Posts Tagged ‘premier christian radio’

Premier Christian Media’s screening of ‘Expelled’: Conspiracy? Cover-up? Expulsion?

21/03/2010

Part Two of my analysis of Premier Christian Media’s screening and debate of Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed examines whether “Big Science” is suppressing the theory of Intelligent Design.

The film presents six ID proponents who claim that they lost their jobs and/ or university tenure for entertaining thoughts that involved an intelligent creator due to the evil atheistic evolutionary science elite.  However, this is a mere smoke and mirrors ploy by the ID crowd.  Scratching below the propaganda shows that the supposedly expelled scientists either did not loss their positions at all, or lost them for legitimate reasons.

Expelled alleges that Richard Sternberg lost his position at the Smithsonian Institute and the National Institute of Health at the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NIH) after publishing a paper by Dr Stephen C Meyer of the Discovery Institute which mentioned Intelligent Design as a possible explanation of the origins of life on Earth in the peer-reviewed journal, Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington.  Stein says that Sternberg was “terrorised” and his life was “nearly ruined” following the incident that probed deeply into his religious views.

Nevertheless, this article from Skeptic magazine, as well as Sternberg’s page on Expelled Exposed, shows that Sternberg had in fact deliberately by-passed the publication process of the PBSW and went behind the backs of his colleagues by sneaking in Meyer’s shoddy paper which had previously been reviewed by scientists and had its claims firmly rejected.

Sternberg was in fact an unpaid associate – not an employee – at the Smithosian Institution (as opposed to “Institute”; Expelled doesn’t even get the names correct of those it libels!).  After the Meyer incident, Sternberg remained an employee of NIH and his unpaid position at the Smithsonian was extended in 2006, although he has not shown up there in years.  At no time was any aspect of his pay or working conditions at NIH affected.  He was never even disciplined for legitimate violations of PBSW or Smithsonian policy.  It is difficult to see how his life “was nearly ruined” when nothing serious happened to him.

This is a typical creationist tactic: to give the false impression that evolutionary scientists are dogmatically opposed to new ideas.  The film sets up a false impression of two opposing viewpoints, when in fact there are many, many differing interpretations of the evidence.  Just witness the heated disagreements between Richard Dawkins and Stephen Jay Gould over whether evolution happened gradually or in fits and starts.

During debate following the first screening Susan Blackmore, psychologist, atheist and expert on Meme Theory reminisced about when she was convinced that paranormal forces were real following her own “out of body” experience.  She pursued the possibility obsessively in the face of her detractors, but had to accept that her experience was neurologically induced after many painful years of facing the evidence, or indeed the lack of evidence.

Keith Fox, a theistic evolutionary biologist from Southampton University also hauled the film up on its bogus portrayal of science as atheistic and that many devout Christians have no trouble reconciling their faith with Darwin.

Contrary to the impression of theists, scientists do not religiously adhere to Darwinian evolution.  If you demanded fifty grand from the editor of Nature to pay for a peer-reviewed paper that falsified evolution or amended it significantly, he would probably give it to you in used twenties.  Physicist Victor Stenger summed it up best during his debate against Christian apologist William Lane Craig in 2003:

Most scientists share my view.  Are we being too sceptical?  Are we being dogmatically unwilling to entertain the possibility of a personal creator God?  I don’t think so.

There are many examples in the history of science that demonstrate its willingness accept ideas that challenge conventional wisdom.  But the data must require it.  In the early twentieth century the theories of relativity and quantum mechanics revolutionised some our most basic concepts about the nature of reality.

I think most scientists would be thrilled if evidence were founded for previously undetected materials and forces.  Think of all the funding opportunities that would open up.  I would come out of retirement.

But even if that were to happen, I doubt that the world that was then being uncovered would bear any resemblance to the fantasies from the childhood of humanity that constitute traditional religious belief.

Amen.

For further edification regarding the true stories behind the other five “expelled”, see the following pages on Expelled Exposed:

Guillermo Gonzalez: The Discovery Institute co-author of The Privileged Planet didn’t have such a stellar career after all and his output in recent years fell short of the tough requirements for tenure at American Universities.

Caroline Crocker: Never mind “mentioning” Intelligent Design in one of her classes, Crocker received multiple complaints from students at George Mason University for teaching demonstrably false creationist material.  But she was never even fired for clear breaches of academic and contractual obligations and there is no evidence that she was “blacklisted” from other institutions.

Robert Marks: Robert Marks’ “Evolutionary Informatics Laboratory” website – touting intelligent design – was originally hosted on a Baylor University server. Concerned that the material on the website misleadingly suggested a connection between the intelligent design material and Baylor, administrators temporarily shut the website down while discussing the issue with Marks and his lawyer. Baylor was willing to continue hosting the website subject to a number of conditions (including the inclusion of a disclaimer and the removal of the misleading term “laboratory”), but Marks and Baylor were unable to come to terms. The site is currently hosted by a third-party provider.

Pamela Winnick: No evidence was presented in Expelled that Winnick was blacklisted as a journalist, and there’s evidence to the contrary.  She may have been criticised for her shoddy journalism or for advocating bad science – Jeffrey Shallit describes her book as “not a fair, reliable, or objective look at the battles between science and religion,” for example – but it is insupportable and absurd to characterise such criticism as blacklisting.

Michael Egnor: The Alliance for Science, a citizen’s group in Virginia, sponsored an essay contest for high school students on the topic “Why I would want my doctor to have studied evolution”, to highlight the important role of evolution in the medical sciences.  Egnor posted an essay on an intelligent design blog in response, claiming that evolution was irrelevant to medicine.  This was more a statement of Egnor’s ignorance about evolution than a reflection on evolution’s place in medicine.

The next post will ask whether Intelligent Design has any genuine merit as a scientific theory.

Premier Christian Media’s screening of ‘Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed’ – A Review

21/03/2010

manicstreetpreacher is dismayed to announce the arrival in the UK of the Intelligent Design racket.

As previewed, a few weeks ago, I attended the first screening and debate by Premier Christian Media of the Intelligent Design propaganda piece Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed at Imperial College London on 27 February 2010.  Accompanying me were a friend who happens to be a secondary school science teacher and Evil Burnee, Paul S Jenkins, who has also posted a write-up of the event.

The Saturday, 20 March 2010 edition of Premier Christian Radio’s Unbelievable? airs the first post-screening debates and broadcasts extracts.  Speaking for ID was Dr Alastair Noble, former schools inspector and lay Christian preacher Steve Fuller, Professor of sociology at the University of Warwick.  Speaking against ID were Keith Fox, Professor of Biology at Southampton University and Chair of Christians in Science and Susan Blackmore, Visiting Professor of Psychology & Memetics, University of Plymouth.

My question to the panel about Expelled’s claim that Darwin’s ideas influenced Hitler’s ideology is at 43 minutes on the podcast.

The second post-screening debate can be downloaded from the Unbelievable? features page. The speakers were Dr Alastair Noble and Dr Vij Sodera, Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons advocating Intelligent Design and Prof Keith Fox, Biology, Southampton University and Dr Thomas Dixon, History of Science, Queen Mary London University who advocate Darwinian evolution.

My treatment of the film and debate will be divided in four separate posts:

  1. Expelled overview – The remainder of this post will give some general thoughts about the film and post-screening debate.
  2. Conspiracy?  Cover-up?  Expulsion? – Are atheistic evolutionary scientists aka “Big Science” deliberately suppressing a fledgling theory that has genuine merit?
  3. Arguing from ignorance – This post answers whether ID is a credible scientific theory in the resoundingly negative.
  4. From Darwin to Hitler? – My fourth and final post counters Expelled’s claim that there is a link between Origins and Dachau.

Film review

Judging by the laughter and applause from the audience, the screening was attended mainly by religious believers.  In my personal experience, religious people will laugh and applaud anything and there was a depressing level of laughter and applause for this piece of creationist trash.

