Schools must be supported against religious bullies

Comments from Ofsted’s chief inspector highlight the need to help schools resist efforts to shut down teaching which reactionary religious groups deem controversial, says Alastair Lichten.

In a recent speech at the annual Festival of Education conference Amanda Spielman, head of Ofsted, touched on issues with activism in schools. While acknowledging the many positive contributions of activism to education, she criticised “the militant kind” which leads to “confrontational approaches both outside and inside schools”.

The ‘NSS articles’ category contains links to my opinion pieces, written while a campaigns officer or head of education for the National Secular Society, before June 2022. You can read the full original of this article here >>>

Photo credit: Blog Blocks Wallpaper – Miguel Á. Padriñán

Halo Reach, Sisyphus and religious apologetics

Debunking apologetics can feel like a Sisyphean task but can be a fun intellectual exercise and sharpen your skills. Just remember apologetics are not relevant to most lived experiences of religion, and there are more interesting discussions to be had.

When I’m in the mood to relax and able to shut out the world for a bit, I put on an old favourite game on easy mode and an old favourite podcast – usually God Awful Movies. At the end of Halo Reach, when you have completed the storyline, you enter a level called Lone Wolf. Wave after wave of Covenant forces attack your character, who must keep fighting till they can’t any longer. Nothing you do will advance the story in any way. There are no more interesting challenges to solve, nothing new will come up, no matter the skill you use to dispatch scores of Grunts, Brutes and Elites, hordes of identical ones will take their place, until you are ground down and can’t go on. It’s positively Sisyphean.

If you wanted to introduce someone to the bright and expansive world of Halo, Lone Wolf would not be the place to start. It’s easy to see this level as pointless and impossible. But like Sisyphus pushing his boulder up the mountain forever, we can reinterpret the story to find meaning; not in achieving an outcome, but in the value of the task itself. For instance, Lone Wolf could be seen as a training level that sharpens your skills for the wider game.

That brings me to (counter)apologetics and arguments for the (non)existence of gods. Religion and religious philosophers have made varied enriching contributions to human thought. Apologetics are perhaps the least of these. Religious ideas raise many genuinely interesting questions, but whether or not a god exists isn’t one of them.

On this blog I generally take what I refer to as an assumed knowledge approach to certain basic questions. Normally I think there are more interesting things to discuss than apologetics, and whether or not religion is a human invention. But, inspired by some of my recent reading, I thought I’d go through responses to some of the most common religious apologetics. According to my high school religious studies textbook, these are the three classical ones.

These are categories rather than singular arguments, so I’m introducing each with a broad exemplar, and responding to categorical rather than specific errors with each type of argument.


P1. Everything that begins to exist has a cause for its existence.

P2. The universe began to exist.

C1. Therefore, the universe has a cause

The above formulation is the Kalam cosmological argument, named after an ancient Islamic apologist, and popularised by William Lane Craig. All cosmological apologetics attempt to demonstrate that the universe was created by a god, by contrasting this with the logical impossibility of an infinitely proceeding chain of causes.

It’s worth pointing out that even if it were logically valid (it isn’t) and its clauses were sound (dubious at best), this argument would only suggest that the universe has a cause, and additional even more spurious arguments are needed to suggest that this cause is a theistic agent.

P1 and P2 are chock-full of fallacies: equivocational, compositional and factual. The argument attempts to use our intuitive understanding of everyday cause-and-effect, and everyday uses of language, to play a word game.

The term “everything” in P1 and its interaction with the term “universe” in P2 invites equivocation. In P1 it can be interpreted as “every[SPACE]thing” as in every item within the set of all things, or the set itself, as in Everything. This in turn leads to a compositional fallacy as the argument uses a claim about items within a set to make claims about the set itself.

Notice that in the penumbra between P1 and P2 the apologist smuggles in the assertion that a god is not subject to this causation. If we are to assert that god does not need a separate cause for its existence, then why not simply argue the universe (which has the advantage of demonstrably existing) doesn’t need a separate cause for its existence? The phrasing “Everything, which begins to exist…” is then really just a word game, as the apologist really means “Everything, apart from god, which exists…”

“Begins to exist” is perhaps the biggest equivocation in the argument. In P1 “Begins to exist” is used in an everyday sense. i.e. we might say that something within our universe (say a building) began to exist, because there was a point in the past where the components that now make it up (e.g. bricks, and mortar) were arranged in a different state. This sense of “Begins to exist” is confined to arrangements of components within our universe. But in P2 “Begins to exist” is used to describe the universe itself coming into existence.

In P2 we are forced to interpret “Begins to exist” as “has existed for a finite amount of past time”, which in turn forces us to interpret “universe” in P2 as our local space-time, as this cannot be applied to “universe” or “cosmos” in the sense of all possible space-time.

The definition of “cause” in P1 and P2 is kept deliberately vague because the apologist wants to follow this argument up by asserting that this “cause” is a theistic god. In the classical model of causality that governs our everyday lives, some past event acts on something to cause a change: at midnight domino one falls hitting domino two, causing it to fall at midnight and one second etc. But reality is more complicated than that. Quantum physics allows for energy and space time to pop into existence or change in ways not influenced by any preceding event.

We could address this factual error in the argument by redefining “cause” to encompass both events caused in the classical sense and events allowed for by the nature of reality. In which case the more parsimonious answer would be that the nature of reality allows for the existence of our local universe.


Teleological arguments claim that some aspect of the natural world is evidence of design. These are emotionally appealing because we live in very designed environments and have a natural tendency to assign agency to the appearance of design. These arguments can be extremely varied, but the most common formation is claiming that the existence of the world (Earth or the universe) and/or life is the product of design. Teleological arguments contrast the supposed design seen in nature with examples of non-design. The most well-known example is the watchmaker argument by the proponent of natural theology William Paley. In 1802 Paley put forward the watchmaker analogy, where someone picking up a watch abandoned on a beach would know that it was designed because of its complexity and function. Parley analogised that living beings, being far more complex, are evidence of a designer for nature. Parley’s reasoning is understandable but flawed. The discovery of evolution by natural selection provides the answer to how complex living systems come to be without a designer. Parley’s arguments continue to influence creationists of today who, unlike the nineteenth century clergyman, don’t have the excuse of the ignorance of their times.

There is a more fundamental error in Parley’s thinking which affects all teleological arguments. In the watchmaker analogy, Parley demonstrated that the watch is designed by contrasting it with undesigned i.e., naturally occurring things such as rocks. But to do so invalidates the argument that nature is designed.

Modern theologians try to get around this dilemma by comparing our supposedly theistically designed natural world to a theoretical undesigned one, but they have no basis for doing so. The only universe we have access to is our own, we don’t have examples of other designed or natural ones to compare it to.

There are other problems with the idea that the universe is finetuned for the purpose of life. We have no access to other universes, so we don’t know what universal conditions are possible. An infinitesimally small part of the universe supports life. This obviously matters to us, but if we step outside of our anthropic view, we could just as easily argue that the universe is fine tuned for the purpose of empty space.

The bigger problem with this view is that it gets everything backwards. As Douglas Adams said, it is like a puddle looking at the hole it sits in and concluding that the hole was made for it. The universe isn’t fine-tuned for life. Life is fine tuned for the universe. The life which exists within the universe is that which the natural conditions of the universe allow to exist.


Paraphrasing Anselm of Canterbury:

P1. God is defined as the greatest possible being

P2. The concept of god as the greatest possible being exists in our mind

P3. A being which exists in the real world as well as in the mind is greater than one which exists only in the mind.

P4. If god exists only in the mind, then we could conceive of a greater possible being.

P5. But god is defined as the greatest possible being.

P6. Therefore god exists in the real world

Whereas the teleological and cosmological arguments at least try to address some grand question about reality and resort to word games only to hide their weaknesses, ontological arguments are nothing but word games. At their core, all ontological arguments seek to smuggle existence into their definition of god, in order to argue that god exists by definition.

A lot of the humorous refutations of the ontological argument floating around the Internet have fun by pointing out that you can define anything in this way. I used to enjoy my own ontological argument for the existence of Batman that I’m sure others have thought of:

P1. Batman is defined as the greatest possible detective

P2. The concept of Batman as the greatest possible detective exists in our mind

P3. A detective which exists in the world as well as in the mind is greater than one which exists only in the mind.

P4. If Batman exists only in the mind, then we could conceive of a greater possible detective.

P5. But Batman is defined as the greatest possible detective.

P6. Therefore Batman exists in the real world

Of course, that we are able to have some conception or definition of a thing does not say anything about whether that concept is coherent or maps to anything in reality.

The trick is in P3, where the argument assumes that existence is a necessary quality of “greatest”, which seems to make intuitive sense. But if that is the case then, asserting that god is defined as the greatest is the same as defining god as existing, which makes the argument circular. You might as well start and end with P1.

Whereas we can conceive of things which cannot exist in reality, and which may be greater in any number of ways than their nearest existing analogue. For example, we can mathematically describe a perfect circle which will always be more perfect than any circle which may exist in reality. We can conceive of infinity, which will always be greater than any number which could exist in reality.

Is there any point?

If you’re in the mood, then religious apologetics can be fun to play around with and sharpen your logical skills. If you encounter an argument which just seems wrong, then learning to recognise and describe the flaw will help you to think clearly about other arguments. Debunking apologetics can help others out of religion or impart the gift of doubt which is so effective at undermining toxic manifestations of religion. Apologists do their best to avoid admitting their arguments have been debunked, which can often force them into more and more absurd positions, which may undermine their authority on other issues.

