Monday, 30 March 2009

A symbol too far?

Just a quick thought today, prompted by the news that over 100,000 people in Britain are seeking to reverse their childhood baptism/christening [via AFP]. I sympathise with them, though I myself was never put through such a farcical abusive ceremony (thanks mum!) - but I can't help but think that by doing this they are imbuing the ceremonies with far more meaning than they deserve.

If I'm right in thinking that these people want to be de-baptised because they have discovered the enormous unlikeliness of the Christian teachings and would prefer to live their lives as rational beings, then why do they care so much that some old chap mumbled some mumbo-jumbo over them and splashed their foreheads with water when they were kids? Surely their seeking of this piece of paper is demonstrative of their belief that the whole ceremony is completely meaningless. The piece of paper is also meaningless, so why seek it out and pay cash money for it? Why do you care?

I fully support the National Secular Society, and if you're going to donate money to an organisation and haven't decided which yet, you could do worse than consider them in your shortlist. But I don't approve of them selling something which is entirely meaningless. I thought they were against that sort of business.

In an entirely unrelated topic, I will soon be opening up a service for anyone who wants to be declared "Nice". If you, as a child, were told by a parent or other authoritative adult (perhaps in a costume) that you were on Santa's "Naughty List", send me the small sum of £3 and I'll happily print you off a piece of paper reversing your status as "Naughty" and declaring you "Nice" - for all the world to see.

Friday, 27 March 2009

Fictional Sceptics #6: Star Trek (part 2)

In my previous entry on the matter, I discussed how (early) Star Trek acted as a kind of utopian vision for secular humanism. I also showed that, despite how dated it can seem at times, it was always a highly progressive series - particularly in terms of race and gender equality.

This time, I want to examine the numinous aspects of Star Trek - that is to say, the ways in which it preserved the sense of wonder to an almost spiritual level while remaining secular. It is closely linked to the spirit of scientific discovery, and the kind of excitement exemplified by the likes of Carl Sagan in his Cosmos series, and Phil Plait at a new development or line of research. It is an important aspect of science and scepticism which religious people often claim cannot be found outside of supernatural belief systems.

There are dozens of examples I could use to illustrate this point; it seemed that every other episode of The Next Generation involved the crew investigating, researching or just sightseeing at some interesting nebula, supernova or what have you; sometimes it was the premise of the show, sometimes it was an incidental detail along the way - but it always managed to express that they were explorers and scientists first, experiencing the wonder of the galaxy first-hand.

The particular example I want to use today, however, is a little more complex. Those of you who read my footnote on the post-Roddenberry Star Trek in my previous post will know that I noted a drop in secular humanism as a theme after Gene Roddenberry's departure. What I'd like to add to that is that subsequent series did seem to be more morally complex than TOS and TNG, and, while they were more accommodating to religion, they rarely - if ever - attributed to it powers that it does not and could not possess.

The case of the Prophets of Bajor is a particularly interesting case. Here we have a hugely pervasive religion with a tremendous amount of power over its followers - and incidentally a vehicle through which the series can explore themes relevant to scepticism and religion. The interesting thing is that their "prophets" - spirits or gods, essentially - are real. That is, they are actual beings who reside within the stable wormhole proximate to Bajor.

It is interesting to note the contrast in reactions between the Starfleet personnel and the Bajoran clergy (for want of a better term) to the scientific discoveries made in the wormhole. Both are awestruck, but that's where the similarities end. The officers, Sisko in particular, are desperate to know more about the wormhole and the beings that reside within in it - from what little they already know, the wormhole is stable because it was constructed by the aliens, and the aliens themselves do not experience a "linear existence" as we do, and thus have no concept of time. The Bajorans remain steadfast in their dogma, though at first it seems that the two can coexist - the spiritual definition of the prophets, and the scientific explanation of them.

But when a religious controversy springs up about the teaching of science in school, the tensions become clear. The question is asked as to why the station's single school is teaching only about the science of the wormhole and not the spiritual dimensions acknowledged by the Bajorans (a majority of the students, it should be noted). The teacher is adamant that only the science will be taught, and that the school is not a suitable place for spiritual instruction. It's a great parallel to the evolution/creationism debate.

