28 February 2012

Richard Dawkins: I am an agnostic

Richard Dawkins
Evolutionary biologist and zoologist Richard Dawkins is renowned as one of the world's leading public atheists. Religionists often call him arrogant, shrill, intolerant and aggressive in his defense of atheism.

Many religionists claim that Richard Dawkins' atheism is nothing but another form of religion, that he is an ignorant clown who doesn't know much, and that his sophistication and erudition as a philosopher and/or theologian, leave so much to be desired that he barely reaches the level of a beginning amateur, if that.

Another bone of contention is that Richard Dawkins' arguments are said to be "nothing new", especially when referring to his 2006 bestseller "The God Delusion".

I happen to disagree with most of these claims for several reasons, not the least of which is that I have actually read Richard Dawkins' books and not by title alone as many people criticising him have apparently done, given their astonishing ignorance regarding Richard Dawkins' books and viewpoints.

I have also heard him talk on numerous occasions, something that is now very easy, thanks to the technological wonder of YouTube. As a result, when I hear nonsense being spouted about Richard Dawkins, I tend to know it is indeed nonsense, and if not, it is not awfully hard to check it.

In the past, I have had numerous discussions with a friend of mine who says she is a secular Jew but who nevertheless displays a lot of religious and superstitious behaviour and ideas incompatible with irreligiosity.

Rowan Williams
She always claimed to know many religious scientists of the highest calibre, who are utterly destroying Richard Dawkins and that I am simply too stupid to understand what he writes because these highly intelligent and sophisticated people know better and are saying something quite different. In this, she is hardly unique. Similar claims by religionists can be found all over the Internet.

Well, maybe so, and while my human side certainly doesn't like to be insulted, my evidence-based side doesn't care one way or the other as it is merely looking for what is true, not for what I wish to be true. As such, I must indeed at least accept the possibility that I am indeed a mentally defective ignorant moron of sub-par intelligence who is incapable of understanding the stupidity of Richard Dawkins' viewpoints.

That said, if I am expected to accept insults, I feel am I entitled to a little joust of my own. It so happens that religiosity -not irreligiosity- has been linked to both lower intelligence and less education and that by extension, it does not seem entirely unreasonable to give claims from religious people the disadvantage of the doubt. [01-04]

My friend, displaying behavioural patterns that are rather uncharacteristic for people of the secular persuasion, refused to look at the evidence I had to present. She was equally reluctant to let me talk to these eminent scientists and hear their side of the story first-hand instead of through a game of Chinese whispers.

As such, I had no access to these people's arguments (if these people even existed in the first place), so I could only reply that I was unaware of any valid arguments against Richard Dawkins, and that these people were either lying or ignorant about him, and that I hoped they were the latter, since I don't like to accuse people of bad intentions.

To be fair to my friend -which is more than she affords me- the Internet is rife with people like her, people who feel that making baseless claims is a valid basis for truth, and in spite of her refusal to provide any evidence for her claims -a common characteristic of people who live in an evidence-free universe- finding philosophers and sophisticated theologians (whatever that means) who claim that Richard Dawkins is wrong, shrill, strident and/or an ignoramus and a liar, is not particularly difficult.

Most of these people seem to have a few things in common: they have no knowledge of science, and except for claiming that Richard Dawkins is dishonest, ill-willed and/or a bad philosopher who knows nothing of theology, they have no arguments against him, apparently not realising that claiming that someone is wrong is not quite the same thing as providing evidence to support that claim.

These people don't "hope" that Richard Dawkins is ignorant, as I hope of them. Instead, they "know" that Richard Dawkins is dishonest. Clearly, religious "love and tolerance" are concepts that don't bear close examination. They prefer to accuse rather than to investigate.

Imagine my astonishment when religionists all over the world suddenly announced  their surprise that Richard Dawkins had admitted he is an agnostic during a debate with Rowan Williams on 23 February 2012.

