Category Archives: Reason and argument

Pious Misrepresentation of the Day – a complaint to the BBC

This is the unabridged version of the complaint I sent to the BBC concerning a Thought for the Day radio broadcast that stepped way over the line of religious contemplation into an outright attack on atheism and secularism.

“I wish to complain about the disgraceful misrepresentation of secular atheism as broadcast on BBC Ulster’s Thought For The Day on 28th May 2012. The recording begins at 25 minutes 45 seconds into this podcast:

In it, the Rev Dr. Johnston McMaster asserted a number of human disasters were due to atheist secularism, in an attempt to promote his own religion.

Of the four examples of atheist secularism cited – the French Revolution, Nazi Germany, Communist Russia and China, at most only one meets the criteria of secularism – i.e. the state is neutral on matters of belief. Communism actively discriminated against religion, and Nazi Germany discriminated against Jews and promoted Christianity, or at least used it to it’s own ends – it is certain that it had a treaty with the Vatican which they adhered to until the end. The French Revolution heralded the end of the feudal era in France, driven by principles of the Enlightenment. Modern secular Europe, possibly the most stable and peaceful region of human civilisation, has roots in this turbulent period. I think the French would take a dim view of the opinion that it was a disaster or a failure.

To summarise, the preacher was guilty of the following logical fallacies:

* Straw men – see above plus ‘God is consumerism, nationalism or consumerism’ – these are not in any way religions.

* Affirming the consequent – ‘Stalin was an atheist and evil, therefore all atheists are evil’ makes as much sense as ‘Hitler was a vegetarian and evil, therefore all vegetarians are evil.’

* Begging the question – ‘God is dead’/’God doesn’t go away’ – requirement being he ever ‘lived’.

* Lying – ‘we need God to be good/be humane/be dignified’. This is known to be false – see this scientific study as an example –

* Special pleading – Karl Marx’s ‘opium of the masses’ true of ‘some forms of religion’ implication being ‘but not ours’. Why should Christianity be an exception?

That’s a lot of logical fallacies to squeeze in in only 3 minutes.

Oddly, given how disastrous secularism allegedly is, Norway has just disestablished their church and, weeks later, still haven’t had one decent massacre. The last one they had was because of a religious fanatic.

I believe the broadcast contravened the following BBC Editorial Guidelines due to the gross misrepresentation of secular atheism:

12.2.1 The beliefs and practices of religions and denominations must be described with due accuracy.

12.2.2 The religious views and beliefs of an individual, a religion or denomination must not be misrepresented or abused, as judged against generally accepted standards.

The subject matter of this broadcast was controversial, and was not impartial, nor clearly distinguished as opinion and not fact, contravening these two guidelines:

4.4.5 We must apply due impartiality to all our subject matter.  However, there are particular requirements for ‘controversial subjects’, whenever they occur in any output, including drama, entertainment and sport.

A ‘controversial subject’ may be a matter of public policy or political or industrial controversy.  It may also be a controversy within religion, science, finance, culture, ethics and other matters entirely.

4.4.7 When dealing with ‘controversial subjects’, we must ensure a wide range of significant views and perspectives are given due weight and prominence, particularly when the controversy is active.  Opinion should be clearly distinguished from fact.

In the interests of balance, the BBC should either apologise for this disgracefully biased broadcast, or allow an opposing view to be broadcast as Thought For The Day.”


7th June 2012, a response – I’ve reproduced the email from the BBC’s Senior Religious Programmes producer, Rev Dr Bert Tosh, apologising for the ‘over-much generalisation about “secularism and atheism”‘, agreeing that Thought for the Day ‘is not the appropriate vehicle for a discussion about the relative merits of religion, humanism, secularisation’, and assuring that ‘corrective action has now been taken to avoid any recurrence of what happened on this particular occasion.’

An adequate apology, and closure of the matter. Perhaps it would be too ask that a humanist be allowed to broadcast a Thought for the Day? 😉

7 June, 2012

Dear Colin

Editorial Complaint – Thought for the Day

I’m replying to your recent complaint about a Thought for the Day piece which was broadcast on 28.05.12.

