Friday 23 May 2008

Thought for the Day: Time to retire this tired old format

Thought for the Day is a regular three-minute spot on the BBC's premier morning news radio show, Today, and has been for as long as I can remember. Despite its seeming permanence, it is misnamed - it should be called Religious Thought for the Day.

This morning's Thought, for example, was from Abdal Hakim Murad, Muslim Chaplain at the University of Cambridge. (The BBC seems keen to give a platform to various faiths, but not to anyone of no faith.) The Chaplain's Thought was an irrelevant musing on whether or not students should be allowed to take performance-enhancing drugs before examinations. This could be an interesting ethical question, but here it was inevitably mired in muddled thinking and unwarranted assumptions.

Listen for yourself on the BBC's listen again service:

Download RealPlayer here

...or get the mp3 version via podcast:

(The script of this Thought is not yet available, but I'll post an update when it is, along with my comments.)

UPDATE, 2008-05-27:

The text of Friday's Thought for the Day is now available here:

Here are a few excerpts:
Those who work in schools or universities know, as one of the privileges of their vocation, the moving splendour of the unfolding of human intelligence, surely the greatest sign of God.
Surely not. The unfolding of human intelligence (or its moving splendour) can signify various things, but there's no evidence that God is one of them.
In our world of matter, there is the miracle of consciousness.
This assumes that consciousness is something that cannot be produced by matter alone. It's a philosophical point that has not been shown to be true.
Are we, in our pharmaceutically unmodified state, as God intends us to be?
Whether modified or not, the assumption that our state is somehow the subject of the intention of a supernatural power, is unwarranted.
So if the brain exists to understand and cultivate God's earth, and to work out the existence and nature of God, what could be wrong with improving it by artificial means?
The operative word is the second one in the above quote - if. But there's no evidence that the brain exists to do anything of the sort. The speaker is imputing teleology where none exists. The brain is the way it is because it has evolved that way, and evolutionary pressures are not intentional.
...we can stimulate intelligence, but we cannot produce it; it will always remain a miracle, to be used reverently and responsibly.
I'm in favour of using intelligence responsibly, and even of stimulating it, but to suggest that we cannot produce intelligence and never will, is to malign countless researchers who are endeavouring to achieve this very thing. Maybe they should all give up now and spend their time more fruitfully - counting angels on a pinhead, maybe?

Incidentally, while searching for an alternative source for the text of this Thought, I came across Platitude of the Day, a site devoted to parodies of Thought for the Day. You can find the the entry relevant to Friday's broadcast here:

Saturday 17 May 2008

Am I Normal? - Spirituality (BBC2)

The third episode of BBC2's four-part "Am I Normal?" series was broadcast on 28 April, entitled "Spirituality."

From the Radio Times listing:
Britain is statistically a more secular nation than ever before, but while some have lost faith with traditional organised religion, many of us still foster some belief in spiritual or supernatural forces. But is there any way that empirical science can validate or debunk issues of pure faith? Here, psychologist Dr Tanya Byron explores the scientific analysis of religious phenomena such as faith healing and speaking in tongues.
The presenter interviews political commentator Matthew Parris (an atheist) and journalist Jeremy Vine (a Christian), amongst others. She visits a Carmelite convent to talk to the Mother Superior and to one of the youngest nuns, and also watches a DVD of faith-healing by Benny Hinn. There's discussion of the phenomenon of "hearing voices" and a bizarre encounter with a psychologist who claims to release spirits trapped in the wrong body.

Although it's now too late for this hour-long programme to be available on the BBC iPlayer, it can be streamed in six parts from YouTube:

Part 1/6:

Part 2/6:
Part 3/6:
Part 4/6:
Part 5/6:
Part 6/6:

This was a fairly dispassionate view of various (though not all) forms of "spirituality", and I'm glad we're getting more of these kinds of programmes now. But are we actually getting more sceptical assessments now, or could it be that I'm simply more on the look-out for such programmes than I was previously?

Saturday 10 May 2008

Journey to the Other Side - Robbie Williams and Jon Ronson

In this BBC Radio 4 half-hour documentary, ex-Take That pop star Robbie Williams goes to a UFO conference in Nevada to talk to alien abductees.

RealPlayer stream available via 'listen again':*

Download RealPlayer here

From the BBC website:
Robbie Williams is taking time out from being a pop star and wants to get out and have adventures in the world of the paranormal.

He has a genuine interest in UFOs and has been researching sightings, abductees and the possibility of extra terrestrial life.

During the course of the day, Robbie and Jon meet a doctor who claims to have 15 metallic objects which are not earthly, as well as a British woman, Ann Andrews, who believes that her youngest son Jason is an 'indigo child' - a child abducted by extra terrestrials while in the womb and sent back to Earth to save the planet.