But to get back to my point, at no time does it seem that there is less wonder and beauty to be found through the scientific perspective as opposed to the religious one. Indeed, it seems as if the religious people, having caught a glimpse of the truth, immediately shut their eyes so as to preserve that glimmer of wonder, and, having instilled it with all their hopes and expanded it with their imaginations, are unwilling to then open their eyes and see the truth of the wonders - which is no less amazing.

The best thing about post-Roddenberry Star Trek is that it becomes more complex in terms of morality and personalities, and therefore far more relevant to the real world. It is no longer a Utopia, but perhaps more of a realistic cultural extrapolation of where humanity might find itself a few centuries from now.

Thursday, 19 March 2009

Hampshire: The Report

Firstly, if you've not read my earlier post on the subject of creationism-in-schools advice being given to Hampshire County Council, go ahead and read up. I'll still be here when you get back. All done? Good.

I have located a copy of the report I mentioned. It can be found here:

"Teaching About Creationism and Evolution in Schools"

It begins in a reasonable fashion - and in fact continues likewise until the section vaguely headed "Evaluate". Up until this point, I've not had a major problem with anything said, and in fact it sounds like a decent attempt at providing support for conducting a debate on this matter. After that point, however, it all gets a bit Disco.

For instance, it is quite insistent on the difference between creationism and intelligent design, and actually uses the words "the scientific theory of intelligent design". This is horrifically misleading, disingenuous and false. Intelligent design is not a scientific theory; it is barely an hypothesis (which, incidentally, is the word they use earlier in the report - consistency please?). Almost as bad is their use of the word "scholar" to describe such unthinking dogmatists as Behe and Minnich

What is also telling is that, despite the fact that the language being used seems to be pluralist, it is clear that the report is centered on a Christian worldview. Creationism is defined as "typically" conforming to Genesis and the Bible, whereas "Intelligent Design" apparently doesn't. There is no mention (except through the most vague implication) that other faiths involve a creation myth. I know we're nominally a Christian nation, but our non-faith schools are generally meant to be cosmopolitan in this regard.

There are numerous other reasons I dislike this report, including its quoting of William Bloody Paley and not the counter-argument from Dawkins et al; but the main question I wanted answered was: where is this debate intended to take place? In the science class, or in religious education?

I was disappointed. There was nothing there to suggest that this was being proposed as a discussion to have in a particular setting or context. It could well be that this report itself has a context of which I am unaware, and the text toward to top of the report was sufficiently indecipherable to allow that perhaps that information is contained within that section; but if this is not the case, and the debate is being offered regardless of context, then I have to conclude that the news items surrounding this report are misleading.

That is not to say that there is nothing to worry about. This report is indicative of a greatly disturbing trend in our education system: there is no doubt in my mind that this report was compiled by a creationist and that the intent behind it is to push discussion of intelligent design into places it does not belong. That being said, however, there are a few questions that still need to be asked:

1. Where are these discussions intended to take place?
2. Are they trying to get intelligent design discussed as a scientific theory?
3. How seriously is this report being taken?
4. Are there advisory bodies in opposition to, and on the same level as, SACRE (Standing Advisory Council on Religious Education) that are pushing the scientific, secularist viewpoint?

I'm going to do my best to get answers to these questions, but until then I must conclude that the report is deeply worrying, but not as bad as it could be. Intelligent design is still not a part of the science curriculum, and this report doesn't suggest that it should be.

Hampshire = Kansas? Not yet.

Being a Hampshire lad by birth, I was somewhat perturbed by the news that Hampshire schools are getting "advice" on creationism. Now, don't get me wrong, there's nothing inherently wrong with that fact - but it's the kind of phrase that sets off alarm bells.

The worry is that it's a "foot in the door" scenario which could lead to creationism* being taught in the classroom alongside science, and being given equal credence. Of course, this need not necessarily be the case here: at the moment the language being used to refer to this move is stressing advice rather than curriculum.

It is important that teachers know how to respond to inquiries from students about the relationship between creationism and evolution, and therefore an "advice package" seems like a jolly good idea. Exactly how good an idea it is, though, depends solely on the content of the report. I have written to Hampshire County Council asking them for a copy of the report, after having no luck searching online (there seems to be a direct link on the RichardDawkins.net forum, but at the time of writing this there's a quite serious problem with the website).