Dr McMaster’s contribution was intended to describe the effects which a loss of religious faith and a “sense of the transcendent” might have on society. His comments were/are contestable, but they were not meant to suggest that religion is the only guarantor of “our humanity” or people’s ability to negotiate “the difference between good and evil”.  Dr McMaster acknowledged that religion itself “has done enormous harm and [that] God has frequently been recruited to bless wars and our Irish violence”. In affirming what he feels to be positive about religious belief however, there was, on reflection, over-much generalisation about “secularism and atheism”. We accept that Dr McMaster’s script should have been amended before broadcast, consistent with the established conventions around this slot, and apologise for any upset or offence caused.

We welcome all feedback, and take careful account when people feel that the BBC has got something wrong, or fallen short of their expectations. Diverse views and honest debate are important within our output, but we also need to take account of what is appropriate in different programme slots. Thought for the Day is meant to provide a religious/ethical and personal view on loosely topical issues. It is not the appropriate vehicle for a discussion about the relative merits of religion, humanism, secularisation etc. We need to ensure that our guidance to contributors is clear in this regard and that what we broadcast is consistent with Thought for the Day’s editorial brief. Corrective action has now been taken to avoid any recurrence of what happened on this particular occasion.

I hope this is useful and am grateful to you for taking the time to get in touch. Your concerns have been shared with senior editorial colleagues.

Yours sincerely

Rev Dr Bert Tosh

Senior Producer Religious Programmes – BBCNI

Fallacio – the act of debunking false arguments

I am not a philosopher. Logic and reason were things I mostly figured out on my own. It is only recently, when debating online with fundamentalists of every stripe, be they religious, homophobic, global warming deniers, conspiracy theorists or even some vegans, that I came upon logical fallacies in their official form.

There are hundreds of them, and it seems fundamentalists use a significant proportion. Everything from special pleading, non-sequiters, straw men and ad hominem attacks, arguments of popularity and tradition, sunk cost fallacies, to suppression of evidence, confirmation bias, slippery slope, arguments from ignorance and of personal incredulity, misrepresentation, and bare-faced lying.

Many of the less honourable acts on the Internet are fallacies of some sort – trolling is a form of poisoning the well, quote-mining is a form of misrepresentation, and ad hominem is a well understood phrase in the faceless Web.

Bullshit (American) or bollocks (UK) is perhaps a new addition. A common argument based on bullshit is the infamous Chewbacca defence – it is an argument of attrition, a tide of nonsense put forward with enough vigour and volume that a rational opponent must either exhaust themselves refuting it, or withdraw from the argument, which is claimed as a victory by his opponent.

The Internet has been a phenomenon – I think of it as the Information Revolution. Perhaps it will herald a new Age of Reason. One thing for sure is that it tests our ability to vet and evaluate information in quantities we have never experienced before. Thus we need to learn reasoning skills at a far earlier age, in favour of raw knowledge. The knowledge is all around us – it is now a cheap commodity, though the quality is variable. It is how we assess that information that is now the premium skill.

This brings us back to fallacies. I blogged a few months back about David Cameron’s proclamation that “Britain was a Christian country” – the implication being that Britain should uphold Christian values for no other reason than our ancestors did. This is a fallacy straight out of the list above, the appeal to tradition – a popular one with Conservatives, as a cursory read of the Daily Telegraph or Daily Mail reveals. My usual response to an appeal to tradition is the example of geocentrism, which was considered by most to be the correct model of the Universe until Galileo Galilee put forward evidence for the Copernican heliocentric model, at the cost of his freedom. Just because most people believe something, does not mean it is true.

If our own Prime Minister, a privileged man with the finest education one could hope for in the UK, can commit such basic errors, what hope for the rest of us? Well, learning how to spot false arguments is a good start (here’s a PDF poster of common fallacies). Teaching our children how to think clearly and rationally is another. And perhaps most importantly, we need to rip asunder fallacious arguments as soon as they are uttered, by the myriad means we now have at our disposal.

