Monday 27 September 2010

Burnee links for Monday

(As will be evident, some of these links date from well before the Pope's visit.)

We must learn morality from each other, not God | Mary Warnock | Comment is free |
More fallout from Stephen Hawking's latest pronouncement.

Johann Hari: Catholics, it's you this Pope has abused - Johann Hari, Commentators - The Independent
There's an increasing amount of pope-crit in the media as Benny's visit approaches. My guess is that he will simply ignore it. What we won't get is anything like an apology.

Welcome to my dream school | Education | The Guardian
Some people simply complain about "education today". For once, here are some positive, concrete ideas.

‘Rendering unto God that which is Caesar’s’: the fatal flaw at the heart of the Vatican - Paula Kirby -
Hypocrisy exposed.

The pope's priestly model: a rabid, self-harming tyrant | John Cornwell | Comment is free | The Guardian
Even Catholics are now anti-Catholic.

Sex and death lie at the poisoned heart of religion | Polly Toynbee | Comment is free | The Guardian
She's so ... militant! But she's right, and the Pope's visit has created a media opportunity for such things to be said. People are interested. They might not agree, but they no longer see the humanist viewpoint as marginal.

A rather unchristian school admissions policy? | Education | The Guardian
A perfect example of why faith schools are in general a bad idea.

A secularist manifesto | Evan Harris | Comment is free |
Ten excellent points, plus this:
If you agree with all the above, while you may be an ardent secularist, you are in no way "militant" or "aggressive". If you agree with only most of that manifesto, you may well be a vicar. If you oppose it all then you are probably archbishop material.
A dead end on the God debate | Mark Vernon | Comment is free |
I watched the live stream of this debate, and was underwhelmed. Not that I expected much, but it was a bit too whiny. (Though there were some good questions from the live audience.)

Times Higher Education - The dogma delusion
More on the "so-called" conflict between science and religion. Here's a snippet from a long article:
David Wilkinson, principal of St John's College at Durham University, is the kind of person whose very existence seems to baffle and offend Richard Dawkins, Peter Atkins and their like: a scientist, with a background in theoretical astrophysics, who has become a theologian and a Methodist minister.
It baffles me too.
"I became a Christian at the age of 17," he recalls, "at the same time as I began to study physics at Durham, so my faith and science have grown up together. Any doubts I have had don't come from the laboratory but from age-old philosophical challenges such as the prevalence of evil and suffering in the world, to which I don't have any easy answers. Science has enriched my faith and theology far more than it has raised difficult questions.
Difficult questions such as "What evidence have you for the actual existence of your god?"? The finer theological points are all very well, but without first establishing the existence of the deity, they count for nothing.

No, sorry, I don't see it. If belief in God is a matter of faith, then it's incompatible with science. If you have evidence for your god, let's see it. If the evidence is "compatible" with science, then it will be scientific evidence. If it's not scientific evidence, then your faith is not compatible with science.

YouTube - Appearance and reality: in conversation with Derren Brown

Nigel Warburton talks to Derren Brown for the Open University.

Olaf Stapledon | Humanist Heritage
Stapledon was Arthur C. Clarke's biggest influence (according to Clarke himself). Personally I find Stapledon's fiction rather dense, though this can at times be appropriate. (I reviewed the Millennium SF Masterworks edition of Star Maker back in 2001.)

This is a news website article about a scientific finding | Martin Robbins | Science |
So you want to be an an internet journo? Here's how it's done.

Sunday 26 September 2010

Question, Explore, Discover

Last October I attended TAM London, the first of the well-established Amaz!ng Meetings to be held outside North America. It was a great success, and in less than three weeks I'll be attending this year's TAM London as well. There was considerable fuss over the ticket price of TAM London this year, which I felt was misplaced, given that it's the only major sceptical event to be held in Britain.

But that's only true until next year, because in February we have QED, which stands for "Question, Explore, Discover", and is to be an event of similar nature to TAM, held in Manchester, jointly organised by Greater Manchester Skeptics and Merseyside Skeptics. It's cheaper than TAM London by a significant margin (less so for me, as travelling to Manchester will cost about four times what it costs me to London).

