Friday, 24 July 2015

God's Power Over Life and Death

Pretty much all my life I've been told and have heard people saying, in everyday conversations, that Allah is the only one that decides how and when someone will die. It's usually said after hearing of a death. For most of my life, I , like most people, just ignored it without much thought and politely nodded to the person who said it. However, one day a thought popped into my head that made me think a little more deeply about that simple statement. I was thinking about infections and antibiotics after reading something online. The chance of someone dying from an infection in pre-antibiotic times was much higher than it is now. Therefore, did God decide to kill fewer people per 1000 after he noticed that humans had discovered ways to fight infections? Does advances in technology and medicine constrain God's ability to decide how and when someone dies? For example, someone living with HIV now can expect to live two decades longer than someone who was diagnosed in 2001.

Babies who would have normally died soon after birth, maybe due to a premature birth, and presumably gone straight to heaven, now have a much better chance at life because of things like incubators. These babies can then grow up, sin and potentially go to hell.

Whether it's medicine, safer cars and planes or better health and safety laws for work; God, it seems, has fewer and fewer methods to choose from. Or perhaps he gets bored of certain methods such as smallpox and in his infinite mercy decides to divinely inspire scientists to discover vaccines that can eradicate it. However, he does have access to methods that didn't exist, say, 100 years ago like space shuttle explosions.

If all this sounds silly to you, it's because it is. The idea that a supernatural being decides how and when you die is completely baseless and stupid. So, next time someone says that God decides when and how you die, point them towards this post. Unless that statement was prompted by someone they care about passing away recently. In which case, comfort and sympathy are the better options.

Blogger Widgets

Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Thought experiment: Qu'ran, ethics and morality

Can a religious society that strictly adheres to their holy books ever become a society like modern Britain? Not to say that modern Britain is the epitome of moral and ethical thought and behaviour. No society is or perhaps can ever be perfect. I have no idea what perfection would even look like. Of course, religious societies have and do evolve. However, positive evolution, i.e. towards more liberal, secular and humane society, only happen at the cost of reduced religiosity. That is, people take their holy books less literally and just ignore some passages or at the very least massively re-interpret them. The answer to the question is then surely 'no'. If that is the case, then what is the purpose of a holy book that is supposed to be divinely inspired or the perfect word of God?
11th-century North African Quran in the British Museum - Wikipedia

This post was inspired by watching youtube videos of Tariq Ramadan talk about the complex issues regarding how the Qu'ran and Islam should fit into the modern world. He usually responds by saying that the Qu'ran and Islamic jurisprudence should be taken into context with modern society and the environment that Muslims find themselves in. This annoys me a little because I get the feeling that he can't quite say what he really wants to say or perhaps could say if certain mental shackles didn't exist. To be fair, we all have mental shackles due to the how we were raised and the society we were raised in. However, I see some form of mental contortionism happening in the minds of religious people who believe that the Qu'ran, or the Bible, is the perfect, unchanging word of God. After listening to Tariq Ramadan, I came up with a simple thought experiment to try and view the religious mental shackle in a different way.

Imagine an immortal man who was born around the time of the Prophet Muhammad and that he was a follower and believer. Then imagine that he receives the first fully compiled Qu'ran and decides that he will lock himself away from the world, remove all external influences and just read, study and contemplate on the Qu'ran. He has no need for food or drink and will not go crazy from the lack of human interaction and external stimuli. Finally, for the sake of argument, let's say that the man is as intelligent as the Prophet, perhaps more so because he can read and write, and has similar moral and ethical views.
After about 1436 years later he finally decides that it's time to come out of isolation and impart his wisdom to the world. The society/country that he appears in , after confirming somehow that he is actually immortal, chooses to appoint him as their leader. They then ask him how they should govern themselves, what rules they should follow in order to create an optimal Islamic society. What would that society or at least his vision of that society look like? Would it be more like Saudi Arabia or Britain? What would his views be on homosexuality, the status and rights of women and people of other religions and apostasy? Would homosexual acts, apostasy and adultery be crimes punishable by death? Would we describe his views as anything other than barbaric?

Tariq Ramadan would probably consider this thought experiment a little silly and may say that we shouldn't rely on the views of one scholar but look to the majority view of scholars. Sure, scholars that live in and interact with the modern world. Not, many immortal scholars locked together with a copy of the Qu'ran. He believes, and it is the majority view, that the penalties are Islamic but they are nearly impossible to implement for some reason. That is, in theory the penalty for theft is amputation but they see it as a cruel and barbaric thing and so think that it should be virtually impossible to carry it out. However, they say the threat of amputation, for example, should remain in order to deter thieves. You have to wonder what kind of deterrent that really is. Let me try to put it another way: they aren't willing to wrestle themselves free from the Qu'ran and the Hadiths but they also can't appear to look completely crazy. Would Tariq consider apostasy a crime punishable by death? If not, is it a crime that should be punishable by some other means? Or, should it be a crime only if the apostate tries to spread his apostasy? Or perhaps Tariq would only view apostasy as a sin but would consider the apostate equal in terms of the law.

I'm not saying or trying to say that Islamic societies, unlike Christian ones, are incapable of changing/modernising and coming up with liberal, secular and enlightenment-like ideas. Both Christians and Muslims are largely becoming less religious and literal in their interpretation of the holy books. However, there are small but vocal minorities within both religions that are fighting to stop that happening and are trying very hard to spread their more literal views.

Whether it is Islam, Christianity or Communism, change has to come from within. However, ideas and pressure needs to come from outside also, to help speed things along.

