Friday, June 14, 2013

Path to Atheism … and back?

My reading of atheist ‘de-conversion’ stories and following atheist blogs bring me to the conclusion that most Christian denominations do more to facilitate de-conversion than adherence to Christianity. Perhaps, for those who really care this is a good thing, because once they get to atheism, if they take a rational, objective look around they will return to a theist position. A theist position, but unlikely to be back in their previous church.
Why so? First let’s start with what the various denominations teach. Teaching starts with kids and is seldom upgrade to adults (they just get the bigger words).

Kids get given:
· A false belief in the literal inerrancy of the bible 
· A distorted characterisation of God 
· A theology that is at best trapped in the dark ages and perpetuated by narrowly educated pastors. 
· All other religions are false 

· All you need is faith – it takes you where reason can’t.
The smaller evangelical and fundamentalist churches lead the way, but others are there too. Worse yet, some denominations are very loose structures with little or no control over what is taught, so work it out. 

The result is that when these ‘bright and shiny’ Christians meet an atheist their beliefs are seriously (and in some cases validly) challenged. For instance; the bible is not the literal and inerrant truth, evolution is real – it happened, God will not fix all your problems. OK so what they have to adjust their thinking. Well yes, but the problem is bigger than that. Christians received their teaching from people they trust(ed) and had faith in. For most their beliefs were not built up gradually from a rational base. They were just given the whole 9 yards at told to believe it – it’s true. 

So for most they developed a ‘faith’ in the often used (but wrong) sense of a belief without evidence. Adopting this sort of faith requires a considerable emotional investment, far more than taking the final step in an evidence based belief system. With high levels of emotional investment comes a fair level of cognitive bias. So we see our ‘bright and shiny’ Christians being quite emphatic and a bit irrational on occasions. Problem is the more they re-enforce their position the greater the emotional investment. 

Then BANG. An atheist brings it all down. God is not good, the Trinity is really complicated, the bible is wrong etc. Our ‘bright and shiny’ Christian has never been given the information with which to respond rationally and confidently to these usually flawed atheist argument – heck I know I was initially over whelmed. 

Now the real problems set in – trust is broken. Some of their teacher “lied” to them, the bible “lied” to them, the ones they loved and trusted “lied” to them. My “” on lied are because in most cases the “lies” were either simplifications for children or passed on out of genuine ignorance by those they trusted. With loss of faith, perhaps a big part of their lives, the breaches of trust result in a pretty traumatised person. Yet be sure that the atheist is there to pick them up. Another is lost to the dark side. Had the churches brought up their believers differently they could have been protected from this traumatic experience. 

How? Why? 

Simply because most of the atheists have fed our ‘bright and shiny’ is no more (at best) valid than their original Christian education. In truth what the atheists did is far more dishonest than the faults of their Christian teachers. The atheist claim to have done the study, done the rational analysis, to have sceptical. In most cases that is simply rubbish! 

 If the atheists had applied themselves they would have realised that it sound Christian teaching agrees with much of what they say – bible is not inerrant literal truth, evolution happened, shit happens – even to Christians, some self-professed Christians are scumbags of the worst order. 
Above all a truly scholarly or even just a conscientious one would have discovered that sound Christian teaching is that faith and reason are one – truth is truth and there is only one version – and where faith and science conflict good science wins.

Have the atheists have created a similar problem for the ‘bright and shiny’ new atheist? Certainly their emotional investment in atheism is not as deep as it was in Christianity (less depth of trust in atheist teachers, more logic (albeit pseudo-logic)) they are still vulnerable to getting that belief shattered too. But atheists do mitigate this by promoting the view that they do not have a belief, merely an unbelief – and you can’t lose your unbelief can you. Still the whole de-conversion had a lot of emotion tied up in it. Emotion that brings with significant cognitive bias. 

So it is quite hard to re-convert an atheist, quite hard to break through the emotional; resistance and cognitive bias. 
But there is hope. The thinking, conscientious , scholarly, sceptical atheist will eventually discern the flaws in the atheist arguments. They will research a wider theology, including scholarly Christian theology like that of the Catholic Church (read the catechism online – well try parts of it and can be a bit heavy going) . They will, God willing, emerge on the other side, back on the light side with a well-founded, rational, defensible belief that there is a God. 