At 90 odd minutes, it’s not overly long.  But at least half the running time is taken up by constant cuts to other images as if to help the audience understand the points being made: Western gunfights, people being beaten up and, most insultingly, images of concentration camps and the Berlin Wall, which Richard Dawkins dubbed a “Lord Privy Seal” (LPS).  These grew extremely tedious before the halfway mark.

In the post-screening debate, American-born Warwick University sociologist, Steve Fuller, tried to justify the LPS as being no different to a Michael Moore film.  Faint praise indeed.  But since, Fuller then went on to take a cheap shot at David Attenborough as having such a clear evolution bias he was ruining TV science programming, I don’t hold the man’s opinion in a very high regard.

There was also the utterly ham-fisted presentation of atheist scientists and commentators.  Dan Dennett, P Z Myers, Christopher Hitchens (who has one line) and Peter Atkins came off reasonably well.  However, Michael Shermer and Michael Ruse’s interviews were butchered in a manner that would embarrass YouTube’s cassetteboy.

For example, Ruse attempts to explain that one of the theories of the origins of life is the theory proposed by the Scottish chemist, Graham Cairns-Smith, that organic life was preceded by a strange and intriguing world of replicating patterns on the surfaces of crystals in inorganic clays.  This cuts to a voiceover of the film’s host, Ben Stein, incredulously asking whether we have abandoned science fact and have strayed into science fiction, and there is an irritating LPS of a wild-eyed fortune teller exclaiming, “Crystals!”  As with all creationist debates, the object of the exercise is not to prove anything scientific whatsoever, but to discredit the evolutionary scientist in front of the cameras.

Similarly, when a representative from one of the academic institutions is interviewed trying to explain why one of the “expelled” lost their position, Stein colours the mood against him in narration by saying, “We couldn’t get him away from his script”.

Richard Dawkins’ interview is the worst.  He is made up to look like a mad scientist with his normally neat hair looking like Doc Brown from Back to the Future.  While Stein is stepping out of his black cab en route to the interview, Dawkins is shown being powdered by the film’s production team (Dawkins’ web and recording guru, Josh Timonen wrote afterwards that Dawkins never wears make up for public appearances) and is then made to wait as Stein turns up late.  He is shot in dim light.  In his appearances before the main interview he is accompanied by ominous music.  Sadly, there is worse to come.

After Dawkins reads out the (in)famous passage at the start of Chapter 2 of The God Delusion (“The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all of fiction…”), Stein asks him if that’s what he really thinks of God.  Dawkins gives a suspiciously curtailed, “Yep”.  I wonder what they left on the cutting room floor.

Dawkins then attempts to explain the circumstances he would consider an intelligent designer being responsible for the creation of life on Earth.  In an attempt to give ID its best hypothetical shot, Dawkins answers that it could have been an extra-terrestrial intelligence, but of course we would then have to ask where that intelligence came from and so on; the infinite regress would continue until an evolution-type natural process explained how the first alien intelligent designer arose.

Naturally, the interview is cut so as to make Dawkins look as stupid as possible; as if he is seriously suggesting that an alien spaceship landed on Earth and planted the first seed of life.  Stein says in narration that Dawkins is bending over backwards to avoid bringing God into the equation: he would rather it be little green men than the Almighty.

Dawkins gave the true story behind the interview at his address to the American Atheists Conference 2009, the relevant extract of which is below.  For the video, the scene from the film itself is replaced by dialogue cards so as not to risk a copyright action from the producers.

For about two-thirds of the film, Expelled maintains a straight face that ID is a scientific proposition and a credible alternative to evolution.  However, for the last 10 minutes, the curtain is well and truly raised to reveal the film’s true agenda to the sound of The Killers’ gospel-tinged “All These Things That I’ve Done”: to bring God into science classrooms so we can all praise him for his wondrous creation.  Permit me just this one LPS:

Following the debate, Expelled’s UK DVD distributer, Mark Haville (who incidentally has posted a 5 star review of the Expelled DVD on Amazon UK without stating his interest!), of NPN Videos read out a prepared statement which hinted at a campaign in the coming weeks and months to lobby and legislate in order to bring Intelligent Design to the fore.  May [Spinoza’s] God have mercy on us all.

In the meantime, I can only recommend sites like Expelled Exposed, which was set up by Eugenie Scott of the American National Center for Science Education to refute the film’s claims and protect the reputations of the people and institutions misrepresented in the film.  There are also plenty of “alternative versions” knocking around the torrent pages with voiceover narrations and subtitles correcting the lies.

The next post examines whether there is any truth behind Expelled’s claim that “Big Science” is unjustly suppressing ID.

Michael Shermer debates David Robertson on whether Christianity is good for us: Premier Christian Radio, “Unbelievable?”, 20 February 2010

25/02/2010

manicstreetpreacher to Michael Shermer:

I have of course had multiple encounters with Pastor David Robertson of St Peter’s Free Church, Dundee, Scotland, author of The Dawkins Letters.  For the Saturday, 20 February 2010 edition of Premier Christian Radio’s Unbelievable? Robertson debated Michael Shermer, head of the American Skeptics Society and author of numerous books debunking all things paranormal and pseudo-scientific, such as Why People Believe Weird Things and Why Darwin Matters: The Case Against Intelligent Design.

The debate focuses on the comparative levels of charitable giving, happiness, well-being, mutual respect and trust and attitudes towards slavery and gay rights between believers and non-believers.

I’m not going to give a blow-by-blow account of the debate, and I’m certainly not posting this to gloat at Robertson (who I consider a personal friend of sorts after our encounters), but he is an extremely tough debating opponent.  While I was satisfied with how I came off in my debates against him, I took as many hits as I scored and tripped over my own arguments on a couple of occasions, particularly on evidence an atheist would accept as evidence for God in Show One and the moral argument in Show Two.

Shermer on the other hand is a seasoned pro and has heard it all before and will do so a thousand times again.  While I in my reckless youth tend to take more of an all-guns-blazing approach at the microphone, Shermer is far more laid back in his citing of peer-reviewed journal papers, opinion polls and tried-and-trusted philosophical arguments.

These were especially effective against Robertson’s arguments which seemed to be based largely on personal experience of visits to “Sweden’s atheist utopia” where apparently people are much less willing to sell you a drink than the Americans.  Shermer is going to withhold judgement until he runs the experiment for himself.

I particularly admired the way Shermer put paid to the popular notion that Christians lead the fight against slavery by pointing out that William Wilberforce and John Newton were in the minority of Christians who opposed the practice when the established Anglican and Catholic Churches were defending it.

In a similar vein to how Christianity has a posteriori claimed the moral high ground in respect of abolition, Shermer predicts that the current firestorm over gay marriage in the USA will be resolved in the next 20 years or so to the benefit of homosexuals.  While today the most vehement opponents of gay marriage are Christians, as with slavery, Christians will surely single out the few of their number who supported gay marriage and hold them out as leading the fight for equal rights!

I will credit Robertson for contributing to a high-brow discussion and for once not playing the “Hitler and Stalin were atheists” card while giving a nod to the crimes committed by the Christian Conquistadors against the indigenous people of the Americas; a Holocaust in its own right.  Perhaps MSP’s email to him in response his comments following Brierley’s coverage of the Dawkins/ Grayling I2 debate on atheist fundamentalism had a small part to play in that.

The two places where I thought Robertson really fell down was in his closing remarks where he accused the secularists as “living in a fantasyland” before going on to say in the same breath that Christians know that they will not live in a utopia until they get to heaven.  Right.

In addition, Marx and Engels never said that “religion is the opiate of the people”.  This is in fact one of the most common out-of-context quotes of all time.  The full quote from Marx’s introduction to A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right is:

Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering.  Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions.  It is the opium of the people.

The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness.  To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.

Criticism has plucked the imaginary flowers on the chain not in order that man shall continue to bear that chain without fantasy or consolation, but so that he shall throw off the chain and pluck the living flower. The criticism of religion disillusions man, so that he will think, act, and fashion his reality like a man who has discarded his illusions and regained his senses, so that he will move around himself as his own true Sun.  Religion is only the illusory Sun which revolves around man as long as he does not revolve around himself.

Don’t let Christopher Hitchens hear you say that one, David!

Download the full debate audio.

Preview: Premier Christian Media screens and debates ‘Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed’, 27 February 2010

21/02/2010

manicstreetpreacher gears up for attending his next live debate on religion.

Next weekend I will be attending Premier Christian Media’s screening of the loathsome piece of creationist propaganda, Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed.  Details are as follows:

Saturday, 27 February 2010, 2:30pm

Sir Alexander Fleming Lecture Theatre
Imperial College London
South Kensington Campus
Exhibition Road
London
SW7 2AZ

Phone: 08456 52 52 52

Google Maps
Imperial College South Kensington Campus Map (download PDF)

There are discussion threads on the Premier Christian Community Unbelievable? group page and forum where sceptics have vented their anger.  I have actually witnessed this piece of trash before (praise be for torrent downloads!) and it’s not exactly an experience that I am looking forward to repeating…

Entire websites have been dedicated to deriding the film and refuting its bogus claims in relation to scientists losing their jobs over supporting Intelligent Design over Darwinism as well as its ridiculous assertion that Darwin was a direct influence in Hitler’s Germany.  Eugenie Scott’s Expelled Exposed is probably the best I have come across.

There have even been alternative versions produced by sceptics with subtitles and/or voice over narration correcting the film!

Following the film’s release, some of the atheistic scientists claimed that they had been duped into giving interviews for a film called “Crossroads” which was to be a examination of the clash between science and religion and then had their interviews edited in such a way that would make YouTube’s cassetteboy raise an eyebrow.

Richard Dawkins:

What a shoddy, second-rate piece of work.  A favourite joke among the film-making community is the ‘Lord Privy Seal’.  Amateurs and novices in the making of documentaries can’t resist illustrating every significant word in the commentary by cutting to a picture of it.  The Lord Privy Seal is an antiquated title in Britain’s heraldic tradition.  The joke imagines a low-grade film director who illustrates it by cutting to a picture of a Lord, then a privy, and then a seal.  Mathis’ film is positively barking with Lord Privy Seals.  We get an otherwise pointless cut to Nikita Krushchev hammering the table (to illustrate something like ‘emotional outburst’).  There are similarly clunking and artless cuts to a guillotine, fist fights, and above all to the Berlin Wall and Nazi gas chambers and concentration camps.

Michael Shermer:

Ben Stein came to my office to interview me about what I was told was a film about “the intersection of science and religion” called Crossroads (yet another deception).  I knew something was afoot when his first question to me was on whether or not I think someone should be fired for expressing dissenting views.  I pressed Stein for specifics: Who is being fired for what, when and where?  In my experience, people are usually fired for reasons having to do with budgetary constraints, incompetence or not fulfilling the terms of a contract.  Stein finally asked my opinion on people being fired for endorsing intelligent design.  I replied that I know of no instance where such a firing has happened.

In a dreadful PR gaffe by Expelled’s producers, P Z Myers was “expelled” from the premier of the film whose end credits thank him for his participation!

I went to attend a screening of the creationist propaganda movie, Expelled, a few minutes ago.  Well, I tried … but I was Expelled!  It was kind of weird – I was standing in line, hadn’t even gotten to the point where I had to sign in and show ID, and a policeman pulled me out of line and told me I could not go in.  I asked why, of course, and he said that a producer of the film had specifically instructed him that I was not to be allowed to attend.  The officer also told me that if I tried to go in, I would be arrested.  I assured him that I wasn’t going to cause any trouble.

Dawkins and Myers recorded this conversation immediately after the film’s premier, to which Dawkins successfully gained access.

Dawkins’ website and videotaping guru, Josh Timonen, spliced together this wonderful parody which plays upon Expelled’s bogus editing of presenter Ben Stein’s interview with Dawkins at the end of the film.

Post-screening debate

This is the main reason I am going and should make for good blog fodder.  I have one or two awkward questions prepared to make the ID supporters sweat, although I’m not giving them away before the event!

Speaking in favour of ID are Prof Steve Fuller and Dr Alastair Noble.

I am particularly looking forward to hearing what Alastair Noble has to say.  The former Inspector of Schools recently posted an essay on The Guardian Comment is Free arguing that “Intelligent Design should not excluded [sic] from the study of origins” and that he was “disturbed that proposals for science education are based on near-complete ignorance of intelligent design.”  The commenters on the original post ripped it to shreds as did those over at RichardDawkins.net.  Evil Burnee Paul S Jenkins denounced it as “creationist twaddle”:

I am disturbed that a former science teacher and schools inspector should propose the teaching of non-science in a science class.  “Near-complete ignorance” is pretty much the most anyone can know about intelligent design, because there’s nothing there.  And scientific truth is not a matter of public popularity – even if every last British citizen thought creationism was true, that would not make it so.

Steve Fuller is an interesting character.  Born in America, he now lectures in sociology at the University of Warwick this side of the pond.  He claims to be a secularist but with “sympathies” towards Christian ideology.  Fuller notoriously upped sticks to Dover, Pennsylvania to testify on behalf of the Intelligent Design side in the Kitzmiller –v- Dover District P A “Intelligent Design” trial in 2005 without telling his university.  When parents and students found out what he was up to, the university was inundated with angry letters and emails demanding that Fuller not be allowed anywhere near the students!

Be sure to read Fuller’s hilarious exchanges with British atheist philosopher A C Grayling over Grayling’s damning review of Fuller’s Dissent Over Descent.  Grayling’s counter-reply to Fuller’s indignant response to his review contained this all-time classic which I have quoted myself on at least one occasion:

Steve Fuller complains, as do all authors whose books are panned, that I did not read his book properly (or at all).  Alas, I did.

Speaking against ID are Keith Fox, Professor of Biology at Southampton University and Chair of Christians in Science and Susan Blackmore, Visiting Professor of Psychology & Memetics, University of Plymouth.

I’m looking forward to seeing Susan Blackmore.  I haven’t read any of her books yet, but I know she is strongly opposed to religion and pseudo-science.  In her debate against Christian theologian Alister McGrath at Bristol University in 2007 she gives some insightful comments regarding her journey from earnest believer in the paranormal to die-hard sceptic.  Her book on the topic is In Search of the Light: The Adventures of a Parapsychologist.  I referenced her work on UFO encounters in my write-up of Prof Chris French’s lecture for The Merseyside Skeptics Society last year.

I also found this interesting talk on memes that Blackmore gave at TED a few years ago.

I’m also seeing Blackmore this Monday (22 February 2010) giving a lecture on “Are religions dangerous memes?” at Plymouth University.  It may well get an epic MSP blog post of its own if it’s good!

Second screening and debate

Due to overwhelming demand, Premier have organised a second screening and debate of the film immediately after the first.  At the time of publication, there were tickets still going.  The details are as follows:

Saturday, 27 February 2010, 6:30pm

Sir Alexander Fleming Lecture Theatre
Imperial College London
South Kensington Campus
Exhibition Road
London
SW7 2AZ

Phone: 08456 52 52 52

Google Maps
Imperial College South Kensington Campus Map (download PDF)

Guest speakers include Dr Alastair Noble (Former Inspector of Schools) and Dr Vij Sodera (Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons) who advocate Intelligent Design and Prof Keith Fox (Biology, Southampton University) and Dr Thomas Dixon (History of Science, Queen Mary London University) who advocate Darwinian Evolution.

I was sorely tempted to book in for round two, but I will have to pass since I will be accompanied by a non-militant atheist blogger friend who will no doubt be diverted by the call of the pub after round one.  And Fuller and Noble are the two I’m really after…

Recent Unbelievable? debates on Intelligent Design

DJ Justin Brierley has done a few shows on ID over the past few months.

