Tuesday, October 31, 2006

What can’t be Proved

Some things, by their nature, cannot by proved or disproved. The existence of God is one such instance. This cannot be proved or disproved. However, the same could be said about anything that you simply make up. The monster of Lake Eyre and the Guardian Spirit of London, both made up as they were written, cannot be proved or disproved. They cannot be proved because they don’t exist. They cannot be disproved because you cannot prove a negative. Yet a lack of proof does not prove non-existence. Does this mean that the monster of Lake Eyre is just as likely to exist as God? A lot more people believe in God than believe in the Monster of Lake Eyre. Does a million people believing in the existence of something that has no proof, make it more believable than one person believing in something that has no proof? Strictly speaking no, but a million people believing something does make it worthwhile to try and answer the question ‘Why do so many people believe in God?’

Saturday, October 28, 2006

What can’t be Tested

There is very little that cannot be tested against experience. There is a alot that cannot be tested to a level that would satisfy science, but that is different to saying that it cannot be tested.

It is not possible to prove anything absolutely, but that doesn’t mean that science is useless. It has been incredibly successful in its achievements. Similarly, being unable to prove something to a scientific level of proof, doesn’t mean that things shouldn’t be tested to the extent that they can be.

Many fields of human knowledge fall into this category, and whilst progress has not been as great as in science, there has been progress. The field of human behavior is sometimes referred to as social science. Some would argue that it is not worthy of the name science, but it is, nonetheless, a useful endeavor. Economic theories do help us understand economic activity. Not to a level of accuracy that physics or chemistry achieves, but it does improve our understanding and it does improve our ability to predict outcomes.

Psychology gives us an understanding of individual and group behavior, but again, it is not to a level of scientific accuracy. It is an understanding which is based on probability. It is a much lower level of probability than is the case for science but still high enough to be worthwhile.

Some areas of understanding are complicated by the sheer number of factors involved. The study and prediction of natural events such as weather, involve so many factors combining in countless combinations that exact weather prediction is hard even for short range forecasts. The science is valid. Each component of understanding is capable of scientific levels of accuracy, but their combination adds a complexity that brings the overall result down to a level of probable event rather than exact prediction.

Inexact conclusions based on probability are a large part of the sum of useful human knowledge. Much of it will always remain inexact, but by testing, the knowledge is improved. There is nothing wrong with knowledge based on probability as long as it is understood as that. Knowledge based on lower levels of probability can be useful as long as it continues to be tested and given the weight that the probability accords it.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

What can be Tested

Theories regarding the physical behavior of objects can be readily tested. Predictions about the force of gravity can be made, based on theory. These predictions can then be tested and verified or rejected. The tests can be repeated on many occasions and by many people. One example is the theory that gravity acts with the same force on objects regardless of their mass. In other words objects will fall at the same speed regardless of weight. This theory is counter intuitive. Aristotle had believed that heavier objects fell faster than light objects. This, whilst seeming to make sense, does not actually happen in reality. Very light objects which are affected by air resistance do fall more slowly, but if you remove air and repeat the experiment in a vacuum, a feather will fall at the same speed as a brick. This aspect of gravity was most famously demonstrated by Galileo. Interestingly Aristotle did believe that truth needed to be tested against experience, unlike his teacher Plato. The problem was that he never seems to have got round to testing this theory. This one small example shows just how useful science can be. Very often things are not as our intuition would suggest. By testing the premises on which our intuitions are based, we discover truth and expand human knowledge.

From a strictly logical point of view the example above can never be shown to be absolutely true. No matter how many times we try this experiment, there is always the possibility that the next time we try it, it will not work. Just because the Sun has risen every morning in human history, it does not follow that it will definitely rise tomorrow. Just because every time we test the speed of falling objects they fall at the same rate, regardless of weight, it does not follow that it will always be true. As is often said in financial services, ‘Past performance does not necessarily predict future results’. However, the regularity with which this experiment has been tried and results have matched exactly to the predictions, mean that it is as close to truth as you can get. It is an extremely high probability that is more successful at predicting behavior than any other theory we have. The problem with not being able to describe something as absolutely true is a problem of language, not a problem with reality.

