Friday, 23 August 2013

Atheism is not Communism

A common argument against atheism is the claim that the deaths of millions in communist China and Russia during the Mao and Stalin eras show what happens when atheism is embraced by governments. The implication is that atheism and atheists are immoral, and that the only thing preventing society from disintegrating into an inhuman authoritarian hell is the morality emanating from the religious in society.

Some even claim that that's where we would be headed if the likes of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris or Christopher Hitchens ever got their hands on the reins of power.

I couldn't disagree more.

Communism in Russia and China was not an experiment with the wholesale introduction of atheism, as an interlocutor of mine recently argued. Rather, it was an experiment with the wholesale introduction of authoritarian, totalitarian, nationalist dogmas with the state and certain statesmen in place of God.

The values promoted by the New Atheists (myself included) include skepticism, democracy, humanism and tolerance of dissenting views. Communism as practised in the USSR, China and North Korea has almost nothing in common with these values.

Hitchens in particular illustrated this point very clearly with his famous comparison of an afterlife in Heaven to an eternity in North Korea, bound forever in worshipful servitude to a single authority figure.

While communist atheism is an article of dogmatic faith, for me and the New Atheists it arises from skepticism. It's not a premise, it's a conclusion. As such, authoritarian communism should certainly not be construed as synonymous with atheism even if it does have atheism as one aspect of dogma.

And dogma it is, every bit as rigid and uncompromising as the dogma of religions. This is why it seems to me that these forms of communism have much more in common with religions than the secular humanist atheism I advocate. The faith in the party, the personality cults, the "holy" books. These are direct counterparts to the trappings of religion. As such, authoritarian communism is effectively a religion even if it is not literally so. It uses the same tricks to indoctrinate and exploit the people. It appeals to the same bugs in human psychology.

The only difference is that supernatural beliefs are not involved. That's it. Belief in the supernatural is actually pretty low on the list of my issues with religion.

It's not just the pseudo-religious overtones of communism that are problematic. You need to consider the personalities involved. Stalin and Mao were opportunistic megalomaniac psychopaths. A large part of the damage done to their countries can be attributed to their callous disregard for the welfare of their people in their quest for power and control. Unless you believe that atheists have a high tendency towards psychopathy, there is no reason to think that an atheist regime is any more likely to be cruel than a religious one.

The fact is that atheism or theism has almost nothing to do with whether one is a good person or not. Whether the government endorses belief in God or not has little to no influence on the personal morality of its citizens. What's much more important is whether the society encourages free speech, skepticism and the democratic election of leaders.

So please, let's have no more trashing of modern humanist atheism by comparison to authoritarian communism. They are not the same thing.


  1. Disagreeable,

    This is just to say that, although good, the post is far from satisfactory from the point of view of a true atheist program. The problem lies a lot deeper to be successfully addressed just by trying to dissociate atheism and totalitarianism, although it is easy to notice that this last one is indeed truly tied to theisms, a fact not acknowledged by religious liberals on call, unable to see that their beloved free-market is nothing other than the most successful totalitarian project ever, mainly because it is based on a row of sophisms about freedom easily bought by shallow mentalities.

    This is one point. But to effectively undermine it there's a need to address all the ideas sustaining it, starting from the idea of God, perhaps easy to dismantle, although not as easy to get rid of, and the idea of Faith which, as stated by Paul, is fully compatible with science and so somewhat opportunely placed in the religious context in order to provide more consistence to it (before claiming I'm completely crazy, please, refer to it at Hebrews 11 1 and pay close attention to the terms the definition is built upon).

    The atheist work cannot dismiss Feuerbach's works, mainly his Lectures on the essence of religion, as well as Eliade's ones. Without them a precious time is wasted in rebuilding seminal concepts.

    Finally, although mutually dependent, the ideas of God and religion must be dissociated, more or less in the way your statements about personality cult be a sort of religion with no proper god presuppose.

    Without all that, efforts like Dawkins' in his 'God, a delusion' become vacuous. By now it's all, but I promise I come back with more if you are available to discuss the matter under the above mentioned way.


    1. Thanks for the comments, Waldemar.

      I'm certainly not aiming in this post for an atheist manifesto or even a denunciation of religion. I was just particularly annoyed by the comparison of atheism to communism explained by Peter DO Smith on the comment thread about Islamophobia on Rationally Speaking.

      Sadly, it seems Peter has as of just now deleted all his comments, so his original argument is no longer available.

    2. Dis.Agreeable,
      >I was just particularly annoyed by the comparison of atheism to communism <

      You shouldn't be. After all atheists have a field day making all sorts of outrageous claims about religion. The Law of Unintended Consequences comes back to roost in surprising ways.

      Anyway, as you will see in later comments, I can make a strong, reasoned case that you will be hard pressed to answer.

    3. Hi Peter,

      >After all atheists have a field day making all sorts of outrageous claims about religion.<

      Fair enough, however what's more pertinent is whether *I* have made outrageous claims about religion. It may be that I have, in which case I would look forward to the opportunity to discuss them with you.

      >Anyway, as you will see in later comments, I can make a strong, reasoned case that you will be hard pressed to answer.<

      I look forward to seeing your argument.

    4. Hi Dis.Agreeable,

      I am enjoying a glass of good South African red wine(a Merlot), cheers to you. Did you know we make very good wine?

      Well, you did say you hate religion and that religion is evil.

      There are four problems here:
      (1) I began my journey from atheism to religion five to six years ago. That necessarily meant examining in detail how religion operates at the grass roots level(in a Catholic Church). What I found does not even remotely, in the smallest particular resemble your description. The gulf is so vast that I cannot even begin to credit your statements.

      (2) Religious belief is not some kind of academic exercise. It is a deep commitment that entails discipline, perseverance and an attempt to live to high moral standards. This makes it a deeply personal matter that you strongly identify with. Glib accusations of evil and hatefulness therefore are a deeply painful attack on the core of the being of the religious person. Do you really want to cause such hurt to other people? Is that such a good idea?

      (3) Overall, the attacks on religion have assumed quite a nasty and mean aspect. Look at some of the comments on Pigliucci's blog and this is quite a well mannered blog compared to others. The general population look at this and they come away with a rather poor opinion of atheism. People tend to have a good sense of fairness. I quoted the one Mosaic opinion poll that showed the very poor opinion of atheism. Atheist behaviour is counter-productive.

      (4) Religion responds well to persecution. Remember we have a long memory for the persecutions we have endured. We sharpen up our act, improve our arguments, we mobilise and become more committed. The net result is stronger religion. As I said above, atheist behaviour is counter-productive.

    5. Hi Peter,

      Yes, South Africa has a good reputation. Glad you're enjoying yourself this Saturday evening!

      >Well, you did say you hate religion and that religion is evil.<

      I did say I hate religion, yes. That's not really an outrageous claim though, it's a subjective statement.

      I'm not sure I recall saying that religion is evil, although perhaps I did. It's a gross oversimplification of my actual position though. I feel that while religion has had many positive (and negative) effects throughout history, I feel that now it does more harm than good on balance. I certainly don't mean to say that the individuals involved are evil or that religiosity is evil. If I described religion as an evil, I meant it in the abstract sense that economic inequality is a social evil.

    6. (1) I accept that grassroots Catholicism in the modern era is not as objectionable as Communism under the oppression of Stalin. It is far more tolerant of dissent and discussion. I much prefer it to evangelical Protestant religions, for example, but probably prefer Anglicanism to it as being even more open-minded. The less dogmatic a religion, the less objectionable it is to me. It's that simple. But if you get to the point where you've eliminated the dogma entirely, you've done away with the religion. That's what I would like to see happen, quite frankly.

      (2) I understand and I don't want to hurt anyone's feelings, but I honestly feel it is better to express my opinions openly, with regret for any pain caused. Religion has a privileged place in society where there is an expectation of respect for points of view which are entirely untenable. I don't think this is a healthy state of affairs.

      If you feel it is fair to offend me by implying that atheists would seek to create a cruel, inhumane society like the communists then I should be just as free to criticise your deeply held beliefs. It's not a level playing ground if I am required to accord your beliefs more respect simply because they are religious.

    7. (3) >I quoted the one Mosaic opinion poll that showed the very poor opinion of atheism. Atheist behaviour is counter-productive.<

      There's more than one way to interpret that poll. I suspect you would have gotten rather similar results before all the relatively recent atheist activism.

      (4) >Religion responds well to persecution.<

      Mockery and disrespect is not persecution.

      As I understand it, atheism is on the rise in the west. This may have to do with Dawkins showing that it's OK to be atheist, and it's OK to regard religions as, well, ridiculous (apologies for any offense).

      As with gay pride, the way to promote acceptance of atheism is not to remain sheepishly in the closet, respecting the beliefs of those who think we are evil. Instead, it is better to come out, be in your face, state our message clearly and expose the bigotries and faulty logic of those who would condemn us with mockery.

    8. >There's more than one way to interpret that poll.<

      Those are very clear cut results by a prominent sociologist.
      You would be very hard pressed indeed to make atheism come out of that looking good.

    9. >Mockery and disrespect is not persecution.<

      It is a form of persecution and I can give you more obvious examples.

      Anyway, you are ignoring my point that religion responds well to persecution.

      It does. Atheism has no chance at all of ending religion. It is a pipe dream.

    10. >If you feel it is fair to offend me by implying that atheists would seek to create a cruel, inhumane society<

      Of course I have never implied that atheists seek to create a cruel, inhumane society. I never said that at all. What I said was that this was the inevitable result when a society converts to atheism. We know this because Russia and China represent two very large exercises in converting to atheism. So we have seen the result. It was very unpleasant.

      It was Sam Harris who said that it was permissible to kill people for their beliefs. It was Dawkins who said that infanticide could be permissible. It was Hitchen and Harris who said that torture could be justified.

      These are the inhumane practices advocated by leading atheists.

    11. Hi Peter,

      >Those are very clear cut results by a prominent sociologist.<

      I'm not questioning the results, just your interpretation.

      It could be, for example, that the religious just have an irrational distrust of atheists. There's no evidence that it has anything to do with New Atheist confrontationalism. As I said before, it's entirely possible that these statistics would have been similar (or even worse) before recent atheist activism.

      I don't think religious people had a high opinion of atheists a hundred years ago, do you?

      >It is a form of persecution and I can give you more obvious examples.

      Anyway, you are ignoring my point that religion responds well to persecution.<

      OK, well if I grant your point for the sake of argument that mockery constitutes persecution, then you still haven't got any evidence that religion responds well to this form of persecution as opposed to incarceration, execution etc. Nobody's making martyrs of you. It's not the same thing.

      >Of course I have never implied that atheists seek to create a cruel, inhumane society. I never said that at all.<

      Well, you did say something akin to "God help us all if the new atheists grab the reins of power". I understand that you agree that we would abhor such a society but claim that this would be the inevitable consequence. I mis-stated your point and I apologise.

      >We know this because Russia and China represent two very large exercises in converting to atheism. <

      You have never addressed my point that Russia and China were under the oppression of revolutionary totalitarian communist ideologies that was nothing like the secular humanism promoted by the new atheists. Your conclusion that "we have seen the result" remains absolutely without foundation and extremely offensive in my eyes.

      Why can't you see that the point you're making is just like me telling you that Iran shows us what happens if the theists get into power? Sure, Iran is not Catholic, but I'm not a Stalinist-Maoist and neither are the other New Atheists. If you can see that there are different kinds of religion why can you not see that there are different kinds of atheists?

      You also haven't responded to my point that Scandinavia is largely irreligious and manages to have a perfectly stable, humane society.

      >It was Sam Harris who said that it was permissible to kill people for their beliefs. It was Dawkins who said that infanticide could be permissible. It was Hitchen and Harris who said that torture could be justified.<

      I'm going to need some context if you want to bring these points up again.

      >These are the inhumane practices advocated by leading atheists.<

      Why are you so happy to see the Pope extending the hand of friendship to Muslims when examples of inhumane practices advocated by Muslims (or fundamentalist Christians) are far easier to find? You do seem to be much more concerned with atheists than religious extremists. Why is that?

    12. >You also haven't responded to my point that Scandinavia is largely irreligious<

      These are not atheist societies where religion has been destroyed.

      They are secular societies where religion is still present and still performing the important role of moral priming.

      In later posting I will further develop my argument and you will understand the importance of moral priming.

    13. >Why are you so happy to see the Pope extending the hand of friendship to Muslims <

      I'm surprised you ask the question. To me it is self-evident that it is necessary to break a centuries long cycle of violence and animosity. Escalating or continuing the confrontation is no solution at all.

      Muslims are a highly diverse group with a great many good and a (large)minority extremist element, admittedly very violent.

      We need to create bonds with the moderates.We need to reach out to and understand the militants. There are so many things we need to do and I can't possibly cover all the issues here.

      Remember that from their perspective we are the aggressors, the exploiters and the occupiers. Our history has also been ugly.

    14. >To me it is self-evident that it is necessary to break a centuries long cycle of violence and animosity. Escalating or continuing the confrontation is no solution at all.<

      That's not my question though. My question is why you are so much more exercised about the perceived inhumane practices advocated by "militant" atheists than you are about the many many inhumane practices advocated and carried out by militant Muslims and other religious extremists?

  2. Dis.Agreeable,
    Hi, I stopped by, at your suggestion, to have a look at your posting. I can't promise to spend much time here as that is a limited resource. I would much rather go trail running :)

    While I enjoyed your post I am sad to say that I think you have missed the point entirely. I will drop by from time to time to explain why I believe this.

    The subject happens to be a really important matter and to be quite honest, I am gobsmacked that atheists just don't get it!

    Let's keep this a respectful conversation, no insults and no personal attacks. But in any case I'm sure the advice is unnecessary for you.

    Pigliucci and others seem to think that insulting mockery is a necessary part of dealing with religion. It is a mistake that reflects on their nature but I couldn't be bothered to confront it, preferring instead to look for nicer company.

    I won't be back on Pigliucci's blog but I will look in here from time to time.

    Here are two important questions for you to consider in the mean time:
    (1) what is the weakest point for religion?
    (2) what is the weakest point for atheism?
    It is called 'know your own weaknesses'!

    keep well, Peter.

    1. Hi Peter,

      I'm glad you've stopped by, and your comments are welcome as long as you have time to offer them.

      >While I enjoyed your post I am sad to say that I think you have missed the point entirely.<

      Well, I don't see how, but look forward to your explanation.

      >I won't be back on Pigliucci's blog but I will look in here from time to time.<

      Out of curiosity, what was it that prompted you to leave and delete all your comments? It came as quite a surprise to me.

      >(1) what is the weakest point for religion?<
      Irrational faith in authority and dogma. Lack of skepticism in other words.

      >(2) what is the weakest point for atheism?<
      There is a lack of a coherent community to bind people together and support them. There is no equivalent of an church for me, and as such I feel more disconnected from my local community than I would like.

      In truth, though, I'm not sure much can be done about that. There have been attempts, but I fear that any kind of organised community building may lead inevitably to the kind of conformity and orthodoxy that I abhor. I could be wrong on this.

    2. What prompted me to leave?

      I felt growing dissatisfaction:
      (1) the intellectual level was poor.
      (2) there was an underlying tone of nastiness.
      (3) Michael Fugate launched an outrageously personal attack on me in response to perfectly reasonable arguments I was making.
      (4) That is a moderated blog in order to avoid just such problems but Pigliucci decided to publish the comment anyway. I then understood more about him and decided to call it a day. There is no chance for useful dialogue under such conditions.

      Normally one can end an unpleasant conversation by just walking away from it. Online one can't walk away so deleting one's comments is the signal that one is walking away in disgust. And that is what I felt, disgust.

    3. The weakest point for religion?
      The problem of natural and moral evil.

      The weakest point for atheism?
      The absence of moral content.

    4. I'd say the absence of moral content is not a big issue for atheism, just like it isn't for chemistry, or economics, or yoghurt.

      Atheism is just the belief that there is no God. Theism is just the belief that there is a God. Theism has no moral content either.

      What has moral content is Christianity from your point of view and secular humanism from my point of view.

    5. (1) Solving the problem of natural and moral evil is a very difficult exercise for religion. This is the Achilles' Heel of religion. The existence of God is easy by comparison.

      (2) Atheism has no moral content and that problem cannot be solved. This is not an Achilles' Heel, it the fatal flaw that dooms the whole enterprise.

    6. I'm confused. I thought I answered this point. Atheism doesn't have to have moral content. Secular humanism fulfills this role. That's why there's a movement among atheists to promote the idea of atheism plus secular humanism as "Atheism Plus" or the "Brights".

      It hasn't caught on, but regardless, we know there is a need for morality and we are keen to promote this.

  3. Theism is not just the belief in a God. It contains within it a belief in a certain kind of God.

    This is an interesting discussion in its own right. Once I had decided that God does really exist the next question I asked myself was, what kind of God was this? The following question then was, what did this kind of God expect or require of me, if anything?

    More on that tomorrow. It is a pleasant but cold winter evening in my part of the world.

    1. Well, there's all kinds of theism. The Aztecs were theists, but they thought their God wanted human sacrifices. It's your own belief that God is good, but that's an elaboration of your theism and not intrinsic to theism itself.

      Similarly, there's different kinds of atheism. There are communists, Buddhists, nihilists and secular humanists. Each group has it's own particular views on morality, just like different religions have theirs.

    2. Hi, guys, there's something wrong in your debate on atheism's lack of moral content. That just does not make sense: moral is, to the letter, something like a set of rules derived from habit and upon which a community agrees. Moral is not a legal code, it is not the law: it's precisely prior to any law and laws are based on morals, changing after their changes. So, never dream about an immoral - which means just 'contrary to habit' - law being voted and, worse, accepted by the community: no chance; if a community accepts a law it is because it reflects the accepted moral.

      So, moral is not God's job. Cannot be. First, because morals are topical and transient, God is not. Perhaps it would suit Him more an ethics: but which one? From all the attempts to build an ethics, do we save a handful of principles that are able to substitute any morals around the world (give a look to the partial failure of the human rights when voted, as an example)? Disregarding the problem of the origins of godly laws - if human or not -, how could they be called ethical when they were summarily rejected and subsequently accepted, but through force, by the natives from America and from other nations? You'd agree with me if I suppose that a true ethics, an undoubtedly true one, is to be universally followed. Isn't it?

      On the other side, the atheism cannot lack moral content, as stated above, unless atheists are not social, gregarious beings. You may disagree with atheists' moral, but you can't sanely state they don't have a moral.

      I'm sure that the subject theism versus atheism must be addressed another way. This one you're using simply doesn't proceed.


    3. Hi Waldemar,

      What you describe as morality is not what Peter or I take the term to mean.

      In the view of most theists and some atheists, there are some things that are objectively wrong or evil, and some things that are good. These are unchanging facts and are not subject to changing culture. It doesn't matter whether these rules are always followed or not, they are there regardless, and cultures which ignore them are simply immoral cultures.

      For Christians, this morality comes from and is explained by God. For atheist moral realists, I don't think there is a satisfactory account of where it comes from, which is why I am not a moral realist myself.

      In other words, I don't think that morality objectively exists. I don't think there are any moral absolutes.

      I suspect this is Peter's problem with atheism. He, quite understandably in my view, finds it repugnant to think that his extremely strongly felt moral intuitions (e.g., don't eat babies) are in some sense arbitrary.

      I too struggled with this before I finally realised it's not as much of an issue as it first appears. I'll get into that if Peter confirms my interpretation of his position. Or maybe it would make a good blog post in its own right.

    4. Well, Disagreeable, in fact morality uses to rule on what is and what is not right, but if we find precepts or even facts that are universally accepted as right or wrong, it seems we reached a domain beyond pure moral, the one of ethics. You say that a culture that ignores them is an immoral one. Is this possible? If so, then we're no more talking about universal principles.

      On the problem of the origin of moral precepts, there's no mystery, no choice: they must come from the living together - this is what the term means (and please, guys, everyone, don't start changing a so simple, objective meaning like this one and others without a really strong reason: we have so many words, infinite possible neologisms). But every moral precept necessarily refers to an ethical - this time universal - principle, in the sense that this principle is deductible from the moral precept and not this one from the former (for were both ways the case, moral precepts and ethical principles would be logically equivalent, and they are not).

      I can't help but agree with you on the statement that there's no moral absolutes: weren't that so, moral would be equal to ethics. But I must say that morals objectively exist: denying this would be the same as to say we do not live together, we are not gregarious. The problem, it seems, starts by not admitting the thoughts as a constituent of the realm of objective things, however preserving their status of signs and although we can't still comprehend how the brain works with them in terms of physical laws.

      In my view, there's a very simple mechanics linking ethics and morals, the principles of the former taking shape in the precepts (and usages) of the later. On the principles, I'm sure they are crystal clear, and the trouble with them comes from their appearance in the moral precepts which we insist are universal: morals must talk courteously to one another, unless there be a desire for conflict, being the aim of that conversation the establishment of an ethics or at least a provisional meta-moral encompassing all the morals involved in the talk. Some comments on Steve's last post reflect this when referring the conflict between Islam and Christian America: neither side wants a courteous talk; both believe their private morals are pure ethics, and so the conflict continues.

      I'm so sorry to say that even the repugnance on eating babies isn't a moral universal too: we might believe that cultures that openly practiced cannibalism are finally extinct, and it's probable true (although Amazonian forest is still an uncharted land where some unknown cultures come eventually from). But the fact that we agreed in not eating babies and for thousands of years educate people to abhor this action doesn't mean that it's not anymore possible that exist people who think otherwise and most probably with reasons as sound as ours.

      On all these points a reading of Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling could be very instructive. And, anyway, I think we start talking ethics - and moral - the due way. Hope I'm not wrong in believing so.

    5. Just a quick note, Waldemar. I think you're suffering from language problems, and you've got the terms "morality" and "ethics" mixed up.

      Morality is about universal principles. Ethics is about particular rules of behaviour. I think that's why where the confusion comes from, but fundamentally we agree once this is cleared up.

    6. I guess I'm not, Disagreeable, mixing up morality and ethics. A good dictionary is enough to clarify both etymologies, starting from 'ethos', a Greek word that is as rich as confusing like a lot of others, but - according to my dictionary - has two neighboring meanings, depending on the way it is pronounced, the 'e' more or less 'open', in the first case, being translated into the Latin 'moral' - that uses the root 'mores', meaning common habit, common use - and in the second one, with the 'e' less open, giving the term 'ethics' as we know it, meaning something more fundamental, belonging to the 'essence' of a subject and allowing him/her to act this or that way in the 'moral' sense. All the efforts to constitute an ethics, since Aristotle, through Spinoza (who applied the geometric - euclidean - method to demonstrate his), are done in the last sense, the one of the principles.

      I can even admit that some thinkers from the XVI century to the XX century, ignored - on purpose - old philosophy (perhaps to feel themselves the first discoverers of what is at our disposal - for saving precious time, at least - from 500 BC), and a part of them thus promoted the most dangerous and useless transference of meanings in our History. I'm also aware of the difficulties in separating the contents of a moral from those of an ethics, but that proceeds, especially while giving us hope that so many and distinct human behaviors - and thus moral codes - are able to talk on common grounds - a thing we are being forced to do even more since the first steps to a global acquaintanceship were done, a few thousand years ago.

      Another point: dogma. In the reasonings of religion (sorry, Peter, but I must say 'any religion') dogmas are what in science (I insist in including in this field philosophy) are the axioms and, please, be careful, accurate, while checking the truth of that information. Some dogmas are even the same in both fields if the due translations from one language to the other are made (don't forget that the first target of Cantor discoveries was God! - he went mad, I know, but changed maths and logic forever too and would have changed also religion if some theologians had payed due attention to his work, I'm sure).

      I'm really sorry if I'm intercepting the dialogue of you guys with such normative intents, but indeed this kind of debate is one of my preferred and I see that nowadays it is being diverted by means of, for instance, that change of meaning of certain words, I believe that purposely, to make difficult or impossible the communication between areas that have been communicating (not very peacefully, I admit), for centuries. This is perhaps why, in the absence of means for argumentation, people are resorting to irony and sarcasm in debating subjects like this. I frontally oppose this behavior. We must always stick to the arguments. Am I wrong?

    7. Hi Waldemar,

      It seems that there are many interpretations of ethics vs morality, so this may be a tricky one to settle. I don't think etymology is necessarily a conclusive way to address the problem. Perhaps the meanings have changed over time, but as far as I'm aware my usage is consistent with current convention.

      The interpretations I have correspond to the definitions from the Merriam Webster dictionary:

      a : a set of moral principles : a theory or system of moral values —often used in plural but singular or plural in construction
      b plural but sing or plural in constr : the principles of conduct governing an individual or a group

      conformity to ideals of right human conduct

      So for me, "ethics" means a system of rules or perhaps the study of such systems, while "morality" means the ideals or *underlying* principles of what is right or wrong. I think this is what Peter means when he says atheism has no moral content, although I could be wrong.

      With this in mind, do you think your position is different from mine? Do you still think that our discussion is missing something?

      I don't think axioms are dogmatic. Axioms in mathematics are just starting premises. We consider what follows if those axioms are true. We can develop alternative mathematical systems if those axioms are false, e.g. non-Euclidean geometry can be derived by changing Euclid's axioms. Dogma is just bald assertion and the discouragement of questioning.

    8. Disagreeable,

      The MW Dictionary couldn't agree more with what I told you guys above. Perhaps it'll suffice to us to hold that ethics deals with general principles, while moral is a set of specific conducts tolerated or even stimulated by a given community. In short, although a bit confusing to state it this way, one could say that no matter how different, how opposed to the remaining ones is a given set of moral rules, all the distinct morals share the same principles ethics lists. By this it's evident how simple and general must ethics be to embrace such a variety.

      I believe we started to mutually agree in this field - I'm counting on Peter's earlier statement on the subject.

      It also seems that both moral and ethics are exclusive human affairs. The role of religion in this matter, in terms of what historically it has been and of what it should be is to give support to a given moral (a given set of communal behaviors) providing a set of principles that should be faced as an ethics, however justifying its origins in the divine, which opposes a purely secular ethics, whose origins are at least in Aristotle and are rationally stated. This, notwithstanding, is a very long conversation.

      Concerning axioms and dogmas, I just said that the role of dogmas into religion is analogous to the role of axioms in science, the role of non demonstrable principles. Religious philosophy is not silly: its problem is its vulgarization, which it shares with science: the moment to explain it to the general public a gap necessarily is opened and the true sense is somewhat lost. On this issue, a tip: try, where Stanford University and others offer free on-line courses; there will be a course on writing for scientists and whoever vulgarizes science, as well as a good course on logic; worth seeing.

  4. Hi,
    it is a beautiful, clear winter morning here in SA. Our winters are glorious, probably like your spring.

    The discussion is deviating all over the place so I'm going to start at the beginning.

    No one equated Communism with atheism. Full stop.

    That is a strawman. Put away the notion for good. In fact Communism can even be Christian. It is just that the particular form of Communism advanced by Marx and Engels was strongly and explicitly atheist. But they are not the same thing at all.

    In fact the opposite is true. Catholicism is sympathetic to many aspects of Communism. Communism is not inherently bad, quite the opposite and as a Catholic I am deeply supportive of its goals, though I think some of the methods are misguided.

    The heart of my argument is this. By smuggling atheism into Communism, Marx and Engels destroyed the moral heart of Communism making the terrible atrocities possible. It is a good deal more complicated than that because of the special conditions prevailing at that time(more on this later). Nevertheless, atheism released those special conditions.

    Atheism is a virus that can infect any political system. The effect of this virus on Communism is a stark warning of the destructive nature of this virus. 110 million dead is an awful warning.

    So I advise you to change the title of the post. It is a strawman argument.

    1. Hi Peter,

      Glad you're enjoying the winter. In this part of the world it's only the summer that I enjoy.

      >No one equated Communism with atheism.<

      I see what you're saying. However, I think you are equating it with the kind of totalitarian communism as practised in China, the USSR and North Korea. Unfortunately that does not make for a nice short blog post title. I think the body of the article makes this clear, however.

      >By smuggling atheism into Communism, Marx and Engels destroyed the moral heart of Communism making the terrible atrocities possible.<

      I disagree wholeheartedly. I think it was replacing the worship of God with the worship of the state and statesmen that did this.

      I maintain that it's still faith and dogma that enabled these atrocities. You have not yet address my point that the secular humanist values promoted by the brights, atheism plus, new atheism etc are nothing like those of totalitarian communism.

      >Atheism is a virus that can infect any political system.<

      Let's have an example that is not totalitarian communism please. Atheism is "endemic" in Scandinavian countries, to no apparent ill effect.

    2. >I think you are equating it with the kind of totalitarian communism<

      No, I am not equating it at all. Please don't persist with this, it is a strawman.

    3. The term 'brights' is a dishonest appropriation of the word mean to imply others are not intelligent.

      I have no time at all for the tendentious use of labels. It is dishonest.

    4. >No, I am not equating it at all. Please don't persist with this, it is a strawman.<

      Well, perhaps "equating" is a bit strong, but you are certainly making the claim that allowing atheism to spread unchecked would lead to a society as cruel and inhumane as totalitarian communism. I understand what you're saying, and that's the position I'm arguing against, so I don't think this is a straw man.

      >The term 'brights' is a dishonest appropriation of the word mean to imply others are not intelligent.<

      I don't see it that way. The bright movement is modeled on the gay movement. They wanted a positive term to describe naturalist atheists in the same way that homosexuals wanted a positive word to describe themselves. "Bright" is not intended to imply that theists are stupid any more than "gay" implies that heterosexuals are miserable.

      They even proposed a term that non-brights could use to describe themselves, and it's not "dims" but "supers". This is also positive, while neatly conveying a belief in supernatural aspects of reality.

    5. The term 'brights' is pretentious nonsense containing a deliberately false implication.

      There was already a positive term 'humanism' that has a long and honourable history. The logical thing was to continue using this term.

      These guys are not brighter than anyone else and their opponents are not dimmer. But that is the clear impression they want to create.

      I have no time for such pretentious dishonesty on their part. Truth matters and so does accuracy.

    6. The problem with humanism is that it does not connote rejection of the supernatural. Plenty of humanists have been theists or have believed in the supernatural.

      Bright is intended to refer to atheism + naturalism + skepticism. I hear what you're saying with regard to the problems with the term, but I honestly think they were just trying to copy the "gay" model. A charitable interpretation would grant this point, although I agree that an uncharitable interpretation is also defensible. In any case I'm not particularly invested in the term. I just regret that you are so suspicious of the motives of atheists.

    7. Peter, I guess that there's a historical misguidance in the relationship of all those concepts and have nothing to say to you guys beyond exhorting you to go to the sources. But neither start, nor stop at Marx's fight against Feuerbach's theses (it's really a silly work, not worth of Marx's signature). From some years Internet is becoming richer in those matters, but you guys would still have to buy Feuerbach's 'Lectures on the Essence of Religion', a true, seminal masterpiece, that shaped XX century as we know it, from Marx-Engels, through Stirner, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, till Freud at least. It's influence, notwithstanding, was somewhat 'silent', humble, but I'm sure it's enough to read it to understand what I'm talking about. Several concepts used here and everywhere when this kind of discussion takes place are already developed in that work.

      Marxism is but Proudhon ideas worked under the false assumption of making them more palatable and so taking Proudhon's mistakes to an even greater level of inefficacy: basically, Anarchism cannot do government, cannot change status quo from inside itself, nor can't change it by the violence the passing from XIX to XX centuries witnessed anarchists promote. Those were desperate means as well as the changing of paradigm of some words, as commented above, used to induce into error or lack of communication or both: pure war tactics, say, ignorance. There's also a very good, comprehensive work, from Canadian anarchist poet George Woodcock on this: from it we understand all the steps until Godwin proposed the first anarchist approach, in the late XVII century, from views of first Christianity of a communal State.

      Well, I'm not extending anymore this text, except by saying that it's imperative that all those misguidances be solved. A good start could be a conversation among friends!

    8. Just a correction: while reading "Godwin proposed the first anarchist approach, in the late XVII century", please put another 'I' in the expression 'XVII century'.

  5. In fact I will go one step further. I maintain that Communism could only ever have succeeded in an overwhelmingly, strongly devout religious community. The great success of the numerous monasteries are strong supporting evidence for my statement. I include the Buddhist monasteries as religious communities.

    That is not to say there have been no failures or abuses in the monastic communities. There have been but they are not systematic or intrinsic to religious practice.

  6. Waldemar has made a clear distinction between morals and ethics and of course he is correct. However I don't think the distinction matters that much for the purposes of our discussion. Although I will admit the distinction is important to a forthcoming part of my argument.

    But words do matter so I want to clarify things. In general the word 'religion' represents a huge range of beliefs and behaviours. It is not useful to treat the word as though it has a single well agreed meaning. It does not.

    So, for my purposes, religion means Catholicism and I am not talking about anything else. I even refuse to talk about anything else. It is not at all useful. I don't like religious fundamentalism and it is as much to be condemned as atheist fundamentalism, in fact as all fundamentalisms should be condemned.

    Secondly, just as the words morals and ethics differentiate between the practice and the principles so too is the distinction also true in religion. But the word religion is used for both beliefs and behaviours. We have to be careful to separate out the two meanings. Beliefs have their source in religion's foundation documents and behaviours are reflected in the institutions of religion. This is a very important distinction. This is further complicated by the fact that believers' behaviour can be pathological, unrelated to the beliefs and institutions. One of the most dishonest aspects of militant atheism is the refusal to acknowledge this fact.

    Next, the word 'atheism' is equally broad and lacking in clear definition. Most of my friends and acquaintances are atheists and it is hardly apparent. They actually don't give a damn about religion and religious people or even about atheism. They are tolerant to a fault. The small number of religious amongst us are equally tolerant and forgiving. There is no hatred, no animosity, no attacks or recriminations on either side.

    This is how society should work.

    Imagine then my surprise when, at the start of my conversion from atheism to Catholicism, I discovered that there is an active community of aggressive, hostile, militant atheists. In my experience, these are the people who cause all the trouble and this is why we are having the discussion in the first place. So, to clarify my terminology, when I use the term 'atheist', I mean these people, the militant atheists, not the every day, couldn't care less atheists of my acquaintance. This is an important distinction. From your writings and commentary I consider you a militant atheist. If you were not we wouldn't be having this discussion. Clearly there are degrees of militancy and you are probably less militant than most.

    To sum up. For the purposes of my discussion
    Religion --> Catholicism and
    Atheism --> militant atheism, atheist fundamentalism.
    Sometimes we must use the words in a broader or different context and I suggest then that we explicitly qualify our words to clarify their meaning.

    1. Hi Peter,

      I recognise that you only care about Catholicism, however as an atheist all religions are on an equal footing from my perspective, so when I talk about religion I'm talking about the phenomena they all share rather than Catholicism in particular.

      However, I agree that not all religions are the same. I would place them on a spectrum from fundamentalist to liberal. At the extremes you have stuff like fundamentalist Shari'a regimes on one end and secular humanism (or the absence of religion) on the other.

      Catholicism as currently constituted is somewhat more than halfway towards the liberal end of the spectrum, I'd say, and moving gradually in that direction over time, but I'm not satisfied until we're all the way there!

      Finally I think we need to define what we mean by militant atheist or atheist fundamentalist. I object to both of these terms. As Dawkins has pointed out, it is extremely unbalanced to use the same adjective "militant" to apply to the new atheists as is used to describe Muslim suicide bombers. No "militant" atheist is going to kill another human being for their beliefs. The very worst we do is criticise and mock. It shows an almost perverted lack of perspective to equate this to the violence of religious extremists.

      I have no idea what you mean by atheist fundamentalist. There's no such thing. Fundamentalism means rigid adherence to dogma. There is no atheist dogma. We advocate skepticism, which includes the rejection of dogma. I think you ought to use a different term, such as "new atheism" to refer to those atheists like me who see the value in criticising religion while actively promoting atheism and secular humanist morality.

    2. Hi,
      If you want talk about Buddhism then talk to to a Buddhist, if you want to talk about Hinduism then talk to a Hindu, etc.

      This Catholic is only qualified to talk about Catholicism so that is all this Catholic will talk about. This Catholic was an atheist so he also feels qualified to talk about atheism.

      As for the rest, you must talk to the relevant domain experts.

    3. Where Catholicism is concerned, left and right are an artificial political divisions. It transcends these divisions.

      Catholicism has consistently argued for the protection of the poor and the unfortunate. It has consistently argued for the protection of life. It has consistently argued for the just distribution of wealth. It has consistently argued for moral behaviour as the foundation of all human behaviour.

      Where Catholicism is concerned, it rejects left and right wing classifications. It argues there is another and orthogonal dimension which is compassionate justice.

    4. Notice the language I used above. It reflects the normal, everyday language of Catholicism. It reflects what we stand for, what we believe in and what we work towards.

      Now go to the forums used by militant atheists and you see an entirely different kind of language. It is the language of hatred. In time one understands that militant atheism was defined in hatred, is bathed in hatred and practised in hatred.

    5. Hi Peter,

      When I say I'm talking about the aspects all religions share, I mean I am not talking about any specific doctrine, so that's why I have not been making points specific to Buddhism or Hinduism.

      Neither am I talking about right wing or left wing. The spectrum I'm talking about was from close-minded dogmatic faith to open-minded skepticism. My use of the term liberal was perhaps confusing, but open-minded religions tend to be more liberal almost by definition.

      In any case, It's no good claiming that Catholicism rejects right wing and left wing classifications when adopting Catholic doctrine means accepting certain positions which position you within the social conservative/liberal spectrum.

      On the plus side, Catholicism has liberal attitudes to social justice, racial and economic equality. On (what I perceive as) the negative side, it has conservative attitudes regarding homosexuality, transexuality, equality of sexes (no female priests), contraception, abortion and divorce.

    6. Dis,
      >liberal attitudes ... conservative attitudes<

      These are merely political attitudes and have nothing to do with right and wrong. If you are a liberal you think liberal attitudes are right and if you are a conservative you think conservative attitudes are right. That is ideology and not morality. Catholicism has no dog in that fight.

      Catholicism stands outside of that mess. It pursues only morality, justice and compassion. Its position on any issue is not measured by fit to conservative or liberal biases.

      It simply asks the questions
      1) what is the moral thing to do?
      2) what is the just thing to do?
      3) what is the compassionate thing to do?

      These questions determine its response and not liberalism or conservatism.

    7. Hi Peter

      "These questions determine its response and not liberalism or conservatism."

      I think you kind of have it the wrong way around. It's how you answer these questions that determines whether you are a liberal or a conservative, not the other way around. "Liberal" or "Conservative" are just labels we apply to people who consistently answer these questions in one way or another.

      Since the Catholic church has a consistent way of answering these questions, it is not above it all. It is on the spectrum with the rest of us.

  7. Finally, a word about values and then I must leave for my trail run with my dog.

    I have spent a good part of my life in Apartheid South Africa. I have seen first hand the terrible impact of intolerance and hatred. I served in the bush war and know more than I ever wanted to. From the very beginning I was part of the small minority who spoke out against Apartheid and this was regarded by the white majority as a betrayal, the act of a traitor. Two botched attempts were made on my life. I nearly paid the price of being a loudmouth.

    With this background I hope you understand that I deeply value a society motivated by tolerance, love and understanding.

    This is in part what drew me to the Catholic Church. I have not been disappointed. It is, beyond all doubt, a community of tolerance, love and understanding.

    Can you imagine then my surprise when militant atheists attacked it with hatred and accuse it of evil? What kind of alternative universe did they live in?

    I have lived with evil, I have seen it in action, I have seen its terrible consequences and, to my shame, I was part of it(though I did, in my limited way, oppose it).

    So, I really know what evil is. But I also know what good is. I found it in the Catholic Church.
    Those who try to compare the two are either profoundly ignorant or profoundly malicious.

