ie collaborate with, rather than criticise, the progressives.

Your article suggested that the theory of evolution both promotes godlessness, and makes it more difficult. However evolutionary change not only makes godlessness more difficult because people have developed a tendency towards faith, but also because there is a massive gap in theories of evolution / creation that depend on purely materialistic explanations (see Problems in an Internally Deterministic Scientific Worldview). While Atheists seem to believe that their viewpoint should be the default in a secular society, they are in fact merely evangelising their own favoured religion and one that is not based on very solid foundations (see Celebrating a New Evangelical 'Religion': Atheism).

And while humans have an inbuilt disposition towards faith, not all faiths are equal. For example, the Judeo-Christian tradition embodies the expectation that moral behaviour will be promoted by individual consciences responsible to God (which has practical advantages that your article alluded to). Others do not do so, but rather involve human moral authoritarianism of one sort or another – and this makes a huge difference to the way societies function (eg see Christian Foundations of Liberal Western Institutions). Thus, with respect, I suggest that the ‘atheistic bible’ you authored some years ago could not have had any impact without claims to moral authority on your part than would have disrupted Australia’s liberal institutions.

Your suggestion that humanists should work from the inside of faiths to promote godlessness is anything but original. Consider Bishop Spong’s suggestions that the basic assumptions of Christianity be rejected because of inconsistencies with natural science. The problem with getting alongside such a ‘progressive’ is that it seems that his (post-empirical) approach is unscientific, and his science is about 100 years out of date (see Comments on Bishop Spong’s call for a New Reformation, 2001)

I would be interested in your response to the above speculations.

John Craig

Addendum F: Can Enlightenment be found on the Road from Atheism to Religion?

Can Enlightenment be found on the Road from Atheism to Religion? (email sent 24/2/12)

Alain de Botton

Re: Atheist Alain de Botton points out religion's usefulness, ABC 7.30 Report, 21/2/12

This interview with Chris Uhlmann suggests that your book, Religion for Atheists, is trying to move Atheism along the road to religion.

Overview of interview: Question: ‘what does religion offers Atheists?’ Atheists (ie those who don’t want to be believers) will find that religion offers strengths in terms of: creating community; providing ethics; and education. Question: What about dealing with sin? With science and technology many believe world should be perfect, but the reality is that life is challenging and people start off a bit broken. Religions (eg Buddhism and Christianity) recognise this. Question: What about rituals that used to be part of life that have now been stripped away. Religions (especially Buddhism and Christianity) create awe – put people in a situation which makes them be seen to be small in relation to cosmos / God. Being made to feel small has a calming effect. Question: Are you looking for something that religion provides that has been lost? Secular world has not provided all the answers – especially in relation to organising the inner life. How does one cope with the big challenges from the world. There is no institution in secular world that teaching about living life. Question: Is the problem that science has been deified, and it does not deal with such issues (ie it asks what questions, not why questions). Science does many things, but gives no meaning. Material of science should be used for humanistic ends. Question: What would your father (a militant Atheist) have thought about exploring those things in religion that he wold have rejected? Household was strongly Atheist. But now there are extremist Atheists who argue that religions are stupid. There is a dialogue of the deaf, which is unsatisfactory because religions have useful features that can be of value also to non-believers, and so should not only be left to believers. Question: How can such ideas be applied for a secular world. Religions provide calendars to ensure important things that are not ignored. There is a need for silence like that monasteries provided – so that people can communicate with the deepest parts of themselves.

I would like to offer comments on the basis of some study of both: (a) the effect of culture on the way societies work; and (b) what seems to be increasingly ‘evangelical’ Atheism.

Religions certainly affects the way people live their lives, and thus (along with other aspects of a society’s culture) this has consequences for the way societies work. In particular, in Western societies it seems that legal and governance institutions that presume individual liberty are a bye-product of the widespread acceptance of Christianity in the community (eg see Christian Foundations of Liberal Western Institutions). This is possible because Jesus of Nazareth provided evidence that it was reasonable to place most responsibility for moral behaviour in individual consciences responsible to God (see Cultural Foundations of Western Strength in Competing Civilizations). And that liberty has allowed the emergence of social spaces (eg via a rule of law, democracy and profit-focussed investment) in which individuals can use rationality as a reasonably effective tool for problem solving.

Outside the Judeo-Christian world, the individual liberty that allows rationality to be effective does not seem to exist – because social authorities are able / forced to claim moral authority. For example, in relation to the two religions that you referred to, it seems that:

  • communal coercion is significant in enforcing the morality of individual behaviour under Islam, and this: (a) seriously constrains individuals’ scope for initiative and is arguably a major factor in the failure of Muslim dominated societies to progress in recent centuries (see Discouraging Pointless Extremism, which comments on Islamist’s goals that would, in practice, increase the disadvantage such societies face); and (b) the cosmology developed by Islamic scholars (which justifies coercion of individuals) virtually prevents scientific advancement (eg see About Arabic Thought and Islamic Science);
  • Under Buddhism there is no external standard for moral behaviour as individuals are expected to consult their inner being, and this in itself is not sufficient to create a stable basis for liberal institutions.

Moreover as adherence to Christianity has declined in Western societies, it seems that various individuals and organisations are claiming to be the source of moral authority – and this is undermining the foundations of liberal legal and government institutions (see Moral Foundations of Individual Liberty). Your suggestion that Atheists should claim moral authority (ie teach people about how to live life – which ultimately raises questions about how such teachings are to be enforced) is merely one part of this trend. The risks associated with this were also highlighted by Binoy Kampmark, who suggested that:

“Historically, every movement that counts itself the enemy of God or religion ends up engaging in a grandiose exercise of substitution and imitation. The French Revolution encouraged the formations of 'temples of reason'. The historian Michael Burleigh, in his work Earthly Powers (2005) does a fabulous job of charting the links between such movements that retained more than just a tincture of religious zeal. From the French Revolution to the First World War, Burleigh documents a 'history of secularisation' that suggests evasion and reconstitution rather than a genuine exercise in change. What happens is simply a more 'earthly' focus on faith and enemies.

The French Revolution was peppered with the language of the pious devotee. What happened was that the terminology of the church became the terminology of the Revolution – 'catechism, fanatical, gospel, martyr, missionary, propaganda, sacrament, sermon, zealot'. Faith was directed at nationalist projects – Talleyrand celebrating mass on the Altar of the Fatherland on the Champs de Mars. The Divine moved into the orbit of the nation state. “ (see Monuments to 'Reason': De Botton's temple exercise, Online Opinion, 21/2/12)

Thus rather than forcing Atheism down the road to religion (eg by encouraging humanities’ students to find what different religions have in common, and then incorporate their findings into Atheism), I submit that:

  • there is a pressing need for students of the humanities to consider the practical consequences of differences in cultures (including religions), as their failure for decades to pursue such inquiries is arguably a major cause of much of the disadvantage and conflict that currently prevails around the world (see Ignorance as a Source of Conflict);
  • there would also be value in considering what another person who sought to discourage Jesus of Nazareth’s followers discovered on a different road (see Acts 9).Your 2009 Sermon at the School of Life suggested that pessimism should underpin life. However such a sense of hopelessness is not necessary for those who are open to the alternative.

Finally I should like to draw your attention to some comments on Atheism in Celebrating a New Evangelical 'Religion': Atheism. Of significant in relation to the issues you are raising is that Atheism is already a religion in its own right and can’t thus be considered to be part of the ‘secular’ world (ie the domain of human affairs that includes everything but religion), That document suggests, for example, that:

  • Atheism is based on beliefs. In particular ‘rationality, science and critical thinking’ seem to be regarded as infallible paths to truth and ‘deified’ as Chris Uhlmann suggested, though these all suffer significant limitations. Science, for example, is very useful in exploring how things are, but seems to be out of its depth in explaining how they get to be that way. The deterministic laws (eg in physics) that science seek to discover do not permit true randomness and thus don’t explain either the loss of information associated with entropic decay or the gain in information associated with the emergence of new relationships. Moreover in dealing with social, biological and ecological systems the creation and maintenance of relationships that are the basis of future ‘causality’ always depends on information from outside the system and thus can’t be predicted from internal deterministic laws. The possibility that this may also apply to the world of the physical sciences needs to be considered;
  • It is not clear what Atheism is defined as the absence of belief in – because other significant religions (eg Confucianism) are non-theistic yet quite incompatible with what Atheists believe in;
  • ‘Miracles’ (ie outcomes that are not explained by pre-existing internal causal relationships) are not unusual in relatively rapidly changing social, biological and ecological systems.. Moreover large segments of humanity (in East Asia) deploy methods for problem solving that exploit this and are quite different to those used in the West (the realm of the rational / analytical individual). This has apparently been the basis of the economic ‘miracles’ observed in that part of the world in recent decades, though doing this incompatible with the assumptions made by ‘scientific economics’ (as the latter seeks to find the laws governing economic systems, rather than ways to change the relationships that appear to be ‘laws’).

I would be interested in your response to the above speculations.

John Craig

Addendum G: A Battle About Belief

A Battle About Belief - email sent 12/4/12

Professor Gary Bouma,
Monash University

Re: A battle beyond belief, The Age, 12/4/12

I should like to offer some comments on your article which expressed surprise at the current defensiveness of New Atheists because until recently secularism had seemed to be dominant.

My interpretation of your article: Atheism seems to be rising – or at least to be in the news – though there are only a few who record themselves as atheists in the census. The ideas put forward by New Atheists are not new – as they emerged with the 18th century Enlightenment, were popular in the 19th century and from 1960s to 1990s they were the basis of dominant secular world understanding. Religion was expected to decline / disappear in in favour of secularism in the face of modernisation. Atheists had only to wait for the unstoppable process of reason to prevail. New Atheism is part of revitalization of religion in 21st century. Conservative religious voices have re-emerged in public domain. In Western universities, the world seemed to increasingly secular, and getting on nicely without God. Religion now has more news coverage. Old religious hegemonies faced demands for recognition from groups too small to be of electoral significance. Conservative Christian groups became influential in US politics. Secular and liberal views of society were under attack. The world has become a much more religious place. Secularists want religion to be kept private – but this became impossible as religious diversity eroded civil harmony and threatened world peace. Religion’s decline has led to smaller religious services in Western societies, but not elsewhere. Atheists thus found that they needed to defend their views – which they were not accustomed to. New Atheists have become fanatical because they face conflict (in which one group seeks to eliminate the other) rather than competition state recognition, popular support and policy influence. Under fair competition New Atheists would have gained state funding for their Melbourne conference. New Atheists wanted to offer secular ethics education in time allocated for religious education in Victoria – but this also was refused. New Atheists face attempts to eliminate them. The threat to survival results in defensiveness and violent self-defence. As an inclusive society Victoria needs to accommodate the New Atheists so that no one feels threatened and people can get on with working out the implications of their (non) faiths.

As I understand it, ‘secular’ traditionally refers to those aspects of human affairs other than religion. Thus Atheism (no matter whether it rejects God, or religion generally) can’t be seen to be ‘secular’ viewpoint, because it primarily involves a religious claim. Moreover, though Atheism has been said to not be a religion on the grounds that it makes no claims, an exchange of views with the President of the Atheists Foundation of Australia showed that Atheism is not characterised by an absence of claims (eg it was claimed that that theists should be able to prove God’s existence using scientific methods).

While this may be seen as simply a matter of semantics, it is significant because Atheism is often claimed to represent a ‘secular’ viewpoint – and thus is implied to be the appropriate default position for secular aspects of human affairs. Such a claim, from what is simply a particular religious viewpoint, is unjustified. Atheists’ claims are ‘about’, rather than ‘above’, belief.

A number of thoughts on other points raised in your article are:

I would be interested in your response to my speculations.

John Craig

Addendum H: Some Reactions to Richard Dawkins' Religious Beliefs
Some Reactions to Richard Dawkins' Religious Beliefs

Outline of Dawkin's Apparent Beliefs

The Wikipedia outline of The God Delusion suggests that Richard Dawkins core beliefs on religion are that:

  • Atheists can be happy, balanced, moral, and intellectually fulfilled.;
  • Natural selection and like scientific theories are superior to a "God hypothesis" (the illusion of intelligent design) in explaining the living world and the cosmos;
  • Children should not be labelled by their parents' religion;
  • Atheists should be proud, not apologetic, because Atheism is evidence of a healthy, independent mind.

That source also outlines other aspects of Dawkins' religious beliefs such as:

  • a personal God (who created the universe, is interested in human affairs and should be worshipped) would have effects in the physical universe which can be tested / falsified;
  • evolution by natural selection can explain apparent design in nature. The designer hypothesis raises the larger problem of who designed the designer. In explaining the improbable it is of no use to postulate something even more improbable;
  • while God's existence can't be absolutely disproved, Occam's razor is a general philosophical principle that favours simpler explanations;
  • religions are accidental / dysfunctional by-products of the human mind;
  • natural selection explains moral behaviour. Moreover human morality continually evolves in society - progressing towards liberalism - and this influences how  religious leaders interpret holy writings. Thus morality does not originate from the Bible, but rather our moral progress informs what parts of the Bible Christians accept;
  • religions subvert science, foster fanaticism, and encourage bigotry against homosexuals;
  • religious teaching of children by parents is a form of mental abuse;
  • the needs that people have for religions could be much better filled by philosophy and science.

CPDS Reactions

However Dawkins' beliefs seem somewhat simplistic. For example:

  • Dawkins believes that the existence of God should be able to be tested by scientific methods, whereas (for reasons outlined above) there are obvious limits to what science can achieve, just as there are obvious limits to human rationality even beyond those attributable to complexity (ie both science and rationality are useful in facilitating partial understanding of the existing state of the universe, but can't in themselves show how it got that way or how it is likely to change in the future). He believes that natural selection demolishes the argument from design, without apparently recognising that the natural laws that are the goal of science: (a) do not predict loss or gain of information over time; and (b) are thus incompatible with any purely internal process of creation within the material universe. Those laws imply that the emergence of statistical improbability within a universe governed only by deterministic laws is impossible. Thus looking for something beyond those laws is sensible (rather than unwise, as Dawkins implies on the grounds that doing so would merely seek explanations that are even more improbable);
  • Dawkins relies on Occam’s Razor to claim that simpler rather than more complex explanations should be preferred. However Occam’s Razor is unreliable. A simple example demonstrates its limitations.  Economic events during any given period are often found to be outcome of a ‘factor x’ which was not anticipated but emerged unexpectedly and apparently from no-where to have the dominant influence. Occam’s Razor favours explanations that: (a) arise within a given system (rather than those from outside); (b) involve simple cause-effect relationships (ie reductionist rather than systemic effects related to complex feedback relationships); and (c) are based on the known (rather than the unknown). There are various logical fallacies that have been recognised in traditional scientific methods (eg the principle of induction which suggested that general laws could be deduced from limited numbers of observations). Occam’s Razor suffers similar limitations in the sphere of philosophy, ie both it and induction can be used to develop hypotheses, but they are inadequate in proving anything. Other examples illustrating this limitation include:
    • Governments frequently adopt policies because of the assumption that, if they do x then the result will be y, only to find that the result is negative-y (ie a counter-intuitive response) because unknown / new feedback relationships are not considered;
    • Almost all economic analysts sought explanations of the global financial crisis in terms of possible cause-effect relationships that they knew about – and failed to come to grips with those that they didn’t have the background needed to understand (eg see Financial Market Instability: A Many Sided Story).
  • Dawkins believes that a trend towards liberalism is part of the general process of moral evolution in society. However liberalism (with its many political and economic advantages) has only emerged in societies with a Judeo-Christian heritage and is a direct consequence of that heritage (eg see Cultural Foundation of Western Strength). Unless individual responsibility to God’s moral wisdom and authority is accepted, human elites seem inevitably to claim such wisdom and authority and institutions based on individual liberty (which permit rationality to become a reasonably effective means for problem solving) can’t be created (and have not been created). Moreover the reduced willingness in Western communities to accept God's moral wisdom and authority (as a result of unrestrained emphasis on 'rights' and 'liberty' in recent decades) is leading to both: (a) serious social dysfunctions - which reflect anything but moral 'progress'; and (b) claims to moral wisdom and authority by political elites in an attempt to find solutions that are likely to have the unintended consequence of undermining liberal institutions (and their practical advantages) - see Erosion of the Moral Foundations of Liberal Institutions;
  • non-Atheistic religions are criticised by Dawkins on the basis of his belief that they:
    •  subvert science, whereas: (a) as noted above, there are very real and intrinsic limits to what can be known through science; and (b) progress in the development of science in the early years of the Renaissance was often led by scientists who were also Christians - because of the view that a universe created by an orderly / lawful God would itself be lawful;.
    • encourage bigotry against homosexuals. The problem with this is that the public acceptance of homosexual behaviour seems morally indefensible - for reasons that have simply not been considered in public debates as yet (see Does Popularity Always Ensure Wise Policy?).

Other Reactions

Another observer's reactions to Dawkin's beliefs are presented in The Dawkins Delusion? According to the Wikipedia article this suggested: (a) Dawkins objects dogmatically to 'religious fundamentalism' (which he sees as refusing to allow its ideas to be challenged); (b) Dawkins asserts that faith is a juvenile delusion, though many reasonable adults convert; (c) the ability of science to explain itself needs explanation - and Christianity's monotheistic God is the best way to account for its explanatory capacity; (d) science and religion are not incompatible, as these involve partially overlapping spheres of existence; (e) many scientists are also theists; (f) Dawkins' lack of psychology training limits his ability to properly examine important aspects of faith; (f) no one believes in the god that Dawkins criticises; (g) there is a need for critique of religion - and Dawkins seems unaware of internal processes for achieving this; and (h) Dawkins seems unaware of the symbolism of some Biblical passages he quotes. 

I: Atheists in 'Church'

Atheists in 'Church' - email sent 1/11/12

Jane Caro
University of Western Sydney

Re: An atheist in church: in propaganda, you can’t beat God, Crikey, 31/10/12

Though there is no doubt that God’s propaganda is hard to beat (eg see Luke 16:31), I found something strange about the introduction to your article:

“I am — at the very least — a third generation atheist. Religion to me is a foreign country. “

Based on an examination of the proceedings of the 2010 Global Atheist Convention and subsequent interchanges with leading Atheists, I had formed the impression that Atheism is a religion (see Celebrating a New Evangelical 'Religion': Atheism). If so, then religion can hardly be a ‘foreign country’ to a professed Atheist.

