Jesus ‘n’ Mo ‘n’ Natural theology

Faith versus Fact talks a bit about the topic that the Jesus and Mo author covers in four panels in today’s strip:2015-08-26

Here are some gaps that theologians still use:

The origin of life
The mechanism of consciousness
“Fining tuning” of the laws of physics
Why the laws of physics are as they are
The “unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics”
Why humans are able to perceive true things
The “moral law” (humans’ instinctive feelings about right and wrong); this one is a favorite of Francis Collins, who says that the “moral law” MUST come from God.

I cover all these in FvF


Readers’ wildlife photographs

Today we have a nice selection of Nearctic birds from reader Kenneth Crook:

​I just returned from a 2 week vacation in Iceland with my own family and that of another WEIT reader (indeed I think it was he who first pointed me in the direction of your website a few years ago).  Completely stunning (and even awesome!) landscapes and I highly recommend a visit to anybody.  In any case, it’s got an interesting population of birds and I saw many that I’ve never seen before and here are a few photos of said birds.  They’re not anywhere near the quality of a lot of the material you post, but I was happy with some of them.

Outside one of the houses we rented was a pair of golden plovers (Pluvialis apricaria) guarding their territory and keeping a close eye on all invaders.  Here is one of the pair and then both of them mugging a whimbrel (Numenius phaeopus) that strayed too close.
The others are an oystercatcher (Haematopus ostralegus), a black-tailed godwit (Limosa limosa), a redshank (Tringa totanus), a couple of puffins (Fratercula arctica), a fulmar (Fulmarus glacialis), an arctic tern (Sterna paradisaea) and finally a family of red-throated divers (Gavia stellata).
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Flying whimbrel:
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 Plovers attacking whimbrel:
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  Puffin taking off:
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 Red-throated divers (also called red-throated loons):
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Wednesday: Hili dialogue

It’s Hump Day, and the weather is still lovely though I’m becoming increasingly impoverished as the markets tank. But let’s not think of my future career as a barista (I will make no pumpking lattes). Rather, let’s comtemplate the further antics of Hili and Andrzej. I’ll call this one “Cui bono?”

Hili: Who pays you?
A: For what?
Hili: For going first and forcing us to chase after you.

P1030281In Polish:

Hili: Kto wam za to płaci?
Ja: Za co?
Hili: Żebyście szli pierwsi i zmuszali nas do gonienia was.

The Bible summarized in one Facebook post

Some unknown wag posted this Readers Digest summary of the Bible on Facebook, and it was picked up by tickld. com.  It’s right on the money!


Spot Europa


by Matthew Cobb

Let’s stop talking about “rights”, or at least don’t assert them as unquestionable givens

Now that I’ve established my philosophy cred, I want to talk about “rights”. These are just some off-the-top-of-my-head thoughts inspired by the video I’ve posted below.

There are two ways we can interpret the meaning of the word “rights” as applied to humans or animals:

a. Social, political, or legal conventions that help society run the way we’d like it to. The “right” for all people to be treated equally under the law is such a convention.

b. An unquestionable property of a human being that is said to derive from either deontological philosophical principles or from the dictates of God.

Few of us here (though many believers, like the one shown below) believe that rights come from God. But many of us see them as innate virtues and privileges of humans—things not to be questioned. I’d like to take issue with this second view.

I certainly agree with “rights” in the first sense, but not with the second. For, at bottom, “rights” in the second sense simply lead to more questions that require answers. Why are all people, genders, and races to be treated equally? Why does a woman have the “right” to control her own body when pregnant? Why does every citizen have the right to health care and clean water? I do agree with these as “rights” in the first sense: they are necessary for a harmonious society and world. But just asserting these things as “rights” shuts down further analysis: it’s a discussion-stopper.

At bottom, there is a reason why people claim that something is a “right”, and that mandates further contemplation and rationalization, as it does for, say, abortion or gay marriage. In my view, those rights derive from a consequentialist morality: we should allow gays to marry because it is good for society (and of course for gays) that they enjoy the same marital privileges as straight people. When you assert something as a “right” in the second sense, you are trying to forestall a discussion of the reasons why that “right” exists.

I would prefer that we simply stop talking about “rights.” That, of course, won’t happen. But if we continue to do so, we should make it clear that they are social preferences, codified into law and behavior, that exist for reasons. This means that they are open for discussion, for of course “rights” will change as society changes. We now have a “right” to assisted dying (or so I feel), but that is something that reflects a chance in society’s mores. Rather than “rights”, I’d say “right”, as in “it is the right thing to do to allow gays to marry”. Or “it is the right thing to do to allow the terminally ill to end their own lives.”  Such a view allows us to discuss why these things are “right,” and leads to possibility of constructive dialogue and examination of our own beliefs.

These are all thoughts I had when listening to the video below, “The End of Reason: A Response to the New Atheists”. It’s a 42-minute talk by Ravi Zacharias, author and Christian apologist. (I defy you to make it past ten minutes!) The talk, in turn, is a distillation of his 2008 book, The End of Reason: A Response to the New Atheists.

Here we see the notion of rights and morals as things given uniquely by God.  Here’s the YouTube description

Ravi Zacharias replies to the New Atheists, like Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion), Sam Harris (Letter to a Christian Nation, Christopher Hitchens (God Is Not Great), and Daniel Dennett (Breaking the Spell). This video is part of the ‘Contending with Christianity’s Critics’ 2012 conference.

The thesis in Zacharias’s talk, as it surely is in his book (I haven’t read it), is that atheism is bad because it destroys meaning and purpose of life: our “shared values”. And where do those shared values come from? They are  “divine imperatives implanted in the heart and conscience of every human being”—i.e., they come from God. Once, he claims, we all shared those values, and that grounded society, but New Atheists are chipping away at the foundations, making those values questionable, questioned, and, for some of them, insupportable. We are, he says, created a divisive and harmful cultural revolution away from “shared meanings”.

It’s amusing to see Zacharias’s religious two-step when he has to argue that Islam doesn’t share the same meanings and values (after all, he’s justifying Christianity as the true faith). After all, Muslims also claim that their morals and values come from God. Zacharias has an amusing argument about why they’re wrong; it’s in the first 15 minutes, and I won’t spoil it for you.

When, as Zacharias does, people claim “rights based on God or some immutable moral absolutes” (and these are roughly equivalent), they are doing something that’s bad: trying to prevent us from questioning why we should treat human beings one way versus another. Yes, it’s settled that humans have “rights” not to be slaves or imprisoned without reason, but there are reasons for those “rights”, and it behooves us to remember that.

I’m a philosopher! I haz a paper with Maarten Boudry on religious belief

At long last Massimo Pigliucci—who (along with others) has criticized my lucubrations about philosophy on the grounds that I have no credentials in the field—can cease and desist. For, along with a genuinely credentialed philosopher, Maarten Boudry, I have a paper in press in a real peer-reviewed philosophy journal (Philosophical Psychology). It’s coauthored with Belgian philosopher Maarten Boudry. Street cred!

The paper is in fact a critique of a paper published last year in Cognition by philosopher Neil Van Leeuwen from Georgia State University (all references, links, and downloads below). That paper, “Religious credence is not factual belief” (also here on Academia), made the claim that religious beliefs were neither pure fantasy nor statements about reality, but rather “credences” that have only a quasi-factual character. I won’t summarize the exchange in detail, as you can read the papers for yourself, but here’s the abstract of Van Leeuwen’s paper setting out why he sees religious beliefs as different from factual beliefs:

I argue that psychology and epistemology should posit distinct cognitive attitudes of religious credence and factual belief, which have different etiologies and different cognitive and behavioral effects. I support this claim by presenting a range of empirical evidence that religious cognitive attitudes tend to lack properties characteristic of factual belief, just as attitudes like hypothesis, fictional imagining, and assumption for the sake of argument generally lack such properties. Furthermore, religious credences have distinctive properties of their own. To summarize: factual beliefs (i) are practical setting independent, (ii) cognitively govern other attitudes, and (iii) are evidentially vulnerable. By way of contrast, religious credences (a) have perceived normative orientation, (b) are susceptible to free elaboration, and (c) are vulnerable to special authority. This theory provides a framework for future research in the epistemology and psychology of religious credence.

This of course was welcomed by believers and accommodationists who, though they would delight in getting real evidence for God, at the same time try to insulate their God or their claims from any empirical testing by doubters. Van Leeuwen’s ideas were, for example, touted by Tonia Lombrozo at NPR.

However, Boudry and I thought that Van Leeuwen’s argument was flawed, and that all three points above (a, b, and c) were not always applicable to religionists, who in many circumstances act as if they really think their beliefs are true, and not just operative in special settings. So we wrote a response to his paper, and he’s responded to our response (this is how it goes in academia).

Since Van Leeuwen already put his response to our critique on Academia, even though our paper wasn’t yet out, Maarten just put our paper online, even though it remains in press. Ours is called  “Disbelief in belief: On the cognitive status of supernatural beliefs.” Maarten is first author, and here’s our abstract:

Religious people seem to believe things that range from the somewhat peculiar to the utterly bizarre. Or do they? According to a new paper by Neil Van Leeuwen, religious “credence” is nothing like mundane factual belief. It has, he claims, more in common with fictional imaginings. Religious folk do not really “believe” – in the ordinary sense of the word – what they profess to believe. Like fictional imaginings, but unlike factual beliefs, religious credences are activated only within specific settings. We argue that Van Leeuwen’s thesis contradicts a wealth of data on religiously-motivated behavior. By and large, the faithful genuinely believe what they profess to believe. Although many religions openly embraces a sense of mystery, in general this does not prevent the attribution of beliefs to religious people. Many of the features of religious belief that Van Leeuwen alludes to (e.g., invulnerability to refutation, incoherence) are characteristic of irrational beliefs in general, and actually betray their being held as factual. We conclude with some remarks about the common failure of secular people to face the fact that some religious people really do believe wildly implausible things. Such incredulity, as evinced by Van Leeuwen and others, could be termed “disbelief in belief”.

