24 Dec 2009

What is the experience of faith?

Have just read "What is faith?" on Digital Bits Skeptic and have to admit some disappointment. Great title but sadly a rather short article whose focus is on the pronouncements of faith rather than the experience of faith. My feeling is that looking at the ejaculations of the religious faithful under a rational microscope merely defines the linguistic boundaries between faith and reason but tells us little about what it means to actually have faith.

Faith is a state of mind and trying to accurately describe one's own state of mind - never mind trying to comprehend someone else's - is a subtle task. We are, however, fairly good at describing changes of state. If I say "I'm feeling happy" then I think most people will know what I mean. The state of happiness comes and goes and manifests against some background state because of its transience. If I were in a permanent unalloyed state of happiness I would probably cease using that statement or it would take on a different meaning to that in general use.

This seems to me the basis for the fundamental lack of communication and understanding between the faithful and faithless. However, the testimonies of people who have switched sides, or flipped states, are revealing. Taking Christians as our subjects the overwhelming feeling that accompanies this switch is that of falling into, or out of, love. Dropping out of Christianity is uncannily similar to falling out of love. Suddenly the mist has cleared and the object of our affection is revealed as the ordinary, flawed individual that they always were - or the mundane, flawed supernatural construct that it always was.

I think the choice of the word 'love' is not accidental. It feels like love because it is love; in this case the love is directed towards a supernatural construct rather than another human. All the reasons we wish to give for our love are mere excuses, rationalisations for an irrational state. Perhaps arational is a better word as love is neither rational nor antirational but is just an experience that, as aware beings, we seek to justify and accommodate into our personal mental landscape.

This process of accommodation is what we usually refer to as rationalisation. But the problem here is that we are masters at deluding ourselves. We cannot step outside our own state of mind (although it is possible to achieve a high degree of detachment through various meditations) so that our language is itself clouded by the particular state we are in. The way out of this potential self-delusion is through philosophy and science. The sciences we currently have are the consequences of medieval philosophy. The quest of the philosopher is to question everything in order to reach understanding; and even then continue to question our understanding. This can be achieved by the individual to some extent by externalising thoughts by the simple process of writing them down.

It is now time to question faith; not the articles of faith but the experience of faith. It is, after all, one of many human experiences and there is no logical reason why it should be accorded some special treatment. There is already a barrage of propaganda from the fideist religions: the so-called 'God spot' being the most prominent. But so long as there are philosophers in the world then there is a chance we may get to the truth. By adding faith to our list of human emotions means it can be subjected to the same scrutiny as other emotions such as happiness, anger, fear, hatred and love. The aim of the philosopher is to ask the right questions; the aim of the scientist is to answer them. Game on!

6 Aug 2009

Natural Born Atheists

An interesting short article from the Proud Atheists blog. Not merely a rant about the lunacy of the Pentecostal church with its unwavering message of "you're going to hell!", but picks up on the idea that there are people just born unbelievers. Religious indoctrination starts at such an early age that it is very difficult to investigate how, or even whether, the average human goes through phases of religious thinking and development. From the comments, there are a few out there who do not recall lapsing from any religion but rather have always been faithless skeptics.

As some religions would dearly love to find some 'God spot' in the brain, thereby connecting us mere mortals to some alleged metaphysical eldorado, so they wish to claim that we are all 'wired for God', thereby adding yet another lame metaphysical proof of God's existence. I mean, if you find a door then it must lead somewhere - building a door on a brick wall is slightly surreal but does evolution include such aesthetic pranks? I'll come back to this door in a minute.

So are people born with a natural sense of religion or are they just indoctrinated into their parents' cult? There are some for whom belief is just not part of the program. I, for one, do not recall ever believing the stuff spoken by priests. Not only did the words not mean anything but I saw how people behaved in both church and outside it and, apart from the rampant hypocrisy, I was left bemused as to what exactly they were doing. Kneeling down in a gesture of prayer was easy to imitate but what was going on in their heads?

I suspect - or perhaps hope - that most young children go through a process of thinking through who they are as their brain goes beyond learning how to walk and starts to focus on where to walk to. I also think parents do their kids an injustice by not listening to what they try to tell them about life, the universe and their dreams. I do recall having an intense period in which it was very important for me to figure out who I was, what was it that made me conscious of being me, and so on. I had nothing that could be called 'faith' in any great gig in the sky. I was the doubting Thomas - show me! However, the revelation that eventually appeared was very interesting and best described in Buddhist terms as naked awareness - a kind of atomic consciousness. Unfortunately, I knew nothing of Buddhism at the age 6 or 7 but I did know that such experiences were not part of the Catholic canon. My natural born faithlessness grew into a conscious rejection of the whole racket. Not only was Christianity wrong (people are wrong about many things all the time, it's called learning) but it was actually a lie, which struck me as a more serious charge.

So coming back to that door. The attempt by some religions to distort neuroscience into locating some God-terminal in the brain has already started. The structure of our mind is a fascinating and important area of research, both from a scientific and personal point of view. The structure of our deepest and most basic part of the mind is normally left unconscious and yet in some individuals under some circumstances it does manifest. Such experiences are often life-changing and hence should be treated with respect. In my opinion, the delusion propagated by religions is not the delusion of such experiences but in the mind-map propagated to explain such experiences. The mental door is not a gateway to a metaphysical deity but the opening up of previously secret areas of our mind.

Are we, in the end natural born fideists or atheists? We are undoubtedly conscious. We can choose to open those doors and explore our consciousness - explore what it means to be human - or we can get faith and close all those doors, lock them up and throw away the keys. Thankfully, those keys can always be found again if one starts to wonder about those locked doors.

How to Make Some Money From Your Atheist Blog

Blogs come and go, and atheist blogs are no different. However, there is one aspect of blogging on atheism, agnosticism and the whole family of faithlessness that has been bothering me for some time: how to make some money doing it? Now, anybody who has tried inserting some Google Adsense advertising on their blog or website immediately comes up against a problem – there are few if any relevant adverts. Perhaps worse than that, a lot of the advertising space has been bought by religious websites, no doubt as part of their proselytizing mission. On the one hand, it might be fun to check out the fundie sites (and they are paying a bit to the blogger for the privilege of your curiosity!), but most blogs end up taking the adverts down as click-through rates (CTR) are generally very low and the bulk of readers don't care about the latest mission from God.

To get this out of the way quickly, I am fully aware that many bloggers don't care about the income. They blog because they find it interesting and to build up a social network of like-minded individuals. They have an income and a few extra pounds every month probably won't make a lot of difference. However, the dearth of income sources for the individual blogger is mirrored by the same problem for larger sites such as atheist blogging networks. In short, atheism is a niche interest with apparently no niche income sources. Philosophy is important, but writing on pointless gadgets makes more money. However, if it were possible to make some extra income, I think many bloggers would think again before totally abandoning their blogs.

I would like to suggest a solution to the above problem: syndication. It can mean a lot of different things but here I have one specific thing in mind: copying your best blog posts to third party websites. But not just any websites, rather those that actually pay you, either per view or a share of advertising revenue. These are generally known as social networking revenue sharing websites, which is a huge mouthful but at least describes what's inside the box. They also come in two flavours, being either article directories or bookmarking websites. If you are already bookmarking your articles to Digg or Reddit, then also bookmarking at Xomba and Infopirate will often yield larger readerships and some income too.

There are thus a number of advantages to cross-posting some of your blog posts. Firstly, for purely marketing reasons you will be driving traffic back to your original blog, which is always a good thing. Secondly, you will also be reaching a new audience. I have had many comments agreeing with my articles from people who hold similar views but who do not frequent the large atheist communities. With perhaps 20% of non-believers in the world, that's a large audience. Thirdly, we come to money; the readership on third party websites is very diverse and the probability of generating relevant advertising thereby increases. The users are not irritated by the advertising as they expect it to be there, and with Adsense's new algorithm that tries to track user interests the chances of a paying click further increase. What was a negative on your blog becomes a positive on a revenue sharing website. Furthermore, a few sites pay per view rather than sharing clicks. If your writing is controversial or generates a lot of interest then you will be earning some money whether or not the advertising is appropriate.

I write on a number of different topics and have found these social networking sites particularly useful and profitable – indeed far more profitable than the big bookmarking websites, many of which promote corporate sources at the expense of the individual. But one thing I've noticed is how few atheist writers are on these revenue sharing websites. I have spotted a few who obviously had the same idea but then perhaps couldn't be bothered with that little bit of extra work. I'm not sure if laziness or time can account fully for this phenomenon. Perhaps it is also a matter of gaining little feedback but this is where the more bloggers participate the more likely the chance of creating micro-communities within these larger social networking sites.

Like I said, I've been thinking about this for some time but have finally rewritten this article and posted it because I've also only recently finished publishing The Ultimate List of Revenue Sharing Writing and Bookmarking Websites. I was irritated at coming across similar popular lists that were sadly completely out of date so published my own and will update it every few months or so as new sites come and go.