From the conclusion that there is a God they will most likely move to consider how they should live their lives in response. They may adopt a religion as the vehicle for their journey – they will have realised that there is a huge measure of local context and enculturation in all religions, but there are valid elements to most. 

I find the apparently deliberate intellectual dishonesty of many atheists reprehensible, until I realised that for many they are still trying to heal the scars of their de-conversion and they cling desperately to their new faith hoping to never having to admit they were wrong twice. 

 Hamba kahle - peace


Friday, April 20, 2012

The mosaic of faith

I have been thinking more about why I believe there is a God and how to present my views in a logical way. I think belief in God is like a mosaic.For a start I am sure we all accept that there is no proof absolute that God exists, so that is not my objective. So what constitutes reasonable or sufficient proof?

An analogy: Archaeologists unearth a piece of a ceramic tile. What can they conclude – it is a piece of a ceramic tile. As they find more pieces of different shapes and colours they head towards a question. Are the tile fragments part of a mosaic, a picture, a work of art or just bits of tiles from a wall or floor or two?

If they assume the latter there will be little motivation to piece the bits together – you just get a few walls of tiles. However, if they are open minded and acknowledge that it is possible that the tiles are part of a picture, then, as they piece the tiles together they will start to look for a pattern and yes any emerging pattern will influence where they place each tile.

They progress to the point where a picture is staring to emerge as they find more bits of tile. Some will see a possible picture sooner than others; some may even see a different picture. Certainly different cultural backgrounds may influence the picture some see emerging.

Eventually there are enough bits of tile to form a reasonably clear picture.

I suggest that belief in God is analogous to the mosaic.
No one piece of tile is sufficient to see the picture and certainly individual pieces evidence that God exists are often unconvincing on their own.

But once we have amassed enough individual pieces we have a case to present that God exists when all the evidence is considered in its entirety.

But is this proof enough? What of those who argue that as the bits of evidence were amassed they were selected to support the argument that God exists. The analogy of the mosaic holds – there too it may be argued that as each piece is found and placed it may have been placed with a picture in mind. Guess the objection fails if the bits of tile fit really well together, but it is still an argument to consider.

How do we resolve this apparent impasse. Simply put we gather more evidence. Are there other mosaic pictures in or adjacent to the site? Did those who lived there use mosaic art? Following these questions we can validate our case that we have assembled a genuine picture. In a similar way we ask question about the evidence we have assembled into a ‘picture’ that God exists. We ask questions like is there beliefs and evidence of the existence of God in adjacent communities?

Again we may reach a belief that we have rebuilt a genuine mosaic or reached a belief in a genuine God. But as different people look at the mosaic picture they will interpret the imagery, use of colour or layout in the context of their own cultures, referring to other mosaics they have seen, ancient or modern. They will in effect see a different picture.

So too those looking at our assembled evidence for God will interpret it differently, within the context of their culture and background. They will see a different picture of God.

So if we accept we have a mosaic picture we should not expect everyone to agree about the picture – and certainly there may be some who stubbornly refuse to accept that it is a genuine reconstruction. So too we should not expect everyone to agree with either our conclusion that we have enough evidence that God exists or on the nature of God.

Unfortunately for the naysayers they face a difficult task. As with the mosaic, once it is assembled and the picture revealed; removing (or discrediting) a single piece is unlikely to hide the image in the picture. So too once we have assembled the evidence that God exists discrediting one element is unlikely to destroy the whole case.

Yes there may well be pieces of the mosaic that are in the wrong place, or perhaps belonged to another mosaic but even accepting that we have a mosaic, we can see the picture. Equally we may have accepted some invalid evidence of God’s existence, or perhaps misinterpreted it, so we need to ensure we still have sufficient evidence to “see the picture”.

