Saturday, November 29, 2008

Let's stick to the science

In his attack on my research into children and religious ideas, AC Grayling plays the psychologist and spins conspiracy theories

Last week at Cambridge University's Faraday Institute, I summarised some scientific research that leads me and many of my colleagues to argue that from childhood humans have a number of predispositions that incline them to believe in gods generally and perhaps a super-knowing, creator god in particular. Unlike Andrew Brown, AC Grayling has opted to ignore the science and focus on the alleged motivations of the scientist (me) and one of his sources of funding (the John Templeton Foundation). As a philosopher, Grayling should know that attacking an argument not on its merits but by discrediting the arguer commits the ad hominem fallacy which is generally the strategy of school kids and desperate, uninformed people.


Do children believe because they're told to by adults?

The research is funded by the Templeton Foundation, an organisation keen to find, or to insert, religion into science and to promote belief in their compatibility – which, note, comes down to spending money on "showing" in the end that the beliefs of ancient goatherds are as good as modern physics.

Justin Barrett, a Christian and member of the centre's research team (whether it is research or propaganda is the moot question here) says with his colleagues on the centre's website:

Why is belief in supernatural beings so common? Because of the design of human minds. Human minds, under normal developmental conditions, have a strong receptivity to belief in gods, in the afterlife, in moral absolutes, and in other ideas commonly associated with 'religion' … In a real sense, religiousness is the natural state of affairs. Unbelief is relatively unusual and unnatural.

This claim was the subject of Barrett's lecture at Cambridge, in which he exhibited his reasons for thinking that children are innately disposed to believe in intelligent design/creationism and a supreme being. His real reasons for thinking this, of course, are that he is a man of faith funded by a faith-based organisation; but the reasons he professed were that children have an innate tendency when small to interpret what happens in the world to be the outcome of purposive agency.

(source: AC Grayling in The Guardian and reposted in HASSERS)

Out of the mouths of babes

Do children believe because they're told to by adults? The evidence suggests otherwise.

Why do the majority of people – across cultures and throughout history – believe in gods?

One way to address this question is to look at why it is that children acquire beliefs in gods. If an idea cannot be easily learned by children then it is relatively unlikely to survive into the next generation and will die out. So if we can explain why children are so ready to believe in gods, we will be a big step closer in understanding religious beliefs more generally. It may seem that the answer is simple: indoctrination.

Children believe because their parents or other adults teach them, right? Unfortunately, the story is not that simple.
Fortunately, it is far more interesting.

Children will believe a lot of what their parents teach them, but not everything. Try to convince a child that a tarantula is harmless, that broccoli is a better food for them than crisps, or that Paul McCartney is a better musician than Miley Cyrus and you'll likely get nowhere. Likewise, teachers have difficulty teaching many scientific insights such as evolution by natural selection or that solid objects such as tables are composed almost entirely of space.

Children learn things that their minds are tuned to learn more readily than things that go against that natural tuning.

Developmental psychologists have provided evidence that children are naturally tuned to believe in gods of one sort or another.

• Children tend to see natural objects as designed or purposeful in ways that go beyond what their parents teach, as Deborah Kelemen has demonstrated. Rivers exist so that we can go fishing on them, and birds are here to look pretty.

• Children doubt that impersonal processes can create order or purpose. Studies with children show that they expect that someone not something is behind natural order. No wonder that Margaret Evans found that children younger than 10 favoured creationist accounts of the origins of animals over evolutionary accounts even when their parents and teachers endorsed evolution. Authorities' testimony didn't carry enough weight to over-ride a natural tendency.

• Children know humans are not behind the order so the idea of a creating god (or gods) makes sense to them. Children just need adults to specify which one.

• Experimental evidence, including cross-cultural studies, suggests that three-year-olds attribute super, god-like qualities to lots of different beings. Super-power, super-knowledge and super-perception seem to be default assumptions. Children then have to learn that mother is fallible, and dad is not all powerful, and that people will die. So children may be particularly receptive to the idea of a super creator-god. It fits their predilections.

• Recent research by Paul Bloom, Jesse Bering, and Emma Cohen suggests that children may also be predisposed to believe in a soul that persists beyond death.

That belief comes so naturally to children may sound like an attack on religious belief (belief in gods is just leftover childishness) or a promotion of religious belief (God has implanted a seed for belief in children). What both sides should agree upon is the scientific evidence: certainly cultural inputs help fill in the details but children's minds are not a level playing field. They are tilted in the direction of belief.

Justin L Barrett will discuss his research today at the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion seminar, "Born Believers: the Naturalness of Childhood Theism" at St Edmund's College, University of Cambridge

Beyond Belief: Candles in the Dark - Peter Atkins

Peter Atkins 25 minute talk.
Pride in Prejudice
October 5, 2008

My Notes
Candle - one end gives out light - the other end darkness. Prejudice is represented by the candle.

Rotten bad prejudice - spreads darkness - eg religion presumes any explanation will necessarily be beyond our comprehension - despises human understanding

Good prejudice - good light - scientific method is the only road to true comprehension (4'0"), flexible not rigid prejudice, we discard our prejudice when the publically available evidence is overwelming (unlike religion); experiment is the only true way of understanding and the rest is imagination (Max Planck). Science does not consist of little warring tribes - but is a great river

New models or paradigms are an approximation. Science works, many springs are supportive not at each others throats, detached from sentiment, open to public scrutiny, verifiable predictions.

bad/good prejudices - Aristotle (world is explicable - observations - rest is natural state of motion - thought) , Galileo, Newton, Copernicas.

Atkins Foundational Prejudices - science is a uniquely reliable way of illuminating the world and discovering its prejudices (11'58")

Atkins Operational Prejudices - scientific method can illuminate every real question and incidently can reveal the emptiness of vacuuous questions and musings of theology (purpose of universe / nature of afterlife).

Three Eternal True Paradigmatic prejudices (book: Galileos Finger)
1) Energy is conserved - conservation of energy underlies causality
2) Energy degrades - 2nd law of thermodynamics - things get worse! Can tap into degradation eg sun collected on earth by photosynthesis or metabolism in body giving amino acids or organs. Evolution by Natural Selection is a manner of degrading energy
3) Mathