Saturday, 28 February 2015

A response to '5 Reasons Why Atheism is Foolish'

I was going to call this '5 reasons atheism is foolish' and start here with telling people to not be confused by the provocative title. But I decided it was a bit 'click-bait-y' so wanted to make it clear that it's a response. The piece I'm responding to lists 5 reasons the author thinks atheism is foolish and it can be found here.1

The blog starts by quoting Psalms 14:1 "The fool has said in his heart, “There is no God.”
They are corrupt, They have done abominable works, There is none who does good."

This verse is quoted to me often and my response is to ask why I should believe it. Of course, no satisfactory reason is ever provided. 

Here are the 5 'reasons'

1. Atheist [sic] Don’t Appreciate That Every Design Has A Designer

The blog author talks about the Airbus A380 and the Large Hadron Collider. These are very complex machines, with millions of parts and thousands of people were required to design and build them. It then goes on to say:
"They [atheists] cannot appreciate just the complexity and wonders of the human body but yet foolishly come to a poor conclusion that the human body and human existence as a result is just one big accident."
Of course we can appreciate how complex a human body is. We also (well, the vast majority of us) appreciate that the human body didn't appear on earth 'as is' and we're aware that it evolved from earlier life forms. We're also aware that evolution by Natural Selection is not an 'accident'.

This argument is also implying a false claim that complexity = design. Consider the piles of rubble left after a cyclone. Although clearly a mess, the patterns within are quite clearly complex and obviously not designed. Compare to a brick wall which is far from complex yet we know it to be designed. I would suggest that good design should reduce complexity, not increase it.

This argument also begs the question - assuming that the universe is designed, therefore requires a designer, without actually demonstrating that the universe is designed. This is a logical fallacy.

2. Atheists Think Accidents Can Create Complex & Harmonious Systems & Life-forms

I think here by 'accidents' the author means 'natural, non-deliberate' events. Of course natural, non-deliberate events can lead to the solar system we live in. What else could? Even if there is a god ultimately responsible for the universe, we can explain a solar system existing without god being involved. We can explain the effect of gravity. We can explain how stars and planets are formed out of cosmic dust. We can explain the existence of seasons, and water, and air. It's not so much that the universe is tailored for life, but that life adapted in, and to, the universe that exists.

The author then makes another ridiculous analogy between the Airbus A380, Large Hadron Collider, and the complexity of the universe.

"The make-up of the universe is far more complex than an Airbus or an LHC and it would be foolish to think that the universe was not created by an intelligent Creator who is far more intelligent than any human being could ever fathom."
The make up of the universe is complex but it's explainable *naturally*. There is no big hidden mystery with how gravity and time affects the elements.

What the author fails to acknowledge with this argument is that they are invoking a being more complex than the universe to explain the complexity of the universe. If the universe is too complex to not have a designer, then surely the 'god' used to explain this complexity is also too complex to not have a designer. Of course a 'special pleading' fallacy will be made here saying that god always 'existed' If a god can be explained without a designer, a universe can be explained without a designer.

In this section the author includes a lengthy quote from atheist turned Christian C.S. Lewis. Part of that quote:

"But if their thoughts, i.e, of Materialism and Astronomy are merely accidental by-products, why should we believe them to be true."
CS is saying that if the universe is not designed and exists by 'accident' how can we trust our thoughts, which must also be accidents.

Well this is pretty easy to test. Try crossing a busy road. Thought 1: Close your eyes and go whenever you feel like it. Thought 2: Observe the traffic , wait until there's a safe gap in the traffic, then cross. I highly recommend not putting Thought 1 into practise.

God doesn't need to be real for us to be able to trust our thoughts. We can see the results of them. We can test them. We can compare the results of actions based on different thoughts. I find it stupid to ask how we can trust our thoughts given we really don't have an alternative.

This argument is the logical fallacy of argument from ignorance. It's saying, in other words 'I don't know how the universe works, therefore God exists.