    1. And it is no accident that the two strongest internal opponents of Apartheid were Archbishop Dennis Hurley and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

    2. Hi Peter,

      I respect where you're coming from and cannot claim any comparable life experience. I've come to my worldview not from seeing the extremes of human cruelty but from my comfortable armchair. Nevertheless, I cannot help but feel that my point of view is valid so I hope you will give it some consideration.

      I admire you and think you are a courageous, honest and good person. And so are many Catholics. Most of my family are Catholics, and of course I don't think they are evil. I have known many wonderful Catholic priests, teachers and mentors.

      Nevertheless, I see religion as unnecessary for morality. I am moral, and most atheists are moral. We're no worse than Catholics. Religion is simply not needed for morality, as morality is independent of theism or atheism. It is innate.

      So were religion to disappear from the world, I don't think we would descend into cruelty or anarchy. It's totalitarianism that lead to the atrocities in the USSR and PRC, not atheism.

      But, as good as many people in the Catholic Church might be, I think the institution as a whole is doing more harm than good, especially in sub-Saharan Africa. The prohibition against contraception has aided the spread of HIV, and no amount of tolerance and love can atone for that.

      So, while the people and their intentions are mostly good, the overall effect of the institution are less than optimal because beliefs are drawn from doctrine and interpretation of holy books rather than rational skepticism.

    3. Hi Dis,
      >The prohibition against contraception has aided the spread of HIV<

      You must be careful about making statements like that. I live in the country with the world's highest HIV infection rate and so I know the facts on the ground.

      My housekeeper is HIV positive and so was one of my gardeners. I have spoken to them in detail about the problem.

      First, Catholicism is a minority religion so on those grounds it has little effect.

      Second, nobody cares about the Catholic prohibition on contraception. They don't give a damn.

      Third, the real problem is a violent, male dominated and poverty stricken society where the men absolutely refuse to use condoms. It is a society where men regard women as chattels to be used only for their pleasure and then discarded. It is an extremely promiscuous society where men have multiple, parallel partners.

      My housekeeper has told me again and again that the men she sleeps with refuse to use condoms. Real men don't do that, she says. Women are powerless she says.

      Considering this, blaming the Catholic Church is disingenuous indeed. The Catholic Church teaches faithful monogamy and if this teaching were adhered to the HIV epidemic would stop overnight. It would end immediately.

      It is so easy to blame something you don't like but when you start collecting the facts things start to look different.

      A perfect example of this was in RS when somebody claimed that religion caused most of the wars in the world.

      Now I study history and I know this claim is complete nonsense. So I challenged the claim and pointed out mankind is an intensely warlike species whose entire history has been consumed by wars and only a few of them are religiously motivated.

      Pigliucci did not directly confront my rebuttal. Instead he replied by posted a link to Juan Cole's article claiming that Christian nations were responsible for more terrorism than Muslim nations during the 20th Century.

      He then made a follow up comment saying that Christians were responsible for more terrorism than Muslims. I accused him of sloppy use of the term 'Christians' and he made the excuse that one of his followers asked him to make the post. A bizarre incident with a bizarre explanation.

      This guy is supposed to be an intelligent and careful philosopher but he was monstrously wrong which was obvious once one started looking at the details.

      First big mistake. The nations that went to war were secular and the wars were not religiously motivated. What was the guy thinking??? Any person who read a little bit of history would know that!!!

      Second big mistake. More people died under the atheist regimes of Russia and China but the article most conveniently failed to mention that. That has to be gross dishonesty.

      Needless to say this incident diminished my respect for Pigliucci.

      I quote this example to show how, once one starts looking at the details of the extravagant claims that militant atheists like to make, they evaporate under careful scrutiny.

    4. Dis,
      >Nevertheless, I see religion as unnecessary for morality. I am moral, and most atheists are moral. We're no worse than Catholics. Religion is simply not needed for morality, as morality is independent of theism or atheism. It is innate.<

      That is the heart of the problem and that is where I profoundly disagree with you. I will expand on this in the following days. And I think I have the facts to back me up.

      You will then see why I maintain the key problem with atheism is its moral vacuum.

      More tomorrow. This lovely Merlot wine is sapping my combative energy. My dog hugely enjoyed the trail run and I capped that by going to Mass, a beautiful experience.

    5. Hi Peter,

      Of course you are much more informed on the HIV epidemic in South Africa. I wouldn't presume to say otherwise.

      However, the Catholic church's prohibition certainly isn't helping to change attitudes, even if it is of little consequence.

      But even if it is of little consequence in your community, there may be others where it is more influential. It is also possible that the church's influence has affected supply of condoms even if it has not affected attitudes. This was certainly the case in my home country.

      In any case, I have little interest in debating it right now because it's quite off-topic. I'll concede that I could be totally wrong. I'm just sketching an example of the kind of attitudes I feel demonstrate misplaced priorities, even if those attitudes have little effect on the ground.

    6. "You will then see why I maintain the key problem with atheism is its moral vacuum."

      Yes, I think this is certainly what we should be discussing. Everything else is a tangent.

      In particular, it seems to be your view that if the likes of Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, Dennett, Grayling, or even me took power, then the results would be disastrous as illustrated in Russia and China.

      This still appears to me to be a preposterously offensive position so I look forward to your defense of it.

    7. Hi Dis,
      I am sorry that you interpret it as preposterously offensive. That is not my intention. What I want to show is that human decision making is fraught with difficulty because we seldom understand all the things that direct our decisions. People do unethical things all the time.

      At its heart all human actions are determined by
      1) goals or needs(including the information that feed into them);
      2) urges.
      3) constraints;
      4) values;
      5) risks;

      It is the balance of these five items that determines the particular decision.

      1) Goals or needs. Self evident.
      2) Urges. This could be the urge for sex, revenge, possessions or power, just to give a few examples.
      3) Constraints. Formally this is the rule of law. Informally this is village gossip.
      4) Values. This is our ethical system.
      5) Risks. What is the chance of an adverse outcome?

      We all have goal directed behaviour (1). This goal could be the result of our urges.
      Our behaviour may be restrained by our values(4), the rule of law(3) or our estimate of the risk(5).

      Goals are on one side of the equation.
      Urges, values, constraints and risks are on the other side of the equation and they should balance each other, determining how we achieve our goals.

      To use a simple example.
      (a) (goal) I need to drive quickly to a nearby town in time for an important meeting.
      (b) (urge) I like driving fast.
      (c) (constraint) There are laws limiting the speed I may drive.
      (d) (values) I feel morally obliged to drive with care so that I don't cause injury.
      (e) (risks) i am confident of my driving ability, I think the risk of a collision is negligible and the risk of being caught by a speed trap is low.

      How I realise my goal depends on the balance of urge, constraints, values and risks as well as the importance of the goal.

      A moral person prioritizes values over urges, respecting the constraints. He does not use low estimate of risk to compromise his values or the law.

      I am putting this forward as a framework that will help you understand my argument. More on that tomorrow.

    8. Hi Dis,

      to take my argument further.
      Let's consider the examples of my dogs.
      Every now and then one will step out of line and the bigger one will climb in giving it a severe beating. There is no mercy or compassion. The bigger one will seize the choice morsels of food without compunction. She is a complete bully.

      My dogs have no concept of morality whatsoever. They live by the simple dictum of might is right. In fact this is generally true throughout the animal world. I know there are many variations in behaviour and there are things like pack loyalty and the love of the mother for her young.

      Theft, murder, sexual loyalty, mercy, etc have no meaning in their lives. They are amoral. Their behaviours are rigidly dictated by their genetic harness.

      We used to be like that. We were completely amoral. Or, to use the framework I constructed, 1,2,3 and 5 applied(in modified form) but 4, values, was absent.

      Somewhere between 60,000 and 100,000 years ago that changed. The light came on in our brains, we developed language. We were able to understand our actions and foresee their effects on others because we now had a theory of mind.

      This was the birth of morality.

      This was a dramatic change but there was still a problem. All the animal urges that had dictated our behaviour for more than a million years were still there in all their original strength. They were built into our brains.

      From that moment on there began a war between our urges and our newly acquired values. Slowly, in the last 60,000 years or so we have learned to subordinate our urges to higher values.

      Today we have reinforced these new values with institutions and the rule of law. Acting together, they keep our urges under control.

      But this is a precarious balance even today. Disturb the balance and things can go badly wrong as our urges take control, our values lose control and the rule of law is abandoned. It was as recently as 1994 that nearly one million people were massacred in a truly brutal way in Rwanda. And I can give you more examples.

      Our terrible history of wars and genocides is testimony to how easily the balance is disturbed. Slowly we are getting better and the times between wars show our capacity of good.

      In my next posting I will look more carefully at the role of institutions and values in the maintenance of this precarious balance.

      You might want to dispute that there is a precarious balance. Don't. I live in a part of the world where the homicide rate is 47 per 100,000 which is one of the highest in the world. It is more dangerous here than in Iraq or Afghanistan. Shocking heh. But you learn to live with it. We are even more corrupt than Afghanistan.

      Dis, once again I want to emphasize that I am not criticizing you or atheism. I am trying to convey the forces that shape our behaviour at a societal level.

    9. Hi Dis,

      this is a short digression about religion.
      One of the strange things about the Bible that most people have great difficulty accepting is the concept of original sin.

      Why should all of humanity forever be punished for the transgressions on one man? It seems bizarre doesn't it.

      In fact it is a remarkably insightful story. Let me explain.

      I want to begin by pointing out the obvious. The Old Testament is the written transcription of a large body of oral narratives. Before the advent of writing, which was most of our existence, knowledge was transferred in easily remembered narrative form. We are natural story tellers and our stories became the vehicles for information. Oral narratives are easily transmitted but are also easily modified over time so we have to treat them with caution. This is something our religious fundamentalist friends don't understand. These narratives are intended to convey core truths in an easily remembered story but that story may contain embellishments and rhetorical flourishes.

      With that out of the way, original sin is simply a statement that our behaviour is subject to the dark urges I mentioned before, which have their origin in our genes. It is 'original' in the sense we inherited it from our early, pre-cognitive ancestors. It is passed on to all of us because it is still part of the structure of our brains. It is called sin because these urges often lead us into behaviour that contradicts our new awareness of morality.

      In this sense, Genesis is an easily remembered story that readily made sense to primitive peoples and performed the valuable function of passing on an important truth. Today we understand that story in a different way. Remember that today's understanding in terms of genetics and paleontology was not available to earlier man so the only way of conveying this truth was to do it in narrative form.

      There is more to this and Genesis was surprisingly insightful in other ways but I will cover that in later posts. For now I want to point out that Christianity has always been deeply aware of this duality in our nature. On the one hand we are subject to strong and dark urges inherited from pre-cognitive humankind and on the other hand we possess a strong moral awareness that can result in great good. Our history is the story of how these forces play out in the conflict between each other.

    10. Dis,
      by the way, it is worth emphasizing that nowhere do I use an appeal to God to justify my reasoning. I am looking at the issues from a purely historical and sociological point of view.

      I respect your disbelief in God so I won't appeal to God as an authority in my reasoning. As you well know, I have moved from disbelief to belief. I happen to think there are excellent reasons for believing in God that can withstand careful scrutiny but that can be the subject of an entirely different discussion.

      I hope by now you understand that I am a careful thinker prone to thinking things through before I make choices.

      I have no problem with people choosing atheism, that is entirely their right. The great majority of my friends and acquaintances are atheists and we have mutual respect. We Christians are in a clear minority but this does not worry me. Our influence is far greater than our numbers and atheism has no chance whatsoever of destroying religion.

      I saw this in China where I worked in 1992, 1993 and 1994. All around me I saw religion recovering from the crushing persecution of Marxism. The Chinese persecution of religion was really harsh, much harsher than in Russia. My interpreter became a Buddhist. Her elder sister, who also worked at our company, became a Catholic. There are now more Christians in China than there are in the US.

      Of course I am talking about practising Christians and not nominal Christians, an important distinction. In the US most Christians are purely nominal.

    11. Peter,

      It's funny that I have another view of the same story. If my memory doesn't fail me, it seems that Adam and Eve were punished with the expulsion from Paradise just because they abandoned that primal (I prefer this term to 'primitive') condition of 'ignorance' by eating from the tree of the knowledge on good and evil. They were not allowed to take its fruit, however free to take everything else they'd want. They became, then, aware, they started to make judgments, they got science. It was that that God intended to avoid: their awareness, their judgment of His acts...

      In my opinion, it's a tale about fate, free will, ignorance and an obscure God who, thanks God, gets progressively better during the Old Testament, although keeping forever capricious. Anyway, everything was novelty for Him: don't forget that almost every step of the creation is followed by the same, persistent comment on God seeing 'that it was good'. The creation was a surprise for Him, He was experimenting as if in a lab. Perhaps intending to avoid more opinions than His, He warned the first couple about the forbidden fruit: in short, no apprentices in the universe other than Himself.

      But what is puzzling is to guess His reasons to put that tree there: to test their will? to trap them? bad joke? But how or why test ignorant beings who behaved like children? Why trap them? There's more to learn from Genesis than we believe first sight.

    12. Another point, Peter,

      In this theism e atheism fight one side tries to prove that God exists, the other, that He exists not, however none have the conditions to reach their intents. God is proof proof as well as disproof proof.

    13. Waldemar,
      I agree there is neither proof or disproof of theism or atheism. The best one can do is ask which belief is more likely or more probable to be true.

    14. I don't think atheists seek to prove that God doesn't exist. They only try to prove that it is unreasonable to believe in God.

      I think plenty of theists do try to prove that God exists, (not Peter though, apparently).

      But there certainly are theist arguments that purport to prove that God exists. There's the kalam cosmological argument, the ontological argument, intelligent design, etc etc.

      On the other hand, I think atheists do have a shot at proving that some conceptions of God are impossible or inconsistent. The problem of evil is one such argument, but there's also problems with the concepts of omnipotence, omniscience etc, especially when coupled with the concept of human free will. None of these purport to show that God doesn't exist, but only that he can't be quite as he is described by some theists.

    15. Hi Peter,

      I have no major issues with anything you said regarding human morality. I'll probably avoid commenting until you complete your argument that there's something problematic with atheism.

      Thanks for continuing the conversation.

    16. Dis, I think the philosophical arguments do not constitute absolute proof but they seem to be very persuasive.

      The case for God rests on the cumulative weight of evidence from many sources.

      Even then that does not constitute absolute proof. In almost all human affairs we do not demand absolute proof. We make judgements on based on greater probability because obtaining absolute proof is usually impossible or is far too onerous.

      Civil court cases are based on balance of probability for just this reason. In criminal cases we demand higher standards of proof but still often get it wrong.

      Theists can marshal a lot of evidence that shows the existence of God is more probable than there being no God. That is all I need. I don't need absolute proof.

      What is interesting is that atheism can only attack theist arguments. They cannot produce independent affirmative reasons for believing there is no God.

      So, we can produce a variety of philosophical arguments for believing there is a God. You can only attack these arguments. You cannot produce an independent affirmative philosophical argument that could show that God does not exist.

      The whole basis for atheism is an attempt to show that theist arguments are weak. That kind of negative defence is inherently flawed. You need arguments of your own to show that God cannot exist. Good luck with that.

    17. >You need arguments of your own to show that God cannot exist. Good luck with that.<

      Well, I mentioned some that demonstrate the problems with the Christian concept of God.

      But I emphatically reject that arguments against God are required. This has been obvious ever since Bertrand Russell's teapot, and more recently with the examples of the Invisible Pink Unicorn or the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

      If all the arguments for God are pathetically weak (and I think they are) then there is no reason to believe in God.

    18. >But I emphatically reject that arguments against God are required<

      That is because you don't have any. It just illustrates the weakness of the atheist position.

      >If all the arguments for God are pathetically weak<

      The problem with that statement is that some great intellects have converted to Christianity. I would not be in any hurry to write off the decisions of highly intelligent and thoughtful scholars.

      You might reasonably disagree with them but to say they embrace pathetically weak arguments is to insult their intelligence and integrity.

      I have recently attended two workshops conducted by Jesuit philosophers. I was instantly struck by their sparkling intellect. It brought home to me that Catholicism has a long tradition of deeply intellectual philosophy.

      Let me give you one good example. Alasdair MacIntyre is one of the 20th Century giants in philosophy. He wrote the famous book After Virtue which rehabilitated virtue ethics. After long and mature reflection he converted to Catholicism. I can go on and give you more examples. Next to Alasdair MacIntyre, Pigliucci is a mere amateur.

      As I said, it is reasonable to reach different conclusions provided it was the result of careful and informed reflection. But you should be careful about rejecting arguments as pathetically weak when the giants among philosophers embrace them as being correct.

    19. >But you should be careful about rejecting arguments as pathetically weak when the giants among philosophers embrace them as being correct.<

      Well, the guys who I regard as being the giants among philosophers reject them as sophistry. Who you regard as a giant is rather a matter of perspective eh?

      I've asked you this before, but I'd suggest that you choose the most persuasive argument you can find, give me a link to it and I'll write a blog post explaining why I think it fails. I'm predicting it fails because I think at this stage I'm unlikely to encounter a novel one and all the ones I've seen so far are pretty bad. It would be great if you could surprise me, though.

  8. Waldemar,
    with respect to your interpretation of Genesis I think that is a fairly literal way of looking at it.
    My starting point is that these were allegories intended for illiterate, pastoral and hunter/gatherer peoples. They conveyed spiritual truths through the medium of story. The stories can be interpreted at a surface level but there are deeper interpretations available. I think it is a mistake to take these stories literally, at face value.

    The essential message of the early part of Genesis is this, when stripped of its narrative elements:
    1) The Universe had a beginning.
    2) Mankind had a beginning.
    3) Mankind had a well defined place of origin..
    4) Mankind survived an extinction event.
    5) Mankind became cognitively aware.
    6) Mankind became aware of morality.
    7) Mankind has a dual nature.
    8) Mankind adopted clothing.
    9) Mankind left its birthplace to spread around the world.

    This is a remarkably sophisticated message that not many people understand, even today. But science has confirmed every single point. Considering the knowledge available more than 5000 years ago it is an astonishing message. The only way to convey this message was in story form, hence the Adam and Eve narrative. But to take the Adam and Eve narrative at face value is to miss what the story is really telling us.

    I will explain this remarkable sequence of events in my next posting.
    For now I will tantalize you by saying that my experiences as a long distance trail runner in a hot climate helped me understand these things.

    What? How can that be? Be patient and I will explain in my next post. I also have other things to do!

    1. I agree with your problem with Waldemar's comment. As Catholic's are not literalists there is no reason you should be expected to defend the literal account in Genesis.

      However I disagree that it's a remarkably sophisticated message. To me it appears approximately like you would expect a bronze age creation myth to look. There's nothing that makes it stand out from all the other creation myths from my perspective.

      It seems to me that you're just cherry picking the messages you find palatable and ignoring the rest. Other messages that could be read from it are that evolution is false, that women are not to be trusted, that unquestioning obedience is preferable to the pursuit of knowledge, that all of creation exists solely for us and we can do what we like with it, etc.

      But, yeah, your interpretation is fine too. Just don't expect atheists to be too impressed by the profound insights you perceive in the text.

    2. >To me it appears approximately like you would expect a bronze age creation myth to look.<

      Come now, that is just a way denigrating my statement without saying anything substantive!

      Throwing in all your other grudges is no way of addressing the detailed points I am making.

    3. Let me begin with (1). The universe had a beginning.
      This is a remarkably non-intuitive belief. There is nothing whatsoever in our experience to suggest the universe had a beginning. Our everyday experience suggests the enduring continuity of existence.

      The belief is so non-intuitive that science firmly believed until the early 1960s that the universe had always existed. Until then Fred Hoyle's constant creation model ruled the science. Fred Hoyle even coined the phrase 'Big Bang' as a pejorative phrase to discredit the concept.

      No less a person than Einstein opposed the idea at first. Fr Georges Lemaitre, a Belgian priest and brilliant mathematician was the first to put forward the theoretical basis for the big bang model. He did this by following Einstein's equations to their logical conclusion.

      He approached Einstein at the Solway conference in 1927 and put forward his theory to Einstein. Einstein's replies are famous. He said "No! Not that. That is the creation' He went on to say 'Your mathematics is good but your physics is abominable'.