The key thing to remember is that apologetics are not really that relevant to anyone’s lived experiences of religion. They are post hoc rationalisations for belief, so debunking them is not the best way to address the reasons why people believe in gods or why such beliefs are used for good or evil.

Thanks for reading

Let me know what you thought of this article and if you want to hear more. If you value this content and are able to financially support it, that would be great. Just a couple of pounds a month would help with hosting and other costs, and one day help expand our operations.

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AHS reads: The God Delusion, part 3

Welcome to part three in a five-part series re-examining The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins. In part one, I introduced the series, my interest in revisiting it and how Dawkins set out the ‘god hypothesis’. In part two I considered Dawkins’ responses to arguments for the existence of a god and his contrast with the argument, that an agent god would be supremely unlikely. In this part I will be critiquing Dawkins’ exploration of the naturalistic roots of religion and morality.

Even if there were some supernatural foundation for religious belief or morality, i.e. even if an agent god got the ball rolling, religions and morality are complex socially constructed systems, which can be explained through naturalistic means. Religion would remain a social construct even if all the central theological claims of a particular religion were true. Even if a god’s morality existed, human morality would still be a human product.

One could simply argue that as the supernatural does not exist, anything that actually exists must have a naturalistic explanation. But there is an enormous gulf in satisfaction between knowing something must have an explanation, and having some idea of what that explanation is. In these chapters, Dawkins will explore what that might be.

Chapter 5. The roots of religion

Dawkins begins the chapter writing: “Everybody has their own pet theory of where religion comes from and why all human cultures have it.” (One could quibble over whether this depends on how you define “religion”) before moving, as we have become somewhat accustomed, to viewing the question through a Darwinian lens. This reflects his much clearer thinking and communication when it comes to Darwinian, rather than sociological or philosophical, explanations.

Dawkins reasons that as Darwinian evolution is a fact, any behaviour which is seemingly ubiquitous among a species should have a direct or indirect Darwinian explanation. Dawkins analogises religion to other complex and costly expressions such as mating dances or the tale of the peacock, which do not on the surface appear to make survival more likely but serve some evolutionary purpose.

“Religious behaviour is a writlarge human equivalent of anting or bower-building. It is time-consuming, energy-consuming, often as extravagantly ornate as the plumage of a bird of paradise.”

Dawkins argues that religion, or some set of instinctual behaviours which typically manifests as religion, is an example of The Extended Phenotype. This is seeing genes as leading to behaviours which influence the survival of other genes within an ecosystem, rather than an individual. Dawkins paraphrases Dan Dennett as pointing out that “the common cold is universal to all human peoples in much the same way as religion is, yet we would not want to suggest that colds benefit us.”.

Dawkins considers how “costly” (in the Darwinian sense) religious beliefs and practices are despite their ubiquity across very different human societies:

“Though the details differ across the world, no known culture lacks some version of the time-consuming, wealth-consuming, hostility-provoking rituals, the anti-factual, counter-productive fantasies of religion.”

Drawing on the work of Kim Sterelny, Dawkins considers examples of aboriginal hunter gatherer societies in New Zealand, Australia and New Guinea. Aborigines live in an extremely harsh environment where survival takes great skill and effort. Their cultural evolution has supremely well adapted them to this environment and led these cultures to place huge emphasis on understanding their biological environment. The Darwinian utility of this is obvious. But the same cultural evolution has led them to develop “destructive obsessions about female menstrual pollution and about witchcraft”, which appear to be positively destructive to their survival, and for which an immediate Darwinian explanation eludes us. I don’t know how good or problematic Sterelny’s anthropology is, but it seems this point could have been made without risking being drawn into or perpetuating tropes.

In search of this Darwinian explanation Dawkins first considers direct benefits of religion. He argues that it can be seen to provide a placebo benefit, by providing the illusion of explanation and comfort. While Dawkins believes this placebo effect may play a ”subsidiary role” in the ubiquity of religion, he does not believe it is a sufficient explanation.

Of course, there are direct benefits of religion for certain people. Most religions have clerical classes or positions. Wherever there is religion, there are people receiving direct benefits or special considerations because of it, furnishing them with resources which they have an incentive to invest in perpetuating that religion. This does not require those beneficiaries to be conscious or cynical scammers. Again, Dawkins clearly believes that this may play a subsidiary role, but is not a sufficient explanation.

Dawkins moves on to considering the potential impact of group selection. He paraphrases archaeologist Colin Renfrew’s argument that religions encourage in group loyalty and outgroup hostility which provides a survival advantage. However, such in group/outgroup dynamics are far more ubiquitous than anything that could be called religious behaviour. It’s not clear whether this dynamic could serve as a Darwinian foundation for the tendency to religion, and/or vice versa.

Dawkins considers a fictional, simplified example: “A tribe with a stirringly belligerent ‘god of battles’ wins wars against rival tribes whose gods urge peace and harmony, or tribes with no gods at all.”. In this case it wouldn’t be clear whether the religious belief would spur the tribe onto investing greater resources in war-making, or whether the greater cultural capital invested in war-making would encourage the religious belief.

Dawkins’ extreme scepticism of the utility of group selection explanations in the scientific/genetic sense, may prejudice him against the role of group selection in the sociological sense. In any case, he likewise places this as having a subsidiary role and being insufficient to explain the roots of religion.

Dawkins then moves on to consider what may be the strongest Darwinian explanation of religious tendency: that it is a by-product of something else. He begins with an explanation of what evolutionary by-products are. As with the best of his science communication, he builds up from a simple interesting example: insects fly to their deaths in candles and other lights, because their eyes have evolved to navigate with reference to light sources coming in from optical infinity.

Religion leads people to act in ways which appear counter to their best interests and to hold beliefs which appear irrational. To ask for a direct Darwinian explanation of this may be to ask the wrong question, and Dawkins argues we should explain some other propensity which may manifest as religion, but was selected for because it manifests in other useful ways.

The God Delusion being a piece of popular and accessible science communication, Dawkins is seeking to raise the readers consciousness to the possibility of a type of explanation, rather than defending a specific hypothesis. Nonetheless, the arguments he brings up are compelling.

Dawkins preferred hypothesis is to do with the education and survival of children. We are a social species whose children are born underdeveloped and require extensive rearing. Dawkins hypothesises that a biological propensity to trust parents and authority figures without question provides an evolutionary advantage. A child who believes their parents’ warnings about crocodile infested waters may be more likely to survive than a child who gathers empirical evidence to test this claim. Every freethinking liberal parent may turn into a Darwinian authoritarian when their child’s life is in immediate danger.

Dawkins argues that this mechanism may equally transmit false or useless beliefs. Obedience to authority is highly valued in many cultures particularly, though Dawkins does not make this point, in highly religious cultures. He does relate a “Horrifying in retrospect”, school sermon about a squad of soldiers so well drilled that they admirably marched into an oncoming train because they had not received their order to halt. Theirs’ was not to reason why.

As Dawkins points out, both educators and indoctrinators understand the “useful programmability of the child brain”.

Having drawn on the work of various anthropologists, Dawkins rounds out the subsection with a consideration of how “All religious beliefs seem weird to those not brought up in them.” Via Pascal Boyer, he shares the story of the Fang people of Cameroon, and their admittedly bizarre and complex beliefs about the night-time activities of witches. Boyer relates his experience at a dinner with a prominent Cambridge theologian who on hearing about these beliefs remarked “That is what makes anthropology so fascinating and so difficult too. You have to explain how people can believe such nonsense.

As Dawkins points out, the theologian in question likely holds a selection of mainstream Christian beliefs which are equally as absurd as those of the Fang, but our cultural blinders and prejudices make them seem more “acceptable”.

Continuing his search for potential Darwinian by-product explanations, Dawkins turns to “the important and developing field of evolutionary psychology”. I feel compelled to acknowledge that, while being a valuable and legitimate academic field, evolutionary psychology has been attractive to some of the cranky fringes of the atheist movement for its supposed ability to explain cultural issues in purely rational terms, without reference to sociology or philosophy.

Evolutionary psychology would suggest that the ubiquity of religion shows that humans have evolved mental architecture which supports the tendency towards religious thinking. By analogy, the ubiquity of the common cold suggest that humans have some infrastructure which supports its existence, not that the human respiratory system evolved specifically to support the common cold.

Drawing on the work of psychologist Paul Bloom, Dawkins argues that “children have a natural tendency towards a dualistic theory of mind”, and good empirical evidence backs this up. Bloom suggests this tendency is particularly prominent in younger children, who have not yet developed an adult theory of mind and understanding of agency. Children assign purpose and tend towards agency-based explanations of the world.

Dawkins draws on another psychologist, Deborah Kelema and her article “Are children natural theists” which he summarises as:

“Clouds are ‘for raining’. Pointy rocks are ‘so that animals could scratch on them when they get itchy’. The assignment of purpose to everything is called teleology.”

This natural tendency to imagine abstract minds and assign agency maps very well onto religious beliefs. In fact, I think the ability to empirically demonstrate this tendency and its exclamatory power is the best explanation of the tendency towards religious thinking.