Science tests language against reality, it does not test reality against language. If a contradiction exists in reality, it is the language that is faulty, not reality. When scientific theories perceived light to be either a wave or a particle, the tests which showed it was both, did not prove that reality was wrong, they showed that the theories were wrong. Waves and particles were not contradictory in their nature. When theories are tested and found to be true, they are true, not absolutely true. If a thing cannot be described as absolutely true, this is not the same as saying it is false. If something is scientifically true, it simply means that something is true in all circumstances that we know of. If a scientific theory changes through an increase of knowledge, reality doesn’t change. A test which shows the effect of gravity will not stop working if a new theory of gravity appears. It would allow us to make more precise measurements and predictions. When people reject truth because it is not absolute truth, they abandon knowledge that works. They abandon reality for language.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Good Tools Can Make Bad Products

Just because a theory is logical doesn’t mean it is true. It is possible to make up a theory or belief that is entirely logical from an internal point of view but is a complete fantasy which bears no relation to reality. People with psychiatric illnesses are capable of having very logical delusions. The test of experience is always required to turn logic into truth.

Even within the area of Mathematics it is not possible to construct truth that is purely reliant on internal logic. Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem is a much used and abused piece of work. This basically states no mathematical system can prove every mathematical truth. This has been interpreted as ‘nothing can be proved to be true, every belief is subjective and therefore faith is as valid as science and rationality’. Not surprisingly, mention of Godel’s work crops up in defense of religious faith. This is a misinterpretation of Godel’s work. What Godel was saying is that there is mathematical truth, but language is not sufficient to prove it. This was quite a distressing thought to mathematicians at the time, but it makes perfect sense if you accept logic as a tool of rationality rather than truth itself. Logic simply helps build theories and beliefs which are worth testing.

Lack of contradiction is a key part of a logical system. If a contradictory statement can be made about the same subject, it is not logical and by implication not true. The problem with contradiction is that it can exist. Light was, over different periods of time, thought to either a wave or a particle. These possibilities were seen to be contradictory, but caused problems because light displayed attributes of both particles and waves. This was solved by Einstein’s work on wave particle duality, which showed that everything has attributes of both waves and particles. This was not a true contradiction, but it was the testing against reality that showed the lack of contradiction. What seems like a contradiction sometimes is not. The failure is in the language, the fix is in experience.

Similarity as a tool of rational thought helps us take short cuts that often prove to be true. If something looks like a tiger and acts like a tiger, it probably is a tiger. If, however, you have never seen any other kind of big cat, you could mistake a leopard for a tiger. Animals are used to test medicines before being given to humans. This is done because of the biological similarity of some animals to humans. Regardless of whether you agree with this practice or not, it usually leads to safe drugs - usually but not always. At some point you have to test the drugs on humans to know if they really are safe. Similarity is a good tool of rational thought, but it does not replace experience.

Proximity, like similarity, is a useful short cut to truth. If two events happen close to each other in time and space, they are more likely to be related. There is, however, nothing certain about it. If someone is ill, they will tend to see every physical discomfort as a symptom of whatever they are suffering from. The recorded experience of hundreds of people with the same illness will give a better indication of symptoms. Repeatable experience is what confirms or rejects the relations of things which are close in time or space.

Cause and effect is something that we know is always present because we always see it. It can sometimes be possible, however, to confuse cause and effect. If, for example, an illness has a number of effects, it can be possible to confuse one of the symptoms as a cause. This can be especially true when something has a complex cause that is made up of more than one factor. If something is extremely complex and has a large number of contributing factors, it may be impractical to determine exact causes and therefore necessary to retreat back to a description of probability and associated risk factors. Although exact cause and effect has been abandoned in these cases, the use of probability is still useful. Even when a rationally precise position has been abandoned experience still proves useful.

The concept of cause and effect seems to contain within in it a paradox. If everything has a cause, then what happens when you trace back to the beginning of time? You have to keep going for infinity otherwise you have to accept that there is some first cause that has nothing preceding it, some uncaused cause. If cause and effect contains a paradox, it is not logical. As with Godels Incompleteness Theorem, this is disturbing if you view it as truth. As with Godel, it is fine if you accept that it is simply a tool of rationality rather than truth. The principles of cause and effect help us choose what to test against experience. As with Godel, the cause and effect paradox are often quoted as a defense of God. God is the first cause, the uncaused cause. God is required because of the paradox. This is poor logic in itself as it gives no explanation why God is a solution. Why the solution couldn’t be something other than an intelligent and omniscient being is not explained. The nature of time itself is also not yet fully explored and there are other possibilities that could resolve this apparent paradox. Time could be circular and therefore without beginning. There may be other solutions that we will become aware of as science develops further. The paradox may never be suitably resolved but measurement against experience allows us to use cause and effect regardless. We can use it as a tool and view it as that.

