Sunday, 24 January 2010

Non-Overlapping Magisteria

I have just finished watching the Howard Jacobson programme on the Bible on Channel 4. I wish he would replace the phrase “fundamentalist atheist” with “reactionary atheist” or something similar – to claim that Dawkins’ atheism is “fundamentalist” is wilfully misleading. He also talked about people being certain in their doubt - it doesn’t make sense, since doubt precludes certainty. When I gave a talk in Leeds a couple of weeks ago I put up a slide showing Dawkins’ 7 point scale of belief. Out of a room of 19 people, 3 claimed to be a 7 on the scale – they “knew that there was no God” – this is an attempt to prove a negative which none of the “New Atheists” would have any truck with. This is just a mirror image of religious fundamentalism, an attempt to feel more emotionally secure in whatever you believe by claiming that your beliefs are 100% certain. Of course, being sure that something is the case does not imply absolute certainty. Following Bertrand Russell, I do not believe there is a china teapot in orbit around the sun between Earth and Mars, though I can’t prove there isn’t.
I was also irritated by Jacobson’s defence of the non-literal truth of ancient scriptures. In truth, the only reason that some, more sophisticated, religious people have not continued to believe in the literal truth of scripture has been the constant chipping away at their certainties by scientists and philosophers like Richard Dawkins and his intellectual predecessors stretching back to the enlightenment. The idea of NOMA (Non-Overlapping Magisteria) which was proposed by the evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould in his book Rocks of Ages and which Jacobson was advocating is a position that is adopted to offer religious believers an opportunity to continue with their religious beliefs without undermining science education – but this is to ignore what many religious people really believe as was shown in the documentary. If any real evidence for God or the supernatural was discovered by science, we can be sure that these NOMA people would drop it in an instant. It isn’t Dawkins and Grayling who are failing to undercover the truth of the matter – it is weak apologists like Howard Jacobson and Karen Armstrong who want to have their cake and eat it.

Saturday, 16 January 2010

Touched by His Noodley Appendage

I gave a talk at the Humanist Society of West Yorkshire in Leeds on Thursday evening, which appears to have been well received, though I went on a bit longer than I should have. Titled The New Atheists it was an opportunity to reflect on the end of the first decade of the new millennium which I suggested would be remembered for the rise of the new atheism or what some people would call “militant atheism". In the audience was Chris Worfolk of Leeds Atheist Society who I had met for the first time earlier in the week when he gave a talk to the North Yorkshire Humanist Group in York. I have been looking at some of the stuff Chris has been involved with on his website (see and on the Leeds Atheist website (see and I have to say that for a young guy in his early twenties who has only recently finished university, he has achieved a great deal to promote Atheism and Humanism in the UK, going so far as to set up his own Foundation and organising a conference with big name speakers such as A.C. Grayling. Chris seems to be walking his talk, living out the Humanist mantra of living this one life to the full. Life is not a dress rehearsal for eternity, this is it and that it will never come again is what makes life so sweet. The great Humanist Carl Sagan was once asked what the meaning of life was. He answered “Do something meaningful”. Too many people are content to be spectators in the game of life, waiting for others to provide ready-made social institutions and belief systems. That’s too easy. The Humanist way is to seek happiness through self-fulfilment, daring to make your own decisions about the best way to achieve that happiness. Self-fulfilment does not imply a solipsistic, narcissistic self-obsession. The nineteenth century freethinker Robert Ingersoll thought that the way to be happy was to seek first the happiness of others. He was not wrong. Sometimes the best way to be self-fulfilled is through a commitment to activities which involve other people and most importantly, to ideas that are themselves more important than you are. Humanist ideas such as the open society, secularism, democracy, and free scientific enquiry fit the bill. I suppose all this sounds a bit austere and serious. One of the great strengths of the younger generation of atheists is a capacity to have a good time as can be seen from this clip of the Leeds Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster with the Revd. Chris Worfolk officiating.

