Author Archives: Coel

Attorney General Jeff Sessions scores 8 out of 20 on Religious Freedom

The US attorney general, Jeff Sessions, has issued a memo directing government bodies on how to interpret religious freedom. Unfortunately Sessions misinterprets religious liberty as granting religious people greater rights than the non-religious have. This is a violation of the deeper principle of treating all citizens equally, regardless of their religious views.

Viewed from the stance of equality we can properly understand religious freedom as a form of free speech. That is, you may espouse your religious views, and if you have a general right to do something you may do that same thing with added religious content. Further, the state may not treat you any less favourably owing to that religious content, but nor may it treat you more favourably.

From that perspective, let’s score Sessions’s memo, in which he declares 20 “principles of religious liberty”.

1. The freedom of religion is a fundamental right of paramount importance

Agreed. Score +1. Sessions rightly points to constitutional protections deriving from the Founding Fathers. In his Virginia Statute, Jefferson wrote perhaps the best one-line statement of religious liberty, that: “… all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinion in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities”.

Note all three of “diminish, enlarge or affect”.

2. The free exercise of religion includes the right to act or to abstain from action in accordance with one’s religious beliefs

Wrong. Score 0. Religious freedom is a form of free speech and does not grant extra privileges when it comes to actions. If the law requires a non-religious person to “act or abstain from action” then it must demand the same of a religious person. Anything else would violate Jefferson’s maxim that “opinion in matters of religion … shall in no wise … enlarge … their civil capacities”.

If you think that requiring an act or abstention from a religious person would be too burdensome to their conscience then nor should you require it from a non-religious person. That is the deep principle of equality under the law that distinguishes a properly secular state from a theocracy in which the religious grant themselves additional privileges.

3. Freedom of religion extends to persons and organizations

Yes, ok. Score +1. People do not lose their rights simply because they group together and exercise them with like-minded citizens. The problem with the Hobby Lobby ruling was not that it allowed a corporation to have a religious identity, but that it granted extra privileges as a result, just as Sessions wants in the above (2). Continue reading


Should Nobel Prizes go to teams?

The 2017 Nobel Prize for Physics has gone to members of the LIGO consortium for the detection of gravitational waves, namely to Rainer Weiss, Kip Thorne and Barry Barish. But the contributions of many hundreds of people were necessary for the success of LIGO and so it can be argued that the restriction to three people is wrong and that future Nobel Prizes should go to teams.

Professor Martin Rees, the Astronomer Royal, told BBC correspondent Pallab Gosh that: “LIGO’s success was owed to hundreds of researchers. The fact that the Nobel Prize committee refuses to make group awards is causing increasingly frequent problems and giving a misleading impression of how a lot of science is actually done”.

Rees is right, of course, but would changing it be a good thing? It would mean that nearly all future Nobels in physics would go to teams, either simply to a named team or to a list of team members that could amount to hundreds.

I’m not sure this would be a good change. Continue reading

On Title IX, sexual misconduct, logical fallacies, and due process versus ideology

Suppose I made the claim that: “Only 6% of reports of rape lead to a criminal conviction, therefore 94% of rape reports are made up”. I would, rightly, be howled down for having committed a gross fallacy. It would be explained to me that accusations of rape often revolve around one person’s word against another’s, which makes them very hard to prove to the criminal standard of proof. Thus many accusations that do not lead to criminal convictions are still most likely true.

Now suppose I instead made the claim that “only 2% of accusations of rape are proven to be false, therefore 98% of accusations of rape are true”. This claim is widely made (example), yet it is just as fallacious and for the same reason. Just as it is usually hard to prove rape claims true, it is also hard to prove them false; many claims cannot be proven either way.

Yet, under Title IX codes in American colleges, the claim that nearly all accusations are true is used to justify a process that more or less presumes an accused to be guilty from the outset, with little need for due process. Afterall, if there is only a 1-in-50 chance that the accused male is innocent, then the accusation is pretty much sufficient in itself. Given that, a mere “preponderance of evidence”, defined as a 51% versus 49% likelihood, is all that is needed to expel a student from college for sexual misconduct, something that would always be on their record and likely blight their career prospects.

Yet this “nearly all accusations are true” claim has no basis in proven fact, it is purely ideological. Continue reading

What Christians believe about evolution and the supposed naivety of atheists

It is understandable that Christian commentators want to denigrate atheists. A common tactic is to claim that atheists think that most Christians are Biblical literalists and thus only criticise fundamentalist and literalist religion. The atheist is thus painted as naive, not very thoughtful and a bit ignorant. The tactic also implies that atheists have not managed to produce significant critiques of liberal religious theology.

This is mostly wrong; atheists are well aware of liberal theology, and nowadays most New Atheistic critiques address liberal theology (literalist theology is simply not a worthwhile target any more; I can’t think of anyone bothering since Tom Paine’s Age of Reason, as long ago as 1807).

But, Christians like to think otherwise, as exemplified by an article this Sunday in The Observer by “leading Catholic commentator” Catherine Pepinster. Continue reading

Alex Rosenberg’s Guide to Reality and morality under scientism

Alex Rosenberg’s An Atheist’s Guide to Reality is the most radically scientistic book that I’ve read. I should thus like it a lot! And generally I do, but with some reservations.

I’ll address here one argument that Rosenberg makes about morality and politics which I think is faulty, and, indeed, not “scientistic” enough. I’ve seen other atheists make the same argument so it is worth exploring. Continue reading

Fundamental ontology: what is the universe actually made of?

In his classic “Feynman lectures on physics”, Richard Feynman starts by saying:

If, in some cataclysm, all of scientific knowledge were to be destroyed, and only one sentence passed on to the next generation of creatures, what statement would contain the most information in the fewest words? I believe it is the atomic hypothesis that all things are made of atoms — little particles that move around in perpetual motion, attracting each other when they are a little distance apart, but repelling upon being squeezed into one another.

Of course atoms are not the basic unit, they are composed of nuclei surrounded by electrons. The nuclei are then composed of protons and neutrons (and short-lived virtual particles such as pions), and the protons and neutrons are themselves composed of quarks and gluons.

But what is the ultimate level? What, when one goes down to the most fundamental level, are things made of? While there are lots of opinions there is no accepted answer, and mulling it over for myself I realised that none of the options are attractive in the sense of aligning with intuition about what “physical stuff” would be made of. Here are some of the possibilities: Continue reading

Trinity Lutheran Church vs Comer and the free exercise of religion

I have a confession to make. Reading the US Supreme Court’s ruling on Trinity Lutheran Church vs Comer, I am more persuaded by the majority decision written by Chief Justice Roberts than by Justice Sotomayor’s dissent. In this I differ from many secular campaign groups who deplore the ruling and are worried about what it might lead to.

In brief, Missouri runs a program using old tyres to improve children’s playgrounds. Trinity Lutheran Church asked to benefit from this. Their bid was rejected because it came from a church, in line with Missouri’s rule that no taxpayers’ money can go to a church. The Supreme Court ruled 7–2 that rejecting the bid simply because it came from a church violated the constitutional ban on laws “… prohibiting the free exercise” of religion. Sotomayor’s dissent, in contrast, focused on the other half of that clause, banning laws “respecting an establishment of religion”.

The two phrases together are commonly interpreted as erecting Jefferson’s “wall of separation” between churches and the government, preventing taxpayers money from going to churches and preventing the government from taxing churches. Continue reading