Religion continued

Another great religious themed TED talk is Julia Sweeney: “Letting Go of God”. She gives an amusing account of a meeting with Mormon evangelists saying how strange they come across when hearing them for the first time. She compares this with how strange Christian beliefs would be if you weren’t familiar with them.

This another instance Betrand Russell’s teapot argument:
If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes. But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is an intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense. If, however, the existence of such a teapot were affirmed in ancient books, taught as the sacred truth every Sunday, and instilled into the minds of children at school, hesitation to believe in its existence would become a mark of eccentricity and entitle the doubter to the attentions of the psychiatrist in an enlightened age or of the Inquisitor in an earlier time.

Further thoughts on religion

In the spirit of “trying to look at both sides of the argument” I watched the TED talk by Rev. Tom Honey

In the context of the Asian tsunami, he is wrestling with the old chestnut “If there is a God, why does he let such terrible things happen?”

For the first three quarters of the talk, he approaches this question from a religious perspective. I don’t find the thought process a particularly useful one. To me the the question “How could God let then tsunami happen?” doesn’t arise if we assume there is no God.

The final section of his talk is “What if God is in things?” Here he turns away from the typical notion of a Judeo-Christian God. He asks whether instead of personifying God as an autonomous “agent,” we cant’ see God as “essential benevolence in the universe”. He then suggests we could see God as “compassion” or the “magnificence of the natural world”

“Is God just another name for the universe?” he asks. This is similar to the Einsteinian view of his own religion as an “unbounded admiration for the structure of the world.”

In answer to his question, Honey concludes: “In the end the only thing I could say for sure was ‘I don’t know’ and that might be the most profoundly religious statement of all”

To me this is a particularly non-useful God. Can’t we better go from a sense of wonder at the universe to a curiosity to discover it’s secrets? Religion tells us not to question, science makes questioning an imperative. Surely science is more satisfactory response to the mysteries of the world.

Further, how can we go from such a notion of God and religion to a system for morality? It is hard to go from the fundamental physical constants of the universe to The Ten Commandments. Surely we can derive a more solid moral basis than simply taking stuff written in ancient books.

The God Delusion

One of the most interesting books I’ve read this year is Richard Dawkins’ wildly popular The God Delusion.

If you want a quick sampler before plunging in to it’s 400-odd pages there are some video versions. Dawkins’ gave a TED talk “An atheist’s call to arms” can be watched online. His 2-part TV movie “The Root of All Evil?” is also well worth watching (despite the somewhat overstated title).

Dawkins presents, what is to me, convincing arguments as to why God does not exist and why arguments for the existence of God do not hold up to serious scrutiny. He also gives a plausible theory of the roots of religion from the perspective of meme theory.

He then gives his arguments as to why religion is a harmful influence in our world: subversion of science, intolerance, wars and so on. Dawkins provides this as one of the central theses of his book: that religion should not be respected for it’s own sake:
“As long as we accept the principle that religious faith must be respected because it is religious faith, it is hard to withhold respect from the faith of Osama bin Laden and the suicide bombers.”

He thus argues that “moderate” faith, and respect for “moderate” faith, facilitates extremism and terrorism. I put “moderate” in quotes because Dawkins sees no way to differential between “moderate” and “extremist” religion. This to me is a flaw in his line of thinking. It is simple to define “harmful” or “extremist” religion as any religion that defies The Golden Rule. Should I care about someone’s private beliefs if they don’t impact upon me?

Another distinction that Dawkins fails to made is between spirituality and religious dogma. I have friends who have spiritual beliefs but don’t follow the teachings of any church. Can I really argue that their beliefs are harmful to me or society?

While I think the world would be better off without religion, I’m not convinced by Dawkins’ call to arms against all religion. This strikes me as a divisive and will just polarise people.

Finally, Dawkins doesn’t address the point that religious people, on the whole, are happier than non-religious people. He does mention in passing a quote from George Bernard Shaw:
“The fact that a believer is happier than a skeptic is no more to the point than the fact that a drunken man is happier than a sober one.”
Amusing but not convincing.


I accidentally came across TED today – a video site “Inspired talks by the world’s greatest thinkers and doers”

Some highlights

Steven Levitt wrote Freakonomics; I read this one earlier this year and will write about it in another post.

Helen Fisher wrote Why we Love which is on my reading list.


I watched Babel today. It’s a beautifully made film with strong performances from the entire cast. The story is intricately weaved in the style of crash.

I appreciate the film not labeling any of the characters as good or evil. We are allowed to sympathise with each of the characters regardless of their age, race or gender.

Where the movie fails is in trying to stretch the connections between its superficially connected parts. The chain of events that lead to the numerous tragedies in the film stretch credibility almost to the point comedy by the end of the film.