      This is how non-intuitive it was that the universe had a beginning. To his credit Einstein changed his mind 10 years later and declared that it was a most beautiful theory. The rest of science took until the early 1060s to accept what Einstein had reluctantly accepted.

      I hope you can see now that believing the universe had a beginning is extremely counterintuitive. To write it off as a bronze age myth is just plain wrong. How would hunter/gatherers conclude from their everyday experience that the universe had a beginning? Everything in their experience points to a cyclic world of continual renewal.

    4. Sorry, I still think you're cherry picking. Some of the insights in the Bible are obvious, some are lucky and some of them are you just reading into it. That's the way I see it, and I'm sorry if you don't like it!

      1) The Universe had a beginning.
      Intuition tells us everything has a beginning. This is even a premise of the Kalam argument. It's not surprising that this is what the ancients believed.

      2) Mankind had a beginning.

      3) Mankind had a well defined place of origin.
      Intuitive again. If something began with an event then that event happened somewhere. I'm not sure how well-defined this is in evolution, however. There's no well-defined point in time when mankind suddenly began to exist, and the place would have been spread over a wide geographic area.

      4) Mankind survived an extinction event.
      Not sure what you're talking about here, in Genesis or in reality.

      5) Mankind became cognitively aware.
      We are cognitively aware. Again, everything has a beginning, so intuition again.

      6) Mankind became aware of morality.
      We are aware of morality. Everything has a beginning.

      7) Mankind has a dual nature
      Too vague. I could say a rock has a dual nature, it's nature as a clump of atoms and it's nature as a solid object. I could also say mankind has a triple, quadruple, quintuple nature etc.

      8) Mankind adopted clothing.
      Everything has a beginning.

      9) Mankind left its birthplace to spread around the world.
      Follows from current state of affairs along with the assumption that manking began at a certain place and time.

      Again, not impressed. Sorry!

    5. Hi Peter,

      Sorry, don't buy your argument that the universe having a beginning is unintuitive. Almost all primitive societies had creation myths about the creation of everything by some pre-existing God or gods.

      Early skepticism of beginnings by scientists was arguably more a result of their having trained themselves to distrust intuitions rather than the result of intuition itself, as well as not having the grounding in modern physics to understand how something could come from nothing.

      Indeed it's still entirely possible that the universe has existed forever, perhaps as a base level of quantum foam that rarely but occasionally explodes into life with a Big Bang, as a higher level multiverse consisting of many universes popping into existence, or with something like the Big Bounce model.

      It's far from a closed question that the universe has not always existed. The benefit of skepticism is that our minds are open to the evidence. We don't trust holy books to give us the answers. You claim you don't either, so you should also have some doubt as to whether the universe had a beginning.

    6. Dis, that was the outline of my reply to Waldemar and I promised an explanation is forthcoming. To simply climb in and attack the outline is premature since you don't know what my arguments are.

    7. Hi Peter,

      Ok, I didn't realise at that time your argument was going to be elaborated.

    8. Guys, myth is the first and permanent approach to nature, to universe made by man. In it we find the same elements we nowadays have in history, science (philosophy included), religion and art, all mixed up in one homogeneous fabric. Myth is as science and philosophy as our modern ones, perhaps just lacking the rigor in testing its hypotheses. In one word, myth is the way man describes nature to travel through its issues, to survive as long as possible. Philosophy (and science) extracts from myth what we call the concepts and works by defining them by means of collating them all: this is the metaphysical thinking, the first attempt to expose the myth structure, which is concept, however expressed by means of a narrative. The second and last step towards myth's structure give us logic, which is also metaphysics structure, say, it's metaphysics summarized in just two concepts (or even only one - the concept of opposition), I mean, true and false, and a bunch of operations, which are, anyways, concepts too. No further shortening is possible in the act of describing the world. The three modes behave cooperatively, being impossible that one exists without the others, although one prevails during a time or at a certain place: for instance, in our culture myth survives mostly in the area science fights against and is called para-science or even mysticism and supernaturalism: they are distinguished from science by their disdain for fully testing their hypotheses, as well as for describing the world mostly by means of narratives or something very close to that. (Here I summarized a text I'm working in from the last few weeks and I'd be pleased to share it with you as soon as it's finished, if you want.)

      So, myth does not just make history of humankind. It's too intricate to be taken in just this sense and is too much intelligent, at least as intelligent as priests and rabis that coined a whole strong morality and even ethics from it. And what I said about Genesis, I'm so sorry to say, is not surface interpretation: it's one of hundreds possible and, in the case of our present debate, crucial - hope you guys think more carefully on what I said. A good example of the richness of Bible's myths interpretations, sorry for insisting, is Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling, plus his The Sickness unto Death (where he brilliantly revises the concept of sin).

      On God's proofs and disproofs: I keep insisting none works. Anselm's argument flaws under the assumption that an idea on what is so great that nothing greater can be conceived must have a correspondent object in the world: if perchance we are able to conceive such thing beyond a play with words, a phrased assumption, nothing grants the necessity of existing its corresponding object in the universe. That semiotics seems cracked. From another side, the attempts to show that God, if He exists, cannot be as described, partially succeeds in showing that He doesn't exist because He can't be described at all: but what is not describable at all is simply what is ignored and so cannot be claimed inexistent.

      Atheism has nothing to do on Earth if not for denying God's existence: were it not so, agnosticism would be enough, no need of atheism at all. Huxley (father) proposed the term agnosticism for this end more than a century and a half ago. So, Disagreeable, are you an atheist or an agnostic?

    9. Peter,

      On the idea of a beginning to the universe being counterintuitive. I'm with Disagreeable in this. In the same way Cantor's ideas have yet a disgusting effect in some mathematicians' minds, the infinite pursues human reasoning perhaps from early childhood (I read that some experiments demonstrate that cosmological ideas come into our minds when we're about three!!!). But we can calculate a circle with barely two decimals from Pi and perhaps we can maneuver a ship around the solar system with a handful more. Weren't this, I mean, approximation, the first Greek calculation of the circle would be still on course and would keep on course forever. That's what God's idea is for: to soften our staggering view of infinity, an approximation based on the intuitive belief that everything in the universe has a beginning. This is why it's an idea so easily grasped by bronze age humans and perhaps by their predecessors too (this statement is somewhat excessive to my taste, however I'll sustain it). But, as I said above, this idea sadly can't be proved or disproved, although being truly a bless to stop us from thinking forever in an unending chain of causes (Aristotle - in Metaphysics - explains very satisfactorily this problem and lays down his solution, the unmoved mover).

    10. Hi Waldemar,

      >Atheism has nothing to do on Earth if not for denying God's existence: were it not so, agnosticism would be enough, no need of atheism at all. Huxley (father) proposed the term agnosticism for this end more than a century and a half ago. So, Disagreeable, are you an atheist or an agnostic? <

      As Dawkins put it, I'm an agnostic with respect to God in the same way that I'm an agnostic with respect to fairies, leprechauns, the Invisible Pink Unicorn and the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

      Technically, I may be an agnostic, but that label has connotations of assigning the existence of God some significant level of probability. I don't. I'm effectively an atheist, because there's very little difference between an infinitesimal probability and zero probability.

      As such, I don't feel I need a proof that God does not exist. Demonstrating the weakness of the arguments for his existence is enough.

  9. Lets concentrate on (1) since I have given my arguments there.

    First, where does a hunter/gatherer get the concept that the universe has a beginning? He lives in a world of cyclic continuity characterised by continual renewal. Day follows day. Year follows year. Birth and death alternate. Seasons alternate.

    The dominant experience in their life is cyclic with renewal. Why shouldn't their cosmological model reflect this?

    No, there is the slightest beginning of a reason to believe in a universe with a beginning.

    Secondly, you conveniently dismiss a scientific belief that was strongly held for nearly 200 years. They held that belief precisely because it was the most intuitive.

    1. Related to this is our experience with time keeping. You probably know that time keeping by our indigenous population is pretty bad.

      This has been a continual frustration to us in the workplace. The explanation is remarkable simple. We have a linear model for time based on the real number system. Every instant of time is unique and once lost can never be recovered. So we have an inherent culture of not losing or wasting time. It is a non-renewable resource.

      Our indigenous population are still coming out of the countryside to the cities. We are in the midst of the urbanization that took place in Europe 200 years ago. Anyway, these people have a model for time that is cyclic for the simple reason that their experience of the world is cyclic. Consequently a moment of time that is lost will be recovered tomorrow in the next cycle. No need to hurry, it will come around again. This is most frustrating for us.

    2. >First, where does a hunter/gatherer get the concept that the universe has a beginning? <

      Because everything else has a beginning. It looks to primitive man as though everything has a creator. Cyclic and having a beginning are clearly lot in contradiction, the menstrual cycle being an excellent example.

      Again, creation myths are common. This is not a unique insight. It is an absolutely commonplace intuition among primitive people. It was only brought into doubt by skepticism and science. And the question is still not settled, as noted above.

    3. Peter, this last testimony of yours is simply remarkable. Lucky you are for having the opportunity to share from so close a distance that disappearing richness. I'd really love to know your country.

    4. Hi Waldemar,
      It is fascinating to see this richness of culture but also tragic because it is being destroyed by urbanisation and industrialization. Our indigenous people do have their own deep traditions centred on the concept of ubuntu. These quotations beautifully describe it:

      “A person is a person through other people strikes an affirmation of one’s humanity through recognition of an ‘other’ in his or her uniqueness and difference. It is a demand for a creative intersubjective formation in which the ‘other’ becomes a mirror (but only a mirror) for my subjectivity. This idealism suggests to us that humanity is not embedded in my person solely as an individual; my humanity is co-substantively bestowed upon the other and me. Humanity is a quality we owe to each other. We create each other and need to sustain this otherness creation. And if we belong to each other, we participate in our creations: we are because you are, and since you are, definitely I am. The ‘I am’ is not a rigid subject, but a dynamic self-constitution dependent on this otherness creation of relation and distance”.

      An "extroverted communities" aspect is the most visible part of this ideology. There is sincere warmth with which people treat both strangers and members of the community. This overt display of warmth is not merely aesthetic but enables formation of spontaneous communities (co-operatives if you will). The resultant collaborative work within these spontaneous communities transcends the aesthetic and gives functional significance to the value of warmth. How else are you to ask for sugar from your neighbour? Warmth is not the sine qua non of community formation but guards against instrumentalist relationships. Unfortunately, sincere warmth may leave one vulnerable to those with ulterior motives

      My Xhosa housekeeper is a window into this world. I would dearly love to speak Xhosa but it is a very difficult language.

      Ubuntu is close to the Christian concept of love and humanity.

    5. Waldemar,
      the tragedy is that the urbanization/industrialization process has destroyed their culture. Normal social structures are destroyed in the vast, overcrowded shanty townships with their scant resources. Survival has become a bitter personal struggle against all the odds.

      As their culture was destroyed, so too were the inbuilt moral restraints of their culture. As morality drained away, violence, theft and corruption became the norm. Without any moral restraints unrestrained promiscuity became the everyday and HIV spread like wildfire through the community.

      My housekeeper is HIV positive. Her husband died of AIDS and so too has her sister. Two of her brothers have been murdered. We have the highest HIV rate in the world and nearly the highest homicide rate in the world.

      All of this is happening on my doorstep. All of this is the direct result of the destruction of morality in the community. This in turn is the result of the destruction of their culture with its rich set of beliefs, founded on ubuntu.

      Morality is founded on cultural beliefs and maintained by cultural institutions. Destroy these beliefs and institutions and you unleash all the dark terribleness in human nature. I witness this directly, here in SA.

    6. Hi Peter,

      Thanks for this. Your insight is very interesting.

      >Morality is founded on cultural beliefs and maintained by cultural institutions.<

      I don't doubt it. I only doubt that those beliefs and institutions need be religious.

    7. Waldemar,
      what I described sounds bleak, and it is.

      But I am also witnessing the rebirth of their society. It is a rebirth being led by religion. They are spontaneously forming religious groups centred on Christianity. They have their own names and their practices vary a lot. Already the crime rate has started to come down and the HIV rate is slowly decreasing.

      It is fascinating to see how society can be self healing and that people instinctively turn to religion in an effort to rebuild the moral basis of their society.

      My own church, the Mater Dei parish, is directly involved in many ways. Soup kitchens, aid to schools, distributions of food and clothes, medical help, etc. Other churches are all doing the same.

      All the churches are reaching out to help. It is a wonderful display of compassion and love. The task is huge and direct aid is only part of it. The important thing is that the communities are starting to rebuild themselves, establishing a moral basis for the community. This moral basis is coming from religious belief.

      What is notable in all of this is the complete absence of atheism as a force for good. Nowhere is there a single atheist organisation doing anything to help while everywhere there are religious communities doing all they can to help. Atheism contributes precisely nothing to rebuilding these communities. Atheism does nothing to rebuild the moral heart of the communities and it cannot, because it has no moral heart whatsoever.

    8. Dis,
      >I don't doubt it. I only doubt that those beliefs and institutions need be religious.<

      Except of course, no other civil institutions do anything to establish a moral basis for society or perform the difficult task of refreshing society's moral sense.

      Can you name the institutions that perform this function? What institutions, other than religion, act to consciously and systematically impart moral beliefs to society?
      What institutions, other than religion, act to consciously and systematically refresh and reinforce society's moral intuitions?

    9. Dis,
      >I don't doubt it. I only doubt that those beliefs and institutions need be religious.<

      You know that religion is the most pervasive and persistent phenomenon in human history. You don't believe in God so let's look at it from a purely sociological perspective.

      It is obviously a most deep rooted sociological phenomenon. Now why should that be? Some possible ideas:
      1) a comfort against existential dread;
      2) a comfort against human suffering;
      3) an attempt to infuse moral values in society.

      As it happens, all three are true and yet (3) occupies more than 90% of religion's time and effort. From this it is readily apparent that society evolved religion as a mechanism to propagate and reinforce moral values in the society.

      Why should society evolve such a mechanism? Because society without a moral basis is a terrible, destructive place where people ruthlessly and cruelly exploit each other. We saw this in Russia and China. We are seeing this in South Africa.

      Religion is the solution that society evolved over time to give society a moral basis so that society can flourish. This has nothing to do with the existence of God so why was the idea of God imported into it? Very simply, because it was a way of giving moral laws their authority.

      Let me enlarge on this.

      There are two kinds of law,
      1) natural law (our understanding of ethics)
      2) human law (regulations laid down by the ruling power)

      All law needs some kind of authority to give it binding power. Human law has the authority of the state to give it binding power.

      Natural law lacks an inherent authority and so religion evolved the concept of God. God is then the authority to give natural law its binding power.

      Any good Catholic will know I have simplified this a little. What I call natural law is in reality two things: natural law and divine law. I simplified this by leaving out divine law since you don't recognise divinity!!

    10. Dis,
      now, on to the next stage of the argument.
      Why should natural law need an authority at all? I am a moral person, I know how to behave and I don't need an authority to make me behave.

      Does that sound familiar to you? You have made that argument and in fact it is the usual argument that atheists make.

      So let me grant that is true of you. You are quite clearly a moral paragon. Do you know of anyone else who is a moral paragon? You are nearly the only moral paragon that I know.

      In fact, wherever I look I see corruption, abuse, lies, cheating, deception, etc, etc. I don't know of anyone who has not exaggerated his insurance claim. I don't know of anyone who has not inflated his company travel expenses. Students are engaging in wholesale cheating. Even worse, large school districts have joined in the cheating. And much worse, cheating has become apparent in academic disciplines. Senior politicians have engaged in outrageous plagiarism to get their doctorates. It seems that more than half the married couples I know are engaged in adultery. Do you know that every one of my wife's good friends have propositioned me?

      Even Pigliucci, the virtue ethicist, did not hesitate to use deception in the debate with me!

      So is it really true that each person is his own moral authority and that each person can find a reliable, authoritative moral guide in himself?

      I find that an unbelievably naive and wishful belief. The whole idea that religion created the idea of God was so that the believer would know and believe that his moral actions are constantly being watched. You can deceive others but you cannot deceive God. This belief that God is constantly aware of one's moral choices is what gives natural law their authority and this is why religion evolved the concept of God.

      As I have noted with my examples, law without authority is quickly disregarded, except of course by the very few moral paragons like yourself.

    11. Dis,
      once more into the fray.
      The Catholic concept of natural law is that we all have a conscience. By the use of reason and by examining our conscience we can discern natural law and that allows us to make moral choices. We also maintain that natural law is not sufficient, it also needs divine law. I will leave that part out because you are an atheist.

      Nonetheless, Catholicism teaches that we should regularly examine our consciences and test our actions against our conscience. The Church's best philosophers have compiled a body of natural law as a guide. The Church also regularly teaches moral behaviour. In fact it does this at every Mass.

      To summarize, the Church:
      1) encourages regular examination of one's conscience and testing choices against conscience.
      2) formalizes this in the institution of confession.
      3) provides a well developed body of natural law as a guide.
      4) regularly reinforces this in the homilies at every Mass.

      From all this you can see that the primary function of the Church is to propagate and reinforce moral behaviour.
      I make this point because you went on record as saying that religion had nothing to do with morality.

      After reading all this I hope you will understand my incredulous reaction. Religion has everything to do with morality and to proclaim otherwise beggars belief.

  10. Dis,

    When serious, indeed major academics adopt a considered position it is a sign that their arguments should be seriously considered.

    I am accustomed to dealing with people who consider arguments carefully.

    I am not accustomed to dealing with people who cavalierly dismiss their opponent's arguments as pathetically weak and as being just sophistry.

    That is not discussion. It is polemics.

    1. I have considered their arguments carefully and found them wanting. Please cite an example if you disagree and I will explain my thoughts in a blog post.

      The only reason I'm dismissing them cavalierly is that you have not yet identified the arguments which impress you. As such, I cannot yet present a counter-argument other than to assert that as a group I find religious apologetics to be unimpressive.

      I would love it if you could provide a novel argument which would be more impressive to me.

    2. Dis,
      >I have considered their arguments carefully and found them wanting.<

      No, you said they were pathetically weak and characterised by sophistry.

      That is a very different kind of statement and it raises rather serious doubts.

      I am intimately aware of all the atheist arguments and find them entirely unpersuasive. In fact I am always shocked by their superficial nature(Dawkins, I'm looking at you).

      Of course no one can either prove that God exists or, for that matter, prove that God does not exist.

      The matter is unprovable. The real question is this. Which hypothesis, the atheist hypothesis or the theist hypothesis, is more probable, given the available evidence?

      I have done this exercise and concluded that the evidence makes a theist hypothesis more probable than an atheist hypothesis. It is the cumulative weight of the individual pieces of evidence, taken together, that has convinced me. Each piece of evidence, on its own, is suggestive but not persuasive. Add them all together and it becomes persuasive.

      What is so interesting is that atheism can produce no evidence in support of their own hypothesis. They can only attack the theist hypothesis.

      There is no serious philosophical argument to say that God does not exist.
      There is no serious scientific argument to show that God does not exist.

      All atheism can do is attack theist arguments. That is the action of an impoverished belief system that lacks any foundation.

      Atheism's standard excuse is that they do not carry the burden of proof. Of course that is just trying to weasel out of the matter. Anyone who makes an assertion automatically assumes a burden of proof. Trying to deny it is the sign of an empty argument.

      There are a whole bunch of philosophical arguments for the existence of God. Now where are the philosophical arguments against the existence of God?

      There are a whole bunch of scientific arguments for the existence of God. Now where are the scientific arguments against the existence of God?

      No one has been able to marshal any positive, affirmative arguments for the claim that God does not exist. All you can do is attack the opposing arguments. That is a sign of a very weak position.

      No, wait, I will make one exception. The argument from evil is a serious philosophical argument to show that God does not exist. That is the only argument that atheism makes that is worthy of serious examination.

      My position is that it is indeed a strong argument but that it can be answered. This is worthy of serious debate.

    3. Dis,
      one of the weakest possible arguments that atheists make is that science shows that there is no God. It is complete nonsense. There is not even the beginning of a shred of evidence to support this claim.

