Sunday, 22 August 2010

A creationist bleats about Dawkins (again)

In the light of Richard Dawkins' latest TV programme on More4, Faith Schools Menace? the Creation Science Movement has posted an article about Dawkins and the British Humanist Association on its website: "Richard Dawkins, the BHA and a New Inquisition".
Dawkins in fact wishes to abolish faith schools, but he acknowledges that their teaching standards are often better than secular schools. So good in fact that he would be willing to lie to get his children into one. He comments that he does not blame those atheists who pretend to be religious in order to get their children into the best faith schools, and comments that as he has 'absolutely no belief at all, I wouldn't be betraying anything' by lying and pretending to be religious.
Dawkins' point was that he would be prepared to lie about his lack of religious belief in order to counteract the inequitable availability of state schools. Faith schools discriminate against children whose parents have contributed to the funding of these schools. It's wrong that such children should be arbitrarily excluded.
What Dawkins fails to understand is that the quality of the education in faith schools is to do with their ethos.
What the (anonymous) author of this article fails to mention is that the "ethos" of the school is only part of the story. Faith schools practice selection on the basis of parents' religion. As was made clear in the programme, such selection tends to filter out less able children due to their background (their parents' willingness to do what it takes to gain admission for their offspring is a major part of that background).
Dawkins own words reveal that he is willing to destroy the very thing, the inherent values, that make faith schools so good.
As outlined above, it's not the inherent values that are the cause of good league-table performance.
The BHA has lobbied the Education Secretary Michael Gove and reports suggest that the policy developed will seek to exclude 'extremist groups' from taking over schools, and furthermore there would be no creationism taught in science classes.
Quite right too.
Andrew Copson of the BHA is concerned about the 'dangers of the influences of fundamentalist groups in our school system.' Presumably he doesn't mean to imply that the BHA owns the school system by use of the word 'our', but the faux pas is evident nonetheless.
This is a telling criticism that exposes CSM's misunderstanding (or deliberate misrepresentation) of the state school system. Voluntary aided faith schools are state schools. Over 90% of funding for these schools comes from the taxpayer — they are indeed our schools.
He is perhaps too blinkered to know that true pluralism must respect those who have different religious beliefs to his own and allow them to have an equal voice in education.
Andrew Copson is not the one who is blinkered. In the matter of education funded by the taxpayer, "those who have different religious beliefs" are not entitled to "an equal voice". In the case of voluntary aided faith schools, they are entitled to — at most — 10% of a voice.
The BHA wants us to believe that secular humanism is religiously neutral, but it is not. It is instead biased in favour of atheism.
First, atheism is not a religion. Second, the author of this article clearly doesn't know the definition of "secular" (1. not religious, sacred or spiritual; 2. not subject to or bound by religious rule; Concise Oxford English Dictionary, 11th ed).
So the BHA's claim that it seeks to develop 'totally inclusive schools for children of all faiths and none' is entirely bogus. The BHA wants atheistic humanism to have a dominant position in schools and by its actions wishes to treat those who have religious and scientific convictions about creation as second-class citizens.
Not "atheistic humanism", secular humanism; there's a difference — see the definition above. It's entirely right that state-funded education should be secular in nature, without giving preference to any religious belief over another. As for scientific "convictions" — these need to be ratified by the scientific community before they are included in the school curriculum.
We wonder why the BHA should have such influence in society that greatly exceeds its popular mandate, especially when advocating such extreme views. Christians and other religious groups greatly outweigh the membership of the BHA.
Popular mandate? BHA members are not elected by the British public, but neither are Christians and other religious groups. The BHA, however, recognises that Christians and other religious groups have disproportionate influence in society, and therefore seeks to bring that influence down to more equitable levels.
Children must be given the opportunity to learn skills in the critical analysis of complex arguments and data; skills that are the hallmarks of true education.
This is precisely what the BHA is campaigning for.
We would ask that children and students be allowed to learn skills in critical thinking within the science class and be allowed to question the problems with evolution while respecting their faith. Anything less is not science, but humanistic, religious dogma of a fundamentalist nature.
Children and students should indeed be encouraged to learn critical thinking skills, but primary and secondary education science classes are not the places to discuss theories that have no evidential base. Creationism is not science, it is religious dogma of a fundamentalist nature.