All of the tools of rationality are just that, tools. They can be used to create good theories and used to create bad theories. It is the testing of the theories against experience that tells us which is which. No matter how elegant a theory is, it is nothing until tested against experience. Rational enquiry is the willingness to question and to test. It must include the willingness to question and to test, because, as can be seen, rational thought is never fully self contained. Rational thought worked through properly is self-aware of its own limitations. It either accepts testing against reality as the correction or arbitrary truths as starting points upon which to build. When you start with arbitrary truths, absolutely anything can be true and you end up in a totally subjective reality. As the success of the scientific method has shown, reality is not subjective. Reality is something we all hit up against every day.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Tools of the Trade

A number of tools are used to validate the soundness of beliefs and theories. The meaning of logic is often used interchangeably with reason. A lack of contradiction and the ability to build one truth from another truth is the common and most straightforward understanding of logic. Logic is used to build one truth from a preceding truth. If A and B is true then C is also true 'If all men die and I am a man, I will die '. A logical argument does not contain contradictions 'If all men die and I am a man, I will not die'. This last statement showing a logical contradiction.

Although often used to mean reason, logic is not the only tool of the trade for rationality. Similarity is commonly used as a tool of rational thought. If two things look like each other, there is a strong possibility they will act like each other – If it looks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, we have at least to consider the possibility that we have a small aquatic bird of the family anatidae on our hands(Douglas Adams) –

The concept of proximity is also used in rational thought. Events which happen close to each other are more likely to be connected than things which happen at a distance. If two people in close contact with each other fall ill, it is more likely that the illness is the same than two people falling ill who never have contact with each other.

Cause and effect is a commonly accepted tool of rational thought. Every action has a cause and every action has an effect. A white snooker ball hitting a red snooker ball causes the red ball to move. The movement of the white ball was caused by the impact of a snooker cue. The movement of the cue was caused by the snooker player and so on. Every action is a cause of a future effect, every action is an effect of a previous cause.

These are the common tools of rational thought, but they are tools, not truth. They are tools which help build theories which are worthy of testing. They are useful because they have stood the test of experience. They have helped shape theories which have been successfully tested. They often lead to successful theories, but they prove nothing in themselves. The theory no matter how rational, no matter how well built using the tools of rational thought always needs tested against real world experience. Truth cannot be found by thought alone, it must be found by experience.

Friday, October 20, 2006

The Limits of Reason

What is reason? It is, perhaps surprisingly, harder to define than faith. Philosophy has always been concerned with the search for truth. What do we know to be true? Having established some truths, can we then build upon this to create further truths using reason and logic? If we know something to be true, can we then predict other things, using tools of thought, using logic?

If the use of reason led everyone to the same conclusions, very few competing philosophies would exist. Like religion, philosophy is full of competing and contradictory schools of thought. What is the consensus of all this inquiry?

There is no consensus.

Nothing can be known with absolute certainty.

This is not the same as saying all beliefs are equal. The scientific method has delivered tremendous achievements using rational enquiry. The scientific method works. This consists at a basic level of testing belief. A belief is put forward, logical conclusions about what follows on from this belief are put together and it is then tested against real world experience. The scientific method can be described in much more detail, in a much more complicated manner, but this is basically what the scientific method consists of. Does a belief match up to experience? Does it match up to experience in a consistent and repeatable manner? If a belief matches up to experience in America, it should match up to experience in Russia.

The scientific method really replaces the question ‘What is true?’ with ‘What works?’

Science has not blown away religion or philosophy because there are many things which cannot be tested and because there are many things which can be tested but which do not prove to be as predictable as the behavior of the physical world. The existence of God cannot be tested and while the behavior of humans can be tested it has proved to be much less predictable than the effects of, for example, gravity.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

The Hero with a Thousand Faces

A review of religious differences shows that, if you believe in the literal truth of a religion, it is important to choose the right religion. Choose the wrong religion and you will offend God by what you believe, eat, wear or do. How then, do you choose? Does religion choose you? If so, why is it that God almost always speaks to Christians as a Christian God, Muslims as a Muslim God and Hindus as a Hindu God?