Steve Fuller -v- Thomas Dixon: “Do we need God to do Science?” 5 February 2010

Fuller rambles on about how ID deserves to be given a fair hearing as an “alternative theory” without ever explaining why it is any more credible than Flying Spaghetti Monsterism.  He plays the sympathy card by portraying the IDers in the Dover trial as the underdogs struggling against the well-funded evil empire of evolutionary biology.  OK, why don’t you join the fight of those brave Flat Earthers desperately attempting to have their “alternative theory” of the shape of the globe taught to the little darlings?

Stephen C Meyer -v- Peter Atkins: “Expelled The Movie” 16 January 2010

Meyer can’t mention the title of his new piece of ID propaganda, Signature in the Cell, enough.  Canadian computer science professor Jeffrey Shallit skilfully deals with Myers’ “bogus information theory” as well as the “dishonesty factor”.  Akins is his usual gleeful belligerent-bordering-on-sheer-rude self!

William Dembski -v- Lewis Wolpert: “Intelligent Design” 2 January 2010

I wound up ID proponent William Dembski whose blog Uncommon Descent posted two responses to my piece deriding his debate against atheist embryologist Lewis Wolpert.  See also my counter-response to Dembski’s accusations of being a member of the Rat Pack and Darwin not quite getting the “complexities” of the cell.

I’ll come clean and admit that I have read little if any original Intelligent Design material.  Much of my knowledge of ID has come from reading it second or third hand from atheist scientists.   NOVA’s documentary on the Kitzmiller –v- Dover P A “Intelligent Design” trial is well worth seeing.

Nevertheless, I listened with interest to all of Justin’s shows with an open mind and was decidedly underwhelmed by the ID proponents.  I simply could not see a separate line of scientific reasoning emerge.  All they were attempting to do was to pick holes in Darwinism and fill the gaps with ID, which of course explains nothing because you only put the explanation back another stage since you then have to ask how that from that intelligence arose and so on.

A depressing feature of the creationist movement is to distort scientific facts and misrepresent the true views of evolutionary scientists.  In this sense, I found Intelligent Design to be very similar.  It is creationism at the level of the cell, or as one commenter on Premier Christian Community eloquently put it: godofthegapswrappedupinaminoacids.

This may not be the question that I’ll ask the ID supporters on the debate panel, but since the screening and debate of Expelled is being held in a venue named after Sir Alexander Fleming, the discoverer of penicillin and a truly brilliant man whose work has saved the lives of countless millions and contributed immeasurably to the advancement of science, would humanity really be any worse off if  the Intelligent Design movement disappeared tomorrow?

Unbelievable? debates abortion

08/02/2010

manicstreetpreacher encourages you to listen to a mature debate on an emotional topic.

The 23 January 2010 edition of Premier Christian Radio’s Unbelievable? featured a debate between pro-choice humanist Liberal Democrat MP Evan Harris and pro-life Christian Sarah Macken of the Alive + Kicking group.  It was from a few years ago at a time when the show took live phone calls from listeners.

It is an extremely level-headed discussion of a very thorny issue and I cannot recommend it enough.  I am pro-choice and therefore I would hand the debate to Evan Harris, who is a prominent voice of the National Secular Society, but only because I agree with his position.   Sarah Macken articulated her position extremely well and said plenty to get me thinking.

Abortion is a difficult issue and I struggle with it greatly.  Evan Harris did very well to convey the moral minefield of the topic and is a superb spokesman for humanists and secularists everywhere.  Abortion is hardly a wonderful thing that we need to be encouraging more of, but it is alas the least worst option.   Rather like democracy as a form of government, as Winston Churchill once said.

At some level, I believe in the concept of the “unborn child” and that every gestating foetus should be given a chance in life.  But I also believe in a woman’s right to choose, simply because the alternative is worse.  Women are still going to want to abort unwanted pregnancies.  If it is illegal, it will be driven underground and become the happy hunting ground of backstreet abortionists who will botch the process, perhaps without aborting the foetus successfully and causing lasting harm to both mother and child. The original Michael Caine version of Alfie presents a powerful portrayal of this.

I am equally certain that Paul Hill, a Christian minister who murdered an abortion clinic doctor in the USA, was far more evil than the doctor he killed could ever reasonably be considered.  Hill’s victim terminated foetuses at the request of their mothers.  Foetuses that could not feel pain like we can, who had no memories, no emotions, no wife, no children, no friends, no relatives to mourn them.  I admit that it is an awful choice to make, but I do so without hesitation.

However, if there is a God, he is the greatest abortionist.  Many pregnant women suffer from miscarriages.  Sometimes it is a very apparent, obvious and painful process, both physically and mentally; very often though the woman doesn’t even realise that they were pregnant in the first place.  That believers consider God alone has the right to dictate who lives and who dies is what Nietzsche described as “slave morality”: you give praise and thanks constantly to your master, no matter how meagre the scraps he allows to fall from his table and call it benevolence.  I for one am relieved that there is very little evidence to believe it.  The world would be a much worse place if it were true.

Moral issues are complex and need to be assessed on their likely or actual consequences rather than being predetermined according to an absolute standard.  This doesn’t mean that morals are relative according to cultural and historical context.  I believe we can distil objective moral standards as our knowledge and experience of our thoughts and actions increases.

Perhaps it would be wonderful if there were a list of rules set in stone somewhere in the metaphysical universe, but I simply don’t see any evidence for it.  We just have to feel our around, sometimes getting it right, sometimes making mistakes, always striving for a state of moral perfection regardless of whether that will ever be achieved in reality.

Intelligent Design: Dembski responds to MSP

16/01/2010

manicstreetpreacher just needs to clear something up.

ID proponent William Dembski continues to give me a free readership on his Uncommon Common Descent blog by attacking my post on his appearance on Premier Christian Radio’s Unbelievable? (700 views and counting!  😮  ).  Firstly, Denyse O’ Leary vilified me for my take on the importance (or lack!) of probabilities in biology.  Now, Dembski himself has posted a response denying that Darwin knew about the complexities of the cell, accusing your humble servant of “re-writing history”:

A blogger who goes by “Manic Street Preacher” sent me three unsolicited emails about his reaction to the debate, which was not positive…

I finally had a look at what this blogger wrote. I can’t say I was impressed with the argumentation or erudition, but I do have to credit him for chutzpah…

I don’t mean to be argumentative, but the insides of the cells depicted here do look to me like blobs.  But qualitative interpretations like this aside, the fact is that Darwin had no conception of molecular biology or the intricate nano-engineering that Michael Behe, for instance, describes in the cell.  Moreover, it’s straightforward to examine the actual history of the scientific understanding of the cell to realize that the cell in Darwin’s time was conceived as simple, indeed so simple that it could spontaneously generate.  Jonathan Wells and I describe some of this in HOW TO BE AN INTELLECTUALLY FULFILLED ATHEIST.

But perhaps the easiest way to see that “Manic Street Preacher” is blowing smoke is to do a search on “Bathybius Haeckelii” – slime dredged up from the ocean floor thought to be the primordial living matter.  This proved to be a big embarrassment to Huxley and Haeckel.  The details here are unimportant.  What is important is that biologist of Huxley’s and Haeckel’s stature thought that life could be so simple as to be the result of this slime.

“Manic Street Preacher” reminds me of Joey Bishop in the movie A GUIDE FOR THE MARRIED MAN [IMDB].  Bishop, caught in flagrante delictu with another woman by his wife, denies all wrong doing (and, if he were a Darwinist, would accuse his wife of infidelity).  Eventually, the wife, suitably cowed, accepts the denials and agrees that nothing happened. Well, here at UD we don’t let Darwinists get away with such nonsense.  Darwin and his contemporaries didn’t have a clue about the complexity of the cell.  History bears this out, Darwinian revisionism notwithstanding.

Aside from being somewhat bemused at being compared to a member of the Rat Pack and an email spammer, I have two retorts to this.  Firstly, Dembski ought to have scrolled down to the comments section, where he would have seen that I had linked to this page on zoologist and theistic evolutionist Wesley R Elsberry’s blog which contains excellent references both to creationist and IDiots’ claims that Darwin knew nothing about that complexity of the cell:

Antievolutionists make lots of claims about Charles Darwin, seeking to impeach the authority of someone born 199 years ago today.  Given that science moves on and leaves no one’s ideas untouched, one would think that they would stick to negative claims that would stand up to some scrutiny.  Again and again, though, we find that they continue to espouse negative claims that are just plain silly, at least to those with even the slightest familiarity with the actual record that Darwin left.