      The only thing that atheism can do is construct a strawman version of religion and show the strawman is inconsistent with science.

      Strawmen are easily blown away in the wind of critical scrutiny.

  11. Hi Peter,

    I'm going to have a tough time keeping up with this volume as I've got a lot going on now with a house move etc, but I'll try to respond to as much as I can.

    Firstly, a number of points can be answered by the simple observation that atheism is not a way of life but a simple position regarding the existence of God. It is not comparable to Catholicism. As such, you often use "atheism" inappropriately in places where I would use "secular", "humanist", etc.

    >Nowhere is there a single atheist organisation doing anything to help<

    No, but there are secular organisations helping (I'm not making claims about your community specifically, mind).

    Most atheists see no point in attaching a specific belief with respect to the existence of God to humanitarian aid. The only reason to do that is for PR purposes. Atheism has nothing to do with humanitarianism, just as stamp-collecting has nothing to do with humanitarianism. You don't see stamp-collecting organisations doing anything to help either, do you? That doesn't mean atheists can't be humanitarian or that atheism is a barrier to humanitarianism.

    >Atheism does nothing to rebuild the moral heart of the communities and it cannot, because it has no moral heart whatsoever.<

    Atheism has nothing to do with morality. Secular humanism does. Stamp collecting has no moral heart either but that doesn't mean that there's a moral problem with stamp collecting.

    >Except of course, no other civil institutions do anything to establish a moral basis for society or perform the difficult task of refreshing society's moral sense.

    Can you name the institutions that perform this function? What institutions, other than religion, act to consciously and systematically impart moral beliefs to society?<

    The legal system. The educational system. The family. Team sports. Less systematically but just as effectively: social interaction within a community.

    >Why should society evolve such a mechanism?<

    I agree morality and social control is part of it.

    Teaching of morals and encouragement of moral behaviour is good. I just think that religion is the wrong way to go about it. If you get your morality from holy books, you can come to any conclusion you like. Anything can be justified if you think God is on your side - hate crimes, rape, genocide, incest, slavery etc all have some element of biblical justification (I'm not proposing to get into a debate on this as I know there are ways to interpret/rationalise away these parts of the Bible, but what about those who don't agree with your interpretation?)

    I'd prefer to teach people to be skeptical and decide for themselves. That doesn't mean anything goes - we still have law to rein in the impulses of the immoral.

    1. >
      Firstly, a number of points can be answered by the simple observation that atheism is not a way of life but a simple position regarding the existence of God.

      I am really not sure how you can make that assertion with a straight face!!!

      Google 'atheist organisations' and see what I mean.
      Better still, read this ruthless self-assessment by an atheist:
      >>How atheists became the most colossally smug and annoying people on the planet

      Atheist have formed a great number of organisations. They mobilize to attack religion. They mobilize to attack the public manifestations of religion. I could go on and on. I can give you countless references.

      When believers express religious opinions in forums it is our common experience that militant atheists descend on us in droves using mockery, insults, etc, etc.

      It has got so bad that I block most atheists. I only allow comment on my posts by people I know. I never in my life imagined that such ugliness could be so publicly manifested. It is horrifying.

      I find it strange you can call this just 'non-belief' when it organizes, has leadership, has the clearly articulated motive of destroying religion, does everything possible to denigrate it and conducts itself in such an unbelievably aggressive, ugly and unpleasant way.

      Words fail me. How can you deny the obvious?
      Please read the linked article once again.

    2. >No, but there are secular organisations helping<

      Yes, and thank God for that.
      You see, secular does not mean atheist. The secular organisations are not atheist in nature. All it means is that religion did not organise it. Membership of secular organisation is open to all belief systems (quite rightly) and so you will find members from all belief systems in the secular organisations.

      To use a trite example. Our city government is secular but at least half its members are Christian or Muslim. Our city government organizes aid activities.

      Nevertheless, I repeat my question. Where are the atheist organisations doing charitable work? They create many organizations with the object of attacking religion and they do so with great fervour.

      We do not create organisations to attack atheism or the public manifestation of atheism. We create organisations to give charitable aid. Note once again I only talk for Catholicism. I simply do not know enough to talk for other belief systems.

    3. >...humanitarian aid.The only reason to do that is for PR purposes<

      That is a most revealing remark and exposes the moral emptiness of atheism.

      We believe it should be done out of a deep sense of compassion and love for our fellow humanity.

      We think you should be doing it for the same reason.
      Abandon the militant aggression and turn that energy instead into helping the great number of suffering. We need all the help we can get.

      By the way, our Muslim brothers are also active in the field of compassionate aid.

    4. >just as stamp-collecting has nothing to do with humanitarianism.<

      Nor does stamp collecting go around attacking other organisations. Stamp collecting does not sneer at or mock or denigrate other organisations.

      Most importantly, stamp collecting does not try to destroy the very organisations that are trying to do so much good.

      How is it possible that you can try to portray atheism as some neutral, placid organisation that just goes about minding its own business?

      Nothing could be further from the truth. Such false comparisons only harm your case.

    5. >The legal system. The educational system. The family. Team sports<


      Does the legal system go around giving ethics lessons? My brother-in-law is an international attorney and he would be very surprised by the notion that he had a responsibility for imparting moral ideas to society.

      The educational system teaches a great many subjects. When I last looked ethics classes were rather few and far between. What I have noticed is that student cheating is becoming an increasingly severe problem. Some school districts have even joined in the cheating to boost their standing. Bullying has also become a severe problem and let's not even begin to mention the violence and drug problems in schools.

      The family? Perhaps some do. But then who gives the family ethics lessons? The main source of family ethics seems to be Miley Cyrus giving a vigorous demonstration of twerking on TV. You can't be seriously suggesting that families are giving lessons in ethics? Who trains the family members in giving ethics lessons?

      Team sports. This idea is even weaker. I have been an active rugby, cricket and hockey player. The moral lessons there are very simple. You can break the laws as long as you are careful about it to avoid being caught. Foul the other player before he crosses the try line because you lose fewer points from a penalty than if he touched down and converted the try.

      Cricket was the last holdout. It truly was a gentleman's sport. Some of that ethos still clings to the sport. Sadly cheating has become the norm in the sport. I can give you lots of examples if you doubt that.

      I am sorry, but your reply is weak indeed.

    6. I forgot to mention the rampant drug problems in sport.

    7. >I agree morality and social control is part of it.<

      Morality is the major part of it.
      Social control has got nothing to do with it.
      I suspect our parish priest sometimes wishes he had at least a little bit of control over us but he has none at all.

    8. >Teaching of morals and encouragement of moral behaviour is good.<

      No. It is essential.
      Without it we see the breakdown of society.

    9. >If you get your morality from holy books, you can come to any conclusion you like<

      Except that we don't come to any conclusion we like!!
      Catholic moral philosophy is highly developed, carefully thought out with a high degree of consensus.

      Catholic philosophers have been studying this issue for hundreds of years and created a well agreed upon, highly sophisticated ethical position.

      Really don't know where you get your idea from.

    10. >Anything can be justified if you think God is on your side - hate crimes, rape, genocide, incest, slavery etc<

      This is one of your more bizarre claims.
      See my reply above. Catholic moral philosophy is a very highly developed body of knowledge.

      Please show me where Catholic moral philosophy justifies
      1) hate crimes;
      2) rape;
      3) genocide;
      4) incest;
      5) slavery.

      Catholic moral philosophy uses, as its starting point, the New Testament, with special emphasis on the four Gospels. It has imported important concepts from Aristotelian virtue ethics because of their fit with Christian ethics.

      The New Testament is a narrative account of events two thousand years ago. The ethics lessons contained in that narrative account are not organized into the cohesive whole we recognize today. The ethical lessons are scattered throughout that narrative account with no regard for their logical structure(unsurprisingly).

      The cohesive and organized whole we recognize today emerged as the result of careful study by Catholic moral philosophers.

      It is very important you understand this point. I could study the New Testament independently but it would take me a long time to achieve the sophisticated synthesis of the moral teachings that the Church philosophers have done. Even then I would make many mistakes because I lacked the deep background knowledge they have.

      The Catholic Church teaches its morality from the careful synthesis that its moral philosophers have achieved, not directly from the Bible. The Bible is used for devotional purposes and to reinforce the teaching of Catholic moral philosophy.

      This is the fundamental divide between Catholicism and Protestantism. Protestants insist that their only source of knowledge is the Bible and insist on each person's right to make his private interpretation.

      We Catholics reply that this is an error prone process that can give rise to widely differing interpretations. We claim that the Church's guidance is needed to arrive at the correct interpretation. The Church has devoted a huge amount of scholarship to this question and the carefully thought out body of Catholic moral philosophy is the result.

      If you think think Catholic moral philosophy justifies 'hate crimes, rape, genocide, incest, slavery etc', you are living in an alternate universe.

    11. >I'd prefer to teach people to be skeptical and decide for themselves.<

      How about teaching them ethics then they can have a rational basis for deciding for themselves?
      This seems to be a much more reasonable thing to do!!

      Skepticism based on ignorance becomes brutality.

    12. >we still have law to rein in the impulses of the immoral<

      That the rule of law is sufficient to maintain moral behaviour is a dreadful delusion.

      It can barely restrain criminal behaviour. How on earth can it restrain moral behaviour? When last I looked, adultery, infidelity, telling lies, etc, etc were not illegal.

      Wherever I look I see people shading the laws. They drive faster where they can, cheat on their tax returns where they can, inflate their insurance claims. I can carry on with plenty more examples.

      The problem is this. When law depends on enforcement people turn their attention to finding loopholes and evasion. So we devote more attention to law enforcement. More emphasis on law enforcement makes it more unpopular and that only increases attempts at defying it. By the way, I saw this problem at firsthand in China. It was most striking.

      The rule of law depends on an underlying moral consensus where the majority willingly subject themselves to the rule of law. There will always be a minority of defectors but that can be held in check by law enforcement.

      When the moral consensus starts to evaporate the majority start to join the defectors and that makes the job of law enforcement impossible. It is no accident that the US has one of the largest prison populations in the world.

    13. Moral consensus is a necessary foundation for the rule of law

    14. Just on non-believers/atheists helping there is

    15. "Moral consensus is a necessary foundation for the rule of law"

      I'm glad to observe how deeply you agree with one of my older comments to this post, Peter. But you'll also agree with me in that if atheists are social beings, just as gregarious as any religious individual, then they must have a moral and a secular republic would compose its laws according to the secular moral of its citizens(assuming that all citizens in this republic are atheists). Am I correct?

      As always I reserve this objection: a religious subject's moral not necessarily agrees with an atheist's moral, although this is not much of an issue, once religious individuals not always endorse religious subject's morals when those subjects profess different religious tenets.

    16. Waldemar,
      yes, we are in agreement.

      >atheists ... then they must have a moral and a secular republic would compose its laws according to the secular moral of its citizens<

      Yes, that is correct.

      However there are two important issues here:
      1) there must be a stable and respected source for the moral understanding.
      2) there needs to be a way of maintaining and refreshing this moral understanding, keeping it alive in the minds of the populace.

      Can atheism do both (1) and (2)? The only time this was tried in human history, in Russia and China, it failed disastrously.

      Societies create religion in response to the problems it faces so that there is a stable and respected source of morality and so that the moral understanding is kept alive.

      Religion is the natural response of society to stress, allowing it to become self healing. Religion is society's immune system.

      Atheism is like the HIV virus, it attacks society's immune system.

    17. Peter,

      There must be strength in atheists 'spirit' to support this tenet. I suggest you to watch Joseph Miller's documentary on atheism, so that you'll get some good images of this strength I mentioned: a strength that comes from the evidence that doing good is the only reward who does it gets; in other words, good actions are good in themselves and deserve no reward except themselves. I mention that because the majority of religious people I know do good actions just for another reward or even in order not to be punished. This is a less laudable way to behave, isn't it?

      Russia's regime was like almost any regime throughout history: they do good if the rulers are good persons, but unluckily those were too rare to count as a proof against the tendency of regimes be evidently evil. A bad regime succeeds only until the populace tolerates it or is kept subdued either by force or guile. But any regime is but a way some people find to prevail over the rest of citizens. There's few or nothing to do with communism, democracy, monarchy etc.

      And finally, when you described the usefulness of religion, it reminded me of drugs. I've got nothing against drugs, unless they harm who doesn't use them.

    18. Waldemar,
      >good actions are good in themselves<

      Absolutely. And every Christian I know believes this as well. Nobody does good because they are told to do it. That is a complete fiction. Every person has the freedom to choose what they believe is right. They do it because they believe in good.

      As Christians we believe in an inherent, absolute goodness. We understand why this is so, because God is goodness. We freely, of our own volition choose to follow and believe in God because we feel drawn to the absolute goodness of God.

    19. Waldemar,
      >religion, it reminded me of drugs.<

      Oh no, I thought that misguided analogy went out of favour with Marx!

      Let me describe a more useful analogy that draws on my experience as an endurance runner.

      As a runner I believe that running is good for me. I get up early and go for long runs. It takes a huge amount of discipline and self sacrifice. I suffer setbacks and injuries but I persist against all the odds, learning, becoming better and achieving more. My friends mock me, questioning my dedication and motives.

      Religion is exactly like this. It is like running. It is a disciplined long term effort that takes dedication, sacrifice and persistence. It has setbacks and suffering but we persist and endure.

      Does this sound like a drug to you? Drugs are the quick and easy way out, a quick and artificial high.

      That is nothing like religion and to compare the two is totally false. It is just another atheist attempt at smearing religion. But we are used to the ugliness of atheism.

  12. >All law needs some kind of authority to give it binding power. Human law has the authority of the state to give it binding power.<

    And that's arguably all the authority we need.

    But I also think we ought to be good to each other and help each other even when the law is not involved. Why? Because I feel this is good. Why do I feel it is good?

    1) Evolved intuitions as we see in social mammals
    2) Being raised by moral parents in a moral culture - being conditioned from an early age that it was good to share and show compassion. Much like the way you train your dog not to soil the carpet.
    3) Rational reflection and skepticism. Maybe as a kid I thought the idea of homosexuality was strange or wrong. This is probably down to the culture I was raised in. However, on mature reflection I realised that there is no rational basis for hating homosexuality because it causes no harm.

    What rational justification do I have for behaving morally? I don't need one. I simply want to be moral, the same way I want to eat, I want to breathe, I want to live, I want to play computer games. The desire to be a good person is inbuilt. It doesn't need the fear of divine punishment to motivate it.

    For that small minority who don't have the impulse to be moral we have the law. There's not much evidence that theism helps much. There are disproportionately low numbers of atheists in prisons, after all.

    1. What you have described is what Catholics call 'natural law'. Simply put we believe that our reason and our conscience can enable us to arrive at the core concepts of moral behaviour.

      Natural law is one of the foundational pillars of Catholic moral philosophy.

      This is a well studied matter that is the subject of much debate amongst Catholic philosophers. I can give you any number of papers on the matter.

      This much we are in agreement even if we state it differently.

      There are several problems you don't address.
      1) Whose understanding is right? Is your understanding better than mine?
      2) How good is the moral understanding of other people? Can you really depend on their intelligence and insight?
      3) What happens when your moral understanding conflicts with your urges?

      1) Catholicism supplies a well developed body of moral teaching so that we are all working from the same page.
      2) Catholicism imparts this knowledge to its followers in an organized systematic way.
      3) Catholicism has a program for refreshing and reinforcing this knowledge.
      4) Catholicism supplies a mechanism for reflective self-examination and correction.
      5) Catholicism supplies a powerful rationale for moral behaviour.

      Now what does atheism do?

    2. >There are disproportionately low numbers of atheists in prisons, after all.<

      I find it hard to believe that you can make that statement with a straight face. Quite frankly I am astonished.

      Did it occur to you that:
      1) prisoners are looking for good behaviour to get out of prison earlier on parole?
      2) despairing and suffering people might turn to religion for solace?
      3) Christians regard it as part of their mission to aid prisoners?
      4) prison administrations encourage the work of religious groups for all sorts of good reasons?
      5) prisons have chaplains for all of the above reasons?

      Yes, I saw that study and it is the perfect example of a poor study. It illustrates rather nicely the old saw the correlation is not causation. Every first year stats student learns that.

      Everyone by now knows that correlation studies must be accompanied by a testable theory of causation. Without a plausible theory of causation that can be tested correlation studies are hollow claims.

      In this particular case the claim is so counterintuitive that it must have a robust theory of causation or be discarded as rubbish.

    3. >And that's arguably all the authority we need.<

      State power without moral authority tortures its prisoners and detains them indefinitely.

      It starts wars of aggression with little or no pretext.

      It performs extra-judicial murders on a large scale.

      It spies relentlessly on its own citizens.

      It remorselessly persecutes those who speak out against the spying.

      Does any of this sound familiar?

    4. And need I add:
      It murders its own infants by the millions.
      This is the worst genocide in all of recorded human history.
      It is the most awful blot on human history.
      Does any of this sound familiar?

  13. > You are quite clearly a moral paragon. Do you know of anyone else who is a moral paragon? You are nearly the only moral paragon that I know.<

    That smacks of sarcasm. In the case that you mean it genuinely, I have to disagree. I'm no more moral than the next atheist. In practice, I'm probably about as moral as most Christians. I haven't had to fill out an insurance claim yet, but I can tell you I have never cheated or exaggerated on expenses. If anything, I've underreported. I do feel an impulse to be honest, perhaps more than most people, but I probably make up for this by being less naturally empathetic than most people (although I do strive to treat other people well regardless).

    But that's just me. There are plenty of atheists who are far more moral or empathetic than me. If you want an example of an atheist moral paragon, I'd say Peter Singer.

    It seems to me you labour under the assumption that most people are essentially immoral, and it is only religion that saves them. If they lost their belief, they would cease to be moral. If I behave morally even without belief, then I must be a moral paragon?

    I really don't think this is true. Were you really a callous, uncaring bastard before you found Christianity? I doubt it somehow.

    I think most people, given the opportunity, are basically good. When society collapses or people get desperate, then immoral behaviour can arise, as you have seen. But I don't see religion as necessary to maintain the social order that enables moral behaviour. If anything, I see it as damaging to it.

    1. Dis,
      yes I knew you were a good person.
      No, that is not sarcasm, just a well worn rhetorical device to get my point across.

      You say people are essentially good and that is exactly the point of the Catholic Church's teaching about natural law.

      So you see, we have reached some agreement.

      But where you are wrong is when you think I labour under the assumption that most people are essentially immoral. I don't.

      However, what is undeniable is that immoral behaviour is pretty widespread. There has been a veritable epidemic of student cheating in the US. The academic world is also pretty bad. About 60% of papers in research psychology are tainted by dishonest practices. Look also at the epidemic of drug usage in sports. Don't get me going! I can give you more examples than you can ever handle!!!

      So how do we reconcile the fact that people are essentially moral and yet behave unethically in a widespread way?

      We can begin by looking honestly at ourselves and asking if we have ever made a moral mistake. I know I have, and more than once. Most people of my acquaintance would make the same admission(reluctantly).

      The answer is that there is always a struggle between our needs and our beliefs(which would deny the realization of these needs). Which way it goes depends on the strength of the need weighed against the strength of the belief.

      What we have found is that moral beliefs are like a fragile flower. They need tending to maintain their effectiveness.

      The prominent researcher, Dan Ariely, demonstrated this nicely in one of his studies. He divided a random sample into two groups. Each group was given a test that contained an inducement to cheat. The control group was asked to read a random text and given the test. And about 80% cheated. So much for natural moral behaviour! The test group was given the Ten Commandments to read. The cheating rate in their group dropped to about 20%.

      From this Dan Ariely developed the theory of moral priming. He maintains that moral behaviour depends on regular moral priming to refresh the moral concepts and to reinforce them. Dan Ariely is a pretty good researcher so I believe him.

      The tendency to moral belief is already there (the Catholic concept of conscience and natural law) but it needs regular moral priming to maintain its effectiveness.

      >Were you really a callous, uncaring bastard before<

      I was a tough corporate manager who could be ruthless on occasion.

