17 January 2006

Richard Dawkins - The Root of All Evil
Channel 4 Monday 16th January 8.00pm

I caught the tail end of Richard Dawkins' programme last night. He put forward an interesting idea:

Yes, we are all going to die. That's because we have been lucky enough to have been born. With the enormous gene-pool available, it's a magnificant chance that each one of us, as we are, is here at all. So we have this wonderful opportunity to be alive, to be ourselves and to enjoy the world around us ... in the here and now.

The programme has inspired me to go back to his books. I read the "Blind Watchmaker" years ago, perhaps I shall try the fat "The Ancestor's Tale" next. Dawkins has written many books, if you'd like help deciding which one to try, here's a helpful webpage (although it doesn't list The Ancestor's Tale, published September 2005):


15 January 2006

London Review Bookshop

I visited the London Review Bookshop for the first time on Thursday, and what a delight. James and I spent some time trying to imagine how we could achieve a similar sized space for our own bookshop housed at Leicester Secular Hall. Even then, the books would still have to be packed from floor to ceiling as at LRB.

The LRB was something of a revelation when it opened. It stunned people by saying that it would only carry one or two copies of each title (most are available to order from suppliers within twenty-four hours, so not quite as risky as it sounds). The policy was unheard of at the time, with the headlong tumble towards the three-for-two-pile-em-high approach pursued by the High Street multiples.

The LRB is a classic bookshop: a beautiful, tranquil space with conveniently placed chairs, and none of the razzmatazz of popular culture - fizzing expresso machines, dubious celebrity biographies and badly-written bestselling novels, appealling to the modern mind that prefers to escape into mythology and quackery.

After several hours of inspiring browsing, I chose "The Heart of Things", a miscellany of articles and essays by A C Grayling, and "Culture and Materialism" by Raymond Williams. The latter is published as part of series of Radical Thinkers by Verso. It says on the cover, "A comprehensive introduction to the work of one of the outstanding intellectuals of the twentienth century." As someone who was brought up with Williams' "Keywords", I decided it was time I knew more about the man and his ideas.

A C Grayling spoke at the Secular Hall just over a year ago, about what it is to live a good life in this day and age. What is a good life, and how can one live it. He was the best sort of speaker - one where you enjoy the simple pleasure of listening, quite apart from any benefit you may gain beyond the experience. However, he introduced many fascinating ideas and people and fuelled my already growing interest in reading philosophy.

The Heart of Things is an excellent book for those of us struggling to live in the reality of the 21st Century with a dozen things clamouring for our attention every second, and a dozen choices about how you might choose the spend the next five minutes of your time. For one thing, each piece is short (several only a page and a half), succinct (not always the same thing), accessible and well-written. For another, they provide you with some clues about how to deal with this clamorous world. How to find some space for yourself to reflect on what you think about things, and consequently, how you want to act.

Grayling closes the book with two helpful articles - The Uses of Philosophy, and a commentary on Russell's History of Western Philosophy. I liked especially this thought from the Uses of Philosophy,

" ... the best resource for dealing with the problem of the inexplicable void at the heart of rich, healthy, safe, well-fed, well-entertained modern Western life lies very close to hand, either unnoticed or, when noticed, neglected. In fact, modern Westerners are like thirsty people drinking from a muddy puddle on the banks of a great river of clear water, as if they simply had not noticed the river's existence, or did not know they could drink from it."

He goes on to say,

" The river in question is philosophy."

I also came across the "New Humanist" journal, and bought a copy. We'll investigate stocking it at Frontline Books. You can find more at:


and inside I found


billed as "independent websites with something to say".

The LRB visit gave renewed hope to my ambitions for our tiny upstart bookshop in a provincial town in the Midlands.

07 January 2006

Our Spring Programme

I'm pleased to be able to report that the Leicester Secular Society programme of free lectures for the January - April period is now ready.

The first meeting is on the 15th January. This will be one of our 'Headstrong' evenings of open discussion, on this occasion devoted to 'The Threat Of Fundamentalism To Enlightenment Values', led by Allan Hayes.

The Society's 'Anniversary Lecture' is held on the first Sunday in March every year to mark the opening of Secular Hall on that date in 1881. This year the lecture, by Jim Herrick, will also mark the 125th anniversary of the founding of The Freethinker magazine.