The list is surprisingly long. If you're just starting out I would suggest joining all the income sharing bookmarking websites. Bookmarking is quick and easy and you can freely bookmark your own articles with no fear of being labelled a spammer. At the same time you can also bookmark your sources giving you further potential income. As for the article publishing websites, join those that allow you to re-publish previously published articles in full – yet again, this is a quick and easy copy and paste – so long as you hold the copyright to the original work. In such cases it is a good idea to create a username that is identical or very similar to your blog byline so that it is easy to verify you as the original author. Lastly, if you have the time and the inclination, there are those sites that demand unique articles that have never been published elsewhere. In these cases you will need to rewrite your whole article, not just change a few words. As there is a general lack of good articles on atheism and philosophy it may still be profitable to write a 400 word short article based upon your 1,000 word original.

Everyone's experience is different and each site develops its own style and community, so it is necessary to experiment a little bit. My own experience is that Xomba and Infopirate have been by far the most profitable, even though other sites appear to have more traffic (assuming one trusts Alexa's data). For those interested in taking this step you just have to experiment. With so many different social networking websites time really becomes an issue so just prune what doesn't work and add a new site to the experiment – but give it at least 3 months to see how each income source develops.

As a final coda, if anybody has any questions please fire away. If anybody likes the idea but really doesn't have the time then let's talk about ways I can help. If there is any interest I can help in doing the tedious syndication but that's currently an idea I'm letting float out rather than a fully worked out business proposition. For everybody else, I hope this helps in spreading your blog far and wide... and being able to dine out on it every once in a while.

30 Jul 2009

God and Science Don't Mix - My Thoughts

My practice as a scientist is atheistic. That is to say, when I set up an experiment I assume that no god, angel or devil is going to interfere with its course; and this assumption has been justified by such success as I have achieved in my professional career. I should therefore be intellectually dishonest if I were not also atheistic in the affairs of the world.
— J.B.S. Haldane, “Fact and Faith” (1934)

"Last week, I [Lawrence M. Krauss] had the opportunity to participate in several exciting panel discussions at the World Science Festival in New York City. But the most dramatic encounter took place at the panel strangely titled “Science, Faith and Religion.” I had been conscripted to join the panel after telling one of the organizers that I saw no reason to have it. After all, there was no panel on science and astrology, or science and witchcraft. So why one on science and religion?

I ended up being one of two panelists labeled “atheists.” The other was philosopher Colin McGinn. On the other side of the debate were two devoutly Catholic scientists, biologist Kenneth Miller and Vatican astronomer Guy Consolmagno." [Science and God Don't Mix]

Krauss has some experience in defending science, especially biology, in the face of religious fundamentalists who see science as an atheist Trojan horse that will destroy their children's faith. He accepts Haldane's view that for science to work it must do so in an atheistic mode, in the sense that supernatural beings are left out of current theories. However, the two catholic panellists prove that it is possible to have faith and reason at the same time. But what was also striking was that neither Catholic was able to rationally defend the virgin birth apart from on metaphorical or symbolic grounds. This shows to me that to restate the science versus religion argument as one of reason versus faith is overly simplistic; it becomes somewhat of a caricature of the head versus the heart. Yet this latter play of opposites is possibly close to the truth.

The problem is not that a believer cannot be a scientist - after all, much of the history of science is filled with devoutly religious individuals - but rather that the rational part of the mind does not turn its scalpel towards the fideist part of the same mind. In this sense, I think it useful to categorize faith as an emotional state, very much like being in love. Humans enjoy (or are possessed by) numerous emotional states, some of which are short term whereas others are so long term as to appear to be inextricably part of that person. It is also not possible to be entirely rational whilst in a rage or overcome with fear. Love is also far from rational. It is impossible to argue with someone that the love they feel for their partner is somehow not real, an illusion. Cataloguing a list of flaws is also unlikely to diminish their love. As for human love, so for supernatural love.

Although the emotional state of faith, as of love, can switch on and off, the balance between a fideist state and rationalism seems more a continuum with some tipping point. The rationalism of the two Catholic speakers shows how far that balance can be stretched so that faith can be maintained whilst, in their minds, keeping some semblance of intellectual honesty. Yet again, this shows to me that we are dealing with two very different functions of our mind that, however, obviously interact. Changing one's basic state of mind is a major event for an individual. Testimonies from people who have flipped from being faithful to atheist or vice versa show how closely it resembles falling in and out of love. But it often takes a major crisis to precipitate this mental tectonic shift.

Krauss ends his article with,"So while scientific rationality does not require atheism, it is by no means irrational to use it as the basis for arguing against the existence of God, and thus to conclude that claimed miracles like the virgin birth are incompatible with our scientific understanding of nature." I still think that arguments for and against a metaphysical being are largely pointless. It is like trying to use the knife of reason to do an autopsy on a ghost. It is true that rationality does not require an atheist stance, but for the sake of truth it is worth using both science and rationality on this state of being we call faith. Treating faith as an emotional state also removes any truth about the propositions supported by being in such a state. It may also serve as the key to unlock those minds who are having real turmoil in somehow keeping their childhood faith whilst trying to reconcile it with either science or just life in general. People fall in and out of love all the time without being branded as 'loveless'. It is therefore possible to fall in and out of faith - just don't claim that it says anything about the universe apart from describing your state of mind.

23 Jul 2009

Mormons may have posthumously baptized Obama's African ancestors

"Mormons have not only posthumously baptized President Barack Obama's mother into their faith, but they may have performed the ritual for the president's African ancestors as well, including his father, grandfather and great-grandfather, according to researcher Helen Radkey.

She has uncovered records in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saint's new FamilySearch database that include personalized identification numbers for Obama's relatives, including his father, Barack Obama Sr.

The president's father was Muslim, but later in life became a nonbeliever, according to the family." reports The Salt Lake Tribune.

Such baptisms of the dead are common practice by Mormons but usually performed at the request of a living family member. Radkey claims this is "offensive" because it sends the message that Obama's ancestors were of "inferior religious stock." Actually, I think it's offensive, full stop.

"The White House declined to comment, other than to say that Obama and LDS President Thomas Monson did not discuss the topic during their brief meeting Monday in the Oval Office.

During that meeting, Monson and apostle Dallin Oaks provided the president with a detailed genealogical report on his family presented in five leather-bound volumes." So... they didn't discuss a topic which seems the main reason for their meeting.

The Jesuits like to get you when you're young, but Mormons will try to get you even after you're dead!

26 Jun 2009

A World Without Nuclear Weapons

On the 3rd June 2009, a statue of Ronald Reagan was unveiled in the Capitol, giving Senator John McCain the opportunity of a floor statement that serves as an accurate summary of the aims of the Nuclear Security Project.

The Nuclear Security Project claims to be in favour of a world free of nuclear weapons, and yet McCain's speech inadvertently shows how hollow this truly is. Quoting Kissinger and Schultz, "Without the vision of moving toward zero, we will not find the essential cooperation required to stop our downward spiral." Perhaps they really meant 'upward spiral' in terms of the increase in nuclear states and the proliferation of weapons-grade materials. Like one of Zeno's paradoxes, the arrow will never hit the target but we have to look as if we're trying.

"Our highest priority must be to reduce the danger that nuclear weapons will ever be used." Reducing the danger of nuclear weapons is not the same as reducing the number of nuclear weapons. It is true that the USA and Russia have a surfeit of nuclear warheads and that reducing them is purely pragmatic - why blow up the world five times when once will suffice? But McCain goes on to say that nuclear weapons are "still important to deter an attack with weapons of mass destruction against us and our allies," without seeing the logic that every nation on the planet can take the same stance. North Korea and Iran are labeled as 'rogue states' without (unsurprisingly) including Israel.

The protocols that led to detente and the idea of an un-winnable war are still in place. The notion that nuclear terrorists pose a real threat is in the same camp as the phantom targets of the US war on terror. And thus we come to the real aims of the Nuclear Security Project: to halt the proliferation of nuclear weapons technology beyond the current nuclear states. I assume other nations will be added to this nuclear club as and when a friendly nation has the resources and strategic importance. But this is not a tactic unique to the USA, with Russia and China following a similar path of radioactive empire-building.

To seriously imagine that a country such as North Korea is a genuine threat to the USA is laughable. It may be a threat to South Korea but this particular theatre of conflict is ultimately a game between China and the USA. Becoming a legitimate nuclear power takes a lot more technology than knowing how to manufacture warheads and missiles - that part is relatively simple. The really high-grade technology lies in the surveillance systems that can locate a missile launch the second it happens. For all the advanced physics that goes into a warhead, the missile is still subject to old-fashioned newtonian laws of motion. There are now much faster electromagnetic weapons that can be as lethal as nuclear weapons but without the spread of radioactive materials. Perhaps nuclear weapons are actually already obsolete but nobody wants to say so as it would reveal the other gadgets in the world's doomsday arsenal. Perhaps we will have a nuclear-free world one day soon, but I don't think it will stop the arms race.