    2. >But I don't see religion as necessary to maintain the social order that enables moral behaviour. If anything, I see it as damaging to it.<

      As we saw in Russia and China, atheism has caused far more damage.

    3. >As we saw in Russia and China, atheism has caused far more damage.<

      You really need to stop bringing this up. It's aggravating and is a very poor argument.

      Atheism caused no damage in Russia and China. What caused damage was totalitarian ideological fanaticism. You have no evidence that a skeptical society would be anything like this, because the communists were far from skeptical.

      You might as well argue that Hitler and Stalin show the damage that can be caused by mustaches.

    4. I believe Dan Ariely's research.

      What his research does not establish is that religion is the only way to morally prime people.

  14. >Even Pigliucci, the virtue ethicist, did not hesitate to use deception in the debate with me!<

    I think you're being uncharitable. He doesn't really have enough time to deal with the comments section on his blog adequately, something I have found quite frustrating while trying to set him right on the Computational Theory of Mind!

    Rather than accusing him of deception, I would think it more reasonable to suppose he had made a mistake.

    >So is it really true that each person is his own moral authority and that each person can find a reliable, authoritative moral guide in himself? <

    I think I've answered the authority argument (we don't need authority because most of us genuinely want to be good).

    What about the moral guide? Well, unfortunately, individual people will often make mistakes about what is right, and so will do the wrong thing even believing they are acting morally.

    But of course religion doesn't help. If you are religious, it just means that you believe that what you feel is right is in accordance with God's will. There's no reason to think that being religious makes you any better at discerning right from wrong in the first place.

    In fact, I believe it makes you worse, because you are trained to accept scripture, dogma and orthodoxy as unquestioned truth instead of thinking for yourself. Of course, Catholicism is far from the worst offender in this respect, but it's not nearly as good at encouraging free thought as atheist secular humanism.

    1. No, I don't think I am being uncharitable to Pigliucci. I hold him to high standards because of his training and his position.

      To describe his false statement as a mistake stretches credulity.

    2. >Well, unfortunately, individual people will often make mistakes about what is right, and so will do the wrong thing even believing they are acting morally.<

      Well, at least you admit that people make moral mistakes. The evidence is so all encompassing and widespread that it is hard to deny.

      Do the sportsmen who take enhancing drugs believe they are acting morally? Did Weiner believe he was acting morally? Did Petraeus believe he was acting morally? Did Clinton believe he was acting morally?

    3. >There's no reason to think that being religious makes you any better at discerning right from wrong in the first place.<

      Right, moral training has no effect!!! I suppose we have a built in filter to exclude all possible moral promptings. We are so moral that we can block out all moral teaching. Why are we wasting our time? See again my post about Dan Ariely and the effect of moral priming.

    4. >accept scripture, dogma and orthodoxy as unquestioned truth instead of thinking for yourself.<

      When did you become an expert on how I think for myself?
      Do you think for one moment we are programmed zombies, unable to think for ourselves?

      Yes, we do think for ourselves. To claim otherwise is plainly uninformed. We accept teachings that are well founded and make good sense. That is why we accept them.

      The Catholic Church has a large body of highly intelligent people. It has a great number of competent philosophers doing great scholarly work.The Church has a deep tradition of careful intellectual work.

    5. I acknowledged that the Catholic Church was far from worst, so your points about having many philosophers is not needed.

      But you are still expected to believe certain things propositions and discouraged from believing others, even when there is no evidential basis for supporting one proposition over another.

  15. >>I have considered their arguments carefully and found them wanting.<

    >No, you said they were pathetically weak and characterised by sophistry.

    That is a very different kind of statement and it raises rather serious doubts.<<

    I considered their arguments carefully, found them wanting and concluded that they were pathetically weak and sophistic. I haven't outlined my thoughts here because you *still* haven't identified which arguments impress you. When you do, I'll respond in detail.

    >I have done this exercise and concluded that the evidence makes a theist hypothesis more probable than an atheist hypothesis. It is the cumulative weight of the individual pieces of evidence, taken together, that has convinced me. Each piece of evidence, on its own, is suggestive but not persuasive. Add them all together and it becomes persuasive.<

    I applaud you for coming to Christianity through careful deliberation rather than, say, because you desperately want to believe there is a basis for objective morality. I just doubt that your conclusion is a reasonable one. I look forward to the day when you explain how you reached it.

    >What is so interesting is that atheism can produce no evidence in support of their own hypothesis. They can only attack the theist hypothesis.<

    I've answered this point. Atheism is the null hypothesis. In the absence of any evidence (and I maintain there is no evidence), then I say there is no reason to believe in a concept as strange as an omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, all-loving God.

    Do you need evidence to disbelieve in fairies? In Zeus? In Russell's teapot? In the invisible pink unicorn? In the flying spaghetti monster?

    Of course not, because you find all these ideas to be patently absurd. As I do your God.

    >All atheism can do is attack theist arguments. That is the action of an impoverished belief system that lacks any foundation.<

    Atheism is not a belief system. It's a simple proposition. My belief system, if I had to describe it, would be something like naturalistic-skeptical-utilitarian-secular-humanism.

    >That is the only argument that atheism makes that is worthy of serious examination.<

    You forgot one. That none of the theistic arguments work!

    Also, there are many arguments against the claims of specific religions, such as that the god of the bible was a psychopathic genocidal monster in the Old Testament and that most Christian myths show signs of borrowing from other cultures.

    1. >concluded that they were pathetically weak and sophistic.<

      And so I conclude that atheist arguments are pathetically weak and sophistic.

      Do you see where that kind of statement takes us? An argument from authority, your authority, or an argument from my authority.

      It is needlessly insulting and does nothing to create the right climate for intelligent discussion.

      Your remaining statements are also needlessly insulting. Why do it? It simply diminishes my respect for you.

      Is there any reason why I should have any discussion with you when you make such insulting references including unicorns, teapots and psychopathic genocidal monsters?

      When people resort to insults they have lost the argument.

    2. > Atheism is the null hypothesis.<

      That is just a dodge to get out of producing a primary, affirmative argument. Atheists love to do this, they can criticise without being criticised.

      There is no null hypothesis in this case. The truth is self evident, that whoever makes an assertion must produce affirmative arguments.

      Theists have made their affirmative arguments, now it is your turn. Where are your affirmative arguments?

      You, in common with all atheists, have asserted there is no God. Now produce your affirmative arguments. Criticizing your opponents' arguments is not a primary, affirmative argument, it is a secondary argument.

      So far you have made the bald assertion that science shows there is no good reason to believe in God. Ok, now back up your statement.

      While you are about it, produce some arguments from philosophy to show there is no good reason to believe in God.

      You demand that I show that God exists. You have seen most of the arguments, even if you insultingly dismiss them.

      Now I demand that you show that God does not exist. I have seen no arguments for your case.

      I think it is about time that atheists stop hiding behind their criticisms and pony up with real arguments to make their case.

    3. >When people resort to insults they have lost the argument.<

      I'm not insulting you. I genuinely find your God to be a ridiculous concept. For me, I see no reason to give more credence to his existence than I do fairies or unicorns.

      This is not intended to be insulting, it's just a clear expression of my view. This is why I don't think I need to make a positive case for atheism. If there is no evidence for God, the rational skeptical position is to disbelieve in his existence. If you show me the evidence or the argument then I may reconsider.

  16. >one of the weakest possible arguments that atheists make is that science shows that there is no God. It is complete nonsense.<

    I agree. Instead science shows that there is no good reason to believe in God.

    1. >Instead science shows that there is no good reason to believe in God.<

      At last. A claim that can be examined.

      Now please tell me how science shows there is no good reason to believe in God.

      I would love to see the papers that make this claim.

    2. As you know, there are no papers that make this claim.

      There are papers and books that demolish almost all the reasons people ever had to believe in God, most notably "On The Origin of Species".

      Yes, Catholics accept evolution. Now. Finally. After much resistance.

      But the fact remains that the success of naturalism indicates that there are no gaps left for God to hide in. All the reasons people once had for believing in God are gone. This is the great success of science.

      There are no good reasons remaining that I am aware of. Please correct me if I'm wrong.

  17. Hi Peter,

    Now that I've answered your points. I have two simple questions for you.

    1) Given that atheism is not a belief system but a simple proposition regarding the non-existence of God, can you accept that comparing my actual belief system (i.e. secular humanism) to totalitarian communism is as much a straw man as me comparing Catholicism to Islamic fundamentalism or human sacrifice death cults? If not, why not?

    2) Can you finally stop simply alluding to all the compelling reasons there are to believe in God and just pick your favourite so I can respond?

    1. >Given that atheism is not a belief system but a simple proposition<

      If that were the case how do you explain this article by an atheist? His perceptions are shared by many people.

      >>How atheists became the most colossally smug and annoying people on the planet

      >comparing my actual belief system (i.e. secular humanism) to totalitarian communism<

      No, I did not compare them. That is a false statement. What I am saying is that introducing atheism on a large scale by destroying religion destroys also the moral heart of a nation which in turn unleashes all the evil that people are capable of. What happened in Russia and China is compelling evidence of this. That is not a comparison, that is saying it is the inevitable result of destroying religion and replacing it with atheism.

      Point 2), see earlier post, already replied. It is finally your turn. It is cheap and easy to just go on dismissing your opponent's arguments in insulting terms.

      Now let us see your affirmative arguments for the case that God does not exist. At least I will not dismiss your arguments in insulting terms.

    2. Law provides a good model.
      In law both sides make affirmative arguments in support of their case and then both make rebuttals in answer to their opponent's case.

      Atheists make no affirmative arguments but only make rebuttals.

      That is not good enough. You must also make your own affirmative arguments so that we can make our own arguments in rebuttal.

      Of course the atheist practice is the cheap and easy way of dodging responsibility. But it does nothing to settle the matter, it just makes them look silly.

    3. >Point 2), see earlier post, already replied. It is finally your turn. It is cheap and easy to just go on dismissing your opponent's arguments in insulting terms<

      Sorry, Peter, in all the posts you've made, I haven't found an instance where you have provided a clear argument for the existence of God. I may have missed it, there were a lot of posts. Please highlight it for me.

  18. Affirmative atheist arguments that God does not exist:

    Philosophical arguments = 0
    Scientific arguments = 0

    TOTAL atheist score = 0 (zilch, zero, none, nada, nichts)

    The atheist position is barren. It cannot produce any positive, affirmative argument that God does not exist. It has only negative arguments which reflects the extreme negativity of atheism.

    This is why atheism can only attack its opponents. It has nothing else to offer except attacking. That is because it has no source of goodness or morality to guide its behaviour. Its only purpose in life is to attack and so it is most attractive to people who are natural bullies.

    1. OK, you've made these points many times and I think I've answered them.

      Might I suggest that you stop repeating yourself for a while and give me a chance to catch up to all your posting when I have time?

      In particular, I would appreciate it if you would answer the two questions I highlighted in my final post last night.


    2. Ah, woops, I see you just did.


      Will look later.

  19. Dis,
    good luck with your move.
    That can be quite a traumatic experience!

  20. Dis,
    you know that the computability theory of mind plays right into the hands of us theists, don't you?

    This is the underlying reason why Pigliucci fights it tooth and nail. He understands exactly where the argument leads!!!

    The moment you accept CTM you accept dualism. And, even more importantly, you provide an easy explanation for the nature of the soul and of immortality. No wonder Pigliucci is so strongly against CTM.

    This is a most fruitful area for discussion. I will elaborate when you have more time.

    1. I agree that the CTM leads towards dualism.

      However, I disagree that this is anything like Cartesian Dualism and do not believe that it helps the theist a jot.

  21. Hi Peter,

    My, that's an awful lot of stuff to get back to you on. I may not have time to answer all of your points.

    To save space I'll sometimes refer to the points rather than quoting.

    1. Atheism is not a way of life.

    You expressed disbelief and mentioned atheist organisations and quoted an article (written by an atheist) which mentioned how insufferable atheists had become.

    You failed to understand my point. The word "atheist" can apply to new atheists, buddhists, communists, and mild-mannered easy going types like your atheist friends. Atheism is not a way of life, it is simple disbelief in God. That's not to say that there are not atheists who have proposed ways of life.

    I think many of your views arise from conflating very different kinds of atheists, so that for example you see totalitarian communism as representative of what might happen if the new atheists took power.

    2. Atheist charitable organisations.

    >We do not create organisations to attack atheism or the public manifestation of atheism. We create organisations to give charitable aid.<

    Now I'm the one who's gobsmacked! Of course you create organisations to attack atheism! The church *is* such an organisation! A major mission of the church is to spread the faith. How could you possibly regard this as not attacking atheism?

    I remarked that the only reason to attach "atheism" to humanitarian aid would be for PR purposes. You said this betrayed the moral emptiness of atheism, and responded that the Church believes "it should be done out of a deep sense of compassion and love for our fellow humanity."

    You have completely missed my point. Your misinterpretation of my comment betrays your deep prejudice against atheists.

    I never said atheists would only offer humanitarian aid for PR purposes. What I said was "Most atheists see no point in attaching a specific belief with respect to the existence of God to humanitarian aid," meaning that the only reason we might ever describe such aid as "atheist" is for PR purposes.

    Atheists also believe aid should be offered out of love and compassion. Which is why we get involved with and donate to secular organisations. The only reason to create *specifically* atheist humanitarian organisations would be to counter the kind of anti-atheist prejudice you exhibit, not to help the people on the ground.

  22. >You failed to understand my point. The word "atheist" can apply<

    Not at all. I very clearly defined my terms at the outset to avoid this problem. You have just forgotten what I said. I was very careful to clearly state my meaning.

    Let me repeat what I said:
    By atheists I mean the 'militant' atheists who actively band together, organize themselves and attack religion.

    >Of course you create organisations to attack atheism!<

    You obviously have no idea what the word 'attack' means. I have never, ever seen our Church attack atheism. I have seen them attempt to persuade people that God exists, that God has revealed himself. etc. Proselytizing or persuading people to accept religious belief is not an attack on atheism.

    And nor is persuading people to accept the belief that God does not exist an attack on religion. Considered argument or persuasion, for or against any point of view is not an attack.

    Attack is something altogether more forceful. Mockery, denigration, sneering, scorn, belittlement, silencing etc, are all forms of attack. These are exactly the means that atheists use when dealing with religion and that is attacking religion. The whole idea behind attack is that it goes beyond the normal means of rational persuasion. It is an attempt to force a certain point of view on other people.

    The Catholic Church almost never uses such methods. Its modus operandi is rational persuasion. You cannot call that attack without totally perverting the meaning of the word.

    1. >Proselytizing or persuading people to accept religious belief is not an attack on atheism.<

      Of course it is. By definition.

      >And nor is persuading people to accept the belief that God does not exist an attack on religion. <

      Yes it is.

      >Mockery, denigration, sneering, scorn, belittlement, silencing etc, are all forms of attack.<

      Like calling atheism the HIV plague infecting society? Like saying that if atheism gets into power millions will die? Wake up and see what you're saying. You're every bit as militant as Dawkins.

  23. >You expressed disbelief and mentioned atheist organisations and quoted an article (written by an atheist) which mentioned how insufferable atheists had become.<

    Precisely. Militant atheists have organized extensively, they hunt down theists wherever they can find them attack, suppress and silence them. This is clearly a way of life. That article describes precisely how it has led to the ugly perception of atheism.

    1. But atheism is not a way of life! It's a simple lack of belief!

      There are vocal atheists who organise, there are quiet atheists who mind their own business. Atheism is not some big monolithic thing! That's why it's ridiculous to suppose that Stalinism is representative of atheism!

  24. >your deep prejudice against atheists.<

    Your ad hominem has no place in a rational discussion.
    Don't do it.

    1. You might not see it but you are betraying a deep prejudice by your uncharitable interpretation of what I and others have said.

    2. >betraying a deep prejudice<

      You repeatedly make ad hominen attacks.
      You have to make a choice.
      Because I won't continue any kind of discussion with you when you make ad hominem attacks again and again.

    3. If that is your choice, you're free to make it.

      I must admit, I have been getting very offended by some of the things you have been saying, as well as frustrated that you seem not to be understanding my points.

      I'm not making an ad hominem in any case. An ad hominem is saying "John Doe's points can be disregarded because he has no expertise.".

      I'm not saying your points are incorrect because you are prejudiced. I am answering your points and then advising you that you appear to be prejudiced. There's a difference.

      But think about what you're saying. You're saying atheism is like HIV. You're saying widespread atheism would lead to social collapse and the deaths of millions. From an atheist point of view, this is deeply offensive, vitriolic stuff. Unsurprisingly, I don't share your point of view. I see what you're saying as hate speech directed at me and my kind. Of course you appear prejudiced from my point of view.

      Particularly when you misinterpret points I make. When you seemed to think that I was saying that the only point in offering humanitarian aid was for PR purposes, you revealed that you think that I am an amoral monster.

      Please, in future, read my comments and the comments of other atheists charitably if you don't want to come off as prejudiced.

  25. >Atheists also believe aid should be offered out of love and compassion.<

    Then do so.
    Atheist put considerable energy into forming organisations for the purpose of attacking religion.

    If they can organize for that purpose then why on earth can't they organize to show love and compassion?

    Join us at the soup kitchens and aid distribution points. We need all the help we can get and we would welcome you.

    Spending all your time on aggressive and unpleasant attacks on religion does nothing to help the suffering.

    1. Why should atheists create "atheist" organisations to deliver aid when there are perfectly good secular organisations?

  26. 3. On alternatives to religion for imparting morality.

    The legal system does not teach morality, but it does enshrine social norms in law. That's not quite the same as morality, but I think it does influence our perception of right and wrong to a certain extent. For example, it is widely regarded as acceptable to drink alcohol but immoral to consume marijuana, despite the fact that marijuana is demonstrably less damaging.

    The main instrument for moral teaching is the family. What teaches the family? The family! The family is an institution that has existed for millions of years. Parents do not need religion to teach their kinds to be good. Their parents taught them to be good, and their grandparents taught their parents. Even if religion was necessary to start this chain (and I don't accept this), it is not needed to perpetuate it.

    For team sports I'm not talking about high-level athletics. I'm talking about teaching kids to support each other and work together for a common goal.

    As for education, schools in some jurisdictions do have civics classes where they teach kinds how to be good citizens. It is also important to remember the day to day guidance of individual teachers in showing students how to get along and behave well.

    All in all, I am far from convinced that religion has any significant role to play. Whatever role it does have could easily be replaced by secular moral teaching.

    I have regarded Catholicism as fantasy since I was very young, but I do not believe this has negatively impacted my moral development.

  27. >the kind of anti-atheist prejudice you exhibit<

    Your ad hominem has no place in a rational discussion.
    Don't do it.

  28. 4. On getting morality from holy books

    Yes, Catholics analyse and debate the meanings within the books and try to come to mature rational conclusions.

    In my view, they cherry pick and find the morality that they want to find, morality that they find intuitive and that corresponds to the norms they see in the society of their time. In one way, I view this as a good thing, since it means that they arrive at broadly the same conclusions as skeptics on most topics (with notable exceptions).

    On the other hand, it undermines the supposed foundation of the whole endeavour since the morality is drawn from a book which condones slavery, misogyny, genocide, etc. While most Catholics of the modern era may not agree with these unpleasant passages, there have been religious adherents of Catholic and other denominations who have justified all kinds of odious notions on the basis of holy books. As such, I regard holy books as dangerous.

    And I would include certain non-religious books in that category (e.g. Mao's Red Book, Mein Kampf), as they were treated as works to be revered and obeyed rather than read critically.

    I don't trust authority figures, I don't trust holy books.

  29. I had hoped for a pleasant and respectful conversation.
    Sadly, I was wrong on both counts so I will say goodbye. The conditions for a useful discussion are absent.

    Take away with you these thoughts.

    No matter how much you try, you cannot destroy Catholicism. We have survived so many persecutions. I saw this in Mass on Sunday evening. The church was full, completely full. All around me I saw the sincere joy on their faces. You would be surprised how many young people were present. It is no surprise that 3 million people attended Pope Francis' Mass on World Youth Day.

