God and Fairies

When atheists compare belief in God to belief in fairies, this is apt to cause great offence to believers.  Christians feel insulted by what they perceive as a direct comparison between God and fairies.  Fairies are entities which, in our society, only children believe in and Christians feel that both they and God have been belittled by the comparison.  This in my view is a misunderstanding of the point that is really being made. 

The analogy properly arises in the context of a theist challenge that unless an atheist can prove that a God doesn’t exist they should remain on the fence about his existence.  In this context the comparison with belief in fairies is pertinent.  I’m as much on the fence about the existence of God as I am about the existence of fairies and for the same reason.

The  analogy is not between God and fairies. The analogy is between belief in God and belief in fairies – a significantly different thing. The analogy, like  all analogies, compares two things  which are different but share certain features.  It works to the extent that the shared features are the relevant to the issue under discussion. The point of any analogy is to use something which is simpler,  better understood or more widely agreed upon in order to illustrate something which is more complex, less well understood or less widely agreed upon.  Analogies must contain both similarities and differences. If they fail to include both, then they won’t work. Belief in fairies is not exactly like belief in God. The only thing that is exactly like belief in God would be, well, belief in God. But comparing belief in God to itself is not going to get any of us anywhere. 

Let me use another analogy.  (An analogy as an analogy of an analogy – is that too meta?) Sometimes people will say that love must be freely chosen if it is to have value. I think these people couldn’t be more wrong. Love, real love, is never freely chosen. I didn’t chose to love my children.  I just loved them. There was no choosing involved.  Because I love them I do often freely choose to do things that I would not otherwise do (like drive miles out of my way to pick them up or drop them off). But the emotion which gives rise to the behaviour is unchosen.  I sometimes say that I can no more freely choose to love my children than I can freely choose to love the taste of spinach. I can choose whether or not to eat spinach but if I do eat it, I cannot choose whether or not to enjoy the taste. In making the comparison I am not saying that my children are like spinach, or of no more importance than spinach. I am just saying that the feelings I have about both are both very real and entirely unchosen.  

What we are focussing on is belief, how it comes about, what creates it and what fails to create it. It doesn’t really matter whether the belief in question is God or fairies, the Big Bang, the efficacy of homeopathic remedies, the theory of evolution through natural selection, the Bermuda Triangle, global warming, whatever.  There is a human tendency to withhold belief in something until some evidential burden is met.  This is true whether the “something” is trivial or important.  As I have written previously beliefs are not chosen, but nonetheless, we expect them to come about as a result of evidence.  We do not expect them to spring up ex nihilo.  Belief in a claim is judged rational only to the extent to which it is supported by evidence. 

 We do not start from the position of saying that we are neutral on the question of whether or not fairies exist and that we will remain neutral unless either they are proved to exist or proved not to exist.  No evidence, no belief. Some (credible) evidence, some level of belief. That’s how it generally works. If there’s some evidence, but it falls short of proof, then we might well find ourselves in the position of being undecided. The stronger the evidence, the more likely it is to tip us over into positive belief. 

So when the theist says that it is irrational to disbelieve in God, and that if we are not persuaded by the arguments in favour but cannot actually disprove his existence, it would be more rational to be undecided, we respond with an example of a relatively widely accepted disbelief.  If there is no credible evidence for the existence of fairies, then how should we expect that to affect our beliefs?  Is it more rational in those circumstances to be undecided as to whether they exist or not?  Or is it more rational to dismiss their existence until such time as some credible evidence is provided?  

If disbelief due to lack of credible evidence is intellectually respectable in the case of fairies, what reason is there for treating disbelief in God any differently?  

Of course, if there is some credible evidence for God’s existence, then that changes everything. But the existence of credible evidence is exactly what the atheist denies. So it is up to the apologist to produce evidence sufficiently compelling to warrant some level of belief. If the atheist rejects credible evidence and thus still disbelieves, then they would be irrational.  But the irrationality would lie in rejecting the credible evidence, rather than in remaining a disbeliever having once rejected it. 


