Thursday, November 08, 2007

For the record

There are many arguments that people make that genuinely bug me. The one time I ever got really pissed off at a secondary school teacher was when they refused to discuss something because I "don't need know know that for the exam". Other irritating arguments range from patronising remarks, through straw men of my position, to ad hominems and outright lies.

It's not often that I come across a comment that includes all of these at the same time. Via Good Math, Bad Math I being you George Shollenberger, who is quoted as saying:

In my experiences with atheists, atheists generally show no interest in developing knowledge of God. If they did express interests in God they would find God and would not be atheists.

OK, let's get encyclopedic here. If I as an atheist "show no interest in developing knowledge of God" then why do I have the following piled up within arm's reach (and mostly in the process of being read):

  • "The Varieties of Religious Experience" by William James

  • "Hindu Writings: A short introduction to the major sources"

  • "A History of the Sikhs"

  • The New Testament

  • "Personal Religion in Egypt before Christianity"

  • "Darwin's Black Box" by Behe

  • "A History of the Christian Church"

  • "Lost Christianities" and "Lost Scriptures" by Bart Ehrman

  • "The Synoptic Gospels: A commentary"

  • Another copy of the Bible

  • "Zen and the Art of Flower Arrangement"

  • "Facts for Life" (a Hare Krishna book)

  • "The Satanic Bible" by Anton LaVey

  • Sundry atheist books

And that's only a portion of a fraction of my collection, because a lot of my books are in boxes at my new (and as yet unoccupied) flat, or buried too deeply in my book piles for me to easily get at them.

That's a minimum of 8 distinct religious stances that I've been actively investigating - and, depending on how you count it, the number could be much higher. How many religions have you studied lately, George?
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Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Voodoo Kitty

I've recently made a worrying discovery: my kitty is practising magic on me. And we're not talking about rabbit-out-of-a-hat, no-it's-up-your-other-sleeve trickery; we're talking real spooky stuff.

See, over time there have been various people in the family who fed this cat, and one time it was me. For a couple of weeks, if he heard me moving, he'd run towards his foodbowl and I'd obediently trot along behind him. He's apparently never forgotten this. And, in accordance with the fundamental magical principle of sympathy, every time he wants me to feed him he runs in front of me in an attempt to supernaturally "drag" me towards the tin of kitty biscuits.

A similar behaviour has been observed in pigeons. If you feed them at effectively random intervals, they'll associate whatever action they were performing at the time with food. It has been demonstrated (readable summary here) that this can lead to all sorts of weird behaviour - little "rain dances" that the pigeons perform to attract food.

It's fascinating to me to see such a very human form of insanity emerge in lower animals. And in a way, it's kinda reassuring. We as a species may be barking mad, but at least we're not alone.

And finally, the obligatory LolCat:


Maybe I oughta feed that cat before he gets too irritated...
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Thursday, November 01, 2007

Placebo Paradox

In my last post, I found myself trying to make a rather subtle point about the perception of religion. I'm fairly sure I failed.

The point was this: there's a popular perception that religion can be split into "good" and "bad" religion, and that atheists ought to restrict themselves to attacking the latter sort. The problem is that this dividing line is, paradoxically, only visible from outside the religion.

The cause of this paradox is quite hard to explain, so I'm going to hijack the superb explanatory powers of a blogger called Skeptico. Please read this article on homeopathy.

To summarise Skeptico's point: the idea that it's bad to treat malaria with homeopathy only makes sense if we acknowledge that homeopathy doesn't actually work. If we believe that homeopathy does work, using it to treat malaria is clearly the right thing to do. This is the paradox: the only people who have standing to say that homeopathic malaria cures are dafter than homeopathic cold cures are those who don't believe in homeopathy!

Exactly the same paradox applies with religion. Atheists are commonly enjoined to restrict their attacks to the "appropriate target" of extremist religion. But this dissection of religion into "moderate" and "extreme" only makes sense if both variants are equally false.

When used in an argument against an atheist, the distinction makes no sense. So can the commentators in this debate please stop spluttering with horror when we turn our guns on the beliefs of people they happen to like?
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