I Have a Problem with Religion, Not Irrationality.

I do not have a problem with myth, fantasy, imagination,  nonsense, silliness, inspiration, or fiction. I do not even have any inherent problem with arbitrary decision-making, subjectivity, ignoring evidence, or irrational beliefs! I do not think there is anything wrong with these things in and of themselves.

Magic mirror

I have a problem with beliefs based on these things being relied on for important practical decisions. I have a problem with them being considered as important as the health and welfare of human beings. I am especially concerned if they are characterized as the most important beliefs.

I would like to advance a definition of “religious” that captures both this concern and the common usage of the word.

The definition I am advancing does not list set of criteria, such as worship, or a belief in deities, or super-naturalism. I find defining religion in this way renders the definition being either too narrow or too broad. If we limit religion to theism, we exclude Scientology, Raelianism, Taoism, and some forms of Buddhism, all of which are intuitively “religions”. If we expand the definition to something like ‘a perspective on questions of ultimate concern’ we include all kinds of secular philosophy and personal views that don’t seem to fit with what we mean by “religious”.

We also have this phenomena of feeling like some forms of otherwise secular activity are properly characterized as “religious”. We might say someone is not merely an environmentalist,  but is “religious” about it. But when we use the word in this way, I think we really are engaging the same general concept as when we talk of people being “religious” in the theistic sense.

I think all of these things have one aspect in common: a relationship between irrational beliefs and their application to important aspects of human life. The definition I propose is:

“A belief’s religious significance increases, when its personal importance varies inversely with its rational basis.”

In other words, a belief is more “religious” when it is relatively more important, but has less of a rational basis.

If we make “RS” to be “religious significance”, “PI” to be “personal importance” and “RB” to be “rational basis”, the definition can be read as follows:

“RS = PI ÷RB”

By “personal importance” I mean beliefs about things like morality, health, life and death, and whether or not one is going to suffer eternal conscious torture. Contrast this to the importance we give to beliefs about entertainment or hobbies.

By “rational basis” I mean the ability of the belief to be established by scientific, historical, or journalistic methods to professional standards. The more a belief can be established by these methods the more of a rational basis it has.

Needless to say, such a definition does not result in a clear method for placing beliefs into the category of “religious” or “secular”, but I think it draws out what we are getting at when we call something distinctively “religious”.

Lets us look at some examples.  Lets take three Christian beliefs:

  1. the belief in existence of Jesus,
  2. the Resurrection of Jesus, and
  3. that Jesus had “INRI” inscribed on the cross he was nailed to.

By the existence of Jesus, I mean did a human named Jesus live from roughly year 0 to 33 A.D. in Palestine and was crucified by the Roman Empire? Depending on your perspective, this can have either a very high or low Personal Importance. In the context of Christianity, this is, as I understand it, a prerequisite for salvation and eternal life after death. For non-Christians of course it may be trivial or neutral. Let us take the Christian perspective and attribute a very high rating of Personal Importance say 75 out of 100.

This issue also has a pretty high Rational Basis. While not universally accepted, most historians, Christian and otherwise, accept that such a person existed and was crucified. Let us also give it a Rational Basis rating of 75. Applying the algorithm, we have a Religious Significance of 1. (Note to non-Christians, for whom this issue us unimportant, it scores even lower.)

On the question of Jesus’s resurrection, I would attribute a Personal Importance value for this as 100, for everyone. If Jesus really did die and come back to life as a means to save us from damnation (however defined) and to provide an avenue to eternal life, this would be enormously important for any human being. However, the Rational Basis for this claim is quite low. Science tells us that such an occurrence is extremely unlikely if not impossible, it requires something supernatural and contrary to established scientific laws in order to happen. Historians will not generally accept it as true, and so on. Being charitable to this claim, let us give it a Rational Basis rating of 5. This results in a Religious Significance rating of  20.

