Archived blog post

Don't be so mean!

Posted by Ben on Saturday, January 28, 2006 | Permalink

MediaWatchWatch quotes Richard Dawkins' diary in the New Statesman, regarding those who say the recent Root of All Evil? documentaries failed to address both sides of the argument:

"The balance is (over-) provided by Thought for the Day, Prayer for the Day, Songs of Praise, the Daily Service, Faith to Faith, Choral Evensong, Sunday Half-Hour, The Story of God, Belief, Beyond Belief, and others. Mine was a brief opportunity to put the other side."

It does make me giggle when 'militant' atheists are moaned at for only presenting the bad side of religion. I'd be happy to pop a little disclaimer on each post of mine if only the religious bunch did the same. Ministers ending their sermons with 'of course, this is all speculation, and religion has inspired many awful crimes over the centuries, and encourages woolley thinking'. Bin Laden promising fiery death from above as it is the will of Allah, then signing off 'I might be wrong, mind. I guess being willing to do it despite having no evidence makes me even more of a despicable murdering bastard'.

But no, it's a rare sight, a believer addressing both sides of the argument. Yet there's even a sizable proportion of atheists who believe we should not be overly critical of religion, or always acknowledge its good points. How often are atheists extended the same courtesy? I can't remember the last time I read something about atheism by a religious writer that discussed the pros of our stance. It's just another example of the special treatment that religion demands. Apparently believers can sing about how marvellous they are and that's ok. But criticise them - and, worse, do it without giving the little disclaimer about how they're not all bad - and oh how arrogant you are, how rude.

This quote, by Don over at B&W, is rather apt:

"When you consider how religion has handled opposing views over the millenia then outrage at Dawkins' aggressive posture is rather like the school bully yelping when someone hits back."

Comments [ hide comments ]
I certainly agree there should be more scope for atheists, agnostics and secularists to put their arguments across in the media and directly challenge
religious belief systems if they wish. I would definitely be happy with atheists and agnostics giving their thoughts for the day.

At present we seem to have a strange system where it there are few opportunities for atheism and agnosticism to be propounded in a serious fashion but flippant mockery of one religion (Christianity) is allowed - almost de rigeur one might say.

My view is: let's hear all viewpoints within reason and if we are to have mockery of religion, let us not exclude any one religion.
field, 28.01.2006, 12:14pm #
Are you that naive about human behaviour Ben? You never present the good side of religion. Why not give it a try and maybe your hostile behaviour will go away.
RHF, 28.01.2006, 10:26pm #
Thanks for the mention.


It's an often made point that Christianity is uniquely subject to 'flippant mockery', but speaking personally, it's the particular variant of deism I know best. Ever since they carried me to the font the precepts, rituals and core text of christianity have been the underlying basis of my socialisation and education. So who else would I flippantly mock, the Zoroastrians?

Sometimes (and I appreciate that this is not so in your comment) this is followed by the charge that 'You wouldn't talk about Islam like that'. Well, I would and do, but I can appreciate why sceptical thinkers in Islamic societies keep their heads down.

I see your point and agree that the central argument is against the theistic worldview itself rather than particular, local manifestations, but it is a broad front and local battles have to be fought.
Don, 29.01.2006, 1:03am #
it just is that of all the religions of the world, christianity rears its ugly head the most. kinda why we focus on it a little more.

and i myself have seen the goodside of religion. it is very small. kinda like a opium (didn't marx say that?) that makes you feel better and brings you together and can actually bring people together for a common cause of good. why a few weeks ago a christain organization i beleive raised approximately one shitlaod of moeny and gave it to our hospital which was able to buy new equipment . however it resides in a shadow of fear guilt and slaughter that is jsut to big for me to ignore
Shaggy, 29.01.2006, 8:14am #
Don -

If you see that point, you see a mirage.

My point was simply that free speech and free debate is a good in itself. I have nothing to fear from the weak arguments of atheists myself.

