Rees on Religion

Bit of a Twitter Buzz this morning about Martin Rees winning the Templeton Prize. For those who don’t know, the Templeton Foundation is an organisation founded by billionaire John Templeton, to encourage open minded and progressive thinking in religion. In the 1980s they also started funding science, where they felt there was some philosophical (not necessarily directly religious) interest. Most interestingly, in 2006 they gave nine million dollars to help found the Foundational Questions Institute, led by by some well known astronomers and physicists.  Some scientists are clearly nervous about the Templeton Foundation, and others are relaxed, as described in this Nature News article.

Martin gave an interview to the Guardian about his reaction to the prize, and the relation between science and religion. Its the sanest thing I have read in ages. Briefly, his attitude is (a) I don’t believe in God. (b) I sometimes go to Church for cultural and work reasons. (c) Relax. Science and religion are disjoint activities. Pretty much like science and music. (d) We need to encourage progressive attitudes in religion, rather than setting up science in opposition.

Dawkins has called Rees a “compliant quisling“. Martin kinda brushed this off, but I have to say I’m with the Astronomer Royal on this.

A little while back I wrote about the Martin Gaskell affair, and was shocked at the level of crudeness and vitriol on the Pharyngula blog. Who needs religious fascism when we atheists can be just as vicious and unreasonable? I do realise that the perspective is rather different in the USA, where it is much more tempting to feel embattled. But it still doesn’t feel right.

Religion ain’t disappearing any time soon. If religion causes a lot of our problems, the sane solution is to encourage better religion, and encourage people to feel they can have their God and Darwin too, as Martin says.

Finally, while we are doing a bit of Rees worship, I just loved his closing quote from Hobbes : “There can be no contentment but in proceeding”

Course, Robert Zimmerman said it better

The only thing I knew how to do
Was to keep on keeping on
Like a bird that flew
Tangle up in Blue

85 Responses to Rees on Religion

  1. […] Rees on Religion (via The e-Astronomer) I agree wholeheartedly with Andy Lawrence on this, and since this is the first time this has ever happened I thought I’d mark the occasion by reblogging his post… Bit of a Twitter Buzz this morning about Martin Rees winning the Templeton Prize. For those who don't know, the Templeton Foundation is an organisation founded by billionaire John Templeton, to encourage open minded and progressive thinking in religion. In the 1980s they also started funding science, where they felt there was some philosophical (not necessarily directly religious) interest. Most interestingly, in 2006 they gave nine million dolla … Read More […]

  2. Tom Shanks says:

    The interesting question to ask Martin Rees, based on this and previous similar interviews, is “Are you an atheist?”. Martin’s apparently clear-cut “I have no religious beliefs” could certainly accommodate agnosticism. This would seem a more easy to understand position than being “a cultural Christian”.

    I personally always feel it is easier to argue against atheisim rather than for a theism. Atheism means that there is no intrinsic worth in anything and this makes it immediately pointless to discuss moral issues. Why expend energy on discussing the rights and wrongs of say “faith schools” (as Prof Dawkins does), if the debate is intrinsically meaningless and right and wrong have no universal validity? The problem is when one is then asked to go further and state who or what defines the universal morality that things become almost impossibly difficult, particularly for a scientist. Maybe this is why Martin prefers to go the “cultural Christian” route. Just a theory and most likely wrong – as usual!

    But by Jove this Templeton prize certainly prompts discussion!

    • “Atheism means that there is no intrinsic worth in anything and this makes it immediately pointless to discuss moral issues.”

      Sorry Tom, but this is one of the biggest non sequiturs I’ve read in a long time. You were less heretical when claiming that the Hubble constant was 30.

  3. andyxl says:

    Tom – I will jump on this before somebody else does.. “Atheism means that there is no intrinsic worth in anything and this makes it immediately pointless to discuss moral issues” Woooahhhhh !! Who said that ? Atheism means “no god” not “no values”. Was this just a slip, or did you seriously mean to say that everything is worthless if there is no god ???? Maybe you mean there are no absolute externally provided values, so you have to make your own mind up ? But this means there is more point than ever to discussing moral issues. No external authority will tell us the right answer. We have to discuss and agree. Morality is a social issue. But that still makes it very real and very very necessary.

  4. Tom Shanks says:

    No it wasnt a slip. Sure, I can make up my moral code and you can make up yours but when you say “We have to discuss and agree” – where did that moral code come from?!? If no absolute morality then I can alternatively say “I am going to eliminate you and your moral code” rather than use “the discuss and agree with you” code and no-one can say which is better/right/moral – because you assumed at the beginning there is no absolute morality. But then the “elimination morality” is as worthy as the “discuss and agree morality” – which is why atheism means there is no intrinsic worth.

  5. Michael Merrifield says:

    Still not sure I get the gist of your argument, Tom. The non-existence of God does not mean that there are no moral absolutes; it just means that any moral absolutes are a function of the Universe, rather than being externally imposed.

  6. Tom Shanks says:

    Yes – am loosely equating a belief in religion with a belief that there are absolute values. It also seems too narrow to distinguish morality which is a function of the Universe from an externally imposed morality.

    But I think I am getting out of my depth here – should have stuck with Chelsea and Man U.

    • telescoper says:

      Tom,

      I don’t agree that all arguments about morality involve absolute values. Some do, and these are generally of the sort that “Such-and-such is wrong because if we all behaved like that, anarchy would ensue”. Killing people is wrong because if we allow people to kill each other willy-nilly then the fabric of society would disentegrate. These are absolute in the sense that logic is absolute, not because they are inherited from a God-given code. But not everyone is good at logic. Atheistic societies can agree with religious ones on such matters, but only if they think about them and discuss them.