The reasons we have evolved to see agency even where it does not exist, particularly in childhood where our empirical knowledge of the world is limited,  are obvious. Dawkins, drawing again on the work of Dennett and Bloom, calls this the intentional or design stance. Which are “useful brain mechanisms, important for speeding up the second-guessing of entities that really matter for survival, such as predators or potential mates”.

The classic example is that of our ancestors on the African savannah seeing the leaves of a brush rustle. Possible explanations could be the wind or a predator creeping up on us. Humans with the predisposition to assume agency may occasionally find themselves wasting energy running away from non-existent predators. But those with a predisposition to not assume agency are more likely to be eaten, when they think they have just heard the wind, and are mistaken.

Dawkins spends a significant portion of this subsection exploring potential Darwinian explanations for a tendency towards irrational thinking, which may in turn lead to a propensity for religious thinking. The empirical evidence for this is nowhere near as substantive as for the hyperactive agency detection thesis. It’s interesting enough but doesn’t really add to the central argument.

In a section entitled “tread softly, because you tread on my memes”, Dawkins considers how religion, or any cultural manifestation, may be replicated and evolved in a Darwinian sense, without being genetically based. This opens with the Oscar Wilde quote “Truth, in matters of religion, is simply the opinion that has survived.” Dawkins invented the term meme in an earlier book and has written more extensively elsewhere about meme theory.

Put simply, a meme is the cultural equivalent of a biological gene. Just as different genes are inherited and change over time, and these differences influence how well they are able to spread, ideas can spread in similar ways:

“Some religious ideas survive because they are compatible with other memes that are already numerous in the meme pool – as part of a memeplex.”

It is surprising that in this chapter on “The roots of religion” Dawkins has drawn on few empirical examples of the roots of specific religions. It may simply be that cases where we have the best empirical evidence are not always generalisable. Where religions have come about as a result of deliberate fraud, such as Mormonism or Scientology, we have the most complete and documented understanding of their roots. That doesn’t mean that the deliberate fraud hypothesis is best to generalise as an explanation of all religion.

We have outstandingly strong empirical evidence that humans, particularly children, have a tendency to trust authority figures, assume agency and utilise dualistic theories of mind. While this provides a general explanation for religious thinking, it does not adequately explain most specific religions.

Dawkins rounds out the chapter by considering one of the examples that we do have, which demonstrates how quickly these tendencies can drive the development  of religious beliefs and practices, given the right environment. The ‘cargo cults’ of Pacific Melanesia and New Guinea which appear to have evolved multiple times over the 19th and 20th century, though from the same background cultural matrix.

To summarise: islands in this area of the Pacific were invaded by white people with technology that the native inhabitants of these islands lacked the background knowledge or cultural references to understand. They witnessed these immigrants performing activities which they did not understand as any sort of useful work and witnessed the regular delivery of “cargo” from the sky. In an attempt to get in on this heavenly largess, the inhabitants began mimicking what they perceived to be the rituals to invite the cargo, they built their own airports, marched in formation much as the soldiers who inhabited the military airstrips would. This eventually led to the development of a clerical class. In the 1950s David Attenborough visited an island where the high priest claims to regularly speak by radio to the pilot of a cargo plane and interpret his will.

Chapter 6. The roots of morality: why are we good?

Dawkins opens the chapter with the consideration of the typical argument presented against atheists: “Many religious people find it hard to imagine how, without religion, one can be good, or would even want to be good.”

Personally, my response is to point out the empirical evidence that morality precedes and is separable from religion, and to point out that the question could be replaced with any unevidenced assertion: “If you don’t believe in the flying pink unicorn and their four-sided triangle of truth how can you be good?

Pointing out how often religion inspires immoral behaviour, as Dawkins will go on to do, does not seem to be the best response to the claim that religion is the foundation of morality. Dawkins shares some of his hate mail, the tone of which is familiar to anyone who has ever advocated atheism or even challenged religious supremacy in the public realm. Ironically, it is through an example of this hate mail, where someone is berating Dawkins that he should shut up and pretend that religion is true even if it isn’t, because the alternative is so immoral, that we see the core problem with the argument from morality. Even if we were to agree that a god belief was foundational to morality (it isn’t) that would say nothing about whether morality itself is a useful tool, or whether that god concept maps to reality.

As is to be expected given the book’s format, Dawkins turns first to considering the question through a Darwinian lens. As Darwinian evolution is a fact, and as it is also a fact that humans have a propensity towards creating moral systems, there should be a direct or indirect Darwinian explanation of this.

“Natural selection can easily explain hunger, fear and sexual lust, all of which straightforwardly contribute to our survival or the preservation of our genes. But what about the wrenching compassion we feel when we see an orphaned child weeping, an old widow in despair from loneliness, or an animal whimpering in pain?”

Cooperative behaviour is pretty much the definition of a social species, and the ability to understand a propensity to act to alleviate the suffering of members of our in group have clear evolutionary advantages. It is unsurprising that we see behaviour that can be described as a basic form of reality across all social species, and particularly in our close relatives. Species which have evolved in tandem, such as flowers and pollinating insects, or more complex examples such as humans and dogs, have a genetic tendency towards certain forms of cooperation, which may serve as some of the foundations for morality. In all such cases, mechanisms have evolved to punish those who do not cooperate.

Someone who does not understand how the utilitarian gene competition of natural selection leads to manifestations of altruism, does not understand how kinship and reciprocity serve as “the twin pillars of altruism in a Darwinian world, but there are secondary structures which rest atop those main pillars”.

In a Darwinian sense, our complex systems of morality, of social interaction, the appreciation of art music and beauty may be happily accidental by-products of other processes. This may not be satisfying if you start from the belief that morality was created especially for us.

Dawkins, and others, have written far more extensively on the evolution of morality, or more accurately the evolution of mental and social structures which serve as a basis for our morality, elsewhere. For a popular work of counter apologetics, it is simply enough to point out that there are good naturalistic explanations for the roots of morality.

Dawkins considers various empirical studies of moral norms, which he refers to as “moral universals”, though that term is a little problematic. It’s quite a brief overview, but it reminded me of studying basic moral philosophy and how useless and distracting God claims are from interesting real-world moral dilemmas. Dawkins draws on the work of biologist Marc Hauser who has undertaken extensive and genuinely cross-cultural research into responses to variations of the trolley problem. The details don’t really matter, but suffice it to say we have incredibly strong empirical evidence that certain basic moral predispositions are common across cultures and regardless of religion or belief. We should also point out that the ubiquity of these basic moral predispositions does not mean that they are the best possible moral approaches.

Dawkins concludes that:

“This seems compatible with the view, which I and many others hold, that we do not need God in order to be good – or evil.”

Theologians may counter with the claim that such ubiquitous moral predispositions are themselves a product of divine intervention, but without evidence of divine intervention being possible, such claims are profoundly unimpressive.

Dawkins expresses his frustration at the question “if there is no god, why be good?”. The question is actually circular, as it pre-supposes that god is the reason to do good. Without this presupposition, the second half of the question is a non sequitur. Dawkins flippantly responds to this question with what is effectively a critique of divine commandment theory, asking: “Do you really mean to tell me the only reason you try to be good is to gain God’s approval and reward, or to avoid his disapproval and punishment?”. Theologians have all sorts of ways of attempting to wriggle out of or obscure their use of divine commandment theory.

Quoting Michael Shermer, Dawkins argues that this is a “debate stopper” because:

“If you agree that, in the absence of God, you would ‘commit robbery, rape, and murder’, you reveal yourself as an immoral person, ‘and we would be well advised to steer a wide course around you’. If, on the other hand, you admit that you would continue to be a good person even when not under divine surveillance, you have fatally undermined your claim that God is necessary for us to be good.”

I have previously critiqued such claims of “debate stoppers” and the simplistic idea that belief systems as complex as religions can be bought down by such simple rational argument.

Dawkins, like many atheists, thinks that the belief that a god is the only thing holding back rampant immorality, is a demeaning and anti-humanist position. However, he contrasts this view with examples where the temporary absence of policing has led to a breakdown in law and order. These are slightly beside the point and such anomalies don’t really tell us much about how law and order would function in a society designed with the absence of policing.

Again, Dawkins draws on empirical evidence showing that belief in an all-seeing supernatural police force in the sky, does not appear to make people more or less likely to follow the law. He does argue however that humanism as an atheistic moral system does encourage superior moral behaviour. I would tend to agree, but that is a more complex question.

Dawkins quotes from Sam Harris in his Letter to a Christian Nation: demonstrating that all sorts of behaviours we consider morally bad, principally crime, are in fact highly correlated with religiosity. This is problematic, because in a highly religious society such as the United States, and despite atheists being a marginalised community, the ability to be nonreligious is often correlated with positions of privilege.

Returning to the question of why one should be good without a god, Dawkins imagines a hypothetical apologist asking:

“If you don’t believe in God, you don’t believe there are any absolute standards of morality. With the best will in the world you may intend to be a good person, but how do you decide what is good and what is bad? Only religion can ultimately provide your standards of good and evil.”

He could have chosen to quote from any number of apologists making this basic argument. There are several critiques of this argument. Firstly it misunderstands the process by which societies come to moral consensus, and by which individuals exercise moral reasoning, and secondly it sets up the idea of “ultimate morality” as a way to smuggle in circular reasoning presupposing an ultimate moral arbiter, when such ultimate or cosmic morality is unnecessary for human moral systems.

