Thursday, 29 September 2011

Skinner's Dilemma

Also: Pascal's Wager rehashed.

Frank Skinner is a comedian and a one hit wonder, and he's recently expressed his opinions to the Archbishop of Canterbury:

Atheists we might see as people like those who deny global warming. You might celebrate their right, and defend their freedom of speech, to deny global warming – but if they're wrong, and millions of other people have taken their view, then it could end in a terrible, terrible disaster for a lot of people.
At a time when secularism is a threat to the salvation of millions, believers should get together, find what we have in common, and sell that

OF course, there is a bit of problem here Mr Skinner. The problem is that you could substitute any belief-position for atheism and the argument would be as exactly correct as Skinner's. Imagine, for example, a Muslim Imam saying:
if Catholics are wrong, and millions of other people have taken their view, then it could end in a terrible, terrible disaster for a lot of people.

And since the argument applies equally to Catholics, Muslims, Hindus, Atheists and well...everybody, it actually applies to nobody. It's just Pascal's wager re-worded and suffers the same flaws. If it turns out that there is a God but that God punishes us for believing in him without sufficient evidence, then it is the believers that are in for terrible disaster. Indeed, if there is a God and his demands are in anyway contrary to the practices of Catholics or specifically to Skinner - then a lot of people are going to be screwed. No matter which way you put it, someone is going to be screwed if a God exists.

And if God doesn't exist, then people are just screwing themselves by wasting their time and efforts right now. And worse, they are often screwing others over since religious beliefs tend to exact moral demands on the followers which necessarily impacts the lives of other people. Surely, if we are going to try and prevent a 'terrible disaster' we should only make guesses that are in line with the corroborated evidence that we have (or perhaps guesses that go slightly beyond the corroborated evidence, in ways that might be possibly corroborated in the near future).

I agree with Skinner's larger point, however: Comedians are nowadays more regularly taking potshots at religious views. But they can do this in increasing numbers because it is become increasingly safe to do it. More importantly, the audiences find jokes mocking religion to be funny. And comedians are nothing if not opportunists for extracting laughs.

Skinner might lament anti-religion routines becoming the 'in thing', but that's because religion is so absurd just about anyone can say something funny about it.

At any rate, even if the Catholics and the Protestants ganged up against atheism and even if they won - they'd be back to bickering over which fuddy-duddy is in charge of the church and what opinions we should hold about Mary in no time. And then, eventually, people would start taking the piss again.

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