The Spirit of Enquiry

Doubt is the basis of all scientific progress. Without doubt, there is no enquiry, and without enquiry, there is no progress. Every scientific advance we have made is because of the spirit of enquiry.

We have to question ourselves constantly. Even with an expected result in an experiment, the scientist thinks, “Perhaps this is not true. Perhaps I should investigate… Let me find something wrong, maybe an inconsistency, and look for another answer.”

Imagine if things were different. Imagine if scientists just had faith in their results. Imagine vehicles built by engineers who put them out to the public without any testing because they had faith in their designs. Without questioning, without doubt, without the spirit of enquiry, there can be no progress.

Assume you believe in one or other religion. The same questions should be on your mind. What you have assumed to be true may not be true at all no matter how much faith you have.

The worst that can happen when questioning any belief is that we find we were previously wrong. Ask the same questions as the scientist. “Perhaps this is not true. Perhaps I should investigate… Let me find something wrong, maybe an inconsistency, and look for another answer.”

In a scientist, this involves perhaps submitting a paper to a peer-reviewed magazine where people will look sceptically at the conclusions of the scientist, follow the data sets and follow the reasoning before deciding whether to recommend rejection or publishing.

For someone questioning their own religious beliefs, perhaps they should start by reading the works of people who can expose the fallacies behind religious belief systems, not merely reading reinforcing works by others of the same faith. Tough questions are needed.

Of course, some people are scared to ask themselves those questions because deep in their hearts they know that their beliefs have no basis in reality, but to quote Socrates, who took great pleasure in exposing people who pretended to know things that they could not possibly know, such as the mind of a god, “The life which is unexamined is not worth living”.

All I know is that I know nothing. Socrates

But those with the courage to question themselves, to question their beliefs, to question what other people say, may be surprised by the light that comes into their lives.

John Bremner

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Ricky Gervais on Atheism – You must see this!

This is worth watching. Both Ricky and his commenter make great points. You just can’t argue with them.

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Confirmation Bias

Confirmation Bias

Following the blogs, there has been a lot of discussion lately about the effects of confirmation bias on the thoughts and behaviour of those people of a religious bent. Confirmation bias causes people to seek out information that confirms their world view, and avoid information that conflicts with that view. It is effectively a form of ‘reinforcement’ thinking that can affect even those of us who feel that we are completely open-minded. When, for example, I read a book or watch a YouTube video that supports my opinions on religion and atheism, I feel a certain sense of satisfaction that others think like me, that I am not alone in my views, and that, whether or not I am correct, I am justified in thinking as I do.

Similarly, a scientist searching for a solution to a problem may seek out and find datas that confirm his or her theory, ignoring the awkward details that do not match. That is confirmation bias, and the scientific mind is not immune to its effects.

Fortunately in science, every result that is to become part of mainstream science has to be repeatable, peer reviewed, and judged by experts who are non-biased. Faulty conclusions rarely make it through the morass of scientific scrutiny.

In the religious world, though, confirmation bias is not dealt with in the same way. Religious people rarely read the works of those who disagree with them, and may actively seek to have such material banned. They tend to have friends with the same mindset, choose partners who have similar points of view, and oppose, sometimes violently, free-thinking, freedom of speech, and secularism. Nobody within their peer group is going to point out any error in their conclusions about the world, any error of logic in their thinking, or the lack of data on which they based their conclusions.

One has to ask the question: why is this the case? The answer has to be that there is a fundamental difference in the approach of people of science and people of religion. Scientific knowledge is in a constant state of flux, always modifying and changing according to any new evidence that presents itself. Scientific knowledge has to be verifiable and to be able to be proven wrong if it is possible to do so. Some of it proves to be true, and we have thus made progress, bit by bit, learning added to learning, knowledge added to knowledge, with even Newton standing on the shoulders of giants, just to see a little further. That is progress.

Religion, on the other hand, is more or less fixed in opinion and fixed in what religious people think of as knowledge. That ‘knowledge’ generally comes from a book that may be a very disjointed collection of translated, reinterpreted, misinterpreted essays and works of fiction and mushroom enhanced delusions, from people who lived thousands of years ago in the bronze and early iron ages – the ages of superstition and magical thinking.

Science is generally rejected, there is little or no progress, and religious people seek confirmation of their opinions and beliefs from people with the same mind-set who are never going to contradict them. This is their confirmation bias. They sing songs and say prayers and give worship to their gods and prophets. That others do what they do confirms their biased belief that they are not wrong.

And yet, with no way of testing their beliefs, with nobody who within their own religion will challenge them, with no way to verify what they believe, and only reinforcement from their peers, confirmation bias ensures that their beliefs, however deluded, will never be exposed for what they are. Something that is untestable, unproven, unverifiable, and defended against any criticism, can never be knowledge and can only ever be belief. People have died for that belief rather than admit they could be wrong, but the people who have killed them have been those who had similar but slightly different beliefs. Atheists do not have the same mindset. Atheism is not a belief system that seeks to persuasively or violently convert others to the same mindset. Atheists generally don’t care what other people believe so long as they do not try to convert others to their beliefs, if such beliefs cannot be scientifically justified

Science and religion can never be reconciled, despite what religious apologists suggest. Science deals with facts. As religious beliefs are disproven, doctrine by doctrine by science, religious tenets that can be relied upon fade into non-existence. Science and religion are not different domains, because the supernatural is also a domain of science to be investigated and dismissed if there is no evidence for it.

That religion allows confirmation bias to affect the judgement of their followers instead of helping people to think independently and intelligently, is a bad thing about religion.

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So who created the Jesus myth?

I thought readers might be interested in this story…

Jesus is a Roman invention

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The Ten Commandments of Rational Debate

The Ten Commandments of Rational Debate

The Ten Commandments of Rational Debate

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There is nothing wrong with religion…

There is nothing wrong with religion… Except their belief systems, their perpetuation by pedophile preachers, their teachings, bigotry, insane prophets, murders, holy books, (and I mean there are a lot of holes in them), lack of critical thinking and logic, tortuous histories, anti-science outlooks, indoctrination of the young, claims to be any kind of guide to morality, subjugation of women, hypocrisy, misused wealth, sodomising monks, divisive schooling, interference in government, self-righteous holier-than-thou crap, claims to know the answer to everything, the stupidest memes, the big daddy in the sky, and ‘intelligent design’, which really means, ‘It’s too complicated for me to understand, so everything must’ve been done by a supernatural power, using magic.’

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Animal Treatment

One of the major issues that I see as a bad thing about religion – at least within the three main Abrahamic traditions, is the speciesism that is integral to the belief systems. Whilst it is true that there are some ‘laws’ laid down for the treatment and slaughter of animals in these belief systems, they are in many cases treated with appalling cruelty, from Josua’s crippling of horses, to horrific ritual sacrifices  designed to satisfy the whims of a god who enjoys the smell of burning flesh.

 Humans are seen as the top species on the planet with the right to do whatever we like to lesser animals. This ethos has so embedded itself in our society that many people, even scientists, deny that other species have consciousness, feel emotion, or can love and feel pain in the same way that we do.

Thus, as a species, we use animals in any way we like. There are tortuous experiments worldwide designed to inflict pain to test animal resilience, and these experiments are widely reported in respectable journals which seem to have the attitude that anything done in the name of science, no matter how cruel, is for the general good. So rats are bred to have terrible genetic diseases that give the poor creatures a lifetime of suffering. Chemicals are dropped into the eyes of rabbits to test how much damage they do to the rabbits’ eyesight, and LD 50 experiments are still carried out dispassionately to test how much of a particular toxic chemical, pesticide, or drug it takes to poison half of a group of animals to death. (The other half are killed anyway, so as to make a fresh start for the next experiment). The suffering that the animals undergo is not even a consideration. No ethical committee considers the nausea, the stomach cramps, the fear, the hopelessness, the agony, blisters, abandonment, desire for freedom, terror of the unknown, headaches, joint pains, organ failure or whatever else is experienced by the animals that we use so unthinkingly.

So much for human superiority… It only takes a little observation to realise that all animals are as capable as we are of suffering, and although all animals do not have the same level of consciousness that we do, they are undoubtedly conscious. They may not be able to think in words, but they can and do anticipate, and they show empathy for each other. Their stress hormone levels rise, like ours, when they are subjected to stressful conditions. They will move away from something that inflicts pain on them. They mourn, sometimes to death, over the loss of a companion. They enjoy play, much as we do. They clearly care for their young. I have seen blackbird parents frantically searching night and day for their lost young, taken by a cat. Dolphins and whales will strand themselves to stay with a sick friend or relative. And most animals will fight to protect their young.

So the question comes to consciousness… And it’s something about which we don’t really have a good enough definition. But common sense can tell us a lot. If an animal can make a decision, it is necessarily conscious, because consciousness is required to make decisions. So a hedgehog that decides to go to sleep rather than forage for more food is conscious. A goldfish that makes a decision to chase another rather than come up for food is conscious. Creatures of all kinds, including ourselves, consciously choose a mate from what they see as the fittest of the contenders. A lot of instinct, and perhaps pheromones are involved, but there always comes a time to make a decision.

Man’s dominion over other animals is not therefore because we have a god-given right, or because we have consciousness and they do not. Rather it is because our evolution has given us a peculiar form of intelligence combined with a dexterity that allows us to dominate other species. It could so easily been different.

In this vast universe though, where there are as many galaxies as there are grains of sand on the earth, there must be intelligences that are as far above humans as we are above fruit flies. Where then the superiority of humans? We think of ourselves as conscious, but there could easily be conscious beings in this universe who restrict their views of consciousnes, as we restrict our views in homocentric ways, to beings who can create matter at will, who have the mental power to be what we think of as gods. Only gods can thus be conscious. Ironically, such gods would likely be atheists.

The superiority of humans is therefore a very blinkered view, perpetuated by religions founded thousands of years ago, when we did not realise there were other worlds, and our imaginations were limited by daily survival as desert nomads. That this blinkered viewpoint still limits the consciousness of people, causing endless suffering to species that we think are by right, under our dominion, to kill at will, to bleed to death and eat, to torture in the name of science, is without doubt a bad thing about religion and a disgrace to any conscious human, religious or not.

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God’s Sense of Humour

I had the pleasure of being invited to a Passover meal recently and despite not understanding Hebrew, I enjoyed the experience. We were given a little pamphlet that had an English translation of the proceedings. It was basically a comic. What surprised me was that it seemed to be mostly about thanking the god of the desert for helping the Israelites by plaguing the Egyptians in various Machiavellian ways. Is it any wonder that Arabs and Jews are still in conflict?

Two Jews sat in a coffeehouse, discussing the fate of their people.
“How miserable is our history,” said one. “Pogroms, plagues, discrimination, Hitler, Neo-Nazis… Sometimes I think we’d be better off if we’d never been born.”
“Sure,” said his friend, “but who has that much luck…maybe one in fifty thousand?”

It struck me that the Jewish god has a typically Jewish sense of humour. I mean, given a god that could do anything, he instead decides to really annoy the Egyptians with the most diabolical things he could think of, in the following sequence…

1. The Nile River turns to blood
2. Frogs
3. Lice
4. Beasts
5. Livestock disease
6. Boils
7. Hail
8. Locusts
9. Darkness
10. Death of the First Born

Comments: 1. The Nile River turns to blood…

This would kill all the fish, which many Egyptians used for sustenance. Also, it would soon begin to stink. So the Egyptians have dead fish, a horrible stink, and a river turned to blood…. Black pudding anyone?

2. Frogs…

Apparently, the second plague consisted of frogs falling from the sky. This is a known phenomenon, but is very rare. Unless they could think of something to do with all the frogs, the ancient Egyptians would have been a bit overwhelmed. Had there been any French amongst them at the time, of course, there would have been no problem.

3. Lice…

Even the thought of lice makes me itchy. Can you imagine the scratching? A plague of lice would be really annoying. You’d change all your clothes for fresh ones, have a really hot soapy bath with Wild Oregano Oil; or some other lice killer of the time, be inspected all over by a close friend to make sure there were no lice left, and as soon as you got dressed you’d be covered in lice again. At least, if I were a god imposing a plague, that’s what I’d do…

4. Beasts!

Just when you had got rid of the lice, you’d open the door to bring in the milk, and lo and behold, a beast! Maybe a tiger, but at least a warthog. There’d be beasts everywhere, with a plague of beasts, and it would make life very awkward. For one thing, you wouldn’t be able to let the kids go out and play. There is nothing I can find to say how long the plague of beasts lasted, but it is certain that a lot of people would have been eaten alive, some in the most undignified of circumstances. Still, it’d give you something to talk about down at the local ale house where beast steaks would be on the menu.

5.  Livestock Disease.

You thought you’d had enough to cope with lately, but out for a pleasant walk, you’d go up to the farm and find all your cows had gone mad, your goats were climbing the roofs, and your sheep vomiting worms. Yuk!

6. Boils…

They are nasty things boils. And it depends where you get them, but if God gave you them with the purpose of annoying you as much as possible, you can bet they’d be in some awkward places. And lo and behold, as soon as you got someone to squeeze one boil, a bigger one would pop up to replace it. You’d try covering them in mud or leeches. Oops – you’ll wish you hadn’t burned the witches – they knew how to get rid of boils.

7. Hail…

I’m guessing that a plague of hail wasn’t just little lumps you could build snowmen from, they’d have been huge iceballs that’d go through your roof. Plus, your sick livestock would have nowhere to hide. You couldn’t really dodge them. If God wants to get you with a hailstone, he’ll wait until you are off your guard, and ‘Whack!’

8. Locusts…

You might be feeling a bit persecuted by this time, if you’ve survived everything so far. Well, at least you’ve managed to get the new crops planted. Surely nothing else can go wrong… Wait a minute, what’s that buzzing sound?

9. Darkness…

Who put the lights out? Is this a practical joke? Right, someone needs to invent street lights!

10. Death of the First Born

This one’s no joke. The oldest child in your family would just drop dead, killed by God. Also, your oldest ox and your oldest sheep from each ox and sheep family. Goats too! God’s given your livestock a really tough time lately. Bet you’d grown really fond of old Daisy… She still had all those boils, and was starving, because the locusts ate all her food, and broken ribs from the hail, but at least you thought she might recover and give you some milk. Wrong! Oxtail soup is on the menu tonight, after Amenhotep’s funeral.

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On Fish and Faith

It may not be immediately obvious that faith is a bad thing about religion, but some thought on the subject makes it clear. We hear of someone being called a man or woman of faith, and that brings a certain amount of respect in religious circles. They may even be given that respect in secular circles where there is often the feeling that we should not mock or test someone ‘of faith’. Faith is thus given respect, as though a person of faith possesses some special quality, and people who challenge that faith are seen at least as iconoclasts, and often as the devil.

So the beliefs of the faithful are cherished beliefs, and they generally do not like those beliefs being challenged, no matter how absurd they may seem to the person of independent mind. In some countries, challenges to faith are seen as apostasy, and still merit the death penalty. As I have mentioned in other essays, even in Europe there are challenges to freedom of speech, with religious leaders trying to have a Europe-wide blasphemy law invoked. If that were to happen, this essay would be illegal, and our restricted rights would be the beginning of a ‘sliding slope’.

Freedom of speech is something we have to defend against erosion. Nobody, no government, and no religion should beyond criticism. Freedom of speech also means we should be able to mock whoever and whatever we like. There is a lot of humour in the hypocrisy of government lies; in the stupidity of religious beliefs, and in individual buffoons, religious, royal, governmental or otherwise. Humour, in fact, is the best weapon to use against those who will not be mocked. They should be mocked at every opportunity.

But back to focus on religion. Religious faith, like faith in the word of a politician, is nothing but belief without logical reason. It is the legacy of thousands of years of superstitious belief when people had no way of explaining the world except by magic. The things that happened to our ancestors needed explanation, so they believed that spirits or gods were responsible for events, good or bad; for natural catastrophes (punishment from the gods), for good luck in harvest or hunting (favour from the gods), and for the weather.

Today, this legacy still affects people of faith. They still attribute events in their life to the favour or disfavour of a god or prophet, and they seek to influence the object of their worship with prayer or symbolic sacrifice, hoping to gain the favour of a supernatural power that may influence their life in some beneficial way.