Religious criticism : the importance of not being silent

This blog is an adaptation of a comment I wrote on the Belfast News Letter in response to a letter attacking Mormons as ‘not true Christians’ by a family of Northern Ireland Protestant fundamentalists.

If my religious criticism offends a religious person, I will not apologise and I will not refrain from repeating it. I will not be silent, so asking me to refrain from commenting on religion simply because I do not subscribe to one myself is pointless.

The mark of any robust system of thought is how it responds to criticism – that religion’s only defence is to discourage, threaten or outlaw dissenters tells me just how sturdy a foundation it has. It should be noted I am not attacking religious people, but their ideology. That their sense of self is so bound to it that to attack it is seen as attacking them is just one of the many failings of religion.

I will admit that I am not particularly well read in the intellectually gymnastic, pseudo-academic discipline of theology. I am content to study science, because unlike theology, it demonstrably works; the test of science is that it can make accurate predictions, which it does.

That many religious people are repeatedly shown to have inadequate knowledge of not only science but their own faith, and that their arguments are fallacious, prejudiced and deceitful is not my fault. Indeed, take Pascal’s Wager, a known fallacy in that it presumes a false dichotomy of Christianity or atheism, when in fact they could both be wrong – Christians will burn just as surely as I if Lord Brahma or Zeus turn out to be the real god!

I will not be silent. As pastor Martin Niemöller regretfully said of the lack of opposition amongst the German intelligentsia during the rise of Nazism:

“First they came for the communists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Jew. Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak out for me.”

I support gay rights even though I am not gay, I support racial equality even though I am not of an ethnic minority, I support women’s rights even though I am not a woman, I support the right to religious belief and worship even though I am not religious.

Yes, I think all religions are based upon doctrines of ancient fabrications, assertions, assumptions, plagiarism and forgery. On that basis, any attempt by members of one faith to smear the belief system of another as somehow lesser, when their own faith has such shaky historical and moral foundations, is an act of naked religious supremacism and should be opposed on the basis of fairness. Thus, it is not only my right not to be silent, but my duty.

The God of incompetence

I originally posted this on the Belfast Telegraph’s comment pages, in response to a gay Christian with whom I was on the same side of the debate, but for different reasons. He believed there was no scriptural evidence that homosexuality was a sin. I consider scriptural evidence of any kind as bullshit, and defend his sexual orientation on purely moral humanistic grounds.

“For an omnipotent, omni-prescient being, he does a piss-poor job of making himself known.

And why ‘he’? If he is indeed the only god, and has only ever been (i.e. there are no goddesses to get funky with), then he does not reproduce and would have no gender. God should be an ‘it’ – just another example of the misogyny of religion 😛

I’ve heard the possibility that we are an experiment, our Universe sat in a petri-dish in a lab. If so, it seems God just nipped out for a cig* (edited – my original choice of a word for cigarette could have been better chosen in view of the topic!) and some coffee and missed the last 13.7 billion years of our existence while he was dipping his digestive….sloppy 😛

I’ve always felt that if I was going to make a Universe, I’d design it with rules that I didn’t subsequently need to violate to make stuff happen – I’d far rather allow stuff to emerge by itself (morality is itself emergent, a natural product of any social species). If I was a gardener, I’d just plant a bit of woodland and let it go ‘au naturel’ – the result would be more beautiful than I could manage.

I recall once pointing out to a bright lad who happened to have taken the 6 day creation for granted – “If I was God, and I was making a Universe, why would I rush? I’m immortal, right?”. I’m not saying you’re a young Earth creationist, GC (I credit you with too much intelligence for that), but religions of all kinds are stacked on heaps of assumptions. I feel on much firmer ground perched on the shoulders of giants, all of them peer-reviewed, their ideas tested to destruction. I allow myself the odd indulgence of my own opinion too, mind.”

David Cameron, Christian morality, and the News Letter

On 19th December 2011, the News Letter reported on David Cameron’s speech on the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible, stating Britain was a Christian country, and “that the Bible has helped to give Britain a set of values and morals which make Britain what it is today.”

