Archive for February, 2010

Can You Be Good Without God?

Out of curiosity I subscribed (a few months ago) to a daily Google alert for “question for atheist”, just to see what people are wondering about atheists. Aside from the occasional “why do you hate god?” and “how did something come from nothing?” the overwhelming majority of questions that have made it into my inbox has been some variation of “how can you be good without god?” or “where do you get your morals?”.

Usually when these types of questions are posed the result is a long discussion on how we decide what is good or evil, whether or not there’s such thing as an objective morality or if morals are subjective, whether we need to be accountable to a higher power in order to keep ourselves in check, whether we could have evolved a sense of right and wrong, and so on.

But Susan Jacoby criticizes that approach in this article, called “Atheism and the silly goodness competition”

She writes:

The objection most frequently raised by defenders of faith to atheism and atheists is that there can be no morality without religion. One of the more disturbing recent secularist trends is a compulsion to answer that silly argument, in an effort to prove to the world of faith that we are as capable of goodness as everyone else. This strikes me as the moral and intellectual equivalent of gays feeling obliged to prove that they can be faithful lovers or African-Americans knocking themselves out to show that they are not anti-white racists. Who gave straights, or whites, the right to set themselves up as arbiters of behavior and morality? Why should atheists assign a similar power to religious believers?

I was stunned the first time I was asked, by a right-wing radio talk show host attacking my Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism (2004), what would prevent me from committing murder if I did not believe in God. I answered truthfully, because I had never been asked such a question before, that it had never even occurred to me to murder anyone. I will never respond to such an insulting question again.

It really is an insulting question. Why should non-belief in a higher power immediately put a person in the position of having to defend their character?

She continues…

I certainly see ample evidence that humans–at least as soon as they become aware of the existence of other humans–manifest a kind of empathy that predates maxims like the Golden Rule, which appear in one form or another in all decent ethical systems. Darwin called this the “instinct of sympathy,” which he described as something that cannot be checked “even at the urging of hard reason, without deterioration in the noblest part of our nature.”

But it is equally true that humans are subject to selfish impulses capable of inflicting great evil. And history offers ample evidence that neither religious nor civil law has proved particularly effective at quelling the worst of these impulses. A Hitler, to use another unambiguous example, is unhindered by the laws of God or man and, at some point, has to be removed from the human landscape by brute force. And here is where someone will contend that Hitler did what he did because he was an atheist, and where I could respond that Torquemada did what he did during the Inquisition because he was a Christian. (In fact, the latter’s Christianity is much more certain than the former’s atheism. Every member of the Wehrmacht wore a belt buckle with the motto, “God With Us.”) There are people in every society, subscribing to every sort of belief system, who turn out to be monsters.

Asking whether atheists are good is not the right question, neither is asking whether people of faith are good. An individual’s behaviour should be the determining factor in whether or not they are a good person, and the real question should be “what leads people within both groups to choose one path over another.”

Questions of ethics are interesting on their own, and do not need to be discussed within the framework of the god debate:

It is time for atheists to stop trying to prove what there is no need to prove: that they are as good as people whose religion began with a father’s willingness to kill his only son at God’s behest or with the crucifixion of a man-God. For goodness sake, let us look to the only real evidence of good and evil in the world–our behavior and its consequences.

Amen.

What do you think?

Update on Simon Singh’s Libel Case

I haven’t talked about Simon Singh’s Libel Case much on this blog, but in short, Singh is a science writer who wrote an article that was critical of Chiropractic in The Guardian in 2008. I’ll repost the article below the fold

Simon Singh and his lawyer are greeted by supporters outside of appeals court.

Simon Singh and his lawyer are greeted by supporters outside of appeals court.

(edited to remove the “libelous” word), but the important bit is this:

You might think that modern chiropractors restrict themselves to treating back problems, but in fact some still possess quite wacky ideas. The fundamentalists argue that they can cure anything, including helping treat children with colic, sleeping and feeding problems, frequent ear infections, asthma and prolonged crying – even though there is not a jot of evidence.

He went on to call these treatments bogus, and rather than responding with evidence to back up their claims, the British Chiropractic Association sued Singh for libel. UK libel laws are crazy in that the burden of proof is put on the defendant, so suing someone for libel carries almost no risk. Usually these cases are settled out of court because of the tremendous stress and expenses put on the defendant. But Singh bravely decided to fight back, which is helping to bring attention to the unjust laws. After all, how can a country have free and open debate over issues such as alternative medicine if it’s so easy for practitioners of questionable methods to silence their critics?

Singh’s case started off with an unfortunate decision to define his use of the word bogus in a way that he didn’t mean it:

The judge held that by the mere use of the word “bogus” Simon Singh was stating that, as a matter of fact, the BCA were being consciously dishonest in promoting chiropractic for those children’s ailments.

Using this definition of bogus, Singh would have to prove that the BCA were being dishonest in order to win his case. That’s pretty much an impossible task, so he appealed that decision and today I got an update from Sense About Science:

Simon said after the hearing: “First of all, thanks to everyone who came to the Court of Appeal today, and everyone who has been so supportive over the last two years. Without your goodwill, I probably would have caved in a long time ago.

