Friday, 27 April 2012

Sorry Guys, Einstein Didn't Say That

Albert Einstein was not on either side. Let's stop trying to make it seem like he was.

“It was, of course, a lie what you read about my religious convictions, a lie which is being systematically repeated. I do not believe in a personal God and I have never denied this but have expressed it clearly. If something is in me which can be called religious then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it.”
- Albert Einstein, letter to an atheist (1954), quoted in ‘Albert Einstein: The Human Side’, edited by Helen Dukas & Banesh Hoffman

“The biggest problem with the internet is that anyone can attribute any quote to anybody.”
- Han Solo

You may well have seen this copypasta cropping up on your various social media sites over the last couple days or weeks. I would paste it in here but the thing’s massive, so instead just hit the link if you want to see what I’m referring to.

To give you the short of it, it’s a copy/pasted dialogue between ‘THE NASTY ATHEIST PROFESSOR’ and ‘THE HEROIC RELIGIOUS STUDENT’ in which the nasty professor type attempts to ridicule and browbeat the student for his faith in god, only for the student to retaliate with a can of supposed logical whoop-ass that turns the table on the professor.

Oh, and apparently this student is Einstein.

I saw this flare up across in the US via r/atheism a few weeks ago, with lots of irreligious redditors voicing their criticisms of this copypasta. Now it’s crossed the pond to appear on social media feeds here, so I figured now would be an excellent time for me to take a good hard look at it and point out the flaws in the history of the copypasta itself, it’s content and the fact that Einstein’s name has been attached to it.

Much of what I’m about to say I would not be able to argue had those lovely chaps and chapettes over at r/atheism on Reddit not pointed it out first, to give credit where credit is certainly due. Cheers, Reddit.

Now then, let’s get this deconstruction started.

We start off with a vague butchering of the Problem of Evil Argument being bandied about by the Professor against the Student as a way to discredit god and the belief in him. It misses out a lot of the key points of the Problem but I’d prefer to focus on the Student’s response, so we’ll move past that to the part where the Student starts countering the Professor’s onslaught. His first point is about heat and cold, arguing that cold is simply the absence of heat. Okay, I can accept that too.

But here’s where things start to get silly.

Student: You’re wrong again, sir. Darkness is the absence of something. You can have low light, normal light, bright light, flashing light. But if you have no light constantly, you have nothing and its called darkness, isn’t it? In reality, darkness isn’t. If it is, well you would be able to make darkness darker, wouldn’t you?

This view has a few key flaws in its reasoning. Whilst it is acceptable to label darkness as the absence of light, it should be noted that there are things in cosmology that are dark by their very nature and that there are things we consider to be dark because we cannot perceive the wavelengths of light that do actually illuminate them. The view itself is solid enough but does imply that the Student has a limited grasp of astrophysics. Considering who they attribute authorship to, this does cast a bit of doubt on the whole thing.

Moving on:

Student: Since no one has ever observed the process of evolution at work and cannot even prove that this process is an on-going endeavour. Are you not teaching your opinion, sir? Are you not a scientist but a preacher?

Here we start to fall into the territory of the evolution denier. The usual ‘can’t see evolution so that means it’s just like god lolololol’ trash spouted by creationists and intelligent design proponents. They fail to realise that we have actually observed evolution. We have observed HIV evolving to adapt to living beings across the years. We have observed viruses and diseases reacting to medicine by evolving to resist it better. By using things like bacteria and insects as control species scientists can indeed “observe evolution”, as they reproduce fast enough in laboratory conditions to see it happening.

And of course the Student cannot help but drop the “I DIDN’T EVOLVE FROM A MONKEY” faux-pas into this rant. He’s absolutely correct, of course. We didn’t evolve from monkeys. We evolved from an ape-descendant that we also share with other animals, such as monkeys. Please actually understand what you are criticising before you criticise it.

Student: Is there anyone here who has ever heard the Professor’s brain, felt it, touched or smelt it? No one appears to have done so. So, according to the established Rules of Empirical, Stable, Demonstrable Protocol, Science says that you have no brain, sir. With all due respect, sir, how do we then trust your lectures, sir?