Tuesday, 21 July 2015

Seeds of Disbelief

I recently read an interesting article on the New Humanist website titled 'The rise of Arab atheism'. The author interviewed Arab atheists in the Middle East to try and understand the reasons for them leaving Islam. Some of the reasons provided reminded of my own experiences growing up. Like them, I did not lose my faith because I knew about science and thought about things logically and scientifically. It was things in the religion (Islam) that I found problematic. As far as I can remember, I started asking questions, to myself, and having doubts when I was about 12 years old. I have read a lot of people say that they also experienced similar things around, or at, that age. Maybe there's something special that happens in the brain around 12. Most of these thoughts occurred before my 20th birthday. I didn't really think about religion much during my early twenties. I had placed religious thoughts to the back of my mind while I went through university. Anyway, I want go through and discuss some of those ideas and thoughts I had growing up. Not in any chronological order.

God is bit of a dick
Saying 'God is bit of a dick' is putting it very mildly. When I finally started reading the Qu'ran in English I was quite shocked by what I saw. God seemed to be a jealous, egotistical, attention seeking, cruel, mass murdering. vague.....just a crazy fucker. Some of the worst human attributes you can think of, God has them. I just couldn't understand why or how a supposed perfect being that is all merciful, can burn someone in hell for all eternity just because they didn't believe in him/her/it. I couldn't even imagine subjecting even the most vile human being to an eternity of torture and pain. There would be a point when any human being with a shred of decency and compassion would say enough is enough, this is cruel. My non-Muslim friends were good people. I didn't want them to go to hell. I also couldn't understand why God wanted me to pray to him 5 times a day and why I had to actually ask God for stuff when he could just read my mind. This is well before I realised that God was also sexist and homophobic. I didn't know sexism and homophobia were things that exist back then. I started having a general uneasiness about Islam and God. However, I was still a believer.

Adam and Eve had babies....then what happened?
It is quite remarkable how most people seem not to be disturbed after being told the story of Adam and Eve (Hawwā in the Qu'ran). People don't seem to naturally think about the logical consequences of the story. After learning in school how many people there were in the world I found it amazing that all those came from just two people. However, as I though about it a little more deeply, I realised that there is something strange to this story of Adam and Eve. So, in the Qu'ran the story goes something like this:
O mankind, fear your Lord, who created you from one soul and created from it its mate and dispersed from both of them many men and women. And fear Allah , through whom you ask one another, and the wombs. Indeed Allah is ever, over you, an Observer. (Quran 4:1)

So, God made Adam and then Eve and then they had some children........then what happened? Incest. Lots and lots of incest. It was a big WTF moment when I first though of it. I didn't know how I hadn't thought of this before. Seemed like such an obvious and inevitable conclusion to a story with just two people in it. I was initially afraid and embarrassed to talk to anyone else about it. When I did ask people, I was told that it must've been OK back then and then God changed his mind because of jealousy or some shit. God didn't say anything about inbreeding, diseases, recessive or deleterious traits etc. Something I found interesting when I asked people this question is how uncomfortable they got and how quickly they wanted to put it out of their minds.

An omnipotent God and free will
One day while I was watching a film, can't remember what that film was, on good old VHS, I had a pretty profound thought come into my head about an all knowing God and destiny/free will. I had seen the film before and so I imagined if God would know if you were going to heaven or hell even before you were born, because to him it would be like having already seen the movie of your life. This thought troubled me a little because it occurred to me that your fate was determined and there was nothing you can do to change that. I went upstairs and asked my mum what she thought about it. My poor mum seemed quite troubled that I had asked that question and didn't really give me an answer. I quickly realised that nobody was going to be able to provide a satisfactory answer because nobody knew and so I stopped asking. Before this I had a similar but simpler thought about whether an all powerful God could create a rock so heavy that he couldn't lift it. Without knowing anything about logic, I had some intuitive feeling of the paradoxes that arise when things such as 'all powerful or 'all knowing' are used to describe God.

There was never one single moment when I thought "this is all bullshit", rather a gradual decline in the importance of religion to my life. As I grew older and started learning about biology, evolution, morality, psychology, human behaviour, physics etc. I had pretty much made up my mind that Gods and religions are man-made and the probability of a supernatural creator of the universe who also wants us to believe in him/her and behave in certain ways, is very very very unlikely. Not believing is a simpler state of being.

Tuesday, 14 July 2015

My Truth is Bigger Than Your Truth

I like to think my views on science, philosophy and religion are based on good, fairly solid foundations. I also like to think that I don't think in terms of absolutes. Therefore, rarely do I read or watch something that makes me re-evaluate my core beliefs and positions. That's not to say that I don't learn anything new or that my core beliefs are not expanded or better polished. I want to discuss a video I watched recently that made me shine a light on some of those core beliefs and re-examine them a little more carefully. My core beliefs haven't changed in any fundamental way but I think I view certain things with a slightly different angle now. Some of this probably sounds a bit vague and fuzzy and I guess it is.

The video I want to discuss is titled 'London Thinks: A Scientist, an Atheist Biblical Scholar and a Vicar Walk into an Ethical Society'. I find this video interesting for two reasons: the first I've stated above and the second is Prof. Francesca Stavrakopoulou. I think I've fallen in love with her. I love how knowledgeable she is in the area of religion and ancient texts. I find her arguments very clear and compelling. I just think she's a cool person There are other reasons but let's not go into those. My interest in her is probably slightly unhealthy with the number of videos I've watched on her recently. Thankfully, she will probably never come across this blog post.
Another reason. @DeaneGalbraith
Anyway, my slight obsession with Francesca aside, here is the video:

The discussion also includes scientist Dr. Adam Rutherford (who is also very cool), vicar Rev. Giles Fraser. I guess you can figure out who the atheist biblical scholar is. Channel 4 News's Samira Ahmed is there to guide the discussion along.

Before I say anything else, I'm glad Samira took off her earring that was banging against the mic and causing a really distracting sound.

