On what basis do people decide what is good and what is bad? Many people think that our ideas about justice, goodness and the right way to live can only have come to us through the commandments of an almighty and perfectly good God. In 380 BC, the philosopher Plato wrote a dialogue called Euthyphro which highlights a problem with this way of looking at things. In the dialogue, Plato’s teacher Socrates asks his friend Euthyphro this question. “Is that which the gods love good because they love it, or do they love it because it is good?” If the former is true, then the gods could choose to love anything they want, whether or not we humans would consider it good. A god could decide that something we think of as bad was good and vice versa. Alternatively, if the gods love the good simply because it is good, then what is good and bad must exist independently of any God. So whether there is or is not a God, I don’t think that believing in God or following the teachings of ancient scripture can absolve us of the responsibility of deciding which values and ideas are going to govern our lives. I think we have to discern these values using experience and an understanding of human nature, and whatever creed you believe in, deciding what is good and true is ultimately a judgement you make yourself. The fact that we have decided to think one thing or another does not necessarily make us right, but carefully thinking about our actions and there likely consequences has to be a better foundation for the good life than blindly following the rules laid down in ages past by people whose understanding of life was limited.
Monday, 26 April 2010
Saturday, 17 April 2010
This is the transcript of my 2 minute Pause for Thought on BBC Radio Humberside on 16th April 2010:
Franklin D. Roosevelt once said “Nobody will ever deprive the American people of the right to vote except the American people themselves – and the only way they can do that is by not voting”. The general election is almost upon us and for the first time in five years, each of us will have the opportunity to cast our vote to decide the next government of our country. Recent decades have seen a sharp fall in the number of people exercising their democratic right to vote in elections. Voter turnout reached a peak in the 1950 general election where 82% of those eligible to vote did so, but by 2001 only 59% voted. The greatest decrease is in the number of young people participating in the electoral process. What are the reasons for this and should we be worried? Some might say that British people are increasingly content with their lives and the society they live in and don’t really care which of the major political parties forms a government. Others might suggest disillusionment with politicians fuelled by recent media stories about expense claims, but the decline had set in long before these stories surfaced. Perhaps people are too busy to vote, but busy doing what? Many people are more likely to vote for contestants on the X-Factor or Dancing on Ice than to vote in a general election. Some people think that their vote will make no difference to the outcome – they are just wrong. Winston Churchill said that democracy is the worst form of government except for all those other forms of government that have been tried. Democracy does not exist everywhere in our world and I don’t think we should take it for granted. It is a precious defence against those who would seek to curtail our freedoms or deprive us of our rights.
Friday, 16 April 2010
This is the transcript of my 2 minute Pause for Thought on BBC Radio Humberside on 15th April 2010:
Albert Einstein once said that a person's ethical behaviour should be based on sympathy, education, and social ties and needs and that no religious basis is necessary. He went on to say “Man would indeed be in a poor way if he had to be restrained by fear of punishment and hopes of reward after death.” I have sometimes met people who say that in order to lead a good and moral life it is necessary to believe in God, to say your prayers and to be religious. Is there a link between morally good behaviour and being religious? I would like you to try to think of an ethical statement or a moral action performed by a religious person that could not have been performed by someone without a religious faith. I doubt if you could think of anything. Now try to think of a wicked thing said or an evil action performed that has been done specifically in the name of religious faith. I’m sure that you can think of at least one example. Do the religious authorities in our world have any special insight in to right and wrong? Reading the newspapers it seems increasingly difficult to think so. It seems to me that the idea of morality has been hijacked by religion. I think that reason, experience and shared human values are a better guide to a good life than ancient holy books and traditions based on a pre-scientific understanding of the universe. Kindness, generosity, goodness and justice do not depend on a belief in the supernatural. I agree with the Nobel Prize winning physicist Steven Weinberg who said “With or without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil; but for good people to do evil - that takes religion”.
