Morality is about consequences, not rules

Let’s cut to the main moral question: is it ever right to kill someone? Most people, perhaps surprisingly, would say yes and it’s easy to cite examples.

Killing a terrorist before he throws a bomb into a crowd of people is a moral act because it prevents the death and suffering of innocent people.

Similarly, killing an armed burglar would be moral if he was about to kill your family.

Assisted suicide can also be moral. If you doubt that, ask yourself, is forcing a terminally ill person who wishes to die to live in pain for selfish reasons ever moral?

Morality is about making conscious decisions and thinking about the probable consequences.

If the consequences of your actions lead to a reduction in suffering and an increase in well-being, it can generally be considered moral.

Religionists like to pretend that they have a monopoly on morality. But is obediently following commands merely with the intention of gaining a future reward for which there is no evidence really ‘moral’ behaviour?

Moral behaviour summed up in 7 words

Conscious actions that have life-enhancing consequences.

OK, that’s that sorted. Next question?

Being Wrong is Good

Scientists often do it.

Politicians rarely do it.

Religionists almost never do it.

Admitting you’re wrong is tough. It’s one of the most difficult experiences you can have. But it’s also one of the most liberating.

The attitude I‘m talking about goes like this: “I am willing to change my mind if I come across better evidence and better arguments than those I currently hold. My mind is amendable to new evidence and I am eager to discover if I am wrong”.

When we scale our convictions in proportion to the strength of the evidence, rather than to the strength of our emotions or beliefs, we become much more likely to discover errors in our thinking.

Why is this important? Because it makes us more likely to discover the truth of whatever we‘re thinking about.

Even when we admit our errors to ourselves in private, it can still be very difficult to prise ourselves from the intellectual and emotional ties that bind us to our previous convictions. Why? Because we’re too uncomfortable with being wrong and “losing face”. Changing your mind is seen as a weakness.

Not for critical thinkers though. Realising when we are wrong is often the catalyst towards a better opinion – an opinion which is more consistent with the evidence, an opinion that takes into account all the evidence, an opinion that is more likely to be true.

Critical thinkers readily welcome this.

(Incidentally, why are the dumbest people often the surest?)

To be a critical thinker you have to be comfortable with being wrong. Indeed, you’re likely to be wrong in some of the opinions you hold right now.

But it doesn‘t matter. “Get over it”, “deal with it”, as they say. That’s life. You’ve can’t be right about everything.

So long as you’re willing to change your opinion in the face of better evidence, you won’t go far wrong.

In fact, it’s your surest bet of being right.

Problems with Pascal’s Wager

Is there an advantage to believing in God?

Ever since the days of Blaise Pascal in the 17th century religionists have used the ‘Pascal’s Wager’ argument to claim that believing in God has a distinct advantage over non-belief. It goes like this:

Even though you might not be able to prove God’s existence, you’re still better off hedging your bets – or waging – as though God does exist because, if true, you have everything to gain and have nothing to lose.

Sound’s entirely reasonable, right?

Well, before you answer that question, consider these points…

  • Exactly which God do we believe in? There are literally hundreds, in not thousands, of conflicting conceptions of God (and gods). We would have to factor them all into the wager
  • At the very best, only one conception of God could ever be correct. But the odds of anyone choosing the correct one are extremely low. Hardly anyone living today is even aware of all the different conceptions of God. (According to some religions, believing in ‘false gods’ carries the most severe punishments)
  • Furthermore, for all we know, all of the existing conceptions of God could be utterly wrong. God may be malevolent or not reward belief. He may even punish people for belief – including those who believe in Pascal’s wager
  • God may even be ‘rational’ in the sense that he rewards honest attempts at objective reasoning and not care about beliefs. In which case, Pascal’s wager would be entirely pointless and possibly damaging
  • An omniscient God would presumably see through the deception – which, again, might be punishable.

Religionists, then, have no assurance that they stand the best chance of avoiding the wrath of  God. Sure, they can conjure up a God who would reward them in a future life for their own particular religious beliefs. But it would be just as easy for the next person to conjure up a very different (and equally unprovable) God with a very different set of attributes.