On our final claim, I think it the question of  whether “INRI” was inscribed on the cross or not, is marginal, if perhaps interesting. Let us give it a low Personal Importance rating of 5. But, it is accepted by historians as quite likely true, so let us give it a Rational Basis rating of 75. This gives us a religious significance of .07.

I think these ratings fit well with our intuitions of how important these various claims are to Christianity in the religious sense. That Jesus existed (score 1) is important to Christianity, but not as important as the resurrection (score 20). Whereas the question of what the Romans wrote on his cross, if anything, is quite insignificant (score 0.07).

The same seems to apply to non-theistic uses of the term “religious”. If we take a spectator sport analogy, we say someone is religious about hockey when their fandom exceeds what most of us would consider reasonable. If someone misses a surgery to watch the final, we would call them religious about the sport.

Moreover, in circumstances where the rational basis is quite low, such as in the case of  art and taste, we don’t consider someone to be “religious” about it until the personal importance rises to a certain level.  For example, a Star Trek fan becomes “religious” about it when she refuses to take off her Starfleet uniform when attending jury duty.

This phenomena of irrational beliefs being given high personal importance is also at play with “alternative” or “complementary” medicine. But I admit, the term “religious” may not fit as well in this context. That is until someone ignores real medicine in favour of something like homeopathy for a serious condition. I think we might label these people as acting religious, but we would more likely characterize these beliefs as ignorant or dogmatic, two terms that also seem to fit quite well in describing religious beliefs I would say.

Ultimately, I do not care what label people use, but the term “religious” seems to fit well for the set of beliefs and actions that I find concerning in this sense, and this analysis unites my interest in anti-theism and other skeptical issues. I know most religious folk will object on the basis that they believe their beliefs are rational, based on evidence, science, history and so on. I usually disagree, let’s have that discussion.

Believe what you like! Enjoy art, fiction, and whimsy and allow them to enrich your life. It seems obvious to say this, but when you start to talk as if these things are reasons to take a belief seriously, I will be concerned. If I think your belief will affect the rights, health or welfare of myself or others, I will try and stop you. To the extent I “attack” religion, it is this aspect I am going after.

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Big M is Kind of a Big Deal

On Sunday, May 30, 1982, police officers of the City of Calgary attended at premises owned by Big M and open to the public. They witnessed several transactions including the sale of groceries, plastic cups and a bicycle lock. Big M was charged with a violation of s. 4 of the Lord’s Day Act.

What a crime! It is hard to believe that thirty years ago you could become a criminal in Canada for operating a business on a Sunday. The law was overturned in “R. v. Big M Drug Mart Ltd.” It was the first major interpretation of the new Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and it struck down the Lord’s Day Act as a violation of religious freedom.

The case, penned by universally revered and respected Chief Justice Brian Dickson, held that a religious purpose is not a legitimate purpose for Canadian legislation and that a law enacted for a purely religious purpose violates our Constitution and cannot be saved for any reason.

sundayshop

Nothing spawns a movement like shopping.

The law in question said:

4. It is not lawful for any person on the Lord’s Day, except as provided herein, or in any provincial Act or law in force on or after the 1st day of March 1907, to sell or offer for sale or purchase any goods, chattels, or other personal property, or any real estate, or to carry on or transact any business of his ordinary calling, or in connection with such calling, or for gain to do, or employ any other person to do, on that day, any work, business, or labour.

As in any Charter case, the Court had to examine the purpose and effect of the legislation In doing so, it recognized that there were two possible purposes for such a law, “one religious, namely securing public observance of the Christian institution of the Sabbath and the other secular, namely providing a uniform day of rest from labour.” Contrary to how almost identical laws in the United States were interpreted, the Canadian Supreme Court held that this law had a religious purpose. To understand why, we need to look at the division of powers between the federal and provincial governments.