24 Jun 2009

Geoengineering: More Political and Moral Than Scientific?

Much of the green agenda regarding climate change seeks to reverse the effects of global warming by reversing the trend in carbon dioxide emissions. But what if there was a way to both remove the carbon dioxide and bring average temperatures back down again, without having to stall our polluting economies? Welcome to the world of geoengineering.

Tim Harper, nanotech guru and investor, tells of a debate he attended that looked at such issues. We can already manipulate the weather locally, so why not do it globally? Forget the corporate pain of the carbon tax and the tedium of recycling. We can reflect back some sunlight with a space shield, aerosols or manufactured cloud cover. We can soak up the excess CO2 with genetically modified trees or carbon burial factories. The latter solution is particularly ironic as fossil fuels come out of the ground in the first place. So why is Greenpeace so dead against geoengineering?

Harper describes the Greenpeace position as setting up any number of straw men just to knock them down. However, Harper soon engages in precisely the same tactic: "Just imagine a world where you could carry on as normal, but technology provides a way of cleaning up the mess so we don’t all have to live in teepees and ride bicycles?" I must admit that my own gut instinct is to side with Greenpeace, although rather tempered with my distaste for their own solutions.

The two main arguments against geoengineering is that it may do more harm than good and that it is purely driven by the same economic greed that caused the problem in the first place. Actually, there are many problems (in the plural) that seem to be sidelined in the name of climate change such as chemical, pharmaceutical and electromagnetic pollution, but let's stick to geoengineering the climate for now.

Harper is well aware that geoengineering technologies can either be used within a global cooperative effort to stabilise the environment, or they can be used as weapons. The on-going oil wars will one day come to an end but that is unlikely to stop conflicts over other resources such as water or even clean air. He is also only too aware that as strategic weapons they will be in the hands of the military-industrial complex that really doesn't give a damn about other countries, never mind its own population. So, in his opinion, the best thing to do is to move towards some international agreements over at least the protocols to conduct experiments.

He dismisses as slightly naive the accusation that the drive towards geoengineering is driven purely by money. Sure, making a profit out of technology is not a crime, but in my opinion this is yet another technology of control to be used against humans rather than for the collective benefit. The protocol for introducing any control technology is always the same: problem, reaction, solution. Climate control becomes population control.

Once upon a time, natural disasters were... well, natural. Now, every hurricane becomes the starting point for yet another debate on climate change, greenhouse gases, carbon footprints and the soaring price of umbrellas. The weather does not respect political boundaries; a destructive hurricane for one country can be agricultural manna for a neighbour. Just as with nuclear weapons, those countries who cannot afford the technology will be vassals to those who can.

From what I can see, there is no political will to solve the climate problem except for solutions that increase the power of the state over the individual. Geoengineering takes this one step further to increase the power of some states over others. Harper is right to point out that the arguments are not just scientific but also, indeed primarily, political and moral. But what if he's right? What if we can trash the place in the knowledge we can hire a technological cleaning maid?

2 Jun 2009

Osel Torres: from Buddhist Lama to Film-maker

Born in 1985 and quickly elevated to the position of reincarnated lama, or tulku, Osel Hita Torres has turned his back on Buddhism and now claims to be agnostic.

Both Torres's parents were members of the Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition (FPMT). Founded in 1975 by Lama Thubten Yeshe and Lama Thubten Zopa Rinpoche, the FPMT teachings are founded on the Tibetan Gelupta tradition.

Barely a year after Lama Yeshe's death, the birth of Osel was heralded as the reincarnation of the Foundation's leading light. Indeed, Lama Zopa had written to FPMT members that their founder was coming back very soon, knowing that Osel's mother was already pregnant. At the age of 14 months the boy was confirmed by the Dalai Lama as the reincarnation of Lama Thubten Yeshe and given the name Tenzin Osel Rinpoche. With very few Western tulkus in existence there was much media interest in Lama Osel's story and progress. But a tale that seemed to bring together the different worlds of modern Western Europe with the traditions of Tibetan lamaism has turned sour.

At the age of 18 Lama Osel handed back his robes and left the monastic order. This in itself is not unusual or controversial: many Tibetan teachers decide to renounce their monastic vows and step into the secular world. There is nothing wrong with this and all Buddhist schools allow for people to enter a monastery and to leave when the time is right; there is no rule that stipulates that a monk must remain so for life. However, such Buddhist teachers do not lose their status or their titles: once a tulku, always a tulku.

What is unusual with Osel is that he has now made public that he renounces the very organisation that had hoped he would become their new master. He has also turned his back on Buddhism as a whole and now describes himself as agnostic. A recent interview in the Spanish paper El Mundo was then reported in The Guardian newspaper.

"At 14 months I was recognized and taken to India. I dressed in a yellow hat, I sat on a throne, people worshipped me ... I was taken away from my family and put in a medieval situation in which I suffered a lot. It was like living a lie."

The FPMT website has removed all references to their "boy lama", but the internet has a long memory and Google cache still holds the 'offending' pages. It is easier for the FPMT to wipe away the traces of their 'failed' tulku, but it is altogether harder for Osel to forget his childhood.

This strikes me as having some resonances with the story of Krishnamurti, who himself was 'recognised' as a master by theosophists but later rejected the whole notion and went his own way. However, Krishnamurti continued to write about spiritual matters and especially about how one should follow one's own inner journey and not be entranced by apparent 'masters'. As Osel continues to study cinematography, perhaps he will eventually tell his own story in the language of films rather than the written word.

Be careful who you follow.

29 May 2009

Beliefs and Opinions: A Thought Experiment

One of the many rhetorical devices used by the faithful is the argument that science is also just a belief system. It is unfortunate that the word 'belief' has two distinct meanings that are easily confused if one is not careful. Here I propose a thought experiment to prise out how psychologically and emotionally different they are. It would, indeed, be better if one were to use different words, such as faith and opinion, to delineate their separate natures - but that would destroy the religious rhetoric.

Let's assume you have a religious faith, whatever it might be. Your faith is in a particular set of doctrines and probably a particular deity. From the point of view of a believer, the beliefs are obvious, self-evident truths. Now, is it possible to have two faiths simultaneously?

Is it possible to be, for example, a Roman Catholic and a Zen Buddhist at the same time? Is it possible to be a Jehovah's Witness and a Hassidic Jew at the same time? Is it possible to hold two distinct and different religious beliefs simultaneously?

The beliefs have to be distinct in that any fusion between two belief systems is a form of syncretism and thereby results in a third belief system that is different from its two original components. Many cults have developed as tributaries from one main source, but they still regard themselves as different with a distinct set of beliefs.

I propose that it is not possible to hold two different religious beliefs simultaneously. It is just not possible to have the emtional certainty in two conflicting beliefs, such as in an eternal heaven and hell and in rebirth, at the same time.

Now, let us add to our thought experiment some simple scientific 'beliefs'. "I believe the sun will rise tomorrow." That is not a particularly controversial belief but perfectly scientific. Is it possible to hold such a 'belief' and at the same time hold on to one's religious faith? There are innumerable scientific propositions about our universe that are indisputable. There are also many scientific propositions that are still hypotheses waiting for verification or falsification. By phrasing every scientific proposition in the future tense gives them all the status of hypotheses waiting for personal testing.

This is not the place to delve more deeply into the philosophy of science; remember, this is a psychological thought experiment. The point here is that the religious believer thinks that by labelling scientific propositions as 'belief' he is according them equal status to the doctrines of his religious belief. But they are not the same thing - they are two different states of mind. That is why it is perfectly possible to be a religious believer and a scientist at the same time. The vast majority of science does not even impinge on religious doctrines. When it does, then the individual has a dilemma.

I am becoming convinced that religious belief is an emotional state of mind, somewhat like being in love. Try telling someone that the love they have for their partner is a delusion! What kind of reaction would you get? Try also telling someone who is not in love that their "non-love" is actually in reality a form of love! What reaction would you get then? This aspect of belief needs some research but would be interesting to see who would have the bravery to fund it.

For the religious believer, trying to call scientific propositions beliefs is the sign of self defence. Imagine someone told you that your partner had been unfaithful to you. The reactions are myriad, from disbelief to outright divorce. The emotional turmoil is very real but love is not so easy to turn off, even in the face of evidence that it isn't reciprocated.

These last thoughts require another article. For now, it suffices to say that religious faith is an altogether different state of mind to opinions held about scientific theories - our language should reflect this difference rather than obscure it.

Originally published at AAKOM.

26 May 2009

The Galileo 2009 Conference: Faith and Science Have the Same Roots?

Today, 26 May 2009, sees the opening of the "Galileo 2009" conference, organised by the Jesuit Stensen Institute and held in Florence. The first day takes place in the Basilica of Santa Croce, where Galileo is now buried, with the last day being held in the Villa "Il Gioello di Arcetri", where Galileo spent his last years. Today's Osservatore Romano has two articles related to this conference.

