Monday, 26 November 2007

god and science

Atheism has become more militant in the last decade or so, particularly on the part of scientists who believe science, and not religion, has the answers. Richard Dawkins is probably the most famous scientist-atheist, and possibly the keenest mind, but there are many others.

But perhaps one surprising outcome of this surge in anti-theism has been a scientific reaction to the more extreme anti-religion rhetoric. Dawkins and others claim that religion has been responsible for some of the worst evils in history, and in the world today, and that belief in God is almost like a virulent virus that should be eliminated as efficiently as possible.

Of course this analysis is one-sided, and ignores all the well-documented evidence that much good is done in the world by believers, but neither is the argument without some basis. But now some scientists are contesting the view on other grounds.

An example is a recent (October) conference (if that is the correct word) in the US, Beyond Belief (Enlightenment 2), a follow-up to a similar conference last year. It brought together some of the top thinkers in the sciences and social sciences, and its aim was to discuss how to extend the exercise of reason in all aspects of life (and hence extend the gains of the eighteenth century enlightenment).

Enlightenment 1 was reportedly a bit of an "atheist love fest", but last month's discussion was more broad-minded. Included in the program were a number of speakers expert in the study of religion from an evolutionary viewpoint. If you ignore for the moment the question of whether God actually exists or not, you can discuss how religions arise in the evolution of societies, and what benefits, or not, they bring. And the conclusion of many is that religion brings many benefits to societies and individuals, and not only might it be unhelpful to try to eliminate it, but it may even be impossible.

Naturally, the more militant atheists present, including famous names like Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris and Peter Atkins, disagreed with many of these proposals.

Part of the argument concerned the place of reason. Some scientists believe reason should be the basis of everything; some believe science should be the basis of everything and discard even philosophy. But others argue that science will never be able to assume such an all-embracing role, and that many important aspects of life, including ethics and emotions, cannot be explained by rationalism alone.

Although I didn't see anything about the event in the normal press here in Australia, it has certainly made a big splash among people sympathetic to the ideas. The "war" between science and religion, no longer so much of a big deal among most believers, is gaining traction among non-believers. They believe reason is on their side, and they increasingly want to stamp out the superstition they believe religion to be. (To be fair, I think for many of the general populace, such events may serve the purpose of shoring up their shaky "faith" in non-theism more than setting them marching.)

As an interested layperson, I have a few concerns about all this:

  • The arguments get so complex, and are based on such detailed research, that most of us will never be able to grasp them fully, and are largely excluded from the debate. Thus these scientists become the new "high priests", qualified and on a mission to help the rest of us poor non-scientists get our thinking "right". This is an especially worrying thought when you hear a scientific zealot like Peter Atkins. Alister McGrath and others have pointed out that many scientists supported and participated in some of the grossest excesses of recent Nazi and Stalinist regimes, and that their science does not necessarily provide them with the wisdom and basis to make ethical judgments - in fact, atheistic science is still grappling with the question of what ethics are. Of course, it may be that these questions may remain merely discussion points by erudite boffins closeted away from the public, but I think their views will inevitably affect all of us.
  • The discussion of the evolutionary origins of religion does not address the issue of whether God actually exists. That question is generally assumed to have been answered in a resounding, and obvious, negative, when in fact it is still an open question. But the more we concentrate on the mechanics of the sociology of how religion may arise naturally, the easier it is to ignore the larger question of what is the truth, and even think that it is unimportant or already answered.
  • There is one aspect of these scientists' view of theistic belief I find especially troubling - their oft-stated assertion that belief in God is firmly in the realm of "faith" whereas science deals with "facts", with the undemonstrated assumption that believers lack any reason behind their beliefs. For example, one commentator, Professor P Z Myers, wrote: "the majority of people on the planet are practicing really bad science, because they don't recognize that their very first premise, that a god exists, is false". Of course the two modes of thought have differences, but this dichotomy is too stark. There are many matters which scientists believe to be true which cannot be proven in the same way that gravity can be demonstrated - the origin of life is one example, because we cannot experiment on the past and demonstration can be little more than "feasibility studies". So science is not 100% reason. And theism is not 100% non-reason either. Such an assertion is contradicted by the number of eminent scientists (John Polkinghorne comes to mind) who are also theists, and by the fact that most of the philosophical arguments for the existence of God are based on observable facts, even if the "proof" from there is not scientific. I just wish the new scientists, from Dawkins down, would stop making such outrageous statements about faith, and accept that theists can be rational, albeit they believe them mistaken.

But I can't see these objections being heard, let alone adequately addressed. If theists are "irrational" by definition, why even engage with them?

So I believe we are in for some dark and dirty days. If the militant atheists are right, the superstition of religion may be better eliminated, or at least understood for what it is - although I fear for the sort of society they will bring in its place. But if, as I believe, there is a God, those of us who persist in believing are in for ridicule at best, and quite likely something worse. C S Lewis predicted it half a century ago. It will be unpleasant, but I suppose at least it won't be boring.

If you want to read more:

Saturday, 24 November 2007

the rich get richer, the poor get the picture

One measure of inequality within a nation is the gap between the rich and the poor. (Household wealth is often the indicator, and the rich and poor are generally defined as those in the top 20% and those in the bottom 20%.)

A recent survey by the Australian Bureau of Statistics indicates that the gap is widening. There is (I guess) both good news and bad news.

The good news for the poor is that they are getting richer in real terms - a 6% increase in wealth in the two years to June 2006. But the "bad" news is that they are falling behind - those in the middle of the range increased their wealth by 9% and the rich by 18%. So the rich are more than 60 times more wealthy than the poor, and 11% of Aussies live below the defined "poverty line".

