New Shoes

I fancy doing a bit of this bloggery malarkey again but I’m a bit out of practice. I’ve got a new (well not that new) hobby and so I’ll be posting about it on my other blog that I’ve called New (Running) Shoes which is about me and running.

Why not pop over a comment when I get something up. That is assuming that anyone even has this old blog in their feed still.

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Problem editing XPages in Designer

So I’ve gone back to XPages after being particularly swamped at work for several months and having not really touched it. I’ve gone to edit an XPage with a lot of custom controls on the form (at least 20, I think) that I didn’t design. I cannot even open the XPage without Designer crashing.

Obviously this is very frustrating but Google is my friend. After several hours of searching (and possible getting distracted by kittens or Doctor Who) I finally found a fix, I hope.

From John Jardin

Do the following:

1. Open one of your Custom Controls in Designer, and in the Properties Tab, navigate to the “Design Definition” Tab.

2. Add the following Code to the empty Box in this Tab. (All this does is create a div, style it, and add some text inside the Div)

<?xml version=”1.0″ encoding=”UTF-8″?>
<xp:view xmlns:xp=”;
<xp:div style=”background-color:blue; color:white; padding:3px;”>Some identifying Text</xp:div>

3. Save and Close your Custom Control.

4. Open your XPage where the Custom Control exists. If you haven’t added a Custom Control yet, create an XPage and do so.

You’ll see that instead of your Design Elements appearing in the XPage as it would look in the Custom Control, you now have a Blue Box with white Text inside it. If you double click in the Blue Box, you’ll be taken to your Custom Control, where you can view the original Design.

Not only does this keep your XPage tidy when it contains multiple Custom Controls, but it also stops the XPage from having to load all the Design Controls in your Custom Control for viewing in your XPage, which dramatically increases the speed of opening your XPage in Domino Designer.

So now I’m going through 50 or so custom controls and adding this code into the Design Definition. Hopefully it’ll all work out.


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Reasons Part 4 – Unconvincing Arguments

Continuing on from last week I’m listing some of the more common reasons why many people fail to believe in gods or God.  So far I’ve talked about different kinds of atheism, about evidence and how it does not lead to gods and about how god isn’t necessary to living.  Alone each of these reasons may not be sufficient to reject belief in gods in the face of the reasons that people do have for belief.

This week I’ll look at some of the common proofs of god(s) existence and try to explain why they are not convincing enough for many atheists to make that leap of faith.  This time I want to start off by saying that I accept that these arguments are enough to convince some, they just don’t convince me.

The Argument from Design

Many theists talk about the “totality of existence” being evidence for God.  We live in a universe that seems perfectly suited to life.  It is beautiful and apparently orderly, at least the rules of physics remain orderly wherever we look.  Surely such a wondrous thing is proof of design?  If we can infer design then there must be a designer and only God or the gods could have designed it.   The argument for design says that the universe exists so God or gods must exist.

On the face of things this seems pretty reasonable.  Well apart from the fact that the universe isn’t that beautiful or that orderly.  Look at evolution for example and you see massive waste.  Evolutionary dead ends have seen the extinction of 99% of all life that has ever lived on this planet.  You see carnivores that have to kill in order to survive.  You see lives snuffed out for no reason.  You see suffering and death, destruction and torture at every turn.  Human beings, supposedly the pinnacle of God’s creation, are wrought with flaws too numerous to mention.  We are less created in God’s image than thrown together out of whatever working parts could be found.

However, even if the universe were a perfectly ordered and beautiful thing, and I’m not disputing that we can see beauty and order within it, even if it were perfect, why should there be a designer?  Modern science has shown us that natural explanations exist for a wide variety of thinks we once thought of as designed.  Laws are devised to explain the effects of gravity, theories are formed that explain natural processed like evolution or the chemical imbalances in the brain that lead to some mental illnesses.  Gods offer no such explanations.

The “Ontological” Argument

The ontological argument uses logic and reasoning based on an a priori proof proposed by Anselm of Canterbury way back in the 11th century.  It is an argument that seeks to put God in a place where He is necessary for existence.

  1. God is that entity than which nothing greater can be conceived.
  2. It is greater to be necessary than not.
  3. God must be necessary.
  4. God necessarily exists.