Certainly I emerged from my atheism little by little as I saw the arguments for atheism being demolished. That was not immediately replaced by a belief in God; no I had to assemble quite a lot of the ‘God’ mosaic before I recognised, or was willing to recognise the picture.

Hamba kahle – peace be with you.


Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Why I believe in God

This is complex because there is no simple single reason. Unlike some atheists who can say there is no proof absolute that God exists therefore I don’t believe God exists, I have thought about this question a bit deeper and accept that proof absolute is not a prerequisite to forming a firmly holding an opinion – believing something.

I want to distinguish between belief in a religion and believing in God. Like proof absolute, a true religion is not a prerequisite for the existence of God. Ghandi said ‘God has no religion’ and I do not believe that there is only one valid religion or revelation of God. To reason about a universal God one can’t limit ones thinking to one religion; one has to think as close to universally as one can.

Thinking universally implies that one approach the question open to any and all possible outcomes. Of course at all times one has to be rational and sceptical, taking nothing at face value. I still find the quote "An unflinching determination to take the whole evidence into account is the only method of preservation against the fluctuating extremes of fashionable opinion” from Alfred North Whitehead a great guide to exploring any question; from neo-classic economics to atheism.

I will not attempt in one post present all my reasoning because in the absence of proof absolute I have to take the weight of evidence as my yardstick. No single element is in itself fully persuasive, but taken together I believe they are indeed compelling.
So as an overview I plan to structure my case around:
A: How do we know about God?
IF there is a God we would expect to have learned about it, rather than just made it up.

B: The evidence for God.
If the evidence for God present in any one religion is persuasive, then that is enough.

C: Are there any good counter arguments? Evaluating the atheist case.
I have yet to encounter a persuasive atheist argument. Until I do, I say there are none, case closed. Feel free to enlighten me if you think I have missed one.

Atheists often accuse theists of moving the goal posts in that as soon as atheists argue that one characterisation of God is improbable the theists present another. I have two things to say on this point.

Firstly, theology is an evolving discipline. We have to expect our ideas about God to evolve as they are challenged. This process is at the very heart of scholarship.

Secondly, I may offend most of religious readers by presenting a universal God that may not conform closely to the strictures of their faith.

However let me characterise the God I believe in. God is of course supernatural, spirit or metaphysical or whatever similar word you choose to describe a non-physical being.
Perhaps God is infinitely more wise, powerful, loving and whatever else than we are, or can imagine being. You can choose words like omniscient etc but I don’t like the implied limitations and besides these terms give rise to some very silly atheist arguments about making square circles. So I will talk about a God who is simply infinitely more than we are.

Sala kahle -peace


Monday, January 23, 2012

To be atheist to the universal God requires one think universally

Most atheist arguments are based around the positions of specific religions. One even argues that because religions disagree they must all be wrong.
If we want to really look at the question of God’s existence surely we need to have an open mind as to which God we are talking about – or rather which we are not talking about.

A year since my last post, no I have not lost interest it is just that my thinking has moved beyond the rather simplistic arguments of so many atheists into less well defined territory.

God is neither Christian nor Hindu, yet both believe in the divine. Surely an open minded approach is to ask if a God exists, rather than if a specific characterisation of God exists?

Ghandi said “God has no religion”, so if we rely on arguments based in a single religion to argue against the existence of God we are at best challenging the characterisation of God by that religion.

I argue that there can be more than one equally valid, but contradictory, answer to a specific question. Therefore if one religion characterises God one way and another differently both can be equally valid. Two people standing at opposite ends of a valley describe a different view, but both see the same valley.

I argue that all (bar the lunatic fringe) religions are most likely valid. Each is its own revelation by God within the cultural context of the revelation. Each revelation by God is tailored to the group to whom it is made, in a language they can understand, using imagery and symbols they can appreciate and addresses issues relevant to them.

This is not to say that we have all created a god to meet our needs, rather it is that God’s revelations to each group meets their needs. The key is in the word revelation and acknowledges that the recipients of the revelation are only human and may get bits of it wrong, or that their successors may screw it up or even abuse it.

