Tuesday, 29 December 2009

The God Delusion Decade

I wonder how many reading this have maintained their own blog for a time only to suddenly find that they no longer have anything pressing to throw out in to the blogosphere, resulting in a never updated ghost blog. Well, it has been a while since I posted. I have been busy this year promoting the Humanist cause. I spoke at a couple of debates at Hull Guildhall, one on Faith Schools (I was against them) and another on Free Will (I was all for it). I questioned the false trichotomy of the Alpha Course at the Rowntree Park Birthday Party in the Summer (see photo). I gave a talk on Bad Science in York and took part in a Humanist/Muslim dialogue at York mosque as part of the exclusively named Interfaith Week. I even gave a Humanist Thought for the Day on BBC Radio Humberside for the week before Christmas. But did any of it help to increase the number of free thinking religion sceptics in our region? We read in the press how the number of people in our country committed to a religion is in constant free fall, especially the number of Anglicans. Apparently there is a half-life decay in religiosity. If one or both of your parents were religious, then there is only a 50-50 chance that you will follow in their footsteps. At this rate, it is hard to see how the official religion of our country will survive in the coming decades. The Archbishop of Canterbury’s misguided criticisms of the American Episcopal church’s appointment of a lesbian as a Bishop, in the same week as the Anglican Bishop of Uganda expressed support for the death penalty for homosexuals (which the said prelate was remarkably silent about), will surely hasten the exodus of liberal thinking men and women from the CofE. The Pope has been wooing the Anglo-Catholic wing from the Anglican fold, though the never ending child abuse scandals rocking the Catholic ecclesia should make the faithful question taking that path. I suppose this will leave the happy-clappys dominating the Anglican pews. Has all this decline in religious observance led to a corresponding increase in support for the nations Humanist Societies? Though the level of support for organised Humanism has shown a moderate increase, I am disappointed that the God Delusion decade did not win more converts to the naturalistic, scientific and rational world view.

Monday, 25 May 2009

Angels and Demons

I have just got back from watching the movie of Dan Brown’s “Angels and Demons”. Unlike the Da Vinci Code, I had not read the book and so didn’t know the plot. I think that both movies were fast paced and very entertaining, but is the portrayal of sinister catholic priests fair?

For Jesus, the inability to believe in God and to live by faith is the greatest of evils”. These are the words of the outgoing leader of the Catholic church in the UK as reported in an article in the Times on Friday entitled “Archbishop of Westminster attacks atheism but says nothing on child abuse”. Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor also recently said that “atheists are less than human”. This kind of rhetoric should give cause for concern. Given the history of the twentieth century where millions of people were treated as sub-human and brutally murdered by totalitarian regimes, it is surely unacceptable for a church leader to be saying these things.
Unfortunately it appears that the new leader Vincent Nicholls is going to continue in the same vein. On the occasion of his enthronement he chose to launch an attack on atheists and the secular society. Whilst commenting on the report published last Wednesday exposing decades of child abuse by Catholic priests and nuns in Ireland, the Archbishop said that it took courage for religious orders and clergy to “face the facts from their past”. He also warned that the report threatened to overshadow the good done by the religious orders, chiefly the Christian Brothers and Sisters of Mercy.
I have catholic friends who I like and respect. I’m even friends with a catholic priest I met through the local interfaith forum. I know them all to be thoughtful and pleasant people, so why is it that they tolerate this unreasoned attack on us atheists - we don’t run institutions which turn a blind eye to child abuse and child rape. These are the facts and they are worse than imaginings of Dan Brown.

Monday, 4 May 2009

A Humanist Theodicy?

I have been hearing the word theodicy quite a bit recently. Theodicy is usually talked about in the context of how religious believers deal with “the problem of evil and suffering”. The problem of evil is neatly summarised by the paradox of Epicurus: "Either God wants to abolish evil, and cannot; or he can, but does not want to. If he wants to, but cannot, he is impotent. If he can, but does not want to, he is wicked. If God can abolish evil, and God really wants to do it, why is there evil in the world?" The solution for us atheists is obvious. There is not a God who can or wants to prevent the suffering that arises as an inevitable consequence of a natural world. Stephen Law gave an excellent account of this atheist view at the Centre for Inquiry the other week (Stephen also appeared briefly on the BBC’s The Big Question yesterday morning).
The word theodicy is also used by Weber to describe any system which attempts to provide answers to the ultimate questions of life, the universe and everything - Humanity’s place in the universe, especially when related to moral and ethical issues. Theodicies are are those cultural systems that attempt to address the universal human need for meaning at the highest level. Marxism and Capitalism can be seen as theodocies as well as the worlds religions. What does the Humanist theodicy look like?
The Humanist starting point is to assume that we are alone in this world and that the only justice that exists is the justice we create against a backdrop of a cold, uncaring universe which does not have our interests in mind. This might not seem like a promising start for a theodicy to inspire meaning, yet the human life is worth living despite these assumptions. I think that whether or not Humanism continues to grow as a world belief system depends on whether the positive payoff for facing the world as it really is can outweigh the emotional payoff of living life in a religiously inspired fantasy world.

