Monday, April 30, 2012

Morality roundup

A few things worth sharing on the topic of morality:

First, and perhaps most importantly, Jonathan Haidt gives a TED talk on the differences in moral thinking between liberals and conservatives.  I think liberals in particular will find this to be an interesting challenge to some of their preconceived notions. (19 min)  Haidt also has a book on this topic, titled The Righteous Mind., which I have not read.  Haidt is in the territory of moral relativism, cautioning us against the presumption that someone else's view must be wrong.

Next, in another TED talk, Frans de Waal explores moral behavior in other mammals: (17 min)  He has written The Age of Empathy, which I have not read.

and Jessica Pierce describes some additional instances of animal morality that we have observed.

Finally, in this debate between Sam Harris and William Lane Craig, the origins of morality are explored.  Harris is describing and defending the ideas that he has put forth in his new book, The Moral Landscape, which I am still reading.  Harris' position is that morality stems from the well-being of conscious creatures, and that once we accept this assertion, morality can be objectively examined, even if it is neuroscience is not yet advanced enough to make this a practical matter in many cases.  Harris' ideas challenge both the conservative notions of morality from God or other authority, as well as the liberal notions of moral relativism.  Craig's position is the traditional theological notion that morality comes to us from divinity.  Unfortunately Craig's opposition is largely focused on his refusal to accept that Harris has any basis to assume that well-being has any relationship with morality.  While I recommend seeing the entire thing for fairness and context, in my opinion it is Harris and his ideas that makes this video worth the two hour investment.


My personal take is that there is value in all of these.  Haidt seems to describe morality as it is actually implemented by different people, and de Waal describes that natural origin of our moralistic impulses.  I think the conservative ideas of morality sanctify principles that preserve the group in the face of extreme adversity.  Probably these are behaviors that served us well in our more tribal past, but it does not seem to me that those ideas still serve us well now.  I'm sure it will take you less than 10 seconds to think of several examples where authority and morality were at direct odds with each other.  In-group thinking is valuable when groups compete, and destructive when they lose the opportunity to cooperate.  Finally, purity would have been valuable in a time when medicine, sexual education, and contraceptive care were not available, but in modern times puritanical thinking seems to act to the detriment of women more than it accomplishes anything else.

Finally, while I embrace the idea of the equivalence of many different cultural values, I think Harris is right that there is an objectivity, or at least some objective elements, to morality.  To say that it is abhorrent to stone rape victims to death, and to say that it is proper - these are not morally equivalent positions.  We do not live in a world where all moral opinions are equal.

Overall, I am still exploring and refining my ideas on human morality, and have much more reading to do.

What do you think?

Friday, April 27, 2012

God's will is a dangerous idea.

I want to address the claim that "goodness" comes from doing God's will.  Some would even define goodness as being "an action that God wills", and that outside of knowing God's will, humanity cannot access goodness or morality.

These are very dangerous ideas.  The people who hold them are often good people - moral, well-meaning people who probably reason that God, being infinitely good, would never will anything bad.  From that perspective this idea makes sense, but let's look deeper:

1) God's will makes an action moral (and morally compulsory), no matter how awful we might otherwise think the action to be.  This is not a hypothetical point.  All of the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) descend from Abraham.  He was ordered by God to murder his child, and was going to do it, and in the Abrahamic faiths this is considered a righteous thing.  In this story, Abraham was stopped from committing the deed, but the message of the tale is still clear: When God orders you to commit an atrocity, you do it.  No questions asked.

2) In the minds of believers who subscribe to this, God willing an act either makes that act intrinsically moral or overrides all other moral considerations (depending on how exactly they view morality.  For some there is no belief in "other moral considerations" to conflict with God's will in the first place because "do God's will" is the ultimate source of moral law.)

3) This can, and does, lead people to commit acts which they would otherwise condemn as immoral.

4) In cases where someone is thoroughly convinced that they are doing God's will, there is essentially nothing that can convince them that what they are doing is wrong.  No argument can be made against this; God's will trumps all.

