Monthly Archives: August 2015

Science Magazine: “Birth of the Moralizing Gods”

Gods, morality, society. Religion, identity, and our sense of right and wrong. How can we explain the way these interlock, and can we test our suggested explanations against observation? An article titled Birth of the Moralizing Gods, in the latest issue of Science, suggests that we can.

The Binding of Isaac, by Rembrandt, used as illustration in the Science Magazine article

Logically, of course, we cannot derive morality from religion. The reasons were spelt out by David Hume, and go back all the way to Plato’s “Euthyphro’s dilemma”. The bumper-sticker version is “No ought from is”; you will find my own simplistic exposition here, and a proper grown-up discussion in Kenan Malik’s The Quest for a Moral Compass. Do the gods desire what is good, because it is good? Or is it good because the gods desire it? In the first case, we do not need the gods to define goodness, because it already exists independent of them. In the second, goodness is defined by their arbitrary whims, which does not seem very satisfactory either.

Psychologically, things are very different, and both horns of the dilemma crumple as soon as we put any weight on them. The gods are very wise and very loving, and so, if they have revealed their wishes to us, that is trustworthy guidance as to what is truly good. So the first horn crumples under the weight of their authority. At the same time, the gods are arbitrary and irascible Oriental despots, and if we offend them, we risk bringing down powerful vengeance on our communities as well as on ourselves, or at least the withdrawal of divine protection. According to Jeremiah, the Babylonians were able to destroy the First Temple in Jerusalem because the people of Judah had sinned by tolerating Ishtar worship; according to Pat Robertson, Al Qaeda was able to destroy the Twin Towers because the people of America had sinned by tolerating homosexuality. If you really believe such things (and I think Jeremiah was completely sincere in his beliefs), then the second horn of the dilemma cannot withstand the pressures of prudence.

The persistence and near-universality of religion presents a problem for non-believers. Indeed, the persistence of what must by exclusion be false religions presents an at least comparable problem for believers. This problem was discussed at some length by Jared Diamond in his 2012 book The World Until Yesterday. Diamond adds, to his knowledge of earlier discussions, his experience living in New Guinea among people recently emerged from tribalism and his perspective as an evolutionary biologist. Religions, like body organs, have evolved by a process of Darwinian selection, but, again like body organs, their functions may have changed over time. Since the practice of religion always involves some cost, religion would seem to incur some benefits that outweigh this cost.[1]

The oldest functions may well be the explanation of phenomena in terms of agency, and the illusion of control through ritual; a divine charioteer carries the Sun across the sky, and you will have a smoother sea voyage if you make the proper libations to Neptune. This is now a relatively minor function. It survives in First Cause and related arguments, but by an interesting inversion, these are used not so much to explain phenomena as to justify religious belief itself. Relatedly, there is prayer as a way of making things happen, petitionary prayer. This Diamond expects to be most evident among people facing uncertainty about subsistence; few of us nowadays, at least in the developed world, are really anxious about our daily bread.

Next we have religion as in-group membership, and this helps explain the willingness to make sacrifices, either material or intellectual. To benefit from group membership, you need to show that you’re entitled to it. You can prove you’re a good Catholic by believing in the physical assumption of the Virgin into Heaven. You can prove you’re a good Muslim by praying five times a day, fasting through Ramadan and visiting Mecca. You can prove you’re a good Jew by elaborate dietary restrictions, and avoiding motor transport on Saturdays. And since the more extreme sacrifice is seen as the more admirable, the more inflexible belief is seen as the more authentic; this may help account for the metastasising spread of Creationism in all three Abrahamic religions.

Another surviving major function is consolation. Prayer provides at least the comforting illusion of action, and may also help reconcile the person praying to the outcome, whatever it may be. The misfortunes and injustices of this world will rankle less if you believe that they will be rectified in the Hereafter. It is certain that many people find consolation in religion when faced with the death of loved ones, or when contemplating their own mortality, in belief in an afterlife, although some, alas, believe in a final judgement that makes death itself seem all the more terrifying.

This comforting function shades into the one singled out in the Science article, namely the provision of a basis for morality in complex societies, in which conduct can no longer be regulated purely by personal relationships and reputation. As Diamond puts it,

“Hell has a double function: to comfort you by smiting your enemies whom you were unable to smite yourselves here on earth; and to motivate you to obey your religion’s moral commands, by threatening to send you to there if you misbehave.”

On his analysis, this moral function, as well as hierarchical organisation, religion as the basis for political obedience, and religious justifications for wars “were absent in small-scale societies, appeared with the rise of chiefdoms and states, and have declined again in modern secular states.” This seems plausible, especially when we compare 21st-century Europe either with 16th century Europe, or with the 21st-century Middle East.