Sunday, 26 April 2009


I attended the third Centre for Inquiry UK conference in London yesterday, entitled Science and Religion. The four speakers originally billed to speak were the biologist Jack Cohen, the science writer and broadcaster Simon Singh, CFI provost and conference regular Stephen Law and the philosopher Baroness Mary Warnock. It wasn’t too much of a surprise to find that the octogenarian Warnock had to pull out at the last minute (ill health?) and Stephen Law had got TV psychiatrist Dr Raj Persaud to fill in at the last minute. Raj Persaud was the last speaker and has been in the press recently for all the wrong reasons which I won‘t mention, but the audience soon warmed to him and he ended up giving what turned out to be a popular talk. I had seen Persaud before in Hull at the Humber Mouth Festival and the CFI talk was much better.
The first speaker at the morning session was Jack Cohen who has a link with Hull - he was undergraduate at the university of Hull in the 1950s. His presentation style was poor but he is 75. The subject of his talk was Omphalos which is the name of the book by the nineteenth century young earth creationist Philip Gosse. The book was published two years before Origin of Species and was an early attempt to reconcile the biblical story of God creating the world 6000 years ago and the discoveries of the true age of the earth as revealed by geology and the fossil record. Gosse’s crazy idea was illustrated by pointing out that God must have created Adam with a navel for him to be a normal human being. Of course, Adam was not born and so this "apparent" evidence of a developmental history involving an umbilical cord was a mere pretence. If you extend this idea to the whole of creation, then Gosse argues that God would have created a natural world with all the appearance of an ancient (evolutionary?) history , but in fact have created it at 6pm on 23rd October 4004 BC. Problem solved.
Simon Singh was the next speaker. I had been reading his book "Big Bang" on the train down. He is an engaging and gifted writer and his presentation was very entertaining. Stephen Law gave a talk about why he thinks it is obvious that there is no God by using a series of thought experiments involving an evil god. All good fun. I took the mic briefly with a question about free will and suffering. There was a crazy guy who the speakers had trouble shutting up as he rambled on about Nietzsche and Schopenhauer. No that wasn’t me. Another great conference - I am looking forward to the next one already.
Image Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Touched_by_His_Noodly_Appendage.jpg

Saturday, 11 April 2009

Belief and Unbelief

It has been said that atheism is a belief without content. It is not so much a belief as the absence of a belief. It is the refusal to believe in absurdities. Does my position that there is insufficient evidence to claim that there is a transcendent power controlling existence itself constitute a faith? There are people who think it does, but atheism is the rejection of faith in favour of reason. Isn’t the position I describe agnosticism? I don’t like the distinction between atheism and agnosticism. Sensible atheism always assumes an implicit agnosticism. That you don’t know what you don’t know is an obvious tautology. To be dubious of a claim that is not supported by the available evidence is just common sense. So what do atheists believe in and why do I go on about it so? I think that knowing what you believe and why is one of the most important things in life because actions follow from beliefs for good or ill. We believe in what is left when you have cleaned out all of the worn out ideas of theism, but what specifically? Some of us describe ourselves as Humanists because this suggests a positive assertion about what we believe in. Humanism assumes atheism but not all atheists are Humanists. Anyone wanting to find out about what Humanism adds to atheism could do worse than explore the spiffing new website of the British Humanist Association, but in brief, I would suggest that our scepticism extends beyond questions about the existence or otherwise of deities. Humanism is concerned with the good life and the right way to live. Humanist beliefs are provisional, a work in progress. Humanists think that for there to be human rights, there have to be human rights for everyone, they have to be universal. The kind of society that Humanists defend is that which is open, democratic and free from the tyranny of the past. Not everyone believes in these things and they should not be taken for granted. Humanists believe in reason and science as methods for guiding our lives. Not everyone agrees, some are hoodwinked by mumbo-jumbo and the latest pseudoscience fad. Humanists think that people are valuable as ends in themselves and not just as means to some greater future. Rather than being ascetic, Humanists value pleasure and appreciation of the arts. Humanists value learning and personal development as a desired goal in itself and not just as a means to economic prosperity, though economic prosperity is also an important part of the good life. Is it only Humanists who believe in these things? No, but the more a person’s focus is shifted in the direction of the proximate concerns of this life rather than thinking about something beyond this world, the more humanistic they become. Thinking about the world as it could be made does not have to be wishful idealism. Indeed, some of the people from the past who were responsible for thinking up some of the best ideas for our way of life described themselves as Humanists. Humanism is an invitation to exuberant creative living. It is an optimistic embrace of our bright future in this world.

I took the photo of the Albert memorial when I was in London the other week.

Sunday, 5 April 2009

Respect People or their Beliefs?

I attended another Interfaith meeting this week. Many Humanists feel uneasy about Interfaith forums because they feel that engaging with members of the religious communities lends a level of credibility to religious beliefs that they don‘t think they deserve. The situation is paralleled with some eminent evolutionary biologists not being willing to engage creationists in debate with a “that would look great on his cv but not so good on mine” attitude. My view is to approach interfaith dialogue the way I approach politics and some might see that this is rather more than a comparison. Supporting the Interfaith network is a bit like encouraging participation in the political process which does not in itself suggest promotion of all political beliefs. Political beliefs are often mutually incompatible and contradictory since they recognise different goods and seek divergent goals. The point is that the democratic political process is itself neutral to the mainstream politics being promoted, though this changes as the politics diverges left and right. I would argue that the political left - right spectrum is better envisioned as a circle with unhealthy at the top and healthy at the bottom - an idea I first encountered in the book “Life and How to Survive It” by Robin Skynner which I read during my psychobabble phase (this is one of the better books of that genre). The idea is that the more that views diverge from the liberal consensus in either direction, the less healthy they become and that as we move from the major democratic parties, through UKIP and hard-left socialist, we cross the healthy/unhealthy dividing line in to the territory of the BNP or Stalinism. One of the speakers at the Interfaith meeting was running a campaign to stop the BNP being elected to the European parliament. The worry is that voter apathy will allow the election of people with “unhealthy” political ideas. Is this seeking to curtail freedom of speech ? I don’t think that it is because nobody is trying to prevent the BNP from being able to stand in elections. How does any of this relate to religious beliefs? Just as in politics, religious believers can be assembled on a spectrum or circle with the “healthy” beliefs clustering around the liberal middle (for example, the chief Rabbi Dr Jonathan Sacks, the Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams, the late Islamic scholar Sir Zaki Badawi, or the chief executive of the British Humanist Association, Hanne Stinson). As we move further along the circle we find people who are still relatively healthy but who are less likely to find common ground with each other (for example, the Roman Catholic Archbishop Cormac Murphy O’Connor or Richard Dawkins). The more divergent the views, the more paranoid they become until we cross the line in to what can genuinely be recognised as “extremist views” which will include violent rhetoric. The theory is that interfaith forums allow the moderate “healthy” parties to come together to oppose the “unhealthy” ideas. It is still possible to do that even if you think the beliefs or the other members of the forum are objectively false and harmful - so long as nobody is promoting genuinely hateful rhetoric. When David Cameron says that the Labour government have messed up the economy, nobody accuses him of hate speech againt socialists. On the contrary, this banter is a necessary part of the peaceful political dialogue. Using the kind of language that is acceptable in political debate should be acceptable in interfaith dialogue. The alternative is that in seeking an overweening respect for each others views we will merely debase ourselves and the seriousness of our beliefs as suggested in the above painting by Paul Klee, “Two Men Meet, Each Believing the Other to be in a Higher Position”.