Absolute nonsense. Through scientific methods such as MRI scans we have indeed observed the brain. Scientists have mapped out causal links between brain activity and all functions of the body; observation of a sort. Finally, if we really felt the need to we could also cut open the Professor’s head and observe the brain. Hell, isn’t that what brain surgeons do? The brain is a thing; through evidence and reason we know it to be there. Have I seen one? Admittedly, no. Has the Professor? Given his focus on Philosophy, probably not. However, belief in the brain is not a matter of faith, as the Student seems to be implying; we have evidence and reason to consider it a real thing. A philosophy student might claim that all this evidence could be false and based on flawed evidence, but I think that a swing from Ockham’s Razor puts this to bed. What is more believable, after all? That through evidence we know the brain is there, or that because this evidence could (very, very) potentially be false we can never truly know it is there?

That is the jist of this version of the copypasta. The Student drops the conclusion that “the link between man & GOD is FAITH. That is all that keeps things alive and moving”. And then the final bombshell drops in the last line:

“By the way, that student was EINSTEIN.”

Here is my main issue with this copypasta, the reason why I’m devoting a blog post to criticising it. There are thousands of these things floating about the internet. Hell, there are multiple versions of this one; you can see older versions of the dialogue between the Student and the Professor that date back to 2007, interestingly without Einstein’s name forcibly affixed to the bottom.[1] It is the religious apologist equivalent of an urban myth popularised by the internet; this exchange likely never happened.

This fact ties nicely into my next point.

Which is that Einstein never said this. The copypasta you have just read is a huge misrepresentation of him aside from being logically flawed.

Albert Einstein was undoubtedly one of the greatest minds of the 20th Century, arguably one of the greatest minds our species has ever produced. His theory of general relativity was a work of unparalleled genius that continues to define the field of physics to this day, holding up and remaining solid in the face of rigorous testing. Einstein himself is hailed as a genius, and rightly so; his name has entered into popular language as a stand-in for genius in many places (“what are you, some kind of Einstein?”).

Is it any wonder that many factions and ideologies want to claim him as their own?

That is what this copypasta seeks to do; tie Einstein firmly to the theist camp. Yet this is a gross misrepresentation and an insult to what the man actually believed. He was a man who decried the belief in the personal god theists so ardently cling to.[2] This he perceived as “child-like”. He was not even Christian; his mother and father were non-practising Jews.[3] It is important to note, however, that Einstein was not an atheist either. Indeed, he was quite critical of atheists and atheism at times, calling out our “crusading spirit” and stating that he preferred an attitude of humility.[4] I guess you could call him an agnostic, or perhaps a pan-theist at a stretch.

This is the point I am trying to make in all this. Would I have liked it if Einstein identified himself as an atheist? Certainly I would; it’s always nice to know that great minds of the past thought similarly to you. But that does not mean I am going to deliberately misquote him, deliberately falsify his views in order to try and deceive people into thinking that he is of a similar mindset to me. To do so is to simultaneously insult the memory of a truly gifted scientist.

It also implies that I secretly worry that my views lack validity and plausibility; after all if I was confident in them why would I feel the need to lie in order to make them superficially appear stronger?

So when it comes to the debate on the validity of religion, ladies and gentlemen on both sides of the court, let’s just leave Einstein out of it shall we? He was a scientist first and foremost. He did not believe as either side does. Why is that?

Simply because he did not really have time for religion; he was too busy being one of the greatest scientists who ever lived.

Let’s stop insulting such a man’s memory, shall we?

[2] Calaprice, Alice (2000). The Expanded Quotable Einstein. Princeton: Princeton University Press, p. 217. Einstein Archives 59-797
[4] Isaacson, Walter (2008). Einstein: His Life and Universe. New York: Simon and Schuster

Thursday, 26 April 2012

Having One's Cake And Eating It: The Catholic Education Service Is At It Again

You would honestly have a point if you were to say that Catholics across the globe seem to genuinely enjoy courting controversy.

Just a few days ago the Vatican promised to “crack down” on “radical feminist” nuns in America.[1] How are they being radical, you might ask? Oh, you know, just suggesting that homosexuality is actually okay.[2] ‘Radical’ things like that. And last month you had the Pope declaring that Marxism “no longer corresponds to reality”.[3] This from a man in a dress and a hat who talks to imaginary men in the sky; the irony is almost palpable.