Hamba kahle - peace


Thursday, December 9, 2010

We need to remain sceptical

While on the subject of inappropriate experiments and conclusions let me add another.
Let’s try out of body experiences (OBEs for short), in particular those associated with near death experiences (NDE). The claim of many theists is that these experiences demonstrate the existence of some sort of metaphysical component to our existence. Atheists of course reject this as nonsense and correctly argue that it is not proven.

But there is much experimentation in this area because if the results are conclusive, one way or the other, then there will be some solid evidence for the existence or otherwise of a spiritual/metaphysical dimension and that will materially add or detract from arguments for the existence of a spiritual being.

There are three main directions being followed.Wikipedia as an OK overview.
1) Documenting personal OBE: Authors such as Penny Sartori is dismissed by many as unscientific. No control, can't replicate etc. The fact that the critics are unable to deliver an explanation for seemingly impossible occurrences does not of course bother them

2) Simulating OBEs. Coming to the aid of the critics of the anecdotal evidence is work done to artificially create an OBE. Henrik Ehrsson and others have used sensory stimulation to cause people to feel detached from their bodies. These experiments can and have been replicated. It is argued that this proves that the OBE associated with near death experiences are mere hallucinations.

3) Peek-a-Boo tests. Used Parnia as part of his research they are conducted by placing objects out of sight of patients who may have OBEs and then if they claim such an experience are asked if they have seen the objects. This seems valid and many await the outcome.

OK, what’s wrong with all this?

Firstly the simulations – at best they demonstrate that such experiences are possible and provide an explanation of the neurological mechanisms. They do nothing to address any metaphysical component. On the whole I would regard them as positive for case of spiritual experiences but certainly in no way definitive and clearly they do not disprove a metaphysical component.

What about the Peek-a-Boos. Certainly Parnia is being very thorough – he wants an undisputed result. But what does the experiment actually test? It tests a physical ability – sight. Now the NDE OBEs often make claims of having seen persons whom the patient had not previously met enter or leave their room, so fair enough to ask if they saw the hidden object ... ?

I argue that the Peek-a-Boo experiments cannot validly test if an OBE occurred. An OBE is by definition a metaphysical phenomenon – why should it respond to physical objects. Certainly those in NDE OBE claim to have “seen” people when they were incapable of vision. ... but the spiritually inclined argue that we can identify people from their spiritual presence – a cardboard object does not have such a presence, so why should we be able to detect it in an OBE?

Certainly there is more to Parnia’s work than the hidden objects with patients being extensively quizzed and where possible measurements made of brain activity together with time correlations. So Parnia may well get somewhere with the anacdotal component, but those others who base their claims on only the hidden object being seen or not are in my opinion drawing a false conclusion from their experiments.

OK what about the anecdotal evidence. Simply put, not much of it was very scientific. However this is not the case with the rigour of some of the more recent studies. The results of these more rigorous studies seem to produce at the very least some very difficult questions for the critics. If the impossible cannot be explained by conventional science then perhaps we should as a last resort use Occam’s Razor and accept the simple a metaphysical explanation.

Still no takers on designing an experiment to test if prayer works? Maybe review those that have been undertaken?

Hamba kahle - peace


Sunday, December 5, 2010

What we think we know?

We have acquired a lot of information on a subject, even some might say knowledge, and still know very little. That science is placed on a pedestal does not really help – perhaps it even hinders. After all, through science we expect to know things with confidence if not certainty. If it is proven through scientific experiment it must be true. Right? Wrong.