3. The Atheist Foolishly Thinks Science Has The Answers To Everything 

This is simply made up, an excuse to attack atheism with a straw man argument. I don't know a single atheist who claims this. Easily dismissed.

4. Atheists Don’t Know That Atheism is a Belief System

Atheism is the result of how atheists think, not the cause of it. The author mentions here that atheists believe in evolution and The Big Bang theory and somehow this makes atheism a belief system. Although acceptance of these areas of science is common among atheists they are also widely accepted among theists. These are scientific ideas, not atheistic ideas.

I've written here about how atheism is not a religion, I don't need to repeat it all here, suffice to say this argument is simply not true.

5. The Atheist Cannot Disprove The Existence of God

The first line of this section is 'Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence'. I don't think this is entirely true. Absence of evidence is evidence of absence when you'd expect evidence to be present. It's the absence of evidence of cars that lets one know it's safe to cross a road.

Being unable to prove something doesn't exist is not reason to believe it does. No theist could prove that any of the 3,000+ gods they don't believe in don't exist, but they're not lining up to believe in all of them. No theist could prove unicorns don't exist but I'm sure they don't find that good enough reason to believe unicorns exist.

'You can't prove god doesn't exist' is a pathetic argument. We don't discuss why we shouldn't believe something exists, we discuss why we should, theists who rely on this argument know there's no reason to believe, so they resort to this. When the 'you can't prove it doesn't exist' argument comes out, the person you're arguing with has nothing left, it's the last refuge of someone who has run out of all other ideas.

The arguments above are obviously amateur and have little, if any, critical thought behind them. They are all easily dismissed and one might wonder why I'd bother responding. The thing is, despite being terrible, these arguments are common and that is why I decided to write a response. 

1 The blog I'm responding to is from a website called 'Inspired Walk' I've tried to find if it's a genuine site or a parody site but could not. Having said that, I have seen all the arguments above made genuinely. So even if Inspired Walk *is* a parody site, there are people who do believe the piece does highlight 5 reasons why atheism is foolish. 

Saturday, 14 February 2015

Is Atheism a religion?

Of course the correct, and simple answer to this is 'no' and that should be that. 

It is actually quite staggering how often this comes up. 

To properly answer the question 'is atheism a religion?' I think three subsequent questions need to be answered. 

1: What is atheism? 
2: What is a religion? 
3: Does the definition of atheism fit within the scope of the definition of religion. 

Let's have a look. 

1: What is atheism? 
If I ask pretty much any atheist I regularly talk to they'll say atheism is the lack of belief in the existence of gods and goddesses (or they may just say 'god'). I got so tired of this 'atheism is a religion' argument coming up all the time that I made this meme based on one of my tweets:

This really is all there is to it.  As I said in a previous post titled 'Misconceptions about atheism' there is nothing else linking atheists together. It's not a position on science, morality, or anything else. 

We lack belief in gods and goddesses and that's it, that's the only thing atheists have in common. 

I know some will say that atheism is the active belief that no gods and goddesses exist. That it's not just the position that 'lacks' belief. It's rare to find atheists who agree with this. It's far more likely that the person saying it is a theist trying to say that the atheist position is also a position of faith. However, for question three asked above, it's not going to matter whether you see atheism as a simple lack of belief in gods or goddesses or the active belief that no gods and goddesses exist. 

2: What is a religion? 

In 1983 the Australian High Court said in a ruling that: 
"For the purposes of the law, the criteria of religion are twofold: 
first, belief in a Supernatural Being, Thing or Principle; and 
second, the acceptance of canons of conduct in order to give effect to that belief..."
I don't think that covers it all, but it's a good starting point. When we think religion we think clergy, dogma, tenets, rites, rituals, structure, hierarchy, scripture, prayer, church and faith. 