[A] common antievolution claim about Darwin, simply put, [is] that Darwin considered the contents of cells to be “black boxes”, comprised of a simple or homogeneous protoplasm.  This is expressed in similar ways by a number of antievolutionists.  The following is just a sampling of the available instances.

Michael Behe:

To Darwin, then, as to every other scientist of the time, the cell was a black box.

And again:

Scientists use the term “black box” for a system whose inner workings are unknown.  To Charles Darwin and his contemporaries, the living cell was a black box because its fundamental mechanisms were completely obscure.  We now know that, far from being formed from a kind of simple, uniform protoplasm (as many nineteenth-century scientists believed), every living cell contains many ultrasophisticated molecular machines.

Casey Luskin:

There were other things that Darwin did not know.  For example, Darwin assumed that the cell was like a primitive blob of protoplasm that could easily evolve new biological functions.  As Behe explains, “To Darwin, then, as to every other scientist of the time, the cell was a black box…  The question of how life works was not one that Darwin or his contemporaries could answer.”

Nancy Pearcey:

To be fair to Darwin, he proposed his theory when scientists knew next to nothing about biochemistry.  Living things were “black boxes,” their inside workings a mystery.  The cell itself was thought to be nothing more than a blob of jellylike protoplasm.  It was easy to draw large-scale scenarios about fins gradually turning into legs, or legs into wings, since no one had a clue how limbs and organs work from the inside.  As Behe writes, it is as though we asked how a stereo system is made and someone answered, “by plugging a set of speakers into an amplifier and adding a CD player, radio receiver, and tape deck.”

That’s pretty rich, that “be fair to Darwin” phrase.  As Jeffrey Shallit, Professor of Computer Science at University of Waterloo, Ontario, Canada, commenting on Stephen Meyer’s recent book, Signature in the Cell points out, “This claim has been repeated again and again by creationists, but it is not true.  Fergodsake, the nucleus was discovered in 1833.”

Elsberry continues with the opinions of Jay Richards:

In addition, biochemists and biologists have discovered a microscopic world of mesmerizing complexity belying the simple blobs of protoplasm that Darwin imagined.

Elsberry frames matters bluntly:

Antievolutionists don’t go looking at the primary sources to come up with these nuggets; one of them creates a “magic bullet”, and the rest pass it around like a game of “telephone”, sometimes resulting in a garbled mess.  As Casey Luskin’s contribution here indicates, the likely source of the BS in this case is Michael Behe.

Why call it BS?  Because anybody can disconfirm the claim in seconds with a modern Internet search, and only moderately longer using the past technology scholars have long relied upon for substantiating claims about prior work.

Wesley correctly recommends the Complete Work of Charles Darwin Online website as an excellent resource:

One finds there Darwin’s work on pangenesis, his hypothesis that there existed small particles that he called gemmules, each of which contained the heritable information for some particular trait, and which would combine, somehow, into the gametes.  His continued advocacy of this wrong idea was a major failing on his part, but along the way we can see that even though Darwin was wrong about gemmules, he did hold an antithetical view to the claim that everything was simple at the most basic levels of life’s organization:

Notwithstanding the astounding complexity of the processes implied by this hypothesis of pangenesis, yet it seems to me to comprehend the several leading facts better than any other view.  On this hypothesis we may fancifully look at each animal and plant as being compounded of many beings, in the same manner as a tree or coral is compounded of many similar beings; but in neither case have these so-called beings had a separate existence.  Each of these beings, or parts, is supposed to be capable of throwing off gemmules, which whilst within the organism are capable of self-increase, and which can be separately developed at the part or organ whence they were derived, and can be united, as in the case of hybrids, with other gemmules into a single germ or bud, which reproduces the complete parent form.  On this view, each organic being may be looked at as a little universe, formed of a host of different self-propagating organisms, almost as numerous as the stars in heaven, and as minute as they are immense.

Darwin clearly understood the complexity of the cell in this paper:

As, however, a cell is a complex structure, with its investing membrane, nucleus, and nucleolus, a gemmule, as Mr G H Lewes has remarked in his interesting discussion on this subject (Fortnightly Review, Nov. 1, 1868, p. 508), must, perhaps, be a compound one, so as to reproduce all the parts.

Two papers by Darwin published in 1882 demonstrate Darwin’s readiness to experiment in resolving sub-cellular processes, using chemistry and microscopy to aid in the work.

Darwin, C. R. 1882. The action of carbonate of ammonia on chlorophyll-bodies. [Read 6 March] Journal of the Linnean Society of London (Botany) 19: 262-284.

Darwin, C. R. 1882. The action of carbonate of ammonia on the roots of certain plants. [Read 16 March] Journal of the Linnean Society of London (Botany) 19: 239-261.

These papers in the primary literature demonstrate vividly that Charles Darwin not only was aware that protoplasm was not homogeneous, but was at the end of his life working toward elucidating exactly what differences within cells existed.  As Wesley concludes:

The antievolution “magic bullet” intended to dismiss Darwin is a dud.  Sub-cellular structure elucidation was another part of science in which Darwin was an active participant.  Darwin’s own preferred hypothesis of heredity, though now discredited, presumed the sort of immense complexity at small scales that antievolutionists falsely claim Darwin had no “imagination” for.  Many antievolutionists have willingly participated in passing along this falsehood and urging changes in public school curriculum policy based, in part, on their false and ignorant claims.  I find it significant that I have yet to encounter any instance of an antievolution advocate pointing out the actual facts of the case and remonstrating with their colleagues, even though the disconfirming evidence is easy to locate and describe.  I can only conclude that antievolutionists in general have no concern for the truth nor for fact-checking even the simplest of their claims.  Trusting antievolutionists to help guide policy and form curricula for public schools would be malfeasance, plain and simple…

Secondly, the charge that Darwin did not know anything about the inner workings of the cell is purely an academic point and I corrected Dembski mainly to preserve Darwin’s reputation and correct him on this bogus canard that he and his ilk keep trotting out.   There was a great deal that Darwin did not know about and/or where he was plain wrong.  Dembski is correct in pointing out that he had no idea about genetic mutations, DNA and molecular biology.  However, his theory has been revised, updated and indeed strengthened by the subsequent 150 years of scientific research, experimentation and peer-review by scientists who have had far greater knowledge and far more advanced technology at their disposal.

This is the science that has rid the world of smallpox and flown us to the moon.  Even if Dembski and Behe had their way and people accepted that there was an extraterrestrial intelligence behind the complexity we see in nature, even if the unthinkable happened and the designer actually revealed himself in the middle of an international event with the entire world watching and told us directly to be nice to each other, nothing whatsoever would change about the way we do science.  We could not even confront the designer and ask him to repair what he makes, like Roy Batty in Ridley Scott’s 1982 sci-fi classic Blade Runner.

We would still have to search for cures to cancer and AIDS as well as updating our vaccinations against constantly evolving viruses (funny how you never hear creationists and IDers shout about the wonderful design of these particular organisms!).  Creationism and Intelligent Design contribute nothing to the advancement of science and medicine.  If an IDer has ever won the Nobel Prize, they must have hidden it from the judges.  If the Discovery Institute is leading the way in the fight against deadly diseases, they are keeping it awfully quiet.  Instead, they are concerned with preserving ancient myths in the vain hope that adhering to such beliefs sometimes makes people behave better, as the opening paragraph of the DI’s “Wedge Strategy” document (download PDF) well attests:

The proposition that humans beings are created in the image of God is one of the bedrock principles on which Western civilization was built.  Its influence can be detected in most, if not all, of the West’s greatest achievements, including representative democracy, human rights, free enterprise and progress in arts and science.