But here in the UK the local Catholics seem to think that they cannot let the Vatican have all the fun. At least that is what I think is the Catholic Education Services’ reasoning behind encouraging children attending faith schools in England and Wales to sign a petition against gay marriage.[4] Specifically, this petition, one that as of writing has 469,121 signatures and which claims that:

“Throughout history and in virtually all human societies marriage has always been the union of a man and a woman. Marriage reflects the complementary natures of men and women. Although death and divorce may prevent it, the evidence shows that children do best with a married mother and a father.”[5]

We’re talking about a petition with some serious logical fallacies on the go here, people. Throughout history people also kept slaves. And burned witches. I suppose we should start a petition to encourage everyone to hold to those timeless classics as well.

The backers of this petition are using the same outdated, flawed dogmas those who would see homosexuals relegated to second-class citizenship always use, wherever they are in the world. Step up to the plate Bigot-Robe-Dudes (aka. Archbishops) Vincent Nichols and Peter Smith as our example of such silly attitudes and ideas, who state in their letter to faith schools:

“A change in the law would gradually and inevitably transform society’s understanding of the purpose of marriage. It would reduce it just to the commitment of the two people involved.”[6]

Oh look everyone, it’s our old friend the Slippery Slope Fallacy. Gay marriage would cause some catastrophic shift away from the ‘sanctity of marriage’? Where have I heard this one before? At least Nichols and Smith do not claim that gay marriage would lead to people marrying their dogs/children/toasters like some of their fellows on the anti-gay side of the fence do. Case and point Lisa Severine Nolland of Core Issues Trust, the group you may remember trying to get Ex-Gay propaganda smeared across London buses earlier this month.[7]

The reaction from the other side of the fence (my side of the fence, if that was not abundantly clear already) has been swift; the British Humanist Association has condemned the move by the CES and argued that it violates several sections of the 1996 Education Act. The Welsh Government has also stepped up to the plate, promising an investigation into the whole debacle and urging Westminster to do the same.[8] Go on yourselves, Wales.

The CES (and by extension the Catholic Church) and their meddling in the lives of schoolchildren is a very serious issue. It may be faith schools that they are taking advantage of, but do not forget that many of these schools receive government funding.[9] Your taxes are going to help fund schools that allow celibate priests to tell children to campaign against homosexuality.

And yes, that is what they are doing. Let’s make that clear. This is an anti-gay campaign, no matter what spin the CES try to put on it. And spin they are indeed trying to generate; one of their spokeswomen has already said that:

“We said that schools might like to consider using this [letter] in assemblies or in class teaching. We said people might want to consider asking pupils and parents if they might want to sign the petition. It's really important that no school discriminates against any member of the school community.”[10]

Oh, okay then. That makes it totally fine. You’re just suggesting that the schools use the letter. You’re just suggesting that those children sign the homophobic petition. You still totally respect everyone’s’ rights and feelings, and aren’t targeting any one group for discrimination.

Well, alright then. Two can play at this game. Suppose that I merely suggest that the Catholic Church is a horrific, monolithic religious entity that is a great source of hatred and abuse in this world, responsible for untold suffering in Africa and guilty of covering up more child abusers than we will probably ever know about? Suppose that I merely suggest that faith schools have no place in modern society, and should immediately be banned?

That’s not an anti-Catholic statement by your logic, so you cannot get offended.


Sunday, 8 April 2012

Happy Undead Jesus Day

Hey everyone.

I was going to try and have something written for Easter Sunday, but unfortunately the two 3000-word essays I have due for next week are kind of having to take priority. I like being a student, after all, so I’d rather not get chucked out for not doing the work.

But regardless, Happy Undead Jesus Day. If you are religious, enjoy your celebration. If you are non-religious, start looking forward to all that discount chocolate the shops are going to have in a few days.

And thank you r/atheism for this insightful .jpg about the resurrection of Christ.

Have a good one, guys.

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

“Hairy Leftys” and Liberal Theology – A Reflection on Rowan Williams

Controversial, progressive and hated by many groups within his own Church; is it any wonder the Archbishop of Canterbury has had it with his job?

It can’t be easy, being the Archbishop of Canterbury. Was it a surprise to anyone that Rowan Williams has announced that he is standing down as of December?[1]

After all it can definitely be said that people, whether they are religious or not, are hard to please; if your attitudes, speeches and policies are too far right you’re going to anger all the lefties and liberals, and if they are too far left you will do the same to all the conservatives and fundamentalists. This means that, as the Archbishop of Canterbury, you can either toe the line and be a dull, irrelevant Church official who no-one knows the name of, or you can bite the bullet, stand for what you believe in and take the abuse that will inevitably come from it.

