Richard Dawkins in Doctor Who

Weirdest news of the day: Richard Dawkins is apparently guest starring in Doctor Who this series. His wife Lalla Ward is an ex Doctor’s-companion, but Russell T. Davies is an atheist and fan, too. Could be entertaining, one way or another.

Mainly posting this to warn against reading the explanatory Independent article, which is full of spoilers. Bastards. It would have killed them to put a warning at the top?


I just discovered Overanalysis – a blog describing itself as “Dispatches from a personal educational journey on philosophy, religion, atheism and history”. Full of skepticism, atheism and general rationality, it’s definitely worth a look. Full disclosure: it’s (well) written by my Sydney-based cousin, who’s apparently another fan of The Skeptics’ Guide and therefore a classy chap. He’s currently relating his adventures infiltrating the Hillsong Church.

Evil atheist fundamentalists are going to upset us all

The Archbishop of Wales:

Any kind of fundamentalism, be it Biblical, atheistic or Islamic, is dangerous.

I think we can agree that fundamentalism, suitably defined, is indeed horrible. I’m not sure what atheistic fundamentalism is meant to refer to, but helpfully he spells it out. Here’s what we’re going to do: let’s pretend for a minute that it’s real. It’s not, of course, but we’ll give him a pass as he can’t be expected to research his Christmas messages and perform all his Archbishop-y duties. Here is his list of the things fundamentalist atheists are supposedly doing:

  • Forcing councils to rename Christmas ‘Winterval’
  • Making schools put on plays other than the nativity at Christmas
  • Getting crosses removed from hospital chapels
  • Advocating that religion in general and Christianity in particular have no substance
  • Advocating that some view the faith as “superstitious nonsense”
  • Making ‘virulent, almost irrational1 attacks’ on Christianity
  • Forcing schools to stop their children sending Christmas cards with a Christian message
  • Making airlines refuse their staff permission to wear a cross around their necks

Holy shit. Those atheist fundamentalists are really pulling out the big guns. Councils are renaming Christmas? The humanity! Just for fun, here’s a list of the things Biblical and Islamic fundamentalists do:

  • Kill people for not worshipping their deity
  • Kill people for performing abortions
  • Kill people for trying to convert to another religion
  • Kill women for…pretty much anything
  • etc.

Not a disgusting comparison at all, then. What a revolting thing to do.

  1. Freudian slip []

Carol-singing atheists

Meant to be Christmas shopping, but instead getting annoyed by the radio. The Jeremy Vine show is incredulous that Richard Dawkins, avowed atheist, enjoys singing Christmas carols. They interview him. He explains that singing is nice and means nothing. Vicar retaliates that singing is inherently an act of worship. Which is stupid.

Penn Jillette put it well: I’m not in your club, so I don’t have to follow your rules. Rumour has it that senior Freemasons wear special rings – junior members are not permitted such jewellery. But I’m not a Freemason, so I can do what the hell I like. Any senior Freemason objecting to my wearing their special ring is going to get laughed at. You don’t get to impose your own club rules on the rest of society. Christians think singing carols is an act of worship, and that’s fine – go ahead. But don’t tell me what I can and can’t think, thanks.

A Guardian cartoonist stood up for good sense, but briefly took a wrong turn, imho, when he started to argue historically. It’s used frequently, but I don’t much care for the argument that Christmas was a pagan tradition so it’s ok for atheists to celebrate it, or the debates over whether the Christmas tree is a traditional Christian thing. Doesn’t matter, for two reasons:

  1. The meaning of any particular tradition is entirely relative – if I like the tradition, I can appropriate it without dragging along all the historical baggage. The Guardian columnist pointed out that his favourite ink was used to stamp people in concentration camps – should he boycott it for this reason? No, that’s silly. It’s ink. Culture is a great big amalgam of unpatentable ideas from throughout history. Christmas trees look good – I like decorating my home with them. I don’t care whether some Christian came up with the idea, or what it means to religious people. I just like having a pretty tree, it’s nice! Some would raise politeness at this point – if Christians get offended by my having a tree, isn’t it polite to avoid it? No! People can declare offence at anything; bending over backwards to accommodate beliefs that make no sense never a) works b) leads to anything good.
  2. Religion appropriates nice things to attract people1. It’s a trick. A toffee-sprout. “Look, we sing nice songs, decorate our homes and all meet up once a week – these are all unequivocally nice things! Also by the way guy-came-back-from-the dead-angels-demons-witchcraft-magic-crackers-floods-smiting-gay-people-bad-also-snakes-don’t-ever-have-sex-unless-we-give-you-permission, and you only get to do all the nice things if you believe all that. This applies to everyone”. No. Get lost with your manipulative crap. I’ll take the yummy toffee, which is nothing to do with you, and leave the sprout for anyone who wants it.  This isn’t all that different from #1, actually – free-floating ideas can be netted by anyone, and nobody gets to claim copyright.

