Archive for the 'Atheism' Category

Forgiveness and Cooperation

Where to an atheist’s morals come from?

It’s a common question, and I’m not going to give a comprehensive answer here and now. This post is about one small aspect of the issue.

There’s a phenomenally important book by Robert Axelrod, based on an earlier article of the same name, called The Evolution of Cooperation. This book comes up in pretty much every discussion of evolutionary morals, and just about every atheist blogger on the web has reviewed, summarised or referenced it at some stage, so I’ll just give a really brief overview of it. The basic point is that, in an iterated prisoner’s dilemma between members of a population, under certain conditions the most stable strategy is “tit for tat” – you cooperate on the first round, then in subsequent rounds you do whatever the other player did the round before. A fairly small group of players following this strategy can quickly take over a much larger population of players who always defect.

The real-world translation is that, in a population where you often interact with the same members (say, human society), it’s in your own interests to act for the good of others, even when it can potentially disadvantage you – but only as long as they return the favour. If someone responds to your generosity by turning on you, it’s in your interests to avoid helping them in future. You should, however, be willing to forgive them if they change their ways. Basically, you should be nice to people you’ve just met, and from then on you should treat them the way you remember them treating you recently. A similar concept in biology is called reciprocal altruism.

The nice thing about this is that it clicks so well with our (or at least, my) intuitive social sense – it feels natural to behave like this. It’s quite easy to believe that we’ve evolved towards stable, mutually beneficial behaviour. If that’s the case, then we have a basis for morals that make perfect sense without an external Giver of the Law.

Buuut, but but but. The former Christian in me rarely shuts up during discussions like this, and at the moment wants to point out that Christian morals go beyond this. Jesus had this to say:

But I say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. To one who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also, and from one who takes away your cloak do not withhold your tunic either. Give to everyone who begs from you, and from one who takes away your goods do not demand them back. And as you wish that others would do to you, do so to them. Luke 6:27-31, ESV

It seems Christian morality includes something that can’t be derived from rational self-interest. The stable “tit for tat” strategy says that you should cooperate only with people who cooperate with you. Jesus says to cooperate with everyone, regardless of their behaviour. In Iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma terms, this is the (sensibly named) “Always Cooperate” strategy. A player using this strategy tends to get exploited – in fact, it’s the worst possible strategy to use in a population of defecting players.

So do Christians know something we don’t? Are Jesus’ moral teachings something that we can’t derive from first principles, that have to be taught to us from someone outside? Are Christian ethics genuinely superior to our natural altruistic instincts?

If you guessed that my answer is “no”, you know me too well, but knowing why is a different story.

The first thing I should mention is that “turn the other cheek” is high on the list of least-observed commandments in Christianity, at least in western society. Some Christians (and churches) go so far as to say that these verses are hyperbole, and not to be taken literally. Some readily confess that they “fall short” of Jesus’ standard in this area. Others just gloss over it. Certainly there are a select few people who have lived up to it, but I must admit I haven’t met any of them. For the most part, if someone takes away your cloak, you call the police and do whatever you can to stop them taking your tunic.

(In the time since I originally wrote that paragraph, someone pointed me at an interesting theory that Jesus’ comments along those lines weren’t as altruistic as they appear. Interesting.)

The point is that, whatever they say in theory, in practice Christians don’t think it’s a good idea to cooperate with someone who’s trying to exploit you. Maybe I could be accused here of taking aim at the fallible humans rather than the godly ideal to which they aspire. However, I’d say that it’s not that the reciprocal altruism embedded in our human instincts is holding us back from God’s ideal plan; it’s that our instincts are quite rightly telling us that God’s plan is wrong. Whether they admit it or not, Christians have realised that the godly ideal is flawed at this point. Unconditional generosity is not a path to a better society.

I think there’s something more to it though – something that explains why people would accept a moral system like this in the first place, even in theory. Take this passage from Proverbs, for example:

If your enemy is hungry, give him bread to eat,
and if he is thirsty, give him water to drink,
for you will heap burning coals on his head,
and the LORD will reward you. Proverbs 25:21-22, ESV

The sentiment in the first part is noble, if (as I’ve discussed earlier) impractical to live up to. But does anyone else find the second part of that a bit jarring? It’s as though it’s saying that being nice to your enemy is just a roundabout way of attacking them.