Dawkins first points out that even if it were true that we needed a god concept to be moral, that would not imply that the god concept actually maps to reality. He also points out that theories of moral absolution can be based on nonreligious or naturalistic arguments. This and the remainder of the chapter, which considers very briefly determinist and utilitarian reality, perfectly undermines claims that god concepts are necessary for morality, but doesn’t build up a positive case for a secular or humanistic view of morality.

This sets up the next two chapters of the book. I hope you will join me for those in the penultimate, part four, of this review in a few weeks’ time.

Thanks for reading

Let me know what you thought of this article and if you want to hear more. I’m thinking of doing more reviews on books from an AHS+ perspective, are there any you’d like to see? Would you prefer books that are generally pro or anti atheist, humanist or secularist?

If you value this content and are able to financially support it, that would be great. Just a couple of pounds a month would help with hosting and other costs, and one day help expand our operations.

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Our drab religious anthem and anti-racism protests

Taking the knee against racism at Euro 2020 seems a better reflection of our national values than our national anthem: a hymn to a conquering sectarian monarchy.

England played Scotland on Friday in their second group game of the Euro 2020 football tournament. As they have in recent games, the England players joined by their Scottish counterparts agreed to take the knee before kick-off in a symbolic gesture against racism. As in recent games, this gesture was booed by a small number of racists.

There are substantive critiques of the knee protest. Gestures matter, but this one has been co-opted to fit within a framework with which the football authorities and sponsors are comfortable. While it has started important conversations it hasn’t so far led to substantive actions to address racism in football or beyond. However, protests against this protest against racism, have spread as it has been made a culture war issue.

Taking the knee has always been a bit of an awkward import into UK sport. Colin Kaepernick’s iconic protest of taking the knee before American football games worked, because he objected to being required to glorifying a nation steeped in racism. We don’t do the bizarre performative patriotism of insisting on the national anthem at every sporting event. Maybe we would if we had a decent one.

Many people feel more affinity to the symbolism of taking a knee for racial and social justice, than they do for our national anthem: God save our gracious queen etc. It says nothing about our people or the values millions of Brits identify with. As an atheist, I don’t want or need to beseech any deity’s help with my head of state’s health or nation’s sporting prowess. As a humanist I don’t want someone to “reign over us” As a secularist, I’m not sure I want a god to “confound their politics”, separation of church and state, and all that.

I find the excessively performative prayer by players, equally bizarre and more than a bit silly, though at least I can see a game in the pub without social pressure to participate in this. In either case, thanking god for a tap-in or making our national anthem a hymn to a conquering sectarian monarchy, I couldn’t imagine the effrontery of booing it. I’d like a new national anthem, but am not going to start a bloody culture war over it. I wouldn’t expect anyone to care if I boycotted the national team over it.

We like to pretend we’re a meritocracy. But celebrity, achieved through sporting success or media acumen, rare as it is, is one of the very few routes that provide people from ethnic minority or working-class backgrounds with a significant platform to speak out on social issues. There are certainly forms of neutrality and non-partisanship that institutions like football clubs would be wise to observe. But politics has always been interwoven with sport and football in particular. Calls to ‘keep politics out of football’ are normally calls to keep quiet about issues that people don’t like or are uncomfortable with. This is normally just a form of conservative ‘cancel culture’. There are significant issues with racism within British sport, particularly sport media and business, and any expectation that players should stay silent about this is political.

Thanks for reading

Let me know what you thought of this article and if you want to hear more. If you value this content and are able to financially support it, that would be great. Just a couple of pounds a month would help with hosting and other costs, and one day help expand our operations.

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Stop gaslighting LGBT+ people about religion

Happy Pride to all my LGBT+ readers and allies. The disproportionate contribution of LGBT+ people to atheist, humanist, secularist and similar groups is something we should all be extremely grateful for. At times, this disproportionate contribution has literally paid my wages and has greatly enriched the groups that have provided a home for me. Round the world and throughout history LGBT+ people have so often been on the frontline in the fight against theocracy and dogmatism.

When I was a younger, brasher atheist I used to wonder how any LGBT+ person could be religious. From a more mature position, I realise that faith identities and beliefs mean different things to different people, and many people are perfectly capable of reconciling these with LGBT+ identities or allyship.

In modern Western history virtually every organised campaign against the rights of lesbian, gay and bisexual people has been religious in nature. That is absolutely not to suggest that atheists, humanists, or secularist groups are completely free of homophobia. Though Western transphobia is also largely funded by religious groups, it has found far too warm a reception in some parts of our community. Though religiosity and homophobia are highly correlated, it would be an absurdly broad and unfair brush to paint all religion or religious people as homophobic. I was giving a talk a few years ago and during the Q&A a teenager shared her upset with her peers assuming Christians like her were homophobic. I’m sure she was entirely sincere, a good friend and ally. But the root of her discomfort was that she didn’t like people pointing out her group’s role in systemic oppression.

If people want to practice their faith or manifest their religious identity in more inclusive, humanistic ways then great. But LGBT+ people and their allies should not be policed or prevented from pointing out the systemic role of religion in their oppression. The fight for LGBT+ rights has almost always been a fight against heteronormative religious privilege.

The whole discourse on corporations co-opting Pride for pink washed marketing is important. Even if they are doing it for purely cynical reasons, is this still a sign of progress? Is performative allyship inherently good, bad, or neutral? Various accounts do a lot to expose this. At the moment, I’m following one which tweets about corporations’ rainbow rebrands along with details of their donations to anti-LGBT+ political causes in the US.

We should be just as critical of attempted pink washing by religious organisations. Any time a Church has a pride flag up, it’s great to see that they are trying to be inclusive. But I can absolutely guarantee with a tiny bit of research you could find they are affiliated or connected to an actively anti-LGBT+ group. Far too few will be open and honest about their religion’s role in homophobia. I’ve met many good and decent LGBT+ people of faith and worked with religious LGBT+ groups. They do a lot of good, but they also spend a lot of time and effort pretending that anti-LGBT+ bigotry has ‘nothing to do with religion’.

I get the strategic and practical reasons why ‘mainstream’ LGBT+ groups want to follow this same line. Ten to fifteen years ago, many ‘mainstream’ LGBT+ groups were pretending they didn’t support marriage equality, because they saw focusing on achieving civil unions as a pragmatic short term aim. This may have made strategic sense, but they were rightly called out on it, and it was a strategy which required more radical LGBT+ groups to push the envelope further.

LGBT+ groups have often sought acceptance by conforming themselves more closely to the values and expectations of ‘mainstream’ society. We live in a society where religion is extremely privileged, where taboos against criticism are valued and polite society is expected to pretend religion is never the cause of bigotry. LGBT+ people can choose to conform to these societal expectations, that’s fine, but they shouldn’t be expected to. There is clearly a lot of value in LGBT+ groups seeking and celebrating religious allies. But allyship based on the marginalised group protecting the feelings of their oppressors should not be immune from criticism. LGBT+ people have made a disproportionate contribution to atheist, humanist and secularist groups and vice versa, yet they constantly find themselves tone policed and marginalised to accommodate religious privilege.

The long history of anti-religious and anti-religious privilege messages at Pride should surprise no one, but these have increasingly been targeted, alongside anti-capitalist messages as part the depoliticisation and commercialisation of marches. Ex-Muslim groups and others have been targeted for protesting against religious homophobia.

Efforts to make Pride more inclusive for all groups including people of faith are great. But this can verge into silencing and marginalising LGBT+ people’s ability to talk honestly about their oppression. I love that as a straight ally, my LGBT+ friends make Pride inclusive for me. But I would hate for my comfort to be prioritised over their liberation.

With straight privilege, people are more likely to accept I have honest intellectual reasons for my atheism. I’m less likely to be told that my desire to live a nonreligious life is based on sexual ‘sin’. I’m less likely to have experienced religious based trauma and far less likely to be gaslit by well meaning ‘allies’ telling me that the religious homophobia I’ve encountered is not ‘real’ religion. Straight privilege makes leaving religion easier and a lot less burdened with internalised shame.

Perhaps it is this, along with a healthy dose of religious privilege, which drives the desperate need of the mainstream and many LGBT+ media to find, create or amplify any positive story of LGBT+ inclusive religion. Again, I’m all for celebrating moves towards equality in all quarters. But the disproportionate amplification of these stories often feels like gaslighting LGBT+ people and can be used by well meaning allies to delegitimise their experiences of religious based oppression. They remind my of Hollywood’s constant churning out of civil rights movies with white protagonists.

The worst historical example of this which helped motivate me to become an activist, was The Advocate making Pope Francis their 2013 person of the year. It set the model for a decade of gaslighting. Francis was photoshopped with “NOH8” face paint the rallying cry for marriage equality which came out of the Californian campaign against Proposition Eight. A disgusting misrepresentation of Francis’s dedication to fighting marriage equality and any other advancement of LGBT+ rights. The pull-quote “If someone is gay and seeks the Lord with good will, who am I to judge?” was presented as the sole evidence of his support for LGBT+ rights. Any honest reading actually shows this to be evidence of his self-righteous bigotry. He was saying they gay people should seek forgiveness for the ‘sin’ of being gay, and the largest LGBT+ publication in the world debased themselves by carrying it on their front cover.