I am delighted the Court of Appeal has decided to reconsider the meaning of my article about chiropractic, and I am particularly glad that three such eminent judges will make the ruling. They grilled both sides on all aspects of the appeal. However I should stress that whatever the outcome there is still a long way to go in this libel case. It has been almost two years since the article was published, and yet we are still at a preliminary stage of identifying the meaning of my article. It could easily take another two years before the case is resolved.

More important than my particular case is the case for libel reform and I know that you share my concern on this matter. My greatest desire is that journalists in future should not have to endure such an arduous and expensive libel process, which has already affected the careers of health journalists such as Ben Goldacre, and which is currently bearing down on the eminent cardiologist Peter Wilmshurst. If Peter loses his case then he will be bankrupted. Please continue to spread the word about libel reform.”

Simon’s solicitor Robert Dougans of Bryan Cave LLP said: “It was encouraging to see three such senior judges taking such an interest in the appeal, and the BCA’s counsel was given a thorough grilling by the court.

What was significant was that the Lord Chief Justice said he was surprised that the BCA had not taken the opportunity offered them back in 2008 to publish their side of the story in the Guardian, rather than insisting Simon apologise and beginning proceedings. He also said it was a waste of both parties’ time and effort. I hope that this is borne in mind by MPs when they grapple with the need for libel reform.”

There’s no decision yet, but it’s encouraging that these judges are taking Singh’s appeal seriously. Hopefully they’ll make the right ruling on what he actually meant when he used “bogus” in his article.

Unfortunately after the definition of “bogus” is determined he still has to defend his article, and he could still lose the case. To find out more about his case and how you can help click here.

(Don’t forget that you can read the article that he’s being sued over below the fold, but also please remember that I know very very little about law, so to read some more coherent and detailed information about this case Jack of Kent has a fantastic blog)

Continue reading ‘Update on Simon Singh’s Libel Case’

Sunday Bible Reading

In which I post an uninspiring, sometimes hilarious, sometimes disturbing passage from that book that some claim is the word of god.

Today’s reading: 2 Chronicles 14:12-15

12So the LORD smote the Ethiopians before Asa, and before Judah; and the Ethiopians fled.

13And Asa and the people that were with him pursued them unto Gerar: and the Ethiopians were overthrown, that they could not recover themselves; for they were destroyed before the LORD, and before his host; and they carried away very much spoil.

14And they smote all the cities round about Gerar; for the fear of the LORD came upon them: and they spoiled all the cities; for there was exceeding much spoil in them.

15They smote also the tents of cattle, and carried away sheep and camels in abundance, and returned to Jerusalem.

Enlightning Bolts *Video Edition* – 02.11.2010

This post is going to be short and sweet, but it will link you to lots of awesome videos that I’ve been loving. Enjoy!

College Humour takes on the end of the world.

The history of the universe…flipbook style.

Dragon’s Den berates a snake-oil salesman.

Jimmy Kimmel responds to the Tim Tebow ad.

Have a nice weekend!

Happy Darwin Day!

Rachel Maddow + Basketball + Bill Nye = Win

Yesterday’s Rachel Maddow Show provided me with yet another reason to love that woman. She uses footage of amazing 3-point shots in basketball to show how something out of the ordinary doesn’t disprove the ordinary. Washington has had some snowy weather recently, and the global warming deniers are loving it because they see that as proof that global warming isn’t real. They can’t tell the difference between weather and climate.

You can watch the video here, it’s fantastic and features an interview with Bill Nye the Science Guy. But her point can be summed up in this quote, which begins around 4 minutes:

If one person wins the lottery…it does not disprove the existence of the recession. When it rains in the desert, that does not disprove the existence of the desert…If you have smoked a cigarette in your life and you are not currently suffering from lung cancer or heart disease, your existence…does not disprove the fact that smoking causes lung cancer and heart disease. The evidence we have of flight (birds, bees, airplanes, what have you) does not disprove the existence of gravity. The existence of monkeys does not disprove evolution. The existence of tadpoles does not disprove the existence of frogs.

Full court shots are hard, evolution is real, gravity is real, the recession real, deserts dry, smoking bad, frogs exist, also so do storms.

The fact that it is snowing somewhere…does not tell you any useful thing about the overall climate.

This is why we get our information about climate change from scientists, not pundits.

The Struck By Enlightning Guide to Skeptical Podcasts

In case you haven’t noticed, I have a new page! I love podcasts, and skeptical podcasts have helped shape my critical thinking skills. So since I have become acquainted with so many podcasts I thought I would write up a guide for those who don’t have time to listen to a million podcasts, and want to narrow down their options.

So please click here to visit that page. Keep in mind it’s an ongoing project, so I have many more that I still need to review. But if you have a podcast to recommend for my review on the topic of science/skepticism I’d be happy to subscribe to it and add it to my to do list.


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