Anthony Kenny was the moderator of the debate and he started the proceedings thusly:
Neither of my fellow symposiasts need any introduction from me, but I'd like very briefly to introduce myself and say why I am sitting between these two protagonists. I'm myself a philosopher and I'm an agnostic about the existence of God. I don't know whether there's a god or not. I'm open to persuasion either way. I'm flanked by two people who claim to know the answer to the question I don't know the answer to. So, I sit here as a representative of ignorance. [05]
In my opinion, the debate itself was not the fireworks one would expect when Richard Dawkins participates. It was a sedate, even dull affair, seemingly burdened rather than enlivened by the presence of Rowan Williams and at around 1 hour 11 minutes into the debate, a less than subtle manoeuvre by Anthony Kenny to protect Rowan Williams from a question from Richard Dawkins. Dishonesty takes many forms, and while lying is an important one, it is by no means the only one.

The manoeuvre I mentioned however, also brought us the part of the debate that religionists are raving about:
Anthony Kenny: You, I think, Richard, believe you have a disproof of God's existence.
Richard Dawkins: No I don't. You were wrong when you said that. I constructed in The God Delusion a 7-point scale of which 1 was "I know God exists". 7 was "I know God doesn't exist" and I called myself a 6.
Anthony Kenny: Why don't you call yourself an agnostic then?
Richard Dawkins: I do.
Anthony Kenny: You are described as the world's most famous atheist.
Richard Dawkins: Not by me. [06]
Anthony Kenny's incredulity is so blatant, one could almost harvest it and sell it by the kilo. While it does show his philosopher talent of creating controversy where there is none, it certainly does not flatter the level of his thinking powers.

For reasons that are at best unclear, many people -especially religionists- also saw this as an admission, a revelation, a step back, and/or an admission of defeat by Richard Dawkins. As JohnThomas Didymus (a pseudonym for a Nigerian writing on Digital Journal and who says he is not a religionist) wrote:
World famous atheist and ethologist Richard Dawkins may have compromised his position as a militant atheist when he effectively admitted that he is actually agnostic because he really can't prove God does not exist. [07]
This surprise is all the more painful (for the religionists) because Richard Dawkins has indeed never made a secret of this. Let me quote part of page 51 of "The God Delusion":
Atheists do not have faith; and reason alone could not propel one to total conviction that anything definitely does not exist. Hence category 7 is in practice rather emptier than its opposite number, category 1, which has many devoted inhabitants. I count myself in category 6, but leaning towards 7 - 1 am agnostic only to the extent that I am agnostic about fairies at the bottom of the garden. [08]
I do admire the religionists for admitting that they were wrong, as that is an occurrence so rare it could almost qualify as a supernatural miracle, but it does indeed raise rather serious questions about their intelligence.

If it took them over five years to find out that Richard Dawkins didn't actually say what they claimed he did and what they reviled him for, even though it was there for all to see, how seriously can we now take them where any other of their inane arguments is concerned?

As a case in point, if anyone has questions to answer as a result of this debate, it is Rowan Williams. Following a completely idiotic proposition by Anthony Kenny about the simplicity and complexity of God, which he calls a flat contradiction later on, Rowan Williams has a go at defending the theological position that God is a simple creature/being/entity [09].

As such, it sounds merely like the type of nonsense so-called sophisticated theologians churn out on demand, but there is more to the story. It turns out that Rowan Williams actually claims that God is complex, not simple:
If God was there before the Big Bang, he must be complex. [10]
This, to me illustrates the fundamental dishonesty of the religionist. He/she wishes a god to exist, and this is used as a basis to make any claim, any claim at all, to "explain" that a god exists. However, this is nothing but smoke, hot air to conceal that the religionist is defending a wish, not a reality. As a "psychic" who practices cold reading, the religionist merely dishes up a story he/she hopes will make the skeptic go away. The religionist's universe is an empty one, completely free of evidence.

