Thursday, May 29, 2008

Problem of evil - Rev Sam

The Reverend Sam finds the following response to the problem of evil rather compelling:

"Simply said, there is no more liberating knowledge given us by the gospel — and none in which we should find more comfort — than the knowledge that suffering and death, considered in themselves, have no ultimate meaning at all." In other words, as I put it, the problem of suffering is not as important as we might think it to be, and when Christian theologians treat this problem as something that calls into question the existence of God, they are giving it more importance than it deserves."

Sam adds: "I think that this touches on the radically different foundational assumptions that people bring to the discussion, so it might be worth spending a bit more time on it. Not that I have any expectation of either side convincing the other, but it might help clarify the differences."

Let's discuss.

My opening question. Is the idea that, if we start with the foundational assumption that there is a good God, then whatever suffering there is - the suffering of thousands of children buried alive in the recent earthquake, for example - is, for some reason, insignificant (or - not the same thing - meaningless)? If so, what is that reason?

Monday, May 26, 2008

You can now see online the SBS Insight TV programme on faith schools

Just recorded the SBS TV show Insight, debating faith schools in Australia. Was very interesting - especially the first clip in which a Christian school presents Young Earth Creationism (6 thousand year old universe) in science class as a scientific theory worthy of respect and serious consideration.

I did my best to clarify that I was not attacking all religious schools, merely questioning the kind of teaching that goes on in some. Not sure if that came across sufficiently clearly.

If you see the programme, let me know what you think...

Shows 27th, 7.30pm Sydney time.

You can see it now here:

My first reaction is - Christ I look ill (I've got a bug). Plus my hair's still wet from the rain! Vanity.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Lenin - the mighty fallen

While in Romania, we went out to the countryside and looked round a palace. And there, tucked away behind a wall, we found Lenin.

The statue used to stand outside the Ministry in charge of the press.

The other statue is a communist Romanian whose name I forget.These things were big. Took some effort to climb up on Lenin's chest.

That's me as a shadow by Lenin's shoulder, and Prof. Paul Kurtz of CFI close up.

Click photos to enlarge.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Religious schools and critical thinking

Half a century ago, most faith schools offered a pretty rigid form of religious education in which dissent, independent critical thought, etc. from pupils was certainly not encouraged, and was in fact usually suppressed in one way or another.

Fashions change. Nowadays, the tendency is to say that of course children should be encouraged to think and question, even when it comes to religion (though this may well immediately be qualified by "But not too early or too much!").

I think many religious schools are in something of a quandry on this point. On the one hand, they want to pay at least lip service to the idea that children should be raised to be autonomous critical thinkers; on the other hand, there's a suspicion that this might erode the faith, and perhaps also lead children into immorality, etc.

My view is that we certainly should raise children to be very robust critical thinkers even about morality and religion.

It's easy to pay lip service to the idea of free and open discussion and critical thinking, while actually heavily psychologically manipulating people.

Would those schools that say they foster independent thought welcome followers of other religions, and also atheists and humanists, into their classrooms to foster robust discussion of the school's religion and raise some challenging questions?

I know from personal experience that, in the UK, many religious schools would certainly NOT welcome that, which suggests that, while these schools may say they encourage independent thought and debate, it's actually debate of a very stage-managed kind.

Certainly, that there's critical discussion of, say, the Bible is not enough. Go to a Bible reading group and you'll find a lot of critical discussion, but of course it all takes place within the framework of a faith - which is never questioned. The question of whether the faith itself is true just doesn't come up.

I think it should come up, in all schools. Am I right? Is that a fair demand?

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Problem of evil - Burmese cyclone piece

The Rev Sam has forwarded me a link to a piece on the problem of evil/suffering. Worth a read... here.

What is the author's point? Seems to be that belief in God provides hope in the face of such horror. But this is irrelevant to the objection raised by the problem of evil - that such horror is surely extremely good evidence against the existence of such a God.

It's like saying: "But believing in Santa provides these starving orphan children with hope" after those children realize that there's overwhelming evidence there's no Santa. How does that deal with the evidence?

It doesn't.

But I may have misunderstood.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Blair's "meritocracy"

Tony Blair claimed to want to create a genuinely meritocratic society in which those who rise to the top do so because of talent and ability rather than a privileged background. As Blair put it,

“New Labour’s big idea is the development of human potential, the belief that there is talent and ability and caring in each individual that often lies unnurtured or discouraged.”

