Wednesday, December 10, 2008


Let us consider two claims:
1: Jesus is the product of a virgin birth
and 2: Genghis Khan is the product of a virgin birth.

Now if we want to determine if either of these is true, then we could use faith. However we would quickly run into the problem that faith could lead us to believe that either statement is true or false. So if we want to determine whether a given statement is true or not, then faith is not a useful tool, it simply doesn't help us determine the truth.

So the next step is to look at the evidence, well, here the two claims have a lot in common, in that there is no real evidence for either. In the case of Jesus, the nativity story as told in Luke's gospel, is full of historical inaccuracies. For example the claim that there was a census which required Joseph and his pregnant wife to go to Bethlehem is simply false. There was a Roman census in Syria, a decade after Herod died. But there certainly was no requirement for everyone to go back to the land of their long dead ancestors. It would seem most likely that part was concocted so that it could be claimed that Jesus of Nazareth was in fact born in Bethlehem which had been prophesied. The story of the passage from Nazareth to Bethlaham and of the slaugher of the innocents cannot both be true, because Herod had been dead for a decade before the census.

The claims that Jesus and Genghis Khan were the product of virgin births, really are extraordinary claims and in both cases there is a complete lack of evidence that they are true.
So we're forced to admit that they are equally unlikely.
For those of us who grew up in a society with an eduction system that was not controlled by Genghis Khan's thugs, we can use our brains to see that the story of Genghis Khan's virgin birth is an utter fabrication. We know instantly that it is not true. We are indeed the most intelligent species of animal on this planet. That said we cannot prove it is untrue. But we can examine the evidence and then come to the reasonable conclusion that it is highly improbable.

Now if we take an otherwise intelligent person who has been raised in a Christian household and gone through a Christian controlled education, then a really simple bit of logic can cause a huge problem. Consider the following: there is no evidence for the extraordinary claim that Jesus was the product of a virgin birth, therefore we deem it very unlikely that that claim is true. How can an intelligent person have any difficulty accepting that statement fully? Or to put it another way, how can clever people be so stupid?

Through natural selection, nature very often ruthlessly enforces efficiency. But there are some anomalies. For example, if you give a pea-hen the choice between a fit-fast pea-cock with small tail feathers and alternatively a slow-clumsy pretty-boy pea-cock with an awkward heavy tail, then she'll go for the pretty-boy, even though, because of his heavy tail he won't be able to travel as far in search of food and he won't be as fast when getting away form predator's. But why doesn't natural selection just wipe out this ridiculous inefficiency? Well, from the point of view of her male off-spring, it would probably be true that more sons of the fit-fast pea-cock would thrive in adulthood, but if all the other pea-hens have a preference for the pretty-boys, then her fit-fast male off-spring won't be able to reproduce. So when choosing a mate she is best off going with the consensus view of what is attractive.

Having spent some time enjoying night-life trying to find a mate myself, I've seen some anecdotal evidence to suggest that humans' choice of mate are influenced by what their peers find attractive. From the point of view of choosing a mate, there is certainly an evolutionary reason why we might want to agree with the consensus. But how about with religious faith? Why have we evolved an ability suspend our intelligence?

Let's consider a small hunter gatherer group, with say 20 men who are seeking a mate. Now suppose 19 of them believe that it is best to go hunting mammoths to the east of their settlement, but one reckons that going west would be better. If he sticks with his belief, he could try hunting alone, but one man against a mammoth is tough. There is also the risk of social ostracism. The other guys will bond with one another during their hunting trip. And we all know the loner never gets the babe.

My suggestion is that people who don't fit in well with a group have a difficulty finding mates. A big part of fitting in with a group is to share beliefs, in everything from what clothes look nice to why the sun rises every morning in the east. We have evolved to conform because those who conform have more success finding a mate.

If we want people to have faith in something for which we don't have evidence, then to achieve this, we should insist on faith schools, where the students can be 'taught' to believe and frequently reciting a creed out loud as a group can only help. Though it could ultimately all be ruined by an articulate free thinker who points out how absurd faith is for intelligent beings.

