Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Egypt accuses IHEU of inciting hatred

An Egyptian delegate to the Human Rights Council has accused IHEU of inciting and promoting hatred. “Every statement [by this organization] is incitement to hatred. Every statement is promoting hatred” he said. The accusation was made during a point of order by Egypt’s Amr Roshdy Hassan, who objected to the statement being made by IHEU representative Roy Brown on the subject of Islamophobia.


Sunday, September 28, 2008

Stephen Law Book Club: The God Delusion, chpt 1.

Stephen Law discusses The God Delusion (one chapter each week)

Chapter One: A deeply religious non-believer

I won’t recount the contents of each chapter, as I am assuming you will have read them. Instead I will pull out a few points I think of particular interest. Much of this first chapter is devoted to explaining that while scientists will sometimes talk about God – e.g. Einstein and Hawking both do – they use the word in an unusual way. Einstein, as Dawkins clearly, shows, did not believe in any sort of personal God or creator/designer God, and was perhaps something of a Spinozistic pantheist.

Dawkins next turns his attention to the special reverence and privilege that he believes attaches, quite undeservedly, to religious belief.


Saturday, September 27, 2008

Is reason a religion?

Stephen Law here says...

Is reason a religion?

Stephen Law ( Aug 25, 2008 08:37:00 GMT

What is a religion? I think it must involve worship, right? Well, I don't worship reason. It's just that reason and observation are the only tools we have for getting at what's true. So I use them. So do you, of course, constantly.

Think of your head as a basket towards which many beliefs are tumbling. There are all sorts of nutty beliefs out there that you might adopt - from the the thought that the Antarctic is populated by crab people to the belief that the Earth's core is made of cheese. These beliefs will quickly fill up your head if you don't filter them.

We apply reason as a filter, to try to keep as many of the false ones out as possible. Of course reason is not 100% reliable. But it is (and this is a key point) truth-sensitive. Subject beliefs to rational critical scrutiny and you are much less likely to end up with a head full of nonsense. Those who don't apply this filter will quickly end up with a head full of false beliefs.

Now the thing about many religions is, they encourage you to turn the filter off. They know their religious beliefs are unlikely to get through, so they try to inject them early, while you are a kid and your critical defences aren't properly built up, or they tell you, later, that reason has its limitations and that you should therefore, in the case of this particular religion, turn it off.

Well, reason does have it's limitations, I think. I don't suppose it can necessarily answer every question. But it's the best tool we have if we want to dig out the truth.

Very many cults - from the great religions to wacky New Age movements, suggest, in one way or another, that you turn your filter off and just accept that THEY KNOW - they have access to THE TRUTH.

But should you? Should you just go with what they, or their book, tells you - setting to one side the issue of reasonableness?

No matter how well-meaning and sincere they are (and many are, of course), the answer, if you want to believe what's true, has surely got to be "no".

You rightly use reason every day of your life. Indeed, you constantly trust your life to it.

That doesn't make reason your, or my, religion. Reason is not a religion - it's just an indispensible tool if you want to believe what's true. In the same way that my legs are an indispensible tool for getting around, which I rely on constantly. The fact that I do rely on them doesn't mean I worship my legs, or that they are my religion.

Any belief system that insists that, while you may use reason in every other area of your life, you should turn it off when it comes to these beliefs, should, I'd suggest, be approached with great caution. For this is one of the hallmarks of an intellectual black hole.

Many religions, cults, etc. are designed - or, more accurately, have evolved - to be intellectual black holes. They encourage self-sealing patterns of thought which effectively lock you inside. Get sucked in, and it's almost impossible to think your way out again.

Suppose you have fallen into such a black hole. To outsiders, you look like just one more credulous victim - but of course, to you on the inside, everyone outside seems profoundly ignorant of THE TRUTH to which you now have special access! Indeed, to you as an insider, it seems that you are the one that is now free, and the outsiders are the ones that are trapped!

I am sure that, when you look at New Age cults, etc. you recognise that this is, indeed, how they operate. Is it possible that Christianity is much the same sort of black hole, only a particularly powerful, and of course rather more longstanding, one?

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Humanists take legal action on GCSE exclusion

source: BHA

The British Humanist Association has issued legal proceedings against the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) over their decision not to allow the study of Humanism in a Religious Studies GCSE in the same way as religions are studied.

The exam board OCR had included Humanism alongside religions in its proposed GCSE in Religious Studies, announced in April 2008, but a decision by the QCA has meant that it could not be included.

Andrew Copson, BHA Director of Education expressed the BHA’s frustration at this decision: 'The stance of QCA will be a great disappointment to the many teachers, parents and pupils who were as pleased as we were when OCR included the option of Humanism in their GCSE. The study of Humanism alongside religions as an example of a non-religious worldview is recommended by the Government and QCA's own National Framework for RE. Its inclusion contributes to making the study of RE more meaningful for the vast majority of young people who are not religious, and also introduces invaluable perspectives on the big questions of life from which all pupils benefit.’

Humanism has been included in RE to a greater or lesser extent for over thirty years and Humanists warmly welcomed the 2004 National Framework for Religious Education, produced by QCA and by the then Department for Education and Skills (DfES), which recommended that all pupils study Humanism as an example of a ‘secular philosophy’ or ‘secular world view’, as well as guidance on RE in the new secondary National Curriculum in 2007 that included Humanism.

The progress that this represents now seems threatened, as GCSE criteria are only revised every five years. The BHA hopes that, by going to court now, they may be able to overturn the exclusion of Humanism before then.