Blair desires a “just and fair society where life’s chances are given to all”.

There’s no doubt in my mind that Blair is right about that untapped potential. I used to be a postman, working on the sorting office floor for four years. Then my life chances changed and I ended up an academic teaching and researching at a number of Oxford colleges. I have taught philosophy to Etonians and foreign royals. I’ve run admissions interviews there too, so I know how the system works. I believe the children of the upper middle classes have no more native wit and intelligence than the rest.

Most of us left-leaning middle-class people have two opinions about the lower classes. There’s our “official” position, which is that those living on the council estate down the road are certainly not inferior to us in terms of native talent and ability (heaven forbid!)

Dig down a bit, however, and I suspect you’ll find yourself harbouring a slightly less savoury view. It’s not just that we middle classes are the fortunate beneficiaries of better life-chances and a better education. Yes, there may be one or two bright people living on that council estate, but generally speaking, we’re a breed apart, aren’t we? Something akin to natural selection has divided society roughly along class lines into the more and less able. That’s what many right-wingers believe, though they generally admit it only to each other. And it is, I suspect, what the rest of us broadsheet readers believe too, if we're honest with ourselves. Go on. Tell the truth. Isn’t that what you really think?

It must be what Blair thinks. How else can he believe we can create a genuine meritocracy without nobbling private education – one of the main mechanism by which the upper-middle classes retain their stranglehold on wealth and power?

Blair’s view must be that the current system is already not far off being meritocratic and that, generally speaking, the top positions are already populated by the most talented. The fact that these people invariably turn out to be privately educated upper-middle class folk is down to the fact that the lower orders are, generally speaking, congenitally less able. The system just needs tweaking a bit so that the odd bright council-estate lass can rise more easily through the ranks.

In my experience (purely anecdotal evidence, I admit), privately educated children do not have any more native talent and intelligence than the rest.

It’s just that, deep down, they think they do. They come out of private education brimming with a confidence and belief in their own self-worth that one rarely finds among the state-educated. They know they’re going to get decent jobs and earn decent money. And they feel sure they deserve it, too.

I believe that, if we really want a meritocracy in this country, there is only one solution. That solution requires we remove that mechanism which, perhaps more than any other, allows a small elite to hand down privilege from generation to generation at the expense of everyone else: private education.

Those who bang on about wanting a genuine meritocracy should cast an eye around the boardrooms of big business. They should select at random a few doctors, lawyers and government ministers. Yes, there’s the occasional grammar school lad, the odd barrow-boy-done-good. But the vast majority is drawn from a small and privileged pool. A few children rise inexorably above the rest, not because they have more talent and ability, but because their parents bought them a leg up at everyone else’s expense. That’s profoundly unfair.

Of course, whoever said life was fair? The trouble is that the present system is not just unjust, it’s also damaging both to the economy and to society. Those who are most talented and able are not where they should be – they languish as caretakers and security operatives while second-rate hooray Henries get to cash in and work the levers of power.

If we genuinely want a meritocracy, then we need to end private education. There's no realistic prospect of raising the standards of state schools to a similar level (and even if there was, the rich would simply invest still more, to retain the differential).

Let's end private education. Or else let's just stop pretending that we desire a “meritocracy”.

In which case, it will have turned out that New Labour's "big idea" was a big fib.

Australia: SBS TV Insight programme

I'll be live on Australian TV SBS, 7.30pm Sydney time on Monday 26th May - Insight programme.

They are making a show about faith schools. It's a forum/discussion type programme. I shall be contributing via satellite link.

CORRECTION: It's Tuesday 27th, not Monday 26th (thanks to Nigel).

Monday, May 12, 2008

Talk on moral and religious education

My final talk in Romania has been posted on you tube, I've just discovered. In segments: – ep. 1 – ep. 2 – ep. 3 – ep. 4 – ep. 5 – ep. 6

Why is there anything at all?

Sally and Mike N commented on previous post about the question, "Why is there something rather than nothing?" As Mike suggests, it is a very popular recruiting device among theists. It puts atheists on the defensive:

"Well, we theists can explain why the universe exists - so what's your explanation, then?"