5) We find, even if you accept that God is real and has a will regarding human behavior, that people are extremely inconsistent in their understanding of what God's will is.  God's will really only comes to people through 3 sources:  divine text, spiritual leadership, and personal revelation.  None of these provides any means of determining God's will which can be generally agreed upon by believers.  Not only have the followers of Abraham split into 3 major religions, but within each of those religions there are myriad sects, each with their own particular interpretation.

For Christians, Christ brought a new message of love and fellowship to the religion, but also said  "Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them."   These messages seem to conflict, and Christianity is rife with disagreement over what is or is not still the law in their post-Christ version of the Abrahamic faith.

On homosexuality, for example, Christianity varies widely.  Some think that God's will is that homosexuals should be killed, and the Old Testament directly supports this.  Others believe that homosexuality is a sin like any other, but that homosexuals themselves are still to be loved.  Still others fully support and embrace homosexuals.  A similar variety of opinion exists within Judaism, and indeed across world religions.  Reasonable people of faith acknowledge that "sincere Christians can legitimately reach different conclusions on particular issues in good faith." So what then, is the will of God?  It's a question that either no one can answer, or that everyone can answer and believe that they have the one true interpretation of God's will.  As moral systems go, that is about as subjective as you can get.

6) According to the Old Testament, God has willed some things that almost any of us would find atrocious.  This creates a situation where any command from God is plausible, because literally nothing would be out of line with what God has willed in the past.  He did destroy the whole world after all, and has promised to do it again.  If you accept that as a godly and good action, then nothing is off the table. Even the bringing of (nuclear?) Armageddon then becomes not a question of morality, but of timing.  I do not suggest that most religious people would come to this conclusion, only that the conclusion is available to them and consistent with the doctrine of "God's will."  (And surely, on a planet with 6 billion people, there are more than a handful that are truly this crazed.)

7) All of these together create a belief structure where it is possible for a person, in good faith, to believe that  it is not only righteous to commit an atrocity, but morally required of them.  History is rife with examples of this, and I will not repeat them all here.  Suffice to say, if you looked into the heart of Al-Qaeda, or the Army of God, or the IRA, you will find people who sincerely believe that they are doing God's will.  The same is no doubt true of Christian terrorists, Jewish terrorists, Muslim terrorists, and religious violence in general.  God's will, God's will, God's will, and God's will.

That is the power and danger of this idea.

At the core of it all is the simple notion that normal human morality can be trumped, that there are circumstances in which it would be ok to murder your child.  It is similar in this respect to the secular notion that "the ends justify the means."  Both of these assert that good can be accomplished through acts that we would otherwise consider to be evil.  Even though I believe that "the ends justify the means" is a very dangerous idea, I also acknowledge that it can at times be true.  We can, in these circumstances, weigh the good that we expect, the evil to be done, and look to whether any net good is done.  The real danger in that case is that the good result is often promised but seldom realized, whereas the evil done to achieve it is immediate and irrevocable.  Almost all evil is performed in this fashion - villains do not wake in the morning, twist their mustaches, and set out to be as awful as possible.  Even Hitler believed that what he was doing was morally justified, and so, we must be careful of our moral systems and how we allow ourselves to justify our actions.  Any action justified with "the ends justify the means" should be considered thoroughly and with suspicion.

Not only does the doctrine of "God's will" allow us to trump normal human morality, but it does so in a fashion that is so vague, so subject to personal interpretation, that anyone can take any position whatsoever, claim it to be the will of God, and stubbornly believe that.  Indeed, this is precisely what we see in the world and in history.  The fact that most religious people will never go on a killing rampage for God does not excuse them for supporting a moral structure that can be is used to justify such actions.

"God's will" as an entire moral system is an idea that is morally bankrupt, both in theory and in practice.  The key point here is not that religious people are immoral; that is obviously not true.  The point is that this moral structure is wrong, and that those moral people who subscribe to the doctrine of "God's will" are moral despite this doctrine, and not because of it.