At first glance, “burning coals” might refer to inducing guilt or something – it’s not totally clear. Paul quotes the passage in Romans and adds his own interpretation:

Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” To the contrary,

“if your enemy is hungry, feed him;
if he is thirsty, give him something to drink;
for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.”

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. Romans 12:17-21, ESV

Again, there’s a germ of a noble sentiment here, but it’s marred by the “burning coals” business. But the bit that sheds some more light here is the command to “leave it to the wrath of God”. This seems to be saying that you should treat your enemies well, not because revenge is inherently bad, but because revenge is God’s job, and he can do it better than you ever could. To Paul, the “burning coals” are cast down on your enemies from heaven.

This is where, in my opinion, the Christian “turn the other cheek” sentiment reverts to “tit for tat”. As I said earlier, few Christians manage it in practice; but those even those who do are assured that their enemies will still be punished. Basically, they’re getting out of the Prisoner’s Dilemma game by relying on another player to (heavily) punish their enemies, while they give the appearance of cooperating.

If you squint just right, this is actually a pretty cool trick. Christianity has (unwittingly, unless you’re the conspiracy theory type) set up a system for people to be nice to each other, even when they don’t think it’s merited, because they’re confident that justice will be doled out in the end. The bit that almost impresses me is that this works even if the justice never happens, because the ultimate punishment is assumed to come after death, where (conveniently) no one can report back whether it happened.

When I say that I’m almost impressed, what I mean is that this encourages (in theory) niceness and generosity in a way that doesn’t upset our natural need for justice; but that doesn’t make it a better moral system. The strategy is still “Always Cooperate”, it’s just that the players don’t think it is. And it has the same vulnerability – if someone comes along who decides to exploit everyone’s niceness, they’ll get away with it. Everyone else will turn a blind eye, believing that, if what they’re doing is really wrong, then God will put a stop to it. Society will be worse off as a result.

Whether this has ever happened in a Christian society is left as an exercise to the reader.

So my point in all this is that there’s at least a starting point for morality without a god, which holds its own against Christian morality, even though the latter sells itself as more “noble” in the surface. This isn’t the end of the story by a long stretch, and yes, I know other people have explored this area much more thoroughly. But this is the beginning of my take on it.


Church crawl

Yesterday I went on a church crawl (”like a pub crawl, but with churches”) with a friend from my former Christian days. We got around to four different services before lunch. He’d planned more for the rest of the day but we both had things to do in the evening that came up at the last minute.

Videos were taken and reactions were recorded, but we won’t be making them available just yet. I might put some isolated thoughts down on (virtual) paper before then. There’s a good chance we’ll do it again, so it might have to wait until the whole lot gets edited together.

Quick spoiler: I haven’t changed my mind about anything. :)


To the test – part 2

The ring pulls that I’ve been keeping around to let God reveal himself are on a pendant now. So no one (divine or otherwise) can mess with them without me knowing about it.


Actually, I’ve had them like this for a while, but I’ve been waiting for the macro lens so I can do this.

Ring pulls uber-macro


Falling off a building is a miracle

Okay, I know this isn’t the most original observation, but I promise this is the only time I’ll do it… How is it an example of divine providence when two people fall from a building, one dies, and the other only suffers massive injuries?

From the SMH, Miracle man falls 47 floors:

Alcides Moreno, 37, plummeted almost 152 metres in a December 7 scaffolding collapse that killed his brother.

Emphasis mine. Note that his late brother is not named or mentioned for the rest of the article.

Somehow, Moreno lived, and doctors at New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Centre announced today that his recovery has been astonishing.

His wife, Rosario Moreno, cried as she thanked the doctors and nurses who kept him alive.

“Thank God for the miracle that we had,” she said. “He keeps telling me that it just wasn’t his time.”

At least it does mention that she thanked the medical staff. Why she then thanks God, who could have stopped it happening altogether, is beyond me.

