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Where is church in the bible? March 4, 2011

Posted by Ian in Religion.
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The bible is often referred to as the “instruction manual for life” (and numerous other similar phrases) and today over lunch it occurred to me that the bible should be fairly clear about the one act that is almost definitively Christian – going to church.


Religion as a Club January 9, 2009

Posted by Ian in Religion.
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One of the biggest problems that I have with religions is not that they exist, but that they expect their existence to warrant special attention.  There is not really any justification for this however despite a long tradition of society giving religion a special place in the world.  This begs the question of why we do so, and whether or not we should do so. (more…)

The Evidence for Religion January 6, 2009

Posted by Ian in Religion.
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Time to kick off 2009 my blogging by diving in the deep end 🙂

What evidence is there that Religion’s view of the world is correct?  Leaving aside the trivialities of which version to believe (since they all seem to believe roughly the same thing) what are the basic claims about the way the world is that religion makes for which evidence is needed?  The way I see it these fall into two basic claims around which the rest of the belief system operates:

  1. A supernaturally powerful god exists
  2. There exists an afterlife for humans

At first glance this might seem too short a list but I think everything else pins itself to these two fundamentals. (more…)

“Made Easy” Video Series July 10, 2008

Posted by Ian in Religion, Science.
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Another excellent video series on YouTube is the “Made Easy” series by YouTube user Potholer54.  There are 12 videos in the series covering the science behind the origins of the universe, life, people and so forth.  As well as explaining the concepts behind how we came to know what we do know about the world around us, it also directly addresses a bunch of creationist claims. 


Dawkins and Lennox discussion July 9, 2008

Posted by Ian in Religion.
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A fascinating discussion between two very interesting characters.  This is a great example of how polite direct conversation can achieve so much more in a shorter space than debates.  All the clutter is gone and the two can interact as they want to make for a dynamic and potentially useful outcome.


On the origin of religion June 30, 2007

Posted by Ian in Religion.
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In this post I want to explore a possible explanation for the origin of religion. Numerous authors have speculated along these lines and in this post I am essentially paraphrasing concepts discussed by Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Susan Blackmore, Carl Sagan and Stephen Pinker among others into my view of the most likely origin of religion and religious organisations. I offer this as a discussion piece rather than a claim of fact. My intent is to demonstrate how it is feasible that the present day religious experience could have occurred entirely naturally.

One of the key features of almost every animal species is how it interacts socially. Is it a herd animal, a lone animal, a hive animal, etc? The societies of our closest relatives appear to be in the form of cooperative extended family groups with a recognised leader. Over time the traits of respecting authority became critical to maintaining social cohesion. Those animals that were too much like loners never got mates and didn’t pass on their characteristics to future generations, while those that showed no respect either became leaders or were killed by other leaders. Naturally over time an equilibrium of sorts was reached between authority seekers and followers, both contributing an important part to social cohesion. In non-human animals these traits were instinctive rather than imitated.

As humans began evolving more sophisticated brains the nature of their learning developed as well. Humans are one of the few animals that learns through imitation rather than instinct, and this is is most likely a co-evolved trait along with communication skills. Thus right from the start it seems likely that most humans were predisposed to listen to those that taught them as their primary source of knowledge and life skills.

At much the same time a key trait of humans was their curiosity and interest in things around them. Let us consider an elderly leader in a tribal camp some day and one of his people asks him “why does the sun move across the sky and disappear?”. The elder stops and thinks about what he knows. He knows that light comes from fires such as those in his camp. He also thinks, well if there is a fire then someone must have lit it? He then takes his logic one step further and thinks the person who lit such a huge fire must be pretty impressive, what else could this person do? I suppose if he was to blow it could make wind? And if he was to cry perhaps that would be rain? The explanation to the uneducated tribal prehistoric human feels pretty strong. Then consider his natural inclination to follow a superior leader – what could be more superior than a guy who can light up the whole land?! – and he says well we had better treat him as a leader and with respect. It is decided that because of the elders status only he should communicate with this being and make offerings, so as to not offend him – after all that is the custom between tribes.