So until I find out what is actually advised, I'd like to take a moment to think about what I'd like it to say. Ideally, as far as the science classroom is concerned, I think the advice should be simply about how to deal with pupils' questions, and not how to raise the subject itself outside of that context. Creationism has no place in the science class. But that does not mean that pupils' questions on the subject should be ignored or simply rebuffed. It is important that they are informed about why creationism is not science, and why it is not appropriate to discuss metaphysics in the science classroom. Also, I have no problem with creationism - and its relationship with science - being discussed in religious education classes; that's where it belongs.

What I am afraid of is that this is not the tone that has been taken by the report; that, instead, it advises that it is entirely appropriate and even necessary to discuss creationism as a rival theory to evolution and the big bang. This is the area in which the creationists have been gaining most ground: in simply muddying the waters. The real problem will be that introducing guidelines for talking about religion in the science classroom will confuse rather than inform.

I'm all for getting pupils to discuss these issues, but everything that is done in the context of a science lesson should be science. Metaphysics should be checked at the door; it has no place in that setting.

* I use the word creationism as synonymous with so-called "intelligent design theory" because I hope that by this point nobody has any illusions. They are one and the same.

Sunday, 15 March 2009

Antidisestablishmentarianism: a Comparison

Yes, part of the reason for this entry is that it is a legitimate excuse to use that word, much the same as happened with my A-Level Politics coursework. But at the same time, it's also a very interesting subject, particularly when taken comparatively. Some of the issues I want to address here are: the prominence of the issue of the separation of church and state in the United States and United Kingdom; the reason for those different levels of prominence; and any implications there might be for the two societies. No doubt the discussion will range more widely, but that's the basic structure I have in mind. So let's begin.

I suppose the best place to start with this issue, as with most, is to define it. The separation of church and state is the phrase used to describe either the distance that organised religion keeps from the apparatus and activity of state politics, or the official, constitutional provisions for that distance. In short, it can refer to the rules, or to the reality. The U.S. and the U.K. have very different situations in both cases, and those differences are the subject of this entry.

Firstly, then, let's look at the prominence of the issue - how high up is it in terms of public concern/awareness? Well, in the U.S., there are few more visible issues than the separation of church and state, with strong advocacy groups on the matter and implications for such diverse issues as prayer in schools, "In God We Trust" on the currency, and even gay rights. In the U.K., meanwhile, the issue is hardly on the radar at all; certainly there are similar issues with gay rights, creationism in the classroom, and various others, but rarely do discussions on these matters make mention of the established nature of the Church of England. It doesn't seem to affect either legislation on, or public opinion of, the major issues.

So what is the formal position of religion in each of these nations? In the United States, there is a clear clause in the Constitution (Amendment I, concerning freedom of expression) prohibiting the establishment of religion by the state. What does this mean? Well, a fairly good example is the situation in the United Kingdom, as it happens: we have what is called an "established" Church here, the Anglican Church or Church of England. This means that not only is their brand of protestantism the official state religion (the monarch is still required to be a member of that religion because he or she is the nominal head of the Church), but also that members of that Church have seats in our national legislature.

Without going into great and tedious detail, the House of Lords is the upper house of the British Parliament, but has less legislative power than the House of Commons. It is also the highest court in the country. Among its 743 members, there are 26 bishops of the Church of England, known as the Lords Spiritual. It is hardly contentious to suggest that the presence of such figures in the legislature of the United States would be controversial and hugely unconstitutional.

So why is there no such uproar here? Well, the right answer (to the extent that there is one) is of course terribly complex and most likely involves matters of social history, and the complex interplay of power between the state, the church, and the people. But at least a part of the reason is simply that we don't have a constitution; there is no hallowed sacred document to which we can refer to determine if a certain practice or state of affairs is "allowed" by the rules upon which our nation was founded. Because, when you get right down to it, it's hard to say exactly how or when - or even if - that happened. Certainly there have been a slew of treaties (the latest coming as late as 1927), but there has never been a document drawn up to compare significantly with the strict and explicit terms of the U.S. Constitution.

It is strange to note how reversed the situation seems to be between the U.S. and the U.K.; one might expect the country with overt religious influence in the legislature to be the one that experiences a great deal of religious influence on legislation. But rather, it is the nation with explicit prohibition of religious influence on the legislature that is the arena for so much religious lobbying and debate. So on the one side of the Atlantic we have a secular government and a predominantly religious society, and on the other we have a nominally religious government and a - for all intents and purposes - secular society. Is it a case of causation, or correlation?