One piece of scripture that has stuck with this manic street preaching heretic is something St Paul said: “When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.  For now we see through a glass, darkly.”  (1 Corinthians 13: 12 – 13).

Time to put away childish things, guys.

Of Moderates

10/01/2010

manicstreetpreacher lets you in on what really makes his blood boil.

By failing to live by the letter of the texts, while tolerating the irrationality of those who do, religious moderates betray faith and reason equally.

– Sam Harris, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and The Future of Reason

A lovers’ tiff

I read this post a few days ago on Edmund Standing’s blog (also cross-posted on Harry’s Place) regarding Norwegian “liberal” Muslims who have come out in support of Kurt Westergaard, one of the Danish cartoonists who caricatured the prophet Muhammad and provoked the fury of Islamists on an international scale in 2006:

A liberal Norwegian Muslim organisation named LIM (Equality, Integration, Diversity) is standing up for free speech and against Islamism.  Shakil Rehman of LIM has spoken in defence of republishing the notorious Jyllands-Posten cartoons in the Norwegian newspaper Klassekampen…  Now LIM have challenged the Islamic Council of Norway (IRN) to organise a demonstration in defence of free speech, not that they think this is likely to happen…  Rehman is unimpressed with arguments about it being ‘offensive’ to depict Muhammad…  Muhammad is not God, says Rehman, and he is not above criticism…

Before I go any further, I must make clear that Standing is a personal friend of mine and we see eye-to-eye on a great number of issues.  In fact, he has been an important source of advice and support and without his example I would not have done as much as I have in the one year I have being writing this blog.  Standing has written some truly excellent pieces on the Old Testament, the Gospel of Matthew, the “value” of theology, the Qur’an, the far left’s abuse of the language of racial prejudice and Rage Against the Machine’s UK Christmas Number 1.

Standing has a gift for trawling the darkest reaches of the Internet in his spare time when the rest of us find it depressing enough to read the BBC News homepage.  The result has been a devastating report for The Centre for Social Cohesion which cuts through the British National Party’s attempts to clean up their politics and exposes them for the racist, anti-Semitic, neo-Nazi scum that they are (download PDF).  Even before we began corresponding, I kept some of his articles in a hard-copy folder alongside Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris and (he’s not going to thank me for this next one!) Johann Hari.

However, the concluding paragraph of Standing’s post really made me see red:

Islam, as Rehman shows, can be ‘liberalised’ and can co-exist peacefully with liberal European culture.  Just as Jews no longer stone disobedient children, and Christians no longer burn ‘heretics’ at the stake, so a future is possible in which Muslims in Europe are as ‘European’ as anyone else.

I get it.  So, Muslims are capable of common sense and rationality as much as anyone else and are well able to cherry pick their appalling holy book to exorcise the nasty bits that do not sit well with 21st century Western secular society, right?  Let’s not forget that this is coming from someone who has written of the Qur’an:

I am at a complete loss as to understand how anyone can hold such a high opinion of a book which, it turns out, is so crude, so blatantly a product of a specific time and place, and so filled with childish threats and superstition.  Reading the Qur’an is an arduous task, for in translation at least it is not a book whose literary style naturally commands admiration in the reader; in fact it is an exceedingly tedious book, made up of a collection of disjointed and often self-contradictory texts, filled with tiresome repetition of certain key phrases and themes, and brimming over with threats of torture and torment for those who will not accept its authority…  I hope to demonstrate… quite what a divisive, primitive, and insulting book it actually is…

While Jews may no longer think it acceptable to stone their children to death for drunken insolence, many of them still think it is perfectly kosher to slice off the foreskin of their days-old infant boys in a procedure done without the use of anaesthetic which would otherwise require the subject’s expressed or implied consent in law.  This is clearly one piece of Bronze Age parenting that has survived the Enlightenment.  Similarly, most Christians do not torture or burn heretics at the stake, although they would look rather blushed if you told them that Augustine and Aquinas – still two of the leading lights in theological seminaries the world over – endorsed such practices in their writings.

Islam: the fringe is the centre

Last year I read my copy of Arthur J Arberry’s English translation of the Koran in full and it was an appalling experience.  I started to write my own opinion on the Koran for this blog, but I can’t bring myself to complete the piece, because the prospect of re-reading the central text in greater detail is utterly unpalatable.  On page after page the reader is informed that God will administer a painful chastisement in Hell, Fire or Gehenna to non-believers.  It’s not like we have a choice in the matter either.  The Koran oozes with a particular sinister brand of predestination that would make John Calvin raise an eyebrow: God has blinded and deceived those whom he chooses into disbelief and there is no way that they can save themselves.

In 2007, two years after a well-to-do group of young British Muslims blew themselves up on London transport and took many innocent people with them in the process; Ed Husain published The Islamist, an autobiographical account of how he was transformed from his parents’ moderate Muslim upbringing to become an extremist bent on the Islamisation of the world as a member of Hizb ut-Tahrir.  As is so often the case, it was only the love of a good woman that brought Husain back from the edge.

I have great praise for Husain’s book.  It is a touching story about how an otherwise sane and rational individual had his mind poisoned by religious dogma.  However, I do have one caveat.  Husain fails to address the intrinsic violence and tribalism in the Koran and the Hadith.  He cherry-picks passages that portray his prophet in a favourable light, while ignoring those that show he was in fact a medieval butcher.  Someone who has not read the Koran for themselves would come away thinking that Hussein’s descent into fundamentalism was a perversion of “true Islam” and that he simply “fell in with the wrong crowd”.  My own experience of the central text shows that exactly the opposite is true.

Now, whenever I see “moderate” Muslims on Newsnight calling for their ilk to come out against extremism and saying that Islam does not mandate such things, I know they being disingenuous.  The actions of the 9/11 hijackers may not be typical of all Muslims, but they were a perfectly rational interpretation of the Qur’an and the Hadith.  The recent case of Umar Farouq Abdulmutallab, the 23-year-old Nigerian man charged as the Christmas Day Detroit underpants bomber, who was a former head of University College London’s Islamic Society and lived in a £4 million house while studying, is further proof, if any were needed, that Islamism is not a movement where the poorest of the poor have risen up against the ills of the Israeli government and US foreign policy.

Then, when the sacred months have passed, slay the idolaters wherever ye find them, and take them (captive), and besiege them, and prepare for them each ambush.  But if they repent and establish worship and pay the poor-due, then leave their way free.  Lo!  Allah is Forgiving, Merciful.

– Koran 9: 5

There’s no such thing as “moderation” in religion

I also find Standing’s closing paragraph to be unintentionally patronising to Muslims by applauding them for their liberal approach.  It is like praising a Roman Catholic for admitting that he does not really believe that the Pope is infallible, which shows Standing’s position to be intellectually untenable.

Those passages about insolent children and homosexuals being stoned to death are as canonical as love thy neighbour as thyself.  Religious moderates simply apply their humanistic morality to ignore those unsavoury passages on the grounds of the “context” in which they were written.  However, they do not have the courage to admit to it.  And Christians, please don’t tell me that Jesus rescinds the barbarism of the Old Testament, because he doesn’t.  If anything, the New Testament ramifies much of the Old Testament with Jesus beginning the Sermon on the Mount that he has “not come to abolish the law and the prophets, but fulfil” and “Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled” (Matthew 5: 17 – 18).

I have to concede that religious moderates are far better than religious extremists.  They are not blowing themselves up in marketplaces or flying planes into buildings.  However, one of the most startling ideas to have come from the New Atheists is that religious moderates are actually fuelling fundamentalism by creating a taboo of criticising religious faith as much as social and political ideas.  The Christian dogma that Jesus will return to Earth trailing clouds of glory and judge humanity for 2,000 years of sexual indiscretion may be a ridiculous belief to a non-believer (and certainly a promise that is long overdue!) but it would not on its face appear to be a mandate for extremism.  Until you realise that there are fundamentalist Christians hard at work in the Middle East attempting to incite Armageddon among the warring factions to bring about the return of their Messiah.