Ever since I first heard this I’ve always disliked it.  I find it childish and silly and I really don’t see why anyone takes is seriously.  That’s why I’m not going to bother with it beyond saying that you could apply this to anything at all.  Simply substitute the word “god” for something else silly like the Flying Spaghetti Monster or Eric the Time Travelling Viking.  The “logic” then seems less compelling, doesn’t it?

The First Cause Argument

Unlike the ontological argument I actually like the first cause argument.  Among my “real life” friends who hold to no particular religion but retain a belief in a mysterious “something” the first cause is a favourite reason.  “Well something must have started it all off” they say and they are quite correct.  If everything has a cause then the universe must have a cause.  Isn’t it fair to say that this cause must be God?

Actually, no.  If you want to put God up as a first cause then that is just begging the question of who or what caused God.  If everything needs a cause then so does God.  If God doesn’t need a cause then why does the universe?  Saying that God is uncreated and perfect, that He somehow lives outside of the universe and outside of time, well, that isn’t satisfactory.  It’s just begging the question again.  If God was already perfect then what reason did he have for creating the universe?

Also, if the universe was caused why does that mean that God was the cause?  Perhaps Odin was the cause, perhaps Ra, perhaps some unknown, natural process.  There is room for doubt and lots of it.

Many believers assign properties to a creator in order to get the idea to fit their preconceived notions. For example some might say “if God is the designer, then He would have designed the natural processes by which these things are created.” How would we possibly be able to tell if that were the case?  It is an unfalsifiable assertion.  That isn’t objective and it doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. The truth is that we simply do not know what caused the Big Bang event (or last Big Bang event) and so it would be dishonest to claim to know. Perhaps it was a creator, perhaps it was an unknown but natural event. I’ve read some mind boggling theories about overlapping dimensions and quantum states of existence that try to explain mathematical ideas for a natural first cause. They make my head spin and I haven’t a clue if they are even close to the truth.  However, at least they don’t rely upon an unverified entity.

Many theists assume a priori that their god exists and try to fit evidence around that assumption.

“If everything has a first cause” is an assumption based on powerful evidence. Everything we know has a cause but we’re not talking about everything we know, we’re talking about a unique event in space time that is beyond our experience and possibly beyond our conception. It is unrealistic to claim knowledge of this event and assign it to a god. What connection do you have to God that makes him the first cause? A 3400 year old collections of scrolls dealing with two distinct creation myths. Everything else has been assigned to God based on your presupposition that God exists.

If there are incorrect assumptions about God then we need to strip them away. We need to start afresh and reexamine the evidence and the ideas without assumptions. Not an easy task with thousands of years of culture and faith built on the back of earlier creation myths and earlier ideas.

The problem, of course, is that when we strip everything away we are left with nothing but our own thoughts. We are placed in the same situation as Descartes and must define our knowledge from a tenuous grounding. “I am thinking, therefore I exist” tells us nothing of the past or future. We must build on our reason with evidence and assumptions but keep in mind at all times that we may well be deceived by our assumptions or by bad evidence. Descartes use the ontological argument to escape this trap, something that I would consider a false assumption and some pretty circular reasoning.

I originally wrote this for Off the Map – Atheist in 2009

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The Christian Label

The label of Christian is of little value when seeking to understand what it means about the person taking on that label. It doesn’t tell us what that persons moral values or outlook are nor does it really tell us what they believe.

The label itself is an umbrella term or superset of a wide variety of beliefs. Take some examples to highlight this.

Fred Phelps, that hateful bigot of the Westbro Baptist Church who spends his days spewing his hatred of gay people and anyone else who can think of in the name of a tyrant god. This man represents everything that is twisted and cruel about modern Christianity. Is he a Christian? Of course.

John Shelby Spong is a liberal theologian, an academic who talks of compassion and reform. He seeks a move away from theism and an embrace of a shared system of values across all faiths and none. His religion is a hope rather than a certainty and, as far as I know, he doesn’t use his Christianity as the blunt tool to bludgeon others into supporting it. Is he a Christian? Of course.

Joseph Alois Ratzinger, Bishop of Rome and current Pope is another academic. While Spong is liberal and open, Ratzinger is conservative and insular. The recent child rape scandals that have rocked Catholicism have turned his policies into protection of the church. In my view he is a criminal responsible for the continued protection of child molesters from secular justice and he should be tried in a court of human rights. Is he a Christian? Of course.

Rowan Williams is Archbishop of Canterbury and is currently presiding over a near schism within the Church of England. He seems to be a decent enough fellow with liberal views regarding the ordination of women and with the open acceptance of gay clergy but he plays a game of internal politics against other bishops who want the opposite. He is undoubtedly intelligent and articulate and he believes in a literal God rather than Spong’s conceptual god. Is he a Christian? Of course.

When someone announces that they are a Christian which of these models do we most closely associate with them? Are they liberal or conservative? Are they pro-gay or anti-gay? Are they feminist or misogynist? Are they pro-life or pro-choice? Are they hateful bigots or compassionate advocates for equality? Who knows? All we can tell about them from the label is that they believe in some sort of god in a loosely Christians tradition. We don’t know anything more about them than that.

So when someone introduces themselves as a Christian it tells us very little about their views and so cannot, in all fairness, be judged on those views because we don’t know what they are.

The same applies for those who judge atheists based on nothing more than pre-conceived notions.

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Secular Humanism – Need to Test Beliefs

Secular HumanismThe first tenet of secular humanism is the need to test beliefs. To quote from the council of secular humanism “A conviction that dogmas, ideologies and traditions, whether religious, political or social, must be weighed and tested by each individual and not simply accepted by faith.”

I want to point out that this isn’t a rejection of faith but it is a willingness to examine our beliefs. Secular says nothing about God, god(s) or the beliefs or lack thereof that people hold about them. Atheistic denotes an actual position being taken (no positive belief in god). A secular humanist with a religious belief can focus on the human aspects of living without rejecting their god. Faith and secular humanism are not mutually exclusive but I think it is still rare to find a religious secular humanist or at least a person who takes on both labels for themself.

Buddha wrote: Believe nothing, no matter where you read it or who has said it, not even if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense.

The need to test beliefs is not the need to reject everything that is held on faith. It is a requirement to ensure that those beliefs are meaningful. They should have some basis in reason, logic, fact or function that make them worthwhile retaining.

Let’s take the life of Jesus Christ as an example, not to be contentious but to illustrate the point. Assume that you hold that Jesus lived a life as a teacher and example to man on how to live a good life. You decide to emulate the man and his actions in your own life. The actual events are not provable in the independent historical record. The miracles performed are not repeatable in the modern age. Are the lessons still valuable though? Does this way of living work? Does the philosophy of helping others and personal sacrifice that Jesus personified make for a happier and more fulfilling life? I think that even the non-religious could agree with these points in a general way.

On the subject of religions though lets take a specific Christian ritual and test it in accordance with the first tenet of secular humanism. Something that has frequently been mentioned in atheist blogs is the issue of the communion wafer representing the flesh of Christ in Roman Catholic ritual. What purpose does this serve? A Roman Catholic might tell you that it is a literal transubstantiation and that by taking bread and wine as the flesh and blood of Christ they are bringing themselves closer to the divine. For me the issue of transubstantiation is purely one of faith. The bread is not literally divine flesh, I could test it to determine this if I wished. Is it spiritually divine flesh? I see nothing to indicate that it is or that it isn’t so I must reserve judgment until evidence is provided or reject the idea based on what I do know.

What benefit does the transubstantiation ritual provide? For the faithful it is a way of drawing the group together in something that is shared only between them. It fosters ties within the religious community. It also marks them as separate from other factions of Christianity and other faiths. This could well lead to divisions within disparate communities. Indeed it has. The same could well be said of any other ritual from Sunday service to morning prayer, from the Bah-Mitzvah to the ritual ablutions of the Bahá’í Faith.

As human beings we learn things as we grow. We take what works and pass it on. Sometimes a lesson that is passed on does not keep the reason with it. An example might be the avoidance of pork in Jewish and Islamic religions. Pork spoils easily and contains a number of parasites that can be passed to humans. Avoiding this meat may make a lot of sense to a people who live in a hot country with poor sanitation and methods of long term food storage. Does it make sense today with modern refrigerators, relatively clean meat processing plants and more hygienic storage of food? The religious restriction remains, independent of the food hygiene issue. Perhaps it didn’t arise from that or perhaps society moved on and the lesson remained behind.