I believe that for many people, their faith is shaky and is held up by peers who may not be admitting how shaky their own faith is. Ultimately it can tumble down pretty quickly as was seen after the second world war in Japan when people en-mass stopped believing that their emperor was divine, even though in the preceding years many were prepared to die for him. It is the old tale of the emperors new clothes.

I have read that in recent times that some Europeans in Afganistan have been murdered just because they have been accused of trying to convert people away from Islam. In a strange way I do understand why the religious leaders are very much afraid of people preaching something other than Islam. If you are a con-man who has significant power as a result of the con-job and has more or less managed to even con yourself, then it is very scary if someone comes along and says that what you preach is clearly a load of rubbish.


If you want to see an amazing video showing how a non-scientific belief can lead someone to do something very stupid have a look at the following
(if you know a version of that video with English commentary please do let me know, by posting a comment below, thanks)

Here is an interesting 10 minute video on faith, (please do forgive the American accent of the narator, it is not his fault.)

A really good introduction to atheism is Richard Dawkin's The God Delusion.

For an atheist or agnostic who is not sure if overall religion is a good or a bad thing, then Christopher Hitchen's God is Not Great has some persuasive arguments pointing toward the idea that 'religion poisons everything'.
Hitchens is a very articulate and abrasive debater, he seems to enjoy the fight. Here is a video of him talking about his book:

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Education and indoctrination in China and elsewhere

China has a long tradition of education and down through the years it has come a long way. However there remains one rather touchy subject which is handled with kid-gloves. It is of course Communism.
The founding fathers are presented as great men ( and occasionally women ). Their opponents are of course the villains. There is absolutely no balance to what is taught.

Even ethics are taught solely from a communist point of view. In schools there is no discussion about how a moral code could come from a different source.

If Mao had not lived, then would people have been better or worse off?
No doubt there are some people out there with strong opinions, for example if you were to ask someone who was persecuted by Mao‘s people. But in Chinese schools that simply is not a question that children and teenagers are ever asked to think about.

Currently, at the top of the Communist Party there are people who firmly believe in what they are doing. They will say with sincerity that they want what is best for the people. On the other hand, an outsider observing their actions and in particular the way they indoctrinate the children, would say that their actions are completely consistent with a group that has some significant power and are absolutely determined to hold on.

The leaders’ fear is that the people might stop believing in Communism. Communism does indeed have some interesting ideas, but non-communist societies have been getting on fine without it for millennia. If the people en-mass dumped communism, then the real losers would be the communist leadership.

Show this article to someone who has grown up in China and gone through the education system and they may even find it offensive. A defensive wall would come up in their mind which they would simply not be able to see through. Suppose you wanted to get through to them that it is fairer and more honest to children offer them a balanced education rather than decide what they should think and indoctrinate them, then one way to do it, would be to write about education in some foreign land and discuss how those foreign children are indoctrinated into something other than communism, then you’d probably be able to get through to them that the best education system is objective and it does not decide how children should think.

It takes humility to presents all sides of the argument and not just their one point of view. If one side of a debate is chosen and repeatedly presented to children as if it were the sole truth and the only side with merit then the children are being indoctrinated and not educated.

If communism and all of its alternatives are taught in an impartial manner, then there is no reason at all why we should have communist schools, where children daily read communist texts. The alternative would simply be to have schools where children are taught and they learn to think for themselves. The arguments for and against communism are rather complex for a six year old. It would probably be best to delay teaching children anything about communism until the age of twelve at the earliest.

Are things going to change in China? Well, it seems not for while. If you visit a Chinese school in early winter you’ll see the children as young as five preparing for their re-enactment of the great march which tells the tale as the Communists would like it to be told. So the next generation is brought into the fold.

Personally, having lived in China for years, I'm beginning to see the amazing similarities between the education I recieved in Ireland and the current education system in China. In fact I think I could re-write the article above, replacing the "Communist Party" with the "Christian Church", change "China" to "The West", replace "Mao" with "The Lord" and "re-enactments of the great march" with "nativity plays"