Saturday, April 20, 2013

Memorial service in Boston excludes atheists

The memorial service for the victims of the Boston marathon bombings began on April 18 at 11:00 AM ET in the Cathedral of the Holy Cross. Boston Mayor Tom Menino, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, and clergy representing different religious denominations across the city took to the podium. President Barack Obama offered the final reflection of the service and Cardinal Sean O'Malley concluded with a closing blessing. The memorial was broadcast nationally on television, the radio, and the Internet. The published "interfaith" program features the seal of the state of Massachusetts. The state sponsored service was mostly conducted by and for theists, with most speakers making obligatory references to their God. A notable exception was Governor Deval Patrick, whose speech was inclusive. It could have been more inclusive.

Celeste Corcoran of Lowell, Massachusetts, who lost both her legs at the knees in one of the bomb blasts and her 18 year-old daughter, Sydney, who suffered severe injuries as a result of being hit by shrapnel, were part of the humanist community in the greater Boston area. According to Greg Epstein, the Humanist Chaplain at Harvard University, both the White House and the staff of the Governor's office who were organizing the event were contacted in advance repeatedly with requests to include the non-theist community in the memorial service. "All they had to do was say one word, or allow one official guest, and they didn't", said Epstein, "...we [the Secular Coalition for America] contacted them [the governor's staff] every hour on the hour".

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Herman Philipse's critique of religious reason

In his book God in the Age of Science? A critique of religious reason, Herman Philipse tackles a question at the core of philosophy of religion: Are there good reasons for thinking that some specific subset of religious beliefs makes sense and is true? In particular, is the defense of bare theism by philosopher Richard Swinburne, which relies on Bayesian estimates of probabilities, successful? This book is too academic, and too expensive, to become a best seller, but the overall argument is easy to follow and understand.

Philipse reaches three conclusions that support atheism. First, traditional notions of gods are self-contradictory and dependent on analogy and metaphor, therefore it is an ill-defined concept. Second, theism lacks predictive power concerning existing evidence, undermining the integrity of Bayesian arguments deployed in its defense. Furthermore, the truth of theism is improbable given the scientific background knowledge concerning the dependence of mental life on brain processes. Third, the empirical arguments against theism outweigh the arguments that support, so insofar as Bayesian cumulative case strategy does work we should conclude that atheism is more probable than theism.

Philipse categorizes arguments for theism according to which of three possible pairs of opposing strategic decisions are utilized. We start with deciding whether theism is a cognitive, and thus a factual, claim. If it is non-cognitive, an approach favored by people such as Wittgenstein, then it isn't asserting anything of substance that merits being taken seriously, so that is a self-defeating strategy for defending theism.

Having selected the cognitive option, we next need to decide whether or not reasons and evidences are needed to justify theism. Alvin Plantinga is cited as an example of someone who defends the notion that no further reasons are needed for (his particular) religious beliefs to be warranted. However, theism, like all other existence beliefs, is reasonable or warranted only when there are good positive reasons to justify the conclusion that the belief is true.

Having concluded that we need good positive reasons to justify theism, our final decision is selecting the methods that provide us with good positive reasons. Either we employ the same methods that we generally rely on when investigating a factual hypothesis of existence, or we don't. If we opt to employ different methods then a public and persuasive validation is lacking, resulting in a credibility problem for theism. The outcome for theism is just as bad when we turn to the reliable methods of skeptical empiricism which refute and disconfirm theism. Page 343 summarizes the conclusion in one sentence: "Either religious believers have not succeeded in providing a meaningful characterization of their god(s), or the existence of this god or these gods is improbable given our scientific and scholarly background knowledge."

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Herman Philipse on conflict between science and religion

The Center for Inquiry of Low Countries held a conference on secularism in May 2008 in the Netherlands. One of the speakers was Herman Philipse. Herman Philipse is a professor of philosophy at Utrecht University. In this video we can see him briefly arguing for the thesis that religion as a source of knowledge is a failure and therefore we should all be atheists. Is there a warfare between science and religion?