While the Wikipedia article on ‘religion’ offers various definitions, one suggests that “The word religion is sometimes used interchangeably with faith or belief system” (particularly one that has a social dimension). The 2010 Global Atheist’s Convention (which I understand that you attended) was reportedly convened with the goal of establishing a community committed to ‘science, reason and critical thinking’ (ie to establishing a group with a shared faith / belief system). Thus (if a shared faith / belief system is an appropriate definition of religion) such Conventions must reasonably be regarded as religious gatherings (ie ‘church’) for Atheists. Those at the 2010 Convention was actually described as a 'congregation' in a report on the event. And a subsequent interchange with the president of the Atheists Foundation of Australia revealed various dogmas that seemed to contradict his assertion that Atheism was not a religion because it did not have any dogmas.

Personally I suspect that Paul had the right idea when he suggested (in 1 Corinthians 1: 18-25) that we need to be modest in making claims about the extent and reliability of human knowledge. And placing total faith in human knowledge (and thus not even considering God’s propaganda) is a risk that I would not be prepared to take.

John Craig

Interchange with an Anonymous Atheist (AAA)

The above email generated a response from an anomous Atheist (AAA) which led to the interchange recorded below (stripped of details that might point to AAA's identity). This seemed to the present writer to illustrate the difficulty of encouraging Atheists generally to consider that their shared faith / belief system (ie religion) might be resting on shaky ground.

From: AAA (31 October 2012 10:37 PM) 

I wonder which bit of the point being made here: 'not collecting stamps is not a hobby' John Craig doesn't get - ?

From John Craig (31 Oct 2012, at 12:52)

But if one has a philosophical objection to stamp collecting, and collects reasons why stamp collecting is bad, then one still has a hobby. And there is no doubt from what I have been exposed to that Atheists have strong alternative beliefs (eg in science, reason and critical thinking) that are anything but unchallengeable.

From: AAA (31 October 2012 10:59 PM

As Russell pointed out, it is the reasons one holds one's beliefs that really count. Efforts to find reasons to defend the beliefs of superstitious & illiterate goatherds who lived 2500+ years ago - and to share them with those who will kill anyone unprepared to share them likewise - is several kinds of ... choose your own expression if moral & intellectual distaste.

From John Craig (31 Oct 2012, at 13:59)

Sorry – I got lost half way through that, so I’ll just take up the first point about the quality of reasoning.

I certainly agree with the notion of favouring sound reasons – but, as suggested in Celebrating a New Evangelical 'Religion': Atheism, the case for Atheism is by no means clear cut.

Also I have to point out that there is more to life than reason, because (wearing another hat) I am currently involved in debates about:

From: AAA (Thursday, 1 November 2012 12:13 AM 

I get lost right at the beginning of the process of finding support for antecedent convictions!

From John Craig (31 Oct 2012, at 20:49)

Human knowledge accumulates and increases by building on the past. Antecedent convictions are not necessarily false. For example Einstein could see gravity in terms of the curvature of space-time, and this made Newton’s concept of a gravitational force seem simplistic. But Newton’s ‘law’ of gravity is approximately correct and thus useful for most practical purposes.

From: AAA (Thursday, 1 November 2012 9:14 AM

And your Newton is...a first-century Palestinian fisherman? Come off it Craig, you are an apologist for an outworn creed, and the forced analogies & jesuiteries don't wash.

From John Craig (31 Oct 2012, at 23:20)

When I want to school (long ago) I studied logic. We were taught about fallacies. And one of the first (and indeed the most trivial of) fallacies was trying to prove a point by making insulting remarks about others. I would have expected a less unsophisticated argument.

From AAA (31 Oct 2012, at 23:25)

No: just a straightforward comment, the sting of which I know you feel. How could you not, so loyally defending the list cause? But a tu quoque is in order: you have in this exchange evaded two key points (another fallacy, amusingly described by Schopenhauer in his treatise on the tricks if rhetoric) in the interest of the cause.

From  John Craig (1 Nov 2012, at 05:21)

To take these various points in order:

  • The ‘lost’ cause is one that is booming in the emerging world in a way that is quite unlike Christianity in the modern West – and apparently more like that in the first century Mediterranean world (eg see 2002 article). It has grown at a massive rate in China (now 10% of the population, and projected to be 30% by 2030). In Indonesia (the world’s largest Muslim country) there was a recent Christian rally in Jakarta that attracted 100,000 people (and had a 3m TV audience). Indonesia’s government is now reportedly considering banning the teaching of English and science in primary schools and instead focusing students on religious studies and nationalism (which has to be a way of reinforcing Islam at the cost of Indonesia’s modernisation). Rallies in Africa sometimes attract literally millions, and Christianity is apparently viewed as a way to control the spiritualism that creates massive problems. My (African) nephew-in-law is becoming very interested in what is needed for Africa to progress – and himself raised the consequences of spiritualism and Islam as key concerns. He and his brother in Canada are moving towards writing a paper about this. Korea has acquired a strong Christian missionary culture. I have met Indian radio evangelists with an audience of millions. Methods have been found to communicate effectively into the Middle East (mainly by indigenous Christians and significant gains are being made for the first time in history – and generating violent Islamist reactions). China’s house church movement reportedly established a plan to evangelise the Islamic world from its Western border to the Middle East (with 100,000 volunteers). There are missionaries from India now in Australia, and from Africa in the UK;
  • I apologise for not mentioning the ‘two key points’ that you raised (presumably “Efforts to find reasons to defend the beliefs of superstitious & illiterate goatherds who lived 2500+ years ago - and to share them with those who will kill anyone unprepared to share them likewise - is several kinds of ... choose your own expression if moral & intellectual distaste). I did not do so because they (like “And your Newton is...a first-century Palestinian fisherman? Come off it Craig, you are an apologist for an outworn creed, and the forced analogies & jesuiteries don't wash.”) seemed to me to simply involve trying to make a case on the basis of insults (ie of ancient goatherds as necessarily ignorant / superstitious and of apologists as necessarily violent). As I thought that it would be impolite to point this out, I tried to stick with substantive issues. Once again my apologies;
  • And I note that you have not actually commented on the substantive issues that were mentioned in my initial email or in my comments of 31 Oct 2012, at 13:59 (see above

Thanks for making the nature and depth of your method of dealing with this issue so clear. I will not in future respond to anything but comments on substantive issues.

From: AAA (1 November 2012 6:11 PM) 

It does the intellectual case for religion little good to point with glee to its spread among the poor, uneducated and oppressed - shades of Christianity's early history indeed: the benighted seeking an alternative benightedness, since it is all they know. One thinks of the point made about Bernie Madoff: his big mistake was 'to promise returns in THIS life' - unlike that more canny deception, religion. Your Africans will shake it off when they have better things to fill life with. - You draw yourself up to your full height in righteous indignation over what you find 'insulting' &c, failing to appreciate the depth of the insult to common sense and rationality that religious apologetics consists in. Note this choice if words: one can commiserate with the ordinary religious person, inducted in childhood into beliefs and not infrequently fears, a prison-house of the mind and heart, by trusted adults; but I cannot have sympathy or (more to the point) respect for those such as yourself who embellish the scheme with the arguments and putative evidences you offer - such as the growth of the African church, forsooth! as if that were a support for your case that religion is not a lost cause - for it is where education and progress occur that these fantasies are being shed at last. - No, do not hide behind a seeming-dignified protest about insult in offering insult in return: complaining about being insulted or offended is the excuse too many use for murder. Those two points: religion-inspired terrorism, inter/sectarian violence, the bloody history of the church enforcing orthodoxy: you refuse to respond on these highly germane points about the fruits by which we shall know religion. Your multiplying millions in Africa: what massacres will this prompt? Let us, in sorrow & trepidation, see. And the second point: how typical of an apologist to see a simple statement of fact about the originators of your faith as offensive. They were illiterate ignorant herdsmen, the early Jews; do you deny this? do you think they were deep scholars, and knew the tropes of logic and the methods of science as you do? I thought your faith rejoiced in the 'simplicity' of those to whom the deity sent its messages. That claim is a jesuitry of the first water in itself. Paul was quite a sophist, of course, but until the great epoch of providing Christianity with an infusion of Greek philosophy - some centuries on in Patristic hands - we do not find such weavers of words again. You personally are not the kind of person to whom your deity liked to reveal himself - and if you find yourself prompting impatience and disrespect among interlocutors it might well be a reflection of the standing that 'politicians for superstition' deserve.

- This is a dialogue of the deaf: let us leave it here.

From: John Craig (5 November 2012, 1:42)

At last some substance – even though still a dialogue of the deaf (a problem that Jesus appeared to make periodic reference to, eg see Matthew 11:15).

The intellectual case for ‘religion’ is not based on its spread amongst the poor etc (eg in Africa). Those comments arose merely from your assertion that Christianity was a ‘lost cause’. However it is my understanding that Uganda is doing rather well economically (becoming something of an African ‘tiger’) and that Christian adherence (which has broken the back of tribalism, one of Africa’s curses) has been a significant factor.

[By coincidence I was subsequently speaking with a friend who recently visited Uganda who observed that there is still a spirit of oppression and inequality in that country, but that tribalism is now much less of a problem than has been normal in Africa. The way in which Christian influence could contribute to this, by introducing a universalist approach to human relationships was implicit in Jesus’ parable of the good Samaritan (eg Luke 10:25-37) which apparently started to have a practical effect in the first century similar to that in Uganda recently (eg see Ephesians 2:11-3:7)]

Suggesting that rationality is being insulted by apologetics is not a very solid argument when:

  • rationality (ie the notion that abstract concepts adequately model reality) is:
    • limited - a fact which is central to all the major social sciences (eg to economists’ case for a market economy); and
    • being challenged by the rise of East Asian societies that do not rely on rationality in the way Western societies have come to do (eg see Competing Thought Cultures);
  • it has been the widespread adherence to Christianity in Western societies that: (a) permitted the emergence of individual liberty; and (b) thus allowed the creation of the simplified social environments in which rationality can be a reasonably effective means for practical problem solving (eg see Cultural Foundations of Western Strengths). Because rationality fails in dealing with complex systems, it has not seemed to be equally useful to those in non-Western societies.

I thus respectfully suggest that Atheists need to give some serious attention to their assumptions about rationality. Moreover similar attention needs to be given to science.

An aside: There is arguably a need to give serious attention to assumptions about science (Atheism’s other main intellectual foundation). Science assumes that the future state of a system can be predicted from knowledge of is initial state and fixed deterministic laws / causal relationships. This has limitations that are most obvious in relation to the way in which it is possible to ‘create’ new causal relationships in social systems. For example, economics tries to be a ‘real science’ like physics and to find models of economic systems that can be used for predicting outcomes – but fails because (in trying to be a ‘real science’) it does not get to grips with information-driven changes in causal relationships – see Probable Breakthrough in Understanding Economic Development. The same seems certain to apply to biological and ecological systems. Science’s fixed time-reversible causal relationships are incompatible with changes in the information state of living systems and thus inadequate on their own in explaining change / development / evolution in such systems (see Problems in an Internally Deterministic Scientific Worldview). The latter suggests that for any system (including presumably the universe as a whole) the environment is always involved in internal change / development / evolution – and that while science’s laws can explain part of this, they are not sufficient in themselves. Quantum mechanics is the only area in which science introduces uncertainty. However: (a) this implies a lack of precise information, but does not explain how the information / neg-entropy content of a system increases or decreases; and (b) highlights the wave-particle duality of elementary ‘particles’ which raises the possibility that they could be the product of a process of creation / evolution / development which is like (but not the same as) that which applies to social / biological / ecological systems.

If Atheists then find themselves confronted with recognition that these limitations in science imply that there has to be something ‘out there’ which can influence the process of creation / evolution / development, they will need to start considering which of the alternative versions of what that ‘something’ might be are most plausible.

Issues such as what you call “religion-inspired terrorism, inter/sectarian violence, the bloody history of the church enforcing orthodoxy” are somewhat more complex than your comments suggest. For example:

  • while Christians have been involved in many conflicts in recent centuries, their religion has not been the motivation for those conflicts (see comments in A Somewhat Holey View of Religion?). 'Religion' can only be held to be responsible for violence where a religion is adopted as the ideological basis for seeking political power – and this has not applied in most Western societies for hundreds of years because there has been a reasonable degree of separation between the church and state;
  • Jesus’ teachings had nothing to do with any alignment with the state, or any expectation that states would do anything in particular (eg see Church's mission). Thus the alignment between the state and Christianity, which in the past generated conflicts linked to religion, can’t be rationalised on the basis of the Christian gospel. For example, the Inquisition in the middle ages (I understand) resulted from the fact that loyalty to the monarch at the time was judged in terms of an individual’s religious alignment – so the Inquisition was a product of the adoption of a religious basis for the state, rather than of the Christian gospel;
  • Over the last century 'religion' had little to do with the world’s major conflicts (eg the world wars) and the great tyrannies (eg of Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot) that had the really big body-counts. Political extremists (ie those who believed that they have a great 'mission' which justifies extreme measures) have played a role in these events - but 'religions' were not significant factors in any of those 'missions'. The only role that a 'religion' seemed to play in major 20th century conflicts was that which Shinto (a non-theistic religion) played in Japan in WWII;
  • Recent clashes between Western societies and Islamist extremists can't validly be said to be based on 'religion' on either side (see God on My Side: A Conspiracy Theory?). Islamist extremists appear: (a) to be outsiders to traditional Islam (whose ideology tends to have been developed after a study of natural science in Western universities, without exposure to the social sciences); and (b) to be pursuing a primarily political agenda rather than one that is religious (see Discouraging Pointless Extremism). And George Bush’s perceived ‘crusade’ in response (ie the invasion of Iraq) was apparently about liberating Iraqis from tyranny and introducing democratic capitalism in the hope that this would bring peace, prosperity and stability to the Middle East. It was undoubtedly misguided (see Fatal Flaws). A cultural environment in which ‘peace, prosperity and stability’ could be brought to that region arguably first requires a different sort of crusade for reasons suggested in Saving Muslims from Themselves.

The question about who originated my faith is, of course, the real question – and begging the question by asserting that Jewish goat-herders did so is not an acceptable answer.

There is no doubt that revelation (if that is what it is) has come most readily to those who are not steeped in human logic / science / wisdom – and the Bible had a lot to say about this. For example:

  • Genesis (which was apparently assembled from the traditions of your ‘goat-herders’ by a man, Moses, who had been steeped in the knowledge available to ancient Egypt) described early humanity as having (to over-simplify) ‘walked with God in the garden’ and having ceased to do so when some ‘ate the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil’, and subsequently were expelled from the ‘garden’ and had to work to support themselves. The latter seems to be a reference to the development of human cultures presumably prior to, or accompanying, the agrarian revolution. Interestingly, drawing on those same ‘goat herders’, Genesis also;
    • said that there had been a creation event – a possibility that did not occur to mainstream science until the expansion of the universe was revealed in the 20th century and implied a ‘big bang’;
    • got the order in which things were created / evolved / developed more-or-less right according to current scientific views – which was not bad for ‘goat-herders’ living in tents in the desert;
  • Job (a morality play) centred on the limitations of human knowledge (see Chapters 38 on);
  • Ecclesiastes (attributed to the philosophy king Solomon) was all about the limitations of human knowledge, while the wisdom literature (ie Proverbs) attributed to his father, David, was all about fear of the Lord being the beginning of wisdom;
  • Jesus referred to the need to ‘come as a little child’ (eg Mark 10:14). He also rubbished the ‘commandments’ of men (eg Mark 7:6-9) and advocated / facilitated the development of a relationship with God as an alternative to reliance on human interpretations of religious law;
  • Paul (a highly educated intellectual in his day) argued the inadequacies of the wisdom of men (eg in 1 Corinthians 1: 18-25).

Human knowledge / science / wisdom face massive limitations, for reasons suggested above. Given those limitations and the fact that science’s limitations imply that there is something ‘out there’, I also suggest that those who rely on their own knowledge / science / wisdom are foolish in turning a deaf ear to a different (and more profound) phenomenon.

Sorry about the length of this response and the delay in producing it.

From: AAA (5 November 2012 4:37 PM )

The religious interpretation of life has the double charm of flattering the vanity while soothing the fears of human beings for whom the subjugation of intelligence to a faith - any faith that happens to be that of one's parents or community - is a far easier option than examining the world and thinking for oneself. One simply accepts, without causing trouble to logic or evidence, the old tales. Religion flatters vanity by making one feel the centre of attention on the part of a cosmic celebrity; it soothes fears by averting attention from life's brevity and the facts of suffering and death. But for some - the zealots who go to war for their faith, in one or another form that going to war for faith (= jihad?) offers: the jihad of John Craig, for example, which involves endlessly and tiresomely trying to persuade the rest of humanity to believe along with him and the goatherds of yore - it is much more than a matter of having something to do. There is something obsessive about it, something of the character of a cracked record, stuck and going round and round. Now I will grant that some others of us, from a depth of sympathy with humankind that makes us wish to liberate it from ideology and blinding falsehoods because of what these do to individuals and society, also sometimes take on a cracked-record character, finding it necessary to argue in defence of humanity against these obsessives. We have other and far better things to do: if my own modest example is anything to go by .... omitted..... Real things in the real world, making a difference to real people with real concerns - and occasionally taking arms against the absurd obsessions with the imaginary to which absurd people would be fully entitled if their absurdities did not so cruelly affect the lives of others. The cruelty ranges from seducing people into living a lie to suffering psychological torments over 'sins' like masturbation to... all the way to murdering others en masse. You say nothing about the ugly realities of religion, a cancer on human history; nothing about freedom of thought and the necessity for humankind to throw away the crutches of its ignorant childhood and to live with responsibility.

Please stop wasting my time now: I perceive that it is a kind of need for you to provoke responses to your obsession with your beliefs, so - if you must - please send your snake-oil sales pitch to someone with more time on his or her hands.

