Friday, 29 July 2011

Fun with the School God Club -- By Laura (Editor)

Here in the UK we don’t generally have a huge problem with Christian groups exerting influence over school life. I definitely have it really good compared with schools I’ve heard about in other countries, where Christian student groups roam the halls loudly Jesus-lovin’ every lunchtime, or hold a lot of weight in school committees.

But my school does have a God club, which makes for equal parts of frustration and amusement. The amusement came, most memorably, on Valentine’s Day, when the club was handing out sweets along with a little slip of paper with a Bible verse on it. Obviously, God wasn’t watching over their actions too closely that day, because a typo meant that the little slip announced to the student population: “For God gave his only son, John”.

Thursday, 28 July 2011

Rights and Withdrawal (Part One) --

The school term’s coming to end at my Church of England school, the sun is shining down on the scarce trees that adorn the playground, most teachers have plonked on a video for the kids (although they’re not supposed to anymore!), and many children have massed joyfully in the hall to celebrate another triumphant year of learning in the joyously joyful joyfest end of year Communion of joy. What!

The teachers may have loosened their ties but “attendance to the Communion will be compulsory.” Some children wept, others began needlessly writing out lines in sheer fear and confusion.

Luckily for me I’m a sixth-former, my mind immediately turned back to the information I picked up off a website a few weeks ago.

Here’s the link, and I thank Keith Porteous Wood very graciously for its availability, he even claimed to be “personally responsible for its enactment” when I emailed him for guidance on the issue. You see, withdrawal wasn’t as easy as I thought.

“Perhaps you would feel more comfortable in another school.” said Mr Bingley (not real name) the deputy head, stroking his chin and looking towards the floor. Although indirect he was saying that I could be thrown out the school of at least refused further entry next year, for not attending Communion. He argued that it was “expected” of the sixth-formers to concede to the Christian ethos of the school.

Ok, so I was a bit scared, I mean, I really didn’t want to go this Communion, especially since I had a right not to go, but then I didn’t want to get chucked out the school! Or did I. (just kidding I didn’t.) I bet he wouldn’t have said the same to someone explicitly of a different faith, e.g. a Muslim which are present in the school.

I began to wonder if my rights really meant anything.

Are Proofs or Evidence for Deities Even Hypothetically Possible? -- By Mike K

Ever since de-converting, I've taken things like Occam's Razor and the burden of proof to heart, and enjoyed what was essentially a cleaning out of closets of all sorts of irrational bunk and superstition. There is an unshakable confidence that comes with reasonable doubt, a high standard of evidence and a willingness to accept evidence if it's merited. It rightly puts the burden of proof back on the shoulders of the claimants.

But I wonder if, at least for theists, it's an impossible burden - even if there were a god.

We all know the saying that “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence” but it's not really true, certainly not in all cases. At least with something like a personal god and creator, an intelligent designer with which you would see evidence everywhere. For something like that absence of evidence
 is definitely evidence of absence, just not explicit proof of any sort. With that in mind, I've occasionally asked, “What would be good evidence of the claims of god?” I honestly can never think of anything and generally give up pretty quickly. There is a central problem when it comes to a standard of evidence for an un-evidenced 'superbeing'.

Consider this video:


My friend showed this to me a few days ago and one of the first things to jump to mind was doing this where I could be seen by some tribal natives - the type that still throw spears at near-flying planes - and land where the impressionable lot would worship me as their sky deity! -Or perhaps not.

What I could do though was disprove my own divinity, and reveal to them there is no magic to flying, something anyone could achieve with the knowledge.

If I didn't demystify the science of human flight, you'd expect them to worship me, maybe even executing doubters for impiety in the presence of a deity. They'd do it because they couldn't imagine a natural explanation for me gliding across the sky. But if I explained it to them, a dangerous idea may occur: that if one thing presumed divine isn't, what does that mean for all the other things presumed divine? What of the sun, rain, lightning and life?

The first scientific discovery of this sort for any people ought to be the start of a philosophical revolution, at least it would if not for our incredible ability to compartmentalise our world view. But if it did, as it has for us, then to a sensible person something that looks magic would never be automatically presumed magic.

Clarke's third law:
Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. 