Francesca starts off with by saying that she is an atheist but people should not assume that she is a 'new atheist' - referring to Richard Dawkins' style of atheism. She disagrees with Dawkins' combative style of atheism and how he sees science vs. religion as a battle. I agree with Francesca to a certain extent. I think Dawkins' style and aggressiveness may not be helpful in winning hearts and minds. I feel that some people will feel overtly threatened by this so called 'new atheism', leading to further entrenchment in their religious and supernatural beliefs. However, I do believe that there are some battles between science and religion/superstition e.g. creationism, faith healing. Of course, religion is much more than than the sum of its superstitious elements. However, I don't think there should be an automatic call to arms every time religion and science are discussed. I also disagree with Francesca as to the motives of Richard Dawkins. I don't think he is doing what he does simply for fame or that it is his primary motive. I think he, and people like him e.g. Sam Harris and the late Christopher Hitchens, do see a threat from religion. They, perhaps, may see an exaggerated threat but I feel there is some substance to their views. My personal feeling towards religion is that the decline in religiosity is necessary for the advancement of civil liberties, education, gender equality, economic prosperity etc. Not that a liberal, educated and prosperous society cannot have ideas derived from religious sources. Superstitious elements aside, religion is just an example of humanity's struggle to live in a complex world. Religious voices, like any another other voice, should not be ignored but critically assessed and challenged when necessary. I agree with Francesca that a more nuanced approach is needed, especially in the media.

Giles Fraser's comments about atheism made me think about my response if god suddenly appeared in front of me. Unlike Giles' atheist friend, I don't think I will continue calling myself an atheist. I won't suddenly become religious but with sufficient (not sure what that would or could be) display of power I may entertain the idea that a god exists. I'll most certainly have a lot of questions and won't just automatically trust what my eyes see. On of the thoughts I'll probably have is "how do I know that this being claiming to be god is not just a really advanced alien?" Although, with sufficient threats I may be forced to bow down to this god x number of times a day.

Adam Rutherford doesn't really care about what people believe in as long as they don't 'step on his turf'. I agree that if and when religious people make claims about how the world works, e.g creationism, geology.., then it is right that scientists say that there is a problem there and attempts should be made in the public sphere to rebut religious claims about the way nature works. I don't think there is much for scientists to discuss regarding religious claims within an academic setting but there should be a sense of duty regarding educating the public outside of lecture theatres. Giles, after obtaining some paper and a pen, responds to Adam by pointing out that there is a link in the rise of new atheism and and the attacks on America on Sept. 11, 2001.  I agree with Giles, that event probably had a huge influence on new atheists but I think other things in American society e.g. the encroachment of creationism in classrooms, also had a big effect.

Francesca says something about science that I don't really understand or perhaps appreciate. She says that science and some scientists portray science as having some exclusive, superior way of knowing and understanding the world. She claims that there are other ways of understanding the world and what it means to be in the world that is not scientific. I'm not sure what she means by 'other ways of understanding the world', is she talking about the behaviour of matter and energy? Or the behaviour of people and ideas, how and why those ideas come about? I think these areas a pretty much covered by physics, chemistry, biology, neuroscience and psychology. Also, the part 'what it means to be in the world' is also a bit fuzzy to me. I don't know if that refers to ethics, morality, arts etc. I think the space of possible human behaviour, including every thought possible, is huge but finite because there are a finite number of atoms comprising a human body and there are a finite number of interactions between that body and the external world. I guess what I'm trying to say is that science is the only tool we know of that can map that space. Whether that map has or gives people meaning is something I can't say anything about. Also, adding free will, determinism and randomness to this makes it very complex and interesting. I am not smart enough to come up with any meaningful answers to these questions.

Adam then says that the scientific way of knowing is better than all other ways of knowing - a statement that causes Francesca to exclaim 'oh god!'. I, again, am not sure that the 'other ways of knowing' has been defined properly to be able to make that statement. Giles uses the example of William Wordsworth, a poet, and whether his knowledge of what he saw is inferior to that of a scientist, such as Adam, I don't particularly following Giles' line of reasoning. Take the case of a daffodil for example. A scientist and Wordsworth are both staring at a beautiful daffodil. Does Wordsworth know more about the properties and nature of the daffodil than the scientist who has studied it? Unless, Wordsworth was also a scientist, I don't see how that is possible. Wordsworth may have more information in his brain related to the daffodil that you may describe as being poetic. He may even have more bits of information in his head in total about that daffodil but does that mean he knows more about the daffodil than the scientist? Or if what Wordsword knows is better or worse? I guess a definition of 'knowing' and'better' in this context is required. If by 'better' you mean that the information inside the scientist's head is better for describing the physical properties and behaviour of the daffodil and perhaps making testable predictions about aspects of the daffodil, then I think it is safe to say that the scientist knows better. To me the statement: 'there are ways of knowing other than science', can be rephrased as 'other brain states are possible'. Some may say that I don't understand, recognise or appreciate things like philosophy, sociology, religion or art. I do. However, one must also be careful when speaking of knowing about the world or using terms such as 'facts' in such contexts. As Adam puts it: what science says about something is not necessarily the most interesting thing that can be said. 'Interesting' is, of course, subjective. This particular debate without concrete examples is rather vague and a little philosophy-y. Perhaps the following video is relevant to this part of the discussion:

Samira says something really annoying about why some people may have some hostility towards science. She brings up the Nazis, Auschwitz and eugenics as potential reasons. Just because some scientists, either willingly or unwillingly, collaborated with the Nazis in finding better ways to kill people or did horrific medical experiments on them doesn't mean science is responsible for it. Science is a process/method of investigating the world and a way of falsifying our ideas/hypothesises about the world. Whether a scientist uses the knowledge gained about the atom to build a bomb or a transistor does not make science somehow culpable for the application of some knowledge by people. Also, in the medical case, scientists can find out about the human body by unethical experiments on live human beings or by examining a dead one. Thankfully, we have tools which can investigate the inner workings of the body non-invasively. I understand why Samira brought this up and she isn't saying that that view is correct. She is just highlighting some misconceptions and misunderstandings of and about science in the public sphere. However, Samira saying that 'science' has not always been 'impartial' and 'rational', is just silly. What I've written already covers that statement. I don't know what point Adam was trying to make when he was talking about eugenics or what Giles was going on about when he talks of 'relativism'. Scientists are not perfect, rational beings who use the knowledge they have gained for 'good' purposes. Also, eugenics is not a science.