It is important to take stock and reassess the things that we have learnt or discovered in order to ensure that we haven’t got them wrong. I should point out that this obviously includes the assumption of atheism as well as religion. Are my views on religion appropriate given what I know about the world, history, philosophy and science? Have I been introduced to new information or a new way of looking at current information since taking on the label of atheist? Do my views still remain valid given this new information? In all honesty I can say that they do, although my views on religion have changed considerably in the last few years. There are some interpretations and rituals that I view as horribly destructive or socially repressive but there are equally some that I see as positive and worth retaining in a secular life.

I walk away believing I am right, but open to the idea that I am not.

Finally the tenet states that it is the individual who must test and assess a conviction. We all have our own criteria for belief. Some of us require hard evidence, some accept witness testimony, others believe second hand evidence or viable theories, others still place value on workable ideas and axioms even when they can never be proven. I think most of us take a mixed approach to ideas and the burden of proof. That’s why we must all make up our own minds about what is true and what is false.

That’s my take on the first tenet. Hopefully I’ll write about the second tenet next week.

I originally wrote this for the Off the Map – Atheist web site. Feel free to share and comments are welcome.

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Reasons Part 3 – Necessity

I had no need of that hypothesis. (“Je n’avais pas besoin de cette hypothèse-là”, as a reply to Napoleon, who had asked why he hadn’t mentioned God in his book on astronomy.)

– Pierre-Simon Laplace

Leading on from last week where I tried to provide an explanation for a lack of belief due to a lack of compelling evidence, this week it is a lack of necessity.

I’m sure that anyone who has kicked around religious debates for more than a few months will be familiar with William of Occam and his eponymous razor.  The principle of Occam’s Razor is to explain a phenomena with as few assumptions as possible and to remove those elements that make no difference to the explanation.  “Entities must not be multiplied beyond necessity” is one of his ideas.

So, when we examine a phenomena, we do not count God in the hypothesis.  Not because God is or is not there but because the presence or absence of God makes no difference to our examination. It has been said that you cannot put God in a test tube but the nature of an infinite being is that you cannot keep God out of a test tube either.  By not counting God into hypotheses we are left to other devices to explain them.  An atheist like me extends the idea and discounts God from all things as unnecessary.

Perhaps one day I will be confronted with a question that needs God to explain it.  Science is such a satisfactory way of explaining things in the universe that it has no need for God and I am happy to accept that sometimes I don’t have enough information to provide an answer.  Yet, since we can explain so much with the tools of science then we don’t need to call on God to explain things.

Does this prove God doesn’t exist?  Not at all.  What it shows is that the assumption that God exists isn’t needed.  If the assumption isn’t needed then why not abandon it?

William of Occam, a Franciscan monk, would not agree.  The presumption of God was the very best way of explaining the universe in the 14th century.  In the 21st century we have other tools at our disposal.  Tools that make the God hypothesis unnecessary.

Whenever you have more than one hypothesis, only one is necessary. You could always throw the others out on that basis as ‘unnecessary’. The question is, how do you decide which to throw out and which to keep?

The god hypothesis involves more assumptions.

However a) fewer assumptions aren’t necessarily correct even though William of Occam preferred them and b) theists disagree that my assumptions that make God unnecessary are better/fewer/more tenable than their assumption of God which make my alternate assumptions and ‘no God hypothesis’ unnecessary.

That is where the null hypothesis comes in.  The alternative hypothesis is that god(s) exist and the null hypothesis is that the alternative hypothesis is false.  Unless sufficiently compelling evidence and reason exists to support the alternative hypothesis then the null hypothesis is preferred.

I originally wrote this for Off The Map – Atheist in 2009 as part of a series explaining why I lacked belief in gods.


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Reasons Part 2 – Lack of Evidence

The late Christopher Hitchens wrote:

“What Can Be Asserted Without Evidence Can Be Dismissed Without Evidence”?

One reason that people have for being non-believers in God is a lack of evidence to support belief in God.  This is obviously a different thing than positive evidence against something.  The burden of proof, as they say, is on the claimant.  Many times I have talked about evidence with theists and non-theists and always we return to the issue of faith. A theist must have faith that their god is the true one despite a lack of supporting evidence.  An atheist may dismiss the theist’s claims because the evidence is weak or, at the very least, unreliable.