The Court looked back at the history of laws promoting Sunday observance, dating all the way back to the King of Wessex in the 7th Century, if you can believe it. Early on in Canadian jurisprudence, provinces attempted prohibit Sunday work under the powers afforded them by the “property and civil rights”, and “merely local or private nature” provisions of the Constitution. These decisions rejected these laws, finding that they were criminal prohibitions under the exclusive jurisdiction of the Federal Parliament. The Federal Legislature then enacted a criminal law, “The Lord’s Day Act”  in 1906, prohibiting work on Sunday and allowing the provinces to ban it as well.

Had the provincial laws been enacted for the purpose of giving people the same day off, they would have survived the division of powers challenge as having a property and civil rights” purpose. Since they did not, the 1906 criminal law challenged by Big M was clearly not for the purpose of giving people the same day off. Therefore, there had to be some other purpose, and the court held that it was definitely a religious purpose. Justice Dickson wrote “Its religious purpose, in compelling sabbatical observance, has been long‑established and consistently maintained by the courts of this country.

This is in stark contrast to how the cases played out in the United States, where similar legislation was indeed held to be for the purpose of a day of rest, according to Dickson J, “in order not to run afoul of the religion clauses of the First Amendment”. Since we have no explicit separation of church and state in Canada, there may have been little fear of these laws being quashed for establishing a religion, particularly back in 1906. But then we enacted the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Justice Dickson did not mince words in killing the law:

To the extent that it binds all to a sectarian Christian ideal, the Lord’s Day Act works a form of coercion inimical to the spirit of the Charter and the dignity of all non‑Christians. In proclaiming the standards of the Christian faith, the Act creates a climate hostile to, and gives the appearance of discrimination against, non‑Christian Canadians. It takes religious values rooted in Christian morality and, using the force of the state, translates them into a positive law binding on believers and non‑believers alike. The theological content of the legislation remains as a subtle and constant reminder to religious minorities within the country of their differences with, and alienation from, the dominant religious culture. Non‑Christians are prohibited for religious reasons from carrying out activities which are otherwise lawful, moral and normal. The arm of the state requires all to remember the Lord’s day of the Christians and to keep it holy. The protection of one religion and the concomitant non‑protection of others imports disparate impact destructive of the religious freedom of the collectivity.

The Court held that a religious purpose is never a valid legislative purpose in Canada. It did so indirectly by rejecting the argument that irrespective of original purpose, the effect of the legislation was secular, to give a day of rest:

Once the purpose has been classified as offensive, then the legislation cannot be saved by permissible effect. As a result it is unnecessary to determine whether the secular effect here in issue is sufficient, or whether a secular effect could ever be relevant, once a finding has been made that the legislation is invalid by reason of an impermissible purpose.

This is important to keep in mind when considering whether Canada has the separation of church and state or is secular. The Canadian constitution prevents the legislature from ever having a religious purpose in its laws. Any religious purpose invalidates the law, even if it doesn’t prevent or compel a religious practice directly.

Another interesting element of the case, of particular note given the recent “Hobby Lobby” decision, is that the “person” here asserting a violation of Freedom of Religion was a corporation. This is because it was the corporation that was charged criminally as a legal “person”. Accordingly, there was no issue of standing for Big M to advance its argument.  To avoid conviction the corporation was able to advance a challenge that the law violated the Charter. The Court held that the fact that it was a corporation was irrelevant, as was its inability to hold religious beliefs. “An accused atheist would be equally entitled to resist a charge under the Act.

In Canada, we can become troubled by the fact that our Constitution allows for state funding of religious education and that the Charter itself proclaims the supremacy of God. It is refreshing to look back at a case like Big M and remind ourselves that our government is secular and cannot make laws for religious purposes.

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The Hobby Lobby Case and the Unreason of Religion

Like most Freedom of Religion cases, the US Supreme Court ruling in Burwell v Hobby Lobby engages the issue of how far courts should delve into the reasonableness of religious beliefs. Like in Anselem, the Hobby Lobby decision reinforces the position that courts should not inquire into this issue at all.

296-1258907863HXOs

An hobby horse.