We simply must keep ourselves in check with a moral system that has objectively understandable benefits to ourselves and to others.  Humanism is one such system.  There are others, each concerned with the effects of our actions on ourselves and others.  This is the foundation of morality, and this is why killing your child is not moral, even if you believe with all of your heart that God wills it.  A moral belief structure that cannot make this distinction is a gateway to justifying evil, and history bears this out.  A path of actual morality does not necessarily demand that you abandon your faith, or God, or your religion, but it does require that the doctrine of "God's will" be put aside.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Evolution is wrong because birds.

A specific person, skeptical of evolution, asked for a plausible explanation to the question "How did flight evolve?"

There are layers of answers to this question, and others like it.  I will start with the general and move toward the specific.

1) A missing piece of the story does not sink the theory.
Let me explain by way of analogy.  A detective is investigating a murder.  The victim was murdered in front of a dumpster in an alley with a single shot from a specific .357 magnum revolver.  Despite public controversy surrounding the matter, the detective knows that this is the murder location because all evidence indicates that the victim was shot here:
- There is a .357 magnum sized bullet hole, corresponding damage, and the characteristic burns and other marks (I won't get graphic) associated with a gunshot wound of this caliber, in the victim's skull.
- A .357 magnum bullet, as well as blood and other biological material from the victim's skull, were found embedded in the front of the dumpster.  Ballistics matches the bullet to a .357 magnum revolver which
- Was found in the dumpster, with signs of having been fired, as well as blood splatter from the victim.
- There is a huge amount of the victim's blood, almost all of it, in the dumpster.
- All blood at the scene matches the victim.
...and so on.  It's airtight, the killing happened here.

-The body was found on the roof of a nearby hotel.
-There is very little blood in the vicinity of the body, nor any other signs that someone was murdered here, apart from the body.
-The blood, which has settled and rigidified due to livermortis, is in the victim's back even though the victim is facedown.
-Going through the security tapes for the hotel, which are all date/time stamped and appear to cover all entrances and exits to the hotel, there does not appear to be anyone lugging a body up to the roof at any point.
-The body does not show additional damage that might be expected during careless transport.

Now, the detective has every reason to believe that the victim was murdered in the alley, in front of a dumpster, by a person with the .357 magnum they found in the dumpster, and that the body was thrown in the dumpster where it drained of blood and was later moved to the nearby roof.  He has no idea how the body was later moved to the roof.  He has no idea why.  He can't explain how someone could have gotten the body up there without showing up on the security footage.
All of the ideas he can think of might seem implausible, such as:
- The body was moved by helicopter?
- The killer later wrapped the body in plastic and carefully hoisted up to the roof?
- The security tapes have been expertly tampered with?
- The body was cleverly hidden inside of luggage when it was moved?

None of these may seem satisfying to the detective, but it doesn't matter, he doesn't need to know the details of how the body got moved to the roof to know that this is what happened.  The victim could not possibly have been killed on the roof, because the evidence does not match that scenario.  The evidence is that this person was shot in front of the dumpster in the alley.  There's a huge hole in his narrative, but it doesn't change the fact that the victim was murdered in the alley, and not on the roof.  Nothing else explains the evidence; there are no other plausible options.  Whatever questions he might have about who, or how, or why, the location of death is a fact.

People can say foolish things like "There's a body on the roof and you think he wasn't killed there?  Like someone is really gonna carry a body to the roof.  Derp derp.  They even checked the security footage, and the body was miraculously not damaged during the "move". There's proof positive that no one moved this body."  (I'll spare you the caps lock.)

These people might be convinced, and might convince others.  They might start and generate a huge following, and have YouTube videos with 2.3 million views, and memes mocking the detective, but they still have no idea what they're talking about.  They are amateur armchair detectives, they are flatly wrong, and the fact that no police or other serious investigators put stock in their version should indicate this to them, but they will prefer instead to assume some vast conspiracy to defile the truth in the name of some imagined agenda.

And so it is with Theory of Evolution.  There are countless species on the Earth, and we do not need to know the details of how every feature of every species evolved to consider evolution an indisputable fact.  Evolution is fact because there is no other explanation for the evidence.  Even if scientists had no idea whatsoever how flying might have evolved, that would not disprove evolution, nor even cast any doubt upon it.