      The more problematic areas of moral philosophy are those that are more clearly constructed as social conventions, e.g. some regard homosexuality as “immoral”; others don’t. Social attitudes to such things are formed by convention and have changed rapidly in recent times (at least in open societies). More often than not, public attitudes to “morality” are really about “conformity”.

      I re-blogged Andy’s post (see trackback above) because I agree with him strongly. I think it’s an excellent thing that Martin Rees won the Templeton Prize, especially because he doesn’t have conventional religious views. My own view is that science and religion are orthogonal to each other, that each should recognize its own limitations, but that dialogue is a good thing. Just as between science and art.

      I am, I should add, an atheist (but not a devout one).

      Peter

      • andyxl says:

        “Killing people is wrong because if we allow people to kill each other willy-nilly then the fabric of society would disintegrate” I think this illustrates the point that moral values can be contingent but clear. If we agree that society disintegrating is bad, then it follows that killing people is bad. Its still a social construct, but few people will disagree that society disintegrating is a bad thing.

      • Michael Merrifield says:

        Just because something is a social construct does not mean that it isn’t a moral absolute, Andy. Take this extreme case of mass murder being wrong. It could quite plausibly be the case that it is evolutionarily impossible for any society to thrive if mass murder is encouraged. In that case, although it is a societal construct, it is also a moral absolute in that it is a necessary condition for all societies.

      • Tom Shanks says:

        Reason and rationality are useful tools but any logical system needs axioms at base. So we can’t appeal simply to rationality without reference to some axioms, athough these could be relative.

        Secondly, am certainly not saying that absolute morality makes it immediately clear what is right or wrong and its certainly not written down anywhere. I suppose it would have to be “divined” imperfectly as usual by humans! But what may be more important is to have the notion that right and wrong do exist – gives things worth. Otherwise anything goes – the problem is the real Universe may be like this – but I’ve always been an optimist!

        Religion and science are similar in that they both need axioms. But science certainly has it easier when it comes to proof! Am also still naive enough to hope that reason can be applied to religion as well as science – although the axioms are the difficult bit!

      • telescoper says:

        Tom,

        Yes, the underlying axioms are different between science and religion, but these are not testable. Among those applied to science is the assertion that the Universe obeys laws, for example. Science does not ask why. Some religions do.

        Societies have existed in which mass murder was accepted (from the Aztecs to Nazi Germany). You might argue that such societies were eventually overthrown, but then all societies in history have been eventually overthrown by something else anyway.

        In other words, the history of human society provides no evidence at all of an absolute moral standard. Even a societiey which was founded on clear axiomatic statements “all men are created equal” have found ways to allow slavery.

        The Golden Rule, on which most human rights legislation is based, is “do as you would be done by”. That’s the axiom that most of us derive our personal moral philosophy from – and it clearly rules out murder, theft, slavery, etc… – but it’s an axiom. There is no “proof” that it is the right way for humans to behave.

        Peter

      • Michael Merrifield says:

        Peter —

        I think you are looking at the wrong timescale. If it were the case that there was some absolute moral law that it is not possible to have a society in which mass murder was widely acceptable, then there would have to be some timescale over which a society could experiment with it before “moral natural selection” kicked in and the society collapsed, so there will always be examples to point to that “break” any such laws. I suppose even this is a form of moral relativism, in that the timescale to collapse might well depend on how disasterously stupid the experiment was, but that does not remove the basic point that there may exist moral absolutes even if they are not externally imposed, simply because they are the basic requirements of any functioning society.

        The Golden Rule seems a good case in point — its near universality across societies suggest that it is such an absolute. Maybe buried somewhere in game theory there is even a proof that it is required for a functioning society. But even if there is no such formal proof, that doesn’t mean that it isn’t true, and it does not rule out the existence of moral absolutes.

      • Owen says:

        My own view is that science and religion are orthogonal to each other, that each should recognize its own limitations, but that dialogue is a good thing. [telescoper]

        I agree that dialogue between religious and non-religious people is a good thing, and don’t think confrontation or disharmony is helpful.

        But I’ve never completely understood the idea that they are not orthogonal. Religion attempts to answer many of the same questions as science – but its method is completely different. Either you employ the scientific method, or you have faith in the word of god and/or holy books and/or your church.

        The scientific method is at least consistent. You apply the same logic and rigour to any hypothesis, and make it open to scrutiny. Religion, viewed as a methodology, changes (slowly) to the whim of the people. Attitudes change towards certain behaviors simply as they become more conventional. Therefore, how is it any use in finding such a thing as ‘universal morality’ (if there were such a thing), as mentioned in someone else’s comment. Maybe there’s such a thing as ‘dynamic universal morality’ and god keeps changing his/her mind.

        Whilst I think science and religion are orthogonal, I do accept that they’re not mutually exclusive. There are obviously very good religious scientists – but only because they are able to compartmentalise.

      • Michael Merrifield says:

        Maybe there’s such a thing as ‘dynamic universal morality’ and god keeps changing his/her mind.

        Isn’t it possible that moral values change with time because the appropriate behaviour of a society depends on its level of knowledge, intelligence, etc? For example, the appropriate moral behaviour in a society armed with nuclear weapons is presumably rather different from one armed with sticks. The fact that the moral code evolves with time is not in itself an indicator of relativism, or even that there is no higher power behind it all.

      • Owen says:

        I don’t see why moral values should change with time. Society’s level of knowledge changes what moral dilemmas or ethical issues arise, but not how you should deal with them. Maybe there are exceptions to this.