Responding to the argument advanced by the government that the requirement to provide health insurance covering all birth control is not a substantial burden on religion, the majority in Hobby Lobby noted:

This argument dodges the question that RFRA presents (whether the HHS mandate imposes a substantial burden on the ability of the objecting parties to conduct business in accordance with their religious beliefs ) and instead addresses a very different question that the federal courts have no business addressing (whether the religious belief asserted in a RFRA case is reasonable). [my emphasis]

While the Court observes there are very good reasons for declining to engage in this analysis it does not say what they are. Actually, I think there is only one good reason for this, that religion is simply not reasonable. Requiring religious practices to demonstrate they are reasonable would preclude just about any claim for religious freedom from succeeding.

An hotel lobby.

It is not a question of these issues being too complex, subtle, personal, or emotional to scrutinize in legal disputes. Harassment cases are a good example of how courts can, and do deal with such difficult issues. There is no such aversion to delving deeply into whether a possible victim of harassment’s  view that she was harassed is reasonable. The law (in Canada at least) requires an objective finding that the victim was harassed. “Objective” here meaning that the reasonable person, given the context, would feel harassed.

In terms of religious practice, however, courts rightly decline to make such an inquiry. I would say the reason they do this is that they recognize that religious practices are by definition unreasonable. While religious apologists will claim that their religious beliefs are reasonable, it is quite clear that they would be utterly unable even to adduce convincing evidence, on legal standards, that any god or supernatural phenomena exists in the first place. But in a case such as Hobby Lobby, they would need to show not only that it is reasonable to believe that a God exists, but that this God has a negative position on abortion, that this includes some contraception, and means not allowing your business to have a health insurance package that funds the offensive kind of contraception.

Legal standards of evidence and proof are too high to allow for any such religious claim to succeed. If standards were lowered, contradictory religious beliefs would be accepted in various cases. For example, courts would have to accept as reasonable both an employer’s view that employees must accept Christ as their saviour to continue working there, and the Jewish employee’s view that it is blasphemy for him to do so.

Religious people may disagree and believe that their religious beliefs would be held reasonable in a western court of law. This would seem to be homicide detective J. Warner Wallace’s viewpoint. However, as I have noted, in making his cold case Wallace immediately abandons vital legal standards such as naturalism and the prohibition on hearsay.

It is due to the inherent unreasonableness of religious beliefs that courts decline to rule on their reasonableness. Instead, they rightly limit their inquiry to whether the claimants hold a genuine belief that the practice in question is part of their religion. This is possibly the lowest threshold in law, and it is acceptable only when properly balanced against the rights of others not to suffer a detriment due to such beliefs. I think the Court failed in Hobby Lobby to consider the rights of the women to be treated substantively equal when working at Hobby Lobby, as anywhere else.

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The Futility of Design Arguments

I will grant that one of the most compelling arguments supporting theism is that of design. Like many apologetics, these arguments identify a aspect of the world we observe that is awe inspiring and to which no natural explanation is known and it seems impossible that one will emerge and label God as the unknown and unknowable explanation.

The game of the [celestial] sphere, or the universe according to [the astronomer] Tyco [sic.] Brahe.

Le jeu de la sphere ou de l’univers selon Tyco Brahe. 1661

Take the so-called “fine tuning” arguments. These acknowledge that there are a number of constants in the universe that are so precise that if they were even slightly different, nothing like the present universe could have arisen. Wikipedia provides an example:

for example, the strong nuclear force were 2% stronger than it is (i.e., if the coupling constant representing its strength were 2% larger), while the other constants were left unchanged, diprotons would be stable and hydrogen would fuse into them instead of deuterium and helium.[10] This would drastically alter the physics of stars, and presumably preclude the existence of life similar to what we observe on Earth. The existence of the di-proton would short-circuit the slow fusion of hydrogen into deuterium. Hydrogen would fuse so easily that it is likely that all of the Universe’s hydrogen would be consumed in the first few minutes after the Big Bang.[10] However, some of the fundamental constants describe the properties of the unstable strange, charmed, bottom and top quarks and mu and tau leptons that seem to play little part in the Universe or the structure of matter.