To mock a religion is of course an easy thing to do if that religion has no effective power to harm you.
The mockery was perhaps justified at one point but now it is a very easy laugh to get, just as easy as laughing at some accents. If you make mock of Islam all well and good but I hope you realise that PC Plod may come a calling.
field, 29.01.2006, 3:46pm #

Perhaps I did not make myself clear, or perhaps I misunderstood your stance.

I took your point to be that since there are' few opportunities for atheism and agnosticism to be propounded in a serious fashion but flippant mockery of one religion (Christianity) is allowed'then atheists and secularists should spend more time addressing the central question of theism/atheism as such, rather than on specific examples of religion in action.

I would suggest that the idea of a once-justified mockery of religion being now simply a cheap and easy laugh may underestimate the impact religion still has upon public lfe, even in apparently secular countries. A case in point is ID, which is being introduced to British schools and to which mockery is one entirely appropriate response. As it is when the CofE uses its unaccountable presence in parliament to push its religious agenda on homosexuality on the rest of the country.
Don, 29.01.2006, 4:27pm #
Don -

I think perhaps you should read something about the complexity of biological processes before saying it is right to "mock" ID. I don't agree with IDists but I agree that have identified an issue which Dawkins and co. have failed to address.
field, 01.02.2006, 8:32am #
Dawkins has addressed ID - as have the courts in the US and found it is just Christian theology dressed up (rather thinly, albeit with big words) as a science.

It isn't science and it isn't a theory - it's bullshit.

You want to debate Neo-darwinian evoluition? Bring it on!
Marc Draco, 01.02.2006, 11:44pm #
Marco -

Perhaps you should take a look at some of the other threads where I have debated neo-Darwinian evolution with Ben first. There you will see that recent discoveries in epigenetics have proved conclusively that there are direct environmental effects
on organisms which are then inherited - a form of Lamarckism not Darwinism. So whatever Dawkins may say, natural selection of genes is not the only mechanism in evolution.

Whilst it is true that Dawkins may be able to construct a narrative as to how, say, natural selection can deliver various results that is not the same as backing that up through the fossil record or through biochemistry. Complexity is an issue and one I think best explained by what I call Interactive Evolution which would give more scope for genetic evolution.

Another point it has recently been shown that all those lovely Mendel pea experiments they always quote in primers are actually a bit of a fluke. It is not the way inheritance actually works.

You mustn't confuse anti-Darwinism with pro-creationism. I;m not clear how up to date you are on all the recent research.
field, 02.02.2006, 8:49am #
It's OK field. I'm reasonably up to date, I just read the post about ID and saw red. Evolution happened (a lamarkinan/ darwininan hybrid is an interesting posit too which I will get up to speed on) but ID denies all modern evolution 100%. My interest is in stopping this getting taught in schools - a fact you will see from my website.
Marc Draco, 02.02.2006, 11:05am #
i don't suppose you are aware of the glorious flying spaghetti monster who created the world with a single wave of his noodley appendage?
Shaggy, 04.02.2006, 12:04am #
Shaggy -

You'd be more rational to believe in the spaghetti monster than to believe that something can come from literally nothing.
field, 04.02.2006, 9:50am #
I was Shaggy... ;-)

Which "nothing" were you referring to, field?
Marc Draco, 04.02.2006, 11:24pm #
Marc -

The nothing out of which an atheist presumably thinks the cosmos emerged either at the point of the big bang or at some other juncture. The only other alternative is to believe that the cosmos has always been "there". This was the view much favoured pre 1960.

Either option is absurd.

If something can pop into existence out of nothing, then the causal link is broken. But equally, one can ask why say 5,000 leaves and fishes couldn't equally pop into existence. This goes agaisnt one of the fundamental insights of science.

If somethign has existed for all time then that must mean the causal flow we observe mean had no beginning and the cosmos is infinitely old. Infinity is itslef an absurdity but also observation does not support the idea of an infinitely old universe.
field, 06.02.2006, 1:14pm #
What I found particularly infuriating about the program was that the arguments were put so ineffectually that it actually left me favouring the guy supporting terrorism if only because Dawkins put my back up so much.

His arguments so often lacked substance and his barely controlled rage came across in his inability to argue his case effectively.