Mr Copson emphasised that the BHA had tried very hard to persuade the QCA that their decision was wrong but that lobbying efforts had not led to any change in the QCA;s view. He continued, ‘We have now issued legal proceedings against the QCA's decision, as we believe that it is unlawful - contrary to their own subject criteria and to human rights law. It threatens to turn back the progress of recent decades towards a more inclusive, educationally valid and objective subject of RE and is a real kick in the teeth for all who have worked for that progress.'

Richard Stein of solicitors Leigh Day and Co, who has been instructed by the BHA in their action against the QCA emphasised how the case was about equal treatment, saying ’We hope that this case will ensure that the discriminatory – and shocking – decision taken by the QCA, which refuses to recognise the equality of religions alongside other beliefs, is overturned without delay.’

Prominent British humanists have added their support to the BHA’s initiative, such as popular author and professor of philosophy A C Grayling who said, 'The Humanist tradition is a rich and important subject of study and children deserve the opportunity to engage with it as part of their schooling. If schools are teaching about religious views they must also teach about humanist ones, and all moves towards a more widespread acceptance of this should be welcomed, not opposed.'

Writer, broadcaster, agony aunt and BHA Vice President Clare Rayner said, ‘Children must be given the opportunity to learn about Humanism as a belief system as well as about religions as belief systems. Although Humanists have made great progress in the last few years to improve Religious Education in this way, there is still a lot of prejudice against our full inclusion and is sad to see it surfacing here again. The humanist view of things is positive and offers much to a properly rounded education about modern beliefs and values.'

Popular children’s author Philip Pullman said, ‘I’m saddened but not surprised to see that Humanism has been excluded from the syllabus of GCSE Religious Studies. Saddened, because it means that children are now less likely to encounter a way of thinking about the great questions of life that doesn’t depend on the supernatural; but not surprised, because the public knee still makes an automatic genuflection towards “faith” however it manifests itself. What next? A Section 28-style law that actually forbids teachers to discuss Humanism? Don’t bet against it.’

Monday, September 08, 2008

Opening minds

Source: Bob, BHA Science.

When Richard Dawkins retires from his Chair of Public Understanding of Science at Oxford, I'd vote for Dr Sue Blackmore to be his successor. This article is almost perfectly succinct and drives the message home: that the Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection should be understood by everyone.

Opening minds

Those who teach our children science have a duty to reveal the workings of nature – even if it means challenging their faith

Should science teachers in Britain challenge their students' religious beliefs? Is it their right? Is it even their duty?

I say yes. This is (amongst much else) what education is for; to teach children how to think for themselves. And thinking for yourself is challenging, especially if your previous beliefs were based on dogma and ancient books.

In his recent TV series, The Genius of Charles Darwin, Richard Dawkins visited a London secondary school, took a mixed bunch of kids out fossil hunting on the beach, and then came back to the school to talk to them and their teachers.

Some of what he discovered in his travels was truly shocking – like the science teacher who honestly believes that the world was created by God a few thousand years ago because the Bible tells him so. Some was less surprising, like the children who believe that humans are made in the image of God because their parents taught them so. Dawkins' response was to exhort people not to give undeserved respect to religious prejudices and to present lots of scientific evidence.

But many religious believers are simply not interested in evidence. I have now got used to debating with Muslims and Christians, but at my first meeting of the University of the West of England Islamic Society I simply couldn't believe that wonderful, detailed, scientific evidence was of no interest to them whatever.
If something is in the Koran, they said, then no evidence changes anything.

What about understanding theories though? In my experience it is understanding, not evidence, that opens minds. If someone really understands how natural selection works then … gulp, jaw drop, stare, think … suddenly the world looks different. All previous ideas are thrown up in the air.

I guess this happened to me when I first read The Selfish Gene. I have seen it happen to many, many others in my lectures and classes.

It may seem odd to say so, but most people do not understand natural selection. Perhaps they never learnt about it at school, or perhaps they did understand it once but then forgot. I have explained it to intelligent students who assumed that they already understood it but when asked to explain it they could not.

Darwin's great idea is so simple, and yet so slippery. So in case you are one of those, here it is in a nutshell – plants and animals produce far more (slightly varying) offspring than can possibly survive. Starvation, disease, predation, and unattractiveness mean that only a few go on to breed again. At each step the survivors pass on whatever adaptations helped them and so gradually they become better designed. You could call it "design by death". Like a human creating a sculpture by chipping away wood, nature's weeding-out is the force that creates new design.

Once you get it that's that! How can you go on believing that God created humans in his own image when you can see, because you really understand the principle, that nature's cruel and wasteful selective process can create all that design without him?

Well, I guess it's possible, but it's not as easy as burying your head in the sand over evidence. For example, some people claim that God put fossils there to deceive us, that scientists are wrong about carbon dating, and that evolution is "just a theory". None of this works if you really understand natural selection – you can still believe in God if you like but you can no longer claim that he is necessary to explain our existence.

This is why I think Dawkins should have emphasised understanding at least as much as evidence, and why I think teachers have a duty to do the same.

I don't mean that science teachers should belittle religious beliefs, or scoff at them, or even tell students they are wrong. They need not even mention religion or creationism. What they must do is explain so clearly how natural selection works that those students, like one or two in Dawkins' series, begin to feel the terrifying impact of what Darwin saw. This realisation will change them. It will challenge what mummy and daddy told them, it will cry out against what they heard in chapel or synagogue or mosque. It will help immeasurably in their ponderings on human nature, the origins of life and the meaning of existence. This is growing up. This is learning. This is the process that skilful science teachers need to initiate, encourage, and help sensitively to guide.

They should never shy away from challenging their students' religious beliefs and opening their minds, because understanding the world through science inevitably does just that.