The series concludes with the Society's Half-Annual General Meeting on 2nd April.

There is an impressive array of speakers for the other lectures. Too many to list on this page. For full details see here.

04 January 2006

Atheists on the March

The first three items are courtesy of contributors to secular newsline. I've added a fourth from the Brights forum.

Luigi Ascioli:
In Italy there is a spat between an atheist who says jesus never existed and a priest who says he's still about. 'Prove christ exists judge orders priest' is the headline in the Times. His book is 'The Fable of Christ'. With regard to the note at the end of the Times article: There are two passages in Josephus that possibly refer to Jesus. One is refers to James, brother of Jesus. The other, quoted from, is a forgery added by Bishop Eusebius to his copy in the 4th century.

Richard Dawkins:
Channel 4, announces a provocative programme: 8:00pm Monday, 9 January 2006. "The Root of All Evil? - The God Delusion". Professor Richard Dawkins, Chair of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford, decribes God as the most unpleasant fictional character ever and launches a whole-hearted attack on religion as the cause for much of the pain and suffering in the world. Professor Richard Dawkins, the world-renowned evolutionary biologist, whose atheism has earned him the nickname of 'Darwin's Rottweiler', takes a personal journey through the world's three great monotheistic religions: Christianity, Judaism and Islam. Dawkins thinks it is time for science to stop sitting on the fence. In the light of overwhelming scientific evidence that, he believes, shows a supreme being cannot exist, and in a world in which religious conflict and bigotry are increasingly centre stage, Dawkins argues that for the good of humanity, religion needs to be challenged and disproved. Never one to shy away from a debate, Dawkins meets leaders from the Christian, Jewish and Muslim religions to find out how their beliefs fit with modern science's extraordinary knowledge of our world and the wider universe. In the programme Dawkins accuses the religious establishment of preying on people's desire to believe in a greater being; abusing reason and humanity in the process. He asks how they can defend what religion has done, and is doing to us? Source.

David Starkey:
BBC Radio 4 announces a series of controversial debates: "Who killed Christianity?" A five-part series with Dr David Starkey in the chair. Starting Tuesday 10 January 2006, 9:30-9:45am. They debate five historical figures who arguably "killed off 'true' Christianity": St Paul, St Augustine, Martin Luther, Sir Isaac Newton and Pope John Paul II. Despite positive intentions, it is alleged, their subtracting from, adding to, distorting or complicating of the original teachings of Jesus, killed the true message. Source

Sam Harris:
In 'Truth Dig' has issued an atheist manifesto. It extends over four pages, and has already attracted hundreds of comments.

New Year, New Hangover

According to certain academics this week is supposed to be the most depressing of the year. Then again I'm sure I remember hearing the same said about other days and weeks of last year. So just be glad that whenever you're feeling depressed there's probably an academic out there who has worked out a formula to tell you that, on your specific day of feeling like it's not worth getting out of bed, then the majority of the world's population are feeling the same (those of them that have beds of course). This is, of naturally, notwithstanding certain academics in my own circle who are frequently the cause of said depression and homicidal tendencies.

Just so as to avoid coming across as a complete misery guts, I actually had a fairly good (i.e. quiet) Xmas with my family, and a great (i.e. loud and alcoholic) New Year. Thanks to the RMT several of my London-centric friends opted to join me and others in
Brighton (we're all ex Sussex Uni students) rather than risk getting stuck in the middle of London, and the usual packed trains to the coast were all but empty so I actually had a carriage to myself on the normally-incredibly-busy Bedford to Brighton line. Good luck with the industrial action guys, and thanks for a stress-free trip and a great New Year!

Anyway, the first rant of the year concerns that group of deceased miners in the US and their 'going-to-sue-'cos-that's-all-we-can-do' families. 9/11 aside, it's funny how we on this side of the pond tend to view incidents in the US with an atitude that could be described as less than sympathetic, and I think in this case I know why.