There are practical reasons to celebrate allies where you find them, but if we lower our expectations so far for religious people, then nothing meaningful is done to challenge the biggest structural cause of homophobia. The mainstream media don’t write fawning puff pieces when atheist, humanist or secularist leaders say something nice about LGBT+ people. Religious privilege shouldn’t allow people to play allyship on easy mode.

As atheist, humanist and secularist values spread, LGBT+ acceptance will only continue to grow, and eventually the average religious person will be as accepting as the average nonreligious person is today. Religious groups will rewrite history and highlight odd examples to pretend they were on the right side all along (after all, in every struggle there will be people from the oppressing group with the moral wisdom and courage to stand with the oppressed), but we shouldn’t make this easy or comfortable for them.

Thanks for reading

Let me know what you thought of this article and if you want to hear more. If you value this content and are able to financially support it, that would be great. Just a couple of pounds a month would help with hosting and other costs, and one day help expand our operations.

Please join our community on Twitter and Facebook to help share the blog, and help pass it along to anyone who may be interested.

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AHS reads: The God Delusion, part 2

Welcome to part two in a five-part series rexamining The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins. In part one, I introduced the series and how Dawkins set out the ‘god hypothesis’. In this part Dawkins responds to common arguments for the existence of a god and contrasts them with his own argument, that an agent capable of acting as a god would be supremely complex and unlikely.

Chapter 3. Arguments for God’s existence

In Chapter three Dawkins considers the main theoretical arguments for the existence of a theistic, or more generic, god. I get a feeling that Dawkins is rushing through this chapter, and betraying his lack of interest in philosophical arguments, in an effort to quickly get back onto his preferred ground of scientific empiricism.

The easy criticism of this chapter is that Dawkins picks the simplistic arguments and gives them only superficial consideration. The easy defence follows that (1) he is writing an introductory book for a broad popular audience, not an academic work of counter apologetics, and (2) that the sophisticated versions of these arguments are no less vacuous.

When an atheist exposes the logical fallacy at the heart of one theologian’s simplistic argument, there will always be another more ‘sophisticated’ theologian along to make the argument more complex in an effort to better hide the same fallacy, and this goes on and on forever. Why then should an atheist not be allowed to save themselves some time and just address the simplistic version of the argument? If the theologian feels this unfair, they should stop trying to make their bad arguments ‘sophisticated’ and try finding a good argument. In any case I normally find apologetics a profoundly uninteresting distraction from religious debates which have some relevance to the real world.

As might be expected, Dawkins starts with Thomas Aquinas’s five ‘proofs’. Also, as to be expected, Dawkins points out that the first three of these (the unmoved mover, the uncaused cause and the cosmological argument) are actually the same argument which “rely upon the idea of a regress and invoke God to terminate it”, and in each the proposed terminator of this infinite regress is only made immune from that same regress through special pleading. Dawkins further points out that there is no reason to suppose that this special terminator should be a theistic god or any other conscious agent. He does not address how modern science calls into question the soundness of some of Aquinas’s clauses, something we can’t reasonably hold against the thirteenth century monk.

Dawkins quickly points out the fundamental logical problems with concepts of omniscience and omnipotence. I’m sure that ‘sophisticated’ theologians would take him to task, pointing out how they have redefined omniscience and omnipotence in an attempt to escape these internal logical contradictions.

Aquinas’s fourth ‘proof’, the argument from degree, Dawkins dismisses with a valid reductio ad absurdum. The argument from degree is that we notice there are different degrees of various things including  goodness. and that this implies there must be some entity which represents the maximal. Dawkins ignores, or doesn’t realise, the better response to the argument from degree, which is to point out that even if we do compare various things to a theoretical maximum, there is no reason to presume that this maximum is anything more than conceptual, let alone a conscious agent.

Aquinas’s fifth ‘proof’ is the teleological argument, better known as the argument from design. Given the centrality of evolutionary thought to Dawkins’ atheism, I expected a long refutation of this. In fact, Dawkins has written several far better books addressing the apparent design in nature.

From these a posteriori arguments Dawkins moves on to consider a priori arguments, beginning with the ontological, which he credits to St Anselm of Canterbury in 1078, and phrases thusly:

“Hence, even the fool (Anselm is referring to atheists) is convinced that something exists in the understanding, at least, than which nothing greater can be conceived. For, when he hears of this, he understands it. And whatever is understood, exists in the understanding. And assuredly that, than which nothing greater can be conceived, cannot exist in the understanding alone. For, suppose it exists in the understanding alone: then it can be conceived to exist in reality; which is greater.”

Again, Dawkins largely addresses this through several valid reductio ad absurdum, but drawing on Hume and Kant does go on to point out some of the more obvious flaws in the argument. Namely that: the assertion that we can conceive of an ultimate being is questionable and the inclusion of existence as an aspect of perfection is circular. I do agree with Dawkins, that it would be bizarre for some great fact about the universe, which the existence of a god surely would be, to be revealed through word games.

Dawkins then goes on to state without bothering to refute “a hilarious half-dozen” arguments collected by the Godless Geeks website. Most ‘sophisticated’ theologians would probably agree these are silly. Though I feel compelled to point out that arguments such as “God loves you. How could you be so heartless as not to believe in him? Therefore God exists.” or “A plane crashed killing 143 passengers and crew. But one child survived with only third-degree burns. Therefore God exists.” are probably used by more of the faithful than Aquinas’s.

From these, Dawkins moves on to informal arguments starting with that from beauty. He points out that the existence of beautiful art, music and literature, even when inspired or financed by religion, says nothing about the existence of even a metaphorical god. He then spends a little time talking about arguments from personal experience:

“If you’ve had such an experience, you may well find yourself believing firmly that it was real. But don’t expect the rest of us to take your word for it, especially if we have the slightest familiarity with the brain and its powerful workings.”

Both theologians and legitimate biblical scholars may wince at Dawkins’ simplistic discussion of biblical contradictions in addressing the argument from scripture. But his point that fictional and mythologised text cannot be used as evidence of the truth of their own claims, is pretty simple when you get down to it. Dawkins’ criticisms of the Bible and by extension other ‘sacred’ texts may be surface level but serve the purpose of consciousness raising. If a religious person has been raised to believe that ‘sacred’ texts are unquestionable, even inartful questioning of those texts may raise their consciousness to the possibility that they themselves could question them.

Dawkins spends five pages considering the arguments from admired religious scientists. He points out that (1) scientists were far more likely to be religious in the past when professing religious belief was the only acceptable thing to do (2) many great scientists are religious in the purely naturalistic metaphorical sense he addresses in chapter one and (3) there are clear correlations between levels of education, scientific expertise, and irreligion.

Again, I feel compelled to bring up the double-edged sword of atheist pride(fulness). Dawkins does not consider sociological reasons why better educated people and those who perform better on IQ tests may be more likely to be atheists. If you have greater access to good quality education, you are probably somewhere where it is physically and socially less dangerous to be an atheist. Not everyone has the time or resources necessary to educate oneself about or fully consider religious and naturalistic arguments. Dawkins, memorably, would go on to point out that Muslim majority countries produce significantly fewer Nobel Scientists.

Dawkins rounds out the chapter by addressing Pascal’s wager and giving brief consideration to Bayesian analysis. Dawkins summarises the French mathematician Blaise Pascal thusly:

“You’d better believe in God, because if you are right you stand to gain eternal bliss and if you are wrong it won’t make any difference anyway. On the other hand, if you don’t believe in God and you turn out to be wrong you get eternal damnation, whereas if you are right it makes no difference. On the face of it the decision is a no-brainer. Believe in God.”

Dawkins makes the usual sensible criticisms of the wager: it can be applied to any unevidenced proposition one cares to think up, it doesn’t account for how vanishingly unlikely the possibility of a god actually existing is, and it doesn’t account for the negative costs of religion. Dawkins appears to miss that Pascal’s actual argument in the wager is that one should act as though they have faith in the hopes that they will be influenced by those around them or God’s grace to develop genuine faith. If (as Pascal believed) there were good independent evidence for a god (there isn’t) then the wager might be reasonable.

Bayesian arguments are those which try to make probabilistic arguments for the existence of a god by considering generally agreed (between theists and atheists) facts about reality and then attempting to compare whether they would be more or less probable in a world where a god does or doesn’t exist. Dawkins points out that these arguments are subject to the “GIGO principle (Garbage In, Garbage Out)” as the theist simply asserts that some variable is more likely in a world where their preferred god exists. I actually find Bayesian arguments for gods to be more interesting and epistemologically humble than the other arguments considered in this chapter.

Chapter 4. Why there almost certainly is no God

This chapter contains Dawkins central argument against theism and what he considers to be the best argument against the god hypothesis he has defined in chapter two, namely that: a theistic god i.e., a conscious agent created the universe and has some interest in human affairs.

Dawkins’ strategy is to take the argument from (apparent) design or complexity, which as an evolutionary science communicator he has dedicated decades to refuting and turning it on its head. He calls this the “Ultimate Boeing 747 gambit”, based on the creationist argument which misrepresents evolution as a random process of chance, where the odds of creating complex life is akin to the odds of a tornado in a junkyard assembling a Boeing 747.

Dawkins reasons that an entity such as a god with the power to create and manage the universe must be itself incredibly complex and therefore more improbable. Theologians reason that the complex appearance of design seen in nature suggests that there is a designer for the whole of nature. Dawkins understands that the complex appearance of design seen in nature is actually the result of simple natural processes, he therefore reasons that there must be simple natural processes for the whole of nature.