The first is written by Ugo Baldini, and seeks to give a brief overview of the themes of the Galileo 2009 conference. The Vatican is desperate to rewrite history so that it can, in its own eyes, legitimately bring science into the service of Catholicism. The mantra that the Galileo case was due to a "tragic reciprocal incomprehension", first used by John Paul II in 1992, seeks not just to spread the blame but to eventually come to the conclusion that both parties were blameless! A pity that Galileo himself is unable to witness these inexhaustible re-trials.

So what does the conference hope to achieve? The lectures cover the whole range of historical, philosophical and theological issues pertaining to the sequence of events that led to Galileo being placed under house arrest. It will be interesting to see the transcripts when published, as this brief article already points to a certain amount of rewriting of history.

The real issue at the time was whether the so-called Copernican system was a true and accurate description of physical reality. On a side issue, we are historically obliged to call this "Copernican" even though it should more accurately be called Keplerian. And yet even Kepler refers to it as “Copernican”, seeing the important philosophical shift from geocentric to a heliocentric planetary system, even though Copernicus was still semi-aristotelian in seeking perfect circular orbits. The system developed by Copernicus actually works worse than Ptolemy's! Kepler's system of elliptical planetary orbits around the sun at one focal point was the real success.

Baldini then tries to muddy the waters by reintroducing Tycho Brahe's system, which was still geocentric but had the inner planets of Mercury and Venus orbiting the Sun rather than the Earth. The author claims that this system was compatible with the Bible and hence would have had some support from the Church. This actually shows that in spite of protestations to the contrary the Vatican saw the heliocentric system as a threat to their orthodoxy.

The conference is being held during the International Year of Astronomy so that although astronomy is very much the theme the organisers have explicitly excluded any technical aspects of the debate. As I said, what is left is an attempt to reshape the perceptions that most people have of this as a clash between scientific knowledge and religious doctrine. The technical aspects are absolutely fundamental to the debate. The fact that Catholic scientists quickly took up the new system is not in question, but what is obvious is that the Vatican wanted to control this knowledge until such time as it could integrate it within its theology. This was at a time when the Reformation had claimed many northern European territories and where scientists such as Brahe and Kepler were free to speculate. In contrast, the Catholic Counter-Reformation sought to reinforce Vatican supremacy and the Galileo case was just one manifestation of the Empire striking back. Truth was relegated to an expedient pawn at the service of Catholic doctrines.

The conference hopes to advance Galilean studies to a new level, but frankly, by excluding the actual science it will merely achieve what it really sets out to do, which is to show the Vatican in a better light. The real aim is sketched out at the very end of article where the author sees the Enlightenment and positivism, with their anti-religious philosophies, as the real targets. Their philosophical influences on the Galileo debate have shaped it into a clash of cultures whereas the Vatican now wishes to, in their eyes, redress the balance.

The second article, entitled "The Root of Faith and Science", actually proves this point. The Vatican seems to be on a mission to prove that the whole universe is Catholic. I wrote before of their abuse of language in trying to cast Europe and even atheism as having Catholic roots. Now we find them trying to define science and faith as being in essence two aspects of the same thing.

As another aside, although this may not be of interest to followers of the debates between science and religion, the Catholic Church is also on a mission to unite all the Christian churches. The Vatican insists it is the one and only path to salvation and therefore every other system is merely a poor relation. I think the attempt to reintegrate the Orthodox Churches under the Vatican is doomed to failure, but we shall see. The point here is that bringing science into the Catholic fold is just one part of the overall mission to evangelize the whole world.

Giuseppe Betori, Archbishop of Florence, hopes that the Galileo 2009 conference will lay to rest the myth that the Galileo case is a clash between science and faith. He outlines the old argument that faith grows deeper with the assistance of reason whilst at the same time reason without faith can become mere calculations without taking into account (Catholic) values. He looks forward to a new proposal for a "permanent and constructive collaboration between the Church and scientific research institutions." The Vatican is an organization that has backed itself into a scientific cul de sac and now proposes to turn around and offer science the hand of friendship. Be very, very careful! The Archbishop closes by saying that by bringing together so many respected authorities the conference shows that there exist the "conditions for a constructive division of responsibilities, on the understanding of the respective roles and aims [of science and faith]."

We're back to the notion that the Church has its job to do and that science should not interfere with that task. It is a reiteration that Catholic values (consequences of Catholic doctrines) have primacy on scientific issues. It is futile for the Vatican to attack scientific theories themselves – they've learnt that lesson - but it can influence the course of scientific research through what it sees as its moral authority. The ultimate aim is to create a Catholic science - similar to non-theistic science but with certain important interpretations guiding its philosophy and its relationship with theology.

Just to restate the abuse of language that this entails: the words 'reason' and 'rational' are by no means the same things when spoken by a theologian and by a scientist. Just check out the definition of reason in the online Catholic Encyclopedia. For the theologian, reason is the rationalisation of beliefs, and logic is only used insofar as it supports certain fundamental Catholic axioms. Reason is a tool of faith and a weapon of evangelization - it is not a dispassionate analysis of the evidence.

The Galileo case is ultimately being used as a test of the Vatican's new science-friendly theology. Astronomy is actually a fairly safe science on which to conduct this theological experiment as there are few contentious issues left, save for the metaphysics of what happened before the Big Bang. On that particular subject it is interesting to note how the Vatican often lets its guard down to reveal its true self, witness that John Paul II told Stephen Hawking that he should not investigate the physics of before the Big Bang as that was Catholic territory! However, I'm certain the Vatican is painfully aware of research in the neurosciences that is likely to shed more light on how the mind functions and especially on the mechanism of religious experiences and the state of belief. Now that is going to be a battle worth seeing!

24 May 2009

A Dialogue With Modernity But Beware of Seductions

It seems a long time since I last reported on the Vatican's daily news. I have probably missed a lot of details but from looking at today's epistle, the message remains the same. The Vatican has a difficult task ahead in reconciling science with Catholic doctrines but that is the aim it has set itself. But scientists must be made aware that the same spiritual predator hides behind its new lab coat. A certain "accommodation" with science is seen as necessary only in so far as it propagates the Catholic teachings. History has finally taught the curia that to oppose scientific theories is futile and, what is worse in their eyes, it can turn Catholics away from the faith and into the arms of atheism or (heaven forbid!) Buddhism.

The Osservatore Romano of the 24 May 2009 has two articles of interest. It leads with a talk given by the Pope to the Pontifical Academy in which he stresses that priests must engage in a dialogue with modernity without getting sucked in by "earthly logic". This is, of course, the great fear about this new project; that those Catholics of imperfect faith may be seduced by the mundane world and cast aside their heavenly mission. This is merely a reminder that Catholic faith and morals have primacy over any secular philosophy that its priests may come into contact with.

We can see later in this edition how such Catholic morals are expressed in "earthly" political power as American Bishops reiterate their opposition to both abortion and embryonic stem cell research. Monsignor David Malloy stresses that it is "a central scientific fact" that the extraction of embryonic stem cells will lead to the destruction of a "human being in the very first stages of development." He also calls on the US administration to look at existing alternatives, such as the ability of adult cells to revert to pluripotential stem cells.

On this last point, there are actually very cheap and simple methods to stimulate the production of adult stem cells but these have largely been ignored by funding bodies in favour of intensive research on the far more expensive processes of genetic engineering. However, this is not the argument put forward by the Catholic Bishops. Their stance is based on the superiority of their morals and not such mundane matters as the vested interests in the medical and genetic communities - that problem will have to wait for another time.

11 Mar 2009

Over 400 Links to Atheism v Theism Debates

For those who enjoy atheism vs. theism debates, here’s the most complete list you’ll find on the web (421 of them and counting). Please comment with additions or corrections; this page is updated often. The entire table is now sortable by any column, thanks to sorttable. (And it works and looks best in Firefox.)

See the recent updates. Also see my reviews of all William Lane Craig debates. My personal favorites are labeled as best! Debates are about the existence of God unless otherwise noted.

Great resource! Go to Common Sense Atheism.

5 Mar 2009

Vatican Alarmed at 'dot god' Top Level Domains

The Pope has called on ICANN to keep religion out of the domain name system.

The Vatican warned the internet address-making body of the “perils” of allowing new internet domains such as “.catholic, .anglican, .orthodox, .hindu, .islam, .muslim, [and] .buddhist”.

ICANN, frequently accused of mission creep, could find itself having to decide who gets to represent an entire religion on the internet, His Holiness pointed out, in a letter from Monsignor Carlo Maria Polvani.

Religion-themed domains could provoke “bitter disputes” that would force ICANN into “recognizing to a particular group or to a specific organization the legitimacy to represent a given religious tradition,” Polvani told outgoing ICANN chief Paul Twomey.

The warning came as ICANN, meeting this week in Mexico City, kicked off the latest in its interminable series of discussions into whether and how to allow new generic top-level domains (gTLDs, in ICANN-speak) onto the internet.