I would suggest that we must start from the presumption of disbelief.  I do not believe in unicorns, dragons, cosmic teapots, talking animals and a whole plethora of others things not because I have evidence that they do not exist but because I have no evidence that they do.  The same holds true for belief in gods of any kind.  Furthermore Christians feel precisely the same way about Odin, Ra, Quetzalcoatl, Oghma and all the other gods that human beings have believed in throughout history.

There are reasonable objections to this.  People accept many things as true without insisting on good evidence and even in the face of contradictory evidence sometimes.  I accept that a coin toss will have exactly a 50% chance of landing heads or tails even when I’ve managed to throw ten heads in a  row.  Empirical evidence suggests the coin will land heads on each toss but I do not accept this because I know that this is simply a statistical abnormality.

Sometimes the evidence to prove a point is very complicated or difficult to understand.  Nobody expects you to understand how to read DNA to appreciate that it contains the building blocks of living things encoded within it.  Sometimes claims are not intuitive and seem to work against reason.  The speed of light is fixed in a vacuum.  If you were to sit at the head of a beam of light while light travelled towards you it would arrive at the speed of light and not twice the speed of light as you’d expect if you were sitting on a baseball heading towards another.  This is counter intuitive but nevertheless true.  Many of the “truths” of complex science are based on “evidence” that follows a convoluted chain of reasoning.  The Theory of Evolution itself is not provable in the classical sense but is simply the most reasonable path that the evidence suggests.  Good evidence supports it but does not provide absolute certainty.  Good evidence serves to make it highly probable.

A key problem that I have with claims of theists is with the issue of authority.  A scientist can demonstrate their logic through experimentation, an economist through modelling.  Reliable authority is claimed by a good success record.  We trust the conclusions of science because the conclusions are good in general and can be implemented in helpful ways and are supported by evidence.  Scientists are good authorities who can “show their working” and freely allow others to repeat their tests and draw their own conclusions. When scientists are wrong they do change their minds.  Perhaps not right away but when their position is untenable they have a mechanism in place to change tack.

Theologians are not such good authorities.  No mechanism exists for changing tack.  Members of the same religion disagree, sometimes violently.  There is no possible way to test the assertions of one faction.   The evidence for their claims are vague or missing.  Sometimes these claims are logically consistent or based on intuition or popular assent but there is not evidence, good, testable, repeatable evidence, that supports the claims.  Even the claims of probability that some science relies upon (abiogenesis, Big Bang theory, chaos theory) are open to refute with evidence.  Probability works if it is the best you have based on the evidence but the evidence isn’t sufficient even to make God probable.

There is, of course, a counter argument to this.  Perhaps the presumption of atheism is false.  We can accept that unicorns, dragons and cosmic teapots don’t exist based on lack of evidence but why should this be true for God?  Shouldn’t the atheist make the case that God does not exist before claiming disbelief?  Isn’t the position of agnosticism intellectually more honesty?  How should we go about putting a reasonable mechanism in place to test our reason in this situation?

We should apply both assumptions to an untestable idea.  Space aliens or the Loch Ness Monster for example.  What do we imagine that an alien or Nessie is?  What constitutes an alien life form visiting our world or a prehistoric suvivor living in a near frozen in-land lake?  What is our idea of these things?  Then we try to find evidence that supports these ideas.

As an unbeliever it is not up to me come up with the idea of what God is and find evidence for it.  It is up to the theist to define God in testable terms and present evidence to support the idea.  If it were up to me I could simply define God as a great, bearded man who lives on top of the dome of the sky and then claim that he does not exist because the sky is not a solid firmament for God to walk upon.  This would be unreasonable and more than a little rude.  I must work with the definition provided to me and then counter the claims of evidence with new interpretations or better evidence.

The theist, in short, must provide an idea of what constitutes God and provide support for having reasons to hold to this idea.  Failure to do so leaves God as an incoherent ideal, a half formed concept that could feasible fit any definition, even a changeable one, ever shifting to escape the attacks of evidence and reason.  This is intolerable for an honest explorer.  We must have something to work from if we are to make sense of an idea.  If there is no sense to the word “God” then there can be no God.

I originally wrote this for Off The Map – Atheist in 2009 as part of a series explaining why I lacked belief in gods.