The answer is, of course, complicated. I am tempted to argue that it is a combination of the two on both sides of the ocean, but in the States it seems to be more causation than correlation, and in Britain more correlation than causation. I don't think it would be too controversial to suggest that the majority of British subjects are generally of an apathetic disposition with regards to religious matters; even the few who do attend church seem to be, for the most part, relatively liberal. Equally uncontroversial to me would be the suggestion that the U.S. was settled predominantly by religious persons, many fleeing persecution. For one reason or another, religion has persisted in a much stronger way in the U.S. than in Britain.

Now this is just speculation, but it seems to me reasonable to suggest that the current state of affairs, with religious lobbyists jostling and campaigning ceaselessly to crowbar some small modicum of their faith into the affairs of state, could have its genesis in the very constitutional measures designed to thwart them. Imposing secularism upon a strongly religious society could quite conceivably lead to strong resentment and this very kind of campaigning. Now, I'm not saying that the constitution is the only reason for the current state of affairs, or even that this is a worse situation than exists in Britain. Indeed, I think that the U.S. constitution is the only thing standing in the way of the country becoming an overtly religious one at the governmental level.

I can't purport to know the reasons why Britain is, broadly speaking, a secular society. Perhaps it is partly because of the establishment of religion; perhaps it has instilled in the religious groups a kind of complacency. But I doubt that this is the case. The fact of the matter is that in Britain, the Church enjoys far greater official power than religious groups in the U.S., but far less public support. As far as creating secular legislation is concerned, ultimately, having a secular society is more important than having a secular government.

Tuesday, 10 March 2009

The Power of Metaphor, or, Don't Blame Santa

Before I begin, I ought to warn you that there is no real conclusion or argument to be found in this entry; it is rather intended as a collection of musings hoped to inform but primarily provoke further thought. Most of what is contained herein is part of an ongoing internal discussion I'm holding with myself, and this forms something of an update as to the point that that debate has reached. So open your mind, and read on.

I have made mention before of my status as a pagan atheist. It's not just an incidental matter for me, either; while I don't believe the Gods or spirits are actual entities capable of any kind of interaction with this world, I believe they are powerful and practically useful metaphors for a great deal of human life. The Gods we choose for ourselves - if choose them we do - represent those principles which are most important to us. For this reason I tend more toward the Northern European pantheon, in particular the Norse Gods. If I had a Sabbath like the Christian Sunday or Jewish Friday, it would be Wednesday, named for Odin, a.k.a. Woden (Woden's Daeg -> Wednesday) - for he is the figure with whom I most identify.

He is the symbol for wisdom, courage, and honour - among many other things. He is also seen as the guardian of travellers, much as the Christian Saint Christopher. All of these themes are ones which ring true with me: I aspire to be wise, courageous and honourable above all else; I can think of no qualities I would rather possess. There is also an emphasis on respect and reverence for nature in the Northern European religions, which it won't surprise you to find has particular resonance with me.

So why, you might ask, don't I just identify with those qualities directly instead of expressing them through the language of mythology and religious faith? It is a good question, and one which I have asked myself on many an occasion. I think the answer, as far as I can fathom it, lies in what I refer to as the "power of metaphor"; that is, the linguistic and emotional force that can be expressed only in terms of phenomena that transcend the physical, evidential world. Humanity is known for being a fickle race, and a claimed devotion to an abstract concept such as justice seems to hold less force, somehow, than a claimed devotion to a deity personifying that concept. It is an appeal to the eternal nature of these ideals as opposed to the sometimes-fleeting nature of humanity's adherence to them.

Another example of this that I recently found out about (thanks to my friend the Nietzschean feminist) is Laveyan satanism, which again is essentially an atheist religion. The ideals it favours are individualism, a realistic approach to humanity's darker impulses and an acceptance of these drives as an inevitable an essential component of understanding what it is to be human. There is also a strong element of anarchism, a rebelliousness and hostility toward authority that is reflected in few other mythologies. But it is atheist - and specifically non-Christian, a claim which cannot be made by theistic Satanism - because it entails a commitment to these ideals only, not a belief in a literal Satan or lesser demons. There is much in LaVeyan Satanism which rings true with me and values which are shared by the pagan faith.