From: John Craig  ( 5 November 2012, 8:54)

I have had decades of practical experience of the limitations on human knowledge (eg involving: strategic public policy R&D; central government coordination of diverse knowledge domains; study of government and economic systems, and of the different approaches to knowledge in Western and East Asian societies). Your response indicates that you are pestering a lot of people with your soothing beliefs (eg in the power of human logic), and are not willing to contemplate the limitations of those beliefs or the real-world implications (such as those mentioned in my email). That is the essence of a religious fundamentalist. I had hoped for better.

From: AAA (5 November 2012 8:48 PM)

So you don't like religious fundamentalists? That makes two of us. - From anyone who has learned to read I, too, expect better than a clinging to superstition.
Now please do stop bothering me!

From: John Craig (6 November 2012 6:51 PM)

I did not say that I disliked anyone – merely that you seem to be exhibiting the characteristics of a religious fundamentalist.

You criticised the religious interpretation of life as involving “the subjugation of intelligence to a faith - any faith that happens to be that of one's parents or community - is a far easier option than examining the world and thinking for oneself. One simply accepts, without causing trouble to logic or evidence, the old tales.” Unfortunately, that is precisely what I have observed you doing.

I provided references to admittedly-complex issues that are as modern as tomorrow and currently of real-world significance (eg in relation to the rise and fall of civilizations and to the world’s ongoing financial / economic instabilities; and potentially the basis of a major breakthrough in the philosophy of science). Those suggestions were not derived from ‘the goatherds of yore’, though: (a) they are turned out to be compatible with Christian teachings; and (b) challenge the belief systems that appear to me to underpin Atheism. Though the issues are complex, an impression of what is involved in the domain of the social sciences might be gained by recognising that the core precept of Daoism (China’s traditional non-theistic religion) is that ‘the Dao (way / truth) that can be named in not the true Dao’ – which is simply a statement of the lack of faith that societies with an ancient Chinese cultural heritage have in the rationality / reason that is the basis of Western societies social, political and economic organisation. And that precept is apparently: (a) the foundation of the economic ‘miracles’ that have been able to be achieved in East Asia to potentially upset the global order (which are real ‘miracles’ in the sense that they were not the result of the initial state of those economies or of the causal relationships they initially embodied); and (b) a major factor in the global financial crisis – once again for complex reasons. And the issues this raises for the social sciences have parallels in the life and physical sciences.

Your response was not to examine the world and think for yourself in relation to hypotheses that I suggested could challenge the core of Atheists’ belief systems (ie religion), but rather to:

  • accept, without causing trouble to logic or evidence, the old tales about the power of reason and science; and
  • dismiss anything that was put forward on the basis of apparent religious prejudice (eg suggesting, obviously without looking at it, that what I was suggesting was like a ‘cracked record going round and round’).

To me what you have been doing has unfortunately looked very much like religious fundamentalism.

From: AAA (6 November 2012 7:32 PM)

If there were prizes for persistence, you would win them all: you and the rest of the Goatherd Tendency. One more response, and then your email address is going into Spam because - as indicated in my two last - I should greatly like to keep my inbox clear for more worthwhile things.

First let me remind you that if you are have good grounds for rejecting the fundamental premises of astrology, you are not impressed by efforts to show how astrology is consistent with astronomy ('look! we talk about the same stars!') or the differences between sidereal and Indian and Chinese astrological systems: they are all bunkum because the foundation is bunkum: and so with anything that is an effort - ultra-sophistical as in your case; blind ignorant acceptance as in the case of Tolstoy's peasants - to make the ancient superstitions scrub up in modern dress, as you devote your time to doing.

Surely, if you are right and the rest of us wrong, you will play a harp for eternity and the rest of us will fry: rest content with that happy thought and stop pestering those who, more or less politely, ask you to stop pestering them.

You write:

'that you seem to be exhibiting the characteristics of a religious fundamentalist.'

As mentioned, we are at one here: we feel contempt for religious fundamentalism: it has escaped your notice that the pea under the piled mattresses of your sophistical apologetics for religion is - the fundamental thing: superstitious belief in supernaturalistic agency.

You write:

'You criticised the religious interpretation of life as involving “the subjugation of intelligence to a faith - any faith that happens to be that of one's parents or community - is a far easier option than examining the world and thinking for oneself. One simply accepts, without causing trouble to logic or evidence, the old tales.” Unfortunately, that is precisely what I have observed you doing.'

Now, this shows that you really don't get it. A little elementary instruction in the methods of the natural sciences - the self-critical, self-correcting, publicly testable, repeatable endeavour , the scrutinised results of experiment - would do you good. Centuries have failed to produce one testable claim of a religious nature (for the highly convenient reason that your god will not be tested, right?)

Even more so does your writing this show you don't get it:

'accept, without causing trouble to logic or evidence, the old tales about the power of reason and science'

The old tales, eh! Er...do the laptops on which we have been communicating at the speed of light half way round the planet result from - prayer? 'Old tales about the power of reason and science - '? You must of course be joking. For if not, this is arrant dishonesty on your part.

And to recur to my astrology point, you also write:

dismiss anything that was put forward on the basis of apparent religious prejudice (eg suggesting, obviously without looking at it, that what I was suggesting was like a ‘cracked record going round and round’).

I can do no other - but to iterate the point.

Therefore: to Spam with you.

From: John Craig (6 November 2012 9:09 PM)

Thanks – I think that you made my point rather well.

J: 'Evangelical' Atheism

'Evangelical' Atheism - email sent 17/12/12

Billy Hallowell
The Blaze

Re: Atheists Post Anti-Christmas Billboard in Times Square, Featuring Jesus Being Crucified: ‘Dump the Myth!’, The Blaze, December 11, 2012

My attention was drawn to your article as evidence of increasing ‘evangelism’ of some Atheists. This seems to be a global phenomenon (see Celebrating a New Evangelical 'Religion': Atheism). One must wonder if those involved have really thought rationally about the issues involved.

John Craig

Interchange with Mark Boyd

Response from Mark Boyd (18/12/12

Mr. Craig,

First, I wonder why you are wring to me personally, since I'm not the author of this article. I'm merely a non-believer living in Fresno California. It is true that I am the current president of a local atheist organization, but other than that I'm not noteworthy.

I will, however, turn your last sentence around. Have you given any thought to these issues?

Shall I address the bulleted points that you have made in the link you provided?

  1. "Atheism" is defined by many to be an "absence of belief", and by some to be an active disbelief in a deity. These points are not necessarily mutually exclusive, and often depend on the deity being described. For example, I lack a belief in deities because I see no evidence for any deities. In the case of the God of the Bible,as popularly defined and described by Christians, I do deny its existence for many reasons. The Euthyphro dilemma is an excellent example of one of those reasons. Also, atheism is insufficient as a single label for many non-believers. I also consider myself Ignostic and Agnostic. Note that none of these labels exclude any other.
  2. You are quite correct that critical thinking and reason (and logic) are not infallible. The scientific method takes this into consideration, and attempts to correct for it. Of course science is applied by fallible humans, so it may take a while for truth to be shaken out of the morass of human thinking. I will point out that a well-reasoned, logical explanation can be simple, internally consistent, easy to understand, and completely wrong. The best logical reasoning can be overturned by evidence. Evidence is the "holy grail" (so to speak) of the scientific method, and hypothesis without evidence remain hypothesis, never to advance to being a theory. Christianity, for example, is merely a hypothesis due to it's lack of evidence.
  3. The belief that Richard Dawkins is some sort of atheistic "high priest" is often preached by the religious in an attempt to equate atheism with religion. First, any reading online will show that atheists are divided in opinion about Dawkins, and that none praise him as infallible - quite the contrary! Second, I am frequently bemused by religious people who use religion as a sort of "insult" when applied toward atheists. Do the religious hold religion in such low regard that they must use the word "religion" to attack their opponents? I see this as a sort of religious "crab mentality".
  4. Atheism is not a "matter of faith". Screaming that atheists have "faith" is a sign that no serious thought has been given to this subject. Atheism is not a philosophy.
  5. Richard Dawkins has a "strange resistance" of debating anyone. This is because, (a) he's not very good at debate. (b) Debate is not the same as science. The person who 'wins' a debate hasn't proven that something is true or false, they have merely won over the audience with their reasoning, which may be specious. And (c) Dr. Dawkins has been burned in the past by religious people who have interviewed him under false pretenses, then taken his words out of context and twisted them to mean the opposite of what he has said. I'm sure that you are as shocked as am I that religious paragons of Christianity would lie about Dr. Dawkins!

Thank you for your entertaining letter Mr. Craig. I do hope you have the inclination to give more thought to this issue, instead of attempting to reinforce that which you already believe.

Mark Boyd

Also posted to my blog, www.calladus.com

Reply to Mark Boyd - 18/12/12

I wrote to a number of Atheist organisations in the US in the hope of generating reasoned responses – because complexities in what Atheists believe in do not seem to be recognised. By way of example, consider the issues raised by one Atheist’s apparently-obvious response that “trying to get people to think rationally is good’.

Complexities Raised: this is a critically important question. Certainly getting people to think rationally is good – but only up to a point. The issue is far more complex than that because:

  • There are limits to rationality that are recognised in the social sciences - How solid are 'science, reason and critical thinking'?;
  • Despite this rationality has been the basis of political and economic success by Western societies for centuries because simplified social spaces were created in which the limits to rationality were not critically important (see Cultural Foundations of Western Strength). However it was possible to create those simplified social spaces (eg via a rule of law, profit focused enterprise and democratic governance) because there was widespread Christian adherence within the community. The latter uniquely provided for ‘responsible individual liberty’ and thus eliminated the need (which exists under all other traditions) for communal / state coercion to ensure ethical behaviour, and this allowed the creation of institutions that presumed individual liberty. Liberal institutions are now under increasing threat because ‘responsible liberty’ is no longer certain (eg see Erosion of the Moral Foundations of Liberal Institutions) and because East Asian societies that operate on a quite different basis are increasingly influential (see What does an 'Asian Century' Imply).
  • East Asian societies with an ancient Chinese cultural heritage (rather than the West’s classical Greek heritage) use methods of problem solving that assume that rationality (ie the use of abstract concepts to model reality) does not work (eg see East Asia in Competing Civilizations, and Competing Thought Cultures). And that assumption is valid in societies that have not created the simplified social spaces (ie liberal institutions) that allowed rationality to be reasonably effective in the West. Moreover those methods have been successful – up to a point though they have been globally disruptive, and may prove unsustainable (eg see Are East Asian Economic Models Sustainable?);

In relation to your responses to my dot points:

  • Professed Atheists seem to express belief in many things (eg see Atheism's Claims). Science provides evidence that there is ‘something out there’ – because the laws of nature it seeks do not permit any gain or loss of information, and thus do not explain the reality we observe (ie that things change, new order emerges) – see Problems in an Internally Deterministic Scientific Worldview. While I am not fully across the Euthyphro dilemma, it seems to me that this merely reinforces the point made in Genesis 3 about the problems associated with human attempts to define moral / ethical truths (ie eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil). There is no doubt that there is no uniformity amongst Atheists about the details of their faith, any more than there is amongst any other group;
  • There are limits to evidence – because evidence is always backward looking and confined to what exists. It shows what happened before, and what exists now. It does not explain how things came to be or reveal anything about the process of ongoing change. Christianity has to be accepted on faith – because there never can be evidence of God (because of the limits on evidence, not because of the non-existence of God);
  • It is good to see cynicism about Dawkins. Some other comments about this are in Some Reactions to Richard Dawkins' Religious Beliefs. Describing Atheism as a ‘religion’ is presumably meant to highlight the fact that it is based on human beliefs that are not self-evidently true;
  • Atheists always claim that that they don’t have any philosophical claims – though this in itself is their most fundamental claim (and one that is easily invalidated as noted above).

Thanks for your considered response Mr Boyd. As you have added it to your blog, I presume that you will not object of I add your response to my web-site. I could delete your name (ie make the interchange anonymous) if you prefer.

John Craig

Do Atheists Evangelize 'Good News'

In response to receiving a copy of the above email, Dr David Eller (of Atheists and Freethinkers of Denver and author of Natural Atheism) suggested on 19/12/12 that:

...... "evangelism" is a neutral term that means "good news" (having nothing specifically to do with religion), and since the non-existence of any god(s) is good news, I fail to see the problem. Precisely what "issues involved" are you troubled by?

Reply from John Craig - 19/12/12

The issues that Atheists need to consider are those outlined in Celebrating a New Evangelical 'Religion': Atheism – such as:

  • fundamental limitations in the intellectual foundations (eg rationality and science) that Atheism rests on; and
  • the fact that those intellectual foundations tend also to be the foundations of Western societies’ political and economic institutions – where there is also a pressing need for those limitations to be recognised (see also comments on complexities in Interchange with Mark Boyd).

Another minor point that you might consider is that evangelism does not mean ‘good news’. Rather it means providing information about a set of beliefs with a view to conversion. Gospel is the word for ‘good news’ that you may have been thinking of. Though evangelism is often equated with spreading the good news of the Gospel, it does not itself imply ‘good new’. And the ‘news’ that Atheism seeks to disseminate would certainly not good for anyone who values living in a liberal society (eg see Erosion of the Moral Foundations of Liberal Institutions ).

Response from David Eller: 22/12/12

First, you are incorrect: please look in a dictionary or on dictionary.com for "evangelism," which derives from the Greek "eu" for good and "angelion" for news/message. "Gospel" is an Old English word that means the same thing, neither having to do specifically with religion. Both "gospel" and "evangel" have been hijacked by Christianity, but neither was invented by or is owned by Christianity.

I don't really know what your main issue is. You appear to be anti-atheism, so I gather you are pro-theism, specifically pro-Christianity (there are lots of theisms out there, of course, not just Christian theism). Actually, your claim about liberal society is wrong too: theism has been disastrous for liberal society, in fact, there was no "liberal" society until Western society wrenched itself relatively free of theism. Theism in practice tends to be completely anti-liberal, since it asserts that it has the one truth (note the Inquisition). Please look at some 19th century theologians' opinions on "modernity" and "liberal society" which they despised. Indeed, "liberalism" (outside of political/economic liberalism) essentially MEANT freedom OF religion, which naturally led to freedom FROM religion. Atheism is nothing more than freedom from theism.

There are of course religions without god(s), which strictly speaking are a-theistic. They are not generally anti-theistic, they merely lack the theistic concept altogether. Atheism in the modern sense has come to mean "anti-theistic," but "natural atheism"--and future atheism, when the god-concept has been abandoned--would once again be a-theistic, simply without any such notion as "god(s)" at all. For now, atheism is argumentative, because it inhabits a god-soaked society, but then ancient Greece was soaked with Zeus, and look where he is now.

Finally, atheism is NOT a religion, any more than not-smoking is a bad habit. Not-smoking is the absence of a habit, and atheism is the absence of a particular type of religion (theism). And the idea of Dawkins as "high priest" of atheism is somewhere between a pained metaphor and pure absurdity. How can something that is not a religion have a priest at all?! And many, like me, don't particularly see Dawkins' thoughts on religion as all that insightful. So, while you are looking up the definition of "evangel," please look up the definition of "religion" too.

Reply from John Craig - 23/12/12

Sorry I am not an expert on Greek roots – and, for all I know, you may well be right that ‘good news’ was originally implied by ‘evangelism’. However this does not seem to be the sense in which it is now used according to the various dictionaries I can access. For example the Oxford Dictionary suggested that evangelism (in addition to its Christian interpretation) simply means ‘zealous advocacy or support for a particular cause’ (without implying that this is necessarily about promulgating ‘good news’). Dictionary.com (which you referenced) seems to have a similar view (ie one that is inconsistent with your original assertion evangelism means ‘good news’). Clearly meanings change over time. In any event this is only a question of semantics.

Regarding liberal societies, I would be interested in your suggestions about which societies have had liberal institutions that don’t depend on a strong Christian foundation. As far as I can see there aren’t any (see Constraints due to Cultural Traditions in Competing Civilizations). Social elites of various types seem always to define and enforce their interpretations of moral / ethical behaviour – and Western societies were only able to avoid this (and then only after the separation of church and state at the time of the renaissance / reformation), because it was taken as given that: (a) the morality of individual behaviour was to be ensured by individual consciences responsible to God; and (b) others had no right to challenge God in exercising moral judgement (see Cultural Foundations of Western Strength).

Certainly there was a long tradition of close church-state association within Christendom and this led to diverse abuses (such as the Inquisition whereby kings, who evaluated subjects’ loyalty in terms of adherence to particular religious ideas, used non-adherence as evidence of disloyalty). However such abuses arise where state power is exercised on the basis of any strong / fixed ideology. This is a point in favour of the separation of religion and state – not a black mark against (say) theism in particular.

Separation of the church and state (which conforms to Jesus’ teachings for reasons suggested in Church’s Mission) was vital before the creation of liberal institutions was possible – and this enabled secular states to be more effective in dealing with the issues they confront (again see Cultural Foundations of Western Strength). But widespread Christian adherence within the community has been the critical foundation on which liberal legal and government institutions rested. And as those foundations have been allowed to erode, serious social symptoms are emerging and: (a) prompting diverse ‘elites’ to proclaim themselves (rather than God) to be the source of moral authority; and (b) thus putting liberal state institutions (and the political and economic advantages that they have produced) at risk (see Erosion of the Moral Foundations of Liberal Institutions , which is written in an Australian context but seems to have parallels elsewhere).

There are also diverse definitions of ‘religion’. And Wikipedia’s version includes the notion that “The word religion is sometimes used interchangeably with faith or belief system” – and goes on to point to a difference of opinion about whether ‘private belief’ (ie faith / belief systems that do not have a social component) should be considered to be a religion.

Based on this idea of what ‘religion’ means, there is no doubt that Atheism is a ‘religion’ (faith / belief system) given that Atheism:

By the way I would greatly appreciate your permission to reproduce this latest interchange on my web-site (perhaps anonymously if you would prefer not to be identified). I have already taken the liberty of adding your earlier brief comment anonymously.

Response from David Eller - 25/12/12

I suppose it is only fair to allow my comments on your website. In fact, I appreciate that you asked rather than simply did it. That is very respectful of you.

One last comment on “evangelism,” which is of course an important word to Christians but not to atheists (or most other religions). I appreciate your willingness to learn about word meanings and origins, but there is no “may well be right” about it: “evangelism” MEANS “good news.” For Christians, the good news is Christ, so Christians have added THEIR meaning to THE meaning of the word. But there is no reason why “evangelism” must have any Christian or other religious associations. Beware of dictionaries: they tend to reproduce common social usage, rather than objective origins and meanings.

All of this business IS just semantics, but it is semantics that Christians seem to want to stir up: in objective practice, “evangelism” means spreading a message for the purpose of changing minds or, as you note, “supporting a cause.” Why else would someone spread a message, other than to change minds and advance a cause or position? Christians evangelize the Christian message (which is good news to them), atheists evangelize the message that there is no such thing as god(s) (which is good news to us), and toothpaste companies evangelize the message about their toothpaste (which is good news to them).

On the subject of “liberal societies,” my first reaction is to laugh a little, because as I noted before, throughout most of its history Christian societies have been anything BUT liberal. If “liberal” means encouraging individual freedom of thought and action, then traditional Christianity has been completely anti-liberal: it encourages no freedom, instead individuals are threatened with eternal punishment for disagreeing with official doctrine or (even minor) ritual practice—and often threatened with worldly punishment in the form of imprisonment, seizure of property, corporal punishment, and death. Another word origin for you: “heresy” derives from the Greek hairesis for “choice.” Christians were not supposed to make individual choices about belief. Please study your religious history: one of the errors that Christians make it to assume that the “liberalism” of today is inherent in their religion. It is not.

Take for example the statement in 1864 by the highest authority in Christianity, Pope Pius IX. In his “Syllabus of Errors” he condemned the following things: human reason (proposition 3), Protestantism (proposition 18), religious freedom (proposition 15), and “progress, liberalism, and modern civilization” (proposition 80). An honest study of the history of liberal society will show that liberalism has come to Western societies DESPITE Christianity, not because of it. Again, I beseech you to study the history of early modern Europe: the concept of “conscience” was utterly foreign to it and was introduced by Martin Luther so that he could break the grip of the Catholic Church; however, once he established his own church, he allowed no dissent, nor did Calvin or other “protestants.” That’s why we have so many Christian churches: because each wanted freedom FOR ITSELF but not for anyone else. A case in point: we like to think that America was founded on “religious freedom” but nothing could be further from the truth. As one of the early New England settlers, Samuel Willard, wrote in 1681: “I perceive they are mistaken in the design of our first Planters, whose business was not toleration; but were professed Enemies of it, and could leave the World professing they died not Libertines. Their business was to settle, and (as much as in them lay) secure Religion and Posterity, according to that way which they believed was of God.”

“Liberalism” was a long hard struggle of ESCAPING Christianity and establishing the right to challenge authority. That road leads through John Locke, David Hume, Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, and many others who had to argue strenuously that there was such a thing as “rights” and that “freedom of religion” was one of them. Please read Locke and Hume on religion.

On “separation of church and state,” that, as just discussed, is a very recent concept, and one that not all Christians accept even today. Insofar as Jesus (who probably never existed and was most assuredly not born on December 25) separated church and state, that was an expedient move, since he was powerless to do anything about the state. However, once the state embraced Christianity (in Constantine’s Rome), the trouble began and persisted until that relationship was weakened. As for the claim that Christianity is “the critical foundation on which liberal legal and government institutions rested,” that is just false, for the reasons explained above. Obviously, in societies where Christianity is dominant, the first emergence of liberalism and government institutions will necessarily reflect the Christian context, but law and institutions are hardly based on them. In fact, even in Christian Europe, most of the laws and political institutions were actually based on ancient Greek and Roman models, which predated Christianity. Athens was relatively “liberal” long before Christianity was invented, and other ancient and recent societies have found their own ways to their own versions of liberalism. Please read your history.

Religion. Here is a place where religionists and anti-religionists alike stumble. There are indeed many different definitions, but I think the one thing they have in common is some notion of other-than-human beings or powers. So, let’s tentatively define religion as “a system of ideas and behaviors relative to other-than-human beings or powers.” That definition avoids the thorny issue of “supernatural,” since not all religions in the world distinguish between “nature” and “supernature” in the way that Christian has come to do. (I am an anthropologist and author of Introducing Anthropology of Religion, so I can assure you that most religions are nothing like Christianity and that most have never even heard of the god-concept.) It is not a perfect definition, but it gets us started.

A religion is based on faith and is a belief system, but it is inaccurate to use the terms interchangeably. Not all belief systems are religions; there are belief systems about UFOs or pseudo-science that are not religions. Also, one can “believe in” and have “faith” in all kinds of things besides religious beings and powers: you can have faith in America or in your spouse or in democracy. In fact, we can identify three quite different uses of the term “faith,” which I think IS interchangeable with the term “belief.” First, there is belief/faith as “correctness,” that is, that some entity exists or some statement is true. Christians believe or have faith that Jesus was the son of their god. I can also believe that is Monday or that Mars has two moons. Second, there is belief/faith as “confidence,” that is, that something is dependable. For instance, I might have confidence that my wife will pick me up at the airport, or will not cheat on me; such confidence can be well-founded or not well-founded (like if she has cheated on me in the past). Christians, for example, have confidence that their god will be just and loving (even though that confidence does not seem well-founded). Third, there is belief/faith as “commitment,” that is, that you think something is good and you intend to uphold it. For instance, you might believe in love or in the American Constitution. Clearly, there is no dispute about whether the Constitution exists; rather, one’s “faith” in it means that one is committed to it, thinks it is good, and plans to defend it. Christians are also committed to their god, often to a violent extent.

So, clearly, a religion is one type of belief system, but not all beliefs are religious beliefs and not all belief systems are religious belief systems. Religions are the type of belief systems built on speculative (and most likely false) claims about “religious beings or powers” for which there is no real evidence.

Finally, the position that atheism is a religion is wrong. Atheism rejects the entire premise of theistic religion; it holds that there is no such thing as god(s), that “god” is a word that refers to nothing. (We have already granted that a-theism would, strictly speaking, be compatible with non-god religious beings, such that the idea of an “a-theistic religion” is possible. In fact, Buddhism is an a-theistic religion, as are many tribal religions. But that is not what modern American atheists think.) Atheism is the absence of theism, the lack of any belief in god(s). In fact, atheism is not even a “belief system,” since it is not a “system.” It is only one thing: the rejection of god-belief.

Let me give another, timely example: the whole Santa Claus thing in America is a belief system (one that only young children believe, although our society goes to a lot of trouble to maintain it). However, rejecting the Santa Claus claim is NOT a belief system; it is the absence of a belief system. One does not say (if one is in his/her right mind) “My belief system is a-Santa.” Rather, one says, “I do not hold that Santa belief,” or, more accurately, “The Santa belief is false,” or more simply, “There is no such thing as Santa.” Atheism is exactly the same: atheists do not “believe in no-god.” Instead, they say, “The god-belief is false” or more simply “There is no such thing as god(s).”

Your attempt to characterize atheism as a religion is odd. If the nature of “religion” is “to rest on fairly shaky intellectual assumptions,” then why would anyone want to have a religion at all?! And the fact that atheism is “social” proves nothing: lots of social things are not religions. Religions are social things, but not all social things are religions. To say otherwise is to get one’s logic backwards.

I guess my final question is, so what if atheism IS a religion? What difference would it make? In fact, I’m pretty sure that that is an argument that theists do not want to make. If atheism were a religion (and it is not), then religionists like yourself ought to respect it as you respect religions. More, atheism would then be eligible for “religious tolerance” and maybe even a “religious exemption” from taxes. Hey, all the sudden, maybe it is a good idea! And, in the end, attacks on atheism might be construed as “religious bigotry.” You don’t want to be a religious bigot, do you? Hasn’t your Christianity provided the foundation for freedom for atheists? (And not the kind of freedom where you get punished eternally for your thoughts and actions; thoughts and actions that are punished are not free.)

My final recommendation for you is to find out from atheists what we really think. Don’t take your information from Christians or other anti-atheists. Represent us fairly and accurately, which means as we represent ourselves. Actually read what atheists write, including my own Natural Atheism and Atheism Advanced. And do not force our atheist thinking through your Christian filter. That is the most basic requirement for honest and accurate understanding.

David Eller, Ph.D.

 Reply from John Craig (30/12/12) - More on: Do Atheists Evangelize 'Good News'

David Eller

Thanks for allowing me to post this interchange to my website.

In brief I interpreted your most recent comments as suggesting that:

  • One should recognise the original meanings of words like evangelism, though in common usage evangelism means trying to spread a message to convince others;
  • For most of history, Christian societies have been anything but liberal (if ‘liberal’ means ‘encouraging individual thought and action’) – and now Christians are not meant to make individual choices about belief. Liberalism has come to Western societies despite Christianity (eg by the efforts of John Locke, David Hume, Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson etc – who argued that ‘rights’ should include ‘freedom of religion’);
  • The separation of church and state is a recent development, and not all Christians accept this. Jesus (who probably never existed) may have separated church and state because he was powerless to affect the state. In Christian societies most law / institutions will reflect the Christian context. But in Europe most laws and institutions reflect ancient Greek / Roman models – which were relatively liberal before Christianity was invented – and other societies have found their own versions of liberalism;
  • There are many different definitions of religion. For example, it could be defined as ‘a system of ideas / behaviours relative to other-than-human beings or powers’. This avoids the notion of the super-natural as not all religions distinguish nature and super-nature (and few have a god-concept). While a religion is a belief system, not all belief systems are religions – as the latter are built on speculative claims about ‘religious beings or powers’. Atheism is not a religion – because it is simply a rejection of theistic religion, and holds that god refers to nothing. There are non-theistic religions (eg Buddhism and many tribal religions). Not believing in Santa Claus is not a belief system, but rather the absence of a belief system – and atheism is similar;
  • If the nature of ‘religion’ is to ‘rest on shaky intellectual assumptions’, then why would anyone have a religion at all? The fact that atheism is social does not prove that it is a religion ;
  • If atheism was a religion, then it should be respected as such and be entitled to tax breaks;
  • It is necessary to find out about what atheists really think by reading what atheists write, rather than by listening to what Christian say about them.

You raised many complex issues. I will try to respond briefly:

  • What I know about Atheism is what Atheists have said about themselves (or how they have been reported in the media). I have not studied what Christians have said about Atheism, but have rather compared what Atheists claim with what I have learned from my own necessarily-limited studies (eg of science, the philosophy of science, and of (the use of information in) human social, economic and political systems);
  • I would be very surprised if many people would support your suggestion that Jesus (probably) did not exist. As you noted teachings ascribed to Jesus came to dominate the Roman Empire at the time of Constantine – and this was the result of the dissemination of Christianity in the first century by individuals who: (a) claimed to have known Jesus; and (b) often paid with their lives for ‘taking on the world’ in his name;
  • Jesus did not conveniently fail to say anything about the state because he was powerless to affect it. He has arguably had more influence on human history than anyone else. He also reportedly predicted this (eg John 12:32). Anyone with such a view of their role in history would not have hesitated to say things about the state if they had wanted to;
  • In considering the role of Christianity in history, what happened has to be viewed in terms of how human societies operated at a particular time. ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’ (eg Exodus 21: 22-25) sometimes gets the Bible a bad press, but (as I am sure you are aware) this principle (which was not unique to the Torah) was a way to moderate the retribution sought for injury. And in the first century Christianity did not triumph over the power of Rome because it was more vicious than Emperors (who often themselves claimed divine status to bolster their power). Quite the reverse. It offered an alternative in which violent responses to injury were discouraged, and spread even amongst its persecutors because of the way it responded to persecution (eg see Philippians 1:12-18). The context also needs to be considered in assessing what was done later. You pointed to negative features. Other observers point to positive features – such as preserving classical learning through the Dark Ages. And in the modern era, such apparently constructive features included frequent / early leadership in the advancement of science, in social reform and in the creation of social institutions such as charities / hospitals / schools / universities;
  • Your definition of ‘religion’ (ie as ideas related to other-than-human power) could easily be said to include science (with involves ideas related to the laws / power of nature – which is certainly ‘other-than-human’). And Atheists always seem to believe what science has to say. If ‘religion’ was simply defined as “a system of ideas / behaviours that depend on believers’ assumptions”, then Atheism would clearly classify as a ‘religion’ noting: (a) the limitations in Atheism’s intellectual foundations that I have already referred to – such as the incompatibility between observed reality and what can be explained purely in terms of the laws of science, which shows that there is ‘something out there’ but provides no way to discover that that ‘something’ is; and (b) that in Natural Atheism you seem to endorse ‘using reason as a vaccine against mind-viruses’ without appearing to recognise that limitations on reason are as real as the limitations on science (and are central to a current clash of civilizations - see Competing Thought Cultures). It is mere tautology to define ‘religion’ as including world-views that one disagrees with while excluding Atheistic world views that also depend on assumptions, and then claim that this definition ‘proves’ that Atheism is not a religion. Atheism’s non-belief in theism is based on other beliefs that qualify it as a ‘religion’ just as much as theism does. And the fact that all human world views rest on uncertain assumptions was pointed out in 1 Corinthians 13:12;
  • Your suggested parallel between non-belief in Santa Claus and Atheism further illustrates the difficulty of trying to define ‘religion’. The question is not whether Mr Claus exists (as he obvious does because he is visible in plain sight in many places in the weeks before Christmas) but rather who Santa is (eg one gentleman from the North Pole, or various employees of (say) department stores);
  • On my web-site I have previously endorsed your suggestion that Atheism should be respected as a religion, and given relevant tax breaks (see Should Atheism be recognised as a religion?). Atheism should not however be presented as the default position for a secular state (ie one that seeks to deal with all aspects of society other than religion).

The question of liberalism’ in society is too complex for a simple response.

Liberalism can’t mean complete freedom of individual thought and action. It has to involve freedom within boundaries (ie liberty has to be ‘responsible’ in the sense that (for example) others are not harmed by what an individual thinks would be fun to do, often without being able to conceive of the remote and long term repercussions of an action). Otherwise liberalism becomes ‘libertarianism’ in the worst (irresponsible) sense.

Constraints on individual behaviour that promoted responsible liberty were set by Jesus partly as a restatement of, and partly as a revolution in, Jewish law. For example, he:

  • warned that moral offences carry severe penalties (eg see Luke 3:16-17);
  • identified and endorsed the essence of traditional moral law (eg see Matthew 22:37-40);
  • warned against human attempts to judge the morality of others’ actions (eg see Matthew 7:1-6)
  • provided for a ‘get out of jail free’ option for offenders (eg see John 5:24); and
  • Suggested that the whole package was a light burden for people to bear (Matthew 11:29-30).

The desirability of blocking human claims to moral authority was indicated as early as Genesis 3:1-6. And this goal was advanced by the Ten Commandments (which formally blocked claims to moral authority, and thus the arbitrary exercise of power generally, by human authorities), and subsequently taken a lot further by Jesus (see The Emergence and Advantages of Responsible Liberty). Moreover Jesus condemned human moral authoritarianism, while himself practicing freedom of religion (ie he did not attempt to force others to conform to his teachings, eg consider Matthew 19: 16-12; he discouraged judging others, eg consider Matthew 7:1; John 8:7; and he encouraged his followers to simply move on if they were not well received, eg consider Luke 9: 3-5).

A society’s institutions can only be ‘liberal’ when social and political elites / leaders / authorities don’t find it possible or necessary to themselves define the nature of, and enforce, moral / ethical behaviour by individuals. Even though (and arguably because) the primary focus of Christianity is on individuals’ relationship with God and on eternal / spiritual benefits (rather than on the way society works), liberal institutions are one possible outcome of widespread Christian adherence in a community. And different forms of ‘liberal’ institutions can be built on that foundation. As you noted European laws and political institutions tend to be based on ancient Greek / Roman models. Under these I understand that the state (which Roman Law expects to manifest the culture of a society) has legal priority over individuals. This enables / requires the state to maintain cultural / religious traditions, and is thus a less ‘liberal’ approach than that in the Anglo-American world which, under British Law traditions, gives legal priority to individuals.

Despite your assertion about this, other religions / world-views don’t seem to create any real foundation for truly liberal institutions. For example, this does not exist in tribal societies (which account for most of the world’s religions) or in the Islamic world (which amongst other things apparently suffers from its Arabic tribal roots). And East Asia does not function on the basis of individual liberty (eg see What does an 'Asian Century' Imply?).

The problem now is not that Christianity is illiberal, but that many churches have tended for some decades to conform to a populist desire to ignore Jesus’ warnings about moral offences, and this neglect is generating very serious social problems (eg see A Strategic Suggestion). And the escalation of social dysfunctions is inevitably and predictably putting liberal institutions at risk.

John Craig

PS: You have clearly done a great deal of study (on an anthropological foundation) of Christianity in history – and are using this to attack Christianity. This makes me think of Saul of Tarsus and how he changed the way he used his learning after his personal encounter with Jesus (eg Acts 9:3-9 though the latter appears to not be the whole story). Might I also suggest that if you really want to know about Christianity, it would be best to rely mostly on what its founder, Jesus, had to say (as recorded in the gospels) rather than on what outsiders have said and written?

Response From David Eller - 31/12/12

Thanks for your response. You clearly care about the issues.

While of course there are limitations to reason and science, that does not mean that we should simply leap to supernaturalism. And I continue to reject the conclusion (and the significance of the conclusion) that atheism is a religion. It is a misreading of both religion and atheism.

I have a very good knowledge of Christianity, and I find it no more interesting (but no less interesting) than any other religion--world religion, ancient religion, or tribal religion. And Christianity is, of course, not merely what Jesus said (and we don't know if he said any of that, because there is good reason to conclude that he never existed--no matter what "most people" [I assume you mean Christian people] believe--and good reason to conclude that his biography is a composite of many contemporary "dying saviors"). Christianity is also the history, institutionalization, and diversity of the religion, which means that there are really many different, and opposing, Christianities, with more to come in the future (read Philip Jenkins's research and the work on "inculturation").

Thanks for the discussion. Goodbye. --

Reply From John Craig - 31/12/12

David Eller

You are of course correct that the limits to science and reason do not require a leap to supernaturalism – though the fact that there is a huge gap between the changeless world that the laws of physics imply (because they do not allow any loss or gain of information) and the reality that we observe, strongly suggests that there is ‘something out there’ that we have no way to know about unless that ‘something’ choses to reveal itself.