We could confuse the issue here and say that religion is anything someone is passionate about. 'Football is my religion' 'She loves her car so much, she polishes it religiously'. This is a way to convey how much time a focus someone dedicates to a hobby. In casual conversation this is acceptable but when debating whether or not something falls into a specific category, specifics matter. When people say atheism is a 'religion' they're not equating it to a passionate hobby. They're categorising it with Islam, Christianity, Hinduism and so on. If you've come here thinking 'religion' and 'thing you feel passionately about' are synonymous, you may as well stop now. 

3: Does the definition of atheism fit within the scope of the definition of religion? 

Clearly not. Take the first part of the Australian High Court statement: 'belief in a Supernatural Being, Thing or Principle'. Right here atheism is out as it's not the belief in anything, let alone a supernatural Being, Thing or Principle. 

Even if atheism was the active believe that no gods or goddesses exist, it still doesn't qualify as believing something doesn't exist is not believing 'in' something. Take this to the extreme level, just for the sake of argument - even if atheism was the active belief that the supernatural being the Flying Spaghetti Monster created the universe it *still* wouldn't qualify as a religion, when assessed under the second criteria of the Australian High Court, and when compared to actual religions, as there are no canons of conduct that give effect to the belief. 

Of course that's neither here nor there, as atheism has no such belief. 

Atheism, as it's understood by the vast majority of atheists, has no belief at all. It has no clergy, dogma, tenets, rites, rituals, structure. These things are obvious. 

There's no hierarchy. Richard Dawkins is a well known atheist, but he was never voted a leader. People have become known as atheists because their work has been popular, not because they worked their way up through the lower ranks. 

There's no scripture. Yes, the aforementioned Richard Dawkins wrote a book. So has Sam Harris. So did Christopher Hitchens. And there are thousands of blogs about atheism. Does this qualify as scripture? Of course not. There are books and blogs about war, sport, art, photography too. There are books about books, movies, cars, and pretty much anything people have an interest in. And not one of these books is considered scripture.

There's no prayer. Sure we wish for things, we hope. But we don't pray, we have no one to pray to. 

There's no church. But what about that 'atheist church' which made the news? You may ask. Well the term 'atheist church' was used to get attention. The Sunday Assembly, as it's actually known, states on their website that it's absolutely not for atheists only. Going on to say "One of the unique things about Sunday Assembly is that it is radically inclusive – allowing us to celebrate life together, regardless of what we believe in." This is a secular event, not an atheist one. 

There's no faith. As stated atheism isn't someone having faith that there's no god, it's just not believing that there is one. I've written a blog explaining how not believing in something doesn't mean you believe the opposite to be true. You can read that here

Religion is more than a single belief. To say 'well you believe there's no god, that's your religion' is nonsense. If I believe a book is good, is that a religion? If I believe a certain team will win a football match, is that a religion? Of course not. 

Religion is more than just being vocal and passionate about something. We may be vocal about things such as the environment, human rights, or animal rights too, but wouldn't consider them to be religions. 

If not believing in the god of the bible is a religion, is not believing in Zeus a religion? Is not believing in Thor a religion? We've invented some 3,000 gods. Is not believing in each of them a religion of its own? Does a person who believes in the god of the bible but not Poseidon have two religions? Of course not, the idea that not believing in something is a religion is simply preposterous. 

If someone claims something exists, not believing them is not a religious position. 
If someone claims something exists, believing they're wrong is not a religious position. 

Take a moment to read the meme above. 

Is atheism a religion? 
Only if you misunderstand either atheism, or religion, or both. 

Tuesday, 10 February 2015

Drawing Muhammad.

I'm sure you probably know, but if you draw Muhammad, particularly in a way that doesn't show him in the best light, a few people will kick up a fuss. 

This fuss could be anything from protests in the street, threatening to kill you, or, as we saw in Paris, murdering you and your colleagues. 

Nobody should be held in such esteem that 1400 years after their death it's forbidden to draw them. 