2) The "unbelievability" of a particular theory to a non-expert means nothing.
As do all of the arguments that sound convincing to non-experts, but have not swayed experts.  I want to be clear that I am not invoking an Appeal to Authority Logical Fallacy here.  It does not follow that evolution is necessarily true because expert scientists believe it.

However, a person who is not personally an expert in the subject is also not qualified to dismiss expert opinion on a matter.  This is not to say that a non-expert couldn't uncover evidence or think of an argument that would overturn an established matter, but if experts have seen that evidence and heard that argument, and are unimpressed, and are still satisfied that the theory holds true, then there is no credible reason for a non-expert to believe otherwise.

It is the fool who prefers the word of the non-expert, or to rejects a matter simply because it is not personally understood.  (This would be the Personal Incredulity Fallacy).  It is, of course, not completely impossible that the non-expert is actually correct, but it's very unlikely, and if you go through life believing non-experts on all matters you're going to live an existence of ignorance.  This is the realm of conspiracy theorists, snake oil purchasers, perpetual motion machine builders, seekers of Tesla's "free electricity", and so on.  Don't fall for it.  All those PhDs aren't stupid, or missing some obvious thing that you read on the internet.

3) The actual answer to your question
Is that the evolution of flight is an area under investigation, and there are several schools of thought.  You can read some about it here in this article, or this one, or this one which I found by laboriously... no, wait.  I just googled "what good is half a wing evolution".  Answers about evolution are all over the internet.  Seriously, try it sometime.  You could also read this book, or, if you think you'd be able to read Dawkins without bursting into flames, this one.

4) Wash, Rinse, Repeat?
Most Creationists, after having one doubt addressed, will simply move to the next one.  This is generally because the questions are not being asked in good faith, but in an attempt to find the "gotcha" problem that will stump the evolutionist and demonstrate how wrong they are.  (Oh, the irony.)

Please don't do this.  Seriously.  I totally understand if evolution seems completely and utterly not-plausible to you.  It's a pretty mind-blowing revelation, but look, so is Quantum, and Quantum is just true.  I hate Quantum, it sounds like total nonsense, but apparently the universe doesn't care how I feel because Quantum is real.  If you still have doubts about a scientific theory, see points 1 & 2.  Google it, read some books, study the subject.  If you aren't convinced by popular science write-ups and aren't satisfied with accepting expert opinion, then become a genuine expert yourself (Hint: this involves graduate work at a university).  Only then will any clear-thinking person see your disbelief of an established scientific theory as anything other than an unfortunate misunderstanding on your part.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Echoes of the Big Bang

This XKCD claims a triumphant victory for science.  I never knew what Randall Monroe was referring to, and now I do.  I want to share it with you, because it's beautiful.

After the Big Bang, the universe was extremely hot - hundreds of millions of degrees.  So hot that atoms as we know them could not form.  It was also expanding very rapidly, and cooled as it did so.  Until about 400,000 years after the start, the high temperatures prevented electrons from settling into orbit around a proton to from a hydrogen atom; they would just get ripped away.  We say that matter was ionized, that it was plasma.  That hot plasma was opaque to light in the same way the clouds or fog are. We say that it scattered light. This lasted until things cooled down to a balmy 3000K.  (0K is absolute-zero.  273K is where water freezes.)  

At 3000K, electrons could join protons and form atoms as we know them - no longer ionized, no longer plasma. Once the electrons joined up with protons to make hydrogen that wasn't ionized, these atoms let light pass through pretty easily; the fog had cleared.  At the moment when those atoms began to form, which was fairly sudden, light could freely make it's way across the universe, and did.  Light began traveling from everywhere to everywhere. (I call it light, but it would not have been in the visible spectrum.)

That opaque cloud of ionized matter is called the Last Scattering Surface.  The time when atoms formed is called the recombination epoch, so named because of "recombination" of the protons and electrons into hydrogen, though they were in fact combining for the first time ever.  The "light" that is radiating through the universe from this event is now known as the Cosmic Microwave Background.  We can measure this, and we have.

A satellite called COBE (Cosmic Background Explorer) took the measurements, and they correspond so exactly with the values that the Big Bang Theory predicts, that when overlayed they make a single curve.  The difference between them is less than a pixel in that image.  This is why XKCD put out a fist-pump for science, but it isn't the part that gives me chills.

That plasma cloud is called the Last Scattering Surface because it is the last thing that ever touched (scattered) one of these photons before they reach us.  Photons bounced off the Last Scattering Surface, a cloud of hot plasma, 13.72 billion years ago, traveled across the universe for essentially as long as it's been around, and have arrived here on Earth.  They are coming equally from all directions, these ancient travelers, and we are bathed in them constantly.  Most of the radiation is up at 160Ghz, but some of it also exists down at radio frequencies, and this Cosmic Microwave Background makes up about 1% of the white radio noise we have here on Earth.

This means that when you see snow on an old television, or hear static on an FM radio, a little whisper in that is the recombination epoch.  The universe is reaching out to us from a time so ancient that stars had not yet been born.  Those empty TV channels and radio stations that we thought of as nothing, they were actually playing the beginning of everything.  

Shhhhh, I'm listening to the Big Bang.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

TN Part I: Elephants are not trees.

The state of Tennessee recently passed a "monkey law", celebrated by Discovery Institute as a way to advance their goal of allowing teachers to "present both sides of the evolution debate."  This is Part I of a series addressing this issue.

One of the arguments that I've heard in support of the "monkey law" is essentially that the people of Tennessee have a right to their opinion, and perhaps the rest of us should not be so sure of our own that we would force it down their throats.

"All opinions are not equal. Some are a very great deal more robust, sophisticated, and well-supported in logic and argument than others." - Douglas Adams

The parable of the Blind Men and the Elephant tells us a story of blind men who, each having the opportunity to feel part of an elephant, come to different conclusions about what it is.  There are multiple versions, but in this one the elephant is thought to be a wall, a spear, a snake, a tree, and a fan. The tale seems to be cited most often in theological discussions, and is a caution against arrogance when asserting to know anything with certainty.  It is sometimes used to claim that no opinion is better than any other, that it is pure hubris to tell anyone that they are wrong about anything.

There are good lessons in this parable:

1) Our personal experiences and personal knowledge are not comprehensive.
2) We should not dismiss the input of others without consideration.
3) Even our well reasoned conclusions may be inaccurate, because we may lack information.
4) Humility is valuable in our approach to knowledge.

However, the conclusion that no opinion can claim to be better than any other is total nonsense.  Not all methods of reaching a conclusion are equally valid, and therefore not all conclusions are equally valid.

In the parable, each blind man touches a portion of the elephant and declares his conclusion based on that alone.  The man who touched a leg believed that this object was a tree.  I will delete the King from the parable, since his absolute knowledge does not correlate to anything in the real world.  The blind men get together to compare notes, and the guy who thinks it is a tree hears that this object has also the features of a spear, a wall, a snake, and a fan.

If he is no fool, then he has begun to suspect that this object may not be a tree after all.  However, it is possible that these other men have confused the features.  A sharp branch may seem a spear, a flat spot on the trunk may seem a wall, a hanging vine may seem a snake (or there may be an actual snake in the tree), and certainly there are trees with leaves like a fan.  What his tree hypothesis requires is more evidence - he must go and see whether these features exist in a configuration that is consistent with a tree, or if they do not.

If he does this, collects his evidence carefully, and considers what can or cannot explain it, he will certainly come to the conclusion that this is no tree.  He may realize that it is an elephant, if he is already aware of them.  Otherwise, he may be mistaken in his conclusions - he might think that the elephant is an extremely large and strange aardvark, with tusks for stirring ant piles.  His aardvark theory would be wrong, but he would still be closer to "truth" than a man who insists that this is a tree.  Eventually, with enough evidence collected, he will realize that this creature does not eat ants, and that other findings are not consistent with aardvarks.  The quest for knowledge will go on, and whether he ever calls it "elephant" or not, this man will slowly learn more and more about the true nature of his subject.