The assumption that Atheists make (ie that the ‘something’ is nothing) is not supported by any evidence. Such an unsupported belief system is a ‘religion’ just as much as any other.

I suggest that (as an associate of a group that professes ‘freethinking’ as well as Atheism) it would be rational to pay more attention to Christianity than to other ancient religions – because the creation of an environment in which freedom of thought is permitted / encouraged has depended on Western society’s Christian heritage. Independent thinking is valuable because it leads to innovation – but it only does this because simplified social environments have been created (by individualism, a rule of law, profit-focused investment and democracy) which enable the limits to rationality in dealing with complex systems to be moderated. And the creation of those simplified environments has been encouraged and made possible by the responsible liberty that individuals gain from Christianity. You might like to consider the challenges to ‘freethinking’ that are implicit in (for example):

  • Islam where thinking that is incompatible with Islamic scholars’ interpretation of the Qu’ran is often violently repressed (see About Arabic Thought and Islamic Science, 2005) ;
  • Confucianism under which conditioning people to do things without understanding is the goal of education and government (see Competing Thought Cultures, 2012).

There is no credibility in your suggestion that the Biblical account of Jesus is a composite of many contemporary ‘dying saviours’.

Philip Jenkins’ work is indeed interesting. I had a look at the summary of ‘The Next Christendom’ (in Philip Jenkins “The Next Christendom” – in the long run . . . Christ wins out). I had some exposure to his work previously (see Onward Christian Soldiers’, 2002) and have encountered the sorts of things he refers to in the two-thirds world directly (eg through Indonesian, Indian and African connections). It seems to me that inculturation has been the secret of the accelerated spread of Christianity that Jenkins documents – because, rather than presenting an originally-Middle-Eastern message through the biases of Western missionaries, a strategic decision was made to support indigenous evangelism. The result will necessarily be an amalgam of the original message and the recipient cultures – and thus more like first century Christianity than some forms of Christianity in the modern West. In another 10 years or so this may very well provide a foundation on which the very real problems facing the modern world can start to be resolved.

John Craig

K: Secular Angels To 'Care for our Souls' Would Kill off Liberal Values

Secular Angels To 'Care for our Souls' Would Kill off Liberal Values - email sent 16/1/13

Helen Hayward

Re: ‘For the best of our secular angels”, Online Opinion, 11/1/13

Your article suggests that values (such as respect for community / kindness to others) are being lost because churches and university humanities faculties have done a very poor job of defending them, and that ‘secular angels’ (individuals who would care for others’ spiritual health) need to be organised.

I should like to suggest that, while the breakdown in values seems to be very real, ‘liberal values’ can only be promulgated in a Christian context.

My interpretation of your article: Alain de Botton (in Religion for Atheists) suggests that the tide is turning, as more people are drawn to the values at the heart of religion than to cultural liberalism. This raises key questions about how best we should live. This question, he suggests, has been left to established churches and university humanities departments for too long. De Botton likes much that the church does, but finds that this is accompanied by beliefs that most people find unacceptable. And university humanity departments have also failed to keep central cultural values (such as respect for community / kindness to others) alive – as they have been busy with research / bickering / jockeying for power. Modern humanities departments have lost interest in the liberal mission for which they were set up. These guardians of culture are disdainful of serious questions about life. Disinterested study is preferred to things that are relevant to living. Medieval literature (for example) is not irrelevant, but could be used as a framework for dealing with questions about the art of living. De Botton considers the Western cultural canon adequate – and suggests that if taught correctly it could replace the holy texts. Secular culture needs to be considered ‘religiously’. De Botton wants to reform society generally – not just churches and universities. Despite our liberal values and democratic freedoms, most people are like children in wanting to know how best to act. De Botton wants us to become more spiritually fit. He believes that this would not be difficult. There is not so much a need for more knowledge as the wisdom and courage to act on it. Secular angels (who are appointed from deep within ourselves, rather than from on high) need to be devoted to care of our souls, and sing in chorus in the tongue of collective wisdom – so as create an institution of those interested in the care of souls..

The erosion of traditional values is apparently leading to serious social symptoms in countries such as Australia (eg see indicators in Erosion of the Moral Foundations of Liberal Institutions, 2003+). And neither churches nor university humanities faculties have been effective in defending them (eg regarding churches, see Some Strategic Suggestions about institutional responses to child sexual abuse).

However values (such as respect for community / kindness to others) do not simply have a small scale (art-of-living) effect on individuals and families (which your article implies that humanities departments might have been concerned about). There is also a large-scale effect on society which should have been of concern to social science departments. In particular the way in which ‘values’ are inculcated in a community is very significant (for reasons suggested in Competing Civilizations (2001+). The latter highlighted how responsible behaviour based on individual consciences responsible to God uniquely allowed the creation of social environments that presume individual liberty (and thus facilitate initiative) in Western societies, and thereby created very considerable political and economic advantages (see Cultural Foundations of Western Strength). The failure of both humanities and social science departments to seriously consider the practical political and economic effects of such issues is a major source of many of the world’s current problems (see Cultural Ignorance as a Source of Conflict and Saving Muslims from Themselves). Their joint failure to deal with these ‘big picture’ consequences is more serious that the former’s failure to teach the ‘art of living’.

While there is now a need to re-build the individual values that are the essential foundation for liberal legal and government institutions, ‘secular angels’ who seek to care for others’ souls can’t achieve this. For example:

Both Alain de Botton and you seem to see the values promulgated through churches as desirable. Thus, in seeking to more widely promulgate those values, I respectfully suggest that it would be best to go back to the origins of the churches’ efforts (eg as recorded in the Bible), and think about whether (as strange as it seems to merely-rational minds) they might be the product of super-human wisdom and also how those origins might now be more effectively built upon.

John Craig

PS: there is an irritating terminology problem with the notion of ‘secular angels’ because (as I understand it) ‘secular’ refers to all aspects of a society apart from religion, so surely any group which sought to be the openly ‘religious’ face of Atheism could not be correctly described as ‘secular’ anything.

Interchange Resulting from 'Secular Angels To 'Care for our Souls' Would Kill off Liberal Values'

Response on 16/1/13 on receiving a copy of the above email from Zachary Bos (see below for an outline of his affiliations)

"There are serious risks associated with human attempts to claim moral authority"

Indeed. Which makes it easy to understand why the historical solution has been to remove the source of moral authority to a supernatural source. This circumvents the philosophical problem to some extent (though you still have the Euthyphro dilemma to resolve), but does so at the cost of weakening one's epistemological coherence (Platinga's protests otherwise notwithstanding).

You really put a point on it: there ARE risks associated with fixing moral authority in any body, whether that is a revelatory text, a person, or the praxis of congregational assembly. But it's a risk worth taking, in my estimation. We know enough now -- about human nature, about the world around us -- to be mitigate the risks and obtain the benefit of coming together to think about morality as a community of shared interests and shared values.

"Thus, in seeking to more widely promulgate those values, I respectfully suggest that it would be best to go back to the origins of the churches’ efforts (eg as recorded in the Bible), and think about whether ... they might be the product of super-human wisdom and also how those origins might now be more effectively built upon." I've been researching and contemplating the question of how to promulgate these values for a decade now. And I see no reason to think that churches have their origin in super-human wisdom. You make this suggestion at the very end of your article, yet it seems to me that there is much you are staking on it. Would you like to elaborate?

All best, Zachary Bos atheologically.blogspot.com 

PS: You may be interested in: - metabelief.blogspot.com - facebook.com/TheSundayAssembly - templeofthefuture.net/

Reply to Zachary Bos - sent 16/1/13

Thanks for your valid thoughts.

In elaborating I note that:

  • Jesus is regarded widely regarded (not only by Christians) as the world’s premier moral teacher, and yet he also claimed to be the Son of God (and was rejected / executed by authorities of his day for his claim). How can anyone be both a world-best moral teacher and a crackpot?
  • The ‘signs’ that Jesus performed (eg healings etc) reportedly attracted massive crowds in his day. And the greatest ‘sign’ that the Gospels report (resurrection) sufficiently impressed his disciples for them to take on the world in his name – though most were killed for doing so.

Other ‘signs’ exist that affect individuals today (eg the Peace of God, healings – and I have experienced rationally-inexplicable minor examples). And for me a major ‘sign’ involved my life experience. This involved being paid for 25 years to ‘study the world’ and come up with understandings of the difference that culture makes to human development (with particular reference to the difference between Western and East Asian societies, and to the significance of the responsible liberty that Christianity allows for effective rational problem solving). And this opportunity arose in an extremely anti-intellectual environment, and was followed by financial resources appearing effortlessly after I ceased to be paid. Also as a result of that work I was invited by a local university to participate in a project on modernisation in Indonesia that was being sponsored by the Sultan of Jogjakarta (the cultural leader of Indonesia the world’s largest Muslim nation). That project did not proceed. However I then met an Indonesia visitor to Australia who, when told of that project, said ‘Oh, that is my son’s project’. A coincidence – but nothing happened. Then a family friend got married to a man from another state, and it turned out that he was working for the father of the man organising the Indonesian modernisation project- another amazing ‘coincidence’. So we visited them in Indonesia, and I had the opportunity to present a paper to a large group concerned with Indonesia’s modernisation (a paper that was subsequently translated into Indonesian and published). I don’t believe in coincidences that much – and I could quote other examples.

Response from Zachary Bos, 16/1/13

<<Jesus is regarded widely regarded as the world’s premier moral teacher>> Widely, perhaps, but surely we can agree that the distribution of this view *tends* to map on to the distribution of Christians -- that is, it's more widely held among members of the church, than among non-Christians. Which is telling.

I actually find this claim (that the Nazarene depicted in the Gospels is the world's greatest etc.) benign but wrong-headed. There is exceedingly little in Christian doctrine that is unique to Christianity (and much of what is, is an invention of Peter and not the Christ); and there is much in the teaching of Jesus which I find impractical and contrary to common sense or human nature. There is much I find repugnant, even. And I know I am not alone in this view.

That said, we get nowhere by exchanging statistics about the demographics of belief. In this kind of work -- ethics, aren't we talking about? -- what matters is whether a position is persuasive.

Being correct in its use of the facts, and being internally consistent, both HELP in being persuasive, but they are not in themselves sufficient, nor are they essential. I can think of plenty of moral assertions which plenty of people are persuaded by, which depend neither upon coherence or truthfulness.

<...and yet he also claimed to be the Son of God (and was rejected / executed by authorities of his day for his claim). How can anyone be both a world-best moral teacher and a crackpot?>> Though there are other problems with this form of argument, I'll just observe that it's really only a challenge if you accept that the figure known as Jesus was indeed EITHER (the world best etc.) OR (a crackpot). That is, if you accept that he was only either of these, excluding other characterizations, and that he possibly was either of this (excluding the possibility that he was NEITHER a great moral teacher or a crazy person).

For my part, I think that the Bible is an important record of a tradition of moral teaching. Some of that moral teaching is useful; other parts of it are irrelevant to our present moral circumstances, and yet others must absolutely be rejected by any person concerned with human well-being. The figure known as Jesus Christ has a relationship to the moral teachings present in the Bible, but it is a limited one. And there are limits to the greatness of that part of the moral teachings of the Bible that he DID originate. I fear you'll see this as hair-splitting, but this kind of boundary-setting is really the only honest way I know of considering these questions.

<<The ‘signs’ that Jesus performed (eg healings etc) reportedly attracted massive crowds in his day.>> Likewise the crowds attracted to other miracle-makers throughout history, including those active at this time of writing. I find this kind of evidence not persuasive in the least.

<<And the greatest ‘sign’ that the Gospels report (resurrection) sufficiently impressed his disciples for them to take on the world in his name – though most were killed for doing so.>> There have been martyrs for other saviors and other theisms; yet I trust that you do not find those cases evidence for the correctness of those beliefs.

<<I have experienced rationally-inexplicable minor examples.>> So you say, but I can only suppose that I'd have other explanations for much of that which you are explaining through super-natural forces.

Though of course there is that in our life which we cannot understand.

I do not see the usefulness, or the integrity, in going beyond "I don't know" to profess "I do know -- God (whose nature I do not, and cannot, understand) did it."

<<And this opportunity arose in an extremely anti-intellectual environment, and was followed by financial resources appearing effortlessly after I ceased to be paid.>> A lucky duck, you. I don't think the same kind of reasoning is any comfort to those selfless students of human society who have not benefited from similar good fortune -- surely you don't believe that your good fortune in life has come to you in direct proportion to your faithfulness or worthiness? There are worthy people who fail, and vile people who prosper. I see no need to reach to theology to explain this.

<<I don’t believe in coincidences that much – and I could quote other examples.>> As could I, with the implication that my experience supports the contrary conclusion.

The tail sometimes wags the dog. It's this kind of epistemic inclination that we must be on alert for, lest we mislead ourselves.

After studying religion and nonreligon for the time I have, about the only thing I can say confidently about belief is this: We seldom understand our understanding enough to justify the feeling of conviction that accompanies that understanding. Though a glass darkly, eh? A human truth from a human author, albeit a universal truth.

Reply to Zachary Bos - 17/1/13

All good rationalization.

I can't comment on at the moment as I am out of town. However it is all a matter of faith - faith gives understanding, not the other way around. Consider also Luke 16:31.

Response from Zachary Bos - 17/1/13

Perhaps you meant to write, "ratiocination". You may have faith; I eschew it, as I do other dangerous endeavours -- drugs, promiscuity, drunkeness, cliff-diving. It might be fun for some people, but there's little benefit for the risk involved, other than the chance to experience the world in an excitingly different way for a brief while.

(I've read the Bible thoroughly; do you think I look at the world the way I do because I am *unfamiliar* with the Gospel of Luke, e.g.?)

Reply to Zachary Bos - 17/1/13

Thanks for your comments (though I can’t quite see why Luke16:31 became Luke ?).

And sorry for my delay in responding.

However, contrary to your assertion, you do clearly have faith in something (ie the power of reason - as indicated by your suggestion that what I saw as your 'rationalisation' was in fact "ratiocination"). And, as far as I can see, human reason is one of the ‘deities’ that Atheists generally tend to put their faith in.

The problem with this is that there are massive limitations on human reason - as suggested in How solid are 'science, reason and critical thinking'?). As the latter suggests all major social sciences recognise the limits to reason in various ways, and half the world bases its methods of problem solving (and its methods for achieving economic ‘miracles’ – which are real ‘miracles’ in the sense that the outcomes are not predictable or the consequence of pre-existing causal relationships) on the view that rationality (ie the use of abstract concepts as reliable models of reality) is a very limited method for problem solving. Rationality works (reasonably well) in artificially simplified social environments – but creating these environments depends on widespread Christian adherence in a community (and thus ‘responsible liberty’ by most individuals). The latter was the main point of my original email - Secular Angels To 'Care for our Souls' Would Kill off Liberal Values.

The unfortunate reality is that you can’t ‘rationalise’ / ‘ratiocinate’ your way through this question – and arrive at valid / convincing conclusions. Jesus put your predicament quite simply (Mark 10: 15) – and Paul expressed it a different way (1 Corinthians 3:18-20), as did the writer of Job (Chapter 38+). One has to decide what one has faith in, and accept the consequences.

Response from Zachary Bos - 25/1/13

<<However, contrary to your assertion, you do clearly have faith in something (ie the power of reason...>> Importantly, I don't. What I do have is "warrant" to believe that reason will produce results that I can trust.

<<And, as far as I can see, human reason is one of the ‘deities’ that Atheists generally tend to put their faith in.>> There is a world of difference between "warrant" and "faith." (As is attested by Plantinga's effort to replace the latter with the former.)

<<The problem with this is that there are massive limitations on human reason...>> Granted.

<<As the latter suggests all major social sciences recognise the limits to reason in various ways...>> Surely you don't think that the use of reason precludes awareness of the limits of reason?

<<Rationality works (reasonably well) in artificially simplified social environments...>> I don't believe we are using the word "rationality" in the same way.

<<... but creating these environments depends on widespread Christian adherence in a community>> This is only true, if you use the phrase "Christian adherence" to mean "adherence to values like truthfulness and altruism." I myself adhere to such values, and don't credit Christianity with their invention.

<<... (and thus ‘responsible liberty’ by most individuals).>> That's a good term. I myself find much lacking in the concept of "human rights", and prefer to think about "human responsibilities."

But then, I am an idealist who expects much of my fellow man.

<<The unfortunate reality is that you can’t ‘rationalise’ / ‘ratiocinate’ your way through this question...>> What, precisely, is the question?

<<... and arrive at valid / convincing conclusions.>> Of course, whether a conclusion is convincing depends as much on the character and commitments of the parties in the conversation, as on the content of the conclusion!

<<Jesus put your predicament quite simply...>> Not my predicament, sir.

<<One has to decide what one has faith in, and accept the consequences.>> The fallacy of the excluded middle! For there is a via media: the path of faithlessness. I accept nothing on faith -- I reject faith -- and endeavor instead to live according to warranted beliefs, and to accept (rationally) the limits of warrant and reason. What I don't know, I say: I don't know. My aim is to live as consistently, and as actually, as reason, evidence, and time allow. I've considered the arguments and ostensible evidence for theism and supernaturalism, and find them unpersuasive.

Whether you find this an arrogant way to live, or a humble one, I can't guess.

Reply to Zachary Bos - 27/1/13

Plantinga is an interesting character. However introducing the notion of ‘warrants’ (which I interpret as meaning ‘faith that is justified because it is based on the best available information’) does not overcome the limits on what we can know – and thus the need to base our world view ultimately on faith (embodied in our assumptions). Reality is vastly too complex – as illustrated by the counter-intuitive responses that public administration analysts often warn about in relation to public policies (ie doing what is seen to be ‘good’ produces bad outcomes, eg the reverse of those intended, because of unrecognised / unsuspected feedback relationships). This is the basis of the assumed equivalence of good and evil under Daoism. If one is to define a set of principles for genuinely doing ‘good’, there is a need for understandings of relationships that go beyond human capacities.

To me, rationality implies the use of abstract concepts as a model of reality. What do you think it means?