I like carols too. Don’t care that Christians consider carols an act of worship. Tell you what: if you can do that, I’m going to declare doing the vacuuming a rejection of god. From now on any Christian who hoovers the hall is a hypocrite.

  1. not necessarily maliciously, but probably just through cultural natural selection – memetic, if you will []

Jonathan Edwards an atheist

I managed to miss this one. Jonathan Edwards, the evangelical olympic athlete who famously refused to compete on Sundays, has revealed he is now an atheist:

“Once you start asking yourself questions like, ‘How do I really know there is a God?’ you are already on the path to unbelief,” Edwards says. “During my documentary on St Paul, some experts raised the possibility that his spectacular conversion on the road to Damascus might have been caused by an epileptic fit. It made me realise that I had taken things for granted that were taught to me as a child without subjecting them to any kind of analysis. When you think about it rationally, it does seem incredibly improbable that there is a God.”

*shakes head in amazement*. It’s really, really rare for such high-profile and evangelical believers to change their minds like this. Great news, obviously. He has interesting things to say about the role of faith in his sporting success:

Would Edwards have been as successful a sportsman had he been assailed by such doubts? It is a question that the world record-holder confronts with bracing candour. “Looking back now, I can see that my faith was not only pivotal to my decision to take up sport but also my success,” he says. “I was always dismissive of sports psychology when I was competing, but I now realise that my belief in God was sports psychology in all but name.”

Muhammad Ali once asked: “How can I lose when I have Allah on my side?” Edwards understands the potency of such beliefs, even as he questions their philosophical legitimacy.

“Believing in something beyond the self can have a hugely beneficial psychological impact, even if the belief is fallacious,” he says. “It provided a profound sense of reassurance for me because I took the view that the result was in God’s hands. He would love me, win, lose or draw. The tin of sardines I took to the Olympic final in Sydney was a tangible reminder of that.”

I hadn’t thought of it like that before. I don’t quite see where the desire to be the best would come from, but I can see that it relieves the pressure of major occasions to think that it’s all in god’s hands, and that there’d be no shame in failure. It was always interesting how his largest jumps were consistently in the finals of major competitions, when you’d think more relaxed occasions might be more conducive to the very best results. Fascinating.

The article remains religiously-neutral for the most part, but at one point drifts into the usual negative connotations of atheism, when it says that JE came to believe:

that life is not something imbued with meaning from on high but, possibly, a purposeless accident in an unfeeling universe.

If you want to phrase it like that, sure, but only for certain definitions of ‘purposeless’ and ‘unfeeling’. They’re usually negative words implying something is lacking, whereas atheists tend to see them as null. It’s like not having a banana versus there being no such thing as a banana. In the first case, you might want a banana. But in the second case there is no concept of a banana, so it means nothing.

I certainly wouldn’t have predicted this one. I wonder whether we’ll see more public figures ‘come out’ as atheists, as the non-religious become more higher profile.

Criticisms of The God Delusion, and what comes next

The last eight months have seen many critical reviews of Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, and the most consistent criticisms, once you get past dull relativism, unthinking accusations of ‘fundamentalism’, and seemingly unending debates over what ‘agnostic’ and ‘atheist’ mean, boil down to two points:

We’re told RD hasn’t addressed the sophisticated theology1 behind the belief in a divine being. He instead concentrates on the points that are easy to shoot down – Aquinas etc.. This argument appears to implode, however: this supposedly sophisticated theology is incredibly difficult to find. It’s continually referred to, but is never actually clarified. When asked to provide these arguments, we’re usually told it’s too complicated. I consider myself intelligent enough to understand such things (and would quite like to know if there really is a deity in the sky, actually), and even if you disagree there are plenty of atheists who’d be happy to read these sophisticated arguments. There is no reason that an intelligent person shouldn’t be able to understand the arguments for the existence of a deity – theology is not quantum physics and does not require twenty years of mathematical training. If it’s out there, bring it on. Another common answer is that you can only understand once you’ve read everything ever written about every religion ever. Dawkins hasn’t read Such-and-Such on grace, or So-and-So on how shiny angels are – who is he to say anything about theology! This is well answered by the Courtier’s Reply.

