God vs Knysna fires and Vegter vs Vegter

Earlier this month, as a runaway fire was claiming many lives and many houses in Knysna, Ivo Vegter* wrote a Daily Maverick column that lamented the fact that essential communication channels for disaster-relief were being used to offer prayers and other religious homilies.

Given that Ivo was himself dealing with the same threat to home and safety, and assisting with the relief efforts, it’s understandable that he thought the “emoticons of praying hands, or even entire prayers” shared over WhatsApp were getting in the way of more essential communication, and many Christians will agree with him on this. Continue reading “God vs Knysna fires and Vegter vs Vegter”

#GodDebate: Mahlatse Winston Mashua, Eusebius and I talk God

I took part in a very interesting radio debate this morning, on the topic of whether or not God exists. As I said in one of my first remarks, the first question we’d need to resolve is “which God?”, because that question is perhaps one that separates many heathens and believers.

By which I mean simply this: the debate around the existence of god(s) allows for vast amounts of embedded assumptions, implied premises, special pleading, confirmation bias and the like. I’m not a fan of Richard Dawkins’ approach to the religion debate at all, but he had it completely right in saying (paraphrased) that everyone knows what it’s like to be an atheist – I just go one god further than you. Continue reading “#GodDebate: Mahlatse Winston Mashua, Eusebius and I talk God”

John Lennox and @Eusebius McKaiser debate: does morality need God?

eusebiusMckaisercroppedA trip to Johannesburg last week (for the unlikely purpose of presenting a paper at a nutrition conference!) was well-timed, in that I had the opportunity to both attend a debate between Christian apologist John Lennox and Eusebius McKaiser, as well as to join Eusebius in studio the next day for a chat on religion and its place in state-run schools.

You can find the embedded stream of my interview with Eusebius at the bottom of this post. But while it’s still relatively fresh in memory, I thought I should capture a few thoughts on the debate for those of you who could not attend. A recording of debate will appear on YouTube at some point too, I’m told.

The topic of the debate was “Morality and God: is there a connection?”, although the conversation also ended up touching on other issues including the role of God in generating significance in life, and whether atheists are at all handicapped with regard to understanding science.

In his opening remarks, Lennox made the claim that science and atheism were essentially in conflict, as atheism undermines rationality. This was the first of many occasions where I had the clear sense that Lennox was failing to extend himself beyond certain premises that he considered to be axiomatic.

For him, God generates meaning, in that God creates the syntax and grammar of science – the order of things, the directions in which they flow, how they fit together. So without grasping God, you’re handicapped in your capacity to understand science at all. (This is my analogy, but I think it captures what he was saying.)

This question of mine (above) was put to him later in the evening, and he responded by professing ignorance regarding the state of Islamic science. This evaded my question, in that the dilemma I tried to make him grapple with was the possibility that his religion was interchangeable with any other for the purposes of generating this scientific foundation.

If it was not, he’d have to argue that his was superior – an easy thing to assert, but not easy to make a case for, and one of those occasions where the fundamentalism of the axiomatic premises I spoke of above would be exposed.

Another moment of disappointment to me was when he described evolution as a “mindless unguided process”, which reveals a rather caricatured and false view of evolution. Evolution is strongly guided by natural selection – but if one equivocates around what “guided” means, or rather, stacks the deck in favour of only one sort of guided (by a conscious agent, like God), then Lennox can certainly win the day, but only at the expense of making a plainly circular argument.

And that’s the problem with these debates. I’ve debated a couple of apologists over the years also, and besides the opportunity these debates present for showing an audience how arguments work (or don’t work), there’s pretty much zero prospect of productive argument between the antagonists.

Even strong critiques have little impact, such as when McKaiser exposed the inconsistency of Lennox (and all religious folk, to an extent) happily living in the empirical world of cause and effect when it comes to their day to day lives, but then bringing what is (to an atheist) essentially magic into the conversation when speaking of the souls, free will, morality and so forth.

We have a number of compelling (and competing) accounts for how morality evolves or is generated in animals that demonstrate moral instincts – and many of these are more plausible than an account requiring the sort of leap of faith that religion does (and, never mind the difficulty of then making a principled choice between the various religious accounts).