I do not presume to understand the physics of this, or a number of other examples of precise cosmological constants, but I accept that they are extremely precise. One website states that the maximum deviation ratio for the “cosmological constant” is 1:10120. I do not know what this means, but it appears uncontroversial that this is indeed the case. This is really incredibly precise.

The argument is that to be so precise implies that a mind must have decided on these, that they could not have arisen by “mere chance”. This of course simply dismisses the possibility that they are necessarily this precise, either because we are one in an infinite number of universes, or some other physical reason. See the Rationally Speaking podcast and blog for some counter-arguments in this regard.

But the point is that the level of precision itself means they are virtually impossible to be established by any other means than a deity. This is why they are considered “fine tuned”. If we turn on a radio that is perfectly tuned to a station, we acknowledge that it is unlikely that it just happened to be at that frequency by chance. The precision of these cosmological constants is so much more precise, many orders of magnitude more precise, which, we are led to believe implies only a god of such staggering power could have organized.

What I would like to point out is that this is all being considered from the human perspective. The constants are incredibly precise from our perspective, but they would not be precise at all from God’s perspective. A 2% deviation in the strong nuclear force may seem small to us, but it is needlessly vague for a being that has no limits to its power and faculties. This being is designing the laws of nature themselves and it would have no limits  on precision. 2% is twice as big as a 1% deviation. In fact, it would have been nothing for the creator of the universe to make the allowable deviation to be 0.000000000000000000000000001% or a trillion times more precise than that, and so on. In other words, given the power of the suggested god, the precision of the constants shows us nothing. It could have made them much more or much less precise.

What is really going on here is that humans have identified some properties of the universe that we find awe-inspiring and we do not understand them. Any time we have such a situation, theists will say the only answer is a god. The reasonable response is that we do not know why they have this level of precision.

This draws out that the idea God is not really an explanation for anything, it is a place-holder for an explanation. It is unfalsifiable. It is a panacea. It can explain anything and everything and any inconsistencies are actually proof of it because only a god can do what seems impossible to us.

Take the following examples of hypothetical discussions:

Theist: The Universe is designed for us! Look at the cosmological constants, they are so precise!

Atheist: But these same constants make the majority of the universe overwhelmingly hostile to life. Interstellar space, black holes, all the other planets in our solar system…

Theist: But only a god would make it so vast as to show us how special we are and to be in awe of his power.

Atheist: But if there were only one planet it was teeming with life, would that be evidence of no god? Isn’t this what theists used to believe and think made us so special?

In other words, a universe with only one planet filled with life suggests a god made it  just for us. Or a enormous universe with trillions of stars and empty space shows us how special we are too.

If we were to find out tomorrow that we were completely wrong about the constants and that they are much more fuzzy, this would still be proof of God. In this case, it was not God’s hand in designing the constants so precise that allows life, but ensuring that they were so vague that our universe was sure to support life. And so on.

If we were to find out tomorrow,  the top quark is heavier than currently thought, meaning the Universe is much more unstable and likely to annihilate us all in a moment’s notice, would this mean it is less designed for life? Of course not, this would be part of God’s design, likely his final judgment and power to end it all and bring the saved into his timeless, space-less transcendence.

You cannot take a fact and say that it points to God but even if it was completely different it would still point to God. This is why unfalsifiable premises make reasoned arguments pointless.

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Pure Act Forum

I have been having a discussion in the comment boxes at Strange Notions with an avatar, Andrej Tokarčík. The discussion has outgrown the comment box format and I have offered to continue the discussion here… in comment box format.

We began debating a variant of the argument from contingency/prime mover as articulated by Thomas Aquinas. See the post by Trent Horn and our discussion.

In brief, Horn says Aquinas argues “everything in motion only moves because it has a potential to move. Since nothing can move itself, an object can only move if its potential to move is activated by something outside of it.”