Figuring out how to safely create new gTLDs was the main reason for ICANN’s creation over ten years ago. But while it managed to squeeze out a handful of “test” domains, including .info, .museum, .travel and .biz, in 2001, the organisation has been hopelessly entangled in self-imposed red tape ever since.

The Catholic Church is of course not the only interest group to stick its iron into the fire. Internet inventor Al Gore yesterday threw his weight behind a company that wants to launch a “.eco” domain for green initiatives.

(The Register)


All about money in the end. Cybersquatting on my.god could prove lucrative as well as theologically demanding in arguing who that 'belongs to'.

27 Feb 2009

Evolve Beyond Belief

This isn't particularly up-to-the-minute news but the tit for tat between atheist and Christian poster campaigns is gaining momentum. Those poor Christian souls obviously don't have enough propaganda draped outside their churches that they need to inflict their mind-numbing beliefs so everybody.

"We're supposed to lie down and take it and say, 'Jesus loves you,'" argued June Griffin, spearhead of the counter-Darwin billboard campaign. "Well this is payback time." Good to see these people for what they really are. They also cannot tell the difference between education and indoctrination. Their minds are so out of date as to need pickling in formaldehyde.

However, my main reason for writing this is to stimulate some really good atheist slogans. The "There is probably no God" on London buses was just really feeble. Much better is the Freedom from Religion Foundation's "Praise Darwin - evolve beyond belief." Actually, it could have done without the "Praise Darwin" bit as a tad to fideist for my taste. "Evolve Beyond Belief" would have been good on its own.

With the self-righteous venom spat out by evangelicals, and with the money that they extort from their sheep, I think we need more adverts and more books. Any other really good atheist advertising slogans gratefully received.

17 Feb 2009

Creationist Vote Bots Target Evolution Videos on YouTube

Creationists take their propaganda war against reality another step further by trashing any YouTube video they find offensive. This is perfectly logical from their fascistic fideist doctrines and proof, if proof was further needed, that this is not just a battle of ideas but a quest for control.

Strange that YouTube are so lax about the vote bots. Either they don't care that their system doesn't pick these up or they agree with the sentiment. Either way, time to get their own vote bots and return the compliments... with interest.

After the success of the London atheist adverts cities around the world are copying this meme. Many of those original ads also get trashed by those sensitive Christian souls whose faith is so fragile that their eyes cannot bear to read something they do not like.

This is going to get worse.

In the footsteps of Galileo science must value faith and reason

In the recent edition of the Osservatore Romano (16-17 Feb 2009) there is a very short piece entitled "In the footsteps of Galileo science must value faith and reason." The message is spelled out in the first sentence, stating that scientists are called upon by the Vatican to not renounce "neither reason nor faith". To suggest that scientists do not value reason is an insult of the highest order. But the abuse of language which is one of the hallmarks of Vatican propaganda needs not only to be exposed for what it is, but also needs some explaining so as to highlight how truly misguided and false is the whole Catholic edifice.

What do we mean by reason? More importantly, what do Catholics mean when they use the word? A look at the Catholic Encyclopedia is necessary to discover what these people are really talking about. However deluded their view of the universe, they are sadly a part of it and their effects need to be mitigated. We perhaps have no argument with calling reason a cognitive faculty, but the Encyclopedia goes on to say that "Kant employed the word in a transcendental sense as the function of subsuming under the unity of the ideas the concepts and rules of the understanding. Subsequent German philosophers, as Schopenhauer complained, "tried, with shameless audacity, to smuggle in under this name an entirely spurious faculty of immediate, metaphysical so-called super-sensuous knowledge"." Now we're getting closer - and good on Schopenhauer!

"In its general sense, therefore, reason may be attributed to God, and an angel may be called rational. But in its narrower meaning reason is man's differentia, at once his necessity and his privilege; that by which he is "a little less than the angels", and that by which he excels the brutes." How we have suddenly jumped to God is left mysterious, but the previous views of Kant are not far off this. It is, however, one of the peculiarities of Catholic theology that it has a certain distaste for mystical states, hence, even though for non-believers Kant's epistemological mysticism seems very close to Christianity the scholastics noticed a vital flaw in the argument in that it undermines authority - the Church's authority. I will write about this further but just to note here that if personal mystical experiences gave true knowledge about God then everybody's experiences would be as valid as anybody else's. This could lead to a kind of heretical anarchy, which as we know from history is precisely what the Church wants to avoid at all costs.

As is often the case, the real Catholic point of view is expressed near the end of the Encyclopedia's article. And thus we find that "without certain experiences of feeling and willing we should not be able to draw certain ethical conclusions. This may be admitted as a psychological fact, viz. that there are many exercises of reason which we shall not correctly perform without an ethical habituation." There we go! Reason is thus the forming of correct judgements based on a correct ethics - not based on logic or on facts.

With this eccentric definition of reason we can go back to the original quote and see that what looked to anybody in possession of a dictionary like an insult turns out to be a double castigation. Not only do scientists have no faith - no Catholic faith - but they also lack the Catholic faculty of reason, as based on their ethics. I have to repeat this as few seem to believe me, but this abuse is a symptom of a new determination to create a Catholic science. It has to look like natural science to avoid looking as stupid as creationists but it will be guided, not only in spirit but also in the direction of research, by a Catholic ethic and the ultimate truth that there is an omniscient deity.

As the neurosciences look deeper into the operations of the brain and mind the Church is very much aware that at some point their faith will look like a mere biological process. This can be avoided by having 'reasonable' scientists who will 'faithfully' adhere to and promote the values of the Church and the legitimacy of their supernatural doctrines.

The excuse for this short article in the Osservatore was a mass in remembrance of Galileo, who is nauseatingly being recast as the scientist with a soul. The mass was the high point of the conference of the World Federation of Scientists and celebrated 445 years since the birth of Galileo. There is "in Christianity a peculiar cosmological conception, which found the highest expressions in medieval philosophy and theology." The aim is to make scientists understand this and value the opportunity to explore the fertile soil where faith and reason can be explored to their very depths. I suspect that the Vatican's actual fear is that scientists will indeed explore the depths of faith. That is why an investigation into faith through the prism of Catholic reason is necessary to achieve a reasonable interpretation of the results.


Other articles in the news

Herald Tribune

DDT - Decoy Distract and Trash

This paper may be sent to all email lists and posted on all web sites, without restriction.


(Decoy, Distract and Trash)


Steven M. Greer M.D.

Director, The Disclosure Project

Copyright 2002

A former high official at the NSA (National Security Agency) told me about a protocol informally dubbed DDT - that old poisonous chemical long-banned in much of the world. In this application, it stands for Decoy, Distract and Trash - which is what sophisticated intelligence operatives use to set up some person or group, take them off the trail of something real and important, and trash the person or the subject.

This pretty much sums up the lion's share of all things UFOlogical, with the latest example being the much-hyped Sci-Fi channel roll-out of Spielberg's mini-series, 'Taken'.

Late last spring or early summer, I was contacted by the PR firm responsible for the ramp-up to 'Taken' and was informed that they wanted to link it to Disclosure. I was told that those rolling out 'Taken' are "joined at the hip with the main stream media" and that they were going to spend a very large sum of money moving the UFO subject front-stage and center to empower Disclosure as sort of a sophisticated 'P and A' (entertainment industry jargon for Prints and Advertising that promotes a film or product).

DDT. By linking Disclosure and ensnaring Disclosure witnesses and evidence in a commercial undertaking like 'Taken' (on the Sci-Fi channel nonetheless) the ultimate DDT program can be achieved. It is not just the hijacking and trashing of serious witnesses and evidence into the silly season of 'Honey, I just had sex with aliens' routine. It is the association of important evidence, scientists and witnesses with a xenophobic titled science fiction product like 'Taken' and the entire abduction industry that can empower fear in the minds of the masses regarding all things extraterrestrial.

You will recall that no less a figure than Wernher Von Braun warned to his personal spokesperson Dr. Carol Rosin in 1974 that after the cold war, those operating behind the scenes would roll out global terrorism and then, finally, a hoaxed alien threat from outer space. Dr. Rosin gave this testimony before 9/11, by the way.

Why? Well, a xenophobic and hysterical take on visitors from space (so well represented by military hoaxed abductions made to look 'alien') would have something for everyone who enjoy secret power and control:

    For the military-industrial-laboratory-intelligence-corporate complex, there would be trillions of dollars in lucrative spending for Star Wars - now with a REAL enemy to fight! As they said in the movie Independence Day, "Lets kick alien butt..."

    For schemers wishing to unite the world in militarism and control through fear (as opposed to our common humanity and peace...) what better way to attain this goal than to roll out serious UFO evidence and link it to a body of hoaxed faux-alien encounters contained within the abduction sub-culture? People are easily herded and controlled through fear, and can there be anything more scary than evil 'aliens' floating poor, innocent humans onto UFOs to torture and sexually abuse them? Right.