The following is from the Background section of the Wikipedia article 'Depictions of Muhammad' check the article for citations: 
In Islam, although nothing in the Qur'an explicitly bans images, some supplemental hadith explicitly ban the drawing of images of any living creature; other hadith tolerate images, but never encourage them. Hence, most Muslims avoid visual depictions of Muhammad or any other prophet such as Moses or Abraham
Most Sunni Muslims believe that visual depictions of all the prophets of Islam should be prohibited and are particularly averse to visual representations of Muhammad. The key concern is that the use of images can encourage idolatry.
It's the last line that gets most of my interest. Concern about encouraging idolarity. 

I'd like to leave that there for a moment and take you back to May 24 1991. This was the original air date of episode 5 of the TV show 'Dinosaurs'.1 

Episode 5 is called The Howling and is about a rite of passage of the same name. When a young male dinosaur comes of age, he has to howl at the moon in order to prevent a prophesied disaster. It's a tradition that's gone on for generations. In this episode Robbie, the adolescent male of the family, reaches the age where it's his turn to howl at the moon and therefore averting the foretold apocalypse. 

Only Robbie refuses. He thinks it's a silly superstition and it's ridiculous that he could keep anarchy away by simply howling at the moon. The community disagrees and trouble brews. Robbie's father supports his decision, which angers his friends. Fights break out, people panic and slowly, but surely, the community spirals down closer and closer to anarchy. 

It seems like the prophecy is coming true, but not because of a magic spell, but because of the belief in superstition and the panic when it's not adhered to. It was a self-fulfilling prophecy. 

Why did I bring this up? Well I'm sure you can see the similarities. Robbie not howling at the moon inadvertently caused the chaos that howling at the moon was supposed to prevent.2  

Similarly, Muslims being outraged when Muhammad is drawn have inadvertently given Muhammad a level of idolarity not afforded to anyone else. They wanted to keep him off the proverbial pedestal but have put him on one so high that an attempt to knock him off is met with murderous consequences. 

If Muslims don't want Muhammad idolised, step one should be to stop idolising him. Stop adding PBUH after his name, stop protesting him being mocked, and absolutely stop the insane and completely barbaric practise of killing people who make fun of him.3  

1 Dinosaurs aired from 1991 to 1994 and was a live action show that (from IMDB) "followed the lives of a family of dinosaurs, living in a modern world. They had TVs, fridges, etc. The only humans around are cavemen, who are viewed as pets and wild animals." I'm not sure it was historically accurate.
2 *Spoiler* Robbie relents, howls at the moon, peace is restored.
3 It's interesting to note from the same Wikipedia article mentioned above that in Shia Islam images of Muhammad are quite common.

Friday, 6 February 2015

Dear Jenny McCarthy

Dear Jenny McCarthy, 

I know it's unlikely you'll ever read this, and that if it ever does come to your attention rather than reading it, you'll probably block me on twitter instead, but on the very remote chance you do read it, there are some things I think you need to know. 

Firstly, there is *NO* link between vaccination and autism. Here's a publication from the American Academy of Pediatrics. It lists 40 studies (with links to each) showing no links between vaccination and autism. No links at all. 

Here are a few selections from the author conclusions (emphasis mine):
"The authors concluded that parents’ concern that “too many vaccines too soon” could lead to autism is not supported. "
"This comparison of children vaccinated on time with children whose vaccinations were delayed or incomplete found no benefit in delaying immunizations during the first year of life."
"Data do not support a causal association between MMR vaccine and autism" 
"Results provide further evidence against a causal association between MMR vaccination and autism"
"This study provides strong evidence against the hypothesis that MMR vaccination causes autism." 
These are just five examples. Each of the 40 studies has a conclusion similarly worded. Given this, your quote: 
“Time magazine’s article on the autism debate reports that the experts are certain ‘vaccines don’t cause autism; they don’t injure children; they are the pillar of modern public health.’ I say, ‘that’s a lie and we’re sick of it.’”
Seems terribly irresponsible, don't you think? You 'say' it's a lie but why? What's your reasoning for saying it's a lie? I've given you examples of 40 studies which show no link. Can you provide one that shows there is? 