Consider the facts. There was an explosion in a tunnel somewhere deep underground, the cause of which will probably be found to be the ignition of a pocket of methane gas (unless Bin Laden's been at it again or Karl Rove thought that the US could benefit from a bit of timely tsunami sympathy of course). Now chemistry tells me that methane reacts with oxygen roughly as follows:

2CH4 + 3O2 => 2CO + 4H2O (we can argue over a bit of CO2 being in there somewhere)

Now breathing carbon monoxide (CO) was never going to keep them alive for long, and that's assuming they survived the tunnel collapse. Even if sufficient oxygen were available, CO is absorbed more readily into the blood, leading to lethargy, loss of cognitive function, and ultimately a slow but fairly painless death. I'm not trying to make out that the rescue attempt was futile or pointless, indeed anyone prepared to risk their lives in a confined and unstable space undeground deserves a medal or two for bravery, but it was the subsequent behaviour of some of the families and their church that I find great trouble sympathising with.

Last night Radio 5 Live were reporting that the families were holding a 'vigil' at their local church. When I hear the word 'vigil' I tend to think of the standard definition involving solemnity, mutual support, consolation, and maybe a few candles and prayers for those so-inclined. This morning, following the sad but predictable news that at least 12 of the 13 miners had died, the same radio station played an interview with someone at this 'vigil', and it sounded somewhat far from quiet and solemn. Oh yes, it was the great American evangelists at it again. 'God is great! God will/has saved them! God has had mercy on their souls!' and all the usual toe-curling crap.

What, might you ask, is likely to be the effect on someone attending such a 'vigil' once they're brought back down to Earth by reality? Peace? Comfort? Understanding? Goodwill to all men? Errr, no. Furthermore, when somehow the news that 'they've been found' gets passed up the chain and somehow becomes 'they've been found alive' (as now seems to have been the case) we have a case of a group of scared and hysterical believers being lifted up to a great emotional height by a positive feedback loop of crowd behaviour and false belief (in both senses) and then suddenly dumped on their arses. Hope in the face of adversity is a great thing, but any pastor who sees fit to exhalt his followers into a state of grateful exuberance before the proof is walking out of the mine in front of them has a case to answer.

In the blame culture of the US we know this will lead to a court case or two, but who should the families sue? There may well be a justifiable claim against the owners of the mine if the accident was the result of a lack of poor health and safety procedures, or if someone in a critical position in the chain of command did not implement them correctly, but that's pure speculation right now. In previous cases in the US relatives have sued the rescuers themselves, which leads me to wonder how long it will be before members of the emergency services will refuse to offer assistance without first signing an indeminity certificate, and how many lives wil be lost as a result. However, in this case it seems that the families will turn their fire on the media, and eventually we may discover who added the word 'alive' to the little game of Chinese whispers. If it can be proven in court then that poor sod can kiss goodbye to his or her life savings, and may even spend some time locked up. But what, assuming the word was added accidentally and without any malicious intent, is the point? You can forget
Christian forgiveness the moment you have someone to blame, a lawyer after their next paycheck and a big wad of cash as an incentive.

If the accident is proven to have been just that then I suggest the families turn their attention to the church and its role in their emotional rise and fall. After all, they've got absolutely loads of cash. Or, better still, sue God - but then he was probably punishing those poor miners for having the odd gay or nonbeliever amongst their number. Anyway, they might as well give it a try and see if they can make a few dollars out of the Almighty. After all, He makes enough out of them.

01 January 2006

Hurrah, It's the New Year

I always love this time of year, especially if we get a brilliantly sunny mild 1st January. I usually go away on 26th or 27th December to somewhere inspiring - mountains or the sea. My most favourite start to a New Year was sitting on top of a mountain in the Lake District, feeling invigorated and healthy and enjoying a packed lunch after a demanding climb. The world felt very good. One of the things I enjoyed was walking along ancient paths - places where people had been walking for thousands of years - although for a different purpose to my wish to have an inspiring start to the New Year.

There's something about throwing off the old year - with all its faults and drawbacks and disappointments and starting again, with fresh paper, fresh breath, fresh aspirations. I like the midwinter feasting: the time off from work to relax, meet friends and do a vast amount of cooking and eating. This year has been especially rich with good friends and good food and plenty of sleep. But the excitement and hope for a New Year is incomparable.

May your New Year bring you everything you work for.