Over time this tribe develops a protocol for dealing with this being, and as it becomes entrenched in tribal life over many generations. Soon the young are simply told that this great being exists with no thought, it is simply a part of life. Over time the “science” of this great being is extended and changed by various people who consider it. Other tribes get similar thoughts and as communities start to talk, some beliefs merge, some are destroyed by others, some develop independently and life goes on. The meme of the “big being in the sky” has become well and truly established in the everyday way of life. It is even possible that individuals predisposed to skepticism are actually selected against over the long term. As literature and writing and creativity became a bigger part of the human way of life, it became easier to visualise and imagine what this great being might be like. And as the ability to understand the world grew, the ability to explain this being also grew. By now this belief was so entrenched in the way of life that people never really gave it a second thought.

As civilisation grows, the belief in the greater being became more and more codified and organised. Dedicated academics seek to figure out how this being works, and of course skeptics start to appear. Perhaps around the time of the great Greek philosophers we start to see this happening with the likes of Epicurus and Democritus. Of course at this stage in civilisation there were numerous different “beings” believed by different people all over the place. I suspect the religious tendency occurred while humans were still relatively localised and as they spread and evolved, it seems highly likely that the religion meme continued to develop in numerous different ways in different places. Polytheism in some places, monotheism in others, etc. As societies spread out more and more religions grew out of the original seeds, but this could only go on for so long. At some point with technology the world started shrinking again and various religions came into conflict. Those religions that were best set up to deal with other religions of course survived, and with a few strokes of luck (the Roman empire adopting Christianity for example) dominant religions emerged. The explanations, support and nature of religion grew more and more sophisticated driven in tandem by growing intellectual capacity and competition with other religions. Over time religions such as Christianity became very powerful at getting and retaining believers. It was never a function of malice on the part of individuals, memetic selection simply (and naturally) ensured this was the case.

The rest, as they say, is history.

Now as I said before, I don’t intend this as THE story of what happened but rather a feasible explanation of how it could have happened. A key feature of this story is that the relationship of religion to the real world is largely incidental and it is logical that as science developed, the meme was forced to find a home that was outside the world of science. We even see this happening today – young earth creationists are becoming further marginalised for example.

Anyway I am keen to hear of any major flaws in my story (it was written largely in one go off the top of my head) and to discuss the possibility that this is how it happened. In a future post I want to discuss why I think most religious people believe what they believe now – i.e. the life of the average religious person – but I want that to build on some concepts I have discussed here.


Religion and Morality June 7, 2007

Posted by Ian in Religion.
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A common claim on the side of religious belief is that without religion you couldn’t have morality. While an easy response of atheists is to point out the numerous cases of immorality from religious people, this is actually a pretty weak argument because it is really just a claim of hypocrisy and ignores the actual issue. The three arguments I believe seal the deal is that firstly morality is clearly independent of religion, secondly that an enforced morality is not morality at all, and finally I’ll mention Christopher Hitchen’s challenge.

Morality is Independent of Religion

There are a number of ways of approaching this but I will start with the obvious. There are devout religious people who are amoral, there are devout religious people who are moral, there are atheists who are moral, and there are atheists who are amoral. Statistics show that prison populations have roughly representative populations of religious and non-religious people. Experience shows us pretty clearly that religiosity is not strongly linked with morality.

That aside (it is not a strong argument either), I would question where religion claims to get its morality from? I will focus on the Christian religion for examples but they equally apply to pretty much all religions. The only source of guidance for Christians is the bible and therefore it must be considered the source of any moral guidance they receive. The only way someone can gain a contemporary sense of morality from the bible is to cherry pick the good verses from the bible and use them. But what is the criteria for such cherry picking? Take any moral issue and the bible will offer conflicting points of view. A simple example would be the creed in Leviticus 20:13 that homosexuals should be put to death. If the bible is the word of God, why are Christians not killing homosexual males? The only possible reason is that the contemporary moral zeitgeist has shifted in favour of homosexuality and away from killing as a punishment for anything (in spite of the numerous creeds such as the one above in the bible rather than because of it!).

