30 November 2005

Lord May takes a parting shot at fundamentalism

Tomorrow sees the retirement of Lord May of Oxford from his post as President of the Royal Society, but his valedictory speech contains a few choice words for those who think their beliefs carry more weight than scientific evidence and opinion. The speech, entitled 'Threats to Tomorrow's World' contains the lines,

"Fundamentalism doesn't necessarily derive from sacred texts. It's where a belief trumps a fact and refuses to confront the facts.
All ideas should be open to questioning, and the merit of ideas should be assessed on the strength of evidence that supports them and not on the credentials or affiliations of the individuals proposing them. It is not a recipe for a comfortable life, but it is demonstrably a powerful engine for understanding how the world actually works and for applying this understanding."

Now there are some who would argue that even engaging in debate with fundamentalist clap-trap gives them more of a platform than they deserve, and to a certain extent I agree with that argument. However, as Lord May rightly recognises, fundamentalism is becoming increasingly significant in both national and global decision-making and is eroding respect for science in every community it touches. It's easy to claim that the UK is (still) a secular nation and that we have nothing to fear, but the facts prove otherwise. We still have an education system where the vast majority of schools have a religious bias, and a government bent on developing more faith schools to serve the demands of non-Christian religious parents. More worrying are the likes of the Vardy academies that teach creationism as a 'real' alternative to evolution and the growth of home-schooling programmes such as Accelerated Christian Education. At the head of this we have a Prime Minister who is not afraid to mix his religion with his role as a leader, and an Education Secretary who has never denied being a member of the ultra-Catholic Opus Dei. Although we should count ourselves lucky that, unlike the US, the majority of our population still think evolution is the best way to explain how we got ourselves into this mess of an existence in the first place.

It is precisely because of what has happened in the US that it is more important than ever that scientists and atheists speak out, for silence will be seen as acceptance.

Now Lord May and I may not agree completely on nuclear power, but we certainly agree on climate change, and as an environmental scientist and a science educator I get somewhat annoyed when religious groups stick their noses into the debate. The neocon view that some god gave us the world for us to exploit doesn't sound very Christian to me, but then there are numerous passages in the bible that support that view, and this is one of the main reasons I first started to reject Christianity as a teenager. It might be worth asking our Global Village Idiot if, as he claims, his god approves of the illegal invasion of Iraq, then why doesn't he think that hurricane Katrina was a message from on-high sent to tell Americans that they've been screwing with our planet too much and for too long (but, of course, Katrina was sent to punish the people of New Orleans for not executing anyone in a same-sex relationship).

Here's the crux of it. Belief, and the actions resulting from it, requires no evidence but a bit of 'sacred' text. Scientists, on the other hand, have to spend their entire lives relentlessly studying evidence from which to draw conclusions, and then have them peer-reviewed before they even have a chance of becoming knowledge. In Bush's case he doesn't even need a bible on which to base his misguided beliefs. Now whether the voice in his head was the result of mild schizophrenia, megalomania, whisperings from Dick and Karl, or just a complete lack of scientific understanding and good old common sense is open to debate (I suspect a combination of all four) but he's also profoundly deaf to the warnings of the scientific community and environmentalists.

I've just returned from the Youth Summit on Climate Change in Berne, Switzerland, where it was made clear that, in today's world at least, scientists can no longer hide in their labs and offices and assume that somewhere further up the chain of command someone is taking them seriously and implementing their advice. I've known this for a long time due to having a masters degree in science policy, so it was refreshing to hear that many others recognise this too. It's time to start bursting a few bubbles, and those bubbles can be found in every university in the country, including here at De Montfort University. Pins at the ready everyone!

Sadly Lord May's successor will be Prof Sir Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal and a fantasist who looks set to take a much softer view on these issues than his predecessor. So it is with some degree of hope that I applaud Lord May for stating that he intends to stay around, and hopefully have more freedom to criticise the government and religious groups now he no longer has the constraints of office to deal with. Go get 'em (your Lordship)!

Can humanity rise to godhood?

This is on a slightly different note but I'm throwing it in as it came to mind.

Science fiction has long played with the concept that humans may one day rise to a level of sentience many would describe, or equate to, that of a god. The TV series Babylon 5 did a brilliant job of exploring this idea under the none-too-subtle guise of 'going over the rim of the universe' but for the literary-minded I have to recommend Stephen Baxter's new book 'Transcendent' - which coincidentally also contains an excellent discussion on solutions to climate change, the dangers of warming methane hydrate deposits, and how to deal with greenhouse gas emissions.