More people have died in non religious wars of the last century then in all previous wars.

If you don't attempt to provide balanced arguments you may as well just shout propaganda. It is the duty of the atheist to not fall into the same irrational trap as those irrational supporters of faith.

Field: Infinity is only absurd in that it is inconceivable, that you cannot conceive something does not mean it is not reality.

Also things 'popping' into existence doesn't contravene basic fundamentals of science, it only implies that there is a further level of understanding not yet reached.

Also, just to add mine, I belive that the basic premice of ID is indeed laughable. That you cannot explain how somthing evolved out of constituant parts does not mean that it didnt, it just shows ignorance of a 'as of yet' inpenitrable truth.
Aengus, 06.02.2006, 2:37pm #
Aengus -

If we start accepting the truth of inconceivable things we are certainly in the realm of religion and - as we know - people can believe anything they want to. You can't have rational discourse if you are going to start throwing in infinities at the beginning of the discussion.

I am saying that infinity is an irrational concept. it is not irrational to think of a process of infinite addition but it is irrational to think of infinities as existing.

What you say about ID is correct but neo-Darwinists like Dawkins rarely say "we don't know how these things evolved". They have a guess and then expcet the rest of us to accept these guesses as "science".
field, 07.02.2006, 8:44am #

I'll agree that for the purpose of debate it is beneficial to ignore the infinite, however I also believe that its a natural tendancy to ignore the infinite as I reckon its an inconceivable concept. That is to say I reckon while we can conceive that infinity exists we cannot actually imagine what that is like.

You said 'it is irrational to think of infinities as existing.' Is that because it does not assist further discourse or that rationally they do not exist?

With the Neo-Darwinist assumptions, yes they are expected to be accepted as 'science' but thats because theorys or hypothesis are routinely proffered for the purpose of peer review. Essentially these guess's are science.
Aengus, 07.02.2006, 11:39am #
Aengus -

I don't agree we can conceive it exists. What does that mean?

All we can conceive I think is a very large number according to taste. But since you can always add one to that large number there can be no such thing as infinity. The addition makes your "infinity" less than infinity - a straight contradiction.

So I say that rationally they cannot exist,just as rationally one cannot be 6 foot tall and 6 foot 6 inches tall at the same time. To say I believe that infinity exists is simply to say something like I believe A and B though contradictory
are true. No one can stop you saying it but saying it doesn't make it so.

As for the science, I think the picture is far more complicated than you suggest. Of course on the orthodox view of science people come along with these rational hyoptheses and they are experimented on and tested and this leads to advanced knowledge.

But if you take something like cosmology it seems to me that it is more like a crazy market of ideas. There are so many different and conflicting ideas - and the only bench mark seems to be if you can get your theory to fit with advanced mathematical equations which it is impossible even for practioners to say whether it amounts to elegant modelling or a real reflection of how nature actually is. Yes there is some experimentation but it is often capable of several interpretations.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying this isn't all worthwhile activity but I am saying:

1. We shouldn't be in awe of this science. We shouldn't be in awe of science full stop. We should retain our critical faculties.

2. Science at the cosmological and sub-atomic level cannot avoid the discipline of philosophy. It has to offer a coherent philsophical view.

3. Science has now reached a point where it represents a great danger to humanity and humanity must assert its control over science.

As for neo-Darwinism, I think we can see now that at a minimum the sort of presentation one gets in evolution primers (e.g. Mendel's peas - a complete fluke of an experiment) is a gross oversimplification. Dawkins and others are wrong to keep oversimplifying and ID people have a perfect right to ask the difficult questions. Since we don't even understand what consciousness is or how it works, it is impossible to rule out ID completely at this stage.
field, 08.02.2006, 8:45am #
Ok, so I'm feeling my way here but:

Isnt it possible that when you try to imagine infinity and you consistantly think of large amounts only to dismiss them as not infinite, that your actually understanding what infinity is? In this case I am imagining that the plus one is not appropriate and thus far am imagining infinity.