Before I even watched the debate I had a feeling that I would disagree with Giles on more things than the other two. As I watched the debate and as Giles talked, I saw more and more evidence to justify that feeling. He says something, that I think is frustratingly ignorant, about the arrogance of religion and science. He says that the 'old empire' i.e. religion, used to think that it knew everything and it was always right. He then says that science is the 'new empire' that claims to know everything. I don't know how he can equate the unsubstantiated arrogance of religious claims to the substantiated claims of scientists. Does he believe that scientists or science, which is just a process, claim to know everything or claim that what they know is 100% correct? Does he think that creationist claims about biology or geology and scientists claims about biology and geology are equal in arrogance? One has zero evidence to back it up and the other has shitload of evidence to back up their claims. I wonder if Giles knows which one is which. That last sentence is of course very pejorative but I don't understand how intelligent people can make arguments like that. Perhaps he said that just to spark a conversation. Giles talks about self criticism in regards to science. Does he know what science is and how science works? Criticism and doubt is absolutely essential to the scientific method. Francesca seems to agree with Giles and says that the privileging of science in society is a problem. Privileging in what context? And why is that bad? I never though I'd disagree with Francesca so much. Which is a good thing because I'm glad my infatuation with Francesca has not inhibited my criticism of her views.

Adam makes a claim that the knowledge scientists have obtained over the years cannot be used by religious people to say that it was already revealed to them in their holy books. Samira disagrees and gives the example of the embryo and the qu'ran. First, the vague description in the qu'ran hardly qualifies as any kind of description of the embryo. If your standards are low enough you can never be wrong. Second, the qu'ran did not come out in a vacuum of knowledge about the human body. There were many people investigating, dissecting the human body long before the qu'ran came along. I think a divinely inspired book could have done a little better. Also, people are very selective in their acceptance of things from holy books. They tend to ignore the many obviously wrong things. Giles thinks he has a better example but never provides one.

Adam asks Giles if he believes the historicity of Jesus and the account of him dying, coming back to life and ascending to heaven. Giles says yes and that those beliefs are an absolutely unassailable part of his world-view. Adam then asks Giles, as a hypothetical situation, to imagine there was evidence to show that either Jesus didn't exist or that he didn't come back to life and ascend to heaven, would he then change his views? Giles says that he would still have the same world-view despite evidence against 'absolutely unassailable part of his world-view'. This response is not surprising coming from religious people. Evidence doesn't really matter, it's more about how they feel and identify themselves. In that case, I don't know why these religious people don't just give up supernatural claims and stick to moral/ethical things in their religious books.

Francesca shows pornography in her classes! Best.Professor.Ever! Actually, I've seen images in a electronics engineering presentation that was almost pornographic.

I also just wanted to say that Samira is in for a treat with her Battlestar Galactica box set.

I'm knackered and that's all I have to say about this video.

Friday, 10 July 2015

Should Human Rights Always Outweigh Religious Rights?

This is my second post discussing and commenting on a BBC Big Questions Debate video. The first post was about whether evidence undermined peoples beliefs in their religions. That particular debate covered issues such as evidence, or lack thereof, of god, evolution, the historicity of the bible and supernatural phenomena such as faith healing, resurrections and demons. I felt that that debate was was easy for me to comment on because, in my opinion, some of the things being said in it were so obviously silly that I had very little reluctance or qualm in typing my oppositions to them. This post is not as easy for me to write because the topic is less clear-cut. The previous post/debate was essentially about science vs. religion and in my view had very few grey areas. Basically, I was not particularly moved by any of the arguments against the positions I hold. The debate I will comment on now is a little different as it is about morality, ethics and laws. I usually shy away from commenting on such topics, not because I don't hold strong opinions on them but because it is more subjective and I'm constantly second guessing myself about my positions. Anyway, let's throw caution to the wind and discuss video titled: Should Human Rights Always Outweigh Religious Rights?

As with the first post, I will discuss and comment on what people say in the debate and not so much on the topic itself. I'll also go through the video chronologically with the time shown in brackets. Before I get into this video I just wanted to say that I find it encouraging that the video is hosted by, I assume, a channel created by a Muslim person. This in a way dispels the myth thrown by some people that Muslims aren't open to debate. Anyway, that is a topic for another video and blog post.

I want to begin by saying that I completely agree with the first speaker, Davis Mac-Iyalla, who says that (2:05) human rights should outweigh religious rights because all the good parts of religion e.g. love your neighbour, feed the poor etc. are universal and natural to all humans regardless of faith. I don't really want to comment too much on where morality comes from other than to say I believe it is a product of evolution and we humans with our fancy morals are just a continuation of a process that pre-dates us. You can read more about the origins and discussion of morality here and here. Davis continues then to say that discrimination against certain groups like homosexuals is largely rooted in religious ideas and teachings and that religious people want special rights with regards to such issues. It is no secret that the Bible (Genesis 19:1-13; Leviticus 18:22;20:13; Romans 1:26-27; 1 Corinthians 6:9) and the Qur'an (7:80-847:8126:165-166; Hadith: Abu Dawud (4462); Abu Dawud (4448); Bukhari (72:774); al-Tirmidhi, Sunan (1:152)) have passages that say that homosexuality or homosexual behaviour is a sin with very severe punishments. Human rights, as Davis says, does not discriminate and is for everybody. The host then asks Davis about respecting other peoples beliefs and traditions. Davis, rightfully, says that any community that excludes/restricts another community from participating fully in society is not to be respected. Any such beliefs or traditions that discriminates is not universal and therefore lesser than human rights. Rev. Betty King (4:25) responds by saying that she and others also have the freedom to believe and practice their religion. She says that people like Davis shouldn't have the right to force her to accept his rights or views. I agree that people should be allowed to practice their religions but problems arise when some religions have elements within them that are discriminatory and thus are in conflict with human rights. In such conflicts it is my view that human rights should trump religious rights. Of course, each conflict between religious rights and human rights should be considered and judged individually. Betty says that homosexuals wanting to marry or have relationships is their choice but she shouldn't have to accept it as being ok. I agree with Betty but I don't think anyone is arguing, in a court anyway, that she should be forced to accept it or change her view that it is a sin. What she has no right to do is to discriminate people in the public sphere based on her religious beliefs.