The thing is that we can conceive how the apparently magic can be natural. Flying is child’s play to our very knowledgeable minds. But we can conceive of a great deal more than just flying. We have a whole genre for these things called science fiction. It would be very impressive to see, but witnessing a being capable of harnessing the total energy output of a star doesn't for a moment seem godly to us. Some even expect humans to attain that kind of knowledge. The appearance of magic is simply no useful standard of evidence.

A bit closer to home, one of the many "proofs" that believers tote as work of the divine is alleged science in the bible. Now I don't think for a second that there is any real science is in the bible; to me it reads just as belligerently ignorant as the rancid sprawling of any bronze-age farmer would be. It takes real effort to interpret that nonsense into anything that resembles science but they manage - or more specifically manage to interpret to reflect recent discoveries, always after the fact. But even if I conceded that there was predictions of science in the bible, what would that prove?

There was a great deal of fascinating science done in antiquity. In the third century BCE, a Greek scientist named Eratosthenes managed not only to figure out that the planet was round but managed to work out the size of the planet. This discovery makes it interesting that the bible still depicts in Genesis a disk world with a dome sky afloat the deep. The bible was altered greatly over the centuries it was codified, particularly before it was canonised, and yet none of the ancient science found its way into the book. So there is a lot of science that could be in the bible, yet isn't, even though there was opportunity. But what if there was, and not just science from antiquity, but anachronistic science?

What about ancient astronauts? I mean, there's no real evidence for them but it'd be more likely than something divine, wouldn't it? Regardless of the probabilities, there is at least a non-supernatural explanation for something like that, which, due to the virtue of it being a natural explanation means Occam's Razor favours it for its fewer assumptions.

So what's left? What kinds of things do we require before we can treat the divine as a reasonable idea? Well if we were talking about a magic man, like Jesus, the very least we would demand to be shown is not simply something we cannot explain, that would be an argument from ignorance & credulity. I think back to watching Derren Brown on tv with my mum. She refused to believe he wasn't psychic, even after him explicitly saying he wasn't. Simply there is a great precedence of hucksters pretending to be magic, there's no shortage of them today even. Psychic mediums, faith healers, past-life regression hypnotists, take your pick.

A magic man could put on a good show, a fantastically inexplicable show, but that's simply not enough. Even in the best case for a miracle worker, none could ever be distinguishable from a talented huckster so the safer bet is always going to be the huckster.

What about personal revelation? Quite frankly, with the amount of knowledge we already have about the fallibility of the mind and experience, it's hard to understand why it's offered as some kind of evidence for the divine. It could simply come down to the sensing of a ghostly presence induced by carbon monoxide poisoning, sleep paralysis and hypnagogic hallucinations of alien abduction or oxygen starvation causing one of those near death experiences. Revelation and personal experiences just can't be any sort of evidence. I mean, just ask yourself this: "How can I distinguish between revelation and delusion?"

Does that therefore not mean that there isn't anything that could logically convince a skeptic of the supernatural without committing the argument from ignorance fallacy?

We can only ever know something if it's natural. Sure if there is something supernatural above nature and that occasionally interacts with nature, it would be detectable. But we could never learn anything about its mechanism existing outside nature. If we can't know how it works, we can't know its not natural. 

You just cannot parse unknown nature from the supernatural.

Clearly, even if there were a deity or deities out there somewhere, somehow, we could never expect reasonable evidence or proof for them. While the burden of proof is on the theists – its not one a theist could even hypothetically manage. It may feel disingenuous, but when we are asked by believers if there could be any proof we'd accept, the answer must be a simple, “No.”

It raises an interesting issue though. Theists often simultaneously claim that god is good or merciful or something and, “god's ways are mysterious.”

How can you assert anything about something that is entirely shrouded in mystery?

If you are a young non-theist who wants their voice to be heard, consider submitting an article of your own to Generation Atheist. Visit our submissions page for details.

Tomorrow: "Authority" By Harry Bratt 

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Thinking Free-Thinky Thoughts -- By Laura (Editor)

Ladies and gentlemen allow me to introduce you to your new agony aunt, your fountain of wisdom, your friend for life.  He’s about 1300-1400g when fully grown, composed of 77-78% water, makes up about 2% of your body weight, and can generate enough energy to light a 25 watt bulb.

Drum roll, please….

He’s your brain! – and whilst not much of a looker, he’ll serve you well. And here’s the great thing: you have one of these magical machines of your very own! It’s in that space between your ears. Yep, you’ve got it. That cavern you’ve been blasting your Ipod into all day.