The work described in the Science article attempts to go beyond such common generalisations. It starts from a surprising discovery, advances a counter-intuitive hypothesis, and points towards a highly ambitious multidisciplinary research programme. The discovery is that of an 11,500-year-old elaborate religious site at Göbekli Tepe in Turkey, apparently predating the transition from hunter-gathering to agriculture, and the increases in population density and social organisation that this made possible. The hypothesis is that moralising gods are a precondition for achieving complex social organisation, rather than its product, and this is in principle testable archaeologically. So we should go looking for the earliest evidence of religious or symbolic activity in the various other sites where complex societies emerged independently. The overall research programme involves, among other things, the compilation of cross-cultural databases, such as the Database of Religious History, and is backed by a much-cited experimental study in which religious cueing (but not self-reported religiosity) led to more generous sharing behaviour in the laboratory.

It would be easy but, I think, a mistake to make fun of a programme that involves, for example, reducing the Epistles of St Paul to a series of yes/no answers, or attempting to generalise from the behaviour of North American laboratory subjects. At the very least,we have an enterprise bringing together an unusually wide range of scholars, to work together on problems involving archaeology and history, psychology, and textual analysis. At best, we will have new perspectives on the deepest, darkest, and most complex recesses of our own behaviour, and perhaps, even, some answers to the challenges posed by religion at its best, and at its worst, in the world today.

A comment on the scene illustrated: even as a child, I remember being puzzled by this story. God tells Abraham to sacrifice his son; Abraham prepares to do so, thereby demonstrating his obedience to God; then God intervenes, provides a ram for the sacrifice, and rewards Abraham by promising to make him the father of a numerous and successful people. At first, I wondered whether Abraham really did the right thing. Then I realised that by even asking the question, I was drawing a distinction between what God wanted, and what was morally right. It was only much much later that something occurred to me that may also occurred to Rembrandt, to judge from the violence with which he depicts the scene; Abraham was about to offer up Isaac’s life, but Isaac’s life was not his to give.

1] It is possible that religion itself conveys no benefits, but is the historical byproduct of some other, more advantageous, behaviour. However, it is not clear what this would be, and in any case that merely pushes the problem back one stage.

The morality of fracking

More fracking (or any other source of natural gas) means less CO2 by a factor of 2 compared with coal (and some reduction, though less dramatic, compared with oil) per unit of energy. Good reason to support fracking if you don’t approve of global warming. It also means (since one fuel can partly substitute for another) a lower oil price, and less revenue for Saudi Arabia and for Daesh (which now controls Syria’s oil); good reasons to support fracking if you don’t approve of beheading people.

And so I am reblogging my friend Michael Roberts’ post, A Fracking Injustice

Peddling and Scaling God and Darwin

Opposition to fracking is often presented as Climate Justice and many who oppose fracking will claim to have a strong social conscience and to be concerned for climate justice and social justice.

I am not sure that Arthur Parson, now a jobless person from Longridge, Lancashire would agree with them, so now READ Arthur’s story: the human cost of ‪#‎fracking‬ opposition in the UK


I’m Arthur Parson, a Lancashire resident that was lucky enough to get a well paying job with one of the main drilling contractors for Cuadrilla a few years ago, after several years of no work.

But here I am without a job again because, in the last two weeks, I’ve been made redundant.

My employer had been lined up to drill up to 8 new exploration wells on the Fylde. But then councillors refused planning permission for Cuadrilla’s proposed sites at Preston New Road…

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Sad news: Stirling University ends Religious Studies courses

Looking out over Airthrey Loch towards the University’s Library and central administrative hub, the Cottrell Building. (Image by Finlay McWalter via wikipedia entry “University of Stirling”

If you are surprised to see me regretting this, you shouldn’t be. Stirling is one of the few places where religion is studied in the same critical spirit as any other major human activity, without pre-commitment to doctrine or dogma. Meantime, Heythrop College, London, where anti-theist (if I may so call him) Stephen Law rubs shoulders with Canon Theologian Keith Ward is no longer recruiting undergraduates and is scheduled to close in 2018.  If you don’t know why we need such studies, now of all times, you haven’t been paying attention.

Here, by permission, is a report on these developments by Ekklesia, the widely respected liberal Christian think-tank:

Widespread dismay at university plans to end religion courses

Researchers, teachers, students and public figures are responding with alarm, surprise and anger at the University of Stirling’s plans to close its internationally-recognised teaching and research on religion in contemporary society.

Since the news broke yesterday (, hundreds of people have taken to social media to express their distress at the decision and to call for an urgent rethink.