The book is the third (and, I'm guessing, last) in his Destiny's Children series that began with the highly-rated Coalescent, and if you're planning on reading it for the plot as well as the ideas then you do need to read Coalescent and Exultant first. Fans of traditional sci-fi will appreciate Exultant as a good old far-future yarn, but otherwise it is definitely the weakest of the three. Religion plays a strong role in the plot of Transcendent (as it does in Coalescent) but Baxter takes a unique angle on it (anything more would be a spolier) so it'd be interesting to hear what other atheists make of it. Personally I was very impressed.

28 November 2005

Blatherer of the Week

I've just been listening to Robert Winston on Start The Week (BBC Radio 4) blathering on about 'spirituality' and 'soul' and 'the transcendental' (as if these are meaningful terms) in advertising his new series The Story of God on BBC1 TV beginning on 4th December. At one point he seems to take a Sea of Faith type of position, that 'God' means very different things to different people, and its all in the mind, and that polytheism is just as good as monotheism. Then he mentions that some people are more susceptible to religiosity than others due to the actions of the serotonin 'reward' system in their brains, which is a materalist position. Then he cites the 'dark matter' problem as being a reason for physicists to get religion, when it's either just a form of matter that we cannot detect or an error in our understanding of gravitation.

It seems to me that an explanation for a lot of religion is that it is made up of erroneous theories that people have guessed at for explaining natural phenomena, and just refuse to give up despite all evidence to the contrary. They want to continue believing in these things for emotional reasons of wish-fulfilment. It would be nice if people we love didn't really die but somehow lived on. It would be nice if injustices didn't really happen, but someone up there 'made it all right' in the end. It would be nice if there was a benevolent plan behind the randomness and struggle for survival. And so on.

At least Grayson Perry on the same programme talked a bit more sense. That it is difficult to be fundamentalist about compromise or about nonbelief.

Some humanists have tried to adopt the term 'spiritual' to try to give it a humanist slant. In fact the way many people use it it just means 'being human' or having humanity or empathy. But the trouble is that it has too many other associations -- with spirits, ghosts, seances and so on. Have you met any person whom you could truly describe as 'spiritual' as opposed to 'humane', or 'artistic' or 'feeling' and so on? It seems to me to be a term used by the religious to distinguish themselves as somehow better than the rest of humanity, a form of hypocrisy.

26 November 2005

Most annoying article of the month

This article by a certain Nicholas Buxton in The Guardian, Face to Faith column, Saturday November 19, 2005, I found so totally annoying that I just had to respond to it line by line:

It is a secularist article of faith to maintain that religion will soon be eliminated as a by-product of "progress".
* We can live in hope, and a report by the Church of England itself suggests it may not be long for this world, but there is no sign of religions in general succumbing.
Since there is no reason to suppose that life has some overarching meaning, the notion of a benevolent God who intervenes in history on our behalf is basically nonsense and should be abandoned.
* Agreed
Atheists complain that religion proposes unprovable accounts of life and death. But this is uninteresting.
* I would say they weave fantasies around life and death, such as tales of life after death, reincarnation, karma, ghosts, resurrection and judgemnt, etc, etc.
Death is obviously a fact, but how we make sense of that fact is not the sort of question that could be subject to "proof" any more than a painting could be judged "wrong".
* It depends what you mean by "making sense of". Religions generally seem to want to deny the finality of death, and offer various alternative scenarios of life after death.
Insights into human nature derived from the plays of Shakespeare may be equally "unprovable", but that doesn't mean they're not meaningful, useful or true.
* I'm sure there are insights into human nature derived from Shakespeare's writings in a perfectly 'provable' or at least 'arguable' manner. In fact a number of secularists have written extensively about Shakespeare's works, G. W. Foote and J. M. Robertson among them.
The atheist's first mistake, then, like the fundamentalists they often object to, is that they completely miss the point. Faith has nothing to do with certainty: it is not a set of closed answers, but rather a series of open questions with which to engage.
* Well this may be so for Mr Buxton, but it is not so for most religious believers.
As it happens, I acknowledge the possibility that the universe may be meaningless and human life pointless. But this leads me to draw quite the opposite conclusion regarding religion. Rather than rejecting it - on the basis that it must be manifestly untrue for claiming that, in spite of all appearances to the contrary, life does in fact have a meaning and a purpose after all - I recognise that life's potential for meaninglessness requires us to give it a meaning it would not otherwise have.
* Well, this is the standard secularist position. It is up to each of us to try to give meaning to our lives.
This is the function of religion.
* This is just redefining 'religion' to mean what I would call 'philosophy'.
Indeed, even at a mundane everyday level, everything we do is done for a supposed reason, and fits into a story about what we are doing and why we are doing it.
* Well, I for one don't always have a clear reason for everything I do. That would make me a sort of automaton. It's part of the human condition to be often in a state of uncertainty.
In short, we cannot just "do" or "be", like sheep wandering aimlessly across a field with no sense of where they are going or why.
* I quite like just doing or being sometimes. "What is life if full of care, We have no time to stand and stare".
To be self-aware is to be intentional, it is to attribute significance to our actions; and that implies explanation, the notion of a reason or a purpose to account for the experience of that awareness.
* I would say that being intentional is more than just being self-aware. It is being in control and directing our actions, having a conscious purpose or plan worked out.
The alternative is nihilism. If we truly believed that life was meaningless, we would have no reason to get up in the morning
* Probably true, we would have no reason to do, or not to do, anything.
- ultimately, the most rational thing to do would be to jump over the edge of a cliff.
* That doesn't follow at all! The rational thing to do, if we felt the need of it, would be to try to find a meaning or purpose, or a substitute for it.
In other words, religion is our way of making sense out of nonsense, necessary precisely because life, in and of itself, may well be meaningless. To be religious is simply our way of expressing what it means to be human; we could no more cease being religious than cease being artistic or political.
* This again is redefining 'religious', this time as 'being human'. On the contrary, my impression is that religion is our way of making nonsense out of sense!
The second mistake secularists make is that they fail to acknowledge the foundational assumptions - "dogmas" by any other name - underpinning their own worldview.
* Secularism of itself is not a complete 'worldview'. It is a framework within which many different world-views can exist.
As John Gray has argued in Heresies, many secular ideologies, such as Marxism and liberal humanism, are essentially theological narratives in structure and function, though arguably less coherent. Marxist notions of historical inevitability, or the assumption that democracy is a universal norm, are just forms of Christian soteriology dressed in secular clothing.
* I had to look up 'soteriology'. Apparently it is theology-speak for the 'doctrine of salvation'. Marxists will have to speak for themselves, but in my experience humanists favour democracy not as a matter of principle but because democratic forms of government (and there are many forms) have been shown, on the whole, to work better than others.
When it comes to ethics, secularists are forced to assert that we behave morally and responsibly because it is "human nature" to do so.
* Here again he is telling secularists what they think, and very few are as naive as this! There are many serious ethical problems that require hard thought, but just being kind to people we meet when possible is a useful rule for deciding many ethical questions of everyday life, and most humans who have had an untraumatic upbringing probably do this instinctively.
But what do they mean by human nature? This abstract notion is no different from a religious absolute, and performs exactly the same role in the sentences in which it is used as "God" does in the sentences in which He features.
* What is the difficulty in defining 'human nature'? Isn't it what is studied in medicine, psychology, anthropology, and such sciences?
Secularism has a more worrying implication, however. Without religion's insight that human beings are essentially flawed, we lose all checks on our hubristic pride, and risk making a false god of our own scientific genius, even though there is no evidence to support the belief that society advances in tandem with science.
* No secularist I know would claim to be perfect. In fact "to be human is to err". But equally no secularist would subscribe to the notion that human beings are "essentially flawed" either, unless it be that we are somehow excessively gullible to religion and charismatic leaders.
While I don't deny the reality of religiously motivated violence, the fact is that for much of the last century, atheist regimes pursuing enlightenment ideals inflicted massive suffering on their own people.
* For secularists, 'enlightenment ideals' are exemplified by Tom Paine's Rights of Man, and very few of these were practiced by the 'atheist regimes' in communist Russia and China. What Stalin and Mao, and Pol Pot in Cambodia, pursued was totalitarian control. They may have been anti-theist, but they were also anti-humanist. The Nazis in Germany were certainly not atheists, most were overtly christians, with for some an attraction for the type of paganism represented by the Norse gods. The 'ideals' behind Nazi Germany were ones of 'racial purity' and territorial expansion, hardly enlightened.
Perhaps we'd actually be better off if we were all a bit more, rather than less, religious.
* Well if being religious just means being philosophical and being human, that is probably true, but it isn't what most religions mean in practice.

I find that Ophelia Benson has also done a demolition job on it in Butterflies and Wheels.

21 November 2005

Sunday's (20th November) lecture at Secular Hall, about Climate Change, was given by Bettina Atkinson and colleagues from Leicester Friends of the Earth and attracted a good attendance. Their main purpose was to publicise a 'BigAsk' campaign, which involves asking your MP to support the law on control of CO2 emissions.


The FoE is in favour of wind and wave power and other renewables. Today however the government chief scientist Dr King is saying Britain should consider a new generation of nuclear power stations.

On Monday evening I went to the local Interfaith Fellowship, only to find that the talk was beng given by LSS member Allan Hayes. He talked about the last novel The Island written by Aldous Huxley shortly before his death. The story is about a utopian community on a tropical island, involving various experiments in social engineering, and a hybrid religion based on Hinduism, Buddhism and drug use. The problem with all such science fictional utopian schemes in my view is that they treat everyone the same, whereas diversity is essential for future progress.