    For misguided religious fanatics and secret religious cults, who pine for the long-awaited end-of-the-world, Armageddon scenario, what better fulfillment of their misinterpreted prophecy than a Final Great Battle in space?

Well, there is just something for everyone, if you can get people to buy it. But how?

All good disinformation has some real, true information contained within it. The mixing of truth with lies makes the lies believable. So by hoaxing a scary alien abduction scenario with serious data, evidence, documents and witnesses, the lie goes down so much more smoothly...

Those inside the multi-million dollar abduction industry have for years told me of suppressed testimony from abductees who recall human military operatives running the show - essentially controlling the event. Dr. Helmut Lammer and others have documented this hideous abuse of civilians by rogue covert operations. And most importantly, we have interviewed military and corporate insiders who have described in excruciating detail how they have hoaxed these 'alien abductions' - and why.

The truth is hidden in plain sight, but it is wrapped in so much deception that it is seldom seen.

One such military operative explained to me how his team had abducted key military people at one point so that they would "learn to hate the aliens" and get on board the covert Star Wars juggernaut.

When you have billions of black-budget dollars at your disposal, reverse-engineered Alien Reproduction Vehicles (see the testimony of Mark McCandlish in the book 'Disclosure' available at http://www.DisclosureProject.org/shop.htm) biological creatures made on Earth that look 'alien' and sophisticated mind-altering psychotronic weapon systems, hoaxing an 'alien abduction' is like taking candy from a baby.

And you know, the truth is so much more bizarre than fiction (even Sci-Fi channel fiction) that who will believe it?

Well, we tried. I explained all this to Mr. Spielberg's representatives at the Sci-Fi channel and PR firm, and that I would say as much if included in any of their programs. An invitation has not been forthcoming. What a surprise!

By using Mr. Podesta, President Clinton's Chief of Staff, and other notables (including, alas, some Disclosure Project witnesses) this DDT operation is attempting to jump start Von Braun's long-ago predicted hoaxed alien threat. For what could be more terrifying than linking real ET and UFO evidence and serious military and government testimony, with a xenophobic-titled science fiction product like 'Taken', along with all the other virulent and fearsome hoaxed experiences purveyed by the abduction industry? A great DDT it is.

I do not know if Mr. Spielberg, Mr. Podesta, the Sci-Fi executives, George Washington University, PBS' Ray Suarez, or others know of any of this. In most cases, most players in a DDT disinformation scheme are unwitting victims themselves. Let's hope they are.

But with power comes responsibility. And Mr. Spielberg et al have money and power and need to do their due diligence lest they be used by a DDT scheme created to ramp up Star Wars and Armageddon.

Especially Mr. Spielberg. For I have long admired his dedication to documenting the history of the Holocaust by recording the testimony of those who survived it. I worry now that he is, perhaps unwittingly, being used to unleash the worst holocaust the Earth has ever seen.

Steven M. Greer MD
Director, The Disclosure Project
October 24, 2002

For more information, please refer to Dr. Greer's paper "When Disclosure Serves Secrecy" (and other related papers at http://www.disclosureproject.org/writings.htm).

15 Feb 2009

New Bookmarks

New Bookmarks

There are times when I come across interesting content and quickly bookmark it at Infopirate. It has become quicker to do so than copying and pasting links directly into Asylum Joy. The down-side is that not 100% of the links and news items will be of interest to Asylum Joy readers, but on the up-side it means you may find interesting things you may not have considered. Some of the links will eventually be turned into full articles whereas others will have to just be left as public information.

Subscribe to RSS headline updates from:
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The Disclosure Project - CSETI, Secret Technologies, Aliens and UFOs

I rarely post news on UFOs and ETs as so much of it seems unreliable and, somehow, I don't think humans need extra-terrestrials to be cruel to each other. But sometimes I come across websites that seem to be more informative; the Disclosure Project is one of them. I copy here excerpts from their project background page.

"Beginning in 1993, I started an effort that was designed to identify firsthand military and government witnesses to UFO events and projects, as well as other evidence to be used in a public disclosure. From 1993, we spent considerable time and resources briefing the Clinton Administration, including CIA Director James Woolsey, senior military officials at the Pentagon, and select members of Congress, among others. In April of 1997, more than a dozen such government and military witnesses were assembled in Washington DC for briefings with Congressmen, Pentagon officials and others. There, we specifically requested open Congressional Hearings on the subject. None were forthcoming.

In 1998, we set out to "privatize" the disclosure process by raising the funds to videotape, edit, and organize over 100 military and government witnesses to UFO events and projects. We had estimated that between $2 million and $4 million would be needed to do this on a worldwide basis. By August of 2000 only about 5% of this amount had been raised but we decided to proceed since further delay was deemed imprudent given the serious issues involved here. So beginning in August we began creating the Witness Archive Project and we set about the task of traveling all over the world to interview these witnesses in broadcast quality digital video format. Due to the severe limitation of funds, this effort was predominantly prepared by myself and a few other volunteers roughly from August 2000 through December 2000.

As you read this testimony remember that it is indeed only the beginning. The rest is up to you: Call and demand that Congress and the President and the leaders of other countries hold hearings into this subject without delay. These witnesses welcome a subpoena so that they may officially testify under oath to what they have experienced and said here. Indeed, the most revealing testimony waits to be seen since the deepest sources are refusing to come forward until protected through official Congressional hearings.

This then brings me to my last point: The witnesses who have given testimony to date are extraordinarily brave men and women - heroes in my eyes - who have taken great personal risks in coming forward. Some have been threatened and intimidated. All are risking the ever-present ridicule that attends this subject. Not a single one of them has been paid for his or her testimony: It has been given freely and without reservation for the good of humanity. I wish to personally thank them here and extend to them my personal, highest respect and gratitude. "

Some very interesting material... but when will the masses wake up?!

Couldn't resist adding this great quote.

"The illegal we do immediately. The unconstitutional takes a little longer."

Henry Kissinger, New York Times, Oct. 28, 1973

12 Feb 2009

Vatican Accepts Darwinian Evolution as True

The Vatican has admitted that Charles Darwin was on the right track when he claimed that Man descended from apes.

A leading official declared yesterday that Darwin’s theory of evolution was compatible with Christian faith, and could even be traced to St Augustine and St Thomas Aquinas. “In fact, what we mean by evolution is the world as created by God,” said Archbishop Gianfranco Ravasi, head of the Pontifical Council for Culture. The Vatican also dealt the final blow to speculation that Pope Benedict XVI might be prepared to endorse the theory of Intelligent Design, whose advocates credit a “higher power” for the complexities of life.

Organisers of a papal-backed conference next month marking the 150th anniversary of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species said that at first it had even been proposed to ban Intelligent Design from the event, as “poor theology and poor science”. Intelligent Design would be discussed at the fringes of the conference at the Pontifical Gregorian University, but merely as a “cultural phenomenon”, rather than a scientific or theological issue, organisers said.

The Vatican would “take the measure of an event, which has left its mark for ever on the history of science and has influenced the way we understand our humanity”. The “time has come for a rigorous and objective valuation” of Darwin by the Church, he said.

Professor Leclerc said that too many opponents of Darwin – above all Creationists – had mistakenly claimed that his theories were “totally incompatible with a religious vision of reality”, as did proponents of Intelligent Design.

Darwin’s theories had never been formally condemned by the Roman Catholic Church, Monsignor Ravasi insisted. His rehabilitation had begun as long ago as 1950, when Pius XII described evolution as a valid scientific approach to the development of humans. In 1996 John Paul II said that it was “more than a hypothesis”.

“I maintain that the idea of evolution has a place in Christian theology,” Professor Tanzella-Nitti added.

Creationism remains powerful in the US, however, notably among Protestants, and its followers object to evolution being taught in state schools.

(Times Online)

Fascinating development, but what's really going on here? The Vatican's stance is now in direct opposition to the fanatical creationists in the USA. But let us also not forget that the Catholic Church does nothing that it does not perceive to be in its own self interest. Unlike those American zealots, the Church has a history of condemning science only to later look very stupid. This is more than just loss of credibility but also, more importantly, loss of power and influence over human affairs.

The men in the Vatican may be deluded autocrats but they are not idiots when it comes to propaganda and faith. The battle over the heliocentric solar system and the Big Bang have left permanent scars, if not still open wounds for some. The botched announcement that a statue of Galileo was to be erected within the Vatican, only to then be retracted, shows that the Church is here attempting a kind of ceasefire rather than a cessation of hostilities. They can see what is on the horizon, as the neurosciences hone in on the biological system that creates absurd metaphysical beliefs. The Vatican just does not have the resources to completely stop or distort scientific research. So, with their backs against the wall the centuries-old tactic is to turn around and offer the slippery hand of friendship.