    We are strong because we are motivated by the beautiful goodness of our beliefs.

    We are strong because we have dedicated ourselves to helping the suffering.

    We are strong because we believe in a noble truth.

    I wish you the best in your future.

    1. Well, that's a disappointing if perhaps inevitable resolution to the conversation.

      >I wish you the best in your future.<

      And I you.

  30. Hi, Disagreeable,

    Sad all finished this way. I foresaw that a while ago and this is why I gave up debating with you. If you allow me to give my impressions on the reasons if failed, I'd say, first, that great caution is needed while talking to religious people and, second, argumentation is useless in this case if not guided by carefully defining words and searching arguments' weaknesses. I thought I'd help when I tried this way. Anyway, thanks for the conversation. Let's have another in the next post.

    1. Hi Waldemar,
      >great caution is needed while talking to religious people<

      All you need is simple respect and courtesy. Respect in this case means:
      1) Refrain from unflattering descriptions of your opponent.
      2) Examine the opponent's argument with care. Simple dismissal and unflattering epithets are just not good enough.

      If you open a discussion by loudly declaring your opponent's arguments are 'pathetically weak' and 'full of sophistry' you:

      1) create the wrong emotional climate, especially when it is followed up by more statements of a similar kind;
      2) make it impossible to examine the other person's arguments with care. After all, if from the beginning you have decided they are stupid, why should you accord them the respect of carefully examining their premises, facts, values, arguments and conclusions?

      Let me give you a simple example of what I mean. I said:

      >The moment you accept CTM you accept dualism. And, even more importantly, you provide an easy explanation for the nature of the soul and of immortality. No wonder Pigliucci is so strongly against CTM.

      This is a most fruitful area for discussion. I will elaborate when you have more time.

      Notice my offer of a 'fruitful discussion'

      Here is the reply:

      >I agree that the CTM leads towards dualism.<
      So far it looks good. We have found a point of agreement. Encouraging. But there's more:

      >However, I disagree that this is anything like Cartesian Dualism and do not believe that it helps the theist a jot.<

      What happened here is he responded to my offer of discussion by making a flat rejection of my statement. He already knows that it is useless to discuss because he has not heard my arguments. That is quite logical. Why should he listen to my arguments when he already knows(without listening to them) that they are 'pathetically weak' and 'full of sophistry'.

      In the normal, respectful conversation that I am quite used to, there would have been something like the following response:

      'Indeed?[I question that]
      That is interesting.[I'm prepared to respectfully listen]
      Why do you say that?[Invite him to reply]
      Can you explain your reasoning?[Invite a substantive justification and indicate you are prepared to listen]

      But no, that is not what he said, because he already knows, without listening to my reasoning, that it cannot possibly be correct.

      In fact what he said was just a flat rejection of the idea. Fair enough, he's allowed to but then there is no point in my hanging around. And so I won't.

      Discussion does not proceed by unflattering epithets and flat rejection of any alternative viewpoint.

      Discussion proceeds by carefully examining alternative viewpoints. It shows a willingness to listen by engaging thoughtfully with the opponent's arguments. One the one hand this, on the other hand thus.

      Most of all, discussion is honest. It does not construct a strawman version of the opponent's arguments and then gleefully destroy the wrong target, thus proving the opponent wrong.

      >guided by carefully defining words and searching arguments' weaknesses.<

      Waldemar, as you said, we must carefully define our words. That is exactly why I made the point I was talking about 'militant atheism' and not 'atheism' in general. And I also made the point that I was talking about Catholicism and not 'religion' in general. It didn't seem to help, though.

      But I disagree about searching for arguments' weaknesses. That should be done of course. However the first step is to make every effort to understand the opposing argument. It is only when you have properly examined the arguments that you can start probing for weaknesses.

    2. Waldemar,
      the noted Oxford scholar and humanist, R Joseph Hoffmann had this to say in a recent post:
      >>On the Dignity of Humanism

      It is well worth reading this article carefully.

      R Josef Hoffman is a leading biblical, classics and antiquities scholar at Oxford. His writing is exquisite and he is a rather good poet. He is an authority in his field. He is also a prominent exponent of humanism. I think he is altogether too quick to dismiss theism but I will forgive him anything for the joy of his exquisite writing and brilliant intellect.

    3. Hi, Peter,

      I'm so sorry. I didn't mean to upset you. Had I known you were still subscribing this thread, I'd have addressed the above comment (or message) to both of you. So, I talk to you now.

      Soon I suspected the discussion wouldn't be profitable, at first, from my point of view, and further, to you guys. As I said, I tried to lay some ground to test or investigate arguments, you remember, by invoking the definitions of ethics and moral. It seemed to me that you agreed to follow this path, but Disagreeable did not. I tried some few interventions afterwards, just to finally understand you were willing only a good fight with words and some facts.

      Another point, you both use too much labels and acronyms, but they don't mean that much to me. I need real arguments, concepts and a lot of work to start discussing philosophy. Just naming a - say - philosophy school does not tell much about its arguments, because they depend mostly on interpretation.

      Finally, I don't like religion in general, as you noticed, although I respect and study a lot of ideas generated inside religious thought. I also abhor this atheism coming from Dawkins and his fellows - I prefer J. Miller's. Then I coined mine which is firstly based on the impossibility of proving or disproving God - the moment he wants (if he exists) someone knows he exists, I'm sure he'll make this one know. He'd need no go-betweens and so I don't have reasons to believe someone made contact with him - because if we are all his children, I should deserve as much as anyone else be contacted too. To my knowing, religion is precisely this: someone trying to convince the others that he/she is special, gifted, a deserver of God's special attention, which is but a mere way to manipulate people by means of their credulity and, mostly and worse, by means of their fears - of death, of punishment etc. I don't deny private epiphanies or mystical experiences, but they are just this: private experiences. Provided they don't interfere in someone else's life, it's ok if one has them. In short, until proved in contrary, God, if he exists, wants us to live by ourselves and it seems to me reasonable enough we find a way to behave correctly, morally. But as a moral, being use or habit, is something that happens inside a place and doesn't last forever, we also should have an instrument to understand such different and even conflicting morals, which I call ethics and that can provide us the means to coin a more (if not wholly) universal moral. And if those ethical principles come from God, I don't know, no one can without incurring in manipulation: to my knowing, they come from pure reasoning.


    4. Hi Peter,

      Not sure if you're still reading.

      I'm all for honest, open discussion. I did not intend to show disrespect. But I don't think it is good to mask my opinions about some ideas.

      For example, with regard to dualism, I'm just stating my considered opinion. I have also come to the conclusion that the CTM leads to dualism of a kind. I just don't see it as the same as Cartesian dualism, I don't see how it helps theism, and I don't see why atheists should be so afraid of it.

      This is my opinion. That doesn't mean that I wouldn't listen and respond to your arguments on the subject. If I flatly reject an idea, that just means that I have considered it and found that it doesn't make sense to me. It does not mean that I'm not interested in hearing your views or in discussing it.

      It should not come as a surprise to you that I'm starting from a very different position from you. But starting from a different position should in no way rule out intelligent, respectful conversation. I think it is unlikely that we will change each other's minds, but it is just possible that we will come to understand each other a little better.

      I did not accuse you of sophistry. What I was saying was that all the arguments I had ever come across that seek to show the existence of God seem to me to be quite weak. You never spelled out which arguments impressed you so I was at no point directly responding to your arguments or accusing you of weak argumentation.

      I am not aware of creating any strawmen arguments. It is true that I have made some points that criticise religion in general and not you in particular (e.g. the points about getting morals from a book or handed down from an authority). This is not intended to be a strawman characterisation of your position, but an illustration of why I value the principles of skepticism that have lead me away from God.

      I hope you will reconsider and join in the discussion again. Perhaps you can teach me to engage more openly with those of other views.

    5. Hi Waldemar,

      >I foresaw that a while ago and this is why I gave up debating with you<

      I wasn't really aware we were debating at all! It seems to me that we are broadly on the same page, it's just that we define ethics and morality a little differently. I think Peter and I were actually in agreement on this subject.

      When he discussed morality I think he was talking in terms of having a basis for the broad principles of right and wrong rather than specific rules (correct me if I'm wrong, Peter!), so as this topic is primarily about engaging with his views of atheism, I kept to this definition.

    6. Hi Waldemar,
      don't worry, you did not upset me. Your statements are always careful and well thought out.

      I was just voicing my thoughts on how a useful discussion should be conducted.

      Two admirable examples of this are the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy(SEP) and the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy(IEP), both excellent resources. They both carefully set out the main argument and the counter-arguments, without any trace of insults. That is a model for us all.

      I hope you enjoyed the article by RJ Hoffmann.

      As you know, I think, unlike you, one can make very strong arguments for theism. As an exercise, try the converse, try to make strong positive, affirmative, scientific arguments and philosophical arguments that God does not exist. Criticising the theist's arguments for God's existence are only arguments in rebuttal so they don't count. They are not primary, affirmative arguments that God does not exist. You will find it very difficult to construct such primary, affirmative arguments that God does not exist.

      Unlike you, I think that, if one looks for a purely sociological explanation for religion (leaving out God), then the explanation is that society evolved religion as a means of propagating a cohesive set of ethical principles. In other words, religion is the means that society evolved to encourage moral behaviour. How else do you explain the fact that religion is the most persistent, most durable institution to be found in every society throughout all of history? Such a durable and persistent institution must have been evolved by society to perform a valuable function. If the function was not valuable to society it would soon have been discarded.

      I mention all this since the primary subject, after all, was the effect of atheism on communist Russia and China. What happens when a society discards an institution that would seem to be so valuable? The core of my argument has been that society evolved religion as a means of defining and maintaining moral behaviour. Furthermore, I maintain that, when you destroy religion you destroy the source of moral behaviour. This is exactly what happened in Russia and China. With the destruction of religion came the destruction of moral behaviour. The destruction of moral behaviour in Russia and China is what made the awful totalitarianism and cruelty possible in those countries.

      That is why I say militant atheism is so dangerous. It has espoused the goal of destroying religion. What happened in Russia and China is a stark warning of what will happen elsewhere.

      Private atheism is another story altogether. Most of my friends are private atheists and we get on very well together. They don't try to attack my beliefs and I don't try to attack their beliefs We all believe in friendly tolerance.

      This is the world I advocate, one of friendly tolerance where we do not try to destroy each other's beliefs and institutions.

      Unfortunately militant atheism has set the goal of trying to destroy religion and religious institutions. This is what makes it so harmful, it is trying to destroy a core aspect of society and that will harm society, as we saw in Russia and China.

  31. To deal with the CTM and dualism argument. First let's discard Cartesian dualism as that was developed before the concepts of programs and computers were available.

    You maintain that the brain is a form of biological computer and that the mind is functionally the equivalent of the program in a computer. It is a highly complex program running in a biological computer. In principle, with enough knowledge and equipment we could isolate the program and run it on a different substrate. That substrate could be an extraordinarily powerful computer that simulates the biological substrate.

    I think(hope) that summarizes your position. Thus far I agree with you. This in principle independence of mind(program) from substrate(brain) is what I call dualism. We have no idea(yet) how it creates consciousness, nor do we know how one gets semantics from syntax, but hopefully lots of research may answer those questions.

    Now we come to the important steps in my argument. These steps assume the existence of God. Don't debate that here since that is an entirely different argument. Just accept the assumption for the purposes of my argument.

    1) the program(any program) is information.

    2) Information has an independent reality. Once information is created it cannot be destroyed.

    3) God has a perfect memory and perfect knowledge of all things created. This is why information, once created, is not destroyed.

    4) All programs that have been created reside in God's memory, forever.

    5) Therefore, the program and data that represent my mind will reside in God's memory after my death. This is immortality.

    6) By my definition that is my soul continuing to exist in God's memory, making it immortal. My mind is inactive because it has no computer substrate. Catholics say the dead are asleep in God.

    7) As an analogue you can think of it as a program being stored on a computer's hard disk while it is not being used, where the hard disk represents God.

    8) Imagine now that I transfer this program from the hard disk to run on a new computer. Suddenly the program acquires a new existence on the new computer.

    8) Imagine also, that a new human body is born and God transfers the program that represents my mind into this new brain in the same way as (8) above. My consciousness lights up again in a new body. God may have chosen to transfer the program without its data(memories) in which case I would become conscious without my old memories.

    I hope you see from the above why I think CTM supports the idea of a soul's immortality. By 'soul' I mean the program that represents the mind.

    Of course the big assumptions are
    1) God exists.
    2) this is what God wants to do.

    1. Peter,

      Very interesting argumentation. I'll try to comment some points in it.

      "how one gets semantics from syntax" - during the discussion on that with Pigliucci, I found that the then invoked Punam's thesis on the impossibility of getting semantics from syntax is summarily dismissed by a group of mathematicians as bad mathematics. In fact, all that mathematics born from Cantor's discoveries is very peculiar, because is seems to depend on belief, in opposition to the remaining mathematical corpus, that seems to rely on evidence, on demonstration. So, theorize on the infinite is not a thing as intuitively doable as Cantor's proofs sought to show.

      From the point of view of the brain, although very few is known, it appears that it is out of question that this organ deals with information (I'll comment your use of this word below) by means of configurations, say, each configuration of activated cells occurring whenever any specific idea goes in the mind of an individual. From my poor readings on the subject I understood that ideas and their perception - by the brain itself - are all contained in those configurations and perhaps what confuses our understanding of things in general, then leading to a dualism like no matter which, is that the brain is at once the storage for information and that which perceives it.

      So, the elements of the peircean tripartite sign model and the subject who perceives them are all set in a configuration of cells activated in a determinate fashion. Well, if from this framework consciousness is not easily grasped, as well as mind independence from brain, it is not difficult to understand how some units (cells or even small sets of them) are put together to get what we call meaning, say, how from syntax we get semantics. And I think this is not done yet because electronics and engineering are not enough developed for the task of emulating brain cells - that have additional capabilities, like reprogramming themselves.

      From the conceptual scenery, I mean, from epistemology, we have the same possibility, and there is a bunch of researchers showing how first notions come to our minds and how do we grasp new ones with the help of the former. Every meaning is in fact a syntax made of smaller units that also are meaningful - without a syntax nothing would have meaning or, in different words, syntax (that means just a way of organizing things) is the only form of establishing meaning; in short, there's no meaningless things in the world, provided there is at least something that utilizes meaning as a way for living.

      So, considering Peirce's efforts, I mean, his sign theory and his general epistemology, it seems that theoretically all the tools to understand how syntax is converted into semantics are given. Let's just wait for neuroscience findings which will show us minutely how the brain instantiates that process.

      "Information has an independent reality. Once information is created it cannot be destroyed." - well, there's too much information in that statement. If you mean by 'independent reality' what modern Platonism thinks of the ideas, I wouldn't ask you: independent of what? of the brain? in the case of computers, independent of the hardware? I don't think so. I just can't, I'm not allowed by good reason to think so because there's no evidence of floating independent information roaming throughout the universe. Information is a concept and as information (concepts are information too), they are brain dependent, they depend on the configurations I mentioned above. Once the hardware is destroyed, so is all the information it contained, unless you had been careful enough to back it up into another hardware. (Have you ever imagined how many ideas - information - from our past are lost just because all hardware that contained them was destroyed - not just the human brains, but also the books, papyri, engravings etc?)

      To be continued

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    3. (reposted with corrections)

      But there are efforts to show that information - or ideas - is, at least in the case of humans, somehow preserved in the universe after death. But the doctrine that mostly approaches this possibility seems to me the Buddhism, and it seems that it does not correspond to anything we currently understand under the word 'consciousness'. In fact, if this theory is proven true, information of every kind is constantly being backed up by the universe, say, the universe preserves all minute states information takes, which would include information on consciousnesses, I believe, but in absence of the places where it used to reunite to shape what we call a person or a single consciousness.

      Anyway, information is just a concept, and is real as much as concepts are real, but it can be destroyed, as far as it is known, and is brain or hardware dependent.

      And I keep saying: God is a useful abstraction, in the same way Pi with just two decimals is another one (because using Pi in its entirety would prove impossible); God's abstraction is useful in sparing us of going forever in the chain of causality: this is a problem already solved more than 2500 years ago by Aristotle and retaken by Aquinas to give shape to his theology.

      And so, your attempt of defining God (as a 'perfect memory') risks, if taken ahead to some of its consequences, to be as outrageous for God - if he indeed exists - as any other attempt of defining him: for instance, if he is omnipotent, he could have created us perfect, could assist us in our pains with no effort, and this is not what we observe around us; going further, the argument of omnipotence, if we follow Aristotelian definition of potency, would lead us not even to the unmoved mover, but to a still being, incapable of doing anything unless he wants to become less powerful then all powerful. What I try to show is that no matter how one attempts to define God this definition, from God's possible point of view would be outrageous, because he should be considered good, but is revealed evil if those definitions are seriously taken to their ultimate consequences. To the true believers I'd advise to have him as an idea with no properties - if that is possible - if they don't want to worship a contradictory divinity.

    4. Waldemar,
      God is more than just a useful abstraction.
      We believe also that God has intentionality and requires something from us.

      You, like most atheists, like to point out that the supposed properties of God lead to contradictions. They then point to the contradictions and loudly declaim that this obviously mean that God does not exist.

      Yes, our understanding of God does create contradictions.
      No, contradictions do not mean that inevitably God does not exist. This is the fundamental error in atheist logic.

      1) Science also contains contradictions but we don't use that fact to dismantle science. We very sensibly say that science is a work in progress and so inevitably there will be gaps, contradictions and mysteries. The dark energy/dark matter issue is a good example. The incompatibility between the relativistic and quantum views are another example.

      2) Religion is also a work in progress and the best we can say is that we have a partial knowledge of God. Of course there will be contradictions, gaps and mysteries. It is unreasonable to expect otherwise.

      3) It is a peculiar human conceit to believe that our brains are powerful enough to understand all phenomena. But is that true? Why do we think so? My highly intelligent dog will never understand philosophy, will even never know what philosophy is and will never, ever know that he does not know these things. This kind of knowledge is for ever denied him because his brain is fundamentally incapable of comprehending it. Yet, knowing this, we assume our brains are capable of comprehending all truths. That is a most arrogant and unfounded conceit.
      See also this delightful article about anosognosia to further illustrate what I mean:
      >>Something's wrong but you'll never know what it is

      Even so, I can easily create a model for God that is reasonable and consistent with what we know. I am not claiming it is the truth though I privately think that it is as close to the truth as I might ever get. My point is that the inconsistencies and contradictions can be resolved. It seems to me that atheists, in their eagerness to discredit theist notions, are too ready to insist on simplistic, absolute notions of God that make easy targets of attack.

      And so, no, I don't agree that you that the perfect memory of God has outrageous consequences. It is only your notion that has outrageous consequences.

    5. Waldemar,
      >But there are efforts to show that information - or ideas - is, at least in the case of humans, somehow preserved in the universe after death. But the doctrine that mostly approaches this possibility seems to me the Buddhism<

      This argument is moot if, as I believe, God does exist. Given God's existence, the permanence of information is trivially true. I used the Platonic argument because its intuitive reasonableness is yet another indicator of God.

      Note that I say 'indicator' and I expressly do not say 'proof'.

      You are familiar with the concept of meta-studies in science. You pool a number of related studies and ask what they say in aggregate about the subject in hand.

      This was precisely my approach to the existence of God. I did not expect that any one argument could possibly prove God's existence. I asked instead what would happen if I conducted a meta-study, pooling all available arguments for and against the existence of God. To judge the evidence I used the civil law approach our courts use. In civil law you don't demand proof, you only ask which version, on a balance of probabilities. is more likely to be true.

      I concluded that when one pooled all the evidence for and against God's existence, the balance of probabilities favours the hypothesis that God exists against the hypothesis that God does not exist.

      This kind of meta-study is a very powerful approach and convinced me that a God hypothesis, even if not provable, is the most reasonable assumption.

  32. To continue my CTM argument.

    50 years ago my above argument was inconceivable. Nobody could have imagined it on the basis of knowledge at that time. This is why I say to my friends that science is religion's best friend. The advances of science make it possible to see how religious beliefs could be possible.