There is an excellent Darwin exhibition being held at the American Museum of Natural History, with a good associated website, although I've found it slow to operate.


Allan suggested at the meeting that the Museum has had difficulty in obtaining corporate sponsors in the US, because of fear of being boycotted by affluent Creationists.

An interesting link circulated by Allan on Saturday was to this article in which a Muslim gives support to the freedom or religion to be found in a secular society:


There is a meeting at Secular Hall on Friday 23rd November, 7.30pm, with three speakers from Venezuela, and from the Morning Star which is celebrating its 75th Anniversary.

18 November 2005

Another assortment of web links today. First, a welcome to another new secular group, the Balcombe Freethinkers in West Sussex:


Next, a marvellously satirical blog from 'Dark Syde', who explains 'What it's like to be an Atheist', among the Santaists!


One of the main news stories is the split in the worldwide Anglican Church over homosexuality. The main movers are the Nigerian archbishop, Peter Akinola, and the Archbishop of the West Indies, Drexel Gomez. Perhaps they should rejoin the Roman Catholic church.




Another news item is the OLPC proposal to provide 'one laptop per child' for $100 each. The batteries can be recharged by hand-winding. However, one report I've seen claims that religious organisation has offered to sponsor it and, of course, preload it with the bible.


There has been a longish discussion on BBC News 'Have Your Say' on the subject 'Is faith important in British Society?'


Joke of the Week, just in from Bruce Pitt in the NSS Newsline:
'I do get the 2 Rowans confused. As I understand it one of them is comedian who dresses up in period costume and talks nonsense, and the other is opposed to a new law that that says I can’t say what I just said about the first one. Have I got it right?'

14 November 2005

Sunday's meeting (13th November) was the Annual General Meeting of the Society and was well attended. Plans for refurbishment of the Secular Hall over the next few years, with help from the Heritage Lottery Fund, seem to be on track. This also fits into plans for the general redevelopment of the 'cultural area' around the Hall. Our member Allan Hayes reported on these developments on behalf of the Building Committee.

The President Lyn Hurst and Vice-President Michael Gerard were re-elected, and most of the existing committee re-appointed, but I decided to retire from it (though I will be carrying on maintaining the website), and Chris Williams, who used to be active with the Leicester Radical Alliance, has agreed to join the committee.

It was agreed after a good presentation by Eleanor Davidson, and a debate to which most members present contributed, that our literature (i.e. the programme of lectures) will add details about secular weddings, affirmations and naming ceremonies as well as funerals. It was made clear that the types of humanist ceremonies we have in mind are in no manner religious, and are tailored to individual requirements. Such ceremonies will not, as yet , take place in the Hall itself.

12 November 2005

I sent the following message to committee members of Leicester Secular Society. The same invitation is open to any members:

Now that I've, more or less. got the hang of it I'm proposing to open up the "Leicester Secularist" Blog to allow other members of the Society to post messages or links to interesting sites, etc. Would those interested in being part of the "Team" please let me know and I will put you on the list and send you instructions for posting messages.

You can post something once a month, or weekly, or more often - you will just need to check that someone else hasn't posted it already. At the moment I will be the only one able to edit the posts, but this could probably be widened once we see how it goes.

I've just posted a message (date 11 November), the previous one being 31 October. However I often find that it doesn't appear on the blog until the next day, or else it appears in the "archive" section but not on the main page. This can be a bit frustrating but seems to be the way the system works.

So far my message of 11 November hasn't appeared! Perhaps this new message will push it along a bit. So far I've had one response (from Shani Lee of Frontline Books) and sent her an official invitation to sign in.

11 November 2005

Sorry for the break in communications. My telephone line was out of order for several days. Also I've been a bit 'down' myself.

Our meeting last Sunday was a general discussion, since the advertised lecturer was unable to come. The talk on Palestine is postponed to next season.

Here are some links to items I've found of interest recently:

* About that courageous lady Ayaan Hirsi Ali:

* "The Suicide Bombers Among Us" by Theodore Dalrymple. "The two forms of jihad, the inner and the outer, the greater and the lesser, thus coalesce in one apocalyptic action. By means of suicide bombing, the bombers overcome moral impurities and religious doubts within themselves and, supposedly, strike an external blow for the propagation of the faith."

* The furore over the Danish cartoons of Mohammed. One of the cartoonists is auctioning his picture in aid of the earthquake appeal. I wonder what the reaction might be if we put a cartoon of Mohammed in the Secular Hall window?:

* Joseph Atwill's theory that the Gospel of Matthew is Roman propaganda:

* Another secular blogger, Kate Smurthwaite of "cruellablog"!