Saturday, 21 August 2010

Book Review: Philip Pullman's The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ

Philip Pullman states clearly that his latest book is not intended to be an accurate portrayal of historical events. The back cover of his novel proclaims "This is a STORY."

But it's a story that could, given the historical events on which it is based, be one account of the possible truth. It's the story of Jesus, and of Christ, and in Pullman's narrative these are two distinct people — twin brothers, in fact. Jesus is the preacher, Christ is his unacknowledged public relations man. It's told from the viewpoint of Christ, who is constantly in awe of his brother and his wise preacherly ways.

Only once, near the end of the book, do we get to hear the thoughts of Jesus himself, when he goes into the garden at Gethsemane to commune with his God. And we learn that the wise preacher has doubts — doubts so deep that he can be safely described as an atheist.

The character of Christ is by far the more interesting of the two. It is to Christ that the business of recording the historical events falls, and like any good PR man he knows that the facts will need to be spun. We see the process of myth-making, sometimes deliberate, sometimes fortuitous. It remains a mystery, however, who the stranger is who occasionally comes to instruct Christ in his endeavours. Christ never learns the stranger's name, and believes he is an angel, but the stranger could just as easily be Satan, or more prosaically, a subversive fixer from an organisation that sees the cult of Jesus as beneficial.

The book is written in a simplistic, almost childlike style. No echoes of the King James authorised version of the Bible penetrate the flat narrative. Because it's so transparent, the framing and blatant spin of the facts at hand are seen for what they are: we are left with a simple story retold many times, incorporating the necessary features for making the myth.

Philip Pullman
Pullman clearly demonstrates that The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ is not holy writ. It is, as he says, a story. But it fits the known facts, and raises a question: if a story like this can be made up to fit the facts as we know them from history, how do we know that the other stories that fit the same facts aren't also made up? The answer is, we don't, and while that's an interesting literary question, it's not something on which the moral imperatives of a huge percentage of the world's population can be legitimately based.

[Pullman, P. (2010) The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, Edinburgh: Canongate; ISBN 978 1 84767 825 6 hardcover £14.99]

Philip Pullman was a guest (by 'phone) on Premier Christian Radio's Unbelievable? programme in May. The mp3 audio is available for download here:
Streaming audio available here:{1439D3F4-FB20-4658-892E-3992F94C5FFD}

Saturday, 14 August 2010

Should Christianity be silent? Ann Widdecombe projects

Once again I'm reacting to a post on the New Humanist blog — this time it's about a Daily Express article by Ann Widdecombe. I responded in the comments to the Express article, but apparently their commenting system accepts plain text only, so my carefully formatted HTML appears very untidy. (I've pasted the properly formatted version below.)
Has anyone noticed that what the opponents of religion really want is that Christianity should be silent?
What I have noticed is that Christianity is definitely not silent, and that as soon as opponents of religion raise any objection to Christianity's lack of silence on matters with which it has no business to be concerned, they are labelled "strident" or "shrill" or "militant" (or in this case, "bigoted").
Those who run the zoo have established workshops which cover the national science curriculum but do not include discussion of religion and do not promote the extreme creationist view that the world was created 6,000 years ago. In other words it is a moderate, education-focused organisation that challenges children’s minds and produces evidence from fossils.
That the zoo promotes a slightly less extreme version of creationism does not make it "moderate". It may be "education-focussed", but that's because it has a religious agenda it wants to get into British science classes. Creationism and "intelligent design" are not science.
In short the British Humanist association does not believe that children should be allowed even to discuss creation or to be exposed to any evidence that might support it.
I'm a member of the BHA myself, and I'm not aware of any prohibition on children being allowed to discuss any subject at all. As for children being exposed to "evidence" for creation, there isn't any. The only authority for creationism is in scripture, but the Book of Genesis is not a science textbook.