Another recent report indicated that some of the poor lack the resources to buy properly nutritious food, and this may be the reason why the poor are more likely to suffer from diet-related diseases.

So while the rest of us have discretionary income to spend on non-essentials, it is partly at the cost of poorer people's health.

Read about the gap between rich and poor as reported by the Sydney Morning Herald and Sydney University, and the ABC report on the impact on diet.

Monday, 19 November 2007

tv and bad choices

Photo: Flickr

Another study on the impacts of TV on children, another adverse report .....

The Sydney Morning Herald recently reported on a New Zealand study that found that watching more than 2 hours television per day during the pre-teen years had adverse effects during adolescence, with greater impacts if the child watched more than 3 hours. Some of the impacts:

  • a significant increase in attention problems;
  • more excessive TV watching;
  • reduced interest in school work, perhaps because TV overstimulates and makes more mundane activities such as homework seem boring in comparison.

We know we need to encourage our children's development by spending time with them, and building all manner of good things into their lives and characters. But somehow, our busy lives, often made busier by wanting so many material things and having to work so much more to afford them, leads to us using TV as a substitute.

This is another example where what we commonly choose, or are conditioned by advertising to choose, is not in our best interests - how we so often choose the convenient and superficially attractive over the good. I think I'll make this a theme, which I'll return to a few more times.

Read more from the SMH article.

Sunday, 11 November 2007

lives ripped apart so far from home

Tyne Cot war cemetery near Passchendaele. Photo: Flickr

In Australia, today is Remembrance Day, when we are all supposed to remember the sacrifice of soldiers who died serving their country. Most Australians are very supportive of our troops and deeply thankful for the sacrifices made, but many have mixed feelings. For none died on Australian soil and the majority were not defending our country.

Most died on the other side of the world, and it is tragically true to say that so many died in wars with questionable purposes or futile tactics.

Anzac Day is one of Australia's most solemn days, and it commemorates the costly sacrifice of Australian and New Zealand troops as part of an abortive British invasion of Turkey in 1915. But perhaps the most destructive, and often futile, campaign was in France and Belgium between 1914 and 1918.

Many books, films, TV shows and newspaper articles have been written about the terrible trench warfare in World War 1, and the senselessness of charging artillery and machine gun positions across boggy land in broad daylight, and getting cut down - again and again! But in recent times, the emphasis has been more on the human aspects - what sort of people were these diggers, how did they cope with the inhumanity of that war, and how did their suffering and dying affect those who live on back home?

Many Australians now take great interest in the experiences of their relatives and some research their forbears' fate via diaries, war records and first hand visits to the battle fields. In the Sydney Morning Herald this weekend, Ray Black talks of the 60,000 Aussies who never returned from France and Belgium, "many thousands of them blasted into oblivion by artillery, and as a result with no known grave", the further 60,000 who returned but died within a decade as a result of the war, and those who were so traumatised that their lives were all but destroyed by alcoholism, violence, broken relationships and suicide.

He also paints some memorable pictures: battled toughened men crying as they approached their homeland again; a gravestone with the desperately sad epitaph: "An only son killed in action on his way to his leave and wedding"; a farmer recently uncovering 5 bodies, one man found to have been carefully wrapped in his groundsheet by his own brother, who apparently participated in the same attack.

Ray's great uncle was killed in Flanders, so this year he visited the battlefield on the 90th anniversary of the attack on Broodseinde Ridge near the village of Passchendaele to find the place where his relative probably lost his life and to remember by burning Aussie gum leaves at the spot.

Ray's story is just one of many, but moving in its simplicity. I cannot read such stories without feeling a deep sadness about the young lives so unnecessarily lost or marred, and anger about the careless stupidity of generals who sent brave men to certain death on ridiculous missions, without understanding, or in some cases even seeing, the hellish conditions they were fighting in.

We can say, probably fairly, that they were different, and more ignorant, times. But we understand so much more now, and we know the devastation war causes to both sides. We should know enough to be firmly committed to the view that war is absolutely the last resort, only to be chosen when there genuinely is no other option, and in full understanding of its terrible toll. If only the politicians and revolutionaries would learn the lessons!

Read Ray's account from the Sydney Morning Herald. Anyone wanting to read more human stories about Aussie troops in WW1 should read The Great War by Les Carlyon. You may also enjoy this blog based on the letters of an English soldier who served in Flanders.

Thursday, 8 November 2007

a prettyish kind of a little wilderness

We live on a small suburban block with a main road behind. But there are plenty of trees around and we have retained as many as we can. So we attract some wildlife .....

Our yard.

Rainbow lorikeets - loud, sassy and generally fearless.

Sulphur crested cockatoos - comical, persistent and messy eaters.

Eastern rosellas - shy and only rarely seen.

Crimson rosellas - also shy and not commonly seen.

Pigeons and doves - I don't really know the difference.

And my favourite, the magnificent and gentle king parrot.

With so many different birds, there are bound to be the occasional problem, such as a messy deck, and the occasional fight. Here two rosellas face up to an aggressive noisy miner.

And there's not just birds, but spiders ....

..... autumn leaves .....

..... and possums. This old brushtail mother possum was so blind she came out in daylight. She successfully reared a succession of babies until she died recently.

When I was a boy, living not far from here, there were few trees and most of the birds were small - sparrows, blue wrens, silvereyes and willie wagtails. But in recent years, the drought and the increased number of trees have brought the bigger birds into the suburbs.

There are organisations which can help us make our gardens more friendly for native birds, especially the smaller ones, such as finches, pardalotes and wrens. You can check them out - Birds Australia, Flora for Fauna, and Backyard Buddies.

Saturday, 3 November 2007

i always loved this cartoon