Sunday, 3 January 2010

Suspension of Disbelief

This Christmas saw the last episode of the classic BBC children’s Sci-Fi drama Dr Who to feature the actor David Tennant in the lead role. Tennant has proved to be one of the most popular of the eleven actors to play the role. It might feel awkward for some adults to admit to liking this long running and immensely popular show, mainly because of an association between science fiction and nerdy socially inadequate adolescent boys. I’m sure the cap fitted in my case and I was always interested in Science Fiction as a child. I used to read Isaac Asimov, who wrote The Foundation Trilogy. Asimov’s books The Bicentennial Man and I Robot were later made into movies and the eagerly awaited Foundation movie is currently being made. I also enjoyed watching the original series of Star Trek on a Saturday morning, another indicator of developing geekishness. At the time I was unaware of the close link between Science Fiction and the Humanist beliefs I adopted later in life. Isaac Asimov was a former president of the American Humanist Association, as was the science fiction writer Kurt Vonnegut and more influentially Gene Rodenberry who was the creator of Star Trek - remember that there were no priests and no God on board the Enterprise in the far future! In fact the vision of the future presented in the Star Trek universe, a United Federation of Planets (with a logo almost identical to that of the United Nations) and a racially and culturally diverse humanity working together to explore space probably did a lot to lodge Humanist ideas in the developing minds of children everywhere, though they were almost certainly unaware of the word Humanist. The idea of a perfected logical and rational Spock, devoid of emotion clouding his judgement seems a bit naïve but Star Trek was way ahead of its time. On this side of the pond, the development of Dr Who was influenced by Douglas Adams who was a Humanist and an early writer on the series, also a close friend of Richard Dawkins who’s wife, Lalla Ward was one of the Doctors companions during the Tom Baker years. Dawkins even appeared in Dr Who himself in a recent episode. Arthur C. Clarke, writer of 2001 A Space Odyssey was another writer who was closely associated with the Humanist movement.
Whilst sat enjoying the Christmas episode of Dr Who, it’s hard not to start thinking of the absurdities of the Dr Who narrative, especially about the paradoxes of time travel, but enjoying science fiction is all about suspension of disbelief. I think that this enjoyment of magical thinking is healthy. The narratives associated with traditional religious beliefs are every bit as absurd as a Dr Who plot line. They only really become worthy of ridicule when someone chooses to take religious stories as corresponding to historical reality.

Saturday, 2 January 2010

Dour atheistic Calvinists?

I have seen the annual recurrence of the debates within Humanism over the celebration of Christmas in the Think Humanism online discussion forum. Some, rather odd people in my opinion, are vexed over the issue of whether joining in with Christmas is a sell out to the still dominant religion that they have chosen to turn their back on. I lived in Edinburgh during my time at university and the Scots make a bigger deal of New Year (Hogmanay) than Christmas - indeed the English celebrations have a definite Scottish flavour . I saw in the New Year eating haggis, dancing to I would walk 500 miles and Donald where’s your troosers, not to mention the obligatory rendition of Auld Lang Syne, what’s more Scottish than that? Does joining in with Hogmanay suggest I am impersonating a Scotsman? Perhaps if I donned a kilt (as some do in England) I would be going too far. I think that there is an irony in that the reason the Scots focus on Hogmanay for their drunken revelries rather than Christmas is not that they are less religious (I think they are more so - or at least they were) but that the pious and puritan Christians of 16th century Scotland effectively banned the traditional Christmas to impose a more Christian version of it. The truth is that the cultural milieu we find ourselves in is not of our making but traditions gradually change and eventually new traditions will be invented that future generations will imagine to have existed since time immemorial. We all play our part in the formation of that future culture but I doubt if many of us will be around to see it arrive. Our Christmas probably owes more to Prince Albert and Charles Dickens than to the synoptic gospels and if you want to abolish it, perhaps you have more in common with those dour Scottish Calvinists than with the spirit of Humanism.