The atheist must admit they have not got one, which makes their position look weak. At the very least, the theist may think that, by getting the atheist to admit they don't know the answer, the atheist is, in effect, admitting that, for all they know, God might be the answer. Theism and atheism end up on an equal footing, rationally speaking.

But of course, the Judeo-Christian explanation is just one among countless answers that might be offered. Why the Judeo-Christian God rather than, say, an evil God or a morally neutral God? Or countless other explanations.

Actually, the question: "Why is there something rather than nothing?" may well not make sense.

But even if it does, it does not follow that, because the atheist must admit they don't know the answer, then they cannot rule out the Judeo-Christian God as the answer.

Compare my earlier Sherlock Holmes analogy:

Sherlock Holmes is having a bad day. There’s been a terrible murder. There are hundreds of suspects. And he just can’t figure out who dunnit.

However, while Holmes can’t say who the culprit is, he is quite sure that certain people are innocent. The butler, in particular, has a cast-iron alibi. So Holmes is rightly confident the butler didn’t do it, despite the fact that he doesn’t know who did.

In the same way, an atheist can admit that there is a mystery about why the universe exists, and that they are utterly baffled by it, while nevertheless insisting that there’s overwhelming evidence that, whoever or whatever created it (if anything) it certainly wasn’t the all-powerful, all-good God of Judeo-Christian theology.

They can be as sure of that as they can be that it is not the creation of an all-powerful, all-evil God. For there is, in both cases, little evidence for and overwhelming evidence against (too much suffering, in the case of the good God; too much good in the case of the evil God) (see my God of Eth, for more on the evil God hypothesis).

Theists shouldn't make the mistake of supposing that, because there’s a deep mystery about why there is anything at all, that puts theism and atheism on an equally rational/irrational footing. It doesn’t.


Incidentally, theologian Denys Turner is notable for suggesting that we atheistic moderns are inclined somehow to dismiss the question:

"Denys Turner (DT): Well, I think that you've got to find a way of asking a certain kind of question if you're going to be a proper, card carrying, atheist. I think one begins to be a theist - to start at that end - when one realises that there's a certain kind of question which gets swept off the agenda and my point was that you have to work quite hard to ensure that question doesn't keep on re-emerging... and that question is, "Why is there anything at all?", as distinct from, "How are things, given that we've got them?"...

...even more important than the question of whether God exists is the question of "What questions are legitimate?", and the standard answer to, I suppose the theistic position in our time, is that the question which the name God appears to be some kind of answer to doesn't make sense as a question - it gets ruled out. So it's the agenda of questions which I would start and why is it that, umm, that a culture limits itself to asking, as it were, a set of routine questions which it has handily the methodologies for answering. It's almost as if the methods we've got for answering questions dictate what questions we allow to be asked. And I just think there's a very troubling question which kind of niggles on the edge of all the other questions."

Source here.

"God", or merely "some intelligence"?

Author@ptbooks has been defending a form of creationism, and also arguing for the existence of God.

I pointed out that the arguments for authors specific God are weak, and that the problem of evil provides seemingly overwhelming evidence against the existence of any such being.

Author's response has been to say that that are "too busy" to discuss the issue of whether God is good or not, and that they are merely defending belief in God, not his goodness.

But this seems highly evasive to me. Surely it is now misleading for author to continue to use the term "God" here, as, for most people, "God" means something far more specific - a personal God who is supremely benevolent and powerful, among other things.

Indeed, author's arguments from design really only support, at best, the hypothesis that there is some intelligence behind the universe. This intelligence may not even be divine (for example, perhaps this universe is the virtual, Matrix-like creation of a perfectly natural intelligence). Nor need it be unitary (perhaps its the work of a team).

So, unless author is prepared to defend the view that the intelligence is supernatural, unitary, and indeed bears at least some connection with the God of the Old Testament, etc., shouldn't they drop the otherwise highly misleading "God" and just talk about "some intelligence"?

Otherwise it looks like author is guilty of humpty-dumptying (making words mean whatever you want them to mean).

In any case, we can now do this: I have provided, I believe, overwhelming evidence that if the universe has a designer, it is not the all-good God of traditional monotheism - the one believed in by author@ptgbooks.

Moreover, author has, by his own admission, provided no evidence in support of that specific God-hypothesis.