Thursday, 15 April 2010
This is the transcript of my 2 minute Pause for Thought on BBC Radio Humberside on 14th April 2010:
It was seven years ago today that an international consortium of scientists announced to the world that they had completed work on what many regard as the greatest scientific project of all time. This was the completion of the Human Genome Project which involved the complete mapping of the twenty-three thousand genes of a human being. We are already seeing advances in medicine as a direct result of the project, such as the identification of genes associated with diabetes, autism and breast cancer. Ultimately the therapies and treatments that will be developed have the potential to reduce human suffering and unhappiness on an unprecedented scale. One of the things genetics has taught us is how closely related humans are to other animals, sharing 98 per cent of our genes with our closest ape relatives. We have come a long way since great thinkers such Michael Servetus who was the first European to describe the circulation of the blood and Giordano Bruno who first suggested the possibility of life on other planets were burnt at the stake for heresy in the sixteenth and seventeenth century. There is reason to hope that the human race is just at the beginning of the scientific understanding of our world yet to a significant extent we are still wedded to the superstitious beliefs and practices of the ancient world, which hold us back and can exacerbate or even cause the harms that threaten our existence. I think that the time has come for our society to put away childish things and to embrace the world that science has revealed to us, rather than persist with the dogmatic certainties of ancient faiths. The great thing about science is that if a theory is shown to be false, it is discarded and replaced by a better idea. If only the same could be said for all of our discourse.
Wednesday, 14 April 2010
This is the transcipt of my 2 minute Pause for Thought broadcast on BBC Radio Humberside on 13th March 2010:
About a third of state schools in the UK are “Faith Schools” or “schools with a religious character”. The number of Faith Schools is increasing and many people think that this is a good thing but I am not one of them. I would like to see more community schools with good discipline, high academic standards and a positive ethos, though not an ethos that assumes a commitment to religious dogma. We need schools where children are taught to think critically. In 2008 the general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers said that “in our increasingly multi-faith and secular society it is hard to see why our taxes should be used to fund schools which discriminate against the majority of children and potential staff because they are not of the same faith". This September sees the opening of a new private faith school in Hull which is being set up with the intention of teaching children a literal interpretation of the Bible, complete with Adam, Eve and the apple and talking about God will be an integral part of all subjects. The website quotes Proverbs 22 , verse 6, “Train up a child in the way he should go and when he is old he will not depart from it”. That’s what worries me. Of course, in an open, pluralist and multi-cultural society such as ours, the state should promote tolerance and recognition of different values and beliefs, but is separating children according to the religious or in my case lack of religious beliefs of their parents the best way to create social harmony and cohesion? Just think of the history of Northern Ireland. I agree with Dr Jonathan Romain, the Rabbi of Maidenhead Synagogue who said “I want my children to go to a school where they can sit next to a Christian, play football in the break with a Muslim, do homework with a Hindu and walk back with an atheist ... Schools should build bridges, not erect barriers.”
Tuesday, 13 April 2010
This is the transcipt of my 2 minute Pause for Thought broadcast on BBC Radio Humberside on 12th March 2010:
It was on this day in history that Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human being to leave the Earth and enter space. Next year will be the 50th anniversary of this momentous event. Urban legend has Gagarin saying “I don’t see any God up here”, though these words do not appear in the transcripts of his communications with ground control. What he actually said was “the Earth is blue... How wonderful. It’s amazing”. Many of our ancestors certainly believed in a heaven that was literally in the sky but I doubt many religious people nowadays would have expected Gagarin to see God in space. The English philosopher Bertrand Russell asked us to imagine someone believing that there was a china teapot in orbit around the sun which was too small to be seen even by our most powerful telescopes. Could anyone say with certainty that there isn’t such a teapot? If someone continually insisted that there was such a china teapot somewhere in space without providing any evidence or adequate reason to think so, would it seem odd? Since we cannot prove that there is no teapot, should we be agnostic about its existence? Of course, Russell was making an analogy between the china teapot and God. Unless someone has some evidence that there is a God, why should anyone believe in one anymore than a china teapot floating through space? There are an infinite number of things that could conceivably exist, invisible pink unicorns, the flying spaghetti monster or a dragon in my garage. Just because you can’t prove that something does not exist, doesn’t make it reasonable to believe in it.