Lest anyone forget a crucial episode in recent Vatican history, this same tactic was used as Mussolini's neo-pagan fascists marched on Rome. What the Concordat of 1929 does not record, but countless other sources do, is that the real deal was that in exchange for saving the Vatican's life and creating its own state the Church would support the fascists in their rule over Italy. The Catholic Church ordered its priests not to stand against fascist politicians in elections, thereby ultimately laying the seeds of widespread support for the nascent communist ideology. At the time the Vatican did not have the resources to defend itself militarily but it still had a hugely influential network of human capital that was put at the disposal of the fascist arrivistes.

That same tactic will now be used in its more philosophical confrontation with science. Repetition is sometimes necessary, and so I say once again that the primary function of the Roman Catholic Church is to expand and control all of humanity. That is how it became what it is today and that is what keeps driving it. Sometimes assimilation is necessary rather than invasion - as we can see with their slightly bizarre attempts to bring the orthodox churches back under Vatican dominion - and this is what we are witnessing with respect to its relationship with science.

Also worth remembering that Joseph Ratzinger was head of the Inquisition for over 20 years before being elected Pope. During his reign the Catholic Church has undergone what, for it, has been a shaking of its foundations. The internal battle between modernists and traditionalists has, for the moment, been largely won by the modernists who have implemented many of the changes announced at the Vatican II Council. In the pursuit of research my enemy's enemy is often my friend. Traditional Catholics are incensed at many of these changes and this includes the attitude to science as part of a broader change of politic towards the outside world. All that scholastic navel gazing with its logical and lexical torture ended up forgetting what the Vatican's primary directive was: to convert and conquer.

"This step [Vatican modernisation] seems to me not only justified, but also necessary, because theology should serve faith and evangelization, and, for this reason, must face reality as it is today .... Therefore, it was a just and necessary step, although also a risky one .... But risk is part of a necessary adventure." said Ratzinger in 1994. Theology should serve faith and evangelization. If that means making friends with science then so be it; let this new adventure begin.

However, the new landscape becomes more treacherous and insidious to the scientist. The theological trick is always the same, has always been the same and will continue to be so in the future. The age-old trick is to state that there is a supernatural metaphysical reality beyond this natural one and that the Church has unique knowledge of this. The consequence of this - and as I said above, there must be a real consequence - is the primacy of the Vatican on matters of morals. Its moral superiority is gained through its supreme knowledge of metaphysical reality. This is the control mechanism. This is the way the Vatican will insinuate itself into every science that has a moral dimension. This is the way it will use the power of deluded faith to promote a Catholic science. Here is one very recent example of Christian propaganda masquerading as scientific truth.

This is precisely the scenario of Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials. This is why the Catholic press hated those books so much; they are the future. Pullman's books have a lot of history of science in them and his vision was of a world that took a different turning in the Middle Ages. Rather than science and religion coming to blows, the science was used by religion to give it the correct metaphysical interpretation. This is the battleground the Vatican loves to fight on. Arguing on metaphysical grounds is like arguing with ghosts, whilst at the same time the propaganda machine is churning out believers who will bend science by sheer numbers. If you don't believe this just look at what is happening in America. A recent poll shows 63% of Americans do not believe in evolution. 63%!! This level of mass stupidity is what we will get worldwide unless the arrow of reason penetrates deep into the heart of fideism and kills it dead.

Scientists should not be smug or complacent about this modern Catholic Church. It is the same old Church with just a new style of propaganda. As always, look at what they do, not what they say.

How many satellites does it take to cause a space crash?

Space is big, but it can still get crowded up there.

The recent collision between two orbiting satellites, including one Iridium satellite, was just an accident waiting to happen, according to debris scientists at Johnson Space Center in Houston. The fact that there even exists such a job as a space debris scientist shows that the problems are very real. The dangers are not so much to us on Earth - falling debris largely breaks up by the intense heat on accelerating through the earth's atmosphere - but rather to other fully functioning satellites.

How many satellites are there in space orbiting Earth? And more importantly, how many satellites does it take to cause a space crash? The most up-to-date data comes from CelesTrak which is funded by the Center for Space Standards and Innovation, located in Colorado Springs. As of writing there are over 13,000 satellites in orbit and over 20,500 satellites have decayed since 1957. Looking carefully at the data it appears that there are just under 3,500 satellites that are both functioning and in their correct orbit compared to nearly 10,000 that are classed as debris but haven't yet decayed. So 75% of the satellites orbiting the Earth are junk!

Just to get a sense of what a collision would mean let us look at how fast these satellites are travelling. The Moon, which is at an average altitude of 385,000 km from Earth travels at a mean straight-line speed of 3,600 km/h. A geo-synchronous Earth orbit satellite such as GEO is at 35,800 km and travels as 11,000 km/h, whereas the International Space Station is only 380 km from Earth and whizzes around at an astonishing 27,600 km/h. At these speeds, even a small piece of debris can cause serious damage to satellite instruments and sensors and larger pieces can even shunt the satellite out of orbit.

The collision quoted above happened at an altitude of about 800 km, so the real concern is that as the debris decays and falls towards Earth it may hit either the ISS or the Hubble telescope. Telecommunications satellites are usually in geo-synchronous orbits so that they appear to an observer on Earth to be in a fixed position in the sky. As seen above, they are at high altitude and do not move relative to each other, so the likelihood of two communications satellites colliding is very low. But other satellites such as spy satellites are in lower faster orbits so they can cover the whole Earth taking snapshots as they pass overhead.

The Iridium satellite phone system has 66 (now 65) satellites in fast low-altitude orbits so that they can give good reception even in the least populated areas of the globe. Users of Iridium make telephone calls in direct communication with the satellites rather than through a local mobile phone mast. Their biggest client is the US military. Luckily, there is some in-built redundancy in the system to safeguard the network against just such an accident.

So what are the world's space agencies going to do about all this space junk? the Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee was founded to monitor space junk and advise member space agencies on actions to mitigate the problems this causes to future projects. The 27th meeting of the IADC is scheduled for late March and this recent collision will no doubt be high on their agenda. But, just as it is difficult to force polluters to clean up their terrestrial accidents, it is likely to be just as difficult to get a consensus on cleaning up space.

Buzz this!

10 Feb 2009

Oath Against Modernism

Whilst digging around about exorcisms I came across the Roman Ritual of 1962. This is the standard text of all sorts of Catholic rituals updated for, supposedly, a modern audience. However, looking at the index I found this little nugget right at the very end.


"I, N.N., firmly accept and embrace each and every doctrine defined by the Church's unerring teaching authority, and all that she has maintained and declared, especially those points of doctrine which directly oppose the errors of our time. In the first place I profess that God, the beginning and the end of all things, can be known with certitude and His existence demonstrated by the natural light of reason from the things that are made, that is, from the visible works of creation, as a cause is known from its effects. Secondly, I acknowledge and admit the external arguments for revelation, namely, divine facts, especially miracles and prophecies, as most certain signs of the divine origin of the Christian religion, and I hold that these are perfectly suited to the intelligence of every age and of all men, including our own times. Thirdly, I also firmly believe that the Church, the guardian and teacher of God's revealed word, was directly and absolutely instituted by Christ Himself, the true Christ of history, while He lived among us; and that the same Church was founded on Peter, the prince of the apostolic hierarchy, and on his successors to the end of time. Fourthly, I sincerely accept the doctrine of faith in the same sense and with always the same meaning as it has been handed down to us from the apostles through the officially approved fathers. And therefore I wholly reject the heretical notion of the evolution of dogmas, according to which doctrines pass from one sense to another sense alien to that which the Church held from the start. I likewise condemn every erroneous notion to the effect that instead of the divine deposit of faith entrusted by Christ to His spouse, the Church, and to be faithfully guarded by her, one may substitute a philosophic system or a creation of the human mind gradually refined by men's striving and capable of eventual perfection by indefinite progress. Fifthly, I hold as certain and sincerely profess that faith is not a blind religious sense evolving from the hidden recesses of subliminal consciousness, and morally formed by the influence of heart and will, but that it is a real assent of the intellect to objective truth learned by hearing, an assent wherein we believe to be true whatever has been spoken, testified, and revealed by the personal God, our Creator and Lord, on the authority of God who is the perfection of truth.

Furthermore, in all due reverence I submit to and fully uphold all the condemnations, declarations, and directions contained in the encyclical letter "Pascendi" and in the decree "Lamentabili," especially as regards what is called the history of dogmas. I also reject the error of those who allege that the faith proposed by the Church may conflict with history, and that Catholic dogmas, in the sense in which they are now understood, cannot be reconciled with the actual origins of Christianity. I condemn and reject, moreover, the opinion put forth that a more learned Christian can assume a dual personality, one as believer and another as historian, thus making it permissible for the historian to maintain what his faith as a believer contradicts, or to lay down premises from which there follows the falsity or the uncertainty of dogmas, provided only that these are not directly denied. I likewise reject that method of determining and interpreting Sacred Scripture which, setting aside the Church's tradition and the analogy of faith and the norms of the Holy See, adopts the principles of the rationalists, and with equal arbitrariness and rashness regards textual criticism as the sole supreme rule. Moreover, I reject the opinion of those who hold that a teacher of the science of historical theology or a writer on the subject must first put aside any preconceived notions about the supernatural origin of Catholic tradition or about the divine aid promised for the continual preservation of each revealed truth; or that the writings of individual fathers must be interpreted solely by the data of science, without any reference to sacred authority, and with the same freedom of judgement usually accorded to any profane records.