As for my friend, I would ask her the following question: "Now that your fellow religionists have indirectly rehabilitated me by admitting they were wrong, what does that tell you about my stupidity and the superior insights you claimed for those eminent scientists you cited? Would it not be time now to actually read Richard Dawkins' books instead of merely claiming you did? Would it not be time to stick with the evidence instead of 'going beyond it?' Would it not be time for some intellectual honesty?"

[01] Edward J. Larson and Larry Witham, Leading scientists still reject God, Nature, Vol. 394, 23 July 1998
[02] Bruce Sacerdote and Edward L. Glaser, Education and Religion, Harvard Institute of Economic Research, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, March 2001
[03] Graeme Paton, Intelligent people 'less likely to believe in God', The Telegraph, 11 June 2008, Retrieved 27 February 2012
[04] Shenhav, A., Rand, D. G., & Greene, J. D. (2011, September 19). Divine Intuition: Cognitive Style Influences Belief in God. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0025391
[05] Debate between Richard Dawkins and Rowan Williams at 5 m 57 s, Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford, 23 February 2012.
[06] Debate between Richard Dawkins and Rowan Williams at 1 h 11 m 30 s, Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford, 23 February 2012.
[07] JohnThomas Didymus, Video: Dawkins says he's only '6 out of 7' sure God doesn't exist, Digital Journal, 24 February 2012, retrieved 28 February 2012.
[08] Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, Bantam Books, 2 October 2006, Page 51
[09] Debate between Richard Dawkins and Rowan Williams at 1 h 15 m 50 s, Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford, 23 February 2012.
[10] Associated Press, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams criticizes popular atheist writers, Richard Dawkins Foundation, 12 October 2007, retrieved 27 February 2012

Last updated on 28 February 2012

24 February 2012

Why William Lane Craig cannot be trusted

William Lane Craig [04]
In case you are not familiar with him, William Lane Craig [01] is an individual who works as a Jesus shill for Biola University [02], an institution of questionable academic integrity that requires all its staff to accept an intellectually untenable doctrinal statement [03].

This is a text, full of unproven claims, which I don't feel like reproducing here, since it can easily be found on the Internet. However, this paragraph is crucial in demonstrating the intellectually problematic position of Biola University and all who work there, since they have no option but to accept the statement (emphasis added by me):
The Bible, consisting of all the books of the Old and New Testaments, is the Word of God, a supernaturally given revelation from God Himself, concerning Himself, His being, nature, character, will and purposes; and concerning man, his nature, need, duty and destiny. The Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are without error or misstatement in their moral and spiritual teaching and record of historical facts. They are without error or defect of any kind.
It shall be clear to most people that universities who require their professors to accept and defend intellectually untenable and scientifically disproved nonsense are not a priori particularly trustworthy and should therefore be approached with well-earned caution and suspicion.

Likewise, professors who are required to uphold and defend the indisputable correctness of a deeply flawed document such as the Bible, can be reserved no other welcome than that of the snake-oil salesperson, since these people will -at some point- have no other choice but to lie.

Since I claim to be evidence-based, I'd better put my money where my mouth is and come up with some evidence that the Bible is indeed a flawed document. Consider these two statements from the New Testament:
And Jacob begat Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus, who is called Christ. (Matthew 1:16) [05]
And Jesus himself began to be about thirty years of age, being (as was supposed) the son of Joseph, which was the son of Heli, (Luke 3:23) [06]
According to Matthew, Jacob is Joseph's father. According to Luke, it's Heli. This means that the gospels don't agree on who Jesus' grandfather was. This also means that the Bible contradicts itself. We do not even need outside proof to disprove the inerrancy of the Bible.

This, in turn, is incompatible with Biola's claim that:
The Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are without error or misstatement in their moral and spiritual teaching and record of historical facts. They are without error or defect of any kind.
In other words, a professor at Biola can indeed be put in a situation where s/he will have to choose between her/his career at Biola and telling the truth. I realise that -although undeniable- this one example is meagre evidence, but then, this post is about William Lane Craig, not about the inerrancy of the Bible. I will have plenty of fun showing what a painfully flawed book this is in future articles.