        The examples I was thinking of were, for example, the attitude of various religions and/or denominations towards female bishops, homosexuality, contraception etc. No new knowledge has really emerged about these subjects – the basics are understood – but approaching them from a religious stance has, in some cases, caused prejudice, discrimination and ignorance.

        I don’t understand the nuclear weapons/sticks argument either. The appropriate moral behaviour if society is armed with sticks or nuclear weapons is, in both cases, to use neither aggressively unless you have absolutely no other option.

      • Michael Merrifield says:

        On the nuclear versus stick morality, I think you are yourself creating unrealistic moral absolutes by stating that they should only be used when there is “absolutely no other option.” There are, of course, always other options: when threatened, you can choose either to fight back or concede. Which is the moral thing to do would surely depend, amongst other things, on the consequences of fighting back, which differ significantly depending on whether you are armed with a stick or an ICBM, so morality has to evolve to match the environment in which it finds itself.

  7. Monica Grady says:

    I gave a talk on Monday evening, on Science, Religion and Faith, in which I made the point that both science and religion explain their beliefs in terms of stories appropriate to the time and culture of their audiences. And both require faith – whether it be in the resurrection and eternal life, or the Higgs boson and dark energy.

    M
    x

    • Simon says:

      That’s really not a fair way of putting it, is it? It’s conflating different ideas that have some overlap in their natural-language word expressions.

      Science is about dealing rigorously with uncertainty, considering competing hypotheses, using data and observation to learn about the world, revising or rejecting ideas that fail to match, claiming practical success where this happens (theory X predicted Y, which was observed; using theory Z we can builds device Q and they work really well,…) but always aware we are building models that capture incompletely aspects of reality. And they are always provisional, conditional on available information.

      Of course, scientists are human and so work using a range of implicit or explicit assumptions and beliefs. But those are person tools – or baggage – people use in the work, not the products of science nor the scientific method. We usually make progress when people with different implicit assumptions attack the same problem. For example, Einstein clearly had “faith” in the idea of a classical (no quantum uncertainty) reality. But he was pretty clear that was his assumption not his conclusion. And as we all know his arguments with Bohr about quantum mechanics helped improve the theory but never killed it.
      Yet in his earlier years his stubborn holding to assumptions about the way the world worked helped him towards relativity.

      Science is hard. As Quine said: “Analyse theory-building how we will, we must all start in the middle.” Of course the science of any time includes some assumptions and preconceptions, but these are subject to revision. Even the fundamental ones (absolute space, classical reality, immutability of species, geocentrism…)

      This doesn’t have much to do with what most people think of when they read the word “religion”. (Not sure whether to count Buddhism as such.) Would performing a DNA test on an unleavened wafer would convince a catholic priest that transubstantiation is false? Showing the demonstrable inefficacy of prayer, faith-healing etc. would change the minds of practitioners? Doesn’t seem to be the case. If you change the core beliefs of most religions they stop being that – in fact in some cases even asking the questions is a big No.

      “And both require faith – whether it be in the resurrection and eternal life, or the Higgs boson and dark energy.” Scientists may operate on the working assumption that Higgs is what they think it is – but they should all know that’s what it is until good evidence turns up. That’s honest theorizing, then testing and model checking. The result will have some uncertainty associated with it. You really think the same applies to “the resurrection and eternal life”…?

  8. andyxl says:

    We used to believe in phlogiston and the ether, but now we don’t. Because of evidence and reason. Maybe one day we won’t believe in dark energy. Whereas belief in the resurrection and eternal life are not affected by evidence. Thats the difference. All scientific beliefs are temporary; they are belief but they are not faith. There is some conceptual overlap, but they are really distinct.

  9. Tom Shanks says:

    For “eternal life” read “intrinsic worth”. Not as fully comprehensive but still some consolation?

  10. Your fellow bloggers P.Z. Myers and Jerry Coyne regularly discuss the Templeton Prize, Templeton Foundation etc. While they might have a somewhat different perspective since they live in the intellectual backwater of the USA, I have to agree with them at least to the extent that it does more harm than good. Taking Templeton money is almost as bad as having your medical research financed by a tobacco concern (which actually happens). Some people, even some I otherwise admire such as Stephen Jay Gould, have gone to great lengths to point out that religion and science are orthogonal, downplay contradictions etc. The fact is that the idea that the Bible is not meant to be taken literally practically didn’t exist until science disputed some of the claims. Religion often makes claims which are directly contradictory to science. It is intellectually dishonest to say that when there is a conflict, the Bible is a metaphor, not meant to be taken literally etc.

    I have to agree with Hitchens when he says that religion poisons everything.

    Yes, the modern-day church in some countries might not be as dangerous as it was a few centuries ago, but ask yourself why that is the case. The immoral power the church held, expressed by literally torturing and killing people who didn’t conform to their ideals, has been reduced thanks to science, the Enlightenment etc. Where that hasn’t happened, the torture continues.

    Yes, I know nice people who are genuinely religious. But to a large extent, these are people, although they wouldn’t admit it, who don’t take their religion seriously in an intellectual sense, though they might in an emotional sense. In other words, they sincerely believe something, but this is a) a subset of what actually constitutes their religion and b) is mostly harmless. Martin Rees, John D. Barrow etc are good scientists and nice people and are sympathetic to the goals of Templeton. Without criticising their science nor their character I think it is fair to say that not being more critical of Templeton does a disservice to science on the whole.

    If science can’t stand up to the woo which is religion, it can’t stand up to the woo which is homeopathy, the idea that vaccinations cause autism, astrology, creationism etc. Reason (which doesn’t exclude morals, emotions or anything which makes life worth living) is the only way forward, otherwise there is the danger that irrationality will decide over our lives and deaths, as it still does in a large part of the world.