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Reasons Part 1

I think that it is fair to say that most atheists have reasons for not believing in gods.  There are intellectual reasons aplenty for not believing that I will look at in the coming weeks.  There are some who do not believe because of the way they were brought up or educated, or because they have simply adopted the beliefs of the culture in which they grew up.  The same is probably true of many Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, etc.

Other atheists choose atheism because they just feel that atheism is right.  The intellectual reasons either escape them or simply don’t matter because they follow their feelings that atheism is the right choice.  Perhaps they looked into other faiths and couldn’t decide which one suited them most and so decided on none.  Again I strongly suspect that the same is true for many people of faith who hold their beliefs because they just seem right to them.

There is another group though who are labelled as apatheists.  Apatheists or people who are apathetic with regards to religion choose atheism as a default option.  Rather they don’t choose at all, they simply don’t care one way or the other about or for questions of religion.

I don’t mind admitting that I find the idea of apatheists more than a little unsettling.  How can people not care?  For me a key event that triggered my own exploration of religion and rejection of many aspects of it was the attack on the World Trade Centre in 2001.  In that case religion was used as a force for evil (and I don’t use the word lightly) to motivate people into attacking the West.  The reaction to this from religious groups helped to cement my views.  These views though are more about religion than about the existence or non-existence of God or gods.  Turned away from religion I explored the matter of existence from an intellectual view point.  Finding no compelling reason I am an atheist.  For other people 9/11 drew them into a faith a cemented their ties with a religion, perhaps they drew strength from their faith where I saw only division.  One thing 9/11 did was to prompt people to decide on faith.

Yet to have people who just don’t care strikes me as callous and more than a little odd.  Was 2001 really so long ago that people have forgotten about it?  Were the events so far removed from their lives that they’ve been able to dismiss them as unimportant?  I do not understand it and I do not feel that it is right.  Yet it must be the default position for anyone who comes into this world.

A child is born with no knowledge of religion and is taught all that they later know about the gods or God, about faith and about the organisations that are built on these viewpoints.  By my definition of atheism, that it is a lack of belief in God or gods, a child has had no chance to believe or not.  They fail to believe because they do not know that there is a choice.  These are not atheists but apatheists.  Once apprised of the facts they can choose to believe in one faith or none and can choose their own reasons for doing so.  To remain uncommitted is not something that makes sense to me.

I should point out that apatheist here is a different stance than agnosticism.  An agnostic has explored the ideas of faith and no faith and decided that they haven’t got enough information to choose.  The information is not quite compelling one way or the other.  They are not indifferent but intellectually honest.  Being unable to know in the true sense of the word they wait patiently for a juicy piece of evidence or reasonable argument that may sway them.  This is not a lack of interest or a path of ignorance but a balancing act of competing ideas.  Atheism answers the question of belief and agnosticism answers the question of knowledge.  They are not on the same scale of belief.

Perhaps an apatheist is simply exercising the same lack of interest in God that they see God exercising in them. Now there’s an idea, if a callous one.

I originally wrote this for Off The Map – Atheist in 2009 as part of a series explaining why I lacked belief in gods.

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Promoting moral growth

This is a response to a comment on Google+ that really turned out too long to post there.

Are you familiar with Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Development?  Too many people, particularly the right wing religious people who make up a very influential bloc in North America are stuck on the obedience and punishment stage. Perhaps it is the idea of obeying religious covenants that have been firmly ingrained into their psyches or perhaps they are simply deferring moral growth to their pastors.

To take an idea from Marx; religion is the opiate of the masses, it holds back moral development.  I should say it can hold back moral development rather than that it does.  If we want humanity to reach a post conventional level of morality where we at least engage in a mutually beneficial social contract (that open minded and permissive morality where we don’t judge those who are different based on our own preferences) then we need to work past the restrictions that religion places on growth.

My dissent with regard to Marx’ assessment of religion as a limiter leads me to say that I’ve known a few highly moral religious social commenters but that religion per se does not promote this kind of development (neither does its absence in all fairness).  I can see it in some aspects of Buddhism and if you read almost anything by the Dalai Lama you’ll see how acceptance and understanding are key to his view of personal and social happiness but you still find bigoted Buddhists.  I can see some fantastic moral lessons in Roman Catholicism too.  Charity for example is key to many Catholic endeavours, unfortunately the Holy See and the Bishop of Rome hardly seem to exemplify this quality.  There is also an idea in Islam that encourages the questioning of dogma and its constant reassessment.  Again it is something that we tend not to hear about these days but it did help Islam to advance scientifically, medically and culturally over its neighbours until our European ancestors crushed them.