In a recent Intelligence Squared debate I attended featuring Richard Dawkins and A C Grayling, theist panellists Charles Moore and Richard Harries denounced “mad creationists” in response to a question I asked.  Fair enough, but are their beliefs regarding the resurrection and the Second Coming any more rational?  Surely these involve scientific claims regarding the decomposition of corpses and human flight without the aid of technology.  Why shouldn’t we laugh at them when they espouse these beliefs?  If Harries was so offended by Dawkins’ comparing the likelihood of the existence of the God of Abraham with leprechauns, he should have spent the rest of the evening defending the claim that Almighty Zeus sent his only begotten son Perseus to Earth via a virgin birth to rid humanity of Medusa and the Kraken, and then he would have realised how much we – believers and atheists alike – really respect religious claims.

I know that Lord Harries is not a creationist.  Indeed, he has supported Richard Dawkins in the fight against creationism entering school science classes.  I am sure he doesn’t take stories such as Noah’s Ark and Sodom and Gomorrah literally and thinks that there is a link between metrological and seismic phenomena and human morality.  Doubtless he disagreed strongly with his colleague in the Church of England, the then Bishop of Carlisle, who’s verdict on the July 2007 floods in Northern Yorkshire was that they were divine retribution were punishment for homosexual marriage.  But if Harries ever said or wrote in public condemnation of the Right Reverend Graham Dow’s decidedly Old Testament take on the bad weather, I have yet to discover it.

If the moderates do not police their religions, then the atheists will be forced to.

Accordingly, I am not prepared to say that a world inhabited only by religious moderates would be a much better place.  That can only be possible in a world with no religious believers at all, moderate or extremist.  Whereas many Roman Catholics may feel uncomfortable with the thought that their Church is lying to people in AIDS ravaged countries in Africa, where around 3 million people a year die of the disease, by preaching the sinfulness and ineffectiveness of condoms, they are inadvertently contributing to the problem by creating a climate in our public discourse that makes it impossible for the Vatican to receive the same level of condemnation that a US president would receive for getting a blow job in the Oval Office.

Moderate atheists and agnostics: more annoying than believers!

I’m an atheist butters like the philosopher Michael Ruse infuriate me more than liberal theologians like Alister McGrath.  Ruse accuses Dawkins of being a poor philosopher and not taking the arguments for God existence seriously enough, but ultimately he agrees with his position on the existence of God.  This is rather like someone in the 1930s saying that while they disagree with Nazism and do not accept the claims of Mein Kampf, they nonetheless respect National Socialism, appreciate its nuances and feel that only a proper and sincere engagement with Nazi philosophy could overthrow Hitler’s regime.

In contrast to Standing’s tolerant approach, my hand-to-throat response was demonstrated by my reaction to a recent edition of Premier Christian Radio’s Unbelievable? Christian apologist to Muslims, Jay Smith, debated Muslim moderate, Muhammad Al-Hussaini, on the Ethical Guidelines for Christian and Muslim Witness in Britain (download PDF), in particular point 6: the requirement not to ridicule or demean other faiths.  I am not the biggest fan of Jay Smith (!), however, the attempts by Al-Hussaini to portray the Koran as a moderate text made me even angrier; especially his quoting of “Let there be no compulsion in religion” at Sura 2 of the Koran.   With my blood still very much up, I fired off a bile-laden email to the presenter and the participants:

[T]he verse constantly quoted from Sura 2 of the Koran by apologists eager to claim that Islam is a tolerant and pluralistic religion, “Let there be no compulsion in religion”, is followed a few verses later with the promise that all unbelievers will dwell forever in the Fire in the next life.  There doesn’t seem to be anything optional about that preachment…

Although I am unimpressed by the gross hypocrisy and double-standards that Jay Smith employs when promoting his own religion over Islam, I agree that the Koran should be “ridiculed and demeaned” at every opportunity, because frankly I am insulted and offended every time someone tries to tell me that it is a miracle of literature that could only have been authored by an omnipotent deity.

As it happens, Al-Hussaini sent me a very civil and respectful response and probably didn’t deserve the full-on MSP treatment that he received.  But the idea that Christians should respect a religion that ineptly plagiarises their own holy book was akin to historian Hugh Trevor-Roper’s reaction to the Rushdie affair:

I wonder how Salman Rushdie is faring these days under the benevolent protection of British law and British police, about whom he has been so rude.  Not too comfortably I hope…  I would not shed a tear if some British Muslims, deploring his manners, should waylay him in a dark street and seek to improve them.  If that should cause him thereafter to control his pen, society would benefit and literature would not suffer.

As Ibn Warraq rightly pointed out in Why I Am Not A Muslim:

Will that “closest hooligan” Trevor-Roper wake up from his complacent slumbers, when those “poor hurt Muslims” begin demanding the withdrawal of those classic Western literature and intellectual history that offend their Islamic sensibilities but must be dear to Professor Trevor-Roper’s heart?

In conclusion – a pragmatic means but far from an end

While Standing may well agree with much of what I have written in principle, he knows that religious faith is not going to be eradicated within our lifetimes and is prepared to play real-politick and endorse religious moderates even if it means making an ideological trade-off.  I certainly see the practical sense in this, but for once I am thinking with my gut and am not yet prepared to compromise my philosophy.  This is one example where integrity is everything for me.  Standing’s approach’s is scarily reminiscent to the “you’ll never get rid of it” line taken by many of the Four Horseman’s atheistic opponents such as Ruse.

And of course if you start thinking like that, you never will get rid of religious faith.  Ever.

Intelligent Design: White Noise

05/01/2010

Non-scientist manicstreetpreacher presents his case against “Intelligent Design Theory” following William Dembski’s debate against Lewis Wolpert – Unbelievable?, Premier Christian Radio, 2 January 2009.

Lewis Wolpert (whose discussions with Russell Cowburn I reviewed here) sounded rather irate in last Saturday’s edition of Premier Christian Radio’s Unbelievable? and frankly, who can blame him?  The South African born atheist embryologist and author of Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast was in conversation with William Demski, American fundamentalist Christian who is also a leading proponent of “Intelligent Design” and author of The Design Inference and No Free Lunch.

I won’t give a blow my blow account of the debate itself, but there are a few points which Dembski needs to be hauled up on (no doubt for the umpteenth time which will not make the slightest difference, but it’s the principle that matters!).

Firstly, “complexity” and “improbability” appear to be Demski’s favourite words in the English language, which of course make him no different than all other creationists or people who argue from design.  Apparently, the complexity that we see in biology is just so incredibly complex, that there comes a point when the zeros after the decimal point become too many and we can infer that it was The Thing That Made The Things For Which There Is No Known Maker.

So what if it’s all enormously complex and improbable?  I have heard it said that the probability of the first self-replicating carbon based cell arising on Earth is greater than the number of atoms in the known universe.  Fine.  What the hell, let’s say that it’s TWICE the number of atoms in the known universe.   It’s no use ruling out natural events on the arbitrary notion of low probability.  You have to compare it with the probability of the alternative you contend is more likely.  What’s the probability that the laws of nature are violated? What’s the probability that an invisible and undetectable designer – natural or supernatural – created it?  I’ve never heard a creationist or “design theorist” answer these questions and Dembski disappointed me yet again.  Perhaps the improbability of design is even greater, and what data does Dembski have to make the calculation?  None I would say, because there is no evidence of a designer whatsoever.

This reasoning also fails on the basis that low probability events happen all the time.  If you crunch the numbers in relation to your own birth (i.e. the probability that a particular sperm united with a particular egg multiplied by the probability that your parents met and repeated the calculation back until the beginning of time), you will get a fantastically low probability.  Theistic evolutionary scientist Francisco Ayala reinforced the point during his recent debate against Christian apologist William Lane Craig on whether Intelligent Design was a viable alternative to evolution.  Ayala remarked that there’s no need to argue against Dembski and Co, because their very existence on this Earth is so mind-bendingly improbable that they were never born!