Scientific experiment even if it can be accurately repeated proves only the conditions tested by the experiment. We tend to be accepting of the results whereas we should, as with all things maintain an open mind and be sceptical.
This post is triggered by a recent discussion where someone said they had read at least 10 books on the subject and they all basically agreed and the experimental evidence proved X. My view, so what?
Consider a non-theological example and one which I have much sympathy for, namely that homeopathic medicine is a waste of money, being ineffective.
Experiment (1) to test the claims of homeopathy was conducted (I do not have the reference, but my point lies in the principle not the specific of the example). Students were infected with the common cold and while confined in the same accommodation were given (double blind) either a homeopathic remedy or a placebo. Conclusion, the homeopathic remedy was no more effective than the placebo. This experiment confirmed the results of similar studies and is seen as supporting the conclusion that homeopathic remedies don’t work.
Now I take exception to that conclusion and question the validity of the experiment. The experiment tested the clinical effectiveness of a substance – I would accept the results for a commercial cold medicine. Certainly it demonstrated that in a clinical trial the substance was not effective.
BUT that is not the claim made by homeopathy. Classical homeopathy claims to provide a holistic treatment of the person, not a symptom relief treatment as with a commercial cold medication. Therefore the experiment did nothing to test the basic claim of homeopathy.
An experiment that involved a full consultation with a homeopath then a triple blind supply of either placebo or the prescribed homeopathic remedy would certainly provide a better test for the claims. BUT is that still good enough?
Possible outcomes:
A: Either placebo or remedy have better outcome
B: Placebo and remedy have similar outcomes and similar treatment rates as for first experiment.
C. Placebo and remedy have similar outcomes but better treatment rates than for experiment (1). This would be an expected outcome. From what we know of the placebo effect it is reasonable to expect that the method of administration (thorough examination, diagnosis & prescription) would enhance the effectiveness of both placebo and remedy.
So what have we proved? I suggest that there would be evidence to suggest that the homeopathic method was more effective than the clinical method of experiment (1). But certainly one could argue that there is no control group that received a similar level of attention, from say a conventional doctor and then received placebo or remedy – let’s call that experiment (3). I would again predict outcome C.
So what has been proven. Perhaps we should compare the level of efficacy of the placebo in (2) and (3). BUT I still argue that we do not have a valid experimental methodology to test the claim of homeopathy that it is effective as a long term holistic treatment regime. Problem is I can’t think of a practical experiment to test this claim. Such an experiment (4)would have to:
i) Look at the long term effect on general health (how?)
ii) Ensure the equivalence of the health prospects of the participants at the start (how?)
iii) Maintain an equal health environment for participants throughout the experiment (how?)
iv) Provide a valid control groups – perhaps both placebo and conventional medication (in the light of i, ii & iii – not easy)
v) Direct the treatment towards condition(s) considered appropriate for homeopathic intervention – and how do all agree on that?
vi) Administer the homeopathic treatment in line with the homeopathic school, but the placebo in a neutral way (how? Given the responsiveness of the placebo effect to the method of administration).
Now I have found no experiment equivalent to (4) that I would consider a valid test of the claims of homeopathy. So where do we go now?
How about common sense? The homeopathic method has been around for a long time. Its practitioners (the scholarly ones anyway) will have developed their treatment and remedy regimes based on what was found to work (and not work). Their patients would have continued to consult them )or not) based on how effective they considered the treatments to be.
There is a history of scholarship (perhaps not of the type found in a prominent university science faculty) in homeopathy, its treatments are differentiated to align with patient needs and demonstrate a level of consistency. Patients have not unanimously decided it does not work.
Conclusive? Hardly. Of the treatment options available I still find more attractive options. But don’t expect me to accept - that because someone reads a book or two on the subject and that the simple experiments they contained “proved” it does not work – that indeed the case is closed ... and certainly, just because you read on the www or saw it on TV or heard the interview on the radio does not excuse you from not properly exercising your scepticism and thinking it through.
OK now who wants to talk about experiments that test the effectiveness of prayer?

Hamba kahle - peace


Thursday, November 19, 2009

Creation and evolution are the same story

I post again, a quick note on the creation myth. Roman Catholics believe that their theology must align with the discoveries of science - hence they do not believe the creation myths (yes there are two) in Genesis to be literally true. However I was recently struck by how close to evolution they are.

The parallel is strong between the order of creation and the sequence of evolution. I won't bore you with the detail but check it out if you want.

So if the bible did have the right story why did it not tell it right? Perhaps because it would have been hard to get the complexities of genetics across to a people who were yet to come to terms with the earth being round or to discover Newtonian physics.

Hamba kahle