Andrej accepts that this “something outside of it” entails an ultimate ‘something’ responsible for all motion he calls “Pure Act” which is non-material and in some way related to the Catholic God.

I disagree. I have argued, essentially, that we conclude that things moving are moved by other things because we observe this repeatedly and consistently. We conclude through induction that all things moving were caused to move. I think I have clarified that by using induction what I mean is that all things in motion seem to be caused to move. But all the causes of things we have observed are material. There is no reasonable inference from this that some immaterial ultimate Pure Act entity is involved. I have suggested that Andrej is anthropomorphizing a concept he has of “Pure Act” and accepts this as part of reality, without foundation. Moreover I have suggested that his conclusion of “Pure Act” was reached not through reason and evidence but because of an absence thereof.

We have recently gotten to the point in which Andrej has thought I have ruled out all non-material existence. I do not, but neither to I see any reason to believe anything non-material can exist. I cannot even conceive of what it would mean for something to exist non-materially.

Anyway hopefully we can have some fun dialogue. Here is our last exchange:

ANDREJ Hello, Brian. At first, I’d like to ask You this: You say that it was understandable for philosophers living hundreds of years ago when various natural phenomena were apparently without a material cause to assume the existence of an immaterial cause in order to explain the phenomena. But is it really so that today we’re in a position to positively claim that all natural phenomena have a material cause? To the contrary You Yourself mention the sudden appearances of particles on the quantum level. But how is this not analogical to the motion of sun, which seemed to the medievals to be without a material cause? Back then, You appear to say, they tried to explain the materially-uncaused material phenomena by resorting to immaterial causes. It was even understandable, You said. How come that today we feel completely okay to give up on finding any cause whatsoever of phenomena, which are now so similar to the motion of sun inasmuch as they seem to be without a material cause? Why is it more acceptable to totally give up on the possibility of an explanation of a seemingly-materially-uncaused phenomenon rather than to take advantage of an explanation involving an immaterial cause?

However, absolutely everything I have observed or can conceive of causing motion is material. The inference I get from this is that all motion appears to be caused by something material.

Analogically, I would reason as thus: Absolutely everything I have observed or can conceive of causing motion is capable of causing that particular kind of motion (for what I can say, not everything can cause all possible kinds of motion, e.g. a dog left on his own cannot cause a car to move). The inference I get from this is that all motion appears to be caused by things that are capable of causing that kind of motion.

As I see it, we both attempt to generalise from observations. But it turns out that neither of us has made an observation/generalisation that would undermine his respective world view. I haven’t limited myself to material causes only, while You have. The question is: which of the two chains of reasoning we presented is more probable to be correct? I’d say that mine has got the advantage of not taking the risk of being too specific, as I’m talking about causes in general, while You restrict Yourselves to material causes, without properly addressing reasons for this constraint. “That’s how I observe it!” is not a real justification and is prone to errors of purportedly bullet-proof induction, as I’ll try to demonstrate in the next example.

For instance, I’ve been conducting an experiment lasting tens of years already and still ongoing, in which my observations have constantly — with absolutely no evidence to the opposite — verified the fact that the human species is not extinct. As such, upon an allowable aid of generalisation, I feel qualified to contend with very high confidence that the human species has actually never ever been extinct. Such a result is actually very nice to have, for in that case no mechanisms of evolution are required to explain arising of the species, not to talk about as hard topics as abiogenesis, the origin or the fundamental laws of the universe.

I think that You wouldn’t be very eager to accept such an application of inductive reasoning. But still, it remains an instance of induction :)

We should also avoid the other extreme, though: just because one has to be very careful when reasoning inductively, it does not mean that all such reasoning should be abandoned. Induction just shouldn’t be seen as the final word on neither what we can know nor what we certainly know. (I’d recommend Nassim Taleb’s The Black Swan on this topic, despite my not having read through all of it.)