Van Leeuwen’s reply to this paper is called “Beyond fakers and fanatics: a reply to Maarten Boudry and Jerry Coyne“, which is also online. We’ll reply to his reply (we haven’t yet done that), and then the dust will settle.  There is no abstract to Van Leeuwen’s reply, but his argument is that religionists fall on a spectrum (as do the beliefs of a given religionist) between “fakers” (those who don’t believer a word of what they profess to believe), and “fanatics” (those who take all their religious beliefs as factual, just like they see the existence of airplanes as factual). That, however, isn’t what Maarten and I claim, as you can see from our paper. But you can read the exchange for yourself.

I’d welcome the thoughts of any readers, philosophers or not, who have the tenacity to plow through the entire exchange. But I maintain that I do have street cred in philosophy!


Van Leeuwen, N. 2014. Religious credence is not factual belief. Cognition 133: 698–715. (See also here for full paper.)

Boudry, M. and J. A. Coyne. 2015. On the cognitive status of supernatural beliefs. Philosophical Psychology: in press.

Van Leewen, N. 2015. Beyond fakers and fanatics: a reply to Maarten Boudry and Jerry Coyne. Philosophical Psychology: in press.

Coming out: is it really that bad to be an atheist?

JAC: Grania has fairly strong feelings that if you’re not facing immediate ostracism or other sanctions by coming out as an atheist, you should do so.  She wrote a brief post on her opinion, which is conditioned by the unique situation in Ireland, where parents are forced to dissimulate about their beliefs, and it’s below. Readers should feel free (even though you aren’t really free in the dualistic sense!) to agree or disagree in the comments.


by Grania

Jerry posted about the Dawkins Foundation’s “Openly Secular” campaign last week which you can read more about here; and includes resources for parents, school students, African-American, Spanish and other groups. The reader discussion on his piece was interesting, and I was not surprised to see that there were a significant number of people expressing reluctance to ever admit to atheism—especially online.

It’s something I’ve come across before in Ireland when I was part of a group of like-minded atheists setting up Atheist Ireland. As secular as modern Ireland is, it has a particular problem with primary education, for the vast majority of taxpayer-funded schools are under the control of the Roman Catholic church. In this situation, children can be denied a place in a school if they—or rather their parents— belong to a minority religion or no religion. For this reason a number of atheists or nonbelievers in Ireland hide their true thoughts, some even going as far as having their child baptised in the Church to try to ensure that their child has access to a local school.

It’s something that I simultaneously understand and have reservations about. Nobody wants to be ostracised, let alone have their family or children isolated or shunned, or worse. But every time someone chooses to maintain the status quo, they effectively pass the problem onto the next generation.

There’s no one right answer to the problem of atheists hiding their identity. A lot depends on where you live. Cities tend to be far more tolerant than small towns. Certain states and countries are far more open-minded and hospitable than others. I certainly would never advocate that someone risk their life, their safety or their livelihood. However, in places like Europe, America, Canada and Australia, it is highly unlikely that any of us is going to end up in jail and flogged repeatedly like Raif Badawi; or brutally murdered like Niloy Chatterjee, Ananta Bijoy Das, Washiqur Rahman Babu, and Avijit Roy; or forcibly committed to a psychiatric hospital like Mubarak Bala.

It’s certainly true that being openly atheist can net one a measure of disapproval. Friends and family may be shocked or in some cases quite hostile. But is that really enough to make you live your life under cover?

Readers’ wildlife photographs

Once again I’m a bad person—I lost the email from Stephen Barnard (May 3) in which he describes the subjects of these lovely photos. But I think readers should be able to suss out most of them, so weigh in below with the harder ones:





Somehow Stephen always manages to sneak in a photo of Deets. But I allow them to remain among the wildlife because I know we have some d*g-loving readers:







Tuesday: Hili dialogue (and Leon lagniappe)

It’s Tuesday, the cruelest day, and China continues to whittle away at my retirement funds. But, on the bright side, the weather is lovely here, predicted to be in the seventies for the rest of the week, and North Korea has reached a temporary detente with the South. Meanwhile in Dobrzyn, Hili saw a toy snake belonging to little Hania, and had a violent reaction. It’s clear that many animals, including perhaps cats and humans, have an evolved aversion to snakes. How many readers have seen their cat bridle at faux snakes? I’m convinced by videos like the one I posted on August 12 (and others on the Internet) that cats’ fear of long, thin objects is a hard-wired reaction to a snakelike shape.

Cyrus: Fear not, Hili. It’s just Hania’s toy.
Hili: But what if it bites me first?

P1030291In Polish:

Cyrus: Nie bój się, to tylko Hani zabawka.
Hili: A co będzie jeśli ona mnie pierwsza ugryzie?
And we have a final and poignant Leon monologue as the moggie and his staff head home from their mountain vacation:
Leon: And so I was transformed from a hiking cat into a traveling cat.

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