It is an awareness of the variety of belief between and even within religions that has caused many people to rethink religion. This awareness of variety of belief has probably been more influential than the arguments of atheism. This variety of belief leads some people to a position where they believe in a God who is understood, worshipped and interpreted in different ways. The scriptures are not literal truth. The universe was created by God, not in seven days, but created by God nonetheless.

God has many names and people mark their belief in many ways. People follow certain rules of religion not because they are God given, but because they are cultural symbols of belief. A Jew shows his belief in God by not eating pork. A Hindu shows his belief in God by not eating beef. The rules they follow can be an inconvenience but by being an inconvenience they act as a constant reminder of their faith. The rules themselves are almost irrelevant but they become a form of active prayer or worship, a moving meditation. As I eat, I believe and am aware of God. As I marry, I believe and am aware of God.

In modern reformed religions, slavery does not need to be accepted simply because it existed at the time a holy book was written. Violence against other people simply because of their lack of faith can be abandoned. Symbols of faith can be modified to fit a modern, kinder society than the one from which a religion emerged.

What is often looked for in reformed religions, are points of agreement between religions. When all cultural elements are stripped away, what elements are left? Is there a core religion that exists across all societies? Is there a set of core beliefs and rules which are built upon according to local custom? Below the allegories and metaphors is there a universal religion which consists of a faith that is faith without evidence, but not faith against evidence.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Which Faith to have Faith in

If you accept the concept of religious faith as valid, how do you know which faith to follow? If you are born and brought up in the west, you will be surrounded by a Christian heritage. If you are born and brought up in the Middle East, you will be surrounded by Islam, in Israel by Judaism, Punjab by Sikhism, most of the rest of India by Hinduism and so on.

Do you just accept the faith that you are brought up with? Does it matter which faith you choose? If you believe in the literal truth of your religion, it matters very much which faith you choose. Different religions tend to have incompatible and contradictory beliefs. If you believe in the literal truth of your religion, most other religions will be evil to you. The followers of other religions will worship(to your religion) false Gods.

The very notion of religious tolerance is nonsense for anyone who has a literal belief in their own faith. Tolerance is a dilution of their faith.

If you believe in the literal truth of your religion, the question of why isolated groups of humans do not come to the same conclusion as you is a very disturbing problem. Has God abandoned isolated tribes? Why has god not revealed his truth to them? Why must they wait to be discovered by other humans to hear the true word of God? Does God value these people less?

For many people the answer to these questions is that religions are basically the same the world over. They are expressed in slightly different ways but they are essentially the same. This argument also presents a justification of religious tolerance. It is a view that moves away from the position of believing in the literal truth of all dogma and sees many of the teachings of religion as symbolic with a small core of absolute truth at the centre.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Reason in a World of Faith

Despite the rejection of reason as test for spiritual truth, reason is almost universally used within religions. If the holy book of any religion contained all that needed to be said about religion, reason would not be required.

The contents of the Christian Bible are a fraction of what has been written about Christianity. In a world of absolute faith where the Bible is simply true and no discussion is required, isn’t this odd? Every Sunday, millions of Christian worshippers listen to sermons that are not simply the reciting of Biblical passages, but which also contain interpretations of the Bible. Why does this happen? Because the Bible is an uncomfortable book which is full of contradiction, full of vague statements and barbaric events which are unacceptable to people despite their faith. The Bible is full of things which require clarification.

In some ways this can be seen as understandable in that the Bible is a composite of many different documents some of which seem contradictory. In the early days of the Christian church, some people believed that the works of the Old Testament had no place in Christianity and that the God of the Old Testament was a different God to that of the New Testament. If you gather together a number of documents with different authors, they are likely to contain contradictions and ambiguities.

The holy book of Islam, The Quran, is a set of documents written solely by the founder that faith, Muhammad. It is considered to be the word of god as recited to Muhammad. As the word of God, or even as the word of a single man, it should be consistent and should not suffer from some of the problems of the Christian Bible.

The Quran, like the Bible, is only a fraction of what has been written about the religion it represents. The Quran is central to Islam, but there is an industry of interpreters. It, too, is fully of vague and contradictory passages. Commentators, preachers and practitioners of both religions constantly use reason to try and understand what is meant by their religion. They constantly accept the notion that contradictions must be resolved.