As far as science is concerned there will always be a fringe to the ever expanding sphere of human knowledge and at those edges the validity of supposed truths are questionable. However this is part of the process I described.

As understanding increases we are able to shed increasing light on previous assumptions and refute or accept them as it becomes apparant. Yes we should understand that until it is only until proven otherwise that we accept these views but then we should understand that about ALL things not just science.

I guesss what I'm saying is:

1 I agree with taking science with a pinch of salt and retaining our critical facalties (as that is what science is all about).

2 philosophy is the precurser to scientific endevor and is indeed inseperable.

3 Interesting point, I know where your coming from, aside from the possibility of some guy in a lab causing the world to implode I reckon theres a good chance of science being the saviour of humanity if such a thing could be defined as such. I think that humanity and science are really the same, I believe we are locked in a natural process of evolution where the next step would be self modification on a genetic level not just a muscular/intellectual/dietry level. While we should indeed pay heed, I dont really think we can do anything about it.

Genetics is indeed becoming an increasingly complicated field with the whole modification of genome as a responce of parent experiances thing. I cant really comment on the ID as I dont know enough about the ins an outs.

Also, remembering my psychological background I seem to remember that we're not exactly clueless as to the nature of consciousness and how it works. ID probably can never be dismissed for the same reasons that creationism can never really be dismissed.

Thanks for the responces, nice to be able to think a little for a change.
Aengus, 08.02.2006, 10:32am #
doesn't god want us to believe we came from essentially nothing? before time there was nothing...or something similar was said in the bible (genesis)

and what the hell does marc mean he's "Shaggy?"

name stealer! o_O
Shaggy, 09.02.2006, 5:05am #
I believe that book was written by people, with peoples conceptions and rationals. The msg of God is relayed therefore open to interperatation via free will. soooo, if you start to put universal weight on those assumptions your [email protected]#king mental and dont have any idea about the human condition.

Also re infinity, last night I had an ephipany, I can conceive the infinite, its pretty straight forward really and anyone who cant is sorely lacking in imagination. Think of a circle for f's sake, or imagine your sight continuing for ever, whats so damn hard about that?

heh heh heh
Aengus, 09.02.2006, 10:09am #
Anybody who is familiar with fractal geometry knows that infinity is a fact.
benelailax, 10.02.2006, 7:26am #
Aengus -

Agree with much of what you say but -

1. Psychology does not usually attempt to offer explanations for consciousness (i.e. our subjective thought and feeling experiences). It normally offers explanations for the structure of behaviour or neuron activity. I;d be interested to hear of any psychologist who has offered an explanation for subjective experience - so would a lot of philosophers of consciousness!

2. As for infinity - I hope you enjoyed your epiphany. Perhaps you had some genuine spiritual experience for all I know. My point here though is to say that it is illegitimate to use the concept of infinity as a description of reality as we experience it objectively. Are you really sure you are imagining your vision going on forever - or is it jsut for a very long time? People used to think you could travel through the cosmos forever in one direction. Cosmologists tell us that isn;t possible - becasue of the structure of space-time. Similarly with your ring - yes, it's an ancient concept for eternity. But is it valid rationally. Things may travel in circular fashion but have they done so infinitely in the past and will they do so infinitely in the future.

From what I have read infinity is simply a useful mathematical concept that helps smooth over some rough edges in complex equations. It has no place in our real experience or if it does it must take place outside this cosmos and be in some sense part of the God concept./
field, 10.02.2006, 8:28am #
Benelailax -

Fractal geometry is no different from addition in principle.

Going down level by level to increasingly micro layers is the equivalent of adding one to a pre-existing number.

You aren't suggesting that fractal geometry is reflected in the real structure of things are you? In the real world eventually you get to real elemental particles not more fractals.
Fractal geometry is simply a useful (and fun) mathematical concept (i.e. a human invention).
field, 10.02.2006, 8:33am #
Ok. Reckon you got me on the infinity thing, I may not be imagining it. I dont really have anyway of knowing other that the knowledge that I havnt conciously thought of a large number and added one..