    In summary, it is intellectually dishonest to reject only the harmful ideas of religion and keep the harmless bits.

    I also fail to follow the argument that since harmless religious people are better than harmful religious people, we should support the accommodationists. First, there is no reason not to honestly state that it is possible to live a good life without religion. Second, the jump from the religious fundamentalist to the “cultural Christian” type is larger than that between the “cultural Christian” and the honest atheist, so a) they might as well be encouraged to go all the way and b) realistically, very few religious fundamentalists lessen their belief due to whatever reasons. If anything, people who are unsure might be attracted first to “harmless” religion and then drift into fundamentalism.

  11. andyxl says:

    Phillip – I guess you’ll be commanding that tide to turn back then ? We’re talking pragmatism here, not principle. I would note that just about all of that historic progress you refer to has taken place without scientists telling the those of faith they are bad; but rather by consistently setting a good example of truth, reason, and good manners.

    • False dichotomy. The alternatives are not just accomodation on one hand and turning the clock back on the other. Also, times have changed, at least in some places. Just a couple of hundred years ago, being openly atheist would have ostracised one from society. Thus, this wasn’t even an option then, though it is now. (Whether historical accomodationists were really closet atheists we don’t know.)

      I also fail to see the difference between religion on the one hand and astrology, creationism, anti-vaccination woo, global-warming denialism, racism (of the pseudoscientific sort) etc on the other hand. I think science should call a spade a spade. Should we take a warm and fuzzy view of these other things? I think not. Religion shouldn’t get a special dispensation just since it historically played a larger role.

      I agree that the tone of conversation should be civil, but the content should not compromise.

      Many people in more enlightened countries today have never felt the scourge of organised religion. They often don’t know much about the religion which they nominally belong to. Sometimes this results in a stance which is too soft, and certainly doesn’t help those who suffer.

      Is there any example of a religious fundamentalist converting to a tolerant, enlightened, John-Barrow-style Christianity? Most don’t convert at all, but those who do usually go all the way.

      Yes, in some extreme cases accomodationism might be the lesser evil. <A HREF="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/R%C3%BCdiger_Nehberg"<Rüdiger Nehberg (a pastry chef from Hamburg who paddled across the Atlantic alone and has spent much time living in the jungle eating worms etc), for example, has recently put a lot of effort into working against the practice of female circumcision, and has actually achieved some success. One path he takes is to point out that it isn’t actually required by Islam, and even to get anti-circumcision regulations incorporated into the local Sharia. Considering what’s at stake (almost literally), I think this is acceptable. However, I would hope that people in the civilised world could have an intelligent dialogue without any false sense of restraint.

      It really doesn’t matter if the practice is mentioned in the Koran or not. After all, if the only relevant stuff were in the corresponding book, why does anyone care what the Pope says? The fact of the matter is that leading Moslem scholars (not just some backwater kooks) do support the practice and see it as part of the religion. For the victims, the reasoning (if one can call it that) behind it doesn’t matter. I also think there is a danger in saying “well, it’s officially not part of Islam, so we can oppose it” as if we couldn’t if it were officially part of Islam.

      By the way, Nehberg’s self-description could almost apply to you: “No astrological sign, no church, no hair, and no clip in the ear”. .-)

      • andyxl says:

        I didn’t mention turning back the clock – definitely a bad idea ! Turning back the tide was a reference to King Canute – sorry that was a bit Anglo-centric. He wanted to show his subjects that his powers were limited, so he got his courtiers to carry him to the seaside, where he commanded the tide to turn round. Of course it ignored him. So this has become a metaphor for concentrating on the possible rather than the impossible.

      • My fault for not getting the Canute reference!

        Of course, “the tide is turning” is a metaphor for change, so “turning back the tide” could be read the way I read it. Also, “tide” is related to the word for “time” in many languages.

        I’m the first to say that idealism which leads to no results, or negative results, is worse than a compromise which does some good. I don’t think, however, that in an intellectual dialogue in “civilised countries” on science and religion any sort of compromise is necessary. In other words, I believe that a secular society is possible. Compared to 200 years ago, we are almost there.

        I really don’t think that, given the choice between, say, Darwin and atheism on the one hand and fundamental religion on the other that we would be at a loss because people opt for fundamentalism whereas they would have opted for accomodationist religion with Darwin were that option available. People who are susceptible to fundamentalism will espouse it. I really doubt that accomodationism is a valid option for these folks. Christian fundamentalists often quote a verse from Revelation where Jesus says that his first choice is hot (i.e. fundamentalist) but that he prefers cold (i.e. non-belief) to lukewarm since the last makes him vomit. http://bible.cc/revelation/3-16.htm

      • Michael Merrifield says:

        I also fail to see the difference between religion on the one hand and astrology, creationism, anti-vaccination woo, global-warming denialism, racism (of the pseudoscientific sort) etc on the other hand.

        Well, one difference is that none of the latter items on the list can make any claim to have enriched the culture of the World through the many works of art, pieces of music or architectural masterpieces that religion can lay claim to motivating.

        Whether these are enough to counterbalance the evils for which religion is undeniably also responsible is certainly an arguable point, but to claim that religion has done nothing good, and as such should be simply dismissed with the coterie of fringe nutters, distorts the case in much the same way (if in the opposite direction!) to the very fundamentalism that you are seeking to refute.

      • “Well, one difference is that none of the latter items on the list can make any claim to have enriched the culture of the World through the many works of art, pieces of music or architectural masterpieces that religion can lay claim to motivating.”

        Interesting point. However, I think it is fair to say that religion no longer motivates works of art, pieces of music or architectural masterpieces, at least not any which are treasured by non-religious people as well.

        As to whether other non-religious “woo” has inspired something of aesthetic value, I can’t think of any right now. An interesting exercise for the reader. However, as noted above, religion no longer serves as this source of inspiration, and there are other sources as well, so we don’t have to fear losing these.

      • Michael Merrifield says:

        The lead time on deciding whether something is a masterpiece makes it quite hard to assess what will be classified as such from the current generation — in fact, “masterpiece” would be quite a long way down the list of descriptive words I would use for most modern art!

        However, I think you overstate the case by saying that religion no longer motivates art, at least when it has been around long enough to assess. When I saw it, I was very struck by Epstein’s “Christ in Majesty,” for example, which I think dates to the 1950s or 1960s.

      • Simon says:

        If you’re going to make the argument from aesthetics, you better look at both sides of the wider argument this fits into: tally up the pros and cons of religions. As well as providing social structures and group cohesion you better also add the crusades, witch trials, suicide cults, extremist terrorism, etc. (Think I’m only picking on the worse of religion. Maybe, but you’re picking on the best. Think these are not representative of what you’d call true religion? Ever heard of ‘no true Scotsman’?)

        We talking cost-benifit analysis to society as a whole? That’s a massive conversation, but I do know that in the process most religions will be found to have huge ‘cons’ as well.

        Besides, if Michelangelo was a non-theist do you really think he’d have gotten sponsership for his art? Or even feel secure enough in society to express this opionion? Look what happened to Bruno and Galileo for daring to consider observaions of the natural world as a tool for understanding the world (challenging the knowledge-control of the church).

        And how did the church get that money? Sale of indulgences. Sound like a scam?

        And if Stalinist Russian produced great architecture would you approve (tolerate) it? How about Wager’s anti-semitism? Amazing music, crappy ideology.

      • Michael Merrifield says:

        If you look above, you will see that what I said was

        Whether these are enough to counterbalance the evils for which religion is undeniably also responsible is certainly an arguable point, but to claim that religion has done nothing good, and as such should be simply dismissed with the coterie of fringe nutters, distorts the case in much the same way (if in the opposite direction!) to the very fundamentalism that you are seeking to refute.

      • Simon says:

        I am not sure I see anyone claiming “that religion has done nothing good, and as such should be simply dismissed with the coterie of fringe nutters”.

        I think comparison with astrology stands. People who ‘believe in’ or practice this are not demonstrably ‘nutters,’ nor is it particularly ‘fringe,’ and one can make the case it’s done some good – perhaps by spawning astronomy, perhaps giving hope or direction (in a vague way) to some rather lost folk. But most of us have moved on from this, can see the flaws, and worry that if taken too seriously can cause real problems. (Reagan, with his finger on the big red button, getting inspiration from astrology worried me more than a little.)

        But there’s some kind of barrier to arguing about these things that need breaking down. Especially religion. Why do people – ironically it seems especially non-beleivers – feel they must show we all have to ‘tolerate’ religion? Why should I tolerate people who aren’t prepared to tolerate me? Who refuse to accept the rights of women, or gays? Who refuse to educate their chlldren, mutilate them, stone apostates… sure, average church/temple/mosk attendees don’t think like this, but by putting up a defence against criticism of absolute belief we are only protecting the extremists.

        Still, in the good old days, when religion really did rule, we’d all be burned for this kind of talk. By the people with all the ‘morals’. It’s a failed experiment.

      • Simon says:

        apologies for the poor speeeelling…

      • Michael Merrifield says:

        I was really just pointing out that when you said I was “picking on the best,” I had actually been at some pains to point out that any benefits of religions should be weighed against their equally-clear costs.

        And that religion differs significantly from “astrology, creationism, anti-vaccination woo, global-warming denialism, racism (of the pseudoscientific sort) etc” because there don’t seem to be any examples where the latter have contributed much by way of great art to human culture.

        I wouldn’t have thought that either of these points was terribly controversial.

      • Simon says:

        But religions in eurasia has formed theocracies and massively wealthy organisations that ruled (I would argue) less than moral ways. So they could pay for it.

      • michael Merrifield says:

        Possibly, I suppose, although not all great art has cost large sums of money.

        But the claim that I was addressing (forgive me if I have said this before, but we still seem to be at crossed purposed) was that religion did not differ from “astrology, creationism, anti-vaccination woo, global-warming denialism, racism (of the pseudoscientific sort) etc,” which I was disputing because I could not think of any of the latter producing any examples of art of significant cultural value. If you can think of any cases where it has, that might begin to address the point I was making.

      • Simon says:

        I could agree. But it really only tell us about past (mostly) religious institutions that happened to have resources of time, money, space, power etc. to sponsor great art. In fewer exceptions one can make the case that consideration of theological topics itself inspired great art. (But then the same is true for classical Greek gods and heroes, and no one takes those seriously, nor would we take seriously anyone who did.) In that sense it’s an old and powerful mythic literary tradition. With that I have no problem.

  12. Real courage would be if someone were to publicly decline the prize and state quite clearly why. Is that too much to ask? Yes, it is a lot of money—a million pounds—but Martin Rees is a millionaire already, as is John Barrow and probably some other winners. (Of course, not all winners are, and of course many have no qualms at all about accepting the prize.) Also, remember that Abba were offered a billion dollars for one album and one tour, and declined. That’s integrity. Nice to put things in perspective. (They feared they wouldn’t live up to the expectations.)