Faith often comes down, not to faith in scripture, it comes down to belief in a specific interpretation of scripture. It is faith in the leader and their ability to correctly interpret the holy book. The leaders are granted the use of reason and the followers must put their own reason to one side.

Friday, October 13, 2006

The Challenge of New Theories

When a new scientific theory emerges that challenges an existing model, it usually has less evidence to support it than the theory it seeks to replace. When Einstein presented his theory of relativity it contradicted existing theories and had less evidence to support it. If we take evidence as the benchmark for rational choice, new theories would die at birth. Einstein, the rationalist, would have known that there was more evidence for a traditional Newtonian view of the universe and he would have never published his work.

This is the kind of argument given to defend faith against contradictory evidence. A belief in creationist theory is defended as a theory whose evidence is still to emerge.

Einstein’s theories were not accepted immediately. Very few important scientific theories are. New scientific theories usually emerge as a result of a two stage process. Stage one is creative in nature, not evidence based. New theories emerge from a creative process to help explain gaps in old theories or as explanations for new evidence. At this point they are often rejected by the wider scientific community. The process that sees them becoming accepted is the second stage, which is validation. Theories are tested and measured. If the testing is successful, the new theory gradually becomes accepted as it is repeatedly validated.

A map of the world is not the world. It is simply a representation of the world which helps us move through it. All theories are like maps. They are not reality or truth, they are representations of reality. It is often the case in scientific theories that there are gaps in the theory, blind spots that we do not yet know. When a new theory emerges, it is a new map. It can be judged by its use. Does it help us understand more or less than we previously did? Does it help us more accurately predict results? Are there less gaps.

When we accept religious beliefs such as creationism over evolution, what we are doing is moving to a position of having less knowledge. We are giving up tools that are not perfect, but help explain and predict outcomes and which are building blocks upon which new knowledge is constantly built. We are replacing these tools with older less reliable tools, that allow us to do less, understand less, develop less. A theory which reduces knowledge is a very strange theory indeed.

When faith is belief in something against the evidence it is a rejection of the possibility of finding a means of comparing or judging competing beliefs. You either accept a belief or reject it. You do not compare or judge. As a creationist you simply accept creationism because you accept it. Beliefs are often chosen on the basis of intuition. They are, however, usually tested. Imagine a world in which beliefs in all areas of life were accepted on the basis of non-judgement. Most people would believe that the world is flat, because it is counter intuitive that it is round. For much of human history it was accepted that the world was flat. For the Roman Catholic church it was once heresy to say otherwise.

Belief against evidence creates blind faith and belief without testing creates blind faith. Science is not truth, it is a method of creating better maps of the world. The religious fundamentalist rejects the better map and lives in a smaller world as a result.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

The Limits of Scripture

Parts of the Bible have been disproved by science. Before the age of science, the Bible was widely assumed to be literally true in everything it said. The idea of any part of the Bible being discredited was seen as a danger to the whole of the book. This is a real danger. If the Bible or any other holy book is not true in its entirety, it is legitimate to question every part of it. One part of the Bible being disproved does not disprove all of it, but it does lead to a legitimate testing of each and every assertion. It is largely because of this difficulty that Christian fundamentalists have reverted to a belief in the literal truth of the Bible. They have reverted to belief against evidence.

According to most biblical scholars, the Bible puts the age of the Earth at somewhere between six and eight thousand years old. According to science, the age of the Earth is approximately 4.5 billion years old, with the Universe older still.

According to the Bible, the world and all its creatures were created in seven days. According to science, the evolution of species has taken millions of years to reach the point where man first appeared.

According to the Bible each species was created separately, according to science different species are related to each other and evolved from common roots.

The argument of the fundamentalists is that current evidence is no more than a progress report rather than a final truth. This is true of any scientific theory and in that respect they are right. However, it has to be seen as unlikely in the extreme that new discoveries will uncover the fact that the universe is no more than eight thousand years old. Scientific models can be wrong, but this would require so many individual pieces of evidence and findings to be wrong that it would probably have to be the result of a huge conspiracy spanning generations of scientists over hundreds of years.

