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 (
Chris Rivers (
Andreas F. Borchert