  33. To continue my CTM argument.

    One of the things that the proponents of CTM tend to believe is that mind uploading is possible, in principle, some time in the far future.

    This belief depends on the assumption that the upload computer can create a good simulation of the biological brain, together with its sensory inputs. With a good enough simulation the mind can inhabit a new and perhaps wonderful world.

    Now apply this idea to a God who is all powerful. If the program that represents our mind resides in God's memory it is possible that God's mind supplies the same simulation that I mentioned above. Therefore my consciousness would light up in a new and wonderful world, just as it might have done in the brain simulation computer on earth. The big advantage though, is that God would be a much better programmer!!

    Now, do you see how the idea of heaven could make sense in terms of today's scientific knowledge?

  34. To continue my CTM argument.

    After my death, my mind(program and data) would reside in God's memory. From there the following scenarios can be imagined:

    1) My mind comes back to life in the new brain simulation in God's mind. This would be heaven.

    2) My mind remains asleep (program inactive) until some future event, the resurrection. The mind program is instantiated in a new brain and new body. This is the resurrection of the body that the Catholic Church talks about.

    There is a big problem with (2) above. About 108 billion people have lived altogether on planet Earth since 50,000 BC. For (2) to be true we would have to find space for 108 billion people. This is clearly impossible. And that is only today. Fast forward 100,000 years and the situation becomes ludicrous.

    For this reason I put forward a third alternative that the philosopher Origen considered.

    (3) After death the mind program is resurrected nearly immediately in a new body and brain. It would have to resurrected without its data(memories) since otherwise the rebirth of consciousness would be impossibly burdened with previous memories.

    Some people call this 'reincarnation' but I would rather avoid this word since it brings with it unwanted associations with concepts like 'karma'.

    Assuming God's existence both (1) and (3) are possible. In my next posting I am going to argue that (3), immediate resurrection, is by far the most likely one. It solves some other very important problems which lends force to my argument.

    There you have it, I am a Catholic who believes in 'reincarnation', except I prefer to call it 'resurrection'. Whatever you do, don't tell my parish priest :)

  35. To continue my CTM argument.

    You may be reluctant to accept my assertion that information, once created, is never destroyed.

    Imagine that the entire cosmos – every single existing thing – suddenly faded away. In the resulting emptiness, what evidence would there be?

    Even when all things had vanished, countless matters would be real. For a start, there would be the reality that the cosmos had existed. There would be no evidence for this because evidence consists of things (records, traces) and those would all have disappeared. But it would be true that a cosmos had been in existence and that you had formed part of it. When once you had come to exist, nothing could destroy the fact that you had existed.

    There is a reality, independent of this reality, that is a record of all reality.

  36. Hi Peter,

    That's all very interesting stuff on the CTM, Peter. I have points of agreement and disagreement which I would be happy to share with you if you're interested.

    In any case, I'm a bit dissatisfied with the disorganised mess that this comments section has become. There are way too many topics and tangents which all merit a good discussion on an individual basis. If you want to write up some of these ideas on your own blog I'd be happy to take the discussion to that venue, but feel that perhaps I should leave it at that on this comments section.

    To return to the main topic, if you have any interest in continuing, I feel the atheism/communism debate has not been resolved, so I'd like to put my position to you in another way.

    One interpretation of what happened in Russia and China was that state-sponsored atheism led to a lack of morality which allowed atrocities to happen.

    An alternative interpretation is that authoritarian totalitarianism allowed the atrocities to happen.

    As it seems to me that totalitarianism is an orthogonal concern from atheism, it is possible that both interpretations, only one or perhaps neither are true.

    What convinces you that the first interpretation is correct? Do you allow any possibility that the second is so instead?

  37. Dis,
    yes CTM is very interesting. I hope you can see where I'm coming from.

    This is my blog, but it covers a very different kind of subject:

    >An alternative interpretation is that authoritarian totalitarianism allowed the atrocities to happen.<

    Yes I agree. But you must remember that authoritarian totalitarianism is already a value judgement. People who practice it have divested themselves of morality.

    There have been many, many totalitarian regimes but none with such a thorough going and terrible breakdown. In normal totalitarian regimes the people still cling to morality, creating some normality under abnormal conditions.

    To me it seems that the Russian and Chinese experiments were so terrible because morality broke down not only at the top but throughout society.

    I think we should see the whole picture because in fact there was a perfect storm of conditions that made it so terrible.

    1) there were strong inbuilt tensions caused by the serf and monarchical systems.

    2) these tensions were held in check by respect for the monarchy and by their idea of morality.

    Communism destroyed the checks of the monarchy, releasing the huge resentments of the feudal/serf classes. The destruction of moral restraints magnified this effect creating the tidal wave of destruction.

    At the same time the rule of law was minimal, mainly because it was an inconvenient check on the monarchical system. So the rule of law failed to apply any restraint.

    1. Hi Peter,

      I agree with much of that, but in saying all that I fail to see the evidence that it was atheism that led to the moral decay.

      In fact, I don't see it as moral decay as such but rather as fear, desperation and obedience to authority. I imagine that most people remained kind and honourable in those societies when they had the freedom to be so.

      I think that what happened in Russia and China are instances of the same social phenomenon that we see in Nazi Germany, the Spanish Inquisition, the witch trials, McCarthyism etc. I see it as entirely separate from atheism or theism. I think a culture of skepticism is the best defense against this kind of thing happening again.

      I probably can't prove that my interpretation is correct, but I think it is also difficult for you to prove that atheism was to blame.

      As such, I feel it is harmful to claim as you do that Russia and China show us what would happen if atheists had their way. This kind of talk fosters an environment where atheists are feared and distrusted, and as an atheist, I'd prefer to see a bit more moderation.

      I don't mind you making the argument that a lack of Christian morality contributed to the harm, but I do object to the apparent assertion that atheism inevitably leads to calamity.

    2. Also, it occurs to me that the China of today is still almost entirely atheistic, while the government has relaxed a lot of the control and persecution they practiced in the darkest times. I think this more liberal attitude explains why today's China is a much better place than it was.

      I don't think the Chinese people of today are immoral. How would you explain that within your view that religion is necessary for morality? Would you for example attribute it to relaxation of government prohibition of religion?

    3. >But you must remember that authoritarian totalitarianism is already a value judgement. People who practice it have divested themselves of morality.<

      I think it's important to distinguish here at least two groups of people: very small (compared to total population) group of leaders, and large group of ordinary citizens (sometimes also rank and file, nonsignificant party members belong here). These two groups are different. We are dealing with highly centralized government, (often complex) party structures, reorganised society, rulers and ruled. This two categories I made are only provisional, but now it is easier to see, there is a huge gap bettwen them. And the gap bettwen grim reality of first and second. And the relations bettwen them. And the interactions. And the relation bettwen propaganda and reality. And that's something that have to be addressed.

      What if, for example, we had “elite” group of people that lead the state and “have divested themselves of morality”, and vast society bought into communists propaganda, convinced that they were doing something good for them and others, supporting party with – hmm – little knowledge about what is really going on here and there and where it will end up compared to what we know now (PROPAGANDA!), with little influence. And on top of it, not very smart on average (to whom are populistic ideologies, like Marxism-Leninism, addressed the most?).

      Ekhm, and I feel that model like this is sill good deal to simplified. But I have not seen even something like that in discussion here.

    4. Hi Anonymous,

      I think those are perfectly valid points. I didn't spell it out, but that meshes very well with my own views. When I say authoritarianism/totalitarianism, I'm assuming that there is a distinction between ruler and ruled.

      In the extreme, though, I would say it is possible for the ruling class to consist of a single person, with even his/her immediate subordinates being completely cowed and motivated by desperation and fear.

    5. Guys, I keep insisting that all this discussion involving morality needs a better ground in order to establish what is the meaning of moral. There are lots of conflicting moralities that can be analyzed by means of simple ethical principles if you take the point of view of the subject and even of the subject as a group (because ethics takes its principles from the individual, not from the group of individuals). A moral is just a set of rules coined and accepted by a group of persons in order to roughly survive - a very general verb that encompasses a lot of other verbs. So, depending on several (really uncountably many) factors that moral is established and sometimes even eugenic actions, like the Spartans' and Brazilian natives' killings of their handicapped just born children, can be justified by a set of constraints that are not present in our current way of life. So, taking what Disagreeable said earlier about being wrong or evil kill children - and I agree -, this may (or must) not be considered a universal value (could you imagine the sufferings of a severely handicapped being living in a jungle like Brazilian ones, and not just for that poor being, for the entire community which would support him? wouldn't those assassinations, viewed from that point look more like compassion? going further, are we being compassionate with them who don't want to endure severe pains and beg to die?).

      From another side, you can't strictly say that this is not a moral, that those individuals are amoral etc. What you're trying to say is just that you don't agree with their moral, and this is another thing. A moral is a state of balance in which some setbacks are to be tolerated by some individuals instead of worse ones. So, not even inside the group that supports a given moral that moral is wholly acceptable, although tolerated, and this is the reason we find several variations of the main moral practiced by subgroups in the same society. We see that a given moral almost often contains its own critique.

      But from an ethical point of view, plus taking into account those factors that shape each moral so differently from one another, any moral can be analyzed and understood. This does not render them more or less just from the point of view of any other, for sure, but truly helps in forging the passage from several particular morals to a single one, which seems to be the case in our time of global civilization.

    6. Dis,
      >Also, it occurs to me that the China of today is still almost entirely atheistic,<

      No, not really true. As examples that I personally witnessed, my interpreter became a Buddhist and her elder sister became a Catholic. The Catholic Church is growing in China. Their churches are being restored and rebuilt. Their lovely cathedral on She Mountain, outside Shanghai, is now in regular use. Six years ago it was estimated that there were 60 million Christians in China(of all denominations). The number of Buddhists is unknown though certainly greater than the number of Christians. I also noted how Buddhist temples were being restored wherever I went. I remember my surprise at seeing a new Christian church being built in Tunxi, of all places. The pastor, a lovely Chinese woman, had been to Germany for her religious training and on her return was having the church built with funding from Germany. See also the BBC references I give below.

      As for morality I can tell you that I saw the most rampant corruption anyone can imagine. China is the only country in the world where people are routinely executed for corruption. This indicates how severe the problem is. The CEO of Shanghai VW (Fan Hong I think his name was) committed suicide when his petty frauds were discovered. It was very traumatic, he fell to his death outside my office window. My interpreter was deeply shocked, as was I. Where sexual morality is concerned every Chinese official seems to have multiple mistresses. I saw this also inside the company. My own interpreter was endlessly harassed to become someone's mistress!

      Remember that I said earlier that societies are self healing, given enough time. They construct new institutions. This is precisely what I saw in China. I felt so privileged to watch this process unfold.
      1) They started rebuilding religious institutions such as Buddhism and Christianity. Still a small minority, their influence is significant. Their moral priming is being felt everywhere.
      2) They started rebuilding cultural institutions. Confucianism is particularly important here. It has always exercised a powerful hold on the Chinese mind and there is a slow return to that thinking. From a Western point of view think of it as a form of Aristotelian virtue ethics(I simplify terribly!)
      3) They are building up the rule of law and this acts to restrain the egregious excesses. This is a difficult process since they don't have the body of accepted common law we all have. Nor do they have a well established body of judicial officers, practices and traditions. I remember one particular case when our company had a legal conflict with another company in another city. Our company lawyer patiently explained to me that we were bound to lose the case because the other party had 'guangxi' with their local judge.

      It is no accident that the Chinese have by far the world's highest execution rates. I saw for myself a truck load of prisoners being driven to a place for public execution in the time leading up to the Spring Festival (killing the chicken to frighten the monkey).

      So, to summarize. Their society is now going through a self healing phase as it constructs institutions to restore moral order, some religious, some cultural, all of this within a framework of developing rule of law. It is a difficult process and there is still rampant corruption on a scale you would find difficult to imagine. Sexual excesses by the powerful are routine. Sexual harassment is a problem everywhere.

      For more information, I urge you to see these articles from the BBC
      1) >>Keeping the faith in China
      2) >>Survey finds 300m China believers
      3) >>China Catholics throng to church

    7. To continue my comment above...

      I think the degree of self healing will be limited by the same powerful counter currents that we are experiencing in Western countries. These are:
      1) a culture of nihilism;
      2) narcissism;
      3) consumerism;
      4) moral relativism.
      The net effect of this will be that religion will always remain a minority segment, there as well as here.
      Nevertheless I am deeply encouraged by the great resilience of religion. The stated intention of militant atheism, to destroy religion, is doomed to failure. To put it quite simply, you cannot destroy a force for good.

    8. Anonymous is arguing that there are two groups,
      1) the ruling apparatus
      2) the subjects.

      Further, he is stating, I think, the moral degradation of the ruling apparatus is enough to explain the Russian/Chinese experience. So therefore the atheism of the subjects does not account for it. It is merely the lust for power that intoxicates the ruling class, as it has always done in all totalitarian societies. That seems plausible but breaks down on closer examination.

      There are three problems with this explanation.
      1) the ruling apparatus is continually recruited from the subject class. That is because it was a classless society. This means that the values of the subjects become the values of ruling apparatus.
      2) the repression and excesses were the most thorough and deep reaching in human history. No one was spared from its effects. Neighbours betrayed neighbours. Wifes betrayed husbands, and so on. Everyone relentlessly spied on the others and betrayed them. The cruelty to each other was shocking. This was not just a ruling apparatus subjecting the lower class. This was an entire society turning on itself. You could compare it with a dog eating its own entrails.
      3) such a vast repression requires a huge apparatus. Thus one cannot blame this on the moral shortcomings of the few. The whole matter was too extensive and deep reaching. Far too many people were involved.

      Finally I think Anonymous greatly overestimates the power of propaganda. Propaganda is only useful when it resonates with the beliefs of the targets. It is the synergy between the propaganda and the beliefs of the targets which is so powerful. The same propaganda on a Christian community would not have the same effect.

    9. Dis,
      >I think that what happened in Russia and China are instances of the same social phenomenon that we see in Nazi Germany, the Spanish Inquisition,<

      Go back and read your history. You cannot even remotely compare what happened. False comparison!

      This was uniquely different in that
      1) the Russian/Chinese societies devoured themselves
      2) they did this on a scale entirely unprecedented in history over a long period of time.
      3) it took place in an entirely different social milieu.

    10. Dis,
      >This kind of talk fosters an environment where atheists are feared and distrusted, and as an atheist, I'd prefer to see a bit more moderation.<

      >I don't mind you making the argument that a lack of Christian morality contributed to the harm, but I do object to the apparent assertion that atheism inevitably leads to calamity.<

      You should put your remarks against the repeated assertions by militant atheists that religion is evil, the cause of the world's ills and the major cause of wars.

      You, yourself, have repeatedly said that religion is evil.
      As is usual in debates, immoderate assertions beget immoderate replies.

      The Russian/Chinese experience deserves careful study because there are so many lessons for us there.

    11. Hi Peter,

      I agree. It is not helpful to describe religion as evil. If I have done so, I apologise. I do think it is "a social evil" but that's not quite the same thing.

      That's just a way of saying it's not desirable, in my view, like inequality, or voter apathy. I'll try to avoid using the word in future.

  38. I think the CTM discussion is a really interesting one that is worth continuing. I still maintain that Pigliucci understood full well where the argument went and resisted it on those grounds.

  39. Hi Waldemar,

    I agree that ethics/morality are a very interesting and worthwhile conversation to have. However I don't think that they are really what is at stake in this conversation. I think Peter and I understand each other as we debate whether atheism is compatible with a sense of right and wrong.

    1. Hi Dis,
      I think I need to expand on my position.
      We have a dark side to our nature and a good side to our nature.

      The dark side makes us capable of great evil.
      The good side to our nature allows us to discern moral good. This is what Catholicism would call our conscience which allows us to discern natural law. The dark side is what Catholicism would call Original Sin.

      The question becomes, which side of our moral nature prevails? When, under what conditions and why?

      What institutions play a role in this?
      How do they play a role?

      Let me give a little anecdote to show you how confused things quickly get.

      Some months ago I heard shouting and screams outside my house on the verge. Fearing the worst (this is a violent, crime ridden country) I grabbed my formidable club and rushed out to protect my property. There I saw a white man and two black men attacking another two black men on the ground. Outraged I rushed to their defence. Wait, the attackers said. These guys have just attacked that young black woman and stolen her phone and laptop computer. Yes, the young black woman said. Whereupon, in my anger I joined in the attack and helped give these guys a thrashing(they were armed with knives). The police soon arrived and thanked us for a citizens' arrest, but warned us that next time they might have AK47s!

      What I am trying to say here is that under provocation and the right conditions(fear, violence in a crime ridden country), my dark side emerged making me do unthinkable things that left me ashamed.

      It turns out that our dark side and our good side are in constant tension.

      How do you ensure that most of the time our good side prevails?

      It is not a matter of knowledge. I knew my actions were wrong.

  40. Hi Peter,

    I do not mean to imply that China is a wonderfully moral society. The problems you highlight are very real. My point was that it is much improved from the worst days of Mao. It seems that you credit this recovery to religion, while I credit it to the relaxation of government control. The society is healing as you say, but I am far from convinced that theism has much to do with this.

    My impression of Buddhism (a religion or philosophy which is compatible with atheism, by the way) in China was that it is more a tradition than a source of moral authority. Confucianism isn't a religion at all, it's a philosophy and an ethical framework.

    I'd be quite open to have something akin to Confucianism or Aristotelian ethics to teach moral lessons without needing to make supernatural metaphysical claims. When I advocate atheism, that does not mean that I think that moral teaching should be done away with entirely. Quite the opposite, in fact.

    But of course religion was not completely eradicated during the communist eras. The fact that orthodox Christianity has survived in Russia while Buddhism has survived in China indicates to me that these religions persisted even through the worst of the oppression. If the theory of moral priming is correct, then why do you think the people lost their morality entirely during this time?

    If it is simply because the numbers practicing religion were greatly reduced, then how do explain the fact that there seems to be no positive correlation between violence and irreligiosity in other societies? In fact, unless I am mistaken, I believe there to be a negative correlation.

  41. Hi Peter,

    >Go back and read your history. You cannot even remotely compare what happened. False comparison!<

    I think this is overly dismissive. Of course I can compare. While there are inevitable differences in all such cases, there are broad parallels.

    1) A powerful authority
    2) A system where individuals could advance themselves by persecuting scapegoats
    3) Widespread fear among the population eligible for persecution (e.g. everyone in the context of witch hunts, jews in the context of Nazism), which caused some individuals to collaborate with the persecutors in an attempt to avoid persecution
    4) Vilification of scapegoats, seeing them as subhuman (Nazis -> jews), satanic (witch hunts), traitorous (McCarthyism, communism).
    5) Blaming social problems on scapegoats
    6) A sense of righteousness in the pursuit of a noble and glorious destiny felt by the persecutors
    7) Intolerance or suspicion of criticism or dissent

    I really don't see how you can make the case that the comparison is unjustified. It is perfectly obvious that the character of events in each case is remarkably similar, arising from the same flaws in human psychology and the same feedback loops in social systems.

    As to your specific counterpoints:

    >the Russian/Chinese societies devoured themselves<
    I'm not sure what you mean. If you mean that it was very very bad, then I agree. These societies are perhaps the worse examples of this phenomenon in cases where the persecuted could be anyone. (For the Nazis at least much of society was effectively exempt from persecution).

    So is your argument that this is fundamentally different to the other examples just because it was more severe? I'm not convinced.

    >they did this on a scale entirely unprecedented in history over a long period of time.<

    Again, you seem to be arguing that it is fundamentally different because it was more severe. I remain unconvinced!

    I doubt in particular that the time scale was unprecedented. There are other reigns of terror that have probably persisted for longer. The Spanish Inquisition persisted for hundreds of years, for example.

    >it took place in an entirely different social milieu.<

    Agreed. However if you rule out comparing similar phenomena in different social milieus, then I don't understand why you think you can learn about the dangers of new atheism by looking at what happened in Russia and China. It's an entirely different social milieu!