Similarly, the evidence for evolution is overwhelming. The religious fundamentalists do try and present updated forms of creationism such as intelligent design as alternative theories to evolution. Again, it could be argued that evolution is only a theory and as such only a holding position, but science continues to support this theory with new evidence and discoveries. The latest of these being the study of genetics and the documented similarity in the genetic make up of different species. The existing and growing evidence for evolution makes the presentation of creationism as an alternative theory worthy of equal consideration simply not credible.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

The Limits of Faith

Faith is sometimes described as belief in the impossible.

This is a sarcastic opinion that is neither accurate nor fair. Faith is probably better described as belief without evidence.

Faith holds a curious position in most religions in that many religious people will often cite examples of evidence for the existence of god, but resort to faith when evidence fails or they begin to lose an argument. In other words, it is often used as a fallback position. This is not, however, the full story and it is helpful to examine the different ways that faith is used.

There are two main ways that faith is used. The first is belief without evidence. This is a belief in something which can be neither proved nor disproved. The existence of god is an example of this. There is no solid evidence for the existence of god, however there is also no solid evidence for god’s non-existence. It is hard to prove a negative. A belief in god is therefore a matter of faith. It cannot be proved, it cannot be disproved, it is a matter of belief without evidence.

The other main use of faith is belief against evidence. Belief in something, even though there is evidence that contradicts the belief. It is this distinction between belief without evidence and belief against evidence that marks the limits of faith. To be willing to have faith in a belief regardless of evidence, to have faith in a belief that goes against reason and includes contradiction is to have blind faith. It is blind faith, faith against evidence that is used by religious fundamentalists as a fallback position.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Two Questions

Much of the history of Philosophy has been taken up with the question of what can be known to be true. Much of this, has in turn, been centered round the question of god:

Does god exist?

After literally hundreds, if not thousands of years of debate, the consensus is this:

There is no consensus.

If you place a religious believer and a committed atheist in a room to discuss this, it will usually come down to an argument between faith and reason.

The religious person discounts any reason they disagree with by use of faith. Religion requires faith. The atheist discounts religion on the basis of reason. There is no proof of god. How can you believe in something for which there is no proof?

There are flaws on both sides of this argument when put in such a simplistic way. Instead of replaying an argument that has gone on for centuries and is unlikely to ever be resolved, two questions that can be asked of the believer and the atheist and that are valid for both are these:

What are the limits of faith?

What are the limits of reason?

Sunday, October 08, 2006

The New Age

The western world is the best place to study the enduring appeal of religion. It is in these societies that people are free to worship or not as they please. It is in these societies that we can see what happens when compulsion is removed from religion.

In western society where Christianity is the dominant religion, something strange has happened as Christianity has lost its grip on power. Church attendance has declined, but the majority of people, when questioned, still have some kind of spiritual belief.

This has resulted in the growth of new age religions. These are often pick and mix religions which use the names of pre-christian gods and re-invented ceremonies. The truly startling thing about these new age religions is that they tend to move from one god under Christianity to many gods. For a committed atheist who sees all religions as equally irrational this may seem insignificant. Most Christians, however, view their religion as a move towards a more rational life compared to paganism and for them the growth of new age religions is seen as a backward step.

The other development in the Christian world is the growth of other more established religions such as Islam and Buddhism. Islam has grown because of immigration to western societies from the Muslim world, as well as people converting. Islam is a religion, like Christianity, which seeks converts.

Buddhism has also experienced growth through conversion in the western world. Buddhism has a particular appeal in that it is a religion that has no god. To the rational mind that finds many of the concepts of Christianity little more than superstition, Buddhism appears to offer a radically different approach to spirituality. It is a religion which allows a rational life with a spiritual content. The reality is that much of the Buddhist world is full of deities including living deities who are, it is claimed, the reincarnations of historic figures.

Other religions, such as Sikhism, Judaism, Druze and Hinduism tend to not have the same impact in terms of conversions because they are not religions which seek converts. The small number of westerners who convert to these religions do so mostly through marriage. Their conversion is the act of joining a society, just as one joins a family through marriage.

One of the great strengths of Christianity has been the ability to adapt and there are numerous interpretations of Christianity. With the decline of traditional Christian churches has come the growth of other forms of Christianity, such as the Church of Latter Day Saints, Jehovah’s Witnesses and a variety of evangelical preachers whose exact interpretation varies from Old Testament literal interpretations to alternative lifestyle ministries which embrace homosexuality.