The discussion moves (~10:25) to the specific cases of the Cornish B&B and the French Niqab ban. The B&B case involved a gay couple who were refused a double room because the owners, who are Christians, have a policy where unmarried couples cannot share a double room together. Initially, I was unfamiliar with the details of the case and felt that perhaps the gay couple were not discriminated upon based on their sexual orientation since the unmarried couple rule applies to all guests. However, after reading the summary of the Supreme Court Judgement I was convinced that it was discrimination, at least indirectly. The B&B owners have a Christian idea of marriage and even if the gay couple were in civil union the distinction is one solely based on sexual orientation and so the owners refusal to allow them a double room is indirect sexual discrimination. On the case of the French niqab and Burqa ban I am against the European Court on Human Right's (ECHR) ruling to uphold it. I am also against the niqab and burqa. I think it's an anathema to civil society. I think the two items of clothing are a result of patriarchal and sexist ideas and traditions. However, it is those sexist traditions that we should be against and not the women who freely choose to wear the niqab or burqa. Therefore, I am against the French ban or at least the way it has been applied. The ban, if any, should be very specific to certain places such as airports, classrooms, courts etc. I sympathise with the argument that the idea of 'living together' is very important and the French government has a role to play in furthering and protecting that idea. However, I agree with the dissenting opinions of Judges Angelika Nuβberger (Germany) and Judge Helena Jäderblom (Sweden) who say that people also have the right to be 'outsiders' in society and the French Government's aim of discouraging the wearing of full-face veils could have been accomplished by less restrictive measures, for example, through awareness-raising and education. They concluded that it is the very task of the Court to protect religious minorities against disproportionate interferences. My main reason for objecting to the ban is because I feel it will and most likely has excluded some women from participating fully in society. I don't believe these women should be afraid to go outside for the fear of being prosecuted. Anyway, I recommend you read the opinions of judges Nuβberger and Jäderblom as they're far more eloquent than my ramblings on the case. In the Big Questions debate, Sahar al-Faifi (11:13) is asked what impact a similar ban in Britain will have on her life. I completely sympathise with her that such a ban would prevent her from being the active member of society that she is now. It is interesting to hear Betty King's opinion on the French ban(12:43) as it seems like a complete contradiction to what she said previously. Betty's argument that the French ban is justified on  terrorism and security reasons is total rubbish in my opinion.

Rev. Lynda Rose claims (21:40) that there exists B&Bs owned by gay people that also discriminates against heterosexual people by being 'gay only'. If there are such places and someone does decide to bring a case against them then those gay only B&Bs would most certainly lose. She then goes on to say that she feels Christians are close to being persecuted because, as she puts it, Christians are being prevented from speaking about traditional Christians faiths. I think she is clearly confused between the right to hold and speak about faith and the right to persecute others based on that faith and Charlie Klendjian rightly points that out to her (22:51). I think Lynda Rose is nostalgic about the 'good old days' when Christianity was a greater part of British society and had greater influence and privilege.

The host moves the debate on to the topic of apostasy (33:25) and the right of anyone to leave their religion. This is another case where human rights should override religious rights or rulings. This is a particular problem in Islam as there are verses in the Qu'ran and the Hadith that are clearly anti-apostasy and seem to call for the death penalty in some cases. There are many countries in the world where the death penalty exists for apostasy. There are debates amongst Muslim scholars on this issue and some do not think that the death penalty is right for apostasy and some, in the minority, view that it shouldn't even be a crime. I simply cannot see why people can't just take the simpler and better position that everyone has the right to religion as well as the right to leave their religion without being persecuted, instead of all these debates over 1400 year old texts. However, regardless of how silly I view these debates to be I still believe these debates amongst Muslims are a good thing and should continue. I just feel that people are trying to converge towards the Universal Declaration on Human Rights but are shackled and slowed down by certain religious ideas. Also, it is not just an issue for certain Muslim majority countries, as Dr. Stephem Law points out (34:45), there are surveys of British Muslims where a large minority (36%) hold the position that apostasy should be punishable by death.

At 34:22 the issue of circumcision is raised. I agree with Stephen Law (34:49) when he says that we as a society would not accept other forms of physical alternations to a child e.g. tattoos or other markings, based on the parent's religious or cultural beliefs and so there is no good reason why we should accept that circumcision is allowed. Just because a lot of people do it doesn't mean it is right. The child has no choice and there are medical and safety issues with this. Rabbi Neil Janes disagrees with this position (37:10). He says that children have no choice on a lot of things and so it must be OK that they also do not have a choice whether part of their body is cut off. I find this kind of reasoning and argument style particularly abhorrent and I see this line of thinking from a lot of religious people. They try to link something that is clearly bad to other things that are not bad in an attempt to make the bad thing seem OK. He then gives a lot of platitudes about the difficulty of being a parent in the 21st century. Is he really making the case that: parenting is difficult therefore cutting baby's penis is OK? He then goes on to say that parents don't do it with the intention of harming their child and that unlike some parts of the world, in the UK people who perform circumcision are medically trained and it is safe. The first part about the intentions of parents is another diversion tactic. The point isn't whether the intention is bad or good. The point is that these children do not have a choice and it is a body modification that may harm them. Also, it doesn't matter if the UK has medically trained people doing them and so the risk of harm is less than other parts of the world. There is no good reason for it and therefore even a small risk is not justified. The rabbi seems to be performing mental gymnastics in order not to see the cutting of a child's genitals as anything other than mutilation. A member of the audience (41:20) ask whether the parents right to bring up their children as part of their community is being denied. It seems as though the point that one person does not have the right, whether that is religious or cultural, to infringe on someone else's right, has not sunk into the minds of some people in the audience. Charlie Klendjian has to point out (42:35) that the right to manifest your religion or cultural identity has to stop at someone else's body.