The point I want to get across here is that morality exists entirely independent of religion, religious texts or beliefs. That is not to say the bible doesn’t have some examples of good moral guidance, but that is exactly the point – the judgement that the bible does have some good points precisely shows that the criteria for making that judgement exist outside the bible. If I went and killed a homosexual man right now for no reason other than the fact he was homosexual, would it be judged to as a moral act? Of course not! And yet those people who claim morality comes from Christianity have no religious basis to claim it was not a moral act unless they cherry pick the bible and therefore use external moral judgements to ignore that passage. Either that or they must say it is a moral act, in which case why doesn’t it happen? The answer? Because morality exists independent of religion.

Enforced Morality is not Morality

This one is simple: which of the two examples is the more moral position?

  1. I don’t kill people because god will burn me in hell; or
  2. I don’t kill people because I see the inherent benefit in not doing so.

In other words the person that lives a moral life because it is the better way to live is much purer morally than the theist who lives the moral life either out of fear of hell or desire for heaven. There are literally people out there for whom the only reason they don’t kill their neighbour (for example) is that they are afraid of god! They are NOT moral people, they are frightened amoral people.

I don’t think much more needs saying on this point but I’m happy to expand if necessary – Sam Harris’s The End of Faith has an excellent discussion on this topic.

Christopher Hitchen’s Challenge

I want someone to get up, tonight, and say that they can name a stand made, moral or ethical, a stand of moral courage or political courage made by any religious person that could not have been made by someone who thought that the whole idea of god was ridiculous to begin with.
(From a debate between Christopher Hitchens and Chris Hedges on the topic “Is God…Great?”, held at King Middle School in Berkeley, California, on May 24, 2007.)

In other words there is no aspect of morality that is exclusive to religion. What does religion bring to the moral discussion that atheism can’t? This is a very simple point but very powerful.

In conclusion it seems to me the very claim that somehow religious people are more moral than non religious people is simply unfounded and indefensible – anyone can be moral or amoral, and the judgement of that morality is entirely independent of religion, belief or scripture.

Religion vs Science – the Non-Debate. May 10, 2007

Posted by Ian in Religion.
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In the religious debate the sides of the debate are often said to be science and religion. In this post I aim to show that this dichotomy is nonsense. In future posts I will explore different ways that the religious theory is undermined by science but this post focuses on establishing the real “sides” of the debate.

The November 2006 issue of the time magazine is entitled God vs. Science and contains a spirited debate between Richard Dawkins and Francis Collins. The main article opens with the following passage:

We revere faith and scientific progress, hunger for miracles and for MRIs. But are the worldviews compatible?

This typifies exactly the problem in picking the two sides of the debate as science and religion. MRIs are not mutually exclusive to faith, scientific progress does not occur at the expense of miracles (well a case could be made it does, but assume for a moment that miracles are real and you will see my point).

Let us try and narrow down the actual meaning of these supposed sides of the debate. We will start with science. While I generally steer away from the wikipedia as a source of information, its article on science starts with a poignant description of science that I would struggle to better so here it is:

In the broadest sense, science (from the Latin “to know”) refers to any systematic methodology which attempts to collect accurate information about reality and to model this in a way which can be used to make reliable, concrete and quantitative predictions about future events and observations.


Science achieves this through a process of proposing hypotheses, testing them, establishing theories, continuing to test them and then operationalising the theory once it has shown to work. This nature of a theory working is an important one – it is not necessary for a theory to explain why it works for it to be successful. In fact the very question of “why” is almost a non-question in science. Science is really much more interested in how things work and how they relate to each other. Supposedly if enough detailed “hows” were known, the “why” may become apparent but there is no need to suppose anything has any reason to exist or work in a particular way.