With regard to scientific testing of the efficacy of prayer, most properly conducted tests are negative, but this is a distraction anyway because whenever negative results are obtained, the religious can explain them away (God is not susceptible to testing; it's impossible for an omniscient deity to conform to the protocols of a randomised double blind clinical trial; how do we know that other people who are not part of the trial aren't praying for opposing results. And so on.) I'm not surprised that Ann Widdecombe should cherry-pick a supposedly positive test of prayer while failing to mention the many that have shown no effect — her grasp of scientific method was exposed in her TV programme about Mosaic Law: she prefers to believe the Exodus took place (because it's in the Bible) despite there being no archeological evidence for it.

She is probably right in saying that the BHA and NSS will be vocal during the Pope's visit in September.
It is as well therefore to understand their bigoted approach from the outset.
I believe the bigotry of Ann Widdecombe's church of choice was clearly displayed in her debate with Christopher Hitchens and Stephen Fry in October last year.
That Ann Widdecombe accuses opponents of religion of wanting Christianity to be silent is a classic piece of projection.

Monday, 9 August 2010

An agnostic manifestly confused

Via the New Humanist blog I came across this Slate article by Ron Rosenbaum: "An Agnostic Manifesto". Paul Sims (NH editor) describes it as "excellent", but I can only hope he's being ironic. He invited comments on the New Humanist blog, so I posted the following:
Much of this comes down to definitions. Agnosticism and to a lesser extent atheism are oft-misunderstood terms. Even theism as a description of a certain kind of religious belief leaves a lot undefined.

With this article Ron Rosenbaum is engaging heavily in the straw man fallacy. Richard Dawkins, forever portrayed as the ArchAtheist, says clearly in The God Delusion (in his chapter entitled "The God Hypothesis") that he is agnostic on the matter of the existence of God.

Rosenbaum is also mistaken if he thinks that science purports to "know everything". If that were the case there would be no point in science continuing, as there would be nothing left to discover. There's no evidence that scientists the world over are quitting their jobs and attempting to find something else to do. Science isn't yet — nor is it ever likely to be — redundant.
Faced with the fundamental question: "Why is there something rather than nothing?" atheists have faith that science will tell us eventually. Most seem never to consider that it may well be a philosophic, logical impossibility for something to create itself from nothing.
Whether "most" atheists have or have not considered this is a moot point, but it has been addressed, by Lawrence Krauss, Adolf Grünbaum and others. There's also the entirely acceptable response, "We don't know," which Rosenbaum rightly describes as the agnostic position, and which most of the so called "New Atheists" (or to use a term I've seen recently, "Gnu Atheists") would embrace wholeheartedly as valid. Their position on the existence of God is derived not from a dogmatic stance, but on the balance of probabilities. It's a position based on evidence, and on logic. And most important, given this discussion, it's open to revision in the light of new evidence and new arguments.

Rosenbaum on Aquinas:
His eventual explanation entailed a Supreme Being standing outside of time and space somehow endowing it with existence (and interfering once in a while) without explaining what caused this source of "uncaused causation" to be created in the first place.
When someone talks about a source of "uncaused causation" they're unlikely to feel obliged to explain the cause of that source. It's in the description.
I should point out that I accept all that science has proven with evidence and falsifiable hypotheses but don't believe there is evidence or falsifiable certitude that science can prove or disprove everything.
I don't believe there's a reputable scientist that does believe science can prove or disprove everything.

Straw man, straw man, straw man.
(Rosenbaum's confused article was picked up by Jen Peeples on yesterday's Atheist Experience  TV show (#669) The mp3 audio of the show is available for download, and the Blip.TV video version is embedded below.)