This is the true moral of the parable: that those who seek and consider all evidence will learn more of truth than those who ignore tusks and trunks and tails so that they can continue to insist that the elephant is a tree.

Creationists are ignoring a great many tusks, trunks, and tails.  When a conclusion is drawn despite all evidence, rather than because of it, then we can disregard that conclusion as invalid.  Elephants are not trees, and not all opinions about this are equal.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Christianity, national greatness, and Godwin's Law.

Charles Moore wrote an editorial piece for the The Telegraph arguing, essentially, that terrible consequences will befall any western nation than rejects Christianity.

Moore employs a number of tactics to convince the reader that secularism is wrong-headed, and that Christianity is the way to go.  He appeals to a sort of bizarre pragmatism:

"Note that neither is insisting – though they probably believe that it is – that what the religious leader preaches is necessarily true. Note, too, that neither is saying that a religion, let alone a religious organisation such as a church, should hold political power. But what they are saying is something like the message of the parable of the house built on rock and the house built on sand. They have seen a good bit of how the world works: they recommend building on rock."
 He seems to be saying here that religion is a good foundation to build a society on, even if it is not true.  Certainly if you are looking for a means to control the populace, religion serves that purpose well. I don't see this as a good thing, though.  In a government with democratic elements, a healthy state depends partly upon a well-educated and freethinking populace.  Fearmongering is also an effective strategy for managing the populace, but I wouldn't encourage it.

He makes the argument that without God, we would just enslave each other:

"At least two things are missed in this God-is-dead political order. One is that it ignores the basis of so many of the ideas it advocates. These ideas are not the result of intellectual virgin births in modern times. They have parentage. They could not have been conceived without Christian thought about the intrinsic dignity of each human person.
One of the main reasons that slavery was abolished in the Christian world (though it took a shamefully long time to happen) is that St Paul taught that no slavery could be approved by the faith because “we are all one in Christ Jesus”. Unfortunately, it is not naturally obvious to humanity that slavery is wrong. People like enslaving one another. The wrongness has to be re-taught in each generation. Post-God, it is not clear on what basis to teach it."

This is so wrong-headed that I barely know where to start.  Let me begin with the obvious: the Bible explicitly supports slavery, and was still being used to argue in favor of slavery for more than a thousand years after Paul was dead and buried.  Christian thought has both opposed and supported slavery.  Further, slavery has been banned in nations all over the world, regardless of whether those nations were Christian or not.  The Christian belief structure itself is not inherently anti-slavery, and therefore gets no credit for abolishing slavery. Obviously there were many Christians who fought hard (generally against other Christians in their own society) to get slavery banned, and I don't deny for a moment that some were inspired by their faith to do so, but even the New Testament supported slavery: "Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ." (Hilariously, Moore later offers that "Presumably, secularists and atheists do not read the Bible as much as Christians do..." In America at least, this is plainly not true)

I seethe at Moore's suggestion that "it is not naturally obvious to humanity that slavery is wrong."  Slavery causes suffering, and humiliation.  It destroys families.  It strips a person of the dignity that is their right as a human being.  All one has to do to recognize the horror of slavery is to imagine oneself as the slave.  I require no god(s) to tell me that slavery is wrong, and I seriously doubt that Mr. Moore does either.   Modern Christianity understands that slavery is wrong, but the Bible itself utterly fails in this regard, and Moore fails utterly to make a logical point.    That slavery is unacceptable in modern times is a point for humanity, not for religion.

His argument here is just an extension of the prejudice that secular people are intrinsically, necessarily amoral.  That is a sentiment that inspires hatred and distrust towards non-believers, and it is immoral to propagate it.  Our morality is part of what makes us human, and to deny our morality is to dehumanize us.  Take the phrase "Atheists have no way to know right from wrong." and substitute another group for "atheists".  Try "women". Try "blacks".  Degrading and offensive, yes?