Dawkins believes that natural selection should serve as a consciousness-raiser to help us understand why a complex theistic god would be so unlikely. As he’s back on the topic of consciousness-raising, we are treated to another cringing jab at aspects of feminism he thinks are silly, namely “herstory”, before actually giving good examples of how feminist critique of language has helped expose hidden assumptions which may cloud our thinking.

“Natural selection not only explains the whole of life; it also raises our consciousness to the power of science to explain how organized complexity can emerge from simple beginnings without any deliberate guidance.”

Natural selection may be Dawkins’ central concern, but he points out how other fields of science should raise our consciousness to understand the absurdity of believing that the vast universe we inhabit a tiny part of was created by a conscious agent for our benefit. Dawkins, via Prof Peter Atkins, addresses the argument that a god could have worked their process of creation through processes such as natural selection, with a seemingly valid reductio ad absurdum where a lazy god allows natural processes to do all his work for him.

Dawkins spends a few pages on the creationist pseudoscience of irreducible complexity and supposed gaps in the fossil record. All of this is perfectly fine refutation of creationism and is both entertaining and informing science communication, but doesn’t add much to the point that a theistic god would have to be very complex.

Next Dawkins addresses the anthropic principle, at both planetary and cosmological scales. To sum up, theologians point to how unlikely the existence of either life on this planet or life in the universe itself is and suggest that this points to the existence of a god who sets things up this way. The anthropic principle flips this on its head. If life had not evolved on Earth, then we wouldn’t be here to be wondering why.

“The chance of finding any one of those billion life-bearing planets recalls the proverbial needle in a haystack. But we don’t have to go out of our way to find a needle because (back to the anthropic principle) any beings capable of looking must necessarily be sitting on one of those prodigiously rare needles before they even start the search.”

If I were to shuffle a deck of 52 cards before drawing out 13 spades, this would seem hugely significant to me. But it would be no less improbable than drawing any random selection of 13 cards. The existence of humans is naturally of supreme importance to humanity. But if we didn’t exist, it’s not like the universe would miss us. It is unfathomable arrogance to assume the universe was created for us, why not assume it was created for dung beetles, black holes, or interstellar dust?

Dawkins points out that some theologians like to go on and on about how unlikely the current setup of our local universe is, but that such probabilistic arguments are rendered meaningless by the anthropic principle, and by the fact that these theologians have no basis for their probabilistic claims. We don’t know how many potential universes there are or whether the conditions of our local universe really are free to vary.

For the cosmological version of the anthropic principle, Dawkins considers the religious physicist Martin Rees’s argument from six fundamental constants. Rees argues that there are six fundamental constants which must be exactly or pretty exactly their current values in order for a universe like ours to exist. A theologian would argue that a god would have to have set these values. Dawkins counters that a conscious agent capable of setting those values would have to be more complex and so it is far simpler to suppose some unconscious naturalistic explanation.

“How do they cope with the argument that any God capable of designing a universe, carefully and foresightfully tuned to lead to our evolution, must be a supremely complex and improbable entity who needs an even bigger explanation than the one he is supposed to provide?”

Dawkins is aware that theologians will respond that a god is a simple and parsimonious proposition. This could be defended in several ways: (1) by positing a purely first cause god rather than the theistic god Dawkins is addressing, (2) by special pleading that god is immune from the logical inconsistency that arises in being both supremely simple and supremely complex, or (3) simple obfuscation.

First, he considers the argument by the theologian Richard Swinburne who argues, unconvincingly, that a god who through conscious effort maintains the laws of physics throughout the universe is simpler than having to suppose explanations for why every component of the universe continues to obey the laws of physics. Another theologian, Keith Ward, is quoted in the ‘god is simple camp’ as saying:

“As a matter of fact, the theist would claim that God is a very elegant, economical and fruitful explanation for the existence of the universe. It is economical because it attributes the existence and nature of absolutely everything in the universe to just one being, an ultimate cause which assigns a reason for the existence of everything, including itself.”

Dawkins points out that Swinburne and Ward are positing an extremely complex agent and then, because they can describe it in simple terms, asserting that the thing itself is simple. Dawkins could have argued that this is an example of confusing the map for the territory.

Dawkins wraps up the chapter with “an interlude at Cambridge”, where he recounts the response to his argument from complexity at a Templeton Foundation conference on science and religion:

“I challenged the theologians to answer the point that a God capable of designing a universe, or anything else, would have to be complex and statistically improbable. The strongest response I heard was that I was brutally foisting a scientific epistemology upon an unwilling theology, if Theologians had always defined God as simple. Who was I, a scientist, to dictate to theologians that their God had to be complex?”

Dawkins effectively returns to his critique of NOMA from chapter two. He, and I agree with him, rejects the theologians’ claim that they have some special field of knowledge which is immune from the sorts of epistemology we may apply to other empirical or philosophical questions. Dawkins believes that by framing the god question as a hypothesis which (1) actually does represent the sort of god that theists claim to believe in and (2) is demonstrably improbable, he can move it to his own ground and defeat it. But I don’t think that’s how counter apologetics works. The best the atheist can do, and Dawkins does make a valiant effort in this chapter, is simply to continue to point out absurdities in god concepts such that theologians must retreat deeper and deeper into special pleading to defend their notions.

Dawkins addresses the claim by critical theologians, that his worldview – that theological claims can be put to the question as a scientific hypotheses – is stuck in the nineteenth century. He contends that this attack actually reflects poorly on theologians and their retreat since the nineteenth century from defending their positions through real-world epistemology, to defending their beliefs from the reach of that epistemology. This, one presumes, is what passes for banter at a Templeton Foundation conference.

Finally, Dawkins concludes the chapter and then sets up the rest of the book by considering some of the questions of religion atheists should address once the idea of a theistic god has been dismissed:

“Isn’t it consoling? Doesn’t it motivate people to do good? … Why, in any case, be so hostile? … where does it come from?” etc.

Those all sound like good questions, and I hope you will join again in two weeks’ time to explore Dawkins’ responses.

Thanks for reading

Let me know what you thought of this article and if you want to hear more. I’m thinking of doing more reviews on books from an AHS+ perspective, are there any you’d like to see? Would you prefer books that are generally pro or anti atheist, humanist or secularist?

If you value this content and are able to financially support it, that would be great. Just a couple of pounds a month would help with hosting and other costs, and one day help expand our operations.

Please join our community on Twitter and Facebook to help share the blog, and help pass it along to anyone who may be interested.

Requires improvement: Ofsted review shows need for a major rethink on RE

A review has highlighted significant problems with the way RE is taught. Alastair Lichten argues that it shows the need to ask fundamental questions about the purpose of education about religion.

Ofsted recently published a subject level review of religious education, the first since its 2013 review found that the structures of local determination underpinning the subject were not fit for purpose. In the years since there has been a plethora of initiatives, commissions and reports calling for fundamental reform of the subject. Unfortunately, there is little in this review to suggest this has impacted practice in schools.

The ‘NSS articles’ category contains links to my opinion pieces, written while a campaigns officer or head of education for the National Secular Society, before June 2022. You can read the full original of this article here >>>

Photo credit: Blog Letters on Brown Wood – Pixabay

Community matters: The importance of actively secular spaces

Over the last 18 months, with Covid driving the shift to online meetings and with thinking about launching this blog, I have been to a larger and wider range of atheist, humanist, and secularist groups than in any time since my student activist days. I’ve been thinking about the different types of spaces which are needed to serve AHS+ communities.

Within movement atheism and wider religion and belief debates, a lot of discourse draws a binary distinction between religious and nonreligious or the sacred and the secular. I think this overlooks the potential of secular or nonreligious spaces as a meeting ground. We could instead see spaces as spread along a spectrum:

Actively religious > passively religious > passively nonreligious > actively nonreligious > passively irreligious > actively irreligious.

We need inclusive communities to fill the space right across this spectrum. However, I believe the space for actively nonreligious communities is poorly served. In our increasingly secularised world, most places are passively nonreligious. Book club, parkrun, community cricket club; for most of us, regardless of beliefs, most of our social interactions are de facto nonreligious.

The religious have no shortage of groups which, even if not focussed on religious goals, are centred around their identity and their needs. If you are nonreligious and you want a group centred around your identity, then your choices are more limited and mainly focused on atheism. These groups do important work challenging the toxic manifestations of religion. But they shouldn’t be the only groups serving nonreligious communities. If you’re looking for a space to express your nonreligious identity, then an explicitly atheist or antireligious group may not always be what you need.

Many groups who want to position themselves as being for nonreligious people retreat into a passively nonreligious mentality because it feels ‘safer’ or less ‘controversial’. I’ve seen this happen with various nonreligious charity drives shifting to more generic language of serving everyone – an aimable goal. Nonreligious summer camps or discussion groups reframing themselves as philosophy focused. So called “atheist churches” describing themselves as just social meetups. All of these activities may be great in themselves, but the retreat from openly identifying as nonreligious is potentially problematic.

Without this clear identity, these groups may not be clearly communicating to their main audience or reaching nonreligious people. While this is fine if we just want nonreligious spaces, it isn’t creating spaces for nonreligious people.