I seem to have acquired a taste for such events, so I am now booked in for QED, staying at the Ramada Manchester Picadilly Hotel, where QED is to be held. The conference lasts two days — the weekend of 5th and 6th February 2011, and includes (at the last count) the following speakers: Steve Novella, Eugenie Scott, Jon Ronson, Jim Al-Khalili, Bruce Hood, Kate Akingbade, Chris Atkins, Wendy Grossman, Colin Wright, Simon Singh, Robin Ince and George Hrab (who will be Master of Ceremonies). That's an impressive line-up by any standards (though it may change — check the website for updates).

There's also an optional extra: a gala dinner on Saturday evening, where QED attendees will be able to "enjoy a delicious three-course meal in the company of our celebrity speakers." Sounds like fun — I'm in.

A "home grown" sceptical event seems like a good idea, and should be encouraged, not least because it reduces the (small) risk of the UK's sceptical agenda being set by one organisation. If successful QED could become a regular event, and I urge anyone whose interests veer towards the sceptical to register for it now. And I'll see you there.

Wednesday 22 September 2010

Protest the Pope — speeches roundup

Here are some links to recordings of the "Protest the Pope" rally that took place in London last Saturday. The first video (for the attention-challenged) is edited highlights, beginning with Geoffrey Robinson and including Richard Dawkins, Barbara Blaine, Peter Tatchell, Maryam Namazie, Andrew Copson and Johann Hari:

The rally was opened by Andrew Copson, chief executive of the British Humanist Association:

Johann Hari:

Richard Dawkins:

Peter Tatchell (incomplete):

Geoffrey Robertson (from the rear):

Another view of Geoffrey Robertson:

Terry Sanderson:

Maryam Namazie:

Ben Goldacre:

Father Bernard Lynch (from the rear):

The Pod Delusion folks have made available an unedited audio recording of the speeches. While the sound quality isn't great, for those like myself who did not attend the rally the recording does serve to put all of the above clips in sequence and context:

Thanks to the Pod Delusion and all those who made their recordings available. Click on each video to go to YouTube for more information on the recording.

Tuesday 21 September 2010

Book review: Don't Get Fooled Again by Richard Wilson

On 23rd February 2010 Richard Wilson spoke at the second Winchester Skeptics in the Pub, and he was selling copies of his book. I had previously checked out the book on Amazon, so when his price on the night showed a considerable discount, plus the opportunity to have the authorial signature, I snapped it up.

I'm glad I did. The book's subtitle, The Sceptic's Guide to Life, may be a bit ambitious as an aim, but the content offers excellent advice on how to check if what you're being told can be believed.

He covers dubious advertising, news stories that are no more than uncritical rehashes of press releases, manufactured controversies and much else besides, all with examples and copious footnotes (so if you have any doubt you are free to check his sources — many of which are available for free on the web).

By way of example he goes into detail about Trofim Lysenko's bogus attempts to reform Soviet agriculture — a subject he dealt with in his SitP talk — as well as examining Clarence Cook Little's initially successful efforts in the 1950's to obfuscate the growing concern about a link between tobacco and lung cancer.

There's a chapter about AIDS denialism — the claim that there's no evidence HIV causes AIDS, and that anti-retroviral drugs actually cause AIDS. He deals with the tendency to invent neologisms to disguise and defuse serious problems, whether factual or ethical, and he even goes into some detail on the religious question, in response to the "new atheist" publishing phenomenon.

He touches on corruption in high places, mentioning the secrecy surrounding MP's expenses (the book was published before the recent widespread scandal — which is probably a good thing, else it would  be twice the length and dominated by a single issue).

This is a comprehensive overview of matters that should concern us all, by someone who appears to be of a generally liberal/left persuasion (something that he doesn't conceal — nor should he). It covers a selection of sceptical subjects, but gives the overall impression that these are but a fraction of what's going on, and with which we should be engaged. In the modern world he could probably write another book with entirely different examples, and we should therefore be eternally vigilant.

Richard Wilson's blog of the same name, Don't Get Fooled Again, can be found at

Richard Wilson, Don't Get Fooled Again: The Sceptic's Guide to Life (Icon Books Ltd, 2008), Hardcover, £12.99
ISBN-10: 1848310145, ISBN-13: 978-1848310148

Saturday 4 September 2010

Burnee links for Saturday (any Saturday, or indeed any day)

Given the (lack of) frequency with which the Burnee links have recently (not) appeared, perhaps this should be called Burnee links for August.

Topic of Cancer | Culture | Vanity Fair
The Hitch — down but not out.