Re the consciousness, you mention behavioural psy and bio psy but ommit things like developmental psy, psycho genetics etc. I mean I know its a load of dross but what do you think Fraud, sorry I mean Freud was doin with his model of consciousness, or what the following hastely grabbed examples of current literature are spending their time on:

Journal of Consciousness Studies

Association for the Scientific Study of Consciousness Brain Project

Journal of Consciousness Studies


There are plenty of explinations of conciousness, some of them with some experimental backing.

Re the ring, I conceive it may have been created and may be finite but the other option (and for there to be an option there must be some comprehension) is that it has always existed and always will. Does this mean I grasp the eternal? I reckon possibly it dosent matter if I'm able to conceive it or I only think I can, its probably the same thing. Oh an it was a cognitive epiphany not a spiritual epiphany, maybe I should have made that clear =)
Aengus, 10.02.2006, 12:37pm #
I think Freud is still relevant though much neglected now of course.

Sounds like you are taking the Watson (I think it was him and not the other one) of Watson and Crick line that if we can locate brain circuitry that somehow is the organisation behind the self, we have cracked consciousness.

I be interested to hear what explanations of consciousness you think might be runners. of recent examples, all except the Penrose approach seem to be deficient because they give no idea of where subjective consciousness may be located dimensionally.

Personally I think we are like primitive people who come across a radio in teh forest. They start prodding it, playing with it. After much prodding and investigation, they reach the conclusion that it is the twiddling of the knobs that causes the sound from the radio. In a sense they are right. But of coruse they are completely ignorant of invisible radio waves and the fact that what is really causing the sound to come out of the radio is a transmitter many hundreds of miles away.

It seems to me that scientists are nearly all assuming that the brain is a transmitter itself (i,e, the neuronal activity is producing consciousness) when in reality it may be a receiver (the neuronal activity may be receiving outputs from consciousness) - or even a combination of the two. I would say it is far too early to tell.

As for the ring, if it has existed for all time then either (a) you can (in principle) say how long that is (which means it isn't infinite)or (b) you can't, and you are saying that it regresses infinitely - which brings you back to the something plus one objection.

Of course to my way of thinking one has to be careful to distinguish between eternity and infinity. Eternity I tend to think of as what stands outside space and time. In that sense it is timeless and therefore in some sense "eternal". But that is different from infinity, which is numerically based and is thus implicitly meant to represent the observable cosmos in some way. You can't really talking about something standing outside space and time as being "infinite", since numbers, sequences can't really exist - or at least it is difficult to see how they can without spatial of temporal intervals.
field, 10.02.2006, 9:14pm #
I was just having a bit of fun myself, feild.
You know why the English invented cricket, don't you?
Because they had no concept of eternity.
benelailax, 11.02.2006, 4:25am #
Benelailax -

What do you call someone who drinks heavily, beats his girlfriend, swears, spits in public, gambles and tries to screw every woman he comes across?

Answer: A professional footballer.
field, 11.02.2006, 1:54pm #
Debate between atheists and theists always end the same, neither side getting anywhere and both sides getting personal. If both sides would just let each other be, it would probably be a perfect world, but who wants perfect? Atheists try to remove anything that says "God" on public property and Theists try to remove atheists from the world. Here in Tennessee, by law an atheist cannot hold public office, how's that for love your enemy? It's more like, love your enemy while you crush it under the bootheel of religious domination.
JGJ, 12.02.2006, 6:47pm #

I haven't felt any need to get personal about the argument although one does have to respond to the sort of abuse that Ben throws out.

If it's true that atheists can't hold public office I'm sure that is pretty unconstitutional. Has no one ever challenged it?
field, 12.02.2006, 8:29pm #
Not only is it true for Tennessee but there are other states as well that have this law. Take a look at North Carolina's Constitution - Article 6 Section 8
Sec. 8. Disqualifications of office. The following persons shall be disqualified for office:

First, any person who shall deny the being of Almighty God.

In Tennessee: Sec. 4. That no political or religious test, other than an oath to support the Constitution of the United States and of this State, shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under this state.
And yet Article 9 section 2 states: No person who denies the being of God, or a future state of rewards and punishments, shall hold any office in the civil department of this state.