Internalised religious privilege also plays a role as we’re told it is intrinsically bad to create explicitly nonreligious spaces. Many nonreligious people feel that that is part of their identity they should be at least slightly embarrassed about and that organising around it is inherently exclusionary. Even in actively irreligious spaces, there is often an assumption that the group should be reaching out and prioritising showing a good face to the religious. Not every space is for everyone, and if we believe that nonreligious people deserve community, then we should create communities which serve and centre them.

Actively nonreligious spaces also give room for atheists and anti-theists to express their nonreligious identities free from, rather than in opposition to, religion. They create room for values which stand apart from both religious and explicitly atheistic belief systems.

This is not just about nonreligious people. Many people of faith, including but not limited to those who may also be humanists or secularists, have particular needs for actively nonreligious spaces. Religion can be very important to someone, and still be something they need to get away from, from time to time. Everyone has nonreligious parts of their identity they can need space to express. Actively nonreligious spaces can provide them with that without unwanted anti-religious proselytization or antagonism.

I think this would also help support the political cause of secularism, by better differentiating between nonreligious and irreligious spaces.

Thanks for reading

Let me know what you thought of this article and if you want to hear more. If you value this content and are able to financially support it, that would be great. Just a couple of pounds a month would help with hosting and other costs, and one day help expand our operations.

Please join our community on Twitter and Facebook to help share the blog, and help pass it along to anyone who may be interested.

Is the C of E ashamed of discrimination in school admissions?

Research suggests the Church of England downplays the extent of religious discrimination in admissions to the schools it runs. Its embarrassment shows the need to end this practice, says Alastair Lichten.

There is a widespread misconception, encouraged by the Church of England, that ‘its’ faith schools are open to all and do not religiously discriminate in admissions. Like the C of E’s efforts to avoid church schools being described as faith schools, efforts to downplay or obfuscate discriminatory admissions have various motivations.

The ‘NSS articles’ category contains links to my opinion pieces, written while a campaigns officer or head of education for the National Secular Society, before June 2022. You can read the full original of this article here >>>

Photo credit: Blog Blocks Wallpaper – Miguel Á. Padriñán

AHS reads: The God Delusion, part 1

A review of The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins 15 years after its first publication hardly qualifies as a hot take. However, when I was deciding to launch this blog and considering the small contribution I could make to our AHS+ communities, it made sense to revisit the book which arguably helped launch the modern atheist movement more than any other .

An atheist humanist secularist reading

This series will be an experiment in in-depth critical reviews spaced out over alternate weeks for the benefit of those who wish either to read along or who are more interested in my sociopolitical commentary.

In part one I will review the preface and first two chapters, where Dawkins sets out the form of theism and religion he is arguing against, contrasting it with metaphorical uses of the terms. In two weeks’ time I will respond to chapters three and four, where Dawkins considers the arguments for and his central argument against theism. Part three will look at naturalistic explanations for the roots of religion and morality (chapters five and six). Part four critiques chapters seven and eight, and the moral case against religion. This series will conclude with my review of the final two chapters’ positive case for atheism, and my reflections on the series overall.

To paraphrase Heraclitus, we don’t read the same book twice. The text may not have changed, but we have.

I read the first paperback edition around 14 years ago. What was so energising was not necessarily the text itself but the intellectual and social movements it helped ignite. I’m not even sure if I read all the way to the end, as my copy was borrowed multiple times. Strangers seeing you read it in the park would come up to talk to you about it. Like the Bible, this was a text where the greatest impact, and both the most vociferous criticism and praise, comes not necessarily from the text itself, but peoples’ filtered idea of the text.

I read it for a second time about seven years ago when my personal atheism was transitioning from a firebrand to a more social justice-oriented approach. Perhaps I sought to recapture the burning ferocity of the early ‘new atheism’. I remember being surprised to find the book was far more mellow than I had remembered;. certainly less scathing than most online discourse about politics. It is only the special deference granted to religion that makes a book like The God Delusion seem at all scandalously rude.


The book was published in the same year that Dawkins presented a Channel Four documentary titled “Root of all evil” and illustrated by “a picture of the Manhattan skyline with the caption ‘Imagine a world without religion.’”. I was surprised by quite how early it is clear that this book was written in the shadow of 9/11, though to a lesser extent than books like Letter to a Christian Nation. Dawkins had wanted to write a book directly tackling religion for some time but was deterred by publishers. The events of 11 September 2001 and other Islamist violence forced concerns over religious fundamentalism into the mainstream and created the space for the so called ‘new atheism’ epitomised by authors like Dawkins.

This also displays the reduction of complex geo-political issues into simplistic explanations of religious extremism that those authors were more or less fairly criticised for.

Dawkins uses the preface to set out his approach including the self admittedly ambitious aim that “If this book works as I intend, religious readers who open it will be atheists when they put it down.” as well as four secondary aims of ‘consciousness raising’. Seeking to persuade people of the truth of your position is laudable. But this comes across as hopelessly naïve.

Perhaps this is a product of its time and seems stranger to us because the conversation about religion and atheism has moved on. Before the ‘new atheism’ of the early 21st-century began to break this taboo, atheist arguments were excluded from much of the public sphere. Before the internet, people in highly religious communities may never have had access to the writings of others who shared their own inner doubts. It is unsurprising that popularly accessible atheistic writing was able to quickly reach so many already primed recipients.

This claimed aim also invites comparisons to work by Christian apologists, who often profess themselves to be writing to the non-believer, while actually giving greater service to the aim of reinforcing religious faith.

Dawkins sets out four forms of consciousness-raising he wishes to promote through the book. Firstly, that atheism is both an intellectually viable and potentially personally fulfilling option. This is a measure of how far we have come in beginning to break the taboos of atheism, that this aim appears so modest.

Secondly, that the explanatory power of natural selection should prime us to embrace naturalistic and non-agent focused explanations over religious or design focused ones.

Thirdly, noticing the absurdity of labelling children by their parents’ religious beliefs. While the statement that “There is no such thing as a Muslim child. There is no such thing as a Christian child.” is perhaps too simplistic, the lazy assumption that children belong to or are owned by the religious tradition of their background should be challenged.

Fourthly, that being “an atheist is nothing to be apologetic about. On the contrary, it is something to be proud of”. He makes the comparison to LGBT pride and the coming out movement explicit. The comparisons, and differences, between these two deeply entwined movements deserves further commentary.

Pride is a double-edged sword. Most of us still live in societies which – however irreligious – are awash with religious privilege and where being an open atheist is treated as something shameful. Atheists should have the pride necessary to be open about themselves and their beliefs but also be careful of being unnecessarily prideful about figuring out the easy ‘god question’.

Chapter 1. A deeply religious non-believer

“Chapters 1 and 10 top and tail the book by explaining, in their different ways, how a proper understanding of the magnificence of the real world, while never becoming a religion, can fill the inspirational role that religion has historically – and inadequately – usurped.”

The title of the first chapter comes from an Einstein quote and is all very interesting. While setting the scene, it does little to advance Dawkins’ main arguments. He discusses how a “quasi-mystical response to nature and the universe is common among scientists and rationalists” and how metaphorical use of religious language can cloud our debate. It’s unclear whether Dawkins is criticising scientists for using religious metaphors or theologians and religious quote miners for misrepresenting these as an argument for theism.

During his life it was clear that Einstein was not religious or a believer in anything but a metaphorical god and Dawkins quotes at length some of the brutal and racist attacks against him by Christian theologians because of this. But in death Einstein’s words have been misappropriated by theologians.

“There is every reason to think that famous Einsteinisms like ‘God is subtle but he is not malicious’ or ‘He does not play dice’ or ‘Did God have a choice in creating the Universe?’ are pantheistic, not deistic, and certainly not theistic. ‘God does not play dice’ should be translated as ‘Randomness does not lie at the heart of all things.’ ‘Did God have a choice in creating the Universe?’ means ‘Could the universe have begun in any other way?’ Einstein was using ‘God’ in a purely metaphorical, poetic sense. “

Dawkins is very concerned he is not misrepresented as arguing against metaphoric religion or poetic naturalism, and that he be understood as targeting specifically theistic supernaturalist religion.  Like many science communicators, Dawkins frequently uses agency and amorphization in discussions of evolution and other natural processes. Often one of the silliest critiques of atheists and other materialists is to accuse them of ‘scientism’, which puts the atheist into a bind. Either they are accused of not appreciating beauty and wonder, or they talk about beauty and wonder and are accused of making nature into a religion.

Figurative language about religion can be deployed in two ways according to Dawkins. Firstly he addresses how metaphor and euphemism can be misused to give inappropriate credit to religion. Then he turns his attention to how metaphor and euphemism can be misused to shield religion from criticism.

This provides us with an early example of Dawkins moving outside of his field of expertise (science communication) into fields where he is much less artful (social commentary). From Northern Ireland to Iraq and Yugoslavia, Dawkins criticises the use of euphemisms such as community or ethnic conflict when describing conflict between religious groups: “we have a pusillanimous reluctance to use religious names for warring factions”.

It is true that the media and elites wish to downplay or obfuscate the role of religion and religious identity in such conflicts, but equally they cannot be reduced to matters of religion. Dawkins will return to this theme, and the sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland in more detail later in the book. So, I’m reluctant to criticise him for his overly simplistic treatment of it here.

Because of religious privilege, an underlying theme in but not actually one of the four issues Dawkins wishes to raise consciousness on, is that religion is often given credit for the good and shielded from criticism for the bad. For example, the work of a Christian charity is credited to Christianity, whereas bigotry by a Christian hate group is not. Dawkins is right to criticise this, but it would be difficult to justify doing the opposite, for example if he were to claim that religion must take no credit for Christian charity, but all blame for Christian hate.

For the rest of the chapter Dawkins goes into examples such as Islamic fundamentalists’ (and their mainstream apologists’) reactions to the 2005/06 Danish Muhammad cartoons episode and public debates over morality to highlight the undue deference given to religious sensibilities.

“It is in the light of the unparalleled presumption of respect for religion that I make my own disclaimer for this book. I shall not go out of my way to offend, but nor shall I don kid gloves to handle religion any more gently than I would handle anything else.”

Chapter 2. The God Hypothesis

Chapter two opens with perhaps the book’s best-known quotation:

“The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”

It’s hard to argue with such a characterisation based on any honest reading of the Bible. But, perhaps surprisingly to those who have encountered this quote out of context, Dawkins is not out to “attack such an easy target”. In this chapter Dawkins sets out what he means to and believes can be attacked, namely the hypothesis that a theistic god, (i.e., one possessing agency and with some interest in the affairs of either humanity or the wider universe) exists.

Dawkins believes that this is a scientific hypothesis which can at least theoretically be tested. If the theologian genuinely believes they can demonstrate the existence of a god, either through empirical evidence or rational argument, it is unclear why they would object.

Dawkins takes a rather brief aside to consider polytheism, including the trinitarianism of Christianity. Of course, Christian theologians will argue, nonsensically, that the trinity is mono rather than poly theistic. Critics may argue that this is betraying Dawkins simplistic view of religion, while a supporter could respond that these are not necessary to address the god hypothesis. One need not know every single detail of every single edition and every single school of criticism of the Spiderman comics to discuss whether Spiderman exists.

Dawkins explains that “For brevity I shall refer to all deities, whether poly- or monotheistic, as simply ‘God’.” Again, this seems perfectly sensible, Dawkins is free to set out the hypothesis he is arguing against and theologians are free to criticise the argument or hypothesis. Here also Dawkins explains why he will continue with the convention of referring to the agent or theistic god as he, before taking a dig at feminist theologians:

“More sophisticated theologians proclaim the sexlessness of God, while some feminist theologians seek to redress historic injustices by designating her female. But what, after all, is the difference between a non-existent female and a non-existent male? I suppose that, in the ditzily unreal intersection of theology and feminism, existence might indeed be a less salient attribute than gender.”

I agree with Dawkins that theology is not a serious academic approach to studying religion or belief. Philosophy of religion, sociology of religion, history of religion, psychology of religion et cetera et cetera et cetera are all worthy fields of study, but theology should be kept as far away from this as alchemy is kept away from the chemistry department.

But it seems that Dawkins is intentionally associating theology with feminism, to make it sound silly. Proposing a female god is no sillier than proposing a male god, so why doesn’t he spend as much time making fun out of that? Feminist religious scholars – whether legitimate scholars or theologians – may have good reasons to talk about a female god, including addressing the traditional male supremacy in religion.

Dawkins is happy to make use of feminist thought surrounding consciousness-raising, and then turns round and uses feminism as a punchline. Feminists may label an arbitrary concept of god female, for the same reason that Australian mapmakers may arbitrarily place the southern hemisphere at the top of their maps. Indeed, this second is an example of consciousness-raising that Dawkins later praises.

Also note the use of the gendered language, ‘ditzy’. Toxic parts of the atheist movement frequently use gendered or racialised language to criticise gendered or racialised aspects of religion, and then when called on it claim that they are criticising all religion.

Dawkins seeks to pre-empt the criticism that: “The God that Dawkins doesn’t believe in is a God that I don’t believe in either. I don’t believe in an old man in the sky with a long white beard.” Dawkins believes this is unfair because that’s not the hypothesis he is attacking, he is attacking the hypothesis of an agent i.e., theistic god. One may also point out that the idea of a god sitting up in the clouds, while laughable today, is not so different to concepts of gods that have been held throughout human history.

Dawkins then spends a little time looking at monotheism and the secularist roots of the United States. This is all fine enough but superficial and I’m not sure why it’s placed in this chapter. He spends a lot of time talking about:

“The paradox has often been noted that the United States, founded in secularism, is now the most religiose country in Christendom, while England, with an established church headed by its constitutional monarch, is among the least.”

He gives a quite superficial answer which might be called the free-market hypothesis that lack of state religion has encouraged religions to become more aggressively competitive. When Dawkins encounters a difficult question in science, he is excited about all the different possible explanations there could be. But on difficult social questions, he seems content to reach for simplistic answers.

After these asides Dawkins returns to the central argument of this chapter, that the existence of a theistic god is a scientific hypothesis. He begins by defining two types of agnosticism: “Temporary Agnosticism in Practice” vs “Permanent Agnosticism in Principle”. First of which Dawkins considers a reasonable open-minded approach and the second a close-minded assertion.

He illustrates this with a seven-point scale from 100% certain theism to 100% certain atheism. Dawkins contends that the “Temporary Agnosticism in Practice” should lead us to a strong six, verging on seven on the scale, while the “Permanent Agnosticism in Principle” approach is useless as it would preclude us from taking any position.

We then get a brief rundown of the burden of proof, and why theists are unjustified in placing this on atheists, via the examples of Russell’s cosmic teapot, Camp Quest’s invisible pink unicorn and the Church of the flying spaghetti monster. To summarise:

The great humanist mathematician and philosopher Bertrand Russell illustrates the problem with theists claiming that atheists should be the ones to prove that God doesn’t exist, by positing the existence of a tiny china teapot orbiting the sun which cannot be revealed or disproved even by the most powerful telescopes, and how absurd it would be to demand that a-teapotists disprove its existence. The invisible pink unicorn and flying spaghetti monster are contemporary examples to illustrate the absurdity of positing undetectable supernatural entities without evidence and then asserting the burden is on others to disprove their claim.

Dawkins spends the remainder of the chapter addressing potential criticisms of his approach to the god hypothesis, in the form of the theory of non-overlapping magisterium (NOMA) proposed by Stephen Jay Gould. NOMA holds that:

“The net, or magisterium, of science covers the empirical realm: what is the universe made of (fact) and why does it work this way (theory). The magisterium of religion extends over questions of ultimate meaning and moral value. These two magisteria do not overlap, nor do they encompass all inquiry (consider, for example, the magisterium of art and the meaning of beauty). To cite the old cliches, science gets the age of rocks, and religion the rock of ages; science studies how the heavens go, religion how to go to heaven.”

Dawkins’ critique of this is twofold and it seems to me that an honest theologian who sincerely believes there is evidence for the god hypothesis would join Dawkins in this first critique. Namely, that the two magisterium do comment on each other. Theologians make claims about reality all the time. If there were the slightest suggestion of empirical evidence in favour of the god hypothesis, does anyone imagine theologians would say this doesn’t count, because it is from a different magisterium?

For an example of this, Dawkins considers “the Great Prayer Experiment”, one of several such initiatives funded by the Templeton Foundation which aim to find indirect empirical evidence in support of religion by testing prayer. If the test were to succeed, theologians would claim this as evidence. Religious apologists only retreat to claiming that the utility of prayer is beyond science because such tests fail.

Dawkins’ second critique is to question the basis of the second magisterium, i.e. to question whether theologians really do have a meaningful field of expertise.

“Perhaps there are some genuinely profound and meaningful questions that are forever beyond the reach of science… But if science cannot answer some ultimate question, what makes anybody think that religion can?… theologians have nothing worthwhile to say about anything else; let’s throw them a sop and let them worry away at a couple of questions that nobody can answer and maybe never will.”

While Dawkins does agree, perhaps to shield himself from accusations of scientism, that “science’s entitlement to advise us on moral values is problematic, to say the least”, his simplistic treatment of the second magisterium does give succour to the types of atheists who do casually dismiss the contributions of philosophy and the humanities to our understanding of the world.

Finally, Dawkins turns to considering why NOMA is embraced by religious moderates and those nonreligious scientists who he dismisses as the “appeasement lobby”:

“A possible ulterior motive for those scientists who insist on NOMA – the invulnerability to science of the God Hypothesis – is a peculiarly American political agenda, provoked by the threat of populist creationism.”

Ostensibly this is all in aid of defending his claim that the existence of a theistic god should be treated as a scientific hypothesis. I can’t help but feel that had an editor imposed a clearer structure on the book Dawkins could have treated the whole question of religious moderates and appeasing atheists, with more consideration.

Dawkins’ scientific understanding of evolution plays an important role in his atheism. He seems to resent the suggestion that he should hide this in order to make the facts of evolution seem more palatable to the religious. But is Dawkins really being asked to hide his beliefs, or simply to meet religious believers on common ground?

This touches on Dawkins’ fourth consciousness raiser, that of atheist pride. Why in polite society or when cooperating with good and decent religious people, must atheists be expected to not only respect the beliefs of others, but acts if they are faintly embarrassed of their own atheism?

Like Dawkins, I am somewhat bemused at the cognitive dissonance required by sensible religious people to integrate god beliefs into their otherwise reasonable worldviews. But I’m not so prideful that I believe my own worldview is free of any irrationalism or woolly thinking.

Thanks for reading

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