I would also be interested in your view of where notions such as ‘truthfulness and altruism’ are widely endorsed outside the influence of expanding ‘Christendom’ (eg consider Understanding is Difficult in relation to East Asia’s traditional use of information to affect other’s responses – and their lack of interest in whether this is the ‘truth’ about a situation). And even more than adherence to ‘values’, is the way in which that adherence is ensured. Under Christian traditions it is primarily promoted by individual consciences responsible to God – and this is both unique and vital for ‘responsible liberty’. This does not exist in tribal societies – and it can be noted that in at least one tribal society (Australian aborigines) there has never been any notion of abstracts (and thus of ‘truth’). Likewise ‘responsible liberty’ does not exist under Islam which seems to reflect its Arabic tribal origins so (instead of you being responsible to God for the morality of your behaviour) I would be held responsible to God for the morality of your behaviour (and thus scope for freedom of thought / initiative goes out the window). In East Asia, you would be responsible to me (and to our social superiors) for your behaviour conforming to what is expected (a notion that is very fluid and regularly changed to whatever our superiors and their networks believe is best for our ethnic community) – thus once again freedom of thought and scope for initiative go out the window (as does any notion of altruism towards those outside our ethnic community).

The ‘question’ covers a lot of ground and can’t be described simply (ie the meaning of life, where things came from, how we should live, and so on). One can’t answer such ‘questions’ on the basis of reason / rationality / ratiocination. If answers are to come at all, and be reliable, they must come through revelation. You may find arguments and ostensible evidence for theism and supernaturalism unpersuasive. But that doesn’t alter:

  • the fact (ie whether or not such features are real); or
  • the consequences of being wrong if one puts one’s faith in what turns out to be a false god (eg the power of human reason) and there is a God who is jealous and says ‘You shall have no other gods but me’.

That is the predicament we all share. It does not matter at all whether I think that your approach is arrogant. No one is ever going to ask me to be your judge.

By the way I would greatly appreciate your permission to include our exchange on my website – ie as a follow-on from Secular Angels To 'Care for our Souls' Would Kill off Liberal Values? I won’t do so without your permission, and would not prevent you fully ‘having your say’.

PS: At one stage you suggested that Jesus / Christianity did not contribute much to human moral understanding.

Quote: “I actually find this claim (that the Nazarene depicted in the Gospels is the world's greatest etc.) benign but wrong-headed. There is exceedingly little in Christian doctrine that is unique to Christianity (and much of what is, is an invention of Peter and not the Christ); and there is much in the teaching of Jesus which I find impractical and contrary to common sense or human nature. There is much I find repugnant, even. And I know I am not alone in this view …………….

The figure known as Jesus Christ has a relationship to the moral teachings present in the Bible, but it is a limited one. And there are limits to the greatness of that part of the moral teachings of the Bible that he DID originate. I fear you'll see this as hair-splitting, but this kind of boundary-setting is really the only honest way I know of considering these questions.”

It can be noted that:

  • While similar values are expressed in many faiths, as noted above what is significant about Jesus / Christianity is not just the moral principles, but rather the way in which adherence to those principles is promoted;
  • Jesus proclaimed the Kingdom of God, which (contrary to his contemporaries’ expectations about the creation of a kingdom of this world } involved God writing his ‘law’ directly in people’s hearts – without reliance on human agency to ensure enforcement. He also:
    • said that he had come to fulfil the traditional ‘Law’, not to change it – and in seeking to determine moral principles frequently asked those who he dealt with ‘what was written’;
    • defeated moral legalism and moral legalists by: (a) insisting that the spirit, rather than the letter, of the law was what mattered; and (b) raising the goal posts so high that they were humanly impossible (eg one could effectively commit adultery just by looking at a woman) so that righteousness could not be achieved by following the moral law, but only by grace;
    • severely criticised human moral legalism (eg the leaven of the Pharisees);
    • predicated the coming of the Holy Spirit to guide / strengthen his followers after his departure;
  • Jesus reportedly also predicted that ‘When I am lifted up, I will draw all men unto me’ – and this is what has been, and is still, happening (eg see Onward Christian Soldiers’ and Philip Jenkins “The Next Christendom” – in the long run . . . Christ wins out – which suggests that in the two-thirds world the effect of first century Christianity is still being experienced). Even though many in the West have been outsmarting themselves with their own power and ‘understanding’, this is not true for humanity as a whole.

I usually find that Paul (rather than Peter) is blamed for adding bits into the Christian teaching that other’s find objectionable. However, it seems to me that elaborations by Peter / Paul / etc usually have precedents in teachings that the Gospels ascribe to Christ.

And, while I don’t know what features you find repugnant, it may be that this involves endorsing suffering (eg Jesus’ own suffering and exhorting others to ‘take up your cross and follow me’). However, this I understand now makes a big impact in countries such as China and India (where, as in the first century Roman world, suffering is a fact of life – and people identify with those who have suffered). Also it is worth noting that life on earth involves a food chain – so that some creature’s lunch is usually another creature’s life. So suffering has been built into creation – and a Creator God would see suffering as a necessary facet of life, even though suffering does not get a good reaction in the human world.

Response from Zachary Bos - 29/1/13

<<However introducing the notion of ‘warrants’ (which I interpret as meaning ‘faith that is justified because it is based on the best available information’)...>> Importantly, Platinga himself would not define "warrant" in this way.

 <<... does not overcome the limits on what we can know – and thus the need to base our world view ultimately on faith (embodied in our assumptions).>> These are importantly different kinds of epistemological practice. I am rather well aware of the limitations of my perception and cognition, and seek to account for those limitations when I make use of reasoning to construct descriptive or predictive statements about the world. Faith simply isn't a part of this. I do have methodological assumptions -- but these depend (*contingently*) on warrant, rather than faith.

<<If one is to define a set of principles for genuinely doing ‘good’, there is a need for understandings of relationships that go beyond human capacities.>> I don't think you've demonstrated this (or that anyone has).

It might be relevant to note here that I take seriously my commitment to a liberal philosophy: that is, in matters where my aim and that of my neighbor are at cross-purpose, I seek to resolve the issue through persuasion rather than coercion. This applies to moral disagreements, even those between my personal preferences at one moment and those I experience at another time. Full moral and intellectual consistency is fully the hobgoblin, and hobbyhorse, as has been written about.

 <<To me, rationality implies the use of abstract concepts as a model of reality. What do you think it means?>> This is a big frog to swallow. A basic feature of rationality is that the criterion for truth is logical -- deductive, intellectual (here's where your invocation of "abstract concepts as a model of reality" fits in) -- rather than perceptual; but when I use the term, I am referring to a system of intellectual practices which go beyond this essential definition to encompass the epistemological features of coherence, empiricism, and consistency, as well. I'm perfectly comfortable acknowledging that the term "rationalism" applies equally to a range of practices.

<<I would also be interested in your view of where ... ‘truthfulness and altruism’ are widely endorsed outside the influence of expanding 'Christendom'.>> I think a person would have to be quite naive -- historically, theologically -- to assert that the values of truthfulness and altruism originate in Christianity or Christendom. I hope it suffices to note that there are well-attested sources in, for example, pre-Christian Greek antiquity, which endorse these values.

 <<And even more than adherence to ‘values’, is the way in which that adherence is ensured. Under Christian traditions it is primarily promoted by individual consciences responsible to God – and this is both unique and vital for ‘responsible liberty’.>> But this matter of "consciences responsible to God" demands to be unpacked. What data shall we consider, in order to gauge the proportion of Christians whose manifestation of truthfulness and altruism was the product of a pious and conscientious moral devotion to God, as against those Christians whose moral comportment was the product of a fear of everlasting punishment in an infernal afterlife?

I would wish to argue, from the observation that the Christian god is mythical, that a "conscience responsible to God" is misinformed, underinformed, mistaken, or deranged. It follows therefore that such a belief is unsuitable as the foundation of a moral worldview. (Here I think too of Clifford's "Ethics of Belief.")

In other words: whatever the moral value of Christian doctrine, that Christianity is ultimately mistaken about the nature of its deity means it cannot, for me, obtain a consistent and sufficiently justified morality.

<<This does not exist in tribal societies – and it can be noted that in at least one tribal society (Australian aborigines) there has never been any notion of abstracts (and thus of ‘truth’).>> I have not studied this topic, but this assertion strikes me as 1) one you could not have researched yourself and 2) primie facie absurd. I am aware that Aboriginal culture makes use of the concept of number; number is abstract; therefore...

<<Likewise ‘responsible liberty’ does not exist under Islam which seems to reflect its Arabic tribal origins so...>> Again, this is going too far afield. I have not studied Islam to the point where I would be competent to enter into such a discussion (nor have you?).

<<In East Asia, you would be responsible to me (and to our social superiors) for your behaviour conforming to what is expected (a notion that is very fluid and regularly changed to whatever our superiors and their networks believe is best for our ethnic community) – thus once again freedom of thought and scope for initiative go out the window (as does any notion of altruism towards those outside our ethnic community).>> My friend, these are strokes too broad. Let us limit our discussion to language, logic, and those aspects of culture and society which we have lived experience of.

 <<The ‘question’ covers a lot of ground...>> In which case, you must be talking about *a system of related questions*. Let's, for the sake of discussion, stick to one at a time.

 <<... and can’t be described simply (ie the meaning of life, where things came from, how we should live, and so on).>> I find myself exceedingly wary when an argument begins by explaining that all that follows is neccesarily murky, complex, opaque, and irreducile. Mysticism, in my opinion, is a moral wrong, to be avoided by well-intended people.

<<One can’t answer such ‘questions’ on the basis of reason / rationality / ratiocination. If answers are to come at all, and be reliable, they must come through revelation.>> You've caught yourself in a circle of mere assertion...

<<But that doesn’t alter: the fact (ie whether or not such features are real)>> of course not. I don't believe my beliefs alter reality. My concern here is not to structure reality according to my comfort, but to determine the extent and kind of warranted belief corresponding to a full understanding of the available evidence.

<<...the consequences of being wrong if one puts one’s faith in what turns out to be a false god (eg the power of human reason) and there is a God who is jealous and says ‘You shall have no other gods but me’.>> Ah, Pascal's Wager turns up again (like a bad penny). This argument has never been persuasive, on a rational basis, though it continues to carry water in its emotionally motivated way.

<<By the way I would greatly appreciate your permission to include our exchange on my website – ie as a follow-on from Secular Angels To 'Care for our Souls' Would Kill off Liberal Values? I won’t do so without your permission, and would not prevent you fully ‘having your say’.>> That's just fine. You can credit me as the Massachusetts State Director for American Atheists; editor of Secular Voice magazine; co-chair of the Secular Coalition for Massachusetts; and Immediate Past President of the Boston Atheists. My notes on 'this kind of thing' are gradually appearing at atheologically.blogspot.com.

<<At one stage you suggested that Jesus / Christianity did not contribute much to human moral understanding.>> I asserted that the superlative "greatest" (moral teacher) was "benign but wrong-headed". I would not say that the teachings attributed to Jesus are wholly without value, or that the Christian tradition has failed to contribute to moral philosophy. What value there is in those teachings and that tradition, I credit fully to the activity of human beings, acting without the influence or involvement of any supernatural entity.

<<While similar values are expressed in many faiths, as noted above what is significant about Jesus / Christianity is not just the moral principles, but rather the way in which adherence to those principles is promoted;>> Well -- the threat of eternal damnation/alienation from the good, is quite a peculiar invention. It isn't unique, however; nor is it particularly laudable.

 <<Jesus proclaimed the Kingdom of God, which (contrary to his contemporaries’ expectations about the creation of a kingdom of this world } involved God writing his ‘law’ directly in people’s hearts – without reliance on human agency to ensure enforcement.>> This is not unique to Christianity, of course. I don't think I'll take up this line of conversation, however. It sounds to me like you're beginning to tack into questions of doctrine, which are 1) endlessly disputable and 2) not really tied to the questions of language, logic, and evidence I've agreed to engage in with you.

<<And, while I don’t know what features you find repugnant...>> I note that you've not asked. In any case, the response you gave to this comment of mine was rather off the mark. In my view, it is the coercive and unimaginative aspects of Christianity which are repugnant.

Reply to Zachary Bos - 1/2/13

Thanks for agreeing to online presentation of this interchange (though I am concerned that it has become very wordy). Here it is.

I was astonished that you find Christianity repugnant because it is 'coercive and unimaginative'. Surely the key issue is whether it reflects reality. Being 'imaginative' is not a virtue if this involves being unrealistic. And Christianity is precisely the reverse of 'coercive' – and this has always been a source of strength (eg see comments in email of 30/12/12 concerning history and moral authority). Consider also Mark 10:42-45.

So Jesus called them and said to them, ‘You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.’

While some who profess Christianity may be coercive, there is no Biblical justification for this (in relation to which Matthew 7:21 is relevant).

Some brief comments on your other points are:

  • I am mystified by what you are getting at with respect to Platinga’s view of ‘warrant’. I thought my amateurish definition (ie of warrant as reasonably justified faith) captured the sorts of issues involved. I don’t see anything particularly different in Platinga’s ideas (eg as in abstract of Warrant and Proper Function) as compared with others’ views outlined in (say) Theory of Justification;
  • Your assumption that there is a fundamental difference between warrant and faith (ie that it is possible to move towards reliable knowledge purely by manipulating ideas logically) is unjustified – because of the problem of complexity. While philosophers may not be aware of the problem because philosophy is almost an entirely intellectual pursuit (ie it involves manipulating abstracts), all applied social sciences recognize the effect of the limits to what can be known (ie of the limit to which abstract models of reality can be reliable). This is, for example, the basis for mainstream economists’ case for a market economy (because planning must fail and there are always differences of opinion which competition can resolve though logic can’t). I have been involved in ‘strategic policy R&D’ for decades (which involves seeking to explore the next things that are coming at a community) and one always finds that decisions that individuals earnestly believe are ‘warranted’ at a point in time suffer to some degree from limited knowledge. And the problem of complexity is increasing in many contexts (so that the ability of abstracts to model reality is declining) – eg see Complexity in relation to the damaging effect which this is having on the reliability of the democratic political process. As you are undoubtedly aware the notion of induction (ie developing general laws from limited observations) has been recognized to be logically invalid (because there might be unrecognized special factors that contribute to particular relationships locally, or unrecognized factors elsewhere that mean that a locally valid relationship is invalid elsewhere). A similar philosophical ‘revolution’ is arguably needed in relation to recognizing the limitation of abstracts (on which logic / rationality depend) as models of reality;
  • You might be committed to ‘liberal philosophy’ and persuasion rather than coercion, but not everyone is (eg see What does an 'Asian Century' Imply), and in order to try to ensure that the 21st century is dominated by ‘liberal philosophy’ and persuasion rather than coercion there is a need for philosophers to come out of their ivory towers and recognize the issues facing the applied social sciences (and business and political leaders). Many of the world’s problems seem to me to be attributable to the failure of the humanities generally to seriously investigate the practical consequences of differences in cultural assumptions because, for various reasons, they are living in a world of pure theory (eg see Cultural Ignorance as a Source of Conflict);
  • There are, as you suggest, many aspects of rationality – but all involve the manipulation of abstract concepts. And while this is useful in practice in many situations where problems are artificially simplified – there are fundamental limitations on what can be achieved through rationality / logic / deduction etc;
  • My question about whether / where widespread adherence to values such as ‘truthfulness and altruism’ exists outside the bounds of expanding ‘Christendom’ (ie the influence of the West) was meant to refer to instances in the modern world. Classical Greek thinking was incorporated both under Christianity and under Islam, and the results were significantly different. The latter led to quite the opposite of what can be called ‘responsible liberty’;
  • It is not possible to unpack the different factors involved in ‘consciences responsible to God’ (ie fear and devotion). Proverbs has a lot to say about ‘fear of the Lord’ being the beginning of wisdom – a theme that Jesus did not resile from, though his teaching and life added the possibility of a loving relationship between God and man;
  • One is free to assume that God does not exist, and thus that a ‘conscience responsible to God’ is misinformed / deranged. Jesus and Christianity have made clear that belief in God is ultimately a matter of faith. There are a lot of indications that such faith is justified (eg see Problems in an Internally Deterministic Scientific Worldview – which, though complex and incomplete, strongly suggests the need for another revolution in the philosophy of science – because the limitations of scientific laws in explaining observed reality show that there is something ‘out there’). However if one assumes that God does not exist (ie and thus puts one’s faith in ‘gods’ of one’s own creation) then there is no real foundation for liberal political and economic institutions because one is always reliant on human moral authoritarians, and there is no example in history that I am aware of where this has led to ‘a consistent and sufficiently justified morality’;

You suggested in relation to various matters that I was making assertions that I did not have a background to know about. However, this I believe is wrong – though my speculations are undoubtedly only part of the story. I have spent decades studying the practical consequences of differences in cultural assumptions (eg see Competing Civilizations, 2001) – and this is the basis of my frustration with the humanities’ departments of Western universities (because of their manifest failure to deal with issues that are of central importance in economic development and international relations). During the 1980s I spent years studying worldwide debates about economic strategy – and this necessarily involved recognition of differences in the cultural and institutional context – and in particular study of what was different about Asia because of Japan’s efforts to become #1 economically at that time. More specifically:

  • I have not intensively studied aboriginal culture. But I did collect information at one stage about what those who have studied the subject have to say about this (see The Challenge of Aboriginal Advancement, and particularly the section on cultural obstacles). The reference to learning in the concrete rather than in the abstract came from a friend who organizes educational programs for aborigines (though it corresponds with other observations – eg that aborigines have been good at repairing engines, but not at designing them). There is absolutely nothing unusual about societies not dealing with abstracts. As I understand it Hebrew people had little or no concept of abstracts prior to being exposed to Greek influences – and early sections of the Old Testament need to be read with this in mind. And the fundamental difference between Western and East Asian societies is that the latter also do not emphasize abstracts (see Competing Thought Cultures). Finally I note that the number zero is an abstract, but the number 3 is concrete;
  • Once again I have not intensively studied Islam, however I have collected a lot of information from diverse sources about this (eg see About Islam) and have written a couple of speculative pieces based on this about the constraint that the way in which individual moral behavior is enforced (ie by communal pressure, or by the state under Sharia law) has on inhibiting initiative and thus limiting modernization in Muslim dominated societies (eg see Discouraging Pointless Extremism and Saving Muslims from Themselves). I have had a lot of interaction with Islamic radicals worldwide – and a moderate Islamist (a leading proponent of introducing Sharia Law into Australia) strongly endorsed the ideas in the latter reference (which simply built on the former). I have looked at the constraints that Arabic cultural traditions have placed not only on initiative but also on the way science is viewed in the Muslim world (see About Arabic Thought and Islamic Science). Also as noted in my email of 16 January, I was able to present ideas about modernisation in Indonesia (the world’s largest Muslim community) to Christian-sponsored groups linked to Indonesia’s Muslim cultural leader;
  • East Asia is again not an area that I have a lot of lived experience of – though I have travelled quite a bit. However it is a subject that I have had an opportunity to do a lot of work on (eg see Background in section of Competing Civilizations concerning East Asia). I suspect that I have made a significant breakthrough in understanding the intellectual foundations of the ‘economic miracles’ that Japan pioneered. Professor Chalmers Johnson (author of MITI and the Japanese Miracle) described my early speculations about this as being on the leading edge of the social sciences. Examples of the practical implications of that work are in Babes in the Asian Woods. One can learn something from living in an environment (ie one can see what people do and say), but this is not much help in understanding why they do and say those things. A great deal more can be learned from books about the intellectual framework of societies and how this translates into behaviours. This does not result in complete knowledge of what people do in other contexts, but it does allow what they do and say to be much better understood.