There are about 4 or 5 other states with this law. It has been challenged and overthrown and upheld in a few states, like Mass. but it still holds in a several. They don't deem it unconstitutional because they disallow members of the clergy from holding office as well. Plus they say it is because you cannot give the oath of office unless you believe in God.
JGJ, 12.02.2006, 9:45pm #
One other thing, you can withold your religious information, give your oath, even though your an atheist, but while in office or before you hold office you cannot state that you are an atheist. Otherwise your SOL.
JGJ, 12.02.2006, 9:47pm #
Aengus said, "They have a guess and then expcet the rest of us to accept these guesses as "science".

Not quite true but close, Scienctific Theories like Evolution are called a "theory" its intention is to explain something but scientists agree that all theories are working theories and are adaptable to change as science developes whereas religion or dogma is infallable and cannot change unless God changes. God is incapable of change because he is "perfect" and "all-knowing" as well as "all-present." Which brings up a host of contradictions especially if one does not believe in pre-destination. If God is all present in space and time then he knows the beginning, middle and end of everything, all is part of his plan; since his plan would have to work out to his design, otherwise He would not be perfect or all knowing, he has a plan for you which includes all your decisions and your supposed free-will. God exists in the past, present, and future simultaneously (even if it is outside of the time-space that we know) and knows what you have done, are doing, and will do.

Then you could bring up the problem of Evil, blah blah, no evil exists without the will and consent of God. Read the book of Job for an example. Sure, you can call it a parable, you can call the entire Bible a parable if you want since it seems that Christians today pick and choose what they take literally.
JGJ, 12.02.2006, 10:01pm #

Thanks for the info on the constitution. I am surprised and would certainly oppose such restrictions. Would you allow a creationist to teach biology I wonder?

Anyway, your description of religion is a bit of a caricature. Here in the UK where we don;t have so many Baptists but we do have the established episcopalian Church I think you'll find many believers who would accept that religious thought has eveolved over time and that what was thoguht literally true in the past is now no longer. So your statements are only true of some religious people - not all.
field, 12.02.2006, 10:40pm #
That's so true, the definition of religious beliefs cannot be contained in a nutshell, that is one claim that I will never make. I believe it varies not only from church to church, or denomination from denomination but rather from individual to individual. More of my feelings on this is explained at my blog on the Home link. That is why I said they "pick and choose" what they take literally (their entire religion or one specific dogma.)

Would I allow a creationist to teach biology? It is a difficult question since there is no simple answer. On one hand I could say yes, but that could allow a creationist to teach creationist biology, which really isn't biology in my opinion. At least it is not biology if his idea of biology is that God created the first chicken as is. Even if the teacher's idea of biology was that God created the single-celled organism that evolved into the chicken could pose problems since it still promotes his idea of who or what God is.
Seems one sided doesn't it? I can agree to no required religious influenced teachings but can agree to the lack of required religious influence teachings in public schools. One way I would agree is to not make it a requirement, have the state pay for the non-religious views and your local churches pay for the optional class. Let the credits for taking either class be equal. But that is still kind of lop-sided.

It's impossible to shield your children from your own views and others' views so that they can make up their own mind. But that only makes a difference if you want your child to make his/her own decision while they are in school. Eventually they will make up their mind regardless of the influences of school, friends, and family if they are taught to think for themselves. So I will make this comprimise, I will allow a creationist to teach his/her biology in school if philosophy is taught beforehand. At least then I know that they will have the tools to "think" before they believe.
JGJ, 12.02.2006, 11:23pm #

I agree about philosophy. I think every child should have the benefit of being taught philosophy. There would be fewer religious nutters as a result - and fewer atheists as well.
field, 13.02.2006, 9:10am #

Sorry Roxy, copyrighted lyrics (I think!), links are required
roxy, 14.02.2006, 8:01pm #
Such an impressive anwesr! You've beaten us all with that!
Comfort, 29.03.2012, 6:17am #

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