The First Gospel, the Fourth Gospel and the Third Person. 

If the disciples Matthew and John are the authors of the gospels which bear their names, why do they never write in the first person?

This one of the questions I posed for Rob Martin on his blog, here.  

I raised the question following the Unbelievable Facebook page following the podcast debate between Tim McGrew and Bart Ehrman, here

Tim McGrew came out fighting.  If he had posted a more thoughtful and polite response then I might (I don’t know for sure – counterfactuals are always tricky) just have accepted what he said and wandered off. But stung by his obnoxious tone, I decided to do a bit of digging around the subject and posted back. 

You can follow the exchange on the link above. 

Actually, I have never regarded the question as a “killer” point for attacking the gospels as eye-witness testimony. I have always tended to assume that there must be a reasonable answer because you never hear sceptical biblical historians, such as Bart Ehrman, use it to attack the eye-witness theory. I suppose I might turn one of McGrew’s own arguments back on him and say that it is now so well-established that the gospels of Matthew and John were not written by those disciples that sceptics do not even bother to argue the point. But I don’t think that can be the real reason.  Bart Ehrman never used the argument during the debate with Tim McGrew whom he would have known to be a supporter of the direct authorship theory, which suggests that he does not consider the point to be of much merit. 

Anyway, if there is a good answer to the question, it wasn’t forthcoming from Tim McGrew.  The more he was challenged, the fantastical and absurd his claims became.  Some were actually laugh out loud funny, such as that the normal education for a Jewish boy in Israel 1CE would have included

reading, writing, arithmetic, and the rudiments of natural science as they were known at that time.  

So obviously that’s without going into the extras, such as business management and fine arts, which were also no doubt on offer to the sons of fishermen at that time. 

OK, I am not and do not pretend to be anything other than a lay person in the field of history, but I don’t think you need to be a qualified historian to know that for almost all of human history the majority of people led hard lives with little time or money to spare for education or leisure activities. That sort of thing was, until very recently, the preserve of the rich.

In his last post Tim starts to run a completely different (and somewhat better) argument, which is that John didn’t necessarily write the gospel: he dictated it. Tim tries to pretend that this was what he was arguing the whole time and that by “literate” what he meant was “able to speak and therefore dictate to a third person”.  Of course, if that is his argument, then every single thing he had written in his previous posts was utterly and entirely beside the point.  

So, in short, I am still open to good answers to the question as to why an actual eye-witness would choose to write an account of events which, had they happened would be the most important events in human history, in such a way as to disguise what would have been their USP: that the writer was actually there.  

Gainsaying the Gospels

“The Gospels were written in such a temporal and geographical proximity to the events they record that it would have been almost impossible to fabricate events….The fact that the disciples were able to proclaim the resurrection in Jerusalem in the face of their enemies a few weeks after the crucifixion shows that what they proclaimed was true, for they could never have proclaimed the resurrection (and been believed) under such circumstances had it not occurred.” (William Lane Craig, Knowing the Truth About the Resurrection, chapter 6)

It is strange (to me) sometimes how apologists become so totally caught up in their pre-conceptions that they cannot see what must be obvious to any more objective observer. The quote above comes from William Lane Craig but you can find the argument on almost any Christian apologetics site: if the disciples had said anything about Jesus which wasn’t true, they couldn’t have got away with it, because they were surrounded by people who could have called them out.  This is just one example of how the fallacy of “boot-strapping” is used in apologetics: 

  1. We know the books of the New Testament are reliable because of the evidence.  
  2. Where does that evidence come from?  
  3. The books of the New Testament. 
  4. Why should we rely on it?  
  5. See 1 above. 

The following  unwarranted assumptions are embedded in WLC’s argument (and in all similar arguments using the gospels, or Acts to prove the NT)

  • That we can know what the disciples did preach a few weeks after the crucifixion. 
  • That Jesus was a sufficiently Big Cheese for all the locals to know him and know what was true or false   about him. 
  • That people would have cared enough about the claims made by this Jewish sect to think it worthwhile refuting them. 

