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.
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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.