    Another tack would be to accept the money, but donate it ostentatiously to an organisation which helps the victims of organised religion or something similar. Of course, where possible those responsible should pay up and such an action shouldn’t prevent them from doing so, but there are many cases where that is not a realistic possibility and there are many victims of religion which need help they couldn’t otherwise get.

  13. Simon D says:

    “Atheism means that there is no intrinsic worth in anything and this makes it immediately pointless to discuss moral issues.” Tom (First post).

    Its never pointless to discuss moral issues, however as its late in my time zone and my backs aching from assembling IKEA furniture I could while a way a moment by recasting the above as follows:

    “Atheism means that there is no greater purpose to our existence, we are all essentially pointless – just bags of baryons in transit from one star to the next”.

    Its a bit depressing and doesn’t really fit in with the fact that I don’t feel pointless (we’ll not often anyway, and of course I am to 7 billion minus about 6).

    But if we are all pointless along with the rest of the Universe I don’t think it really matters what morals one adopts, no-one’s watching except other pointless entities. Maybe this is what Tom was trying to convey?

    On a slightly more positive note I guess there’s no reason why we can’t try to give ourselves a purpose within the narrow confines of our lives and come together with other like minded pointless entities and agree a set of rules by which to conduct ourselves while we while away our time…

    Atheism just feels so gloomy, but religion so restrictive. Agnosticism allows us to shrug our shoulders and get back to enjoying life.

    • Tom Shanks says:

      Simon

      The problem with atheism is that its not just us that are pointless. The entire blooming Universe also becomes pointless! And once your philosopy is telling you that, it must be hard to justify even getting up in the morning! (Far less attempt to grapple with an IKEA flatpack!)

      So my personal bottom line is that the rational argument between atheism and religion may not be quite as one-sided as the 21st century usually takes it.

      • Phil Uttley says:

        To which I reply “you make your own fun”! Why should the universe being pointless make our own lives pointless since ‘the point’ is something that we ourselves are capable of defining, as many people have over thousands of generations of human lives. Even if there are no absolutes, relatives aren’t so bad a substitute as long as a sufficient number of us agree what they are.

      • telescoper says:

        I’d go further than Phil. I think it’s pointless to try to find a purpose beyond our level of existence. There may be one, of course, but it’s not obvious our monkey brains will ever comprehend it.

        Accept that and you’ll find that the real point living as a human being in this vast and incomprehensible universe is simply being human.

      • Tom Shanks says:

        Phil – but what if I decide that my idea of fun is to eliminate all cats like Colombo or something even worse. If anything goes then on what grounds can anyone suggest that this is any worse a morality than anything else. Similarly if enough people agree to eliminate a minority of people, is that enough to define this behaviour as right?

      • Tom Shanks says:

        Peter – A pointless, amoral, Universe is, of course, a perfectly logical proposition. As I said above, it is even probable that this is the way the Universe is. But in accepting that proposition we have to be clear about all that goes with it. You yourself noted that societies have existed where mass murder of a minority was regarded as moral and in this case we have to accept that these ways of “being human” are of no less “intrinsic worth” than anything else. Maybe you can accept this but this is my basic issue with atheism.

      • Simon says:

        The arrogance of man to suppose the universe should have a ‘purpose’ or ‘meaning.’ These are concepts that apply to and between minds. The samr object/event/action can have different meanings to different people; meaning isn’t something that exists outside of our heads. Where we need to we can find our own meanings – through discussion our existence with the others we share our environment with.

        Extrapolation gone mad to assume the concious ‘meaning’ and ‘purpose’ – that we, as social animals, are natrually adapted for – should be the model for the whole cosmos. (Hume said it better.)

      • Tom Shanks says:

        But if we can’t trust our senses or our experience what can we trust?

        And if our human rationality works in the real world as evidenced by
        the success of our science, why shouldn’t our other human concepts also have the possibility of applying there too?

      • Simon says:

        “But if we can’t trust our senses or our experience what can we trust?”

        on what basis must we be able to trust anything? I cursor reading of decartes, berkely etc. should add enough uncertainty in that direction.

      • Tom Shanks says:

        So the advice is not to think about anything?

      • Simon says:

        Think hard. And accept uncertainty in your conclusions.

        We cannot a priori or a posteriori reject solipsims. But most of us do (apparently).

      • Tom Shanks says:

        Simon – been doing that for years!

  14. Rhodri Evans says:

    I really don’t see how being an atheist (or an agnostic) makes one’s life of the Universe pointless. Or at least, makes one’s life pointless (the Universe may just be an accident, with no purpose). Surely we create our own purpose in life, be it to be good parents, to be good at our job, to contribute to society in some way etc etc. Sure, it is easy to think life is pointless, and sadly some people do feel that way. It is very easy to turn to religion in times of depression and feeling “lost”, but personally I don’t think one will find answers in religions, one has to find one’s own reasons for getting out of the bed in the morning.

    Some of the discussion above reminds me of a quote from an interview with John Lennon that was conducted in about 1969 or 1970, which I heard as a teenager of about 15. He said “the kingdom of heaven is within us”, which of course quotes/paraphrases the Bible. In my view, religion is man-made, constructs of our very imaginative and complex minds. Much of the so-called absolute morals found in various religions would, I think, be found in non-religious atheistic societies too, as many (most?) of them make sense.

    I always have got the impression from what I’ve heard Martin Rees say and write that he is more of a “mild Church of England Christian” than an atheist.

  15. telescoper says:

    There’s an excellent comment piece in the Grauniad on this:

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/apr/08/martin-rees-templeton

  16. telescoper says:

    ps.