You clearly prefer to deal with issues that reducible and can be dealt with one at a time. Unfortunately the real world is not like that. It is complex and constantly changing – and attempts that we make to abstract simple / logical relationships out of this are: (a) useful in providing partial understanding; (b) limited to providing partial understanding; and (c) at times the basis of totalitarianism. Western societies prospered because they created simplified social environments (eg via a rule of law, democracy, capitalism) in which abstract / rational analysis could be useful in incrementally solving practical problems. China’s traditional religion (Daoism) assumes that problems are not reducible (ie its core precept is ‘The Dao (truth / way) that can be known is not the true Dao’). Asian societies with an ancient Chinese cultural heritage have not created simplified social environments (eg via a rule of law, democracy, capitalism) and thus find that rationality is not a useful method for solving practical problems. Their traditional methods for solving practical problems have been quite different (eg see What does an 'Asian Century' Imply) – and have been re-emphasized in recent decades because Japan demonstrated the possibility of ‘economic miracles’ using those methods.

Recognizing that reality is complex and constantly changing (which means that many fundamental questions can’t be answered on the basis of reason / rationality / ratiocination) does not necessarily have to lead to mysticism – where people invent gods. The alternative is revelation, where God provides a starting point for understanding. This is a possibility that you need to seriously consider because seeking a ‘warranted belief on the basis of full understanding of the available evidence’ would then be likely to reasonably successful, whereas it must fail otherwise. Whether or not Pascal’s wager (related to the risks of encountering a jealous God as suggested in Exodus 13:14) is logically persuasive, does not matter as much as whether it reflects reality.

The teachings attributed to Jesus (and the Christian tradition) can’t realistically be said to be a product of human efforts when the original source of those teachings (who went off in directions that were without precedent) also claimed to be a manifestation of God, and gave evidence of this which satisfied his associates and many / most of those who have examined the record of that evidence over the last two millennia.

The unique feature of the way in which adherence to Christian values is achieved involves responsibility of individual consciences to God, rather than to human moral authoritarians. This was the point I was trying to make in Secular Angels To 'Care for our Souls' Would Kill off Liberal Values.


L: Godless Morality Would Raise Devilish Difficulties

Godless Morality Would Raise Devilish Difficulties - email sent 5/2/13

Mitchell Landrigan,
University of Technology Sydney

Re: The search for a godless vision of morality in Australian politics, Online Opinion, 4/2/13

I should like to suggest that your goal of finding a ‘godless vision of morality in Australian politics’ is likely to be vastly harder than even your article indicated.

My interpretation of your article: Julia Gillard took office as Prime Minister (PM) as an atheist – following Christian predecessors. On issues of gay marriage and asylum seekers the PM’s stance has led to confusion about her moral framework. Also she seems unable to express an alternative moral framework to Christianity (eg one based on secular humanism). Kevin Rudd briefly brought an energetic style of Christianity to the role of PM (opposing gay marriage, and equating asylum seekers to Good Samaritan story). Howard as PM was more traditional. God was with Howard and his ministers. His opposition to gay marriage and asylum seekers, though offensive to progressives, was consistent with his beliefs. Julia Gillard has not expressed a moral basis for decisions, but merely referred to tradition. She need not explain opposing gay marriage in terms of atheism – as atheists could take either view on this question. But she has not said anything much. On the question of asylum seekers, there is an opportunity to express compassion for vulnerable, weak, marginalised people. The PM could distinguish her secular views from the Catholic Opposition leader’s lack of compassion. PM’s leadership represents a fading / lost opportunity to provide a secular vision of moral values to the electorate. The irreversible decline in adherence to Christian belief could allow an atheistic PM to supply a set of values founded not on god but on goodwill, kindness and compassion – and a model of robust values based on godless morality.

I submit that you are getting into very deep water and that the issue that you are raising is a little like speculation a few years ago about making Australia into a republic with an elected president. The latter suffered a fatal but generally unrecognised flaw because the apolitical character of appointed-rather-than-elected governors-general / governors is a critical foundation of Australia’s system of government – because it enables / forces them to hold all executive power and use it only on the advice of an elected government, rather than conflict with the elected government by seeking their own policy agenda (see Politicising the Head of State).

There is a parallel with the questions that your article has posed because widespread Christian adherence within the community is a critical foundation of Australia’s liberal legal and government institutions (for reasons suggested in Christian Foundations of Liberal Western Institutions and Cultural Foundations of Western Strengths). The latter drew attention to:

  • the importance for liberal institutions of the ‘responsible liberty’ that can result when moral behaviour is promoted primarily by individual consciences responsible to God (a unique feature of the Judeo-Christian traditions), rather than relying on claims by human ‘moral authorities’ (eg tribal elders, demi-gods, philosophers, dictators);
  • the importance for economic and social progress of the individual initiative that liberal institutions facilitate.

As your article correctly noted there has been a decline in Christian adherence in Australia. There has also been an consequent escalation of: (a) social dysfunctions related to the loss of firm moral foundations ; and (b) pressure on potential human moral authorities (eg political leaders) to define moral / ethical standards – a step that would have the unforseen effect of breaking down the separation of ‘church’ and state and undermining the presumption of responsible individual liberty that is the basis of Australia’s legal and government institutions (see Erosion of the Moral Foundations of Liberal Institutions and Keeping Religion out of Australian Politics).

The issues raised in your article are complex also because:

  • It is not realistic for anyone (PM or not) to simply express values that they would like others to accept. To be credible these would have to be placed in the context of a comprehensive world-view which justifies those values (see The Debate about values taught in state schools);
  • Others have suggested alternative (eg non-political) ways to inculcate ‘secular’ values into society, and this would seem to create devilish difficulties similar to those that would result under your PM-as-Australia’s-moral-authority proposal (eg see Secular Angels To 'Care for our Souls' Would Kill off Liberal Values);
  • Support for ‘gay’ marriage is not a clear moral question. For example the linkages between the public acceptance of homosexual behaviour (which legalisation of ‘gay’ marriage would reinforce) and child sexual abuse arguably make such public acceptance morally indefensible (see Homophilia: Public Acceptance of Homosexual Behaviour). A more significant moral failure arguably involves the refusal of governments and others to address the full extent of the sexual abuse phenomenon that seems to be involved in the breeding of many / most ‘gays’ (see Child Sex Abuse Inquiry: Another Official Cover-up?); and likewise
  • Australia’s best / most moral response to the plight of the world’s umpteen million refugees may very well not be to encourage a few to put their lives at risk by reliance on people smugglers but rather to seek ways to eliminate the problem at its source (eg see Complexities in the Refugee Problem and The biggest issue missing from the asylum seeker debate in particular). The latter suggests that the main targets of moral criticism in relation to the plight of asylum seekers should thus be the humanities’ faculties of Western universities.

I would be interested in your response to my speculations.

John Craig

PS: on a minor point of semantics, you suggested that an atheistic PM should be able to express a ‘secular vision of moral values to the electorate’. One problem is that: (a) secular (as I understand it) refers to all aspects of a society other than religion; and (b) Atheism is a religion in the sense that it is a shared belief system based on its adherents’ unprovable assumptions and thus can’t realistically be claimed to be a ‘secular’ viewpoint.

M: Bringing Modernity into the Church

Bringing Modernity into the Church - email sent 30/3/13

Elena Douglas
Centre for Social Impact
University of Western Australia

Re: Pope Francis has earned global praise, now he must modernise church, The Australian, 30/3/13

Your article suggested (validly) that there has been a disconnect between the church and modernity, and that the church must adapt. I should like to suggest that while the church needs to ‘get on top of modernity’ it is mainly modernity that needs to adapt.

My interpretation of your article: Does the election of a new pope herald the start of a new age? He catches buses and renounces princely accoutrements. He has taken the name of St francis who warned about the church being destroyed from within. The church is in trouble. The big question for the church is its stance towards modernity. There is little communication between the church and the Republic of Modernity. The church values continuity / endurance while modernity values novelty and efficiency. The church must come to dwell in modern imagination. Its leaders must learn the language of modernity. But church leaders have allowed antipathy towards modernity to overcome its love of humanity. It lacks the crucial knowledge to compete its mission. The Republic of Modernity needs to expand its field of vision. It saw science as the end of history. But this reduces the world to cause and effect. Each part receives focus, but there is no big picture view. The pillars of modernity (democracy, science, economics and the self) are means to an end – but they miss the point about meaning and purpose. It can’t bring Christ’s wisdom / love to life. Yet modernity possesses a lot of knowledge / wisdom. Billions of people were lifted out of poverty by modern truths, not ancient wisdom. The church has engaged ambivalently with economics in the past – and must do better in future. Newspapers and bibles must both be studied. Ecumenism must be extended to modernity – not in pursuit of the shallow liberalism of permissiveness and identity – but to meet humanity’s need for community, freedom and love.

Your article suggested that modernity has lifted millions out of poverty without any help from the church. This is incorrect as widespread Christian adherence within the community was (and is) vital to the emergence of the freedoms that enabled ‘modernity’ to be successful in a material sense (see Cultural Foundations of Western Strength, 2001).

And the view that ‘modernity’ involves the end of history (because it has science and science explains everything) is also wrong (see Problems in an Internally Deterministic Scientific Worldview, 2001+). Science helps explain how things work – but it does not explain where the information that makes them work that way comes from.

John Craig

N: The Dali Lama's Search for Moral Wisdom

The Dali Lama's Search for Moral Wisdom - email sent 16/6/13

Lisa Macnamara,
The Australian

Re: Dali Lama Tackles Moral Crisis, The Australian, 14/6/13

Your article outlined the Dali Lama’s view that a ‘secular ethics’ (which would respect all faiths, as well as those who profess no faith) is the answer to humanity’s moral failings.

However I submit that God should be recognised as humanity’s greatest source of moral guidance rather than: religions (ie human attempts to find God, or to play god); secular ethicists (who might respect the purely ethical aspects of all faiths); or even the Dali Lama.

My interpretation of your article: The Dali Lama believes secular ethics, not religion, is best placed to assist the moral crisis facing the world’s people. Secular ethics respects all traditional faiths as well as non-believers. Some believe that moral ethics must be based on religion – but no religion can ever be universal. The crisis is universal, so the solution must be universal. If we try to base ethics on religion, the question is: what religion? And one billion of the world’s people are non-believers. The Dali Lama also spoke of: optimism about reform in China under President Xi; and getting more women into leadership roles (noting their greater sense of compassion).

Ethically irresponsible behaviour by individuals has plagued humanity from the dawn of its existence and remains the source of many of the world’s social, economic and political problems.

However the Dali Lama’s recent proposal perhaps needs to be considered mainly in the context of the particularly severe ethical breakdown that has contributed to the crisis of legitimacy facing China’s Communist Party, and to the Party’s consequent need to create a secular system of ethics.

Comments on this and other aspects of the the Dali Lama's proposal are outlined on my web-site. The latter also refers to difficulties associated with the notion of ‘secular ethics’. For example:

  • it is impossible to separate the purely ‘ethical’ components of various faiths from their broader and diverse world-views - yet this would be vital for a universal 'secular ethics';
  • it would not be ethical to unquestioningly accept the claims of faiths (or supposed 'secular' claims) that have dysfunctional consequences for affected communities;
  • those who claim to be ‘secular’ (ie to have no religion) tend to merely have a different type of religion; and
  • human claims to moral authority tend to be associated with political authoritarianism.

The Kingdom of God that Jesus of Nazareth proclaimed seems to me to be a better alternative. It involves promoting ethical behaviour through God’s rule directly in the hearts of individuals without reliance on human moral authoritarians as intermediaries. This not only offers benefits to individuals and to their neighbours but can make liberal societies possible (see Christian Foundations of Liberal Western Institutions). The Kingdom is still a work in progress, and is a goal that is worth pursuing.


John Craig

Detailed Comments

China’s Ethical Crisis

Irresponsible individual behaviour is a problem that is as old as humanity.

However it is in China in recent years that the lack of a sound ethical framework has now reached crisis point (eg because entrenched corruption, abuse of power and the emergence of the world's most inequitable distribution of income caused the so-called 'Communist' state to lose the support of many of its people). Recreating a secular system of ethics has thus been one of the domestic reform goals of China’s 'Communist' Party. The Dali Lama’s enthusiasm for reform in China under President Xi perhaps indicates that he could now be being offered Communist Party patronage in promoting a global ‘secular ethics’, which would also potentially provide the so-called 'Communist' Party with a 'mantle of heaven' to justify ongoing autocratic rule.

In this context it is worth considering the origins of China’s exceptionally-severe ethical breakdown.

China’s traditional religions (eg Confucianism and Daoism) are non-theistic. Moreover they involve particular, rather than universal, ethics (ie individuals have moral obligations to those with whom they have a relationship but no universal obligations). Moral authority traditionally resided with Confucian bureaucratic elites who: (a) controlled China on behalf of emperors by (sometimes coercively) ‘educating’ the community in the ‘right’ things to do and the ‘right’ way to relate to others; and (b) gained knowledge of what was ‘right’ from a study of history (and by seeking a consensus from their networks of subordinates). The autocratic exercise of power was justified by claiming 'the mantle of heaven' (ie that one was acting in the interests of the community as a whole).

China’s Cultural Revolution sought to eliminate Confucianism – because Mao saw it as the source of past oppression of China’s people.

However when China started its process of economic modernisation in the late 1970s on the basis of (so called) ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’ this simply involved re-introducing a form of the modified Confucianism which had previously been the basis of economic ‘miracles’ in Japan and elsewhere. This ‘neo-Confucianism’ incorporated Daoism which: (a) disputes the relevance of human understanding; and (b) makes no distinction between good and evil (see Sydney's 2010 New Year's Eve Celebrations: Awakening Which 'Spirit'? ). Neo-Confucianism was useful in terms of enabling China’s social elites in the so-called Communist Party to start ‘educating’ China’s people in the ‘right’ way to manufacture and build things. This involved learning from the modern world (rather than from China’s own history).

However neo-Confucianism was ethically disastrous because Confucianism’s traditional ethical component could not be acknowledged so soon after the Cultural Revolution (and still can’t be acknowledged because so many Chinese still value the social equality of the Mao era - see China’s ‘Command Economy’). Thus trying to promote a system of ‘secular ethics’ that is compatible with Confucianism through an ‘independent’ agency would presumably make sense from the viewpoint of China's so-called 'Communist' Party.

Problems with 'Secular Ethics'

However there are obvious difficulties with the Dali Lama’s suggestion about ‘secular ethics’, namely:

  • A ‘secular ethics’ which seeks to incorporate the ethics associated with all the world's faiths (and supposedly non-religious ethicists) cannot be truly universal. Any system of ethics must be based on, and derived from, a broad world view. And the world views of diverse religions and (supposed) ‘secularists’ are quite different. There would be a need to select only one favoured world view if there was to be a truly universal ‘secular ethics’;
  • A ‘secular ethics’ that was based on the alternative presumption that the diverse world views and ethical teachings of all faiths (and supposed secularists) should be respected (and remain unchallenged by other viewpoints) would not be ethical – because it would disadvantage those whose existing world views are dysfunctional in some practical sense. Culture, of which religion is a major component, is the principal determinant of a community's ability to be materially successful and to live in relative peace and harmony. Culture affects: people's goals and aspirations; the way they understand reality (and thus how they go about solving problems, and whether they can develop technologies); their ability to learn, to cope with risk and to change; the way people relate; the scope for initiative; and the institutions their society maintains (see Competing Civilizations ). North Korea’s church’e ideology insists that external influence should not come to bear on any society. Thus North Korea would presumably be pleased with a no-cross-fertilization interpretation of ‘secular ethics’. But this would hardly be ethical, because it would discourage the spread of beneficial changes (see also UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples: Perpetuating Disadvantage?);
  • Those who claim to be ‘secular’ because they do not believe in others’ religions’ seem to believe in their own style of religion. For example, Western Atheists appear to have a ’religious’ faith in the power of human science, reason and critical thinking - though the latter are all limited and fallible. Likewise East Asia’s non-theistic religions (which reject reason and critical thinking) have similar faith in the wisdom derived from their communal experience and knowledge – including that derived by arranging a consensus amongst subordinates (perhaps at some future time in the name of a global ‘secular ethics’ as a corollary of trying to create a new International 'Confucian' Political and Economic Order);
  • Human claims to moral authority (eg by tribal elders / divine kings / ‘secular ethicists’ / Atheists / philosophers / Islamists / Confucian scholars / 'political correctness' advocates) are a formula for political authoritarianism (see also Accidentally Encouraging Moral Authoritarianism?). And the consultations presumably envisaged for organising a ‘secular ethics’ could be highly political. If a universal 'secular ethics' were identified, this would become a basis for moral legalism and the enforcement of whatever 'spin' those who claimed the right to enforce moral behaviour chose to put on it. Jesus of Nazareth strongly criticised those who did so - arguing that the 'spirit' of moral laws was more important than the exact wording.
O: Progress in Understanding the Consequences of Religion

Progress in Understanding the Consequences of Religion - email sent 20/4/14

Professor Janna Thompson
La Trobe University

Re: The God of Big Things, Inside Story, 1/4/14

I should like to provide some suggestions in relation to your lengthy outline of, and comments on, Professor Terry Eagleton’s interesting speculations in Culture and the Death of God. Ironically I read this on Good Friday – a day on which deicide (the killing of a god) has a very specific implication and had an outcome that human logic could not have anticipated, but was reportedly predicted (John 12:32)

Professor Eagleton presents many valid points about the continued practical importance to the modern world of what he calls ‘religion’ (though from your account he does not seem to consider the now-very-significant implications of non-Christian religions). As you describe his work, he is arguing that there is a need to create a society in which religion (and thus God) would not be ‘needed’. And your comments implied that the ‘need’ for religion (and God) can be eliminated by allowing people to find their own basis for morality.