For the Bairnsfather view of Dembski’s thinking, I can do no better than the introduction to P Z Myers’ lecture at the AAI Conference 2009.  Dembski, Behe, Simmons etc.: “Here is biology.  It’s very complex.  Incredibly, unbelievably complex in fact.  Complexity, complexity, complexity, complexity, complexity, complexity…  DESIGN!!!!!!”

Brilliant!

Secondly, Dembski repeated the common straw man that scientists in Darwin’s day knew nothing about the inner workings of the cell, and thought that they were mere “blobs of protoplasm”.  Well, Dembski should take a look this drawing out, which was made by Darwin himself:

See, they show the inner workings of the cell and clearly show its complexity.  Scientists in Darwin’s time, in fact, had quite a good understanding of what cells were, and they were not simply “blobs of protoplasm”.  This is yet another creationist hoax which is easily debunked.

Shame on you, Billy!

Third and finally, some ID theorists out there may resent my description of Demski as a “fundamentalist Christian” or think that this has nothing to do with his “science”.  However, they may wish to know that Dembski teaches at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Fort Worth, Texas.  Below are a series of extracts from assignments and exam papers that are set for students which came to my attention after a thread was posted on RichardDawkins.net.

Christian Faith and Science Take-Home Final Exam:

Make your best argument against theistic evolution.  In other words, if you were in a debate situation and had to argue against theistic evolution, how would you do it?

Lay out your own view of the relation between science and theology.  Are they in conflict or consonance?  Should they be compartmentalized?  Do they support each other?  Is it important to harmonize them?  Etc.

Have advances in the natural sciences over the last 40 years made it easier or harder to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist?  Explain.

Trace the connections between Darwinian evolution, eugenics, abortion, infanticide, and euthanasia.  Why are materialists so ready to embrace these as a package deal?  What view of humanity and reality is required to resist them?

You are the Templeton Foundation’s new program director and are charged with overseeing its programs and directing its funds.  Sketch out a 20-year plan for defeating scientific materialism and the evolutionary worldview it has fostered if you had $50,000,000 per year in current value to do so.  What sorts of programs would you institute?  How would you spend the money?

Christian Apologetics Take-Home Final Exam:

You just learned that your nephew or niece is going off to study theology at a liberal seminary.  You suspect the place is teeming with “Homer Wilsons,” i.e., professors intent on eroding any real faith of the seminary students.  Write a letter to your nephew or niece outlining the pitfalls that they are likely to face and how they should protect their faith from eroding.

According to Richard Dawkins, faith is believing in the absence of evident [sic].  By contrast, Nancy Pearcey argues that the attempt to remove Christian faith from the realm of knowledge and evidence has led to Christianity’s cultural captivity.  Make the case that Christian faith is a matter not of subjective opinion but of objective knowledge.

No amputees are recorded as having been healed in the New Testament (i.e., no one with a missing limb is said to have grown back the limb in response to a prayer by Jesus or one of the Apostles).  Indeed, throughout Church history it appears that no such miracle has occurred (if you know of a wellconfirmed [sic] case, please cite it).  Atheists therefore argue that if miracles really happened and gave evidence of God, God would have performed a healing like growing back the limb of an amputee.  Do atheists have a point here?  How do you maintain that miracles are real in the face of such criticism?

For more academic travesties on a par with Liberty University’s natural history museum labelling dinosaur fossils as being 3,000 years old, including online debate forum postings comprising a substantial proportion of students’ final grades (!), click here:

AP410 This is the undegrad [sic] course.  You have three things to do: (1) take the final exam (worth 40% of your grade); (2) write a 3,000-word essay on the theological significance of intelligent design (worth 40% of your grade); (3) provide at least 10 posts defending ID that you’ve made on “hostile” websites, the posts totalling 2,000 words, along with the URLs (i.e., web links) to each post (worth 20% of your grade).

AP510 This is the masters course.  You have four things to do: (1) take the final exam (worth 30% of your grade); (2) write a 1,500 to 2,000-word critical review of Francis Collins’s The Language of God – for instructions, see below (20% of your grade); (3) write a 3,000-word essay on the theological significance of intelligent design (worth 30% of your grade); (4) provide at least 10 posts defending ID that you’ve made on “hostile” websites, the posts totalling 3,000 words, along with the URLs (i.e., web links) to each post (worth 20% of your grade).

Aside from this, Wolpert correctly pointed out that Dembski’s reasoning is a mere language game.  Even if the designer was eventually discovered and observed, this would not change the way Dembski carries out his science one iota.  The man hasn’t proved anything and never will.  Even if Darwin’s theory is completely wrong, even if the evolution of Homo sapiens we observe today is more improbable than the number of atoms in a billion universes that is still not evidence for either design or a designer.

The Intelligent Design movement is nothing more than racket and a Wedge Strategy (download PDF) to bring creationism into school science classrooms by the back door.  As a wise man has observed of late, it may be designed but there’s nothing intelligent about it.

Listen to the debate in full if you must.

That bleedin’ Luke census again!

28/12/2009

manicstreetpreacher: dog/bone.

Naturally, I was very happy to be given another mention on the 26 December 2009 edition of Unbelievable?, featuring Christian barrister Charles Foster and atheist scientist Robert Stovold. However, I was a little frustrated that the presenter Justin Brierley and the participants didn’t quite get my point about the mystical census in the Gospel of Luke.

While there is some ambiguity over whether a census of any kind took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria and whether he held office more than once, the points I was driving at in my email to Justin before the show was that Roman censuses were:

  1. Based on property ownership of the living, not the dead.
  2. Not based on remote genealogies, let alone false ones.
  3. Local censuses of provinces, not the entire Roman empire.

The reason why I am so insistent is that during my first appearance on Unbelievable? in September 2009, my “scholarly” opponent, Andy Bannister from London School of Fairyology, said that Dawkins, Hitchens etc. had “been machine gunned to the wall by ‘scholars’ of all stripes” by objecting to the apparent nonsense of having the population return to the home town of a distant ancestor because apparently people at that time were not as mobile as they are today we actually have records of such arrangements.

Being a tad green back in the day, I let it go.  However, a friend who had listened to the show emailed me to say that Bannister was talking rubbish.  I emailed him my friend’s comments and he did not respond.  Further research showed that this is actually a common objection by historians (as opposed to “scholars”) of all stripes and not something the Oxford biologist made up off the top of his head.

Despite repeated requests on my blog, Bannister has so far declined to cite a source for his assertion.  Funny.  At first, he seemed like such a straight kinda guy.  Rather like Tony Blair…

Justin did actually ask me to do the show but alas, I did not have enough holiday time till the end of the year.  Besides, I find biblical scholarship rather dense and unexciting.  Robert did a much better job than I could have done.  I had no idea, for example, that Josephus referred to Hercules as if he was a real person.  Kudos Stovold!

For those of us how can’t be bothered with textual criticism, below are the videos of a couple of excellent can-sized expositions of the Gospels’ historical dating botch-ups.

The Jesus Timeline Part 1

The Jesus Timeline Part 2

Lukeprog over at Common Sense Atheism may be a fawning Craigophile, but he does at least post some cracking material from the ‘Tube!

Unbelievable? reports on the Intelligence Squared debate on Atheist Fundamentalism

13/12/2009

MSP is featured!

Justin Brierley, presenter of Premier Christian Radio’s sceptical debate show, Unbelievable?, has done a report on the above debate which I attended at Wellington College on 29 November 2009.  You can download the podcast here.

My question to the Christian members of the panel is at 23 minutes.  You can read my report on the lecture given by Ken Ham, head of Answers In Genesis, at Liverpool University in March 2008 over at Butterflies & Wheels here.

Good show Justin, but I could not disagree with you more about Charles Moore being the evening’s “revelation”.  And perhaps you would care to read my piece on why Dawkins most certainly should not debate William Lane Craig.

I’m also in the middle of writing and researching my own paper on whether atheism was responsible for Hitler’s Germany, which I wish I could forward to the audience member who thought that Hitler was an atheist in order to educate her!