Eric Pickles and Britain as a “Christian Nation”

On Baroness Warsi’s resignation from the UK government, David Cameron would have done best to drop the “Minister of Faith” role that he had created for her, but instead handed it over to Eric Pickles. Pickles, we recall, is another minister who thinks that Christians should still have special privileges in the UK. Informing us that Britain is a “Christian nation” and that atheists should “get over it”, he gloated that he has “stopped an attempt by militant atheists to ban councils having prayers at the start of meetings”.

As ever, anyone who believes in church–state separation and a secular, religiously neutral government is a “militant”, while handing ever more state schools over to be run by churches, awarding them an exemption from the Equality Act, thus allowing them to discriminate against non-religious families, and passing laws violating religious liberty by requiring school kids to worship the Christian god, is merely defending “traditional British values”.

Thus The Telegraph, defending compulsory religion in schools, against the wishes of the majority of parents, and school governors (and indeed the Church of England!), states that “There can be few things in life less harmful than the gentle Christian values learnt by children during school assemblies” and that “the British values of which we hear so much are based on ancient Judeo-Christian beliefs and the teachings of the Bible”. Continue reading

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A scientific response to the Brain in a Vat

Scientia Salon is an enjoyable webzine discussing philosophical matters, which recently addressed an old conundrum: how do we know we are not a brain in a vat? As I see it, this question is straightforwardly answered by the usual scientific method, so here I’ll summarise the argument that I advanced in the Scientia Salon discussion.

The Matrix-style scenario, which dates back to the skepticism of Descartes, supposes that we are a brain kept alive in a vat, being fed with a stream of inputs generated by an Evil Genius. Everything that we experience as sense data is not real, but is artificially simulated and fed to us. Since, ex hypothesi, our stream of experiences is identical to that in the “real world” explanation, we cannot know for sure whether or not we are such a brain in a vat.

How to respond? First, the whole point of science is to make sense of our “stream of experiences”. We do that by looking for regularities and patterns in those experiences, and we develop those into descriptions and explanations of the world (I’ll use the term “world” here for the sum of those experiences, regardless of whether they derive from our contact with a real world, or from a simulated world being fed to us). Continue reading

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Applying falsifiability in science

Falsifiability. as famously espoused by Karl Popper, is accepted as a key aspect of science. When a theory is being developed, however, it can be unclear how the theory might be tested, and theoretical science must be given license to pursue ideas that cannot be tested within our current technological capabilities. String theory is an example of this, though ultimately it cannot be accepted as a physical explanation without experimental support.

Further, experimental science is fallible, and thus we do not immediately reject a theory when contradicted by one experimental result, rather the process involves the interplay between experiment and theory. As Arthur Eddington quipped: “No experiment should be believed until it has been confirmed by theory”.

Sean Carroll recently called for the concept of falsifiability to be “retired”, saying that:

The falsifiability criterion gestures toward something true and important about science, but it is a blunt instrument in a situation that calls for subtlety and precision.

Meanwhile, Leonard Susskind has remarked that:

Throughout my long experience as a scientist I have heard un-falsifiability hurled at so many important ideas that I am inclined to think that no idea can have great merit unless it has drawn this criticism.

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The Religious Freedom Restoration Act establishes religious privilege

In the United States, the Supreme Court tells us, corporations have the status of “people” and thus have attendant constitutional rights including freedom of religion. That allows corporations to decline to participate in aspects of Obamacare if it considers that doing so would be against the corporation’s religious beliefs.

This landmark “Hobby Lobby” ruling followed predictable lines, with five Catholic judges out-voting the Court’s four moderates. Much of the commentary has focused on the doctrine of awarding personhood to corporations. An equally important issue, however, is the role of the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act, whose effects are seen for the first time.

That Act would have been better named the Religious Privilege Establishment Act. It requires that the:

“Government shall not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability”, with allowed exceptions only where the burden “furthers a compelling governmental interest”, and in addition “is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest”.

This privileges the religious since it grants greater import and status to a religious motivation for doing or not doing something than to a secular motivation for the same thing. Through this promotion of religious belief it is a law “respecting an establishment of religion” and thus it violates the First Amendment. Continue reading

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A “conscience clause” would negate equality under the law

The suggestion of a “conscience clause” opt-out from equality legislation has been floated by no less a person than Lady Hale, Deputy President of Britain’s Supreme Court, and the most senior female judge in the land. The idea is that if treating people equally goes against your conscience then you get to play the “conscience” trump card entitling you to treat people unequally.

Unsurprisingly, some Christians have welcomed the suggestion, which they see as preserving their “religious freedom” against what they see as the encroachment of equality legislation.

“It is obvious that there is a growing conflict between religious freedoms and equalities legislation, and that a new balance has to be struck” opines The Telegraph. So, for example, the Christian hoteliers who famously turned away a same-sex couple, and lost the resulting court case, could in future be indulged by a clause that makes “special provisions or exceptions for particular beliefs”. Continue reading

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A review of “Beyond an Absence of Faith”

This review was written for Richard Dawkins Foundation

Beyond an Absence of Faith, edited by Jonathan Pearce and Tristan Vick, brings us the stories of 16 people who came to reject the faith of their upbringing. Most of the writers are American and former Christians, though some are former Muslims. They tell us of their journeys from strong religious faith to atheism, and in the process give a vivid account of the state of Christianity in America today.

What is striking is how all-encompassing and cult-like religious faith can be. These are not the stories of luke-warm believers, but of people for whom religion was a central feature of their lives. We read stories of people brought up in a “fundie bubble” to the extent that:

At one point, I counted five of seven nights of the week as church functions. Monday was a discipleship with a church leader and some students. Wednesday was a youth service. Thursday was a large-group discipleship, where we met at someone’s house for prayer and Bible study. Friday was the “Powerhouse,” a sort of hangout for teens with live music and a small service. Saturday was the Hellfighters service, and Sunday was the main service …

This is coupled with indoctrination of children so complete that one writer recalls:

I came home to an empty house, and became worried that everyone else had been Raptured away while I was out.

Continue reading

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The multiverse as a scientific concept

This article was first posted in two parts on Scientia Salon.

The multiverse concept is often derided as “unscientific” and an example of physicists indulging in metaphysical speculation of the sort they would usually deplore. For example commenters at Scientia Salon have said that the multiverse is “by definition not verifiable and thus outside the bounds of empirical science”, and that “advocates of multiverses seem to be in need of serious philosophical help”. [1]

Critics thus claim that the multiverse amounts to a leap of faith akin to a religious belief. Indeed, the religious often accuse atheistic scientists of inventing the multiverse purely to rebut the “fine-tuning” argument that they say points to a creator god (though the fine-tuning argument is readily refuted in several other ways, and anyhow physicists really don’t care enough about theology these days to let that worry them; further, the concepts leading to a multiverse were developed well before theologians started taking note of the issue).

The purpose of this article is to argue that the multiverse is an entirely scientific hypothesis, arrived at for good scientific reasons and arising out of testable and tested cosmological models. To be clear, I am not asserting that the multiverse has been proven true, even on the balance of probability, but I am asserting that it is a serious scientific concept that will eventually be accepted or rejected on scientific grounds.

Several different concepts could be labelled a “multiverse”, but I am advocating one particular multiverse concept, that arising from what cosmologists call the “eternal inflation” version of Big Bang cosmology. [2] I’ll outline why cosmologists have arrived at this model, which is now a mainstream account of the origin of our universe, and which leads naturally to a multiverse. Continue reading

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