All the best,
Andrej

BGA:

“But is it really so that today we’re in a position to positively claim that all natural phenomena have a material cause?”

Well there is really no need for such a claim. Mine is: as far as we can tell all causes are material in some sense.

“But how is this not analogical to the motion of sun, which seemed to the medievals to be without a material cause?”

This is exactly my point, it was wrong to assume no material cause for the Sun’s apparent motion, we should not make the same assumption with  respect to the appearance of virtual particles or the earliest known state of the Cosmos.

“I haven’t limited myself to material causes only, while You have.”

I have not ruled out immaterial existence, I just see not reason to accept it. My dispute with you is that when you do not detect a material cause, you conclude an immaterial cause. I would say this is  fallacious. It is arguing from ignorance.

“The question is: which of the two chains of reasoning we presented is more probable to be correct?”

Based on the fact that all observed causes are material I would say it is more likely that all causes are material.

“That’s how I observe it!” is not a real justification and is prone to errors of purportedly bullet-proof induction, as I’ll try to demonstrate in the next example.”

Of course induction is not bullet-proof, it leads to weak positions. When I say something is established inductively, I mean it “appears” to be the case. This is what inductive arguments do. Your example more or less sets out the problem of induction. We have no way of knowing that past patterns predict the future but we all behave as if this is the  case. This is what I mean when I say I take the reliability of induction as axiomatic.

I have read the Black Swan twice and I am almost done with Anti-Fragile. You should read the whole thing and I suggest you have a close look at chapter six which begins with “On the Causes of My Rejection of Causes”

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A Morning Vociferation on Morality (in Response to Counter Apologist’s Call)

The following was too long for Counter Apologist‘s comment box so I have made it into a post! It is an unreflected discharge of my thinking on this subject in furtherance of his eagerly anticipated video.

“Yay We Won the War, and God Does Not Accept Human Sacrifice… Right?”

I think trying to establish a perfect or absolute ontological basis for morality is a trap. Neither atheists not theists have established such a basis for morality, theists simply assert that there is one. What they do is create a false problem of “mere” social constructs. They try to get us to worry that without accepting that an absolutely objective foundation for morality exists, we must be arbitrary or dangerously subjective in our moral values and judgment. But how do they solve this problem? Not through the use of self-attesting truths like the moral absolutes, but by “intuition”. The common example is torturing a baby for fun. Theists do not establish that this is wrong, but simply accept it as “obviously” true, intuitively. This is not an objective moral system, it is the very definition of a subjective moral system. And of course such a system is useless for real moral dilemmas which is the whole point of morality, isn’t it?. Do I strangle my baby or let it cry and get us all killed by the Nazis? Do I take my kids to Disneyland or disappoint them and fix the roof? Real morality deals with situations like this where our intuition tells us that both are good. In fact, our intuitions often lead us to morally repugnant acts, revenge for example. Moreover, competing religions can say certain things are “obviously good” and have no objective basis to compare them. For some Muslims strict sexual segregation may be an obvious good, for liberal Christians, gay marriage may be. And, they cannot point to consequences of harm and well-being to convince each other, rather they must refer to their theology and intuition both of which are filtered through their own limited and sinfully corrupted nature!

Atheists are in the same boat (minus the presumption of sin-nature), we have intuitions too are ultimately the grounding of our morality. I think these are broadly classifiable into two categories 1) acts that further my interests or immediate goals (or biology) 2) acts that further my interests indirectly by supporting a healthy community or long-term goals. When these are in conflict, we have a moral dilemma. There may be an absolute perfect objective basis for these, to which we like theists are ignorant see skeptical theism) or they may be a result of evolution. There is  an empirical and inductive basis to accept evolutionary founding, but I think we need to be clear that science has not proven this yet.