It is, at best, question-begging to claim that the temporal and geographical proximity of the gospels to the events they describe precludes fabrication (even if flat out fabrication were what is alleged by those who dispute their accuracy, which for the most part, it isn’t.)  The Gospels are generally dated between the 70s and 90s, CE.  The concensus view is that they were written in Greek and so it is unlikely that they were written by “locals” from any of the scenes where the events described are supposed to have taken place.  

WLC says that the disciples could never have “proclaimed the resurrection (and been believed) under such circumstances had it not occurred.”  Why not?  It is implicit in the need to proclaim it that it had not been witnessed by those to whom the proclamation was made.  Which would mean that any proclaiming was based on nothing more than the word of the proclaimers.  If you believe Acts (which presumably WLC does) then the first converts accepted what somebody else told them about something which the converts hadn’t seen and so weren’t in a position to challenge.  On top of that, there is precious little in the accounts of the preaching contained in Acts which indicates that what was preached was specific enough to be easily rebutted.  It all seems to be pretty generalised “He was really special, you screwed up, he came back to life, join us or you’re in big trouble” kind of stuff.  

It is difficult to refute that sort of vague claim.   Without specifics, how do you go about disproving the claim that Jesus worked miracles and was raised from the dead?  Unless you say you were with him 24/7, any attempt to rebut those assertions is going to be shrugged off with the response “You just weren’t around at the right times.”    

But even with specifics, nailing a lie can be hard. You’ve heard that saying about how a lie can be half-way round the world before the truth has even got its boots on?  Well, here’s an illustration.  

Kitty Genovese was raped and murdered outside her own apartment block. When the story about the attack came out in the press, it sent shock waves through New York, where the crime took place and beyond it across America even to the rest of the world. Because during the 35 minutes it took before Kitty Genovese died 38 people in the flats overlooking the murder did nothing.   Twice the murderer was disturbed by the lights coming on in some of the apartments but each time he returned and Kitty Genovese died. In spite of her calls for help, nobody lifted a finger to stop the murderer or even just call police. 

Here is a link to a reproduction of the original New York Times article.

The murder became a case-study for academia. It was extensively debated.  How could it happen?  The more people who witness an incident, sociologists theorised, the less likely any one of them is to take any action, because all will assume that one of the others is doing something.  It became a recognised sociological syndrome: “the diffusion  of responsibility” or “the bystander effect” even “the Genovese syndrome” (see the footnote to the link above).  

It was a lesson in human behaviour and how hard our hearts had become. 


It didn’t happen like that.  The myth of the 38 who did nothing has been thoroughly debunked.  Kitty Genovese was attacked that night and received fatal injuries.  By the time help arrived, it was too late.   But that’s about all the report got right.  Whilst the behaviour of two of the witnesses was highly discreditable, for the most part, those who could help did their best and failed because of lack of sufficient information about what was going on, rather than lack of concern for a neighbour. The figure of “38” appears to have been plucked from the air.  

Let’s  test this Kitty Genovese report against WLC’s gospels argument:

  1. Temporal proximity: check.  In fact, the NYT article was far more proximate in time than the gospels to events they record – less than two weeks, which not even the most conservative evangelical would claim for the gospels.
  2. Geographical proximity: check.  Happened in NYC, written up in NYT.  Again, the gospels fall way short on this criterion. 

But more than that, the inaccuracies of the Kitty Genovese story were far more likely to come to the attention of those who knew the truth than any inaccuracies in the gospels were to those who might have corrected them. The people who had been there at the murder were members of a literate and technologically advanced society where reports like this were swiftly disseminated through the media.  And for the same reasons, they had more resources avaiable to them for rebutting those false reports.  

Furthermore, they were more motivated to rebut the story than the people who were witnesses to gospel events, because the story was greatly to the discredit of each one of them.

If you accept WLC’s reasoning you must conclude that it is simply impossible that the NYT article could be false because if it were, the witnesses would have disproved it.  But a story can take on a momentum of its own and truth can struggle to resist that momentum. Kitty Genovese’s is just one such story.