Sunday, 8 August 2010

Book review: Losing My Religion by William Lobdell

William Lobdell's compulsive autobiography is an honest, open chronicle of his conversion to evangelical Christianity — and his subsequent de-conversion as a result of his exhaustive journalistic investigation of religion. His book's subtitle, How I Lost My Faith Reporting on Religion in America — and Found Unexpected Peace, accurately describes the arc of his story. We see how he became enamoured of Christianity, and how the church of his choice didn't quite live up to his expectations, and how he nevertheless reconciled his misgivings and embraced his faith.

We read of his perseverance in pursuit of his dream job, eventually landing the post of religion writer for the Los Angeles Times. And by his own account he seems to have been very good at that job. But still the church didn't quite meet his needs, and he decided to become a Roman Catholic. Even while undergoing special Catholic training classes he continued his investigative journalism, often into priest-paedophilia. At the very moment he was due to be formally accepted into the Catholic Church, he was breaking a big story of Catholic priests sexually abusing children in their care. Nagging doubts that hadn't been of too much concern now rose to the surface and he decided to delay his official conversion. The appalling catalogue he helped to unveil continued to grow, and as it did so his faith dwindled, until eventually there was nothing left of it.

Losing My Religion is a page-turner that grips from beginning to end. It's an honest description of what it's like to fall into religion, and out of it again, and on the way we discover the true horror of the Catholic-priest-paedophilia scandal in America.

(On Sunday January 31st 2010, William Lobdell was interviewed by Mary Hynes on CBC Radio's Tapestry programme. Tapestry is available as a podcast — also for iTunes. The mp3 audio of this edition is available for direct download via Castroller.)

Lobdell, W. (2009) Losing My Religion: How I Lost My Faith Reporting on Religion in America — and Found Unexpected Peace, New York: HarperCollins; ISBN 978-0-06-162681-4; hardcover $25.99

Monday, 2 August 2010

Burnee links for Monday

The Atheist Experience: Atheism and Skepticism
Matt Dillahunty on the "Skeptics' Schism"

Sunday Sacrilege: Metaphorical Acid : Pharyngula
"Interpreting the Bible through metaphor is a kind of blasphemy: it's like spraying it with acid. Most of it burns away, and all that's left is a story about people trying to explain the universe as best they can, with no gods, no magic, no angels, no devils."
The Godless Delusion - by Patrick Madrid and Kenneth Hennsley - Surprised by Truth -
A Catholic response to atheistic naturalism, purporting to be a rational discourse (which is belied by the emotive, unbalanced language that can be sampled at

The Blue Brain Blues - Materialist ethics and simulated minds - Steve Zara - -
Should we consider the rights of artificial life?

God and evidence - a strident proposal - steve's posterous
Steve Zara argues that evidence for the existence God — of the kind that would be acceptable to atheists — is not logically possible.

British girls undergo horror of genital mutilation despite tough laws | Society | The Observer
It's hard to believe this is happening anywhere in the modern world, but apparently it's going on here in the UK, despite being illegal, and no-one has been prosecuted. (Be warned, the accompanying video contains some disturbing images.)

Encounter - 18 July 2010 - The Loss of Civic Virtue?
Comprehensive discussion of public morality, featuring Richard Harries, Andrew Copson and Simon Blackburn. Based on a lecture Harries delivered at Westminster Hall, the programme was produced by ABC radio (mp3 download and streaming audio, plus transcript).

'Choice' fetish spawns mind-meltingly stupid homeopathy policy | Martin Robbins | Science |
It. Beggars. Belief.

Secret Email Reveals more Homeopathic Killing in Kenya | The Quackometer
Scary stuff, by people who seem oblivious to the harm they are likely to engender.

The Atheist Experience™: The moral compass
Matt Dillahunty exposes the insane logic (or inane illogic) of Catholic dogma.
We may be able to discuss and debate the moral impact of masturbation (I'd say there's no moral assessment to be made), but if you believe that masturbation is worse than rape, you're no longer eligible to participate in the discussion. You've sacrificed your humanity on the altar of laziness and blind servility and you won't be allowed to rejoin the discussion until you correct that.
If Britain decides to ban the burqa I might just start wearing one | David Mitchell | Comment is free | The Observer
There's a difference between disrespect and criticism.
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