    We do not ask what useful purpose the birds do sing, for song is their pleasure since they were created for singing. Similarly, we ought not to ask why the human mind troubles to fathom the secrets of the heavens… The diversity of the phenomena of Nature is so great, and the treasures hidden in the heavens so rich, precisely in order that the human mind shall never be lacking in fresh nourishment.

    (Johannes Kepler, Mysterium Cosmographicum)

    • Tom Shanks says:

      “With this symphony of voices man can play through the eternity of time in less than an hour, and can taste in small measure the delight of God, the Supreme Artist … I yield freely to the sacred frenzy…the die is cast, and I am writing the book – to be read either now or by posterity, it matters not. It can wait a century for a reader, as God has waited 6.000 years for a witness.”

      (Johannes Kepler, via Carl Sagan’s Cosmos book, p 64)

  17. Rhodri Evans says:

    Maybe a related question is what purpose does believing in a God/creator give to life that not believing in such a thing preclude one from?

    • Tom Shanks says:

      Hope?

      • Simon says:

        Hope of what? Given the suffering in the world that the sky fairy is happy to leave us with… Hope of most of us burning in hell for not obeying the order of compulsorily love of the invisible dictator.

        Or just flattering our egos that 10^11 galaxies of 10^11 stars was all for us.

      • Tom Shanks says:

        So do we pessimistically focus on the suffering or optimistically focus on life’s wonders – its a finely balanced issue!

        Or do we worry that 10^11 was for us or that the 10^11 was for nothing? Again its a fine balance!

      • Simon says:

        All about the priors…

      • Tom Shanks says:

        Probably!

    • Dave Carter says:

      Belief or non-belief in God is ultimately an intellectual position, maybe not one which you will necessarily agree with. All of us believe in some things for which we cannot adequately articulate the evidence which persuades us that this is so, cosmologists more than anybody must understand this. Nevertheless it is an intellectual position which many take, including outstanding scientists such as John Barrow, John Polkinghorne, C.A. Coulson, R.L.F Boyd, C.H. Townes, and many more. Other, lesser scientists also take this position including myself, but all of the above in their written work explain this more clearly than I. But don’t think its entirely because it gives purpose, or meaning, or anything like that, ultimately we believe what we believe because we think its true.

      • Simon says:

        As I said “it’s all in the priors…”

        But as good scientists we should admit that. These are only hunches or prejudices. We do (or should) admit this in our scientific discussions. We should be open to change our ideas, although being stubborn humans this is often tough.
        (We don’t burn the books of theorists we disagree with!)

        Religion has encased some powerful ideas in a wall of dogma (our god is the true god, other gods are false gods, do not be tempted… others will try to deceive you… stone apostates…) which should be broken down.

        Science is about dealing properly with uncertainty. Religion is about certainty where there is none.

        And then we go on..

        “I can live with doubt and uncertainty and not knowing. I think it’s much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong. I have approximate answers and possible beliefs and different degrees of certainty about different things, but I’m not absolutely sure of anything and there are many things I don’t know anything about, such as whether it means anything to ask why we’re here, and what the question might mean. I might think about it a little bit and if I can’t figure it out, then I go on to something else, but I don’t have to know and answer, I don’t feel frightened by not knowing things, by being lost in a mysterious universe without having any purpose, which is the way it really is so far as I can tell. It doesn’t frighten me.”

      • Dave Carter says:

        Simon,

        As far as closed minds are concerned, the “Answers in Genesis” brigade and the likes of Dawkins have a great deal in common, more than either would admit, but they are not typical. The vast majority of scientists and the vast majority or people of faith (now I am a bit hesitant to say all faiths here) value the spirit of enquiry, and would condemn the bookburners whether in Alexandria or Florida. Regarding the “priors” point, I don’t think I agree but I don’t intend to be drawn into a debate on the theology of Bayesianism.

      • Simon says:

        Dave says “”The vast majority of scientists and the vast majority or people of faith (now I am a bit hesitant to say all faiths here) value the spirit of enquiry…”

        Except the latter “know” things they don’t really know. And the former leave questions open, and provide provisional answers with a associated degree of plausibility/confidence.

        Compare Dawkins’ Ch4 of TGD “Why there almost certainly is not god” to amost any sermon in the quaint old CofE. Dawkins starts of admitting some degree of uncertainty is unavoidable, even if he argues it’s small enough to not worry much. The usual Sunday homiletic doesn’t.

        Where bible bashers and Dawkins do agree is that the matter is important enough to discuss with passion. Rather than the overly pandering bend-over-backwards “toleration” (that allows extremism to thrive – because we’re not allowed to criticise faith!) which seems to have become elevated to a virtue.

  18. andyxl says:

    Tom –

    “A pointless, amoral, Universe is, of course, a perfectly logical proposition. As I said above, it is even probable that this is the way the Universe is. But in accepting that proposition we have to be clear about all that goes with it.”

    I can agree with this, but lets reconstruct avoiding words like “moral” and “pointless” as they are so emotionally laden.

    The universe doesn’t have a purpose, because it is not a sentient being. It just is what it is. So indeed as people we are not given externally provided instructions about how to behave. The arguments Mike and Peter have been making are about how as organisms we probably will behave; or what the consequences of some behaviours might be; but nothing is telling us how we must behave.

    This is a GOOD THING. It is part of growing up. Eventually there is no mummy and daddy to tell you what to do, and there is no Big Man In The Sky either. You have to decide for yourself.

    If you lived in a cave it wouldn’t matter much. But we live with other people. So in a Universe with no God, it is much much MORE important to discuss moral issues, not less; we have to find a way to agree with each other; or find out who is going to follow a different behavioural code, that we should keep clear of, etc.