It’s worth mentioning that the hints of this sophisticated theology diverge massively from the popular understanding of religion. I’ve had people argue that something must have created the universe, and, although this is your standard god-of-the-gaps argument, it’s still far more reasonable than claiming you have contact with a magic sky-fairy who answers your prayers. The average Catholic doesn’t believe in an Agent that started off the Big Bang, they believe in an intercessory deity who turns wine and crackers into blood and flesh. The God Delusion was attacking this popular notion of religion that’s believed by billions. It wasn’t a deep philosophical tome. Even so, the supposedly sophisticated arguments don’t appear to stand up to scrutiny. Saying ‘god is simple so could have spontaneously popped into existence’ is no use if you don’t actually have any evidence to back it up. Tom Hamilton has interesting commentary on this latter argument, as well as the necessity of stepping into these areas of argument. If only more commentary was as intelligently written as his, the dialogue would be far more productive.

I think it’s possible to argue most believers to a point where they stop being logical about the existence of deities, and they’ll admit it. It’s nigh-on impossible to change a believer’s mind, but you can reach a point where the argument becomes, simply put, ‘I just think it because I do’. Religion is like every pseudoscience out there in this regard, and the psychological investigations into this phenomenon are fascinating. And this is where the second major objection appears: it’s just rude. Of course there isn’t really a god, but why upset people? Referring to divine beings as the equivalent of fairies at the bottom of the garden offends, so you shouldn’t do it. I’ve had commenters on this site tell me I should couch my language in ways such as ‘while I can see you have incredibly deeply held beliefs, I have a small problem with one particular aspect and I’m sorry if this offends you but I consider it important.’ This gets increasingly pathetic. It’s insulting to me, and it’s insulting to anybody religious who is perfectly capable of having adult discussions.

If an atheist starts insulting you and telling you you’re stupid, damn right s/he’s being rude and there’s no reason you should put up with it. But Dawkins / Harris / Dennett etc. don’t do this, no matter how often we’re told otherwise. Even if they did, there are thousands out there who don’t, yet are no less strident in tone. They are at pains to emphasise that it’s the idea that is being attacked, not the person. Saying somebody don’t know something is not the same as saying they are stupid, neither is ignorance a criticism. If you get offended when I tell you there’s no reason to think your deity exists, that’s your problem, and saying ‘maybe so, but I am offended nevertheless so shut up’ is simply a way of stifling debate. Surely this is obvious. Even if there were a way to phrase objections so that people weren’t offended, and this I doubt, it would be making a massive, pointless exception for religion when it comes to debate. We’d probably just be called patronising, too. The tone with which religion is discussed in The God Delusion is no different from any political discussion, and a thousand miles away from the excesses of art criticism, which we regularly ingest as valid commentary. That somebody believes something strongly is no reason not to attack it, but not them, when there is good reason to do so.

From this point there are other objections: the argument that religious ‘moderates’ provide a shield for extremism by being perfectly pleasant in their belief in fairies is certainly one of the more controversial areas; questioning the ‘rights’ of parents to inflict their religious beliefs on their children is another; saying that faith is sweet and harmless and good for society also comes up (although I find that one deeply patronising). But it’s the above two that are the most frequent.

The above introduction was longer than I intended, and was originally only meant to serve as a lead-in. If you have problems with Richard Dawkins, and thought The God Delusion was an insulting title, I bring you Christopher Hitchens’ God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. Here’s an excerpt:

There are four irreducible objections to religious faith: that it wholly misrepresents the origins of man and the cosmos, that because of this original error it manages to combine the maximum of servility with the maximum of solipsism, that it is both the result and the cause of dangerous sexual repression, and that it is ultimately grounded on wish-thinking.