Again, it would only be if you’re predisposed to be sympathetic to the religious (and Christian) account of these things that they have any chance of gaining traction. In a fair fight, as it were, the religious account would be dropped from the list of plausible hypotheses fairly early on.

Similar tactics (and results) were in evidence with questions around the significance of life – a question that only becomes interesting if you grant that life needs some grand metaphysical meaning. There’s no reason to grant that premise, though – it’s a challenge that only has any force because it’s the product of centuries of religious privilege.

The conversation was fair-minded for the most part, although there were a number of sly digs from each debater towards his opponent. I thought Lennox more guilty of this, but my count might be unreliable, thanks both to my epistemic framework and the fact that Eusebius is a friend.

I suspect that Eusebius and I don’t agree on the morality question, although that requires that I hear his view outside of a context in which he was mostly attempting to rebut Lennox, rather than offer his full explanation of how moral principles are generated.

From what I heard on Thursday, Eusebius is a moral realist, which I’m not, but then, at other times, he seemed to speak as if his account of the objectivity of moral truths was one grounded in something like rationality, reciprocal altruism and the social contract, which together make certain moral principles binding on any rational agent.

If that’s true, we’d agree in substance, but I’d object that this doesn’t mean objectivity or moral realism, but rather that we’d converge on the same principles for pragmatic and contingent reasons – certain moral principles would be akin to conclusions in science, in that they are the best-evidenced, rather than being true by necessity.

Were you there? If so, feel free to let me know what you thought, below.

More on Hawking and the (latest) death of god

As submitted to The Daily Maverick

Note to reader: While the opening paragraph is identical to a previous post on this subject, the rest of the content is new.

I’m not a physicist, so won’t be able to say much about many of the claims Stephen Hawking reportedly makes in his new book The Grand Design (co-written with Leonard Mlodinow, author of the excellent The Drunkard’s Walk). But based on reviews and responses to the book by other physicists, Hawking’s controversial claim – that God is no longer necessary to explain the origins of the universe – is premised on insights gleaned from a patchwork of string-theories known as “M-theory”.

Relegating God to the sidelines in this fashion has brought Hawking many headlines, and will no doubt help book sales. It’s also brought a swift flurry of responses from religious groups and leaders, who reject the notion of God’s redundancy. A summary of many of these responses consists of an admission that while Hawking may have provided insight into the “how” questions relating to the origin of the universe, he hasn’t helped us answer the “why” questions. Therefore, they say, God still has a role in helping us understand our lives on this dustbowl called Earth. Continue reading “More on Hawking and the (latest) death of god”

Hawking: science doesn’t need god

Unfortunately, I can’t say much about the physics underlying the claims Stephen Hawking reportedly makes in his new book The Grand Design (co-written with Leonard Mlodinow, author of the excellent The Drunkard’s Walk). First because I’m not a physicist, and second because I haven’t read the book yet. But one of the claims Hawking apparently makes is that god is no longer necessary to explain the origins of the universe. The extent to which god was ever necessary to explain the origins of the universe is of course itself highly debatable – especially if, by “god” we mean some particular version of god.

In other words, it’s all good and well to say that the universe was created by something we don’t (perhaps, yet) understand, but it’s a massive leap to go from that proposition to far more specific ones, such as “god is good”, “god wants me to wear plaid”, or “god wants you to give me money“. In short, we’ve got very little idea of how the universe came about, and the physics that “explains” it is highly speculative. Other physicists and philosophers of physics – even those who don’t believe in god themselves – have also been quick to point out that they don’t think Hawking is right or consistent on the physics. Continue reading “Hawking: science doesn’t need god”

Good without god

Over at Talking Philosophy, a post by Jeff Mason has generated a few interesting comments. The post itself is interesting (hence the comments, I suppose), but one comment (by Tom, a self-professed religious believer) is perhaps particularly interesting. Here’s an extract from the comment, followed by some general comments in response:

religion, particularly belief in a deity, is an incredibly useful concept the human mind uses to funnel its understanding of many issues into language which is not only powerfully symbolic, but also compact and economical. Finally, religion tightens the concept of duty due to the psychological implications (a la Pascal Boyer) of a personal god in relation to our intuitive psychology of each other. Continue reading “Good without god”