Dr Herbert Pardes, the hospital’s president, described Moreno’s condition when he arrived for treatment as “a complete disaster”.

Both legs and his right arm and wrist were broken in several places. He had severe injuries to his chest, his abdomen and his spinal column. His brain was bleeding. Everything was bleeding, it seemed.

In those first critical hours, doctors pumped 24 units of donated blood into his body – about twice his entire blood volume.

They gave him plasma and platelets and a drug to stimulate clotting and stop the hemorrhaging. They inserted a catheter into his brain to reduce swelling and cut open his abdomen to relieve pressure on his organs.

“If you are a believer in miracles, this would be one,” said the hospital’s chief of surgery, Dr Philip Barie.

No. A miracle would be if he and his brother had gently drifted to the ground on a beam of light from the sky, and landed unscathed. This is a disaster, with a brief moment of luck where it could have been worse, followed by hours of intense medical treatment. There’s a big difference.

I hope he makes a solid recovery. He obviously has good doctors, if not enough to make up for his incompetent deity.


Scarlet ‘A’

Still think unlinked rings would look cooler, but I concede. The scarlet ‘A’ is hereby adopted.

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Jacoby-Shermer debate

I’ve been meaning for some time to watch the debate between Michael Shermer and Douglas Jacoby about the existence of God.

I know (or knew) Doug – he’s a Teacher in my former church, and he and his family lived in Sydney for a year or two while I was helping with the teen ministry, so I knew his kids reasonably well. On the other hand, Michael Shermer’s book, Why People Believe Weird Things, was what led me to wonder whether what I believed was real. (Or, at least, I was reading it at the time that I started questioning my faith. Correlation ≠ causation and all that.) So there’s a whole historical and emotional context here for me.

Should be fun. And by fun, I mean gut-wrenching. The one thing I won’t be able to do while watching it is dismiss one side as obviously wrong – the way you do when you listen to, say, Kirk Cameron.

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No wise men, says Archbishop of Canterbury

Dr Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, has picked apart the historical accuracy of the story of Jesus’ birth.

…including how a star rose high in the sky and stood still to guide the wise men to Jesus’s birth place.

Stars simply don’t behave like that, he told the BBC during an interview.

Dr Williams said there was little evidence that the three wise men had existed at all. Certainly there was nothing to prove they were kings.

He went on to say that while he believed in it himself, new Christians need not leap over the “hurdle” of belief in the virgin birth before they could join the church.

He said the virgin birth was “part of what I have inherited”.

And on the timing of Jesus’s birth, he said the son of God was likely not born in December at all.

“Christmas was when it was because it fitted well with the winter festival,” he said.

This is kind of cool on the surface. The virgin birth is one of the obstacles (roadsigns?) I encountered during my deconversion, with the controversy around the translation of Isaiah 7:14. And he’s right that there just isn’t a lot of historical support for the story as described in the gospels.

But Dr Williams said almost everyone agreed on two things – that Jesus’s mother was named Mary and his father Joseph.

The archbishop said his approach was to stick strictly to what the Bible says.

But I have to interject with some minor concerns. Maybe there was a journalistic snafu here, but how is what he’s said so far “strictly… what the Bible says”? Wasn’t he just talking about how some of what the Bible says is probably a myth?

It sounds suspiciously like he’s trying to have a bet both ways. I’m not an all-or-nothing Biblical literalist (although if I was, I’d be in the “nothing” camp :) ), but it has to be said that once you start poking holes in the Bible’s credibility, the basis for a lot of Christianity starts to fall apart. Jesus’ resurrection, for example, is such an outlandish claim that I can’t see how you could take it seriously at all if your only source is a book that you’ve admitted is shaky in other places.

Ugh. Maybe I’m too much of an ex-fundamentalist. I know there are people who don’t see Christianity in those black-and-white terms. But I don’t see what else would convince you that it makes any sense. And I suspect that what Dr Williams is doing here (intentionally or otherwise) is inoculating Anglicans against the shakiness of the rest of the Bible. It seems like he’s saying “Sure, there’s some weird stuff in there, and some of it’s probably wrong, but don’t let that worry you that any of the important stuff is wrong. It’s okay to question some bits and still have unshakable faith that Christianity is still fundamentally right. Look at me, I do it every day.”