Neither should religionists be content with ‘generic’ deism because that itself may invoke the wrathful anger of a jealous God.

But, the religious may ask, if any God exists then surely atheists will be in for a rough ride? Even this isn‘t certain. Again, if God actually rewards critical thinking and punishes belief, atheists may well be the ones on the receiving end of God’s blessing at having passed the earthly ‘reason test’, while the religionists will be the ones losing out for having abandoned their God-given capacity to think rationally.

But there’s an even more fundamental consideration that ought to concern religionists – what if there is no God at all? Furthermore, what if spending your life believing in a God that doesn‘t actually exist is not simply a harmless delusion?

Think about it. To genuinely believe in a God – such as the God of the Bible or the Koran, for instance – you would have to act and think in ways that satisfies the desires of that imagined God. This omniscient God would presumably be judging your every move and monitoring your every thought, both awake and asleep.

You would also have to shun any scientific knowledge that conflicts with your religious doctrine. Equally, you would have to give up your capacity to make moral judgements based on reason.

Unfortunately for others, your belief in God may have consequences beyond your own personal experiences. No doubt you would have to teach your children to believe in the same falsehoods as you do. You would need to condemn those who choose not to believe as you do.

As a believer, you would also probably vote for the party or the presidential candidate who appears to be ‘closer to God‘. You may even join, fund or support a group to prevent life-saving stem-cell research or abortions. You may even preach hate against perfectly decent people for being unrighteous, ungodly, homosexual, atheist, rational.

In a sentence, you would have to believe in superstitious bronze age mythology at the expense of your reason, all with the imagined approval of the creator of the universe.

That’s a huge price to pay for something for which there is no definitive evidence or even a likelihood of actually being true.

So yes, you do have something to lose by believing in a God that doesn’t exist. You lose the fullness, the enjoyment and the reward of living a life seeking genuine knowledge. You also miss the true wonder and pleasure of discovering how the real world actually works, freed from bronze age superstitions which, however comforting, are just plain wrong.

The idea of God doesn’t make sense

10 questions every religionist must answer…

  • If God designed humans and other animals, why are there so many unnecessary and harmful features of the various types of life that inhabit the earth?
  • If God is almighty, why has He failed to fix the problems of the world?
  • If God created the universe specifically for life, why is so much of it very hostile to and totally devoid of life?
  • If God dictated or inspired the various holy books of the world, why are they so self-contradictory and nonsensical?
  • If God is the source of morality, why are many of his laws so cruel?
  • If God created the Universe, then who or what created God?
  • If a God really exists, why is there so many different concepts of God?
  • If God is all powerful, could He create a being more powerful than Himself?
  • If God is omniscient, can He change His mind?
  • If God knows the future, how could He have given us free will?

Francis Collins cop-outs

Francis Collins

Francis Collins. Image source: http://www.explorefaith.org

Francis Collins is one of those rare people that is exceptionally brilliant and exceptionally stupid in equal measures. Not only is he a highly respected geneticist – most noted for his discoveries of disease genes and for heading the Human Genome Project – but he’s also an evangelical Christian.

But his eccentricities don’t end there. He’s also an outspoken opponent of creationism. He thinks that theism and evolution are compatible. And that “faith and science both lead us to truth about God and creation”.

I always get the impression that Collins wants to have his cake and eat it. He wants to maintain a worldview that accommodates both his scientific background and his religious beliefs, and then pretend there is no conflict.

Just read some of the comments he made in a debate with Richard Dawkins in Time magazine in 2006. The intellectual gymnastics he has to perform to sustain these conflicting viewpoints is breathtaking.

Collins on when and how God started evolution

COLLINS: “By being outside of nature, God is also outside of space and time. Hence, at the moment of the creation of the universe, God could also have activated evolution, with full knowledge of how it would turn out, perhaps even including our having this conversation. The idea that he could both foresee the future and also give us spirit and free will to carry out our own desires becomes entirely acceptable.”

‘Entirely acceptable’? It doesn’t make sense. If God had already predetermined the future at the moment of creation, then, by definition, we are all living predetermined lives with inescapable outcomes. Under this theory, human free is simply an illusion.