Science and Rationalism: The argument from Sye
Via a various and intricate route that's not worth elaborating here, I came across this excellent refutation of Sye Ten Bruggencate's presuppositionalist website, "Proof That God Exists". (I was going to subscribe to "Science and Rationalism" but it appears that this post — from June 2009 — is the only one there.)

The slow, whiny death of British Christianity : Johann Hari
The secularisation of Britain is well under way, but the religious are kicking up a fuss.

The onward march of secularism | David Pollock | Comment is free |
While secularism appears popular, the state appears to be ignoring popular opinion.

OVERCOMPENSATING: The Journal Comic With a Seething Disdain for Reality.
Especially read Jeffrey Rowland's comment below the comic.

Last Night's TV: Faith Schools Menace?/More 4 - Reviews, TV & Radio - The Independent
Tom Sutcliffe reviews (favourably) Richard Dawkins' latest TV programme — the first in More4's series entitled Richard Dawkins' Age of Reason (though I believe that those to come are all repeats).

The Atheist Experience™: On the difference between religion and woo
Matt Dillahunty skewers religious special pleading.

The End of Religion - Jeff Schweitzer - -
Jeff Schweitzer embraces "blind, pitiless indifference" in an essay that could almost be a manifesto for atheistic humanism. Highly recommended.

Daylight Atheism > Are Evolved Minds Reliable Truth-Finders?
As a result of some discussion in the Premier forum I've been researching some of Alvin Plantinga's ideas on whether naturalism is warranted — and this post from 2006 turned up.

[Updated] Transcript from The God Debate - Richard Dawkins - The Times -
Following Stephen Hawking's recent pronouncement about the universe not needing a creator, TimesOnline ran a debate "chat". Richard Dawkins was one of the participants, and he did well to keep calm in the face of the same old wishy-washy. Ruth Gledhill in particular seems not to care whether what she believes is actually true.

Unanswerable Prayers | Culture | Vanity Fair
He's such a card, that Hitchens.

Julian Baggini: If science has not actually killed God, it has rendered Him unrecognisable - Science, News - The Independent
Is the magisterial overlap widening?

Wednesday 1 September 2010

Three sinners and an agnostic walk into a recording studio… Unbelievable? — 28 August 2010

In response to last Saturday's Unbelievable? programme hosted by Justin Brierley on Premier Christian Radio I have started a discussion on the Premier Community Forum. Here's my initial post:
…and the four of them discuss the "Fall", which must be one of the most depressing and disempowering aspects of Christian theology. 

(I'm reminded of my paternal grandfather — probably the first independent thinker I encountered. He objected to being labelled a "miserable sinner". He was prepared to accept he was a sinner, but he declared he was far from miserable.)

The concept of the Fall is supposed to be based on the story of Adam and Eve, which is obviously allegorical. The author of Genesis could not have known it as fact as he wasn't there. Norman Nevin's claim that Adam and Eve were actual historical figures because Jesus said so was like saying the Old Testament is true because it says so in the New Testament. It must be obvious (that word again!) that the New Testament authors took the truth of the Old Testament as a given. But then to say it must be true because otherwise the rest of New Testament teaching wouldn't make sense, is just wishful thinking.

Apart from the story's manifest status as myth, there's something seriously adrift with using it as the basis for the species-wide guilt-trip of original sin. According to the story Adam and Eve are shamefully set up. They are created without knowledge of good and evil, and forbidden to obtain that knowledge. Yet without that knowledge they have no way of knowing that disobedience is classed as belonging to one of those two categories. When they disobey, they are punished (along with all of their descendants) for a crime they didn't know existed. Ignorance of the law is no excuse of course, unless — as in this case — the obtaining of knowledge of the law is the actual crime. In effect God told Adam and Eve, "Heads I win, tails you lose — suckers!"

The doctrine of the "fallen" nature of humankind is a despicable slur. I'll have none of it.
Early in the thread I was asked to state where my own moral standards come from. I posted the following:
My views on the origins of morality are straightforward: we evolved in social groups, by co-operating with kin for common benefit. Similarly, individual social groups evolved within the larger human race as a whole, and while there are different moral values particular to specific groups within the whole, the individual humans, and the individual groups, are all part of the entire human race sharing essentially the same DNA. Moral values cover a spectrum within humanity, but generally fall within a bell-curve. Keeping the extremes of that bell-curve within limits is the job of mutually agreed moral law.
The discussion is ongoing. You can follow it (and join in!) here:

The relevant Unbelievable? programme is available as an mp3 download here: