Reason Rally report

I attended a portion of the Reason Rally yesterday in Washington DC. It drizzled or rained gently most of the time, which cast a bit of a damper on the proceedings but people were in good spirits. The crowd that attended should dispel the notion that the nonbelievers movement consist of old, white guys. It was gratifyingly diverse in all categories (gender, age, and ethnicity) with the large majority being young people. I felt like an old fogey and that was great, just as it should be. [Read more...]

Existence and universal claims

An interesting discussion has broken out in the comments section of the post The weak historical evidence for Jesus that is related to the question of where the burden of proof lies when promoting or refuting a claim.

Those who started reading my blogs only after I moved to Freethought Blogs have been (so far at least) mercifully spared the many multi-part series on some topics that those [Read more...]

Why agnostics may find the religious more congenial than atheists

A regular reader of my former blog, who describes himself as a fence-sitting agnostic, commented in response to one of my posts at my previous site:

One objection I do have against this blog is the sense of superiority it conveys and the derision with which it refers to the religious. Atheism somehow seems to bring out the not so nice qualities of its adherents. A great pity. In my experience, being an agnostic among Atheists is more daunting than being one among the religious.

Actually it should not be at all surprising that he finds that that the company of the religious to be more congenial than that of atheists. This is because for some time, the more sophisticated religious people have been feeling the heat that the new atheists have been putting on them. Our relentless demands for evidence to substantiate their belief in a god have put them in a quandary because there is no evidence, other than the evidence from ignorance that there are some major things (the origin of life and the universe for example) that science has not yet fully explained. It has resulted in them resorting to the position that god is not an empirical entity and so evidence is not relevant to the question of his/her/its existence. If you look at the arguments of theologians, much of it now consists of finding reasons for why there is no evidence of god although, oddly enough, they seem to have no difficulty ascribing a whole range of properties to something for which they have no evidence. [Read more...]

Misconceptions about Nazi ideology

One popular trope is that the Nazi racist ideology was atheistic and Darwinian, and the conclusion is drawn that atheism and evolution are thus responsible for all its evils. This was a central theme in the documentary Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed. But while that argument has always been specious at best, this article by Coel Hellier methodically lays out the case that even the premise is wrong, and that “Nazi racial ideolology was religious, creationist and opposed to Darwinism.”

The main idea of the article is that Hitler was not advocating the creation of a master race by some form of eugenic procedures that originated with Darwin’s idea. Hitler was instead advancing the explicitly creationist case that Aryans were god’s original creation in the Garden of Eden and that this pure creation was being polluted by interbreeding with inferior races and that this needed to be reversed.

It is a long article that goes into great detail in demolishing this argument by tracing the intellectual roots of Nazism. I will quote just a few excerpts to give you a general sense of Hellier’s argument.

Among those who dislike Darwin’s explanation of human beings as the product of evolution a common accusation is that Darwinian thinking has led to horrors such as the Nazi holocaust. For example the American religious commentator Ann Coulter writes: “From Marx to Hitler, the men responsible for the greatest mass murders of the twentieth century were avid Darwinists” (which is wrong on all the others, not just Hitler). So widespread is the claim that even many who accept that Darwinian evolution has been established as true, well beyond any reasonable doubt, also believe that Darwinian ideas were misused to justify Nazi atrocities.

Are these claims correct? Remarkably, for a claim so widely accepted, no they aren’t. Indeed, the Nazi ideology underpinning the extermination of the Jews was opposed to and incompatible with Darwinism, instead being a religious and creationist doctrine.

They believed that the different human races were distinct and separate, created as God wanted them, and they regarded these permanent racial characteristics as all important to human culture and destiny. Further, they believed that allowing racial inter-mixing had led to the downfall of civilizations, and was a sin against God’s creation. Thus they considered it of overwhelming importance to preserve their own Nordic/Aryan race, which they regarded as superior and created in “God’s own image”, by preventing inter-breeding with “inferior” races which they regarded as literally “sub-human”, being separate creations.

So, yes, the Nazis wanted to use selective breeding, but not to create a “master race”, but to preserve an Aryan master race, preserving the primordial Aryan characteristics which they believed were the “highest image of God”.

This ideology shares one thing with Darwinism, namely the possibility of using selective breeding to achieve a desired end, a possibility mankind had known about since the invention of farming, about 12,000 yrs ago. But in all other respects it is profoundly anti-Darwinian. Whereas in Darwinian evolution all mankind evolved out of a common monkey-like ancestor, with all human races sharing a common origin in the recent past, in Nazi ideology the different human races were distinct and separate creations.

While the mutability of species, with new species evolving out of distant ancestors, is the central theme of Darwinism, the Nazis found that idea anathema, and placed a heavy emphasis on racial purity and the distinctiveness and separateness of different species. Further, the Nazis found abhorrent the materialist notion that man might be just like other animals, and, from their religious and moralistic perspective, they insisted that man had a spiritual soul.

That is why leading Nazi ideologues wrote books explicitly rejecting Darwinism, and why they banned Darwinian works from public libraries. The truth is that nothing in Nazi ideology derives from Darwin — the slight overlap is only in areas known about long pre-Darwin. Nor are there any quotes of leading Nazis looking to Darwin or pointing to Darwin as justification — if there were the creationists would likely have found them by now. In short, the association of Nazi doctrine with Darwinism is an outright fabrication by those who wish to discredit Darwinism and the scientific account of the origin of man.

Mein Kampf does not mention Darwin even once. Where atheism is mentioned (twice) it is pejorative, associating atheism with Jews and Marxism (e.g. “They even enter into political intrigues with the atheistic Jewish parties against the interests of their own Christian nation” and “… atheistic Marxist newspapers …”). Instead, Mein Kampf presents a religious, creationist and moralistic argument for removing Jews from German society. That is the major theme of the book, running through it repeatedly.

In line with the above Nazi thinkers, Hitler believed that mankind did not have a common origin, but consisted of several distinct and separately created races. The Aryan race was the superior race, with other races such as Jews and Slavs being literally “sub-human”. Hitler believed that the Aryans had enjoyed a golden past, and that Germany’s current troubles were the result of allowing racial inter-mixing, which was destroying the master race, leading to a degeneration of society. Thus it was morally necessary to prevent racial inter-mixing, if necessary by a “final solution” to the “Jewish problem”.

In summary, while Nazi racial doctrine and Mein Kampf share one feature with Darwinism, namely competition and selection, the Nazi doctrine is not derived from Darwinism and is fundamentally incompatible with it. Whereas Darwinism says that all humans have a common origin, that species and races are malleable, evolving over time, and that one could (as with all animals, and if one so wished) artificially control breeding to enhance and select desired characteristics, Nazi doctrine says that human races are distinct and primordial, created separately by the Will of God, who desires that they remain separate, that the moral imperative is to preserve the races in their current state by preventing any racial intermixing, which would be both harmful and sinful.

Above all, while any similarity with Darwinism is only in one mechanism, namely competition and selection, the Nazi motivation for keeping the races separate is profoundly anti-Darwinian and instead religious and creationist.

Indeed, what records we have show that, far from being inspired by Darwin’s work (which there is no record of Hitler ever having read), Hitler was instead inspired by religious ideology and the Bible. A revealing notebook shows that Hitler’s ideas on race were inspired by his reading of the Old Testament.

Thus nothing in Nazi ideology derives from Darwinism. The few aspects in common were pre-Darwinian; the ideas that originated with Darwin were anathema to and rejected by the Nazis. The widespread blaming of Darwinism as an inspiration for Nazi crimes has no support in historical evidence and instead derives purely from a desire on the part of the religious to smear Darwinism.

Hellier also examines the claim that the Nazi’s were atheistic and finds that too to be also false.

The labelling of the Nazis as “atheistic” is similarly motivated and is also the exact opposite of what the evidence says. The Nazi ideology was theistic and religious and an offshoot of Christianity, merging Christianity with Nazi racial theory. It is true that the Nazified Christianity was opposed to more mainstream Christian views, and thus that the Nazis wanted radical reform of the Christian religion, but in no sense was it “atheistic”.

While the Nazi’s were critical of the current established churches, they considered themselves to be followers of a purer form of Christianity.

Nazi theology, however, departed from mainstream Christianity in regarding the Christian churches as misguided and having been corrupted from the original aims of Jesus by Jewish influence, particularly that of Paul. The Nazis claimed that Jesus was not a Jew, but instead an Aryan (again, to the Nazis these were separately created races).

The Nazis thus founded the German Christian movement, mixing Christian theology with Nazi racial ideology, and espousing a “Positive Christianity” which contrasted with what they saw as the “negative Christianity” of the existing Jewish-influenced churches. With Nazi support, the Deutsche Christen won two thirds of the vote in the 1932 church elections, claimed a membership of 600,000 pastors, bishops, professors of theology, religion teachers, and laity, and were aiming to supplant the Catholic and Protestant churches.

This article is a useful reference to those who bring up the tired ‘Hitler was a Darwinian and hence evolution is bad and thus wrong’ argument.

A clearer definition of atheist

(This is my article that appeared in the July/August 2011 issue of the New Humanist magazine that appeared there with the title No Doubt.)

Charles Darwin believed that God was not required to explain nature and strongly opposed the later attempts by Alfred Wallace, the co-discoverer of the theory of natural selection, to argue that some form of divine intervention was necessary to explain human intelligence and consciousness.

From this, one might reasonably conclude that Darwin was an atheist. And yet he firmly rejected efforts by others to stick that label on him and insisted on calling himself an agnostic. Edward Aveling, a self-professed atheist, tried to convince Darwin that “the terms ‘agnostic’ and ‘atheist’ were practically equivalent”. Darwin did not challenge Aveling’s characterization that an “agnostic was but atheist writ respectable and atheist was but agnostic writ aggressive”, but merely questioned why anyone would want to be aggressive.

Darwin’s response highlights the fact that calling oneself an agnostic is much more socially acceptable than saying one is an atheist. As a respectable member of the Victorian establishment he likely did not want to disturb the comfortable social world in which he lived. Religious believers are far more comfortable with agnostics. Atheists appear to directly contradict their views; whereas agnostics seem to allow for the possibility that God might exist and thus confer some intellectual respectability on those with belief.

But what exactly is the difference? The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines an atheist as “One who denies or disbelieves the existence of a God.” That part of the definition as one who “disbelieves” in God is unexceptional. Atheists say that there is no evidence for the existence of God and so it makes no sense to believe in one. It is the word “denies” that creates problems. If by “denies” we mean a willingness to publicly declare disbelief, then it too is acceptable. But if interpreted as implying that the atheist is certain that there is no God, then it is too strong. Since one cannot prove the non-existence of a god, or anything else, no thoughtful atheist would sign on to such a statement.

The OED definition of an agnostic – as “One who holds that the existence of anything beyond and behind material phenomena is unknown and (so far as can be judged) unknowable, and especially that a First Cause and an unseen world are subjects of which we know nothing” – hardly banishes the confusion either.

One problem is that this definition fails to distinguish between not knowing something and there being nothing to know. As Ricky Gervais said in response to a challenge as to what right a mere comedian had to make pronouncements on whether God exists; “Since there is nothing to know about God, a comedian knows as much about God as anyone else.”

It is logically impossible to prove the non-existence of anything, however absurd (whether it be a god or unicorns), so the purely logical answer to whether anything exists, when the answer isn’t “yes”, is “I don’t know”. By this definition we are all agnostic about practically everything.

But there is a difference between saying one is agnostic because of the logical impossibility of proving a negative, and being an agnostic because the evidence is not (as yet, anyway) convincing either way. For example, the currently popular theory of elementary particles postulates the existence of a particle known as the Higgs boson that has as yet not been directly detected. The new Large Hadron Collider at CERN has the detection of this particle as one of its major goals. Until it is detected, it is perfectly reasonable to be agnostic on the question of its existence. If at some point it is detected, agnostics would shift out of the agnostic camp and into the camp of believers. But when would it become possible to say that it does not exist?

A state of permanent agnosticism in such situations seems unwarranted. After all, we are perfectly comfortable in saying that some things simply don’t exist even if we cannot prove it logically. So in the absence of any evidence for existence, what distinguishes those things we can confidently assert don’t exist (like unicorns) from those things (like God or an immaterial soul) whose nonexistence some are loth to proclaim?

Science can help here because in that world, when something becomes unnecessary as an explanatory concept, it is confidently asserted not to exist. For example, take the concept of the ether. This was believed to be a material substance that permeated all of space and was necessary in order to explain the propagation of electromagnetic waves. As more and more experiments failed to detect it, the properties of the ether had to be refined and modified to explain away the negative results. Even though the theory of the ether became quite convoluted, it was still thought to exist because it was necessary as an explanatory concept. When Einstein came along with his theory of relativity, he did not prove that there was no ether. What he did with his alternative theory was make the ether unnecessary as an explanatory concept. As a consequence, scientists now comfortably assert that the ether does not exist, just as they were comfortable thinking earlier that it did exist. We are no longer agnostic on the question of ether’s existence.

So rather than “One who denies or disbelieves the existence of a God”, a more accurate definition for atheist would be “One for whom God is unnecessary as an explanatory concept”. This definition leaves little room for agnostics because they will have to answer the question as to whether they think that God is necessary as an explanatory concept for anything. If they say “no”, they are in the same camp as atheists. If they say “yes”, they are effectively religious and would be required to show where the necessity arises.

This proposed definition of atheist may not make agnosticism about God completely redundant, because determined people of a philosophical bent can always find ways to salvage any cherished proposition from being rejected. But it would go a long way towards clarifying what atheism represents.

African-American atheists

The New York Times had an interesting article (which for some reason was in its Fashion & Style section) about the growing open atheism in the black community, one that has traditionally been seen as more religious and more disapproving of atheism than the population at large.

The article says that less than one-half of one percent of African-Americans are atheist, much lower than for whites. It is possible that the fraction is as large as that of white atheists but that the greater taboos against it meant that they kept quiet about their disbelief and even went with their families to church just to avoid making waves. A young man said that his mother was more bothered by his revelation that he was an atheist than that he was gay, another issue which the black community tries to keep under wraps.

Some of them have been quite outspoken about their views that Christianity should be rejected. The article mentions someone named Wrath James White who has a blog called Words of Wrath where he denounces African-Americans’ “zealous embracement of the God of our kidnapper, murders, slave masters and oppressors.” He goes on to say that “In most African-American communities, it is more acceptable to be a criminal who goes to church on Sunday, while selling drugs to kids all week, than to be an atheist who … contributes to society and supports his family.”

But the internet is changing all that. People are realizing that wherever you are, there are atheists all around you who are just like you. The comments to the NYT article are worth reading because they reveal many other people who are rejoicing in this newfound openness and were glad to see an article in a mainstream publication acknowledging their existence. The internet and social networking sites have allowed them to join up and form communities of their own, and more and more are speaking out openly about their disbelief.

The journey from priest to atheist

Eric MacDonald is a former clergyman who became an atheist and he has a blog Choice in Dying which began as a tribute to his wife Elizabeth who chose assisted suicide at the late stages of a serious illness. The original purpose of the blog was to counter the religious objections to assisted suicide but it is now a lot more than that. McDonald is very knowledgeable about theology and is able to counter the arguments of theologians using their own language. His blog is well worth a visit.

He recently posted a thoughtful analysis on the Q&A session of the Haught-Coyne debate. But in the comments, in response to some questions, he describes his own painful transition from priest to atheist and provides insight into how unbelieving priests have to choose their words very carefully to avoid being exposed as apostates. It takes them a long time to explicitly acknowledge even to themselves that they are no longer believers. He suspects that Haught is in the same situation.

While I was a priest, and had to say something to people every week in a homily, I knew within a hair’s breadth what I could say. My wife Elizabeth, who was a nonbeliever, would sometimes correct me, and say: “You can’t say that” or “You can’t say what you want to say in that way.” The point she was making was simply that dispelling the clouds too rapidly would make it impossible for us, the congregation and me, to take the next step, if we were going to take it together. So it was essential to lay down some fog, artificial fog, which would allow me to say what I wanted to say, but at the same time not to let people get too close a grasp on what I was saying, which would lead them to say, “Well, you really don’t believe at all, then, do you?” As I got closer and closer to retirement, a friend (a retired priest) used to say, “You’re going too fast. You’ll have talked yourself out of a job if you keep going at this rate” — because, at the time, I was finding it harder and harder to find anything positive to say about Christian belief.

Now, I suspect — though I may be wrong — that Haught is in this position. He wants to be able to speak about faith in very general terms, but he also wants faith to retain its position as a confidence in doctrines that he has really let go of a long time ago, and he’s developed a very comfortable way of speaking about his loss of faith in terms of what he considers faith, but most believers would not see as faith at all. He can retain all the usual Christian language, but he doesn’t believe any longer in a straightforward way — and this, by the way, is not a fundamentalist, literal style of believing, but believing in the highly intellectualised way in which the Roman Catholic Church defines its doctrines. He simply doesn’t notice that when he talks about Jesus he’s making a claim to divine intervention in the world for which there is not a shred of substantive evidence. If he noticed that, his house of cards would simply fall apart, so he has to keep it general and unfocused. As Kevin says (#7), theologians are in a tough position. If they dispell the fog the all too human levers are visible, but if they don’t dispell the fog, questions will continually arise. In other words, as Haggis says (#5), instinctively it seems that what Haught is saying is rubbish, but it’s not easy to see why, and the reason its hard to see why is that Haught has gone to a great deal of trouble of deceiving himself first.

In a later comment, he adds:

I think I went through the same process that Haught is going through, and it took years. When faith is the ground bass of one’s life, then, even when faith is breaking down, there are often more reasons to keep a hold on it than to let it go, and it is done, not through deliberate dishonesty, but through a veritable maze of self-deceiving rationalisation.

What looks to an outsider like dishonesty and hypocrisy, to an insider is just common sense. A lot of people, like Haught, go to a great deal of trouble to define faith in such a way that practically anything that is done is done on faith, so religious faith seems innocuous. But that’s all part of the smoke-screen. But the fact that he is laying smoke doesn’t even occur to him, and it won’t until he can get outside of the faith box that he’s in. It took a pretty vicious jerk to rattle me out of it, and I daresay it will take as big a bump in life’s road to lead Haught out of the maze.

Looking back I can see how careful I had to be not to work too far out of the box, but at the time what I was doing it, it seemed — nay, was — perfectly sincere and honest. Haught, given his situation, will find it almost impossible to get out of the box. It’s a very comfortable one. He has status. He is respected. He enjoys the theological game. What would lead him to leave? Of course, something might. But I know, from experience, how much a religious leader loses when he has made the decision that he can no longer speak with integrity about faith. One has to step outside a society in which one had honour and respect, and into a world which is — as the world in fact is — very uncertain. sometimes confusing, and never sure.

When you find religious people, clergy or otherwise, uncomfortable with talking about the concrete aspects of their beliefs, such as what god actually does, and shifting the conversation to the social benefits of religion or in vague terms about meaning and morals, it may well be a sign that they are on the road to unbelief or are already unbelievers and are unwilling to explicitly acknowledge it even to themselves.

No atheists allowed

Richard Dawkins was due to speak at a function hosted by the Center for Inquiry that was to be held at the Wyndgate Country Club in the Detroit area. But some official of the club saw Dawkins interviewed by Bill O’Reilly and decided that he/she did not want to have an atheist soiling their premises so the club canceled the event at the last minute forcing the organizers to find an alternative venue for the sold-out event. The CFI is considering suing the country club for its actions.

Of course, what the country club achieved is to give a huge amount of publicity to an event that otherwise only CFI members and supporters would have known about.