The other “side” of the debate is religion. Religion is best described as an organised belief in a deity (or deities). In a more sensible phrasing of the same concept, religion is a theory about how the world works. As Dawkins states in several places, a world with a god (or gods) would be a very different world to one without.

It should now be apparent that a theory of how the world is versus the mechanism for explaining the world are not logical opposing sides of an argument! Religion is a theory and it is subject to science. It is really that simple.

Now I suspect you thinking that there is a real debate going on. So what is the debate? It is quite simply the debate between those that think religious theories of how things are match reality, and those that don’t. As it happens the majority of serious scientists sit in the “those that don’t” camp but that is perhaps an indicator of the robustness of the religious theories – it is not an indication that science itself is against religion which would just be sloppy use of language.

I will conclude with a couple of relevant points for the sake of completeness, both of which I hope to return to in detail in future posts.

Firstly the religious theories are far from complete and in my view it is no coincidence that religious theories are confined to the gaps in knowledge not already well explained by other fields of study. There are well established theories of gravity, cosmology, mechanics, biology and numerous other fields. You rarely hear religion offering counter-explanations to the theories within those fields of study (the evolution debate is an exception which I will explore in depth later). This is the “god of gaps” concept and is very weak.

Secondly, religion offers poorly constructed theories for the most part. Most of them ultimately end up making claims that cannot be tested or that rely on “faith”. These theories are very weak because they answer the why questions and not the how. As discussed above, the why questions are fairly meaningless – they offer answers to questions that necessarily don’t need answers!

Finally, religious theories that are not subject to science are meaningless theories. If one day it was shown that god exists, science would have a lot to say about it so the common statement that the domain of religion sits outside the domain of science is complete rubbish.

Thats me for this post.

Can there be only (n)one? May 2, 2007

Posted by Ian in Religion.
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A thought I just had while contemplating an entirely different issue was that technically speaking only (up to) one form of religion can be “right”. I have no idea how many different religions there are but the following are the main groupings:

  • Islam
  • Christianity
  • Hinduism
  • Mormonism
  • Spiritualism/New Age

Within each grouping are highly varying versions of that group. I don’t think it would hard to make a list of 50 or more specific religions. Then it gets more interesting because not all catholics (for example) believe exactly the same thing either. If you were then to add in all the ancient religions and more obscure tribal religions you would end up well into the hundreds if not thousands.

The exact numbers or details are not important but it occurs to me that even if one of these religions is 100% right, by far the majority of the earth’s population won’t be. In fact it stands to reason that almost all people who believe in a religion believe in the wrong one… This wouldn’t really matter except that pretty much all religions make it absolutely clear that not following their tenets (or believing in the wrong god) is a punishable fate.

Pascal’s wager finds a rather neat twist in this argument. Pascal’s wager is basically a (rather bad) risk assessment of choosing whether to believe. If you choose to believe and you are wrong these is little cost so its not a big deal. If you choose not to believe and you are wrong the cost is massive – an eternity of getting burnt in hell (according to Christians anyway). The problem is that you cannot from an impartial point of view justify belief in any one religion over any other. Therefore from the wager’s perspective choosing to believe in the wrong religion is equally as bad as not believing at all. In fact you’d have to be damn lucky to pick the right one given all the choices!

Christians will probably argue that the differences between christian denominations are largely academic and they still follow all of the basic tenets. However it only takes one difference to matter and my point is valid. I also wonder why, if the differences are so marginal, that Christianity isn’t united.

This also raises an interesting point about the clarity of various religious documents which is a theme I will return to in detail at some stage. However I will mention here that even if you manage to choose the right religion, there seems to me a fairly high chance you will fail to meet all of its tenets simply through misunderstanding obscurely worded ancient texts. In fact most religious people rely on their priest or pastor to tell them what is important… so you’d better trust him/her! That’s a rather scary pressure for a priest – one screw up could send all your people to hell them even they did by chance pick the right one… I might have to take that up with one some day.