On a tangentally-related topic, I also want to address the topic of Santa Claus - not as a metaphor, but as a belief tantamount to religion but treated as a socially-acceptable falsehood. This line of thought comes from listening to my backlog of Point of Inquiry podcasts, specifically the interview with Todd C. Riniolo. He noted an objection to the widely-used argument in sceptical circles that it is little wonder that people are credulous in adulthood when they are raised to believe in Santa Claus as children. It is rarely used as a forceful argument, usually instead forming a arbitrary comment; but nonetheless is worth addressing. Riniolo's objection is that there is simply no proof that belief in Santa during childhood leads to credulity in adulthood. Indeed, he argues, the "debunking" of Santa constitutes many a child's first truly sceptical activity.

I thought this was a very interesting point, and it contributed to an ongoing internal debate I've been conducting with regards to how best to raise a child in the sceptical mindset. It hasn't helped me make up my mind on the subject, but has made a significant contribution to the complexity of the issue. Is it wrong to lie to one's children in this regard, or is it a valuable experience that teaches them that deception (harmless or otherwise) is everywhere and that nobody is to be trusted implicitly? On a personal note, I think I "grew out of" notions like God and spiritualism around the same time as I did the notion of Santa. I don't recall being annoyed at the deception, either; at some point it just became a childish absurdity and I scoffed at my parents for persisting in the charade.

So would it be better or worse to deny one's child this experience? Should we rather explain as best we can the lessons that would be learned through it, rather than perpetuate the white lies? At the very least, it seems that the lies do less harm than one might think.

Saturday, 7 March 2009

Virus-avoidance advice

There has been a great deal of news and rumour recently about a new virus or worm targeting users of FarceBook, MurdochSpace, and the other one. Normally not the sort of thing that would find its way to these pages, as it seems to be a completely genuine danger and not in any way fraudulent. What prompted this blog post, however, was the public reaction to the news; I know of people who have decided to not use the networking sites at all while this thing persists. Not an unreasonable precaution, but why deny yourself the distractions of social networking if it's not necessary? And according to the details of this case, it's really not.

As with most digital viruses, the best advice for avoiding infection seems to be "don't be a moron"; though it does appear that this worm is more sneaky than most. It's also not new - it's been around since at least December, when there was a big news event on the subject - see articles from The Guardian, PC World, BBC News, The Huffington Post and Reuters.

This virus, known as "Koobface" can be avoided by simply knowing the way in which it operates. The best source for this information seems to be the video here, the summary of which is that the virus works through sending messages from infected accounts to friends of that account. The message comprises of a link to a video, ostensibly on YouTube, and a phrase or two suggesting that the target is featured in that video. Now listen carefully to the next part, because it's the one thing you should remember about the Koobface virus:

The only way it can infect your account or computer is if you click that link and then install what it requests that you install.

So the obvious advice is: don't do that.

Knowing how these individual virii operate is the key to avoiding them - besides good old common sense, anyway. If you get a link to a video with a message suggesting you're in it, don't follow the link, delete the message. If in doubt, ask your friend if the message is genuine. There is no evidence to suggest that the virus is so clever as to be able to respond to such an inquiry.

Friday, 6 March 2009


There have been times on this blog when I have alluded to my dislike for the word "Darwinism". Well, now I have an excuse to let rip with a rant on the subject, courtesy of a new article on BBC News by Andrew Marr:

The danger of worshipping Darwin

I have a lot of time for Andrew Marr; I think as a historian and particularly as a presenter of history, he has a great deal to offer. But in this case, he is either ignorant of the facts, or simply creating a controversy for the sake of having something to say on the matter. Because what does his article actually argue?

The majority of it is taken up with what he himself describes as "trivial" comparisons between evolution and religion, such as the observation that the natural history museums of Oxford and London bare a striking resemblance to cathedrals. Religion has heretics, evolution has heretics - Richard Owen. Religions have holy artifacts, evolution has holy artifacts - dinosaur bones. Religious people make pilgrimages, and Darwin's journey could be compared to such a trek. Marr's admission of the triviality of these weak parallels points to exactly how useless and arbitrary they are.

