Sunday, 23 November 2008

the evidence for jesus

I have previously discussed what historians say about Jesus and history. There I used the conclusions of historians who were not arguing for or against christianity, but simply address the matter as much as possible in the same way they'd approach other aspects of ancient history.

Recently I came across an interesting analysis of the evidence from a quite different source - a Professor of Philosophy (William Lane Craig) who is a christian. He is therefore writing from a committed viewpoint, but his paper, The Evidence for Jesus, is well worth reading.

Craig considers the question of whether the gospels should be considered reliable unless proven wrong, and argues two reasons in support of this: "There was insufficient time for legendary influences to expunge the historical facts" and "The Gospel writers have a proven track record of historical reliability".

Sunday, 16 November 2008

some music is special

Who can explain why some music just says something to your soul? Lately I've been enjoying the music of an obscure Australian band, the Middle East. I saw them live and have a dozen of their songs. Here's the lyrics of one of the best, "Blood" (about family):

Older brother, restless soul, lie down

Lie for a while with your ear against the earth

You'll hear your sister sleep talking

Say "your hair is long but not long enough

to reach home to me

but your beard someday might be"

And she'll wake up in a cold sweat on the floor

Next to a family portrait drawn when you were four

And beside a jar of two cent coins that are no good no more

She'll lay it aside ...

Older father, weary soul, you'll drive

Back to the home you've made on the mountainside

With that ugly terrible thing

Those papers for divorce and a lonely ring

Sit on your porch

And pluck your strings

You'll find somebody you can blame

You'll follow the creek that runs into the sea

And you'll find the peace of the Lord

Grandfather, gentle soul, you'll fly

Over your life once more before you die

Since our grandma passed away

You've waited for forever and a day

Just to die

And someday soon you'll die

It was the only woman you ever loved

That got burnt by the sun too often when she was young

And the cancer spread and it ran into her body and her blood

And there's nothing you can do about it now.

You can listen to the song on the Middle East Myspace page, or on the Triple J Unearthed page.

Wednesday, 12 November 2008

does religion make you nice?

In does belief in god harm us?, I looked at how religious belief affects the way people behave. Now a psychologist has looked at the question, seeking to explain:

  • why atheists in the US are less happy, less healthy and less altruistic than believers, yet the church-tolerant non-believers in Scandinavia are happy and altruistic; and
  • why religious belief seems to make people more honest.

I would have thought the answers were obvious - believers have a stronger reason to behave ethically and be altruistic and their greater sense of purpose makes them happier, while the differences between Scandinavians and Americans relates to other aspects of the two societies - but he has some interesting ideas.

He thinks the main source of all these positive behaviours and characteristics are good social networks - which the religious have in the US and the Scandinavians have, but which the atheists in the US don't have.

Bizarrely, he blames the christians for making the atheists outsiders and (more sensibly) for thinking them immoral and unpatriotic. Read about it in this article from Slate.

Thursday, 6 November 2008

eddie koiki mabo

The very worthwhile TV series, The First Australians, concluded this week, and it was compelling, if often distressing, viewing. It has already thrown up some previously unsung heroes, like Barak and Rev John Green, and shown some other historical figures, such as Bennelong, Watkin Tench and William Dawes, in a new light.

The final episode was about the fight for legal recognition of Aboriginal land rights, and the end of the myth of "terra nullius", the obviously erroneous and insulting idea that the first British settlers were entering an empty land. I always knew that the fight centred around Torres Strait Islander, Eddie Koiki Mabo, but I didn't know before what an admirable figure Mabo was.

Exiled from his home island of Mer (Murray Island), Mabo established in Townsville a number of projects to support indigenous families and communities, including a health service and community school. Then when he became aware that land began a ten year court action that finally led to the historic decision on Aboriginal land rights, which changed land law irrevocably in Australia.

Unfortunately, Eddie Mabo didn't live to see his people's triumph, dying in 1992, five months before the decision was handed down. Read more about Eddie Mabo in Wikipedia and Racism, No Way.

Wednesday, 5 November 2008


When the "coalition of the willing" invaded Iraq, so many people around the world were sure it was wrong. And it still looks that way. Yes, a ruthless dictator has been removed and some good has come, but at an enormous cost. And it is hard not to believe that more good could have come at less cost in human lives if the same money had been spent on helping people in the Middle East and elsewhere, through education and medical programs for instance.

And now the three leaders who took the coalition to war have gone or are going.

First to go was Tony Blair, a man of integrity who somehow seemed to get it wrong on the war. Unfortunately, his successor doesn't seem able to deliver in quite the same way.

In Australia, John Howard's long time in office came to an end a year ago, and the relief in Australia was palpable. New Prime Minister Kevin Rudd raised so many hopes by making a formal apology to Australia's indigenous peoples for the wrongs committed by us European invaders and signing the Kyoto Protocol, two things Howard stubbornly refused to do. He still enjoys a high approval rating.

And now, to most people's immense relief, Barack Obama will replace George W Bush as President, and promises a new beginning. It's just words yet, of course, but good intentions are a good start. He carries many people's hopes.

One can only hope that the US and its allies are on a new, more humane, course.

Saturday, 1 November 2008

the probability of god

I recently read an interesting and fun book. It was The Probability of God by Stephen Unwin, and it attempted to show how one could use various facts about our world to compute the probability that God exists.

Unwin works as a risk assessor for large US companies, and uses the mathematics of Bayesian probability in his work, so he thought he would try to use the same ideas to examine God. He considers factors (or "evidentiary areas") that suggest God might be more likely to exist, such as how we know what's right and wrong, miracles and religious experiences, and other areas that might suggest God is less likely to exist, such as the problems of natural and human evil in the world.

Unwin assesses the evidence and ends up with a probability of God 's existence of 67%.

Of course we shouldn't take it too seriously. The probabilities have no factual basis, and are simply his subjective assessment. But I found the exercise interesting, because it allows everyone to use their own estimates of probabilities and come up with their own answers. And allows each of us to test our belief against something that at least tries to be even-handed.

In fact I found it so interesting that I wrote a program that allows the test, upgraded with a few more questions, to be taken on-line by anyone who wishes. Testing the program indicates you can get any answer, from 0 to 100%, so it doesn't seem to be biased. So if you're interested, you can make your estimate of the probability of God on my website. I'd be interested to hear what you conclude.

For the record, I calculated the probability of God to be 98%, which I guess tells you something about my answers.