I suppose the easy way to get out of this is to claim that god will forgive you whatever it is that you do wrong, but then it really doesn’t matter what you believe or do. It is interesting that in Christianity the only unforgivable sin is denying the holy spirit (and I think there is an analog in Islam). I don’t think it is a coincidence that once the religion has your faith it doesn’t matter what you do, but if you deny it then you have no chance.

Anyway I’ll leave this spontaneous bunch of thoughts here and resume normal transmission in a day or so 🙂


ReligioNZ April 19, 2007

Posted by Ian in Religion.
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Religion in New Zealand is a strange beast.

In our early days life in New Zealand was dominated by the English colonisers and their missionaries. We grew up as a country which largely copied the cultural traditions of our motherland and therefore English Christianity became a big part of life.

Today religion appears in very few places. It is almost completely absent from the legislative framework and plays a very small part in politics. Even the most religious of our major parties, United Future, takes great pains to avoid the tag as a christian party – stating on their website “United Future is a centrist political party that seeks innovative solutions to issues based on common sense, not ideology.” They deliberately and actively avoid the tag of a christian party presumably because its simply bad for politics in NZ. The incumbent Labour Party’s view on religion is rather hard to figure out, it doesn’t even feature on their website and I am going to contact the local MP to find out. I presume the national party is much the same.

Religion simply doesn’t play a big part in the day to day practical lives of your average kiwi as shown by the lack of discussion on it by political parties (a sure sign!). That doesn’t stop well over half the population claiming a religious affiliation though – during the 2006 census only 35% of the population claimed no religion. However this was up from 24% in 1996 – a significant increase over 10 years with a raw change of over 50% (Source: Stats NZ Census Data).

In my view religion does not dominate the lives of anywhere near half the population of New Zealand despite the statistics. My flatmate, as an arbitrary example, is a devoted catholic girl but I have never seen her pray, go to church or act any differently to anyone else in the more than 12 months I have known her and she is not unusual in NZ. There is a large population of Kiwis that are religious by name only, and will only rarely actually observe or act on it. I would dearly like to see some statistics on the number of New Zealanders that regularly go to church for example. I suspect this would be closer to 35% than the 65% the census claims. It seems not unreasonable to me that the non-believers and the active believers are roughly on a par with each other in New Zealand. If anyone has any hard stats on this I would like to see them.

Looking at the types of religions in New Zealand the only religion type going down (and this is absolute numbers not percentages!) is Christians. However of the Christian denominations in New Zealand, the Anglicans have lost over 100,000 people (!) from 1996-2006. Most of the others have grown, especially the catholics. This trend I find a bit baffling and I will be asking around to see if anyone knows why. Of the non-christian religions I have to add with some amusement that there over twice as many satanists as there are scientologists 🙂 Sorry – couldn’t resist!

There are certainly a lot of churches floating around New Zealand, and from so many different denominations that its hard to keep track. Most of them seem to me to be really family/community centres and their numbers/constituents don’t change much. There is a growing trend of the more hip youth church type thing with bands and such in New Zealand reminiscent of the evangelicals of America. Fortunately kiwis are more relaxed than your average American so I don’t see it taking quite such a stranglehold here but they are attracting those in their early 20s. The success of the Parachute festival is an example of why. While I have no idea who runs it or funds it, it has all the hallmarks of this sort of thing. I’m sure someone will put me right on this one though!

One final comment is that religion still has one stranglehold on New Zealand – in our pathetic national anthem! It’s called “God defend New Zealand” and this the most negative possible national song I can imagine! Help god, save us! Give me a break. This is solely a reflection of the time the anthem was written I suspect – we need a new one, of that I have no doubt whatsoever.

Thats me for this one. My next post will be about the science vs. religion debate.