Wednesday, 1 April 2009

April Fools

I had a few problems logging on to my laptop at work this morning because a mischievous elf had selotaped the pins on my network cable. All good fun but I didn’t see any of the usual April Fools Day news items on TV or the web today and this didn’t really surprise me in these serious and sombre times.
Recent stories about failed bankers paying themselves bonuses “because otherwise we won’t retain the best people” could be taken as April Fool cons for the gullible but sadly, this is the real world. Richard Dawkins was reported in the Telegraph this morning as calling a certain aging pontiff "either stupid, ignorant or dim" because of recent claims about condoms not preventing the spread of aids in Africa. A gleeful Dawkins was quick to point out on his website that he would never say anything so repetitive and that his exact words were “stupid, ignorant or wicked”. Perhaps he should tone down his abuse and stick to “foolish” or he might get a reputation for being aggressive and strident.

Saturday, 21 March 2009

Dennett, Dawkins and Itchy Ghosts

I am on the train home from three days of lectures and hiking around museums in the capital, beginning with the superlative lecture given by Daniel Dennett at Conway Hall, home of the South Place Ethical Society in Red Lion Square, titled A Darwinian Perspective on Religions: Past, Present and Future, part of the Darwin 200 series of events put on by the British Humanist Association. I think that it was one of the two most enjoyable lectures that I have ever attended, the other being the lecture given by Richard Dawkins with his wife Lalla Ward in Leeds as part of his 1998 book tour to promote Unweaving the Rainbow. I have met at least one other Humanist who attended the 1998 lecture and for whom the talk spurred them on to be involved in organised Humanism as it did me. Dawkins was chairing the meeting on Thursday evening which was the icing on the cake. Other favoured luminaries such as Susan Blackmore (author of the Meme Machine and A Very Short Introduction to Consciousness) were conspicuous attendees (who could miss that hair?). Dennett was mesmerising and the gravitas of his delivery will probably go with me to the grave as a memorable day, one which might not have come to pass as Dennett almost died in November 2006, surviving a major heart bypass operation. This near death experience did not prompt a religious conversion - quite the opposite.
I visited the Natural History Museum on Friday to see the Darwin Exhibition. I also intended to visit Darwin’s memorial in Westminster Abbey but the last admission was at 15:30 and I missed the opportunity. Probably just as well - the entrance fee was £12 - to visit a church!
On Saturday was the second Centre for Inquiry UK event organised by it’s provost, the philosopher Stephen Law, titled God in the Lab. The morning session with Emma Cohen (do ghosts get itchy?) and Michael Jackson (not that one) was particularly good, exploring experiments to investigate religious experience. I thought that Miguel Farias’ experiments on religious belief and analgesia seemed flawed, as did several of the audience members, but hey, I’m not the PhD educated Oxford scientist.

Friday, 13 March 2009

Rejoice in the Truth

The truth has had a bad press of late. Postmodern relativists have had a field day in reinventing the concept of truth as a fiction, a working hypothesis, a best guess, a rhetorical pat on the back or just what you can get away with saying. They say that truth is merely a social construction. I subscribe to the old fashioned view that something really is the case and that there is an unlimited supply of possible propositions that are not the case. I concede that the word relativism has been used in connection with some great thinkers and some sensible ideas, for example in literature recognising that there is no one true meaning of a given text, but outside the rarefied domain of literary theorists, what is really true is paramount. Not everyone’s opinion is equally worth listening to. It is no use saying that a belief is true for the person believing it - true for you. When the judge sends down the man convicted of murder the whole court proceedings are premised on the idea of the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, something to be sought and acted upon. We don’t say that the judge and jury have merely expressed their own personal opinion. In practice we don’t act as if this truth is merely provisional. There is a growing army of believers in magic, superstition, new age healing, homeopathy, creationism, intelligent design, holocaust denial, biblical literalism, climate change denial, miracles, ghosts, UFOs, pyramid power, virgin birth and the list could go on and on. I would suggest that we stop acting on the assumption that these ideas are merely provisional untruths. The fact that conservative Christians set themselves up as guardians against the excesses of relativism is an irony. If there really is a “real” God in the sense that religious people believe there to be, then I will have wasted my life in the worst possible way in spending my time promoting Humanism. Donald Rumsfeld famously said “There are known knowns. There are known unknowns. There are also unknown unknowns”. All true but that we don’t always know whether a given belief is true or not does not put that belief in some logical limbo between truth and falsehood. It’s true or false independent of us and truth matters.