So the next time an apologist tells you that the gospels can’t be wrong because if they had been, too many people would have known the truth and put them right, tell them about Kitty Genovese.  

My feels on writing.

This is my first ever re-blog (seriously!). Bear with me guys.  The original appears underneath my comments. I am assured by my tech-savvy daughter that that’s just the way it has to be.

Yup, sadly all too true. And philosophy attracts more than its fair share of arseholes who think if they throw a few bits of philosophical jargon into a post then they will appear intelligent. Take this example of priceless fuck-wittery :
Thanks. No, I think it’s acceptable. So we both agree the antecedent is necessarily false. But we don’t want to say it’s trivially true. So we need a semantics broader than possible worlds semantics. So we use something like impossible worlds semantics. We then go to the “closest” impossible world at which the antecedent is true, and my argument is that at that world atheists couldn’t raise a POE charge against God for “aborting” us because God can just use a bodily autonomy justification. The atheist will (intuitively) want to think the undefeated POE world is closer.
Another example. Plantinga argues against identity
theories where brain state = mental content. He then asks us to remove the content and replace it with another but leave same brain states. Both he and the identity theorist will think this is impossible (violating identity). He claims the closer impossible world is the one where the person does the same action, so he thinks epiphenomenalism follows. Here, again, both sides agree the antecedent of the counterpossible is impossible.”


The Agnostic, the Atheist and the Burden of Proof


1. a person who holds that the existence of the ultimate cause, as God, and the essential nature of things are unknown and unknowable, or that human knowledge is limited to experience.
Synonyms: disbeliever, nonbeliever, unbeliever; doubter, skeptic, secularist, empiricist; heathen, heretic, infidel, pagan.
2. a person who denies or doubts the possibility of ultimate knowledge in some area of study.
3. a person who holds neither of two opposing positions on a topic:
Socrates was an agnostic on the subject of immortality.

“Agnostic” comes up a lot in apologetics debates. Of the three definitions above, there is a divide along partisan lines with atheists claiming that only the first (meaning 1) is “right” and theists claiming that only the last (meaning 3) is.  Atheists often say that anyone who does not positively believe that God exists is an atheist.  It is not necessary, they say, to have a belief that God doesn’t exist in order to qulalify as an atheist. You can be both atheist and agnostic, because agnosticism (meaning 1) refers to what you know, atheism to what you believe. Apologists, on the other hand, are apt to insist that if you call yourself an atheist you must believe that God doesn’t exist. Unless you sign up to that, you are an agnostic  (meaning 3).  

Dictionaries are not “top down” sources of definition.  Words are defined by their use and dictionaries aim to reflect how a word is in fact being used, not to prescribe how a word “ought” to be used.  If enough people use the word in a particular way, that way of using it becomes correct. That is why all of the above definitions, although each is slightly different, are correct.  It may be necessary to clarify which definition we are using but there should be no need to engage in long debates about whether anyone “must” use the word in one way rather than another. 

Thomas Huxley, who coined the word, intended to emphasise the “gnosis” root and to distinguish himself from those who claimed to have knowledge of what he considered to be unknowable. But it would be fallacious to argue from the word’s root or it’s genesis that it “must” be interpreted as the first definition. 

Why does any of this matter? (To the two sides, I mean.  Whether and why any of this matters in the larger scheme of things is a different question).  

I think that a lot of it is to do with the burden of proof.  Both sides tend to approach the God debate as a game of tactics. The atheist is determined to place the burden of proof on the apologist.  That way the apologist has to make all the running and the atheist’s job is just to react to whatever the apologist puts forward. If the apologist fails to prove their case, then the atheist can claim victory.  Apologists find this irksome and wish to proceed on the basis that their opponent must also do some of the leg-work.  That way, unless the atheist can prove God’s non-existence, then the aplogist can claim at the very least, a draw.  