There’s also the small side issue of why God, in his infinite wisdom, power and love, would choose such a slow and destructive process as evolution to bring about life. We would have to suppose that God sat back with folded arms for about 10 billion years before life eventually started and then waited for another 4 billion years until human beings began to evolve.

Collins seems disconcertingly untroubled by such questions.

Collins on the lack of evidence of God’s existence in evolution

COLLINS: … I don’t think that it is God’s purpose to make his intention absolutely obvious to us. If it suits him to be a deity that we must seek without being forced to, would it not have been sensible for him to use the mechanism of evolution without posting obvious road signs to reveal his role in creation?

How convenient. So the lack of evidence for God’s existence is just part of his plan. If that argument was taken to its logical conclusion we would have to argue that a complete absence of evidence for God is simply evidence that he is cleverer at hiding his existence than we thought.

Collins answers the question, “If God created the world, who created God?”

COLLINS: My God is not improbable to me. He has no need of a creation story for himself or to be fine-tuned by something else. God is the answer to all of those “How must it have come to be” questions.

That’s just too easy isn’t it? Surely even Collins can’t pretend that this is an adequate answer for how an infinitely intelligent and powerful God could have existed at the very beginning of creation. Why can’t God-believers like Collins just be honest and admit that they don‘t know? What’s so frightening about saying “I don’t know”? Scientists do it all the time.

The difference between scientists and religionists, however, is that scientists use gaps in our knowledge as a basis for further research. Religionists don’t. Instead of trying to actually further our understanding, they prefer to reside in the comfort of their childishly misguided certainty and fill one mystery with another by claiming, “God did it. Mystery solved.”

Collins’s answers show all the signs of someone trying – and failing spectacularly – to find a way to connect his scientific knowledge with his religious beliefs. He may be a brilliant scientist but to say he’s misguided would be giving him too much credit. He’s as crazy as they come.

See also (websites, not blogs)

Sam Harris: The Language of Ignorance
Sam Harris reviews Francis Collins’s book The Language of God.

The BioLogos Foundation
An organisation founded by Francis Collins’s to “engage America’s escalating culture war between science and faith”.

Science and reason lead to real knowledge – religion doesn’t

Science is the accumulation of knowledge using objective means in order to understand the history of the natural world and how the natural world works. Observable physical evidence, either from observations of nature or from experiments that try to simulate nature, is the basis of that understanding.

Of course, scientific knowledge changes over time when new evidence becomes available. We can’t know many things with absolute certainty – we only know the observable evidence. However, we can reach the best possible conclusion based on the most complete and modern evidence available. The result is that scientific knowledge is constantly changing and evolving but is proceeding toward a more correct view of the world.

This contrasts strongly with the knowledge claimed by many religious people who claim that they, or a book they endorse, holds all relevant knowledge and that such knowledge is absolutely and unquestionably true. The Bible, for example, is often held up as containing all knowledge, and as being literal and infallible Truth. Some of them will say that the world was created by a certain deity a certain number of years ago. If asked about their level of certainty, these people generally respond that they have absolutely no uncertainty!

Interestingly, many eastern religions are more encouraging of sustained inquiry and less insistent on unquestioning faith than the three major monotheistic religions. The Dalai Lama’s enthusiasm for unfettered scientific study of meditation is an example.

Why debating with Jehovah’s Witnesses is pointless

I must admit to a degree of naivety when I had my first debate with two Jehovah’s Witnesses a few months ago. I say ‘naive’ because when they asked me “Do you believe in God?” I didn’t lock the door and ignore them like any sensible person should.

Instead, I stood there fully expecting to have an interesting debate on the existence of God. I remember my response well. “No” I said, while racking my brain at what I was going to say next. “Actually I’m a staunch atheist. I read a lot of books by the likes of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Dan Dennett and…” I looked over and saw blank expressions. Clearly, they hadn’t heard of them.

To be honest, it took me 4 fairly lengthy discussions and 3 Watchtower books to fully realise that I was wasting my time with them. No matter how logical my arguments were and how much scientific evidence I could point them to, they just weren’t open to any suggestion that the Bible might be wrong.