We cannot look in William Lane Craig's head and decide whether or not he is a pathological liar, but we can look at the Biola University Doctrinal Statement and the Bible and conclude that William Lane Craig will, at some point, necessarily be a liar. It's not a matter of choice. It's a matter of contractual obligations. 

[01] William Lane Craig, Talbot School of Theology at Biola University, retrieved 23 February 2012
[02] Biola University, home page, retrieved 23 February 2012
[03] Biola University, Doctrinal Statement, retrieved 23 February 2012
[04] William Lane Craig, Wikipedia, retrieved 24 February 2012
[05] Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 1, verse 16, King James Bible
[06] Gospel of Luke, Chapter 3, verse 23, King James Bible

Last updated on 24 February 2012

12 February 2012

Bill Maher: Atheism is a religion like abstinence is a sex position

Bill Maher (Photo: Wikipedia)
First, let's be clear: I am not all that fond of Bill Maher [01]. Anybody who suggests that headaches are not caused by Aspirin deficiency [02] and that Aspirin should therefore not be taken when one has a headache, is a bit of a loon and a crank, and almost certainly does not score too high on any reasonably reliable intelligence scale.

When we have an acute appendicitis, a surgeon will take her* scalpel to our abdomen and cut it open. He* does not do that because we have a hole-in-the-abdomen deficiency and/or appendix superfluity. Those are neither here nor there. However, he does it because when we have an acute appendicitis, we have more chances for survival when that appendix is taken out.

While the headache-Aspirin connection isn't quite this dramatic, the principle is the same, and let me add to this that when one has some type of a condition or even just a "normal" condition, increasing one's consumption of vitamins and minerals to toxic levels isn't all that bright either.

That said, Bill Maher does deserve some degree of respect. In a country where atheists are all but considered vermin and where rapists [03] are better trusted by the public, coming out as an atheist is something of a brave thing to do.

In his programme "Real Time" on 3 February 2012, Maher talked about religion, as he usually does, this time about the rather ridiculous news that Mitt Romney's father-in-law Edward Davies, a scientist and atheist, had been posthumously baptised in accordance with Mor(m)on fantasy.

He also talked about a rather peculiar habit American religionists have taken on in recent years, namely to call evidence-based belief a religion. According to those religionists, man-made climate change is a religion, evolution is a religion, and atheism, everything that is not religion, is -according to these religionists- a religion as well. This is so blatantly wrong that it is less than funny. So, Bill Maher makes it crystal clear:

Atheism is a religion like abstinence is a sex position

While Maher's humour is not always the most refined there is and is in no way even remotely comparable to the pinnacle of humour, the English humour, this statement certainly makes, well, a statement. And so, I have added a new quote to my favourite quotes.

Enjoy the video!

*The creative use of pronouns is intentional.

[01] Several authors, Bill Maher, Wikipedia, retrieved 12 February 2012
[02] Anonymous, transcript of Interview with Bill Maher, Larry King Live, aired 15 December 2005 - 21:00 ET, retrieved 12 February 2012
[03] Gervais et al., Do You Believe in Atheists? Distrust Is Central to Anti-Atheist Prejudice, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 101(6), Dec 2011, 1189-1206.

08 February 2012

Are you a Christian?

Sacrifice of Isaac (1635)
Most Americans claim they are, but are they? There are numberless Christian sects in the US, and all over the world for that matter. They all differ in what they consider Christian and what not except for one major point: they almost all agree that they are right, and that all the other Christians are wrong.

Only the viewpoints of their particular sect are the right ones, the others are sorely mistaken. As a result, Catholics claim that Protestants are not going to be "saved" because they are not following the apostolic succession, Protestants unite in claiming that Catholics aren't even Christians to begin with, and so on.

Worse still, members of these different sects are eminently willing to murder each other over such differences. One only needs to look at Northern Ireland [4] for an example of such charming Christian behaviour.

When confronted with people who claim to be Christian while mutually accusing their fellow primates at the other side of the table of not being Christians, the onlooker must be bewildered and confused. Nevertheless, there is a simple test, and it comes straight from the Bible.