Some detailed comments (together with an outline of your article) are on my website. These suggested, for example, that:

  • Professor Eagleton is to be congratulated for studying the practical consequences of religion – though the implications of Christianity for Western societies may be more profound than even he has recognised. However the fact that so many of his peers refuse to even consider the issue leads to a self-imposed blindness that contributes to much of the difficulties and violence that plague the world today. However;
  • It is unwise to ‘punch above your weight’, and taking on God seems hazardous;
  • As your article suggested a major challenge of the modern era has been to reconcile science with traditional religion. However the widespread assumption that science tells the full story is likely to be wrong;
  • Professor Eagleton’s arguments about ‘religion’ are far too narrow – as religious traditions that are incompatible with the world that Christianity created (ie a world where the welfare and capabilities of individuals are valued) are currently having a major influence on history);
  • Western rulers have been right to fear that individual self-interest would dominate over the individual responsibility that Christianity has promoted – because this would undermine the foundations of the liberal institutions that have allowed rapid social, economic and political progress in recent centuries. However, unless Christian churches can be encouraged to act, this is exactly what is likely to happen;
  • The ‘secular’ morality that evangelical Atheists (and others) have sought to promote would be incompatible with a liberal society.

I would be interested in your response to my speculations.

John Craig

Details (Working Draft)

An interpretation of 'The God of Big Things':

The prevalence of suffering an evil in the best reason not to believe in the Judeo-Christian God. But those who experience suffering adhere more strongly – despite the arguments of sceptics and atheists. Terry Eagleton (University of Lancaster) opposes the ‘new atheism’ not because he wants to defend religion but because ‘new atheists’ don’t understand religion. Our mainly secular culture has not succeeded in killing off God. Religion has two important functions. It provides meaning / values to individuals which transcend mundane existence, and provides the glue that holds societies together by motivating people to accept sacrifice. 18th century European rulers feared irreligious doctrines – and now this translates into fears that societies dominated by individual self-interest can hold themselves together. Religion could do this because it appealed to all, and combined theory with imagery / ritual / intellectual rigor and appeal to senses. Modern history involves a search for the ‘viceroy of God’ – but nothing (eg reason, nature, spirit, art, imagination or culture) has succeeded. The Enlightenment failed because of the dry abstract nature of its principles. The Idealists recognised this and sought unsuccessfully to ground human existence and freedom in transcendent subjectivity. Romantics saw Nature or the imagination as a source of comfort, spirituality and reason. Eagleton saw culture as the most plausible substitute for religion. It requires spiritual inwardness and respect for tradition. But this did not reach down from elites to general populace. Nationalism is the only substitute for God that can motivate the masses. Eagleton argues that modern though failed to kill off religion because it took over the trappings, doctrines and aims of religion – restating them in secular form. Enlightenment thinkers and idealists (like religious ideologues) aimed to provide universal foundation for morality / law. Eagleton follows Neitsche in recognising that death of God also implies death of morality and spiritual transcendence – though he failed to fully appreciate the implications of his own philosophy. Only postmodernism has truly caused the death of God. It does not want truths / foundations or the self as a source of meaning – and thus doesn’t need God. But God refuses to die. The needs religion fulfilled have not gone away. Eagleton moves through the history of Western culture with verve and style. He is no fan of postmodernism – and does not applaud its annihilation of religion. He does not defend religion – but rather suggests ways to eliminate the forms of life that need religion. There is a need for a mority that starts with human body and connects with lived experience. A religion is needed that takes seriously the message of Christ and his solidarity with the poor and oppressed. This is not new. The Romantics also emphasised the body and lived experience. Philosophers since the enlightenment sought to ground morality in human needs and experience. Many reformers / revolutionaries have taken Christ’s example to heart. Eagleton is drawn to Marx’s idea that the need for religion is founded on the nature of capitalistic society.. He emphasises the deficits of consumer capitalism (ie sterility and encouragement of subjectivity). Postmodernism suits this because doctrine is bad for consumption. But postmodernism is not enough. Eagleton suggests the need for (without identifying the nature of) a society that would not need religion. This requires social revolution – though Eagleton never says this. Has this quest discovered no alternative to God. Eagleton regards any pursuit of ideals / moral values as religion in disguise – but he does this himself when he claims that philosophers who attempt to justify universal values are promoting religion in disguise. To think that truth is important, to defend human rights and to thing that there is a duty to help the poor is not the same as religion. One difference is the way these beliefs are held. Religious prescriptions ultimately rest on interpretations of scriptures as the word of God or the teachings of religious authorities. Secular morality and values are justified by appeal to needs or sympathies, communal loyalties or respect for individuals (or living things in nature). Values can be dogmatically held. Some philosophers believe that reason should yield indubitable moral principles. But mostly we believe in uncertainty and moral principles supported by the best available reasons. Uncertainty means that there is no substitute for religion. No secular doctrine can unite all people / provide unquestionable moral values / give meaning to existence / provide a worldview that unites values, empirical laws and divine will – as religion was supposed to do (but never actually did noting the diversity if faiths). The Christian story of creation / resurrection / redemption always had doubters. Secularism just added to this. A faith that everyone subscribes to is neither possible nor desirable in a multicultural society. It is a recipe for persecution or exclusion. Does the lack of a substitute for God matter? Most people find reasons for being moral / cooperating from diverse reasons / beliefs / ideals etc. Religion is just part of the mix. Eagleton sees modern history as search for a viceroy for God. But this is just part of a deeper challenge. The modern age is defined by the rise of science and the split it caused between the material world determined by the laws of nature and qualities associated with the mind or spirit (thought, free will, value, spirituality). Reconciling spirit and matter, determinism and free will or reducing one to the other has been the main task of modern philosophy and theology. Elimination / reconfiguring God is just part of this job. Eagleton’s approach is influenced by his background – which involves concern not for philosophical / theological theories but for their relation to society and culture. However he is right to emphasis the continuing importance of religion in Western societies – and this makes him worth reading in an area that secular thinkers would prefer to ignore (ie the persistence of religious ideas in political life and culture).

In no particularly logical order the following comments seem appropriate on the issues that were raised.

The Practical Relevance of Religion: Professor Eagleton is to be congratulated for doing what so many of his peers refuse to do – ie consider the practical implications of religion. Those implications are indeed profound and the reluctance of many in the social sciences and humanities faculties of Western universities to ‘go there’ because of their postmodern ideologies is arguably a major cause of much of the conflict and violence that leads to suffering in the world today. Some suggestions about this are in Competing Civilizations (2001+). This includes, for example:

  • A fundamental reason for recognising that culture (eg religion) matters. Economists rightly recognise ‘knowledge’ as the major factor in economic growth, and different cultures / religions have radically different approaches to the nature of knowledge (see Culture Matters );
  • Some suggestions about the foundational importance of the Judeo-Christian tradition to the high rate of social, economic and political progress that Western societies have achieved in recent centuries (in Cultural Foundations of Western Strengths: The Realm of the Rational / Responsible Individual. A key point seems to be that while Christianity primarily yields spiritual and eternal benefits for individuals, it also has profound implications for society as a whole by: (a) motivating and empowering those on the bottom rungs of society to help themselves and others (and thereby reduce social inequalities); and (b) providing a foundation for responsible individualism which allows the creation of social, economic and political institutions in which rationality (ie the use of abstract concepts as models of reality) can dramatically increase the effectiveness of individuals in all walks of life;
  • Suggestions about the consequences of other major religious traditions (see East Asia: The Realm of the Autocratic, Hierarchical and Intuitive Ethnic Group? and Islamic Societies: The Realm of the Self-Repressive Tribes?). The latter is significant because Muslim dominated societies have failed for centuries in trying to keep up with a modernising / rapidly changing world and current uncertainty about appropriate systems of political economy is leading to instability and violence (especially in the Middle East) – see The Muslim World Seems to be Headed for Chaos. However those societies' problems can’t be solved by changing their political and economic systems – because the obstacle to progress seems to lie in their people’s heads (ie in the way it is believed that Islam needs to be enforced) – see Fatal Flaws;
  • Reasons to suspect that the uncertainty about knowledge that post-modernism emphasises: (a) represents an over-reaction to limitations on the margins of positive knowledge; and (b) has serious adverse practical consequences (eg see Eroding the Foundations of Western Culture and of a Liberal International Order and Cultural Ignorance as a Source of Conflict ). .

Don’t Punch above Your Weight: In one of the Batman movies, a Wayne Corporation employee threatens to expose Bruce Wayne as Batman unless he receives a payout. One of Wayne’s confidants then expresses surprise: “You believe that one of the world’s richest men spends his nights beating up hoodlums. And you want to blackmail such a man?’ There is a fundamental presumption in Professor Eagleton’s arguments that God is a creation of human culture. However if this is not so, Professor Eagleton (like the Wayne Corporation employee ) risks ‘punching above his weight’.

Reconciling Science and God: there is no doubt (as you suggested) that: (a) a major challenge of the modern age has been to reconcile the rise of science (which implies that what happens in the material world is determined solely by the laws of nature) with notions of the mind and spirit; and (b) the perceived need to ‘kill’ God (again) is largely a subset of that intellectual challenge. However there seems to be a basic flaw in the assumption that the laws of nature alone determine what happens in the material world (see Problems in an Internally Deterministic Scientific Worldview, 2001+). The deterministic laws of physics do not explain how information can be gained (eg in creation / evolution) or lost (eg in the entropic decay recognised by the Second Law of Thermodynamics). It seems that: (a) there is ‘something’ out there which has guided the development of the universe and everything in it; and (b) that ‘something’ could only ever be known by revelation. What can be known by reason and science (for example) is only ever a reflection of what exists – not of a way of knowing about the ‘something’ that influenced how it came to exist. The Judeo-Christian tradition can reasonably be viewed as a plausible (if intermittent) process of revelation by that ‘something’. The science and reason that Atheists worship as an alternative is not as strong a foundation for a comprehensive world view as they imagine (see Celebrating a New Evangelical 'Religion': Atheism, 2010).

Suffering: you suggested that suffering is the best reason not to believe in the Christian God. However a God who is outside time and nature would presumably not see things the same way that people do. Jesus taught that the things of the here and now are not the most important (Matthew 6:19-21) and that physical death is not the worst thing that can happen to a person (Matthew 10:28). Suffering is an intrinsic feature of both nature and Christianity. With nature’s food chains every creature’s lunch will often be another creature’s life (and suffering). And acceptance of suffering seems to be a central component of the Christian story. Jesus presented himself as being like God. He also presented himself as being like a king who is also a ‘suffering servant’ of others – which perhaps implies that the ‘something’ that created nature also suffers as it (in some way) serves that creation. Jesus also taught his followers that they were expected to serve others (Mark 10:43) that they could expect to suffer while doing so (Matthew 16: 24-26). The existence of suffering is an intrinsic feature of reality and of Christianity – not a reason not to believe in the Christian God.

Culture: Professor Eagleton’s arguments about ‘religion’ seem far too narrow because they have not taken account of religious traditions that have had a massive influence on recent world history. Societies' cultures are treated as a substitute for God in significant traditions in East Asia, and have been effective in 'motivating the masses' to advance the position of their particular ethnic communities. East Asian traditions are radically different to those that have been the basis of Western progress and also effective up to a point (eg see East Asia: The Realm of the Autocratic, Hierarchical and Intuitive Ethnic Group?). A simple way to characterise the difference is that: (a) the West subscribes to universal values and relies on abstract concepts as the basis for rational decision making whereas East Asian traditions accept no universal values and make decisions on the basis of quasi-bureaucratic consensus; and (b) the West, values the welfare and capabilities of individuals as a consequence of its Judeo-Christian heritage, whereas East Asia traditionally does not.. However those neo-Confucian religious traditions (which were perhaps reflected in both Japan's WWII ambitions to create an Asian Co-prosperity Sphere and in the Dream that China's current president promotes) also tend to be: (a) incompatible with the liberal international order that Western societies created after WWII (see Structural Incompatibility Puts Global Growth at Risk, 2003); and probably unsustainable (see Are East Asian Economic Models Sustainable?). The reluctance of the humanities and social science faculties in Western universities to study the practical consequences of religion has been anything but helpful (eg see Babes in the Asian Woods, 2009). Professor Eagleton’s work is a step in the right direction – but there is still a long way to go (see also It's Time to Expel religious Naivety from universities)

Individual Irresponsibility as a Threat to Liberal Society: There is no doubt (as you suggested) that 18th century Western rulers had reason to fear a situation in which a lack of Christian adherence leads to the dominance of individual self-interest. This would necessarily undermine the foundations of their societies’ liberal intuitions. There is also little doubt that this has been happening over the past 3-4 decades (see Erosion of the Moral Foundations of Liberal Institutions, 2003). Unless Christian churches can be encouraged to reverse this trend, liberal societies have little prospect of survival.

Secular Morality: There is no doubt that the evangelical Atheists (and other who want to take God out of the moral equation) are in a challenging position (see Godless Morality Would Raise Devilish Difficulties, 2013 and The Dali Lama's Search for Moral Wisdom, 2013). Human societies have long had philosophers and ‘god kings’ whose claims to moral authority have to be enforced to be credible, and (as in the world’s second and third largest (neo-Confucian) economies now – ie China and Japan) this inevitably breaks down the responsible individualism that is the necessary foundation of liberal institutions and the possibility of achieving social, economic and political progress through the use of rationality.

Escaping the Strictures of Atheism +

Escaping the Strictures of Atheism - email sent 29/3/15

Simon Smart
Centre for Public Christianity

Re: Can You Believe this Billboard, Eternity, March 2015

Your article pointed to claims (by Sydney Atheists and the Atheist Foundation of Australia) on a billboard in Sydney that they have ‘escaped from religion’. It also noted that Sydney Atheists President (Steve Martin) had argued that: ‘being religious you are trapped … but we offer a way of escape the strictures of religion to gain freedom of thought, deed and a better life, governed by morals that are determined through rational, humane and sceptical thinking’.

I should like to submit for your consideration that (if religion is defined (reasonably) as a shared belief system based on its adherents’ unprovable assumptions), then claiming the Atheism is not a ‘religion’ is sheer nonsense (see Celebrating a New Evangelical 'Religion': Atheism, 2010 and Atheism as a New Religion, 2010 in particular).

The tools by which Sydney Atheists’ President would seek to (say) determine appropriate morals (ie rational, humane and sceptical thinking) are very limited. A degree of scepticism by Atheists about the power of human rationality in dealing with complex systems has long been needed – but does not yet seem to have been forthcoming (see Seeking Enlightenment). If Sydney Atheists remain unwilling to highlight the limits of human understanding, perhaps they could actually demonstrate the power of their ‘rational, humane and critical thinking’ by deriving and publishing moral principles that are clear and authoritative. If they succeeded this would take the pressure off everyone else – and show all humanity how people should live their lives.

However doing so would not be easy. And, as your article noted, Jesus reserved some of his harshest criticism for people who believed that they could do so – because this merely added oppressive religious burdens to people’s lives.

John Craig

Interchange with Steve Marton (Sydney Atheists)

Email Response to copy of 'Escaping the Strictures of Atheism' from Steve Marton (31/3/15)

I'm not sure why you have contacted us or what you want from us.

 Just to be clear on atheism, however, it is the non-belief in any gods or more generally supernatural creatures or events. 

Regarding morality, behaviour or laws, I hope that you can understand that because we do not believe in gods, we do not believe that any gods put forward any guidance regarding morality, behaviour or laws. Nor do we believe that anyone should make financial or any other sacrifices to any gods. Regarding those that do sacrifice their hard earned income to gods or the religions that espouse belief in those gods, most of us would see such people as victims of fraud. 

Regarding skepticism, it is that skepticism that has helped most atheists escape religion and other supernatural fantasies presented as fact 

I have no idea of what you mean by "Escaping the strictures of atheism". That I am aware, there are no particular strictures and certainly no strictures like the ones pertaining to religion. 

As for rational thought, rational thought is absolutely unrelated and independent of any religious doctrine. Religions generally seek to obfuscate intellect, rationality, logic and education. Atheists generally hunger for knowledge. We do not read and reread the same book like most of those who follow religions who might read the Bible or Koran incessantly. 

Most of the active atheists in our community have escaped one religion or another These religions include Anglicanism, Baptism, Catholicism, Evangelicalism, Uniting, Jehovah's Witnesses, Mormonism, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Sikhism, Jainism, Buddhism and others, most of which claim to be superior to the others . 

I hope that this helps you to understand a few issues.

CPDS Reply to Steve Maron (31/3/15)

Thanks. Would it be OK for me to add your comments to my web-site (ie with Escaping the Strictures of Atheism)?

Your response certainly helps me to understand that Sydney Atheists are no more willing than others to be skeptical about the claims of their ‘gods’ (ie reason and science). I have been seeking a bit of skeptical inquiry from Atheists about this for some time – but there doesn’t seem to be much enthusiasm for doing so.

There certainly would be ‘strictures’ under Atheism. Every society has to have a source of moral authority. Under the Judeo-Christian tradition that authority is recognized to be God’s - so there is no basis for human claims to such authority and liberal institutions can exist (see Cultural Foundations of Western Progress: The Realm of the Rational / Responsible Individual). Under all other religions, some elite group claims moral authority and liberal institutions are more-or-less impossible. There are increasing signs that Atheists (and diverse humanists) are now making such claims (eg see Godless Morality Would Raise Devilish Difficulties and Evidence of Growing Ethical Regulation).