But even without a scientific basis or ontologically proven basis, we can still do better than “it is obviously good”. We can look to the most commonly, or universally held values, (well being, harm-avoidance, freedom to pursue idiosyncratic desires) we can accept that our moral basis is not ontologically supported (virtually nothing is, science included, i.e. the problem of induction). But what we can say is that this limitation only matters if we encounter people who genuinely do not share these values at all. We do not consider such individuals to be morally different, we consider them to have mental disorders or illnesses. They are called psychopaths, they lack empathy, or the capacity to understand the consequences of their actions. (Jon Ronson’s Psychopath Test is a must-read, the audio book is great and read by him!)

Even people who commit crimes based on theist delusions (Andrea Yates and, http://bit.ly/1jkeBSt) do not defend themselves on theistic grounds, they claim insanity.

In other words, to the extent there are limitations on the Moral Landscape-type moral system,  it is limited only in applying it to the insane. Everyone else will have to accept reasonable arguments about well-being and harm and to this extent we can be objective about morality. It is nonsense to say that such an approach is arbitrary or dangerously subjective. If it were, our courts would be making decisions arbitrarily and subjectively all the time. They consider “objective” to mean what the reasonable person would do taking into account all of the relevant context. Courts never require ontologically established values.

So in conclusion I do not accept that it would be a problem if there were no absolute objective moral values, and even if there are, and they could be said to “exist”, neither theists nor atheists have access to them. We both use our intuition, which atheists (or humanists or SamHarrisians) can codify with reference to near-universally held values which only the insane would disagree with.

“The majority is always sane.” -Larry Niven

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Christian Law Schools

It would seem that the government of British Columbia has approved of Trinity Western University’s request to house an accredited law school.

I think there is zero reason for to add religion to any form of education that is not training religious officers. All adding “Christian” or “Muslim” or even “atheist” to an education can do is bias it with some unnecessary and unquestionable principles. Educators should value free inquiry and critical thinking and not be limited by any other unquestionable doctrine.

All lawyers are officers of the court and this means that they must, like police and judges, accept the authority of the civil law, by which I mean the constitution of this country and the statutes and other legal rules. Yes, it is the role of the licensing authority of any jurisdiction to ensure lawyers understand and are accountable for this, but I think this should be reflected in the law school’s approach as well. However, Trinity Western University has the following “core value”

Obeying the Authority of Scripture

We believe the Scriptures, both Old and New Testaments, to be the inspired Word of God, without error in the original writings, the complete revelation of His will for the salvation of men, and the Divine and final authority for all Christian faith and life. [emphasis added]

The Old Testament is not silent on the issue of “law”. It contains a great number of “laws” and it is unequivocal in telling its readers that these laws are the absolute divine authority. It contains laws requiring parents of disobedient children to stone them to death (Deuteronomy 21:18-21). It requires rape victims to be married to their rapists. (Deuteronomy 22:28-29). It is one of the bloodiest, sexist books I have ever encountered.

It is one thing if the statement of core values said that the Bible was to be interpreted through the life and teachings of Jesus. But this school actually says the Old Testament its authority as well. Not a guideline, not a bit of literature to be interpreted in light of modern values and morality, but “without error” in its “original writings” (as if anyone knew what the originals actually said). And this is the divine and final authority. This certainly suggests to me that it is above the laws of men.

If these law students are taught statutory interpretation, they will learn that a text’s plain and ordinary meaning is to be preferred. They will learn that you interpret text based on the intentions of the author when he or she was writing, not based on the understanding of a deity or scholar hundreds of years later. They will learn that these texts meant exactly whet they say.

This does not appear to me to be a progressive Christian approach to religion or education. It appears fundamentalist, zealous and it worries me.

Yes, they have the right to teach in this way, and yes they have the right to train lawyers and yes, there may be no negative effect from any of this. But the fact that there is a right to something and that there may be no negative impact from it is not a reason to do it. I sincerely wish that all religious people would teach there religion and religious values separately from science, history and especially law. These subjects are complicated enough without having to teach them under the core value of the divine and final authority of a book that would have us burn witches and prohibits wearing mixed fabrics.

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