When God asked Abraham to kill his son Isaac and make him a burnt offering to God, Abraham did not protest, asked no questions and took his son for a long walk to the mountain with the altar where he was to offer Isaac. Better still, he made Isaac carry the wood for the fire. What a joyous walk this must have been!

In the end, Isaac got off unharmed, because God provided Abraham with a ram to slaughter and burn. [1]

To the non-Christian, this seems an obscenely cruel story. Not so to the Christian. In fact, this story is one of the most celebrated in Christianity, and most all Christian sects agree that Abraham did precisely what he should have done.

Finding out whether or not a person truly is a Christian, therefore, is rather easy. It is sufficient to ask the self-proclaimed Christian if he or she would kill her or his own child if God asks for it.

There are essentially four possible replies to this simple question:
  1. Yes, I would kill my daughter or son
  2. I don't know whether or not I would kill my daughter or son
  3. No, I would not kill my daughter or son
  4. I decline to answer this question
Obviously, "I decline to answer this question" is not a valid answer. It is merely an easy cop-out to avoid the question.

If the person replies with "No", there can only be one conclusion. He or she is not a Christian, for he or she is required to obey the Lord without question or hesitation.

If the person replies with "I don't know", the person is not a True Christian either, since her or his faith obviously wavers.

For the True Christian, there can only be one answer, a resounding "Yes".

And this is the curious part: I have so far never had anyone answer "Yes" without hesitation. Never.

On the other hand, few of my questions have had more -and often lengthy- different replies that had little or nothing at all to do with the question than this one. Please refer to reference [2] for an example of how self-declared True Believers avoid answering a simple question by throwing up a smoke screen that has nothing to do with the question.

Let's be clear here: the answer to "How much is 1 + 1?" is not "I already told you that massasauga rattlesnakes are a threatened species in Ontario".

It seems that the self-declared True Christian, who is ready and eager to restrict the actions of the non-believer, for example by attempting to ban gay marriage and abortion for all of us [3], is not eager to submit herself or himself to the more brutal consequences of this sinister death cult.

There you have it. The self-declared True Believer, claiming to be convinced, unwilling to confirm it.

And what about you? Are you a Christian? Are you willing to slit the throat of your child when your god asks for it, just to prove your loyalty?

[1] Anonymous, Bible, Genesis, Chapter 22 [retrieved 8 February 2012]
[2] Steve K, Digital Journal, Comment 8 and following [retrieved 8 February 2012]
[3] Michael Foust, Baptist Press, Faith groups unite in 'gay marriage' case [retrieved 8 February 2012]
[4] Several authors, Wikipedia, Northern Ireland [retrieved 8 February 2012]

07 February 2012


I grew up with a Catholic extremist father, a failed Trappist monk, and a mother who didn't seem to believe in much of anything, except for the hypocrisy of going through the movements.

Both my parents firmly believed in the Biblical "Spoil the rod, spoil the child" adage, and they applied it with great enthusiasm and creativity. While Christopher Hitchens had to learn through voluntary waterboarding what it feels like to be drowning, I learned by having my head held under a running cold faucet or having it held submerged until I started to vomit.

My parents claimed this would teach me respect. It failed. Utterly. I never learned to respect my parents. I learned to fear them. From the outside, to the superficial onlooker, the resulting behaviour may well look the same, but the difference is of fundamental importance.

Some years before he died a vegetable in a long-term care facility, the result of Korsakoff's syndrome caused by alcoholism, my father "saw the light" and completely rejected the Catholic religion, calling it the most cruel and bloody religion in human history.

I was sent to Catholic schools, including a few years to a Jesuit school, with their common-enough brainwashing, and in combination with what happened at home, I acquired such important qualities as being able to feel profoundly guilty for things I didn't do, I learned that not knowing is better than knowing, and that authority is always right, while I am merely a piece of disposable vermin, only created to please God.