  19. Tom Shanks says:

    But if no absolute morality, why should “agreement” be placed at a higher level than “disagreement”. If we are less confident that agreement gets more plus points (and may actually be just based on some people’s opinion) then that maybe makes diasagreement more likely. Anyway all I am saying is that there is a downside to a relative morality which doesnt receive much air-play.

    Realtive vs absolute morality is an old argument which goes back at least as far as Kant and has some resonance with the debate about relative versus absolute
    motion in physics. Have even seen some philosphers trying to use General Relativity to argue against the absolute morality position. Needless to say even the physics debate isnt simple. The book “Foundations of Space-Time Theories” by Michael Friedmann (PUP) gets into this area a bit….

    • andyxl says:

      “why should “agreement” be placed at a higher level than “disagreement””

      didn’t say it should. You are still straining for certainty where there is none

      “all I am saying is that there is a downside to a relative morality which doesnt receive much air-play”

      Sure. There is a downside to leaving mummy and daddy too.

  20. Michael Merrifield says:

    The arguments Mike and Peter have been making are about how as organisms we probably will behave; or what the consequences of some behaviours might be; but nothing is telling us how we must behave.

    Equally, no-one explicitly tells all the atoms in a box that they can’t all collect at one end, and each one presumably believes it has the freedom to do as it pleases, but ultimately feels some deep yearning not to violate the laws of thermodynamics, whether it attributes those laws to a higher power or not.

  21. […] these few verses from the inspirational poem A Psalm of Life by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. I hope Tom Shanks reads […]

  22. […] interesting timing after the discussion of religion and science that arose after I reblogged a post by Andy Lawrence about the Templeton […]

  23. Simon says:

    Anyone read Euthyphro?

  24. Tom Shanks says:

    Kant must have missed that!

    • Simon says:

      Kant’s Grounding of the Metaphysics of Morals (Ak 443) includes a very of the Euthyphro dilemma.

    • Simon says:

      To be fair, Kant probably gave it the best shot in history of establishing morality based purely on reason. Which would then, in some sense, be objective. (But not necessarily absolute. There are different geometries, these can be prove consistent etc. based on their axioms. Which one is the ‘objective’ one? None have to be. Although in fact one may apply to the world.)

      That’s assuming Kant suceeded. It’s pretty clear he didn’t. Probably our best shot is to do like they did in the declaration of independence: find some principles we call all agree on (self-evident) and build up from there. But it’s not that easy in practice.

      • Tom Shanks says:

        Bertrand Russell from his 1927 paper “Why I am not a Christian”
        under the “Moral Arguments for Deity” says:-

        “Kant invented a new moral argument for the existence of God, and that in varying forms was extremely popular during the nineteenth century. It has all sorts of forms. One form is to say there would be no right or wrong unless God existed.”

        but then Russell doesnt really down the argument.

      • Simon says:

        Actually, in the same paragraph you quote Russell goes on to restate the Euthyphro argument:

        “The point I am concerned with is that, if you are quite sure there is a difference between right and wrong, then you are in this situation: Is that difference due to God’s fiat or is it not? If it is due to God’s fiat, then for God himself there is no difference between right and wrong, and it is no longer a significant statement to say that God is good. If you are going to say, as theologians do, that God is good, you must then say that right and wrong have some meaning which is independent of God’s fiat, because God’s fiats are good and not bad independently of the mere fact that he made them. If you are going to say that, you will then have to say that it is not only through God that right and wrong came into being, but that they are in their essence logically anterior to God.”

      • Tom Shanks says:

        Just to complete the Russell paragraph on Kant:

        “You could, of course, if you liked, say that there was a superior deity who gave orders to the God that made this world, or could take up the line that some of the gnostics took up — a line which I often thought was a very plausible one — that as a matter of fact this world that we know was made by the devil at a moment when God was not looking. There is a good deal to be said for that, and I am not concerned to refute it. “

  25. Tom Shanks says:

    But maybe I would rather get round this by repeating what I said at the beginning, that I am loosely equating a belief in religion only to a belief in the existence of absolute morals. So maybe I don’t need to prove the existence of God anyway….

    • Simon says:

      Why do we need absolute morals? Isn’t it more practical to try to find some basic common principles that members of society can agree on, build up systems to encourage flourishing of life within those limits? They may not be absolute, and we may end up revising them – but isn’t that a good idea? It shows there’s room for progress.

      Besides, I think the whole need for absolutes in practical life is one that has done huge damage to mankind and we need to grow out of. As soon as person X considers principle Y absolute and infallible we can have no discussion with them, no appeal to reality matter. While we’re quoting from the old school I bring out Dr Bronowski (from one of the most powerful moments in TV history):

      “It’s said that science will dehumanize people and turn them into numbers. That’s false, tragically false. Look for yourself. This is the concentration camp and crematorium at Auschwitz. This is where people were turned into numbers. Into this pond were flushed the ashes of some four million people. And that was not done by gas. It was done by arrogance, it was done by dogma, it was done by ignorance. When people believe that they have absolute knowledge, with no test in reality, this is how they behave. This is what men do when they aspire to the knowledge of gods.

      Science is a very human form of knowledge. We are always at the brink of the known; we always feel forward for what is to be hoped. Every judgment in science stands on the edge of error and is personal. Science is a tribute to what we can know although we are fallible. In the end, the words were said by Oliver Cromwell: “I beseech you in the bowels of Christ: Think it possible you may be mistaken.”

  26. Tom Shanks says:

    I already attempted to answer these points above and dont want to repeat myself too much! Hope this is OK.

  27. Mike says:

    Absolute morals? That’s why we’re called intelligent to not live a 1-0, yes-no life.

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