Gender segregation is debated at 44:00. The two Muslim women argue that segregation, I assume they are talking about it in regards to UK, is voluntary and that it is their right to practice their Islamic beliefs and traditions. Furthermore, they only claim that right in some Islamic venues and not in public places. As with the niqab, I feel the segregation of men and women is the result of patriarchal ideas and traditions and that we should remember that when we hear some women claim that it is their choice to be segregated. Human beings do not always do things that are good for them. However, I am not sure if I am for a blanket ban on segregation in all places. If a certain private venue chooses to reserve a certain area/portion of seats to women only whilst also having a section where both sexes can sit together then I don't have too many issues with that. Again, my fear is that if we completely ban segregation then some women will feel that they cannot take part and so we are isolating those women and preventing them from participating fully in society. I also, however, understand that by providing segregated areas you inadvertently legitimise it and may even propagate the idea further in peoples minds and society in general. Education is the way forward. It is a longer road but we should teach people that there is no good reason to feel that you should be segregated based on sex.

At 51:25 two gentlemen in the front row decide to show everyone their t-shirts depicting cartoons of Jesus and the prophet Muhammad. I think this nicely brings us onto the topic of freedom of speech and religious rights. One of the men wearing the t-shirt asks (52:10) the two Muslim women about his right to wear what he wants whilst acknowledging that he accepts their right to wear the niqab etc. Sahar responds (52:30), quite predictably, by refusing to answer the question and then saying people are picking on the Muslims. She claims that the segregation issues was promoted in the media by a group she calls far-right and Islamophobic. This is a tactic used by some Muslims to stifle debate by throwing around the word 'Islamophobia'. As if the issues regarding the covering of women, the segregation of women etc. do not exist and are not part of Islamic communities. Doesn't matter if the issue of segregation was raised by a far right group or not. Is the issue itself is something that needs further light and discussion on, is the real question. Far too often I see criticism of Islam or Muslims being labelled Islamophobic to scare or guilt people into not speaking out. There are genuine problems of hate attacks against Muslims and other minorities but people should listen to what is being said and consider the issues carefully before using the term 'Islamophobia'. The second Muslim lady on the front row was at least honest enough to say (53:28) that these two men do not have the right to wear that particular t-shirt. Both Muslim women claim that it offends them. One of the men replies and asks them if some members of society takes offence to the niqab should those people also be justified in wanting to take away the Muslim women's right to wear it? Some people, Muslims in the case of depictions of their prophet, seem not to understand that they do not have the right not to be offended. Doesn't matter if the cartoons, or whatever is causing the offence, is crass or not. One of the Muslim women asked why those two men choose to do so. Firstly, it is their right in a liberal, civilised society and secondly and precisely because of the reaction, in some cases violent reaction, from parts of the Muslim community. I think it is a problem that Muslims feel they are somehow privileged and so can demand the rights of others to free speech be curtailed. Not only that but in some cases actually call for the death and murder of people who insult their prophet and their religion. As long as there are these violent reactions against free speech, then people will continue to fight against those views by exercising their right to offend. Remember, people choose to be offended by something. I could choose to be offended by many things but I don't and even if I am offended I don't have the right to tell someone that they don't have the right to offend. Also, it is not Islamophobic to say that it is largely a Muslim issue and not a Christian, Hindu, Jewish or Buddhist issue. You do not see the same kinds of violent reactions e.g. violent street protests, burning of embassies, issuing of fatwas, murder of cartoonists etc. or calls that people shouldn't have the right to offend coming from other religions. At least not to the same extent.  People have the right to say that they are offended and be upset by other people mocking their religion but nobody has the right to take away the right to criticism that may or may not cause offence. Once these kinds of reactions from a significant part of the Muslim community are no longer prevalent then many people will not go out of their way to offend Muslims. The reaction of the people claiming to be offended should be an important factor in any discussion. The girl who comments at 53:25 equates offence with threat against her and other Muslims. She claims that particular cartoon threatens her religion and her right. I'm not sure what right she is referring to. Those cartoons and similar things are only a threat to people who believe that their religion should be immune from mockery. Maajid Nawaz  (53:50) seems to to be the only sane Muslim to speak about this so far. He says that neither he nor his god are offended or threatened by a silly little cartoon. David Lamy (54:12) agrees that people have the right to offend but says that a measure of a civilised society is how it treats minorities. True, of course but I hope he is not saying that it is more OK to criticise or mock a group if they are the majority. That minority religions, no matter the contents of those religions, should be protected more than a majority religion from offence? His comment that we should hear from Muslims who are offended is a platitude. Muslims, like everyone else, have the right to say they are offended and nobody is trying to take that right away from them. It is true that just because you have the right to offend doesn't necessarily mean that you should offend. However, when people see the kinds of reactions from some Muslims to cartoons and then some of these people choose to wear t-shirts with a cartoon mocking the Islamic faith then they have every justification to do so. It seems like madness to have to tell some people, in the 21st century, that they do not have the right to take away other people's right to free speech because it may offend. Just ask yourself this question: out of two people; one wearing a t-shirt mocking religion and one saying that the other has no right to wear that t-shirt -- who is more dangerous to the long-term health of a liberal society? 

Wednesday, 8 July 2015

Under Maintenance!

I'm currently looking for a new template for my blog and will also be tweaking and messing with code which will result in some strange changes and behaviours of the site. Please bear with me. Feedback on the changes and the template is very much appreciated.

Does Evidence Undermine Religion?

Recently I have been binge watching Youtube videos of debates and discussions on religion and ethics. Every time I watch one of these videos I have a million different thoughts rushing through my head and very strong opinions on what's being discussed and I always think to myself that I will put all these thoughts into writing, but for one reason or another I never do. So, this post is the first of many posts where I discuss and comment on certain videos on religion and/or ethics. However, it doesn't have to be limited to those topics, it could be on pretty much anything. The video I will talk about in this post is titled 'Does evidence undermine religion?". It is part of the BBC's Big Questions series of debates. These debates cover a variety of topics including religion, ethics and morality, law etc. These debates consist of a group of people with wide ranging views on the topic talking in front of a studio audience. Taking part in this particular debate, as mentioned in the video description, are: evolutionary biologist Adam Rutherford, Biblical scholar professor Francesca Stavrakopoulou, Rabbi Miriam Berger from the Finchley Reform Synagogue, author Robert Feather, Hamza Tzortzis from iERA, Visnu Murti Das from the Hare Krishna Temple, philosopher Dr Arif Ahmed, Lola Tinubu from London Black Atheists, professor Joan Taylor from King's College, philosopher Dr Peter Cave and Dr Radisa Antic from the Seventh Day Adventist Research Centre.. Anyway, the video I'll be talking about is posted below. I'll leave it to you to decide whether to watch it before reading the rest of my post or after.

I don't really want to discuss the subject matter itself but rather try to address and comment on the points and questions raised by people in the video. Before I get into that I just wanted to say that I loved the look that Prof. Francesca Stavrakopoulou (at 2:26) gave when Robert Feather talked about the evidence he felt 'logically' and biblically demonstrated the truth behind the story of Moses. I just though that was brilliant. Other than that I don't feel the need to say much more about what Robert Feather said regarding the evidence that he thinks he has to claim that he has found the Mountain where Moses is said to have received the Ten Commandments. One more point, he claims that from his understanding of a certain unit of measurement, there were about 30,00 to 40,00 thousand Jews (4:12) involved in the exodus from Egypt. However, he doesn't have any evidence to back up his claim on the size of the Hebrew/Jewish group in Egypt at that time, he says that there are some textual evidence of some Hebrew/Jewish people in that region. Francesca Stavrakopoulou, however, refutes his claim by saying that there is no archaeological evidence of large numbers of Israelites living in or fleeing from Egypt (5:56). Dr. Arif Ahmed sums up my view on this part of the discussion perfectly (7:45) by saying that even if what Robert Feather says is true, and like Arif my inclination is to go with Francesca and disagree to the validity of the both the evidence presented and the biblical account of it, there is no evidence for the supernatural claims made in the bible regarding this event. Even if you choose to believe that the bible is a book that documents real historical, although there are biblical scholars who will dispute this, there is no reason you should believe the supernatural/metaphysical claims. Following on from what Francesca says about how/why those types of stories come about, Rabbi Miriam Berger says something interesting (10:12); it doesn't matter to her if those biblical events actually happened or not as those stories give her a sense of identity as a Jewish person. Which is, of course, fair enough and I like that she was honest enough to say that because many religious people would never consider that what they read in their holy books might not have happened. However, what that statement says to me is that truth is not central to religions. It is more about the identity and the community it provides. Of course, many religious people will argue against that by saying that religion is a quest for 'truth' - whatever that truth may be.

Next, we come to Dr Radisa Antic, who says some things that annoys me every time I hear them. Firstly, he tries to dismiss (12:00) archaeological evidence by saying we shouldn't make it the 'measure of all truth'. I don't know who is claiming that archaeology is the 'measure of all truth' but what Radisa is doing is using a cheap method to cast doubt on archaeological evidence. Basically, he's saying it's not perfect and so it shouldn't be taken seriously. More annoying, he goes on to say (13:05) that because he sees beauty in the Universe therefore god must've done it. A lot of people, including myself, see incredible beauty in the Universe but that subjective view/feeling isn't evidence for god. He then goes on to say that the 'atheistic community',I don't know why he's saying atheists and not scientists, have no answer as to how the Universe came into existence. I'm glad to hear that in a way because it would be surprising if anyone claiming to be an atheist said they knew how the Universe came into existence. Not knowing is OK, don't be afraid of it as the famous physicist Richard Feynman once said. He further claims that these atheists are telling people that something came out of nothing. I still don't know who these atheists are but he may be talking about Lawrence Krause who, I think, said that the Universe and the physical laws can come out of the vacuum i.e. empty space. However, that vacuum, I suspect, is not what Radisa means when he talks about 'nothing'. We, and by that I mean physicists, have a very good model (the standard model of cosmology) of the Universe that is predictive and backed up by a lot of evidence. With the addition of cosmological inflation the scope of the model goes back to a fraction of a second (~10^-36s) after some event that we call the Big Bang. We don't know what happened at the Big Bang or if it is even sensible to ask what existed prior to the Big Bang as space and time came into existence at that moment. There are ideas and models e.g. the multiverse idea, however, it's safe to say we don't know and people are trying to understand and new ideas are being generated. Radisa at one point mentions common sense and Dr Adam Rutherford picks up on that (15:05) and explains why people should not use, or rely on, common sense as a guide to understanding nature. Common sense does not give you the theory of relativity or quantum mechanics; ideas which  are quite counter-intuitive and go against common sense. Also, what the hell is 'common sense'?

I'll come back to Radisa Antic in a moment but next to speak is Hamza Tzortzis. He begins by saying we, I'm guessing he means scientists, should show epistemic humility (17:30). I've heard this before from religious people and it is rich coming from  those that make unsubstantiated claims about reality. Anyway, fair point, let's all be more humble. He says that science is limited and that we shouldn't restrict ourselves to science as the only tool to reach truth. He mentions philosophy and maths as other ways to truth. I don't know what Hamza means by truth when he says this. We are talking about religious truth and not mathematical truth for example. In mathematics you can actually prove statements to be true or false. I wonder what he claims religions assertions to fall under. In my opinion this is just handwaving to distract people from the core debate about the truth of religious claims about reality. As to the limit of science and ultimate truth, I think Richard Feynman said it much better than I ever could:

Arif comes in at 21:23 to say something about the fine tuning argument that was made earlier. Before that he points out that some of what Hamza said was just platitudes and I agree completely. Back to the fine tuning argument; which says that it appears as though the constants of nature are fine tuned for life and even slight deviations of those constants would result in a vastly different Universe that is not conducive to life. As with many other religious arguments: apparent fine tuning > god did it. Arif argues that claims that life is unlikely to have arisen due to chance is not justifiable because we don't have any grounds to establish a probability distribution with which we can say that is is likely or unlikely. The only way to establish a probability distribution is to do repeated trials and as far as we know we only have the one Universe. So we can't really say that these constants of nature, that have resulted in the development of life, are unlikely to come about by chance. Arif then challenges anyone to justify or provide a probability distribution to back up their claims. The gentleman next to Arif comes in (22:52) and talks loosely about the big bang and some explosive force and then gives a ridiculous example involving poker and the unlikelihood of getting a dozen royal flushes in a row. We know that such an event is unlikely because we know the probability distribution of such things and so we are justified in saying the likelihood of a dozen royal flushes is very rare. Arif then goes on to provide a excellent example of why you shouldn't think like that poker example using gentleman did. He uses the example of the snowflake and what the first person to see one under a microscope would think, without knowing anything about how snowflakes form, about the remarkable regularity and pattern to that snowflake. That person could assume that the probability of such a shape forming must be incredibly rare considering how all the atoms have to arrange themselves in a specific etc.  

The discussion moves on to evolution and human evolution specifically. Radisa is asked (26:00) if his faith will change if evolution is true and he says it would. What his answer tells me is that he either hasn't really looked into the enormous amounts of evidence in favour of evolution or that no evidence will convince him.  

We also get some opinions and questions from the audience members, one of whom says (28:56) that atheism is a religion. I sigh every time I hear this from people. He also asks a question which I don't really understand. It's something to do with how we can trust our minds if we are the result of evolution. I think what he's trying to say, I may be wrong, is that intelligence i.e. human intelligence, can't come from evolution as it is not necessary or beneficial for survival. He says that cockroaches aren't discussing quantum mechanics over tea. If that is actually what he means then he must think intelligence has no part to play in survival??? That intelligence, not just human intelligence, and the ability to analyse and understand the world, learn from experience, pattern recognition, understand and predict behaviour of other animals, learn to use tools etc. are not beneficial to survival?? I guess he then has a hard time imagining how one of those intelligent beings can then go on and contemplate about the Andromeda galaxy. Evolution is not aimed towards intelligence but that doesn't mean intelligence can't arise from it. Furthermore, I also don't know what this gentleman means when he says "how can we trust our minds". 

The gentleman sitting next to Arif speaks again about one form of evidence that they haven't covered: relational evidence. He says that he knows his wife loves him but there isn't anything that he can put in front of people to show evidence of that love. He then lists some things which tell him that his wife loves him e.g. touch. I'm not quite sure what his point is in saying this. He and others can ask his wife if she loves him and he and others can observe the actions of his wife towards him and come to some conclusion based on the evidence whether she loves him or not. Of course, she may fake all signs of love but I doubt that is the case. Anyway, my point is that there is evidence, it is not the same as evidence you get in physics for example, that he and others can see, repeatedly, that justifies his claim that his wife loves him. I really dislike these kinds of arguments, I'm not even sure what his purpose was for such an argument, because it is a dishonest attempt link it to other claims e.g. god, fairies, devils etc.

The debate then moves onto resurrections, miracles, faith healing and demons and it is at this point I was exhausted and decided to tune out. I think I have said all I could about this video. I'll leave you with Richard Feynman:

Monday, 6 July 2015

I'm back!

It has been a while since my last post here. I have not been maintaining the site and many posts have broken links. The main reason why I haven't been posting, one reason amongst many, is that I have been and still am suffering from depression for many years. It has been going on for more than 5 years but it is only recently that I have decided to seek professional help. I didn't even acknowledge that I had a problem until a few years ago. However, I realised that I simply could't ignore it any more and that if I left it for much longer then there may come a time when I would think it is too late to seek help. Depression is an incredibly debilitating condition that paralyses the mind. Some days I struggle to get out of bed. Worst of all is that depression has robbed me of almost all pleasures in life. I no longer enjoy doing the things I used to love to do such as read books, listen to music, exercise, socialise with friends etc. I also no longer enjoy doing electronics - the only thing I know how to do and used to enjoy doing everyday. I don't really have a positive, or any, outlook for the future. After finding out about all the types of help available to me from the NHS I was left with the feeling that there really isn't much that can be done. However, I have to do something and one of those things is to start blogging again. I will try to write at least one post a day and will also diversify the topics I write about compared to the science/technology focused theme. There will be more socio-political posts. It will be a struggle to get back into writing again. Even as I write this short post it feels like a struggle, as if my fingers have forgotten how to move and my brain has this fog inside it clouding and obstructing clear though. However, I must try as the alternative is too bleak.