I’ve said many times how I view religion as a Curate’s Egg with both good and bad parts.  Every religious person cherry picks their scripture and takes from it what lessons best suit them.  I think that this is a good thing and we, I mean society in general, should encourage it.  We need to encourage them to cherry pick the parts that promote a better society and to explain away or ignore the parts that limit or harm society.  We can do this by making society more moral and promoting humanist ideas.  As something of a utilitarian I think that we should examine moral questions from the principle of the least harm caused rather than from the viewpoint of an authority who dictates moral considerations but as long as those moral considerations that are dictates are to the benefit of all then we can certainly adapt them.

The Ten Commandments dictates prohibitions against murder and theft and promotes the idea of accepting that what others have is theirs.  The Eight Fold Way promotes wisdom, ethical conduct and mindfulness of others.  The Sermon on the Mount promotes compassion for the poor and hungry and condemns greed and violence.  I think that we can agree that these are good things that we could readily adapt into every day social contracts of morality alongside other ideas.

Let me know what you think.


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Belief vs belief

“Atheists don’t believe in anything” is an odd thing to say, when you think about it. It’s based on a twisted and confused understanding of what belief really is. Very simply put, in everyday conversation, ‘belief’ refers to a person’s convictions. They are matters of faith rather than ones where evidence or proof is thought to be evidence or even relevant. In matters of philosophy a ‘belief’ is ‘any fact of the matter or proposition which might be held to be true’, or what we think of as being true for everyone and everything, for example:

It is Friday.
I was born more than 3 days ago.
The sun will rise in the east and set in the west (relative to my current location).

That kind of thing are objectively true (or false) for everyone. Beliefs can be very specific or very general, trivial or serious. Beliefs can be suppositions (if the sun had come out it would have been a brighter day) or absolute statements of fact (If Alex is taller than Beth and Beth is taller then Cait then Alex is taller than Cait).

Philosophically ‘beliefs’ have truth value. They are capable of being true or false.

We have two distinct kinds of belief: The kind of beliefs that are either true or false and the kind of beliefs that are strongly held convictions. The latter include:

democracy is the best form of government.
cats are better pets than dogs.
Mozart was the finest composer who ever lived.
apples are a finer food than oranges.

These are subjective and are based on the preferences of the person making them. There is a distinction here that is sometimes lost when we discuss beliefs. How many times have you seen or heard the question “How can an atheist go through life believing in nothing?” or something similar? I’ve even seen it given as a statement and a condemnation. Atheists or rational beliefs are dismissed as having less value than theistic beliefs. Ultimately though, it is a failure of the person asking the question in understanding the difference between conviction and truth.

People of strong conviction even refer to their beliefs as truth, sometimes even capitalising it as Truth to give in added power. I know I’ve done it, I’ve considered some of my own convictions as so obvious and irrefutable that they must be true. Again though this is a confusion between the idea of belief inherent in truth and the belief inherent in a strongly held conviction. There being no way to prove (or disprove) the existence of God or gods, religion is a belief that falls firmly within the bounds of a conviction and is incapable of being true or false without further evidence. That isn’t to say that we cannot glean honest and good ideas from religion, just that the idea of proof isn’t relevant.

What meaning do we give to our lives without the firm convictions of religious belief? It isn’t as easy as taking the beliefs of a community (a church) or a family and adopting them. An atheist instead has to ascribe meaning to their own life and adopt those convictions that make sense. For me that gives the beliefs that I hold greater strength. I have challenged them myself in arriving at them (and continue to do so) so they are much stronger as a result. The values that I have and the beliefs that I hold have come about through questioning and evaluating them. It is true that some theists do this too. I just don’t think that they do it as often.

When someone says of an atheist that we don’t believe in anything they are failing to grasp the nature of belief. Both a theist and a non-theist may share identical beliefs in things that have truth value but will differ in beliefs that are formed of conviction. We both have convictions and true beliefs but some people fail to grasp the difference and place them together. This doesn’t help anyone to discuss or understand the differences in their beliefs.

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