Atheists are wary of being bounced into taking on a burden which they instinctively (and in my view, rightly) feel isn’t theirs.  When the apologist says “So, if you’re an atheist, you must believe there is no God” the atheist thinks: “Ah ha!  I see your game.  But you shan’t succeed…..”  And from that point, even atheists who in their hearts believe that there is not, cannot be a God, will refuse to be pinned down on the issue. Apologists feel that their opponent is being deliberately evasive and they become understandably frustrated. Thereafter much heat and little light is generated in an “Oh yes you do!” “Oh no I don’t!” type exchange. 

Of course, some atheists may genuinely have no belief either way on God’s existence, however I suspect most of them believe he doesn’t exist, but they are unwilling to admit as much, thinking that they will be painting themselves into a corner.  

I think there is a way forward which might provide for a more honest and more productive exchange. I suggest that we start by recognising that “I believe x” is first and foremost a claim about me, not about x.  A belief is a state of mind.  Like an emotion, it is something we have, not something we choose.  

When I say “I believe x” that does not of itself impose a burden of proof on me any more than saying “I like chocolate” does. It is simply a report about my state of mind.  A challenge “Prove it!” would be an invitation to me to demonstrate that I truly believe x, not to prove x to be true.  

By now you may be thinking that I am being disingenuous. Surely it is implicit in “I believe x” that I am saying “X is true”?  Well, yes, but that by itself does not create a burden of proof. 

All burdens of proof are self-imposed.  In simple terms, only those who want to prove something bear a burden of proof. Being a theist does not impose a burden of proof.  But being a theistic apologist does. 

Being an agnostic will impose a burden of proof – if you want to argue that agnosticism (on whichever definition you use) is the most rational position to take. 

Being an atheist can impose a burden of proof, if you wish to persuade others, but what you are obliged to prove will depend on what you are trying to persuade them of. If your argument is limited to the assertion that there is no credible evidence for the existence of God, then all you need to do is to refute the apologist arguments that purport to establish his existence. The fact that you may personally believe that there is no God has no bearing on your burden of proof. But of course if you want to go further and persuade people that God does not exist, then start arguing your case, because you just took on a burden. 

More Gay Cake, Vicar?

William Roper: So, now you give the Devil the benefit of law!

Sir Thomas More: Yes! What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?

William Roper: Yes, I’d cut down every law in England to do that!

Sir Thomas More: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned ’round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country is planted thick with laws, from coast to coast, Man’s laws, not God’s! And if you cut them down, and you’re just the man to do it, do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake!

From A Man For All Seasons by Robert Bolt

I wasn’t going to write about the Asher’s bakery case. I’ve posted on other sites,  here, here and here and there didn’t seem to be much to add.  But this post is going to be not so much about the case itself, as about the way those Christians who disliked the outcome chose to express their disapproval.

Overall, the reaction from the pro-Asher’s  faction was a prolonged howl of “It’s not FAIR!”  The law is supposed to be all  about fairness, so if this charge could be sustained, then it would be a very damning criticism. But although the protesters  were convinced that the law was wrong, they offered no clear explanation of how or why it was wrong. This made any kind of productive discussion with them a bit…..difficult.   What was unfair?  What did they wish to change to make it fair?

Maybe the legislation under which the case was brought needed changing in their view.  But which bit and how?

Well, if you changed the law so as to remove protection from sexual orientation, that would take away a major ground in the case.* But I did not get the impression that any of the protesters actually wanted to remove the protection of the law from people of different sexual orientations. Maybe they did, and just didn’t want to admit it, but I have to say that that was not the impression I got.  So what did they want?

I could not help feeling that, although they would not actually say so outright, many of those who protested at the judgment felt in their hearts that anti-gay prejudice was acceptable in a way that racial prejudice wasn’t. “Why didn’t he just go and get the cake from another bakery?” was a recurrent theme. There were some who suggested (without a shred of evidence) that it was a “sting”, that the plaintiff had gone to Asher’s in the hope of being refused so that he could sue them. The implication was that in that case, he was more deserving of condemnation than sympathy. 

But nobody would have suggested that a customer who was discriminated against for racist reasons “ought” simply to take their custom elsewhere. And nobody would suggest that someone who uncovered racism in a bakery’s supply policy had done a shameful thing, even if it was through a sting. We would regard the exposure of racism, however it came about, as a great public service. 