While some religious apology is magnificent in its limited way—one might cite Pascal—and some of it is dreary and absurd—here one cannot avoid naming C. S. Lewis—both styles have something in common, namely the appalling load of strain that they have to bear. How much effort it takes to affirm the incredible! The Aztecs had to tear open a human chest cavity every day just to make sure that the sun would rise. Monotheists are supposed to pester their deity more times than that, perhaps, lest he be deaf. How much vanity must be concealed—not too effectively at that—in order to pretend that one is the personal object of a divine plan? How much self-respect must be sacrificed in order that one may squirm continually in an awareness of one’s own sin? How many needless assumptions must be made, and how much contortion is required, to receive every new insight of science and manipulate it so as to “fit” with the revealed words of ancient man-made deities? How many saints and miracles and councils and conclaves are required in order first to be able to establish a dogma and then—after infinite pain and loss and absurdity and cruelty—to be forced to rescind one of those dogmas? God did not create man in his own image. Evidently, it was the other way about, which is the painless explanation for the profusion of gods and religions, and the fratricide both between and among faiths, that we see all about us and that has so retarded the development of civilization.

Christopher Hitchens writes so damned well that I have to be careful not to get carried away by his eloquence. He’s occasionally come out with statements that have pushed it even for me. It sounds like a good read – I’ll certainly be picking up a copy.

  1. ‘theology’ throughout means the ‘research’ into the existence of deities, not the study of religious belief in general []

The Star Trek universe vs. reality

Earlier tonight I was watching a BBC4 documentary which explored some of the effects science fiction has had on modern society. One interviewee described what he saw as the impressive moral values of Star Trek: tolerance of other races and kindness towards all are important aspects of the show. I knew that this wasn’t surprising as Gene Roddenberry was both an atheist and humanist, and the Star Trek universe is very much based around humanist philosophy. The interviewee who mentioned this turned out to be a vicar. Obviously there’s not necessarily any conflict here, and I’m sure I would have much in common with somebody who seemed to be a nice guy. Nevertheless, I can only assume that he would, if questioned, claim something like:

The science fiction universe of Star Trek has explorers traversing the galaxy, using their extensive experience of the universe to reason out peaceful solutions to problems while demonstrating a tolerance and kindness towards all people of all races. Of course, here in the real world I get my moral guidance from a magical being in the sky whose son came back from the dead.

I suppose this is why I find the psychology of religious belief so interesting, as I’d find such a statement very difficult to comprehend.

‘The Trouble with Atheism’

The National Secular Society says:

Former Today editor Rod Liddle is set to launch a broadside against atheism in a programme for Channel 4 entitled The Trouble with Atheism – which will be broadcast on 18 December. Mr Liddle says he will demonstrate how similar atheism is to religion.

Sounds interesting. However, this is the guy who recently wrote, in the course of a Spectator interview with Richard Dawkins:

Which brings me to the difficult stuff — and Darwinism. It is a creed to which Dawkins cleaves with the fervour of the fundamentalist, the true believer. And it is the real chink in his armour. For example, because Darwin showed us that life forms progress from the simple to the complex over hundreds of thousands of years of gradual modification, it therefore follows (according to Dawkins) that there cannot have been a divine being present before the amoebae swam in those soupy oceans at Earth’s toddler stage — because he would have had to be more complex than those organisms which followed him. And that doesn’t fit with the theory.

What? Aside from the dubious characterisation (which is contradicted by the next paragraph anyway) I don’t think anyone’s ever argued that a deity couldn’t have existed at the primordial soup stage because it would have been more complex than that which followed it. That’s a strange argument, and there are indeed multiple problems with it. I’ve never heard it suggested that evolution actively disproves deities, it’s more that evolution provides an explanation for probably the largest evidence for the existence of a deity, namely that the natural world looks like it’s been designed. A deity becomes superfluous, so why believe in one? It’s possible he’s simplifying a superficially similar argument to do with the rather large question of the beginning of the universe, but that’s still to do with the probability of an inherently complex deity versus a simple process, not that it wouldn’t be possible due to increasing evolutionary complexity (not that evolution necessarily makes beings more complex, anyway).

Mr Liddle seems to have misunderstood the issues to the extent that he thinks the entire basis for disbelieving in a god hinges upon Darwin’s theory being entirely correct:

But what if the theory, in its entirety, doesn’t hold — as Dawkins concedes might be possible? Even now, a century and a half after Darwin wrote The Origin of Species, the notion of gradual, cumulative change in every case is being challenged (most recently by the evo-devo school, which believes that sudden change can occur within species within a single generation). Like all scientific theories, Darwinism will be amended — perhaps beyond recognition. Perhaps it will be discarded entirely. Either way, disavowing a divine being because it doesn’t quite fit in with another here-today-gone-tomorrow theory seems a tad peremptory. The question Dawkins can never satisfactorily answer is: what if Darwin was wrong? And yet, as a scientist, he must be aware that the likelihood is that Darwin was wrong here or there. In which case, where does that leave his philosophical argument?