So, let's now consider other possible design-hypotheses, but, until author deals with the evidence now provided, let's be clear that whatever the designer, if any, is - it isn't his particular God.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

On demonizing religion

Following on from my post on Romania, I want to add that, as a matter of fact, I met only one Orthodox priest while I was there, and he was a lovely chap for whom I've the greatest respect.

We stopped off at an Orthodox Church which we spotted to take a look. There turned out to be a funeral in progress, with an open casket in the back of the hearse and the priest doing his thing. Straight after, he beckoned us over and was extremely welcoming, giving us a very informative tour of his church, of which he was rightly proud (it all had to be translated via our taxi driver and host).

So let me clarify - I am not attacking religious people per se, many of whom are wonderful. Nor am I really attacking the institution of religion much (though I do argue against religious belief on the grounds that it is false, and, in some forms, dangerous).

Fact is, religions aren't all bad. Indeed, I wouldn't like to say they are more bad than good (as Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins do, for example).

True, I don't like religious homophobes and other bigots. But the reason I don't like them is that they are bigots, not that they are religious.

In fact I am as keen on defending people's right to be religious as I am to defend their right to be atheist.

Yes I am very much a defender of freedom of thought and expression, which some religious folk restrict in various ways. But then so do some atheists (e.g. Stalin).

It's really worth teasing out what we do and don't object to, in case we slip into demonizing the religious, which I think would actually be highly counterproductive. And largely unjustified.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Letter from Romania

I'm currently in Romania, guests of some fabulous people. I am also doing some talks with Paul Kurtz and Norm Allen for CFI.

Religion in Romania: some interesting facts:
  • Only 0.2% of the population claim to be atheists.
  • The main church is the national Orthodox Church, which gets to teach religion to all kids in state schools, unless their parents pull them out. They are teaching creationism.
  • The church has great political influence.
  • As a result evolution has been pulled from the curriculum, as has any philosophy of religion in which religion is critically examined.
  • Only 14% of 10-18 year olds believe the theory of evolution.
  • I spoke to a young woman today who says that because she is an atheist, her academic boss victimizes her and is destroying her career. And this sort of bullying and victimization, she tells me, is not at all unusual.
  • Our CFI sponsored discussion/conference of secularism today was, to the organizer's knowledge, the first ever in Romania. All the press were informed but none showed up.
  • It also seems to be illegal to criticize religion in Romania - there will shortly be a legal test case (today I met the guy who is bringing it - against himself).
Speaking again on Wednesday: MIERCURI - 7 MAI 2008 - ORELE 10:00 - 12:00 - Centrul de Cercetri Antropologice "Francisc Reiner" (Bucureti, Bd. Eroilor Sanitari, nr. 8, Sala de Consiliu).


I paste in below the comment from Dan, and then from Liviu Andreescu, which contains and confirms some statistics:


Hi Stephen,

I am afraid the facts you listed here about religion in Romania are far off from reality. I'm sure that your Romanian guests had no intention to misinform you, but they seem disconnected from the religious phenomenon in Romania. I will quickly go over your list for some clarifications:

1. I am not convinced that only 0.2% of the population declares themselves as atheists, but certainly the number is low, most likely below 10%. This is a reaction to the communist times when it was impossible to declare one’s personal religious beliefs.

2. It wasn’t the Orthodox Church that made the religion study mandatory in schools, but the Romanian politicians trying to capitalize on the trust that the population has in Church. At the moment, there are already many clerics that want to pull out the study of religion from school. Orthodox Church encourages spiritual exchange with own confessor and mentor, not the memorization of the Scriptures.

3. The Orthodox Church is trusted by the population and therefore feared by politicians, but it has no political involvement, by its own decision. There were exceptions to this rule in the past, but they were short lived. In general, the Orthodox Church, compared to other Christian Churches, strived not to be involved in politics. I think this is one of the main reasons why the Orthodox Church has kept its reputation intact in the eyes of the population.

4. Evolution was definitely not pulled from the curriculum, and Orthodox Church does not teach Creationism. Orthodox Church, in contrast with other Christian Churches, has kept the Old Testament as part of the dogma. But the Church never tried to interpret ad litteram the Old Testament (Genesis for instance), it sees the Old Testament as apophatic truth (descriptions of the revelations, impaired by the use of human understanding and language).