The chief ground of complaint seemed to be that the law should not oblige anyone to do anything contrary to their conscience. I think many of us will have some instinctive sympathy with this idea. But as always, the devil is in the detail. How would a conscience clause that over-rode all other provisions of the anti-discrimination law work (if that was what was wanted)?

“Conscience is King” is a fine thing to support when the conscience in question chimes with your own. But suppose the conscience belongs to a white supremacist? Must she also be allowed to refuse any service which conflicts with her values?  

Much was made of the fact that the refusal was not to provide a cake for a gay man but to provide a cake promoting Same Sex Marriage (SSM).  But if conscience is the determining factor, then this distinction is of no importance.  My conscience may tell me that it is not only wrong to bake a cake which contains a message celebrating SSM but it is wrong to bake a cake, however discreetly decorated, which is for a gay civil partnership, because even by doing that much I am helping to celebrate what is morally wrong.  Or my conscience may tell me not to allow my infant child to have a life-saving blood transfusion, because that is forbidden by the bible. Or my conscience may tell me that I should kill a young woman because her behaviour has brought dishonour to her family and the community from which she comes.  Are all these to be beyond the reach of the law?  If not, how will you frame the law so as to draw the line?

Let me return to Sir Thomas More (as represented in Bolt’s play) with whom I started. He also came into conflict with the law, also because of a marriage which his conscience would not allow him to support.  But what he recognised was that nobody was above the law and nobody was beneath it either. The law sheltered the greatest devil as much as it would the greatest angel. You could not dis-apply it to protect those you favoured or exclude those you didn’t.   

More was of course a lawyer himself and he would not have refused his services to the greatest villan that lived or to a cause which was directly contrary to everything he held dear.  That is because there has for hundreds of years been a rule at the Bar called “the Cab Rank Rule”.  Under this rule every barrister is obliged to take on any case which they are asked to, provided that it is within the branch of law where they profess to practice.  They may not refuse to represent a person, however profoundly they disagree with them. This rule is in place to ensure that nobody is denied representation because their cause is unpopular or because they are held in public contempt. The courts must determine whether the unpopular cause can be allowed or whether the alleged criminal is guilty.  

The McArthurs (directors of the bakery) were guaranteed the services of a lawyer when they asked for one. It made no difference whether the lawyer they wanted was a gay atheist, passionately pro-gay marriage or a Christain fundamentalist, utterly opposed to it.  Whatever the lawyer’s personal views, their duty was to represent their client as best they could.  If a lawyer can act to promote a cause that she profoundly disagrees with for the sake of a larger principle, surely a baker can decorate a cake with a slogan they disagree with for the sake of promoting a kinder, more tolerant society in which nobody has to fear that their skin colour, or sexual orientation, or ethnicity, or religious beliefs will cause them to be treated like a pariah? 

*Because the action was brought in Northern Ireland, even if sexual orientation were excluded as a basis of claim, the plaintiff could still have brought an action for discrimination based on his political views, which is also prohibited in N.I. -something which I was not aware of until I read Stephen Graham’s excellent blog post on the case (link above). But this didn’t seem to make much impression on the protesters, probably because most of them didn’t come from N.I. so did not perceive the political rights aspect as likely to impact on them. 

Atheism or Belief: Which is Evidence Based?  Arif Ahmed and Ayyaz Mahmood Khan

I recently attended this debate which was hosted by The Real Dialogue.
It was interesting to go to a debate where the default belief for non-atheists was Islam rather than Christianity. It just gave a slightly different perspective on the question. 

For anyone who is interested, I am the first female to ask a question from the floor.   I don’t know that I managed to get my point across.   I wasn’t sure if I could ask supplementries, so I just handed the mike back. For a barrister, I can be strangely timid and self-effacing at times.  Anyway, I think others took it up and perhaps made it more successfully, but basically I was trying to say that the prophecies were too vague to be falsifiable so did not amount to much as evidence.