Many have pointed out the significance of Stirling offering studies in religion and belief not linked to the discipline of Christian theology, as is the case in the ancient Scottish universities of Aberdeen, St Andrews, Edinburgh and Glasgow.

This is one of the factors, specialists say, that has enabled university’s small religion department to develop a distinctive analysis of the discourse around religion in the contemporary context, including politics, the media, academia and other spheres of public life.

Opposition to the closure has been coming in from all over the UK, Europe and beyond.

“This is bad, very bad,” tweeted Dr Teemu Taira, Senior Lecturer at the Department of Study of Religions, University of Helsinki and Docent at the Department of Comparative Religion, University of Turku, Finland.

Independent scholar Brain W. Nail wrote of the potential loss of “a world-class religion department built by world-class scholars”.

“Religion supposedly causes so much trouble in the world, so why is the University of Stirling planning to close its religion courses?” asked the Rev Peter Nimmo, a leading Church of Scotland minister.

“Perhaps it just isn’t a hot topic these days,” noted the organisation Secular Scotland, ironically.

Dr Chris Shannahan, a faculty member at the University of Manchester, described Stirling’s decision as a “really sad move”, noting that pioneering postgraduate work on religion and politics could now be scrapped.

“[it] seems to me as if a new course in Religion and Politics is about as relevant as a new course could be,” tweeted Dr Ealasaid Munro, a feminist geographer undertaking postdoctoral research at the University of Glasgow.

“The social sciences continue to be hammered,” observed Dr John MacDonald, who teaches American Studies and is Director of the Scottish Global Forum.

Dr Paraic Reamonn from Geneva, Switzerland, asked on Facebook: “Stirling takes a wrecking ball to religious studies. Whose bright idea was that?”

Meanwhile, former political researcher and public affairs consultant the Rev Matthew Ross, who is now General Secretary of the official ecumenical body Action of Churches Together in Scotland, wrote that he is “saddened and concerned to hear about the forthcoming demise of Religious Studies at the University of Stirling, particularly the implications for the staff and students.

“In today’s world Religious Studies is a vitally important topic; the University of Stirling is making a mistake,” he added.

“No, this can’t happen. Stirling is the only non-divinity centre for religion in Scotland,” declared Dr Mallory Nye, editor of the journal Culture and Religion.

Dr Rajalakshmi Nadadur, editor for the Critical Religion Association, McCrimmon Publishing, Dr Doug Gay from the University of Glasgow, ethnohistorian Dr Sarah Dees, and scholars in Australia and the United States are among many others to express deep concern about the situation at Stirling.

Simon Barrow, co-director of the religion and society think-tank Ekklesia, commented: “Closing a department that tackles one of the most crucial subjects in contemporary discourse – the relationship of religion and belief to momentous changes in the global situation – is the opposite of what a modern university that cares about applied knowledge should be doing.

“It is to be hoped that this precipitous decision, which appears to have been taken without any serious consultation, and just a few weeks before it is to be implemented, will be immediately reconsidered.”

Professor Jolyon Mitchell from New College , Edinburgh, who is also President of the UK-wide Theology and Religious Studies academic network (TRS), said: “Stirling’s approach to the study and teaching of religion, as something distinct from Christian theology, represents an invaluable element in the Scottish TRS landscape and a vital contribution to international efforts to understand the role of religion in the contemporary world.

“Following hot on the tail of indications that Heythrop College in London is under similar pressure, the news at Stirling underlines some of the challenges currently facing TRS across the UK.”

The staff most immediately affected are Dr Tim Fitzgerald (Reader in Religion), Dr Andrew Hass (Reader in Religion), Dr Alison Jasper (Senior Lecturer in Religion) and Dr Michael Marten (Lecturer in Postcolonial Studies with Religion).

The university’s media relations policy, and the fact that their jobs are on the line, means that they are forbidden from commenting on the situation.

Staff are receiving backing from the University and College Union (UCU), the largest trade union and professional association for academics, lecturers, trainers, researchers and academic-related staff working in further and higher education throughout the UK.

See also and links therein:

“The Religion staff at Stirling are not in a position to make public comment on the matter (their jobs are at stake), but it might be worth contacting key individuals at the university:

Further news and comment will follow on the Ekklesia website. Ekklesia has a partnership with the Critical Religion project that originated from staff at the University of Stirling.


The Church of England and Creationism.

Even William Jennings Bryan, at the 1925 Scopes Trial (of which more later), prosecuting under the law he had helped form that made teaching evolution illegal, admitted the probability of an ancient Earth. Now, infiltrating CofE and Church of Scotland, and overwhelming Baptist and Evangelical churches on both sides of the Atlantic, the absurdities of such Old Earth creationism have been replaced by a Young Earth “flood geology” creationism that is beyond absurd.

Peddling and Scaling God and Darwin

Caution Creationists3

I have been asked about creationist infiltration into the Church of England, which has only come about in the last forty years. By Creationism I means those who reckon the earth to be only thousands of years old and that evolution has not happened. I will not discuss Creationism as such, except to say it is scientifically worthless and wrong as well as being bad theology.

Well here goes.

First consider the make-up and history of the Church of England. Right from the beginning, i.e 1540s, it was not completely Protestant, and has been called a bone half-set. Elizabeth wished to retain both ultra-protestants and semi-papists, resulting in tensions for over a century culminating with the execution of William Laud and the Civil war. After the Restoration in 1662 the Latitudinarians (fore-runners of liberals) gained the influence but from the 1730s Evangelicals began their long reign. Until about 1790 they…

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Global warming: Could we hide rising seas in sunken deserts?

Would the depressions that exist below sea level in 49 countries, many in desert regions, provide a way to accommodate rising sea levels? No.

Human folly is the root source of our greatest problems (actually, that’s as true and useless as saying that oxygen is the root source of forest fires). Creationism, on which I’ve written so much, is one manifestation; global warming denial another, and much more serious in its probable effects. [Reblogged from Mountain Mystery: Hiding Rising Seas in Sunken Deserts]

Edit: This just in; a frightening comparison of the size of anthropogenic and natural background effects;

“Today, the Earth is warming about 20 times faster than it cooled during the past 1,800 years,” said Michael Evans, second author of the study and an associate professor in the University of Maryland’s Department of Geology and Earth System Science Interdisciplinary Center (ESSIC). “This study truly highlights the profound effects we are having on our climate today.”

(Terra Daily reporting on Robust global ocean cooling trend for the pre-industrial Common Era, Nature Geoscience)

The Mountain Mystery

Dead Sea shoreline, 428 metres below sea level.Dead Sea shoreline, 429 metres below sea level.

This weekend, a friend asked me if the rise in the oceans could be drained off into the world’s below-sea-level depressions. Could rising ocean waters be diverted to fill the Dead Sea and Death Valley Depressions, for example? It seems a creative solution. Instead of flooding the Maldives, Piazza San Marco, and south Florida, the expected ocean level rise could fill some of the Earth’s less inhabited wastelands instead.

At this moment, I don’t want to debate the idea of climate change and its impact on sea level. I think the evidence is substantial that Arctic ice and mountain glaciers are disappearing and the melt water is reaching the sea. But this may ultimately be a thousand-year-long melting blip before the return of another ice age. I don’t know. What I’d rather do today is simply try to put some numbers on…

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Pluto, Patterns, and Predictions; Creationism as Self-contradiction

“Unfortunately, this evidence presents yet another problem for young-earth creationism. Not only would a dwarf-planet collision completely reshape the surfaces of both Pluto and Charon, but it would have taken tens of thousands of centuries for the system to settle into the perfectly-circular, dual-tidally-locked co-orbit we observe today.”

Not surprisingly, the Young Earth Creationists are heralding the smoth-ish surface of Pluto as evidence for a young solar system. It does not seem to worry them that if the absence of craters on Pluto is evidence for its recent formation, then their presence throughout the rest of the Solar System is evidence for its antiquity. The post I am reblogging here presents yet more internal contradictions in the YEC description of Pluto, including the highlight that I quote above. And if you are willing to contradict yourself, you can, after a fashion, prove anything:

Nh-pluto-in-true-color_2x_JPEG.jpg (1800×1800)

Near-true-colour image composite of Pluto taken by the New Horizons spacecraft on 14 July 2015 from a distance of 450,000 kilometers (NASA / Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory / Southwest Research Institute)

Age of Rocks

Guest post by David MacMillan

One of the great things about being home schooled was the way every experience could become a learning opportunity. We were always ready to investigate new things and build on what we learned, and it’s a habit that has remained with me for the rest of my life.

As a young-earth creationist, on the other hand, I took this principle a little too far. Instead of treating new scientific discoveries as exciting and valuable on their own, I felt obligated to find a way to turn them into evidence for creationism. Any new finding, no matter how obscure, demanded that I leap in with my “biblical glasses” and show how any discovery could be shoehorned into the creationist model.

Pluto surface Closeup view of Pluto’s surface, taken by the New Horizon spacecraft.

It’s a familiar pattern. Creationist organizations have earned a reputation for seizing upon every…

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