After this horrendous triviality, he goes on to what might be called the "meat" of his argument. Which is that the more striking similarity between what he calls "Darwinism" (shudder) and religion is that it "offers both a method and a message". The method is the scientific method of observation and experiment, contrasted with the religious method of prayer and mantras. The message is about the importance of the web of life, as opposed to religion's emphasis on, I suppose, nonsense.

He claims that "to deal with the consequences [of climate change and species extinction], we have to turn to scientific evidence, which will be brought to us by - yes - Darwinists." This reveals the definition of "Darwinism" with which he is working in this article: to my eye, it seems to be nothing more than a synonym for "scientist". The only criteria by which he judges someone to be a Darwinist is her adherence to the scientific method, something which predates Darwin himself by a good number of years (try hundreds if not thousands).

This is why I object to the term "Darwinism". Because that's not what it's describing. The word seems to describe a dogma whereby one man's word is taken as unquestionable truth; this is not the case with Darwin, as often it is scientists (those Marr would not hesitate to describe as Darwinists) who are the first to point out the flaws in his theory. Indeed, he himself devoted much of his great work On the Origin of Species to detailing the holes and flaws in what he had produced, challenging if not pleading others to improve upon it. When you use the word "Darwinism" to describe the pursuit of the scientific method, which unavoidably questions Darwin, you are setting up a confusing, oxymoronic term.

So what is the conclusion of Marr's argument, answering the question he asks at the start, "In this year of his double anniversary, are we in danger of turning Charles Darwin if not into God, at least into the founder of a secular religion?"?

"Darwinism, as I take it, is a creed of observation, fact, a deep modesty about conclusions and lifelong readiness to be proved wrong.

I don't say it offers everything that religion can. But I do say that, in this respect, it is better.

However we celebrate the old man, we mustn't let his work crust into creed or harden to dogma."

So, basically, there is no danger of Darwinism (taken as he takes it, in that oxymoronic way) turning into a religion - as long as we don't let it turn into a religion.

Thank you, Andrew. That was a truly tautological useful piece of journalism.

Maybe I'm just bitter because when I heard the TV programme announced upon which this article is based, Darwin's Dangerous Idea, I was hoping beyond hope for some kind of adaptation of the Dan Dennett book of the same name, which I guarantee you is a worthier read.

Monday, 2 March 2009

Scepticism and Denial

During an interview on Point of Inquiry with Kendrick Frazier, the editor of The Skeptical Inquirer, I was interested to hear him address a point on what is often called "denialism". This is the phenomenon whereby someone who has grave doubts about a certain doctrine or set of facts is labelled a "denier", such as with holocaust denial, climate change denial, or vaccine denial. It is a point of annoyance for many freethinkers like myself that these deniers are given, by themselves and others, the epithet "sceptic" (so a climate change denier becomes a climate change sceptic and so forth).

Surely, though, that's what they are - to some degree at least. They are "sceptical" of the claims made by those who believe climate change is real, or that the holocaust did happen, in so much as they doubt the claims. It is, as is so often the case, a matter of definition. In common parlance, there is nothing wrong with calling these people sceptics - it is much more usually seen as a position of doubt than as an attitude toward inquiry and evidence. But when the context of the conversation changes, and scepticism takes on its newer meaning with which readers of this blog will be familiar, it is no longer appropriate to refer to them in those terms.

The new meaning of sceptic, which has its origin in the U.S. with figures such as Carl Sagan and James Randi, is associated not with denial or promotion of particular doctrines, but rather an outlook. This outlook is one of free-thought, rational discourse and unbiased inquiry, and it is therefore a mistake to associate it primarily with doubt alone. Under this definition, those who oppose the ideas of climate change and the holocaust, for instance, should by no means be named as sceptics. Their minds are not open to the evidence, and their position is not flexible, as that of any good sceptic (under this definition) should be.

What they do is far more accurately described as "denial" than "scepticism", so I agree with Kendrick Frazier that they should be referred to in this way. It is all part and parcel of the process to stake a claim on the word "sceptic", and turn it into something far more positive than the curmudgeonly, narrow-minded, blind denial with which it is still too often associated in everyday contexts. Will this endeavour ever bear fruit, and is it worth it? Those are questions for another day. For now, it is enough to remember, whenever you hear someone referred to as a "sceptic" with respect to a particular issue, to ask whether the word "denier" would be a more accurate description.