Even if you despise the man, you cannot deny that Williams has made waves and at least tried to do something with a position that he never wanted in the first place.

I’ve found it hard to make my mind up on the man. On a religious level we clearly have extremely different viewpoints; Williams is clearly a firm believer in god and the Christian faith[2], whereas I consider god to be a man-made and at times dangerous concept. There have been times when I have disapproved of some of the statements the Archbishop has made; his speeches in 2008 that seemed to advocate a version of Sharia Law in the UK are an excellent example of this (though Williams has always claimed this was not what he intended to imply)[3], and his condemnation of the attacks on Danish embassies over the depiction of the prophet Muhammad was nothing short of cowardice in the face of religious aggression.[4] Yet I cannot ignore the fact that in many ways Williams has been a breath of fresh air to a previously backward Anglican Church; his weighing on the Creationist/Intelligent Design debate, in which he made it clear that he believed Creationism had no place in the classroom[5], was much welcomed (it’s always good to see religious figures talking sense), and his attitudes towards homosexuality and the appointing of gay bishops is a genuinely brave and commendable move on his part.[6]

Williams is quite clearly a progressive theologist in many regards; throughout his career as Archbishop of Canterbury he has tried his hardest to drag his Church, kicking and screaming, into the 21st Century.

Yet this has arguably earned him more scorn than it has praise. Since the announcement of his resignation in December my old favourite Peter Mullen has openly attacked the Archbishop on his blog with The Telegraph, accusing him of backtracking on issues and referring to him as a “hairy lefty”.[7] Good to see that Mullen’s staying classy in all this; he can imply that Williams is a coward all he likes, but I don’t remember ever hearing of Mullen taking a trip to Zimbabwe in an attempt to sort some of the chaos that’s going on there like the Archbishop did.[8] Still, it’s a sentiment shared by many in this country; just take a look at some of the comments from Mullen’s blog:

“The Archbishop is a joke. He is a typically liberal, PC churchman who has very little to do with genuine Christianity. He has nothing to offer the person on the street with his brand of wishy-washy waffle…”

“There can be no better example of his moral cowardice than the spineless way in which he is now spouting opinions in direct contradiction to the I'd-like-teach-the-world-to-sing drivel he churned out when his orotund evacuations might have made a difference to the well-being of the nation.
A worthless, despicable man.”

Yes, I know; taking the opinions of a few angry internet posters on an issue is like looking to the BNP for a consensus on British attitudes to foreigners (and yes, I will certainly admit that this extends to this blog as well). But the angry, disapproving sentiments towards Williams from within his own Church are clearly there; it’s not just Mullen and his far-right Bible-thumping crowd who dislike him. His attitudes towards homosexuality in his Church and the ordination of women has earned him plenty of stick in the past and to this day; former Conservative MP and all-round crazy person Ann Widdecombe famously left the Church to become a Catholic over the issue of women being ordained.[9]

Some may find his ‘lefty’ leanings troubling, but personally I feel this is something Williams should be commended for; I’ll quite happily admit that overall I like the man. Regardless of his religious loyalties and his adherence to outdated dogmas I’d say he’s a genuinely decent guy who’s tried his hardest to modernise the Church he found himself at the reins of. The religious and the non-religious cannot afford to make strawmen out of one another; Peter Hitchens is certainly right in saying that (though I would put out he immediately commits the same crime he’s denouncing in his description of “the god-hating faction”; I don't hate god, just as I don't hate the Easter Bunny, Santa Claus or other things that I don't believe exist).[10] Both sides have to acknowledge the other as people with differing opinions to their own, not as bogeymen to demonise and pour scorn upon. Both sides are guilty of this.

Dr Rowan William’s career as Archbishop has been an impossible one of trying to keep the peace with the more extreme, old-fashioned demographics of the Anglican Church whilst simultaneously trying to modernise it. He could have kept quiet, not made much of the position given to him and been forgotten and ignored by society and history. Instead, for good or worse, he tried to do something that he believed to be positive in a truly difficult situation.

That’s commendable, whether you’re religious or not.

[4] Christopher Hitchens, ‘God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything’, p281