In the Morning View editorial, the author was full of praise for Mr Cameron, though was disappointed he hadn’t gone further. I’ve long viewed the News Letter as a right-wing, neo-conservative rag, a Norn Irish Daily Mail, so I sent them a rebuttal on the whole business of  Christianity’s claim on morals.

I didn’t find it online until 9th January 2012, and when I did, it had attracted two posts. Let us just say that the News Letter’s readership would not be, in the main, Internet-savvy. (i.e. not in their first, or indeed second, flush of youth), so the limited response is understandable.

(Incidentally, I also saw a letter on gay marriage of such outrageous homophobia, I posted a comment describing it as “a vile piece of borderline-criminal hate speech” – the comment was not posted, but instead the whole letter was pulled! Result!)

Nevertheless, I set about with a staunch defence of my letter, which I’ve reproduced below should it ever vanish from the News letter’s site.

What followed was a fairly one-sided debate where I slapped around an at first fairly reasonable, but eventually pop-eyed religious nut, whom in turn kept coming back like Monty Python’s Black Knight. As I kept bludgeoning his arguments, he one by one distanced himself from his fellow Christians (the ones who had strayed), the Jewish origins of the Christian church, the Old Testament, the Roman Catholic church (he was a Protestant) and eventually the original argument altogether.

I thought my invention of the philosophical position of amarmitism was the highlight of the exercise…

I eventually, reluctantly, had to stop replying because while I had won the argument, it was quite apparent there was no reasoning with the loon. It’s not like there was even an audience.


Christianity did not ‘create’ morality

Published on Thursday 22 December 2011 09:31

IN response to Morning View (December 19) I felt compelled to challenge the assertion that the UK needs greater emphasis on the ‘Christian’ moral code.

The article says that the ‘overwhelming majority of citizens in the United Kingdom’ are Christian. According to a 2011 YouGov survey of Great Britain, a bare 55 per cent of respondents described themselves as Christian – of these only 38 per cent of 18 to 34-year-olds are Christian, while 70 per cent of over-55s are Christian. In other words, while Christianity is in the majority, just, it soon won’t be.

I note the News Letter failed to report Dr Richard Dawkins’ response to David Cameron’s speech, which described Christianity as ‘an appalling moral compass’. Some Christians may be shocked by this statement.

Let me explain: a cursory reading of the Bible reveals genocide, slavery, treatment of women as little more than property, rape and stoning of people for adultery and other lesser crimes condoned in the Old Testament.

More recently, we have the Inquisition, and in modern times, we are witness to the paedophile scandal engulfing the Catholic church, their campaign to discredit the use of condoms in developing countries in the face of an HIV epidemic, and their complicity in the Holocaust in the signing of the Reichskonkordat.

Protestantism doesn’t get away scot-free either; the record of racism and homophobia by Protestants, predominantly in the United States, is a poor one.

I’ll omit our own Troubles, as nearly everyone, religious and political, comes out looking bad.

I am not saying that Christians are bad people – many of them are loving, kind and generous. You will, however, find that this is also true of non-Christians.

To quote Steven Weinberg, ‘Good people will do good things, and bad people will do bad things. But for good people to do bad things, that takes religion.’

Christianity did not ‘create’ morality; it subsumed it from pre-existing society. This is true of other religious moralities, too. Given this was a bronze-age civilisation (Old Testament), or if you prefer iron-age (New Testament), things have moved on in the Zeitgeist (‘spirit of the age’) – the 20th century saw the introduction of equality in gender, race and sexual orientation. These are increasingly considered ‘good’ morals, and have absolutely no basis in religious doctrine.

If you want an idea of what a secular society looks like, largely unfettered by Christianity or any other religion, look to Scandinavia. It should be noted that the Scandinavians have amongst the best social standards and life expectancy in the world.

To finish, I agree that there should be no legislation preventing Christians publicly expressing their faith; I know of no legislation that attempts any such thing, and I think it’s disingenuous of the editorial writer to insinuate that such things are afoot.

I would, however, wish the same thing for all faiths, and those with none, so long as they do not oppress or harm others. As a secular society, free speech is a central pillar of our culture.

Colin Morrison