When people lose their belief in their traditional religion, atheism is only one of the options open to them. For many people there is, what has often been called, a god shaped hole. This is something which they will, sooner or later, seek to fill. How a person fills this hole in their life depends on the individual. For someone who finds the whole notion of a personal god ridiculous they may well choose Buddhism. For someone who finds religious rules oppressive they could choose the pick and mix approach of new age religions. For the person who finds their traditional church too liberal and believes that society is sinking into a moral vacuum they may well choose either Christian Fundamentalism or Islam.

For many people who find it impossible to believe in any organized religion there is the Deist approach of believing in a god as creator of the universe who then has a limited or non existent role in human history. God’s work is seen in the existence of the universe but all human knowledge is man made and there is no divine revelation. Many of America’s founding fathers were Deists, including Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. The separation of church and state was very much in keeping with Deist principles, as was the meaning of the word creator in the declaration of independence.

Despite the decline of traditional Christian churches in western societies, the growth of other faiths and the widespread but unorganized belief in a form of Deism shows that even in a society free from religious compulsion, beliefs of a religious nature will persist.

For religious believers this is not surprising. For non believers it is not enough to simply lament this fact and assume it is all as a result of a lack of education and stupidity. If the non believer wants to promote a more rational world, they must put aside prejudice and attempt to reach a rational understanding of religious belief.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

The God that didn't die

Despite the progress of science and the evidence that contradicts much of scripture, belief in god has not died out. It has diminished and the influence of religion is smaller than it used to be in many societies. However, the fact remains, that religion has continued. The reasons often cited for the continuation of religion in a scientific age are things such as indoctrination from an early age, lack of education, family and cultural pressure and fear of death.

The reason given for continued religious belief usually changes depending on the group of people being discussed. If it is a poor country, it is a lack of education and social pressure. If it is an advanced country with good education, it is indoctrination by family or fear of death.

The problem with these arguments is that it is always possible to find people who have every reason to be free of religious influence actively choose to be religious. There are many intelligent, well educated and otherwise rational people who fit no model of explanation. Many scientists whose works contradicted scripture continued to believe in god. It has often been assumed that this was a defensive attitude to avoid persecution in a more religious age. There are, however, many scientists today, who have no social pressure to profess belief in god, yet believe quite deeply that god is not a contradiction of their work. Many preachers of religion are also highly educated and whilst it would be easy to argue that their belief is bound up with self interest this would be unlikely to be true for all of them.

The question then remains: Why do intelligent people believe in god?

Thursday, October 05, 2006

The March of Reason

In 1697 a young student called Thomas Aitkenhead was hanged in Edinburgh. His crime was to publicly state that he did not believe in God or the doctrines of Christian theology. This execution has become well known, principally because of where it took place.

Within a few decades of this event, Edinburgh was the centre of the Scottish Enlightenment. Men of science and philosophy produced work that seemed to threaten the very notion of religious belief. Amongst other developments, the emerging field of geology indicated that the Earth was much older than suggested in biblical texts.

For many people, the work of the philosopher David Hume was the high point of this movement. Hume, the sceptic, wrote scathingly about the possibility of miracles and was generally thought of as an enemy of religion. Hume was considered a scandalous individual but he was not hanged for his beliefs, or more accurately, he was not hanged for his lack of beliefs. When he died in 1776, his burial in Calton Hill cemetery was controversial, as some believed there would be dire consequences arising from the burial of an atheist on holy ground. As it was, the burial took place without demons rising from the ground or God striking the ceremony with lightning. The danger in a lack of religious belief came not from a divine being, but instead came from man, as Thomas Aitkenhead had discovered. If God did exist, he was obviously not as concerned about atheism as his followers were.

In the centuries that have followed, science has flourished and in doing so has continued to contradict many of the divine revelations of religions. The history of knowledge seemed to be one of a progression from superstition and myth towards rationality.

The world seemed to be a place where the gods were fading from view. One by one they had gone until, in much of the world, there was only one god. For Christians and Jews and Muslims this was the endpoint for religious belief. For many rationalists it was almost the endpoint. They believed in one less god, and once this last superstition had been put behind us, mankind could move forward to a new phase of history, and in doing so, achieve his full potential.
More than two hundred years after the death of David Hume, we are still waiting for one less god. Religion still plays an important role in both individual identity and world politics. Why did the last act in human progress never take place?