Can someone explain to me how you can doubt the accuracy of the Bible and still believe in, say, the resurrection, or Jesus’ miracles, or… whatever you do believe in that is still identifiably Christian? I know I’ve asked this before, but I’m doing it again, ’cause I’m thick and I still don’t get it.


To the test

The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist. - Verbal Kint, The Usual Suspects

The greatest trick God could ever pull would be convincing the world he does exist. - Me

Then Gideon said to God, “If you will save Israel by my hand, as you have said, behold, I am laying a fleece of wool on the threshing floor. If there is dew on the fleece alone, and it is dry on all the ground, then I shall know that you will save Israel by my hand, as you have said.” And it was so. When he rose early next morning and squeezed the fleece, he wrung enough dew from the fleece to fill a bowl with water. Then Gideon said to God, “Let not your anger burn against me; let me speak just once more. Please let me test just once more with the fleece. Please let it be dry on the fleece only, and on all the ground let there be dew.” And God did so that night; and it was dry on the fleece only, and on all the ground there was dew. - Judges 6:36-40, ESV

Okay, here’s the thing. I’m an atheist. (Yeah, I know, big surprise.) It is my considered conclusion, based on what I’ve seen so far in my life, that there’s no such thing as a god or gods.

But that could change at a moment’s notice. If I saw something that I could only attribute to the intervention of God, then I’d become a believer again.

Some people would say that I shouldn’t be expecting that; that I need to make the first “leap of faith”. Matthew 4:7 and Luke 4:12 (quoting Deuteronomy 6:16, although it means something completely different in that context) say “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test”. But here’s the thing. He’s not my God. It’s all very well for God to want me to trust him enough to not need proof of his existence, but then how do I come to trust him in the first place? It’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg problem.

And, at any rate, I spent six (or twenty-four, depending on your definition) years as a Christian. I’ve done my leap of faith. God didn’t do anything to back up the trust that I put in him. I’ve already made the first move, and God didn’t respond.

Of course, many people are convinced that God has shown himself, but of the stories that I’ve heard, each fails to be convincing for some combination of two reasons:

  • They are too far removed from me for the story to be reliable. Either they happened too long ago for reliable accounts to have survived (starting from the “creation” of the universe and going through to Jesus’ miracles and a few scattered stories after that); or it was never examined in detail, and has passed through enough retellings to make it indistinguishable form myth (an angel appeared to the brother of a friend of a guy in Italy whose mother I met once).
  • They can be explained through the actions of people, or natural events, or chance. Someone changing their life for the better after finding God is not a miracle, because people are capable of doing that without finding God. Surviving a car crash is entirely possible without divine intervention. Recovery from an illness, even a serious one, is not proof of anything unless it’s at the level of, say, regrowing a limb.

It amazes me that people think it’s reasonable to expect God to use people to spread his message and encourage others to believe. I already believe that people exist. I don’t want to hear it from them, through things that I already know they can do (like talk a lot, and distribute pamphlets). For it to make any difference, I need to hear it from God.

Now, I can come up with plenty of things an omnipotent god could do that would easily convince me of his presence. Burning bushes, disembodied hands writing on the wall, talking donkeys, water into wine – there are any number of Biblical precedents for things that I’d readily accept as evidence for God. But it doesn’t have to be anything fancy like that. Any small thing, that I could verify as being impossible by natural means, would at the very least force me to reconsider things very carefully.

There’s a standard argument against this, that I wouldn’t really reconsider anything; that my dark atheist soul is too far gone, and that I don’t want to believe in God for my own evil reasons, and wouldn’t change even if Jesus himself appeared before me. Apparently such people have some special insight into my mind and soul that I don’t have, because I’m pretty sure that I would change my mind.

But we could argue that point back and forth all day. There’s an easy way for me to demonstrate that I’m serious.