So, some people have faith… but where is the virtue in that faith? Faith is not kindness or loyalty or love—it is simply belief. How can there be virtue in a supernatural belief system? Believing in something—having faith, cannot itself make someone virtuous, for people can have belief in all sorts of things. Personally I believe that I will not turn into a fish overnight. That belief is strong enough to be called faith. However, it does not affect my virtue, because it is simply something that I believe. An example of a religious faith could be a strongly held belief that one day we will all turn into fish. This belief system could be based on a book, or on testimonials of people who claimed to have been told by someone that someone else witnessed a friend turning into a fish.

If you think such a religion would be based upon a far-fetched story, think again—it is no more far-fetched than any of the thousands of creation or transformation myths that abound, or the stories of supernatural entities talking to prophets, revealing things that we should or should not do, or fabulous stories about what will come to pass. Had someone the inclination, there are at least a few people that they could convince of the veracity of our fish destiny. Those who believed would have to convince others, because the nature of self-doubt is such that others who believe the same thing reinforce our own beliefs.

At that point a fish prophet should die by being lost at sea. Soon, people would be wearing bejeweled fish around their necks, and sects would diverge into those who still ate fish, and those who thought that the eating of fish was an abomination. One can imagine fundamentalist believers on either side fighting with each other. Probably, only the good and the faithful of a particular denomination would turn into fish. Perhaps eighty years after the fish prophet’s death, there would be stories of people who witnessed the prophet turning into a fish.

Ridiculous, right? No more ridiculous than a talking serpent persuading Eve to eat from the tree of life. No more ridiculous than Jesus’ mum being impregnated by God; the Scientology of L Ron Hubbard, the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, or the earth being just 6000 years old. In the words of Robert A Heinlein, author of Stranger in a Strange Land, “One man’s theology is another man’s belly laugh.”

Whatever we believe in, to have faith in that belief the thinking person needs reliable, verifiable, falsifiable evidence. We can accept as true many things until they are proven false, but to accept the tenets of a religion as true with no evidence is to be willingly self-deceived. To have faith is therefore to be willingly self-deceived, and that is a bad thing about religion.

 

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Humankind

Looking at the world as it currently is, it would be easy to despair of humankind. Rarely a day goes by without some atrocity committed in the name of a god or prophet or group of believers, usually from the Judeo/Christian/Islamic tradition. Sometimes the atrocity is committed because of land boundaries, but often it is because one tradition wants to impose its (usually religious) will on another group or individual. Even secular war activity usually has some religious prejudice or hatred at its roots, at least in its history.

This is not something that atheists can be found doing as a rule… Although many atheists feel strongly that religion is a damaging force in the world, which destroys or severely restricts independent thinking and warps minds, atheists do not jump on soap boxes in the middle of town squares, shouting about the fact. Nor do atheists have violent protest marches, smash up places of worship, or blow themselves up taking a bunch of other people with them. These things are done exclusively by religious people.

And yet, there are random acts of kindness that have the ability to warm our hearts. People rescue animals and give them great lives. A young woman saves an old man from drowning. People intervene to help others. People hand out blankets to those living rough. Human kindness does overflow, but it does so naturally without any religious direction. From the religious right we hear such kindnesses as giving poor people handouts only encourages them; everyone should have the right to bear arms (US), and that we should cut the benefits to single mothers. I’m looking for the compassion there, but can’t find it…

Isn’t it a pity though, that here in York where there are disadvantaged and homeless people who spend the night out in the cold, that the churches don’t open their doors to them, and give them a place to sleep…? Or is the preaching of Christian Charity pure hypocrisy?

Many churches have rich works of art. Their preachers wear robes adorned with gold and they use silver chalices. The higher up members of the churches live in palaces. The churches are amongst the biggest landowners in the country, and are massive investors in the financial and property markets, gaining all their profits without tax because of their charity status. And yet they leave dealing with the homeless to secular organisations like Shelter and Crisis.

If religions want to have the respect of atheists and freethinkers, there are many ways they could start earning that respect. Some of them are obvious. Meanwhile, the people who speak out about injustice and inequalities are not the church spokesmen; they are the secular thinkers, atheists, and humanists of our time. They are humankind fighting for human kindness.

 

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