The documentary was recorded on location over 3 days in LA and Nevada. The programme is a radical departure from the usual pop star interview and Jon Ronson brings his own incisive take on proceedings with Robbie at the UFO conference.
I can't decide whether this is a send-up or intended to be taken seriously. But the tenor of the show was effectively summed up early on, when Robbie Williams says, "Don't show me any debunking stuff, you know, because I want to believe."


The 'listen again' link above has expired. Get the mp3 from RapidShare here:

Could I stop being a Muslim?

Another from Radio 4's religion-fest a couple of weeks ago:
Could I stop being a Muslim?

Former Muslim radical Shiraz Maher spent his student days campaigning for an Islamic caliphate in which execution for renouncing Islam would be written into the constitution.

Now Shiraz is calling for moderation and greater Muslim integration into British life, a stance which has meant he himself is now labelled an apostate by some Muslim radicals, for which the penalty is death.

He asks whether such an extreme punishment is really justified by the Qur'an and the example of the Prophet Muhammad.

Converts from Muslim backgrounds share their stories with Shiraz.

Ziya Meral gew up in Turkey and now lives in the UK. His parents disowned him when he converted from Islam to Christianity.

"They told people I died in an accident rather than having the shame of their son leaving Islam."

'Sophia' was living in East London when she converted to Christianity. She ran away from home, but her mother tracked her down and turned up to disrupt her baptism.

"My brother was really angry. He reacted and phoned me on my mobile and just said: 'I'm coming down to burn that church.'"

Read more in this BBC News article:

"When Muslims become Christians" - BBC News Magazine
The audio of the 36 minute radio programme can be streamed (RealPlayer) from the 'listen again' service:

Download RealPlayer here

The programme appears to be an honest attempt, by an insider, to discover the truth about Islam's penalty for apostasy.

The Theology of Embryology

This half-hour radio documentary presented by Ernie Rae aired 21 April 2008 on BBC Radio 4:

Beyond Belief Special: The Theology of Embryology

From the BBC website (
Each week on the Sony Award winning series Beyond Belief, Ernie Rea is joined by three guests who discuss how their particular religious tradition affects their values and way of looking at the world, often revealing hidden and contradictory truths.

Ernie is joined by Professor David Jones from St Mary's University, Professor Mary Seller from King's College, London), and Omar Sultan Haque from Harvard Medical School.
The audio is available in the 'listen again' service (RealPlayer) at:

Download RealPlayer here

Some eminently sensible talk here, and some not so sensible. Beyond Belief is a religious programme, so the faith-based slant is to be expected.

The problem of faith: fundamentalism and theology

The majority of the godly are not fundamentalists. Nor are they esoteric theologians whose belief is so amorphous it can't be defined.

No, the majority of the godly are moderates whose faith is something they wear like an occasional accessory. It doesn't rule their lives, but it's comforting to have it there for times of need, or celebration, or rites of passage. This kind of faith is a quaint tradition that serves to identify groups and foster a sense of belonging. The tribal loyalty thus engendered should be commended, up to the point that it becomes unreasonable.

The point of unreasonableness is reached when the tribe seeks to impose its dogma on the rest of us. It doesn't happen often, because this particular tribe is more interested in the loyalty than the dogma.

It's not the moderates who are the problem (at least in the UK), but the two extremes - fundamentalism, and vacuous theology - which speak with disproportionately loud voices. The rantings of fundamentalists on the one hand - be they creationists, Islamic extremists or whatever - get far too much media attention simply because they shout loudest (it's the squeaky wheel that gets the grease). Theologians, on the other hand, are afforded way too much influence in British public life, to the extent of automatic membership of the House of Lords if they happen to be Anglican bishops.

I've no quarrel with the moderates, as long as they stay moderates and leave me alone. But unfortunately religious moderates who take their religion seriously tend to become less moderate, veering towards either fundamentalism or vacuous theology. Indeed 'taking religion seriously' pretty much requires a degree of extremism - a 'serious' religious belief cannot help having repercussions throughout every aspect of a person's life.

A cursory survey of religious moderates is likely to suggest that there isn't much of a problem at all. But it's the vast majority of moderates who constitute the umbrella of normality and harmlessness under which the fundamentalists and theologians shelter.

Fundamentalism should be challenged at every opportunity, not because such challenges have any chance of swaying dogmatic fundamentalists - they haven't - but because public challenging of fundamentalism highlights its absurdity and shows the moderates why they should remain moderate.

Theologians should also be challenged, because despite theology's lack of validity, theologians occupy influential positions in society, where what they have to say is afforded undeserved respect. Such challenges need to be direct and uncompromising. It's no good attacking a theologian on his home territory - theology is a cloudy, indistinct field of contemplation that isn't susceptible to rational discussion, and any attempt to meet it half way is likely to lead to confusion and frustration. Worse, it will appear to give a theological argument some basis as an intellectually valid standpoint, when it clearly has none. By 'direct challenge' I mean a challenge to the first principle on which all theological discussions appear to be based - that God exists. Without that premise, all of theology crumbles.