Then he seems to argue that if a Christian nation abandons Christianity it will descend into something like nazism:

"The secularists also do not stop to contemplate Mrs Thatcher’s warning about what happens when people cut Jesus out of the life of society. She was thinking, I suspect, not so much of nations where other faiths predominate, but of that area which people used to called Christendom, now loosely known as “the West”.
The Nazis repudiated Christianity. The French and Russian revolutions did so too, and denied God also. All three persecuted believers. Some of the revolutionaries had been right about the abuses of power by the Church, but all were proved wrong about what human beings do when a political and social order underpinned by Christianity is destroyed. It was indeed, to use Mrs Thatcher’s word, “terrible”: it produced the rule of terror."
This is just a continuation of his previous theme that people cannot be moral without religious belief.  It also ignores that Hitler was Christian, that Hitler believed he was doing God's will, and that 94% of Nazi Germany was Christian.  Not only was the Vatican disturbingly silent as the Nazi atrocities went on, but the contemporary Catholic Church has defended that silence as the right thing to have done.  A Christian population is clearly not an inoculation against nazi style facism. Further, America's Christian demographic is between 60% and 79% of the population, depending on whose numbers you want to believe.  In the UK, Christians are about 72%, so the U.S. and the U.K. are both already much less Christian than Nazi Germany was.  Though religion can and does cause atrocity, I am not drawing the conclusion that Christianity leads to nazism or anything like it.  My point is only that Moore's assertion, that declining Christianity will bring horrors upon us, is complete and utter bullshit.  If he were correct, we'd be throwing homosexuals (or someone) into gas chambers right now instead of fighting for their civil rights.

Moore then retreats to "facts":
"But my point is the factual one: is it true that Christ cannot successfully be taken out of the life of society? Yes. And was Ibn Khaldun right that no nation can prosper and be powerful without religion taught by a great preacher? Certainly in the era of monotheism, he would seem to be more right than wrong. Ever since, in 312, the Emperor Constantine saw a cross in the sky and heard a mysterious voice say, “In this sign, conquer”, all prudent leaders have needed the mandate of heaven."
Nothing that he has said here is factual.  Certainly religion is present in great nations, because religion is present virtually everywhere. By Moore's logic religion is also required for a nation to fail, for an empire to decline, for a people to go to war, or for a nation to be good at baking lovely pastries.  Constantine may claim to hear divine voices mandating a "righteous" bloodbath, but I do not believe him, and would be unimpressed with the morals of such a god anyway.  In my view, in societies with democratic principles, the mandate that leaders need is from the people.

The drivel goes on.  Moore then resorts to tactics intended to chill his secularist opponents:
"This, from a sceptic’s point of view, is about as good as it is likely to get. If you start extirpating Christianity, it will start fighting back. And even if – highly unlikely – you beat it down, behind it will come the more implacable, much more shamelessly political adherents of Islam."
Extirpating Christianity?  Secularists want religion out of the public sphere.  The most strident atheists want only to convince religious people, via free speech, that religious beliefs are in error.  That's it.  They want to talk about religion in unflattering terms, to criticize your position via public discourse.  This places Christians under no threat whatsoever; they are absolutely free to ignore those arguments and continue about their lives.  No one will storm houses to confiscate crosses.  The notion that Christianity is under siege is no more than the sentiment that criticism can be uncomfortable.  Criticism will not hurt people, though we do hope it may change some minds.  Does he not understand that by defending religion as necessary to a great nation, that he is also defending the Islamic theocratic influences he tries to frighten us with? What does he mean by "it will start fighting back."?  Arguing back?  Ok, I welcome that.  Discussion is part of the engine of democracy.  

I have a competing assertion to make:  No modern nation can be great without a dedication to science. We have plenty of examples of nations that are and are not well versed in science.  Where science lacks, we see tyranny, poverty, and ignorance.  Look at your modern hospitals, are they centers of faith healing or of medicine based in science?  Which, in your view, is more important to the military: religious zealotry, or modern weaponry?  Is the explosion of food production due to the divine multiplication of loaves, or due to the technological revolution of farming?  What drives our economic engines - innovation, or prayer?

Where science flourishes, so do the people.  When a nation strives for greatness, it must strive for science.