Wednesday, 4 March 2009

Extremist Secularist

I am fed up with seeing oxymoronic terms such as extremist secularist employed by reactionary clergymen and conservative social commentators when issuing ex cathedra monologues against Humanists. A discussion paper produced by an Anglican vicar from Middlesbrough and titled “Faith for our Children’s Future” is doing the rounds at the RE advisory council meetings in the north of England. It begins “The relentless attacks on Faith Schools by aggressive secularists in the media….”. It goes on to say that “It is only really Christianity that can provide the social glue to hold our society together.”
This kind of thinking is constantly repeated in the media with "secularism" as the bogeyman. There is even a blog produced by someone in Hull called “Bashing Secularism”. What about all of the non-religious activities that help bind society together, such as sports or membership of social clubs. Just try to think of all the activities you could engage in with other people that build “community cohesion” in a way far better than any sectarian religious club ruled by the dictates of bronze age if not antediluvian tribes. We need to promote an interlocking and inclusive community of individuals with a plurality of beliefs, religious or otherwise. The word “secularism” is often used interchangeably with Humanism and Atheism. I think that this is unhelpful. The term was first used by the great Victorian Humanist George Jacob Holyoake to denote the idea that the social order should be developed separate from religion without actually criticising or dismissing religious belief. These ideas had their origin in ancient Greece and were promoted under Islam by Ibn Rushd (Averroes) who is sometimes called “the father of secular thought in Western Europe”. Atatürk’s Turkey, France and the United States are examples of officially secular countries. Ok, so there are some atheist polemicists out there who don’t suffer fools gladly. Sticks and stones may break your bones. Nobody should have the right not to be offended by ideas. Secularism is not the enemy of religion. It is the only thing that protects the freedoms of everyone from the tyranny of monocultural theocracy. Secularism lies at the heart of the modern conception of liberal democracy. To end with the words of Holyoake:
"Secularism is not an argument against Christianity, it is one independent of it. It does not question the pretensions of Christianity; it advances others. Secularism does not say there is no light or guidance elsewhere, but maintains that there is light and guidance in secular truth, whose conditions and sanctions exist independently, and act forever. Secular knowledge is manifestly that kind of knowledge which is founded in this life, which relates to the conduct of this life, conduces to the welfare of this life, and is capable of being tested by the experience of this life."

Sunday, 1 March 2009

Saccharine Religious Mythology

Today is Saint David’s day. Seeing a leek adorning the Google homepage this morning gave the impetus for me to search Wikipedia for the relevant hagiography. Old Saint Dave was a Welsh archbishop who founded a monastery and advocated an ascetic lifestyle, requiring the monks in his charge to plough the land without the use of the technology of the day, which gives us a glimpse in to the religious mindset. He also forbade his followers from eating meat and drinking beer (not much fun) which makes me wonder if he was familiar with what the New Testament said about such matters (maybe the version he had said something different). The miracle associated with Saint David allegedly occurred during the Synod of Brefi where he was preaching against Pelagius, who was another British monk. Some of the people at the back of the crowd complained that they could neither see nor hear David. At this point, the ground beneath David’s feet swelled up in to a small hillock, raising him up (no doubt symbolically as well as physically) so that everyone had a clear view. This is all great fun but you would have to be a few leeks short of a vegetable patch to actually believe that happened. As the Humanist Saint David (Hume), our country’s greatest philosopher said in An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding:

"no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous, than the fact, which it endeavors to establish”.

What are we to think of Saint David’s miraculous ascent up the axis mundi.
Is any of this of interest?

Some people who don’t believe in God and don’t approve of the things that clerics say go a step further in declaring religion and religious history a non-subject. They say that the plethora of religious beliefs across the globe are all false and that a second conclusion follows, that all religion is passé , irrelevant, uninteresting and not worthy of study. This is a non sequitur. The current president of the National Secular Society thinks that there are too many programmes about religion on British TV. He has recently been asking who is interested in and watches programmes such as the recent series from the BBC, Christianity: A History and Channel 4’s Around the World in 80 Faiths. Well, I’m a secularist as well as being a Humanist and I liked watching both series. Many people are fascinated by learning about Stonehenge but this does not suggest that such people are necessarily druids or pagan. The history of Britain and Europe is intertwined with the history of its religious traditions and to fail to be interested in looking at how religious thought has developed around the globe is to be uninterested in the development of human civilization. Crucially, the smorgasbord of beliefs presented by Anglican vicar Peter Owen Jones included a section on Atheism. Admittedly he didn’t present Humanists in a particularly good light, travelling to Russia to visit a meeting of rationalists. His comment that the meeting seemed a bit dull when compared to the dramatic and colourful religious traditions he had visited had some truth in it because the truth can seem bland to people living on a diet of saccharine religious mythology. No doubt Richard Dawkins would say that the challenge for Humanists is to excite people with a sense of wonder at the real world and to go out and create appropriate art and symbolism to reflect that wonder.
I think that it is important that we maintain an awareness of the religious heritage of the British Isles through religious education in our schools and through the maintenance of historic sites. I have never been to Saint David’s cathedral in Wales which is supposedly built on the site of the old monastery. Would students benefit from visiting such a building as part of their education? Is there any educational value in reflecting on Saint David’s denunciation of the Pelagian heresy. I think such a discussion provides an excellent entry in to even more interesting discussions about the nature of free will - to philosophy proper.

Photos by
Casper Gutman (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Jesus_Chapel_St_David.jpg)
Chris Rivers (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:StDavidsCathedral.jpg)
Andreas F. Borchert

Saturday, 21 February 2009

Björn Free Thinker

Anyone reading my blog might be forgiven for thinking that we Humanists, atheists and assorted free thinkers were concerned only with expounding on neo-Darwinian theory and the debunking of postmodern nonsense, a dour and serious enterprise. I am going to lighten up a bit to talk about non-believers in the entertainment industry. We usually only find out about celebrity Humanism when reading the obituary of a recently deceased showbiz persona. Good examples would be the late Bob Monkhouse and Ronnie Barker who were both Humanists and had BHA funerals. Comedians feature strongly on the list of celebrity Humanists, with Ricky Gervais leading the pack of current comics who wear their atheism on their sleeves. You only need to watch the hilarious send up of Genesis in Gervais’ Animals standup routine to know that he has some serious doubts about religion. Gervais was one of the comics who took part in the Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People this Christmas which I am hoping will be released on DVD this year. Other acts included Robin Ince who sometimes writes for New Humanist magazine, Richard Dawkins fan Dara O’Briain and Stewart Lee, writer of Jerry Springer the Opera, someone known for making appearances at local Humanist societies. Rowan Atkinson was a leading light in the campaign to end the blasphemy laws. The BHA even had a comedienne as it’s President until the tragic and premature death of Linda Smith in 2006. Well known atheists in comedy across the pond include Stephen Colbert of the Colbert Report, Saturday Night Live’s Julia Sweeney and the late George Carlin.
The world of stage magic also has it’s fair share of scepticism for good reason. Derren Brown and Penn & Teller were prominent cheerleaders on the publication of Dawkins’ God Delusion. James Randi is another famous sceptic. Lord of the Rings star Sir Ian McKellen heads the list of prominent actors known for their Humanism. Fewer people are aware of the atheist inclinations of Angelina Jolie, Keanu Reeves and Bruce Willis. Angelina Jolie is apparently making a film version of Atlas Shrugged by Objectivist philosopher Ayn Rand.
Perhaps the most famous showbiz person who is explicitly linked with the International Humanist movement is Björn Ulvaeus of Abba who is a prominent and outspoken supporter of Humanisterna, the Swedish Humanist Association. The original lyrics to the song Thankyou for the Music included the lines

"…thanks for all the songs, words and tunes, who needs religion? We can do without that, but imagine if music didn’t exist, not anywhere. Everybody needs a song and a dance…"
Photo: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:RickyGervais.jpg

Sunday, 15 February 2009

Who breaks a butterfly upon a wheel?

Thanks to the editors of the excellent Butterflies and Wheels website (see side panel) which featured my Monday morning blog entry titled Thought for the Day for Everyone. I didn’t realise I had been exposed to the worlds fighters of fashionable nonsense until I looked at the viewing statistics for my blog site which had suddenly increased from the usual dozen to over 600 in a couple of days. It’s nice to know someone thinks that what I have to say is worth reading, or perhaps it was a slow news day.
The Butterflies and Wheels website takes its name from a quotation from the Richard Dawkins hating philosopher Mary Midgley who wrote:

Up till now, I have not attended to Dawkins, thinking it unnecessary to break a butterfly upon a wheel.

I have found that this patronising and dismissive tone is often adopted by the philosophically and theologically trained when contemplating the good professor who has recently retired. I have read Midgley’s Science as Salvation. She thinks that people like Dawkins are guilty of scientism, turning evolution in to a quasi-religious ideology. The lady doth protest too much, methinks. Dawkins is no butterfly and was voted the top public intellectual in the UK by the readers of Prospect Magazine in 2005. Though he is an ethologist and evolutionary biologist, he is sometimes referred to as "the philosopher" by his friend the philosopher Daniel Dennett. I think it is just the case that some people who are trained in philosophy or theology don’t like people with a background in science encroaching on their turf.

Photo by Fir002, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Australian_painted_lady_feeding.jpg

Friday, 13 February 2009

On the Wrong Track

This week I attended a conference at the Yorkshire Rail Academy next door to the National Railway Museum in York. The conference was put on by NASACRE (the National Association of Standing Advisory Councils for Religious Education). I was involved because I was recently invited on to theEast Riding of Yorkshire Council SACRE as a co-opted Humanist member. I had to be co-opted because a rule made by the last Conservative government prevents Humanists from sitting on SACREs with full voting rights. Religious Education is not part of the National Curriculum and the syllabus is decided locally by the SACRE. The current syllabus for the ERYC schools does not contain the words “atheist” or “humanist” (I did a word search). Is this right when about 17% of the local population have Humanist type beliefs and do not believe in the doctrines of the major religions. When children in our schools are presented with a text book scenario with a Christian, a Jew, a Muslim, a Hindu, a Bahai, etc, should there not also be a Mrs Smith, the Humanist who doesn’t believe in God? Should there not be a look at an assessment of the sacred and profane from the perspective of someone who has no sacred text or icons? Recent human rights legislation outlaws discrimination on the grounds of religion or belief, or the lack of belief. A story in the news this week tells of how a head teacher in Sheffield has resigned after her attempts to move away from separate Muslim and Christian school assemblies, both attempts at “collective worship”, towards “inclusive assemblies” for all the students together were resisted by religious school governors. As the trains thundered past the conference facilities, shaking the foundations, I could only contemplate what the future holds for multifaith and multicultural Britain if we allow our education policies to be dictated by the thinking of Lord Reith’s generation. Some think that not exposing children to an experience of religious worship deprives them of an important opportunity. The world has changed and our laws about “collective worship” in state schools which are blatantly flouted by 70% of head teachers, should be dragged kicking and screaming in to the 21st century in the interests of community cohesion if nothing else.

Monday, 9 February 2009

Thought for the Day for Everyone

The British Humanist Association (BHA) has a long running campaign to allow non-religious speakers on the Thought for the Day which is broadcast on BBC Radio 4 every weekday morning as part of the Today programme.
I can’t believe it is 7 years since the BBC allowed Richard Dawkins to broadcast an unofficial Thought for the Day from the atheist perspective. The campaign has been in the news again recently and Revd Giles Fraser has written a piece in the Guardian entitled “Atheists should get a life and leave our slot alone”.
The question is, is it “their” slot. Given that recent human rights legislation has outlawed discriminating against people because of their lack of belief, is it not anachronistic to continue to pretend that it is only people with a “faith” position that have something to contribute to a commentary on current affairs related to contemporary ethics, morality and the good life. Many Humanists are increasingly taking their place at the table of “interfaith” dialogue, taking part in "Interfaith Forums" which should be renamed "Religion and Belief Forums", serving on local Standing Advisory Councils on Religious Education (SACREs) which now have 85 Humanist representatives nationally, talking to schools about secular ethics and beliefs and appearing on local radio “God slots”. There are people just like me up and down the country playing their part in multi-faith and multi-belief Britain and so why is it still fair to exclude us from the national “slot”?
One of the points Giles Fraser makes is that the character of the TftD slot is such that the contributors do not take pot shots at other people’s beliefs (the religious commentators on our local radio certainly do). A good example of this is Christopher Brookmyre’s “Ditch the bitch, she won’t be missed” monologue on the Humanist Society of Scotland Thought for the World, which is being re-launched this morning in collaboration with the Guardian newspaper and the excellent A.C. Grayling is the first speaker (see http://www.thoughtfortheworld.org). The assumption is that someone like Dawkins coming on and referring to religious beliefs as “infantile regression” undermines the ethos of the slot. I suppose the view you take on this depends on whether you see TftD as a hallowed God only slot, in which case it should be renamed Religious Thought for the Day or if you see the slot as having the potential to be a genuine conduit for religion and belief commentary.

Saturday, 7 February 2009

Theist Bus Campaign

It has been reported that a number of Christian groups are going to begin a new round of bus advertising in response to the much discussed Atheist Bus Campaign. The advert shown above has been proposed by Revd George Hargreaves, leader of The Christian Party which is a right of centre political party which recently won a seat on the Greater London Assembly, beating UKIP. I first became aware of Revd Hargreaves, bizarrely the writer of the 1980s pop song So Macho by Sinitta, in the 2008 Haltemprice by-election when David Davis resigned and then stood for re-election. Hargreaves was one of the candidates and polled just 76 votes, being beaten by both The Miss Great Britain Party and the Monster Raving Looney Party. Even David Icke had more votes. Needless to say I didn’t vote for Hargreaves, choosing to support David Davis on his civil liberties ticket. If you would like a taste of Revd Hargreaves views, reading about his campaign to remove the dragon from the Welsh flag is sure to cause amusement: http://www.walesonline.co.uk/news/wales-news/tm_headline=christian-group-wants--evil--welsh-flag-changed&method=full&objectid=18700606&siteid=50082-name_page.html
Ridicule aside, this story raises the important question about whether religious people should mix their politics and religion. Though the United States was founded on the secular ideals of a separation of church and state, recent decades have seen the increasing use of the pulpit to explicitly promote a political agenda, usually right-wing, involving the turning back of the clock on abortion rights and civil liberties for the LGBT community, sometimes extending to ministers instructing their flock as to which politician to vote for. This has to be bad for democracy and I would suggest that right-minded religious people would not want to see the increase of political parties which are explicitly tied to a particular religious creed. I for one don’t want to see 21st century politics informed by bronze age superstitions.
The other question is to ask if the new advert contravenes the Advertising Standards Agency rules. This is taken from the ASA website:
Before distributing or submitting a marketing communication for publication, marketers must hold documentary evidence to prove all claims, whether direct or implied, that are capable of objective substantiation.
This is partly why the BHA adverts used the phrase “There probably isn’t a god”. I would agree with the probably in any case because the agnostic position is the correct Humanist view. God existing or not is definitely the case (I am not a relativist) but the proposition that “There is definitely a god” is not capable of objective substantiation and so I don’t think it should contravene the rules. I don’t think that “There definitely isn’t a god” can be said to contravene the rules either, for the same reason.
The BHA position has been stated by Hanne Stinson, it’s Chief Executive:
We entirely support free expression and freedom of belief, and so fully support the right of these Christian groups to place their ads on buses. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.”

Friday, 6 February 2009

Origin of Species

Next week is Darwin Day which commemorates the birth of the Victorian scientist Charles Darwin. This year is a significant anniversary because it is 200 years since the birth of Darwin and 150 years since the publication of his seminal work, On the Origin of Species, which I am reading for the first time to mark the occasion. There has been a raft of TV documentaries about Darwin and Evolution, including Richard Dawkins’ The Genius of Charles Darwin which was shown before Christmas and more recently David Attenborough’s Charles Darwin and the Tree of Life which was shown on Sunday. Darwin was born in Shropshire and was an alumni of my old alma mater, Edinburgh University, where the Biology building is named after him. Another Edinburgh alumni was David Hume who had demolished the “argument from design” using logic a century earlier, but it was Darwin who hammered home the final nail in the coffin of natural theology. Richard Dawkins said in his book, the Blind Watchmaker:

An atheist before Darwin could have said, following Hume: "I have no explanation for complex biological design. All I know is that God isn't a good explanation, so we must wait and hope that somebody comes up with a better one." I can't help feeling that such a position, though logically sound, would have left one feeling pretty unsatisfied, and that although atheism might have been logically tenable before Darwin, Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.

Having said all of that, it was whilst studying at Edinburgh that I first encountered Christian fundamentalism. I remember attending a lecture on evolution in the Zoology building (not related to my course) and was amazed by all of the young earth creationists who were studying science. Some of them were a lot more intelligent than me, but the truth is that it is difficult to break free from ideas strongly and repeatedly presented to you as a child by intelligent adults, no matter how barmy. These people arrive at university in an impregnable cocoon of circular reasoning. This is why it is important to reverse the early conditioning by strongly and repeatedly pushing the mantra of the enlightenment scientific world view.

Wednesday, 28 January 2009

Founder of Humanist movement dies aged 105

The founder of the British Humanist Association, H.J. Blackham, died this week. Believe it or not, this methuselah of Humansim was 105 years old. Blackham was one of the originators of the worldwide Humanist movement and that he was still alive in 2009 underlines the fact that organisations to promote ethics and the good life without any religious basis are a relatively recent phenomenon. I bought a copy of one of Blackham’s books on eBay a few years ago. Simply titled “Humanism”, it was first published in 1968, the year of my birth. Voltaire said “One owes respect to the living, to the dead one only owes the truth” and to be honest, with the exception of some memorable quotes, I don’t think his writing was particularly readable when compared to contemporary Humanists such as Alfred Ayer or Bertrand Russell. However, it is clear that Blackham was instrumental in bringing Humanists together in the 1950s and 1960s and that he played a huge part in elucidating what constituted the Humanist view. The part of his book that I found most memorable was the first sentence which sums up a minimum criteria for considering oneself a Humanist:
“Humanism proceeds from an assumption that man is on his own and this life is all and an assumption of responsibility for one’s own life and for the life of mankind..”

Saturday, 17 January 2009

Weird Science

I am writing this on the train home from the first conference put on by the Centre for Inquiry London which was held at Conway Hall in London (left), the home of the South Place Ethical Society. I have had an enjoyable day at the conference, entitled Weird Science (nothing to do with that 1980s movie). The first speaker was the psychologist Professor Richard Wiseman whose book Quirkology I have been reading (my edition has a great cover with a freaky photo like the ones Richard showed during his talk on the front - see below - can you tell what is strange about the cover photo?). Richard started out as a professional magician and included quite a lot of magic tricks to demonstrate perceptual illusions. When he was being introduced we were told that he had been working late last night with that pointy bearded mind fiddler Derren Brown testing alleged psychic mediums. Richard’s performance was very slick and funny which is more than can be said for the second speaker, his collaborator and fellow investigator of all things that go bump in the night, Professor Chris French, who was plagued by technical issues with the laptop he was using to make his presentation - all clips of him on TV. The highlight of his talk was listening to supposed satanic messages in Stairway to Heaven by Led Zeppelin. After lunch it was the turn of the first Provost of the Centre of Inquiry London, introduced by Andrew Copson from the BHA, the philosopher and former postman, whose blog I follow, Stephen Law, who seemed surprised by the large turnout for the event he had organised. Stephen said that they were planning to change the name to Centre for Inquiry UK. His talk was about Creationism and included talking about the infamous Ken Ham and his Answers in Genesis organisation in the USA. Stephen was heckled a bit by questioners in the audience, particularly by someone bringing up Karl Popper’s famous falsifiability test for any scientific theory. The last speaker was Ben Goldacre from the Guardian, whose excellent book Bad Science I read whilst on holiday in Italy this year. He spoke a lot about pseudoscience and wanting to "slam his cock in a door". It was an amusing presentation but he tried too hard. I thought Richard Wiseman was funnier.
(top photo: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Conway_Hall_South_Place_Ethical_Society_night.jpg)

Thursday, 8 January 2009

All aboard!

This week sees the launch of the most extensive Humanist advertising campaign in our history. Polly Toynbee and Richard Dawkins, respectively president and vice-president of the British Humanist Association, are pictured above with Ariane Sherine who came up with the idea. The advertising campaign is country wide with some posters appearing on buses in York today. A friend from the North Yorkshire Humanist Group was interviewed by the local press this morning about the atheist bus campaign - his comments can be read here: http://www.thepress.co.uk/news/4035013.Controversial_campaign_launched_on_side_of_York_buses/
The posters say “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life”. When the fundraising campaign for the adverts started last year, some of my humanist friends were completely against the adverts, calling them anti-human and suggesting that the slogan merely reinforces precisely the religious presumption that people who don’t believe in God have no morality and are only interested in enjoying themselves. I don’t think that is a fair assessment. To some extent all publicity is good and this is easily the most successful Humanist marketing campaign in the BHA's entire 50 year history. The slogan does not suggest, to me at least, that "if God does not exist, everything is permitted" to use a phrase attributed to Dostoevsky in the Brothers Karamazov - though I have reason to doubt that he ever wrote it (http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/features/2000/cortesi1.html).
I suppose Robert Ingersoll's famous remark that "Happiness is the only good" is also open to being misinterpreted, though this has graced BHA promotional material for a long time. We live in a media, sound bite age and in my opinion, the slogan is a stroke of genius, attracting £140,000 in donations to date (see http://www.justgiving.com/atheistbus). I hope that people will look at the web site links that accompany the slogans.

Monday, 5 January 2009

Are you a Rational Personality Type?

I just received the weekly Melvyn Bragg In Our Time newsletter (email) which directed me to the podcast of the BBC Radio 4 edition of In our Time that was broadcast on 1st January. This turned out to be quite a coincidence because the programme was titled The Consolation of Philosophy and consisted of philosophers discussing Boethius’ book in connection with our current economic fortunes, the subject of my last blog post. They also discussed Albert Camus writing about suicide which was also the subject of one of my recent posts.
The aristocratic A.C. Grayling, one of the contributors, is one of my favourite writers. I have read nine of his books and would particularly recommend The Choice of Hercules and Against All Gods, though the latter is very short. He wrote a series of books, starting with The Meaning of Things and progressing through The Mystery of, The Reason of, The Heart of and The Form of Things. These books consist of short, self contained monologues on a wide variety of subjects. I have also read a book by one of the other contributors, Roger Scruton’s An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Philosophy, though his writing is too conservative for my tastes.

Grayling also wrote a book on Ludwig Wittgenstein (pictured in Swansea in 1947), the archetypal introverted genius. One of my favourite anecdotes about Wittgenstein, which Dawkins mentioned in The God Delusion, is when he asked his students why people used to think that the Sun went around the Earth. When they gave the predictable response, he then asked, “and what would it have looked like if the Earth had gone around the Sun?”. Think about it.

Those who know me are acquainted with my frequent short lived fads and one of my recent obsessions was Myers-Briggs Personality Tests. These tests were developed from the personality type ideas of Swiss psychiatrist Carl Gustav Jung - the Aryan Christ as one book dubbed him. Dawkins thinks that Jung was a looney who thought that a book could spontaneously explode, but I think his ideas are quite interesting. Maybe I’m just a sucker for psychobabble.
Anyway, Jung thought that there were four main functions of consciousness, two perceiving functions: sensation and intuition and two judging functions: thinking and feeling. Further, these two functions are modified by two main attitude types: extraversion and introversion. Now, it’s not that you are either an introvert or extrovert. Rather, you have a dominant function which is either introvert or extrovert. Actually, I might be mixing this up with Keirsey temperament sorter or Socionics (which is the more controversial version of MBTI popular in Russia).
I have done lots of MBTI tests and I always come out as INTJ. NT Types are known as Rationals. So my dominant function is introverted intuition and my secondary function is extroverted thinking. No wonder people think I’m cold as ice.

Friday, 2 January 2009

The Consolations of Philosophy

I have just watched Polly Toynbee, the current president of the British Humanist Association, give her assessment of the political landscape in the coming year.

I think the message was bleak but realistic. Thinking about the coming year and our changing fortunes brings to mind the last of the great classical writers of antiquity.

Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius was born in Rome around 480 CE. His family had been Christian going back a century and his ancestors had included two popes and two Roman emperors. Boethius himself was consul in Rome in 510 CE.
Recent scholarship suggests that Boethius was an apostate, abandoning Christianity in favour of paganism, though he is still recognised as a saint in the Roman Catholic church.

He wrote his Consolation of Philosophy in about 524 CE whilst imprisoned, awaiting trial, after which he was executed, accused of treason.
The book is written as a conversation between Lady Philosophy (an embodiment of philosophy) and himself and discusses the transitory nature of fame and wealth. In particular, Boethius popularises the idea of The Wheel of Fortune.
"I know how Fortune is ever most friendly and alluring to those whom she strives to deceive, until she overwhelms them with grief beyond bearing, by deserting them when least expected … Are you trying to stay the force of her turning wheel? Ah! dull-witted mortal, if Fortune begin to stay still, she is no longer Fortune."
The writings of Boethius are often alluded to in literature and film.
I was a big fan of Joy Division and New Order in my youth and
one of my favourite movies is Frank Cottrell Boyce's 24 Hour Party People.
It is a comedy film about the rise and fall of Factory Records and includes a scene with Christopher Eccleston as a tramp under a bridge saying to Tony Wilson, the Factory Records boss, played by Steve Coogan:

“It’s my belief that history is a wheel. ‘Inconstancy is my very essence,’ says the wheel. Rise up on my spokes if you like but don’t complain when you’re cast back down into the depths. Good times pass away, but then so do the bad. Mutability is our tragedy, but it’s also our hope. The worst of times, like the best, are always passing away.”
Tony Wilson is also portrayed as hosting the game show Wheel of Fortune.
Frank Cottrell Boyce was also the writer of God on Trial which formed the basis of a World Issues day that I took part in at a local school recently.
This was a day of discussion about why there is evil and suffering in the world, one of the themes of Boethius’ book. The Boethian view is taken to be that evil is just the absence of good. I presented the Humanist view, others presented the perspectives of Christianity, Islam and Judaism.
I noticed that one of the other speakers, Brian Winston, was a former producer of World in Action, a programme that the above mentioned Tony Wilson worked on. A week earlier I had gone to a talk by Humanist David Boulton who co-incidentally was also a producer of World in Action but I am getting sidetracked...
Boethius can be seen as something of a Humanist because he sought to answer religious questions without reference to Christianity, relying instead on natural philosophy and the classical Greek tradition.
In the book, Lady Philosophy suggests that happiness comes from within and that it is virtue itself that is the only thing one can cling to because it is not dependent on the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.

That last quote from Shakespeare is one of the many influences Boethius’ writings have had on our culture.
The influence on Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings is something worth investigating.
The wheel of fortune is also depicted in the Tarot.

Returning to Polly Toynbee's warnings of an imminent turning of the wheel of fortune, some would say that Boethius' writings were a council of despair from a man facing imminent death and that his consolations are philosophical pie in the sky.
The upside is that the wheel continues to turn.

Thursday, 1 January 2009

New Year Veisalgia

I over indulged at the New Year festivities last night. You know how it is when someone offers you that one last drink. You know that you've had enough but it seems like a snub not to accept when someone offers to buy you a drink (I know – just say no). You know that you are going to regret the decision the next morning.

One of the pre-Christmas-party stories running in the press recently was that doctors Rachel Vreeman and Aaron Carroll from the Indiana School of Medicine have published their research findings in the Christmas edition of the British Medical Journal. Their conclusion, from controlled random double-blind trials is that none of the alleged cures for a hangover work. The truth appears to be that whatever you are doing to deal with the hangover that you are suffering with this morning, in a few hours the headache will subside. When it does, don't start claiming it was all of those artichokes, bananas and flat coke you have consumed (substitute your own pet theory) that helped you get better.

Photo by china_crisis licensed under Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 2.5