Orthodox Church has no stance in regard to evolution theory, or any other scientific theory for that matter. At most the Church is against scientific dogma, the use of “science” to rally people against other scientific theories, populations, or against the Church. The fact that Philosophy is taught very briefly in the last year of the high school is because of the poor curriculum, it has nothing to do with the Church. This is my own perspective: I am a biostatistician, I see support for evolution every day in the lab. At the same time I am a Romanian Christian Orthodox, I see no conflict between the two.

6. I have never heard of anyone being persecuted because he or she declared to be atheist. This seems to me a very unlikely situation, probably an attempt by someone to put the blame for a personal failure on something else than the actual reason. The Orthodox Church is very much against forcing people to come to Church, in fact it is actually against proselytism as well (attracting people to the Church).

7. Criticism of the Church is possible in Romania, but don’t expect to attract media attention with such a topic. Romanian TV channels, like any other (young) consumerist society, would rather report latest TV star gossip than doing anything else. In addition, if you plan to discuss the Orthodox Church make sure that your information is correct (ask people outside the atheist circles as well) and that your criticism does not repeat the general criticisms made against the Catholic or Protestant Churches, which most likely do not fit well the Orthodox Church.



Hi Stephen & co.

This is in response mostly to what Dan above said.

1. Judging by the 2002 national census, there are LESS than 0.2% self-declared atheists in Romania. Those of you who read Romanian - and even those who don't - can find the census results here: Hope this is convincing enough. AFAIK, this is the only comprehensive piece of statistics on this point.

2. The Orthodox Church (ROC) has been at the forefront of the campaign to make religion (taught confessionally) MANDATORY in Romanian public schools. And they were very successful in persuading politicians this was a good thing, so much so that it took a Constitutional Court decision to make religion an elective - and even so the status of this subject remains quite unclear. So religious education in public school has been and remains a chief goal of the ROC, ABSOLUTELY no question about that. Indeed, though under Romanian law religion is an elective subject, the official ROC Patriarchate website lists it as mandatory. There might be isolated priests who support taking it out of the public school curriculum, but the official position is quite the opposite. Indeed, I have been working and writing on the subject for the past 3 years and have never encountered one Orthodox priest of the type Dan referred to. More about the history of how religion became a quasi-mandatory subject in Romanian public education, here: (Romanian language)

3. The ROC has been, on the contrary, VERY ACTIVE in Romanian politics, both overtly and behind the scenes. Those of you who can access academic journal databases would do well to read a recent article that deals precisely with this issue: Lavinia Stan and Lucian Turcescu. "Pulpits, Ballots and Party Cards: Religion and Elections in Romania". Religion, State and Society, 33(4), 2005.

4. Evolution WAS DEFINITELY pulled from the biology curriculum through a Ministry of Education Order. (In fact the former minister of education who signed this decision publicly admitted it might have been a mistake.) Those of you who read English can find a summary here: And here: A list of those who protested is here (Romanian lg):,

And of course the ROC DEFINITELY teaches creationism: just take a look at the Romanian religion textbooks commonly used in RO public schools. The Genesis account is commonly offered.

6. It depends a lot on what you call "persecution". No one was jailed for being an atheist, afaik. But people have been called things, have fallen off with their bosses, have been denied a floor or an audience on that account, etc. - the usual shenanigans. More significantly, atheists ARE being commonly persecuted when their kids are forced to attend religious education classes in public schools, religious ceremonies in public institutions etc. You can find some more in English in this academic article: Lavinia Stan and Lucian Turcescu, "Religious Education in Romania," Communist and Post-Communist Studies, 38, no. 3 (September 2005)

For general information on religion in Romania in English I recommend a series of academic articles by Stan and Turcescu (see as well as their latest book at OUP.

The only comprehensive study of religious education in RO (Romanian language) is available here online (it can be obtained in book format as well):

So Dan, you seem to me to be a decent fellow who's completely misguided and has done no research on these matters.

One final point on what Stephen wrote. Article 13.2 of Romania's new (2007) law on religious denominations stipulates that ‘Any form, means, act or action of religious defamation and antagonism, as well as public offending of religious symbols are forbidden in Romania.’

Some people are concerned this may be used to stifle criticism of religion. As yet, this has not been the case - but the law is merely 1 year old.

I myself am skeptical that the article will be used to such purposes on a regular basis, but I do not find it unlikely that in some isolated cases it might be used to intimidate.