“[T]he notion of gradual, cumulative change in every case is being challenged”? Ok, maybe, but it’s a long way from overturning current theory, and there’s more to evolution than just gradual changes. I don’t know all that much about the evo-devo school, but I’m pretty sure it still works on the basis of natural selection, no matter how large the generational mutations. But even if Darwin (and modern theory) somehow turned out to be wrong, it would make little difference to atheistic arguments because they’re not built upon evolution in the way Mr Liddle thinks. Sure, you’d have to find another explanation for the life’s complexity, but it would have to explain the vast amount of evidence showing ‘evolutionary’ lineages, and there’s no reason to immediately turn to a deity for this.

You also can’t just say that because scientific theories are continually revised – or ‘here-today-gone-tomorrow’ if you like – anything that follows from them (which the non-existence of god doesn’t anyway) is unreliable. That’s getting it backwards. The point is that predictions can be tested, and the theory is altered, supported or even discarded accordingly. By revising theories science hones in on the truth, and that’s very different from the “things change therefore there’s no point making predictions” attitude that Mr Liddle suggests. If all the evidence fits with a theory, it’s perfectly reasonable to come to tentative conclusions based upon it.

The whole article is really quite odd. I’ll watch the atheism show, but if it’s anything like the above I don’t hold out much hope.

Update on 19/12: I’ll update this when I’ve actually watched the show, but anybody looking for responses could do worse than see here (and not just because somebody in the comments linked to me), here and the comment thread here.

Evil atheists on Silent Witness

Tonight’s Silent Witness is doing its bit for a sensical worldview. The editors of a philosophy magazine fell out over differing religious opinions; one a Christian who writes articles about the astonishing philosophical impact of the resurrection, the other an atheist who writes articles saying that the universe is indifferent to us all. Christian guy turns up dead, and the pathologists figure it must be the atheist because in an indifferent universe why should he adhere to any kind of moral values? They’re right – we’ve seen the guy committing at least one murder. The female pathologist is having something of a religious awakening and keeps coming out with pithy comments about the interconnectedness of things etc.

It’s pretty awful. I keep expecting Judge John Deed to turn up. For an attitude that’s so utterly stupid ‘atheists have no morality’ does turn up with amazing frequency.

40mins left. Can’t decide whether the rest of the show will be about pinning the murders on the guy, or there’ll be another twist…

Update: there was a slight twist. Evil Atheist was being manipulated by Psycho Atheist, who was secretly desperate to check there wasn’t anything in the afterlife. His final explanation backed up earlier hints that he was also trying to do something completely random to confuse people obsessed with reason, since there’s really no such thing. So he was more of a Psycho Postmodernist. That makes much more sense – postmodernists really are crazy people 🙂

Update 2: A couple of reactions from the BBC website:

“I feel like not watching this series any more, after the offensive Christian propaganda masquerading (crudely) as drama that we were presented with in this episode. Frankly I am amazed that this script was approved by the BBC, with its grotesque caricatures of bloodythirsty killer atheists (including the absurd remark that they ‘believe in nothing’) and the clunking message throughout that all good guys – even scientists – are open to the message of Christianity. It even ended with a Mary Magdalene and Jesus tableau at the hospital bed, just in case we hadn’t got the message. Imagine the uproar if it had been written the other way round, with the bad guys as Christians – something tells me that would NOT have made it to production. The dialogue was laughable throughout, and the plot was full of holes and non sequiturs. It was a sorry departure from the usual high standards of this series. Don’t make this mistake again – stick to decent writers with no agenda.”
Gary King, Heathfield, East Sussex

“At last! A crime drama that didn’t portray religious people as either fanatics, psychopaths, terrorists or lily-livered weaklings who need a crutch to survive. Well done BBC for swinging the balance back where it belongs. The villians were pathological nihilists who were just the right side of cartoonish and managed to show where the logic of such an extreme belief system will lead. The dead Christians demonstrated how belief in an afterlife brings great comfort to the dying, and the glorious irony of seeing one of the nihilist killers trapped by a fingerprint on an icon of Jesus was extremely clever. This is by far the best Silent Witness yet. Any chance the BBC could break the ‘no repeats’ rule and show it again?”
Paul Downie, Hamilton, Scotland