Fear, both at home and at school, was my constant companion. At home, it was fear of beatings, at school the constant bullying and ridiculing both by students and teachers, who had been explicitly instructed by my parents not to spare me for any reason. They called that "a good education".

While memory fades over time, and details don't always seem to fit, I think it fair to say that I have never believed in the Bible and its terrifying god. I remember asking questions I was not supposed to ask, mentioning contradictions to which the standard reply was that I was "too young" to understand, or not particularly creative variations thereof, namely that I was too stupid or unwilling to understand. Regardless what it was, the fault was obviously mine, not that of the Bible and its creators.

I read the stories. I loved most of Genesis. I revelled in Noah's ark. Most people do, except that my fascination was mostly centred on what I then thought to be the precise technical details of its construction. And then, of course, there were the ark of the covenant and Solomon's temple.

I imagined myself a high-priest in Solomon's temple, dancing around and drenching everything with blood, until I realised what a disgusting, stinking and unhygienic affair it would be.

Generally speaking, I rather liked the Bible, in much the same way as the brothers Grimm's fairy tales. However, I was also puzzled and disgusted by the rather grim tales of murder, rape, slavery and genocide, either executed by God or ordered by it.

Having been sent off to an art school in Wallonia, the Francophone part of my native Belgium, I was introduced by Jean Gamby -one of my art teachers- to the Pentecostal movement. I tagged along for a while, going to prayer sessions. I saw people talking in tongues and was eminently unimpressed.

After having visited the Bruges (Brugge, for the natives) chapter that gathered together with the Jesus People and learned about their creative interpretations of the Bible, totally different from the Catholic interpretations that I knew so well, all attempts to make Biblical fiction fit current knowledge and reality, I decided I'd had enough of all this silliness, and from then on no longer gave religion and the Bible much thought.

Later, I met Sister Gerda, a pious Catholic nun, progressive school principal and Mother Superior, who took me under her wings and had a tremendous influence on my life and personality. She believed in me, encouraged me and gave me both chances and warmth I had never known.

In many ways, she played the role my parents weren't able to. My gratitude can never be big enough for what she meant -and means- to me. It was also important for it did teach me the important lesson that not every Bible-believer was ready to commit pure evil in the service of the terrifying Yahweh.

But then I came to Toronto, Canada, and I saw the numberless churches of the countless Christian sects, and of competing religions. I started to realise how important Christianity is for the United States and how -starting with Ronald Reagan- it had slowly turned into a virtual theocracy in spite of being the first nation on earth that had separation between church and state written in its constitution.

I was puzzled by presidential candidates competing with each other on who was the most religious. I was taken aback by "reverends" who wanted to be allowed to take concealed guns into their churches. I was mystified by the unwillingness of American Christians to accept governmental support and healthcare for the poor, by the enthusiasm they show for the death penalty, their incessant attempts to stultify their children by forcing creationism on them instead of science...

... and my interest in religion increased as a result. I wrote a few articles, mainly for Digital Journal and my own blog Thamno, and I eventually decided it was time to start a blog on the subject, and here it is. I expect that some of these pages will be humourous, while others will be more serious, and some may contain so much cruelty that it is beyond the limits of good taste. 

This blog is about religion, mainly the Christian flavour, since that is what I know best, and about the Bible and religious groups that claim it as their holy book.

Most religious people are of the liberal type. They do not take the holy books very literally, nor do they commit evil deeds because of their beliefs. They live their lives, doing their best to advance, to have children, give them a good education and a good start in life. Their belief is that of the cherry picker: fishing out what they think is good, ignoring the rest.

There are also those who take the Bible literally, and they are responsible for evil deeds indeed. In the words of Steven Weinberg, winner of the Nobel Prize for physics:

Religion is an insult to human dignity. With or without it you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion. (Steven Weinberg)

Just remember, I am a skeptic. Everything I write will be evidence-based. I will do my best not to make mistakes, but I am human, and will therefore almost certainly make them. Please do not hesitate to point them out in a comment. I will do my best to address it.

I hope you will enjoy this blog.