Finally, I profess that I am far removed in general from the error of the modernists, who hold that there is nothing inherently divine in sacred tradition; or who--which is far worse--admit it in a pantheistic sense. For then there would remain only a bare simple fact, like the ordinary facts of history, to the effect that the system started by Christ and His apostles still finds men to support it by their energy, shrewdness, and ability. Therefore, I most firmly retain and will retain to my last breath the faith of the fathers of the Church, which has the supernatural guarantee of truth, and which is, has been, and ever will be residing in the bishops who are the successors of the apostles (St. Irenaeus 4. c. 26). And this is not to be so understood that we may hold what seems better suited to the culture of a particular age, but rather that we may never believe nor understand anything other than the absolute and unchangeable truth preached from the beginning by the apostles (Praeser. c. 28).

All this I promise to keep faithfully, entirely, and sincerely, and to guard inviolably, and never to depart from it in any way in teaching, word, or writing. So I promise, so I swear, so help me God and His holy Gospels."

I have highlighted some phrases (the highlights are not in the original) and have also corrected some spelling errors (assume OCR bugs or sheer illiteracy).

Well, I thought it worth having here just to show how thoroughly indoctrinated even supposedly rational people are expected to be. This is a place of darkness where the spirit of enquiry, the light of reason and the proof of experience have no place.

The New Inquisition - Pope exorcist squads will wage war on Satan

I know, the headline reads like a spoof. Sadly it isn't. Here's a snippet from the Daily Mail.

The Pope has ordered his bishops to set up exorcism squads to tackle the rise of Satanism.

Vatican chiefs are concerned at what they see as an increased interest in the occult.

They have introduced courses for priests to combat what they call the most extreme form of “Godlessness.”

Each bishop is to be told to have in his diocese a number of priests trained to fight demonic possession.

The initiative was revealed by 82-year-old Father Gabriele Amorth, the Vatican “exorcist-in-chief,” to the online Catholic news service Petrus.

“Thanks be to God, we have a Pope who has decided to fight the Devil head-on,” he said.

“Too many bishops are not taking this seriously and are not delegating their priests in the fight against the Devil. You have to hunt high and low for a properly trained exorcist."

Well, yes, they don't yet seem to advertise in the Yellow Pages. One thing to keep at the forefront of one's mind regarding the Vatican and its current head of state, the blessed Benedict XVI, is that in his previous incarnation Ratzinger was in charge of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, better known to most people as the Inquisition. He obviously enjoyed this job as he held the post for over 20 years. Indeed there is probably no more senior position than this other than being Pope.

There are two options here: either these people truly believe what they say, in which case they should be given therapy and kept away from the population; or they don't really believe it but it is an expedient method sanctioned by doctrine to enforce adherence to their ridiculous faith, in which case they are even more of a menace to the world and should be locked up. If they try to resurrect the Inquisition I hope some people will take them to court for cruelty and barbarism.

6 Feb 2009

Born to Believe – Review and Response

A New Scientist article, Born believers: how your brain creates God, takes us through some recent research with children that suggests belief in supernatural beings is somehow hard-wired into the human brain. The starting point is the rather unsurprising statistics that many people turn to religion in times of hardship. The afterlife may seem positively luxurious compared to being down and out.

Religious ideas are common to all cultures: like language and music, they seem to be part of what it is to be human. Until recently, science has largely shied away from asking why. "It's not that religion is not important," says Paul Bloom, a psychologist at Yale University, "it's that the taboo nature of the topic has meant there has been little progress."

This is, indeed, good to see. However, I suspect we're also going to be entering a phase where the direction of research may also be contaminated with religious ideology and it is also good to know who says what.

As anthropologist Scott Atran of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor points out, the benefits of holding such unfounded beliefs are questionable, in terms of evolutionary progress. "I don't think the idea makes much sense, given the kinds of things you find in religion," he says. A belief in life after death, for example, is hardly compatible with surviving in the here-and-now and propagating your genes. Moreover, if there are adaptive advantages of religion, they do not explain its origin, but simply how it spread.

This is precisely my feeling on the matter. The shared delusion that may result in social cohesion can also lead that whole society to an early grave. Such dead-end cults would be difficult to find historically but we get an inkling of them in some of the contemporary suicide cults. A belief in afterlife has to also have some good excuse to live this one out fully first.

"Children the world over have a strong natural receptivity to believing in gods because of the way their minds work, and this early developing receptivity continues to anchor our intuitive thinking throughout life," says anthropologist Justin Barrett of the University of Oxford.

One thing the article fails to mention is that Justin Barrett is not only an anthropologist but also one of the founders of the Ian Ramsey Centre for Religion and Science. Barrett is described in the New York Times as a "prominent member of the by-product camp" and "an observant Christian who believes in “an all-knowing, all-powerful, perfectly good God who brought the universe into being,” [and] “that the purpose for people is to love God and love each other.” He considers that “Christian theology teaches that people were crafted by God to be in a loving relationship with him and other people, Why wouldn’t God, then, design us in such a way as to find belief in divinity quite natural?” What did I say about investigating both the research and the researcher?

Children do seem to have an innate common-sense dualism between things with minds and inanimate objects. The dualism extends to being able to conceive of minds as separate from their bodies. The common experience of having fantasy friends is one consequence of this. But some of the research seems to contradict this in that it found that children were prone to ascribe meaning and intention to natural physical phenomena – it rains so as to help plants grow, the sun shines because it keeps us warm, and so on. I'm not sure if the researchers looked deeply enough if this was a consequence of the way children's stories are written in that very often animate and inanimate objects are characters with intentions and purposes. Whatever the source of these ideas they do seem to be deeply embedded, with it being a very short step from believing in imaginary friends or disembodied minds to gods and an afterlife.

[...] religion is an inescapable artefact of the wiring in our brain, says Bloom. "All humans possess the brain circuitry and that never goes away." Olivera Petrovich adds that even adults who describe themselves as atheists and agnostics are prone to supernatural thinking.

Seeing patterns where none exist may well be an attribute of the brain but extending that to the supernatural sphere is not an obvious progression. The last piece of research quoted showed that people under stress or feeling a loss of control would be more prone to seeing patterns in random data. The results are interpreted as showing that people under stress are more likely to seek solace in meaning, even if that meaning is purely imaginary. Hence the link with the original observation that religious belief seems to increase when times are difficult.

The final message is that, whether belief says anything about the object of belief, religion is not going to be going away any time soon. Religious faith is the path of least resistance when the world around us seems to be descending into chaos. In contrast, disbelief requires more effort.

It is also interesting that this article prompted an editorial in the same edition. The editor shows a certain resignation in research showing that irrationality may well be the natural human state and that scientific understanding has not only been hard won but may also be more fragile than many of us would hope.

Weekly Science and Religion News and Resources

This week's list of interesting news, articles and websites on Science and Religion.

Born believers: how your brain creates God at New Scientist

The credit crunch could be a boon for irrational belief, New Scientist editorial

Bart Simpson recruited into Scientology. mmm...

2 Feb 2009

Ten Amusing Arguments for the Existence of God

The last few posts have been rather sombre affairs; not that reporting on the Vatican is supposed to be a bundle of laughs. So, to lighten the mood a little here are a few of my favourites from the Hundreds of Proofs of God's Existence. The list now runs to nearly 600 proofs, so needs to be read in bite-size pieces. So here's a taster:

(1) If there is no God then we're all going to not exist after we die.
(2) I'm afraid of that.
(3) Therefore, God exists.

(1) See this bonfire?
(2) Therefore, God exists.

(1) Telling people that God exists makes me filthy rich.
(2) Therefore, God exists.

(1) God exists.
(2) I don't give a crap whether you believe it or not; I have better things to do than to try to convince you morons.
(3) Therefore, God exists.

(1) Fuck you.
(2) Therefore, God exists.

(1) Person X died an atheist.
(2) He now realizes his mistake.
(3) Therefore, God exists.

(1) If God exists, then he will let me watch you be tortured forever.
(2) I rather like that idea.
(3) Therefore, God exists.

(1) Christians say that Jesus is their best friend.
(2) I'm lonely, and I want a best friend.
(3) Therefore, God exists.

(1) No sane person could have thought up Christianity.
(2) Therefore, it must be true
(3) Therefore, God exists.

(1) You use lots of big words.
(2) Therefore, I cannot possibly be expected to understand your refutation of my position.
(3) Therefore, God exists.

As I said, it's a long list. A great read that is both deadly serious and darkly funny.