Two ring-pulls

I have here two perfectly ordinary ring-pulls from drink cans. I’m going to keep them at home and check them every day. If I ever discover that they’ve been linked together, without being broken, like this:

Linked ring-pulls - SAMPLE ONLY

…then I promise to:

  1. Post a photo here immediately.
  2. Start attending church again, that week if at all possible. In the absence of any other factors, I’d probably go back to my old church, but I’m willing to be directed to other alternatives. (For example, if it happens when a friend prays for it, I’ll go to church with them instead. Similarly, if the context suggests it, I’ll look at religions other than Christianity.)
  3. Tentatively accept the existence of God. I won’t close my eyes to other explanations (at the absolute least, I’ll check very closely to see if the ring pulls have been tampered with), but I would take the existence of God very seriously indeed.

I’m doing this to put my money where my mouth is, and show that my atheism is nothing to do with not wanting to believe in God, but rather not having the evidence to believe in God. This is my way of saying what it would take to convince me, and to lay out the red carpet for an omnipotent God to show me that he’s there, if indeed he is. (Or she, or it, or they. I’m not narrowing my scope here.)

I’d also encourage other atheists to do the same, if they think this is meaningful. This isn’t about being arrogant or smug; it’s about showing that we’re ready and willing to be shown that we’re wrong. Atheism is a hypothesis, and a hypothesis that can be disproved. You can even do this if you’re not sure what you believe, or if you’re looking for a sign or a spiritual experience. The ring-pulls are just what I happened to have on my desk; find something that would convince you. (Although it would be kind of cool if two unjoined ring-pulls became some kind of atheist symbol. It would be more meaningful to me than the scarlet “A” at any rate.)

To theists reading this: if you understand and accept what I’m doing, then pray for the rings to link together. If you think I’m totally misguided, leave a comment and explain why. Also, let me know if there’s a simple, verifiable event like this that has the potential to challenge your beliefs.


Billboard Heckler – You’ve got to be kidding

This one really gets up my nose. From the Castle Hill Christadelphian Church:

Middle East crisis will only be solved by Christ's return. Zech 14

The first thing that got me about this billboard was the sheer arrogance of it. It seems to say to people walking past, “our solution to the world’s problems is better than anything you’ll ever come up with.” I realise that this is hardly news, because the core message of Christianity is basically the same.

It’s also an attitude that says “don’t even bother trying to fix it – the only thing that will solve this problem is a man coming out of the sky, so it would be futile to try to do anything about it ourselves.” It’s disappointing to think that people would get the idea into their heads that God will settle all their problems, so they don’t need to make any effort themselves. This is especially true of people who abandon long-term thinking altogether with the idea that Christ will be returning soon. (An early example of this is probably Paul’s second letter to the Thessalonians, e.g. 2:1-2 and 3:6-12. A more recent one is the Great Disappointment of 1844.)

But there’s something much more sinister and ironic behind this billboard. Now, my understanding of modern history is a bit hazy, but there doesn’t seem to be any doubt that the United States’ ongoing support of Israel is one of the big reasons that the US has such a bad name in the area, at least from the point of view of their opponents. And there’s at least a suggestion that one reason behind this support, and the reason that Britain and the US pushed for the 1948 creation of the state of Israel in the first place, is the dispensationalist belief that the Jewish people would have to be established as a nation before the Second Coming. (See, for example, articles by Gary North and Mark Wingfield.)

In other words, the Middle East crisis is partially caused by belief in Christ’s return.

Now, I’m not saying that Israel don’t have a right to be there or that the United States’ involvement is necessarily wrong. But under the circumstances, I think appealing to Jesus’ return as the only possible solution is a bit back to front. Sure, God showing obvious alignment with one religion in the Middle East would settle a lot of arguments; but I think it should be clear from the events of the last three or so thousand years that he is not going to do that.
If the Middle East ever sees anything even remotely resembling stability, it’ll be in spite of religion, not because of it. Constantly appealing to religion is quite clearly making things worse.

On the positive side, Zechariah 14 is at least a verifiable prophecy. If I notice a day anytime soon when there’s no daytime or nighttime and the Mount of Olives splits in two, then I’ll be willing to reconsider my position on a few things.

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