But why would they be? Clearly they’re not going to be reasoned out of beliefs that they obviously haven’t reasoned themselves into. And besides, the Witnesses who go preaching from door to door aren’t the ones sitting on the fence.

No, their intention is to preach the Good News, as they term it, in order to convert people to a belief in God to save them from the impending annihilation that awaits unbelievers following Armageddon. It’s safe to assume that these viewpoints aren’t the result of an evaluation of the existing evidence for such claims.

The last conversation I had with them was probably the most absurd. It was about the story of Noah’s Ark, which they believed was absolutely true. I tried to point out the extreme unlikelihood(!) that a 600 year old man built a boat containing several million species of animals in order to save them from a future flood that would cover the tops of every mountain on earth. (And that’s not to mention that the guy lived until he was over 900 years old… and that many of the animals would have been natural predators… and that animals from continents unknown to Noah would have had to have swam oceans and walked continents to arrive at the Ark.)

They accepted all of this without a hint of doubt, and no amount of common sense or evidence to the contrary made any difference to their belief in the literal truth of the Bible.

I must admit, I was amazed to find myself having to debate the merits of these stories with adults.

In hindsight, I now realise that I completely wasted my time. I went out of my way to read their books and debate with them because I genuinely wanted to get a clearer idea of their viewpoints. Of course, I didn’t seriously think that I would convert to a belief in God but I at least wanted to know more about the beliefs of the people that I was debating with.

Did they do the same in return? No. At no point did they show any genuine interest in the literature that I quoted or the topics I raised – a lot of which had a direct bearing on the validity of their beliefs.

The next time they call, I might decide that I’m too busy reading a science book to answer the door.

If God created the earth, evidence of His existence should be everywhere

If God is everywhere, if He created everything, if the whole universe is under His control, if He knows everything about the past and the future, why isn’t His existence blatantly obvious everywhere? Evidence of His existence should be apparent throughout the whole of nature. Why should He require faith and belief in order to believe in His existence? Why not just have concrete proof of His existence everywhere?

For instance, if the Bible is supposed to be the word of God and we are expected to believe that the earth is about 6,000 years old, then why would God create things like fossils, rocks, oil, coal and gas which have all the appearance of being formed over billions of years?

Surely God’s existence should be obvious enough that we wouldn’t even need to debate it.

Many claims in the Bible are factually wrong or impossible

Amongst other things, the Bible implies or claims that

  • the earth is about 6,000 years old
  • a man lived inside the belly of an animal for several days
  • many human beings lived for over 900 years
  • people were resurrected from the dead
  • a rod changed into a serpent
  • a woman turned into a pillar of salt
  • several animals were able to converse in human language
  • Jesus miraculously healed ‘every sickness and every disease among the people’
  • two specimens from every species on earth went inside a boat built by a man who was over 300 years old.

… the list could go on and on and on. So let’s take a closer look at the story of Noah’s Ark.

There are about 725 species of butterfly in North America alone – that’s only a minuscule portion of what Noah had to gather. Estimates of the total number of living species generally range from about 2 to 50 million. It would be simply impossible to fit that many animals into one boat. Not forgetting the fact that many wild animals are notoriously difficult, if not impossible, to control.

Also, many of the animals would have been natural predators and this would have led to instant extinction for many species.

How did the animals actually travel to the boat? A large proportion of animals can’t survive in water and certainly can’t swim. (If they could, presumably they wouldn’t need to use the Ark). Perhaps Noah gathered them himself from continents that were unknown at the time? That seems a little unlikely.

The technology and man-power to build a boat of that size simply did not exist in those days. We would have to suppose that the size of the Ark would have been vastly bigger than anything that is possible in these technological-superior times.

And where is the actual evidence that the oceans covered the tops of the highest mountains on earth, as claimed in the book of Genesis? Where is the evidence for the Ark itself? Where did all the water come from? Where did it all go? Such a huge worldwide event should have evidence in abundance in every continent.

Also, the Bible fails to mention fossils, dinosaurs and evolution. Why? These would have played a very prominent part in the story of Noah’s Ark.

Granted, the Bible isn’t intended to be a science textbook but if it really is the word of the Creator, then why it is full of such crude ignorance about the world?

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