I know you're familiar with Andrew Wakefield as you wrote the foreword to his book (which I see has no reviews on Amazon. I can only hope this means no one has bought it). I'm sure it's his 'study', published in the Lancet in 1998, on which you're basing your claims. I hope you know that the study was retracted and Mr Wakefield has lost his medical license. 

Why? You may ask. Because the study was fraudulent. You can see the details in this article, but here are some highlights (or lowlights)

  • It was poor science. He used case reports (considered among the weakest kind of medical studies)
  • He paid children at a birthday party to provide blood samples (not controlled nor ethical)
  • He manipulated and misrepresented data
  • He had financial conflicts of interest. Whilst attempting to discredit MMR, he was filing a patent for single shot vaccinations. 
  • He has refused to replicate the paper's findings. 
Of it all, this last one is the big one. As the article says, replication is the bedrock of science! Replication is what shows that there was no mistake, no misrepresentation. If Mr Wakefield wanted to show that his study was accurate, why not replicate it under controlled conditions? I'll tell you why, Jenny, because he made it up. And he made it up because he stood to benefit financially from the demise of the MMR vaccine. 

You once said:
"“Moms and pregnant women are coming up to me on the street going, ‘I don’t know what to do’… And I don’t know what to tell them..."
Here's a suggestion - Tell them to see a doctor. Talk to a medical expert. I wouldn't cast my local GP to play Jean Valjean so why you feel qualified to distribute medical advice is beyond me. It's dangerous. 

There is a measles outbreak in the US at the moment. According to this article at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention there are 102 confirmed cases between January 1 and January 31 2015. There were under 200 cases in all of 2013. Approximately 50 in all of 2012. There was a spike in 2008 when measles spread through communities with groups of unvaccinated people. Things are getting bad. Last year, 2014, there were over 600 cases. In England in 2012/2013 there was a study of 203 cases of measles. Over 90% of those people were NOT vaccinated. 

Things you should know - the majority of people who got measles were not vaccinated. Measles spreads when it reaches a community where groups of people are not vaccinated. Just to be clear: Measles spreads when people aren't vaccinated. 

You see there's a thing called 'herd immunity'. The way it works is that if a large enough portion of the population is vaccinated there is a lower chance that someone who hasn't developed immunity will come into contact with an infectious individual. For measles the herd immunity threshold has to be around 83-94%. 

So when you say
"If the vaccine companies are not listening to us, it’s their fucking fault that the diseases are coming back."
It's really, really not. Measles is coming back because people aren't getting vaccinated and people aren't getting vaccinated because people like you are telling them it's not safe. 

Measles isn't a simple disease. It's not a day or two in bed and then you're right as rain. This article  lists some of the problems with measles. It's dangerous and people die from it. 

You again: 
“I do believe sadly it’s going to take some diseases coming back to realize that we need to change and develop vaccines that are safe.”
The diseases *are* back, Jenny, and the vaccines *are* safe. The change that's needed is for people like you to become informed and to stop lying and spreading misinformation. 

Jenny, I don't know if you truly believe vaccines are dangerous or you've got another motive for spreading lies. If it's the latter, then you are an awful human being who should be ashamed of herself. 

If it's the former then I think there is hope. You owe it to yourself and to parents who look up to you, and the children whose lives are going to be impacted, to actually read, and understand the science. If you find the science supports your position, then by all means, keep up your work. But if you you find that the science doesn't support your position, and not only that, actually disputes your position, you must immediately retract your statements and go on record as being in favour of vaccination and you must go on record saying there is no known link between vaccination and autism. 

It's all well and good to be passionate about something and to make the public aware of something you think they need to know. But when you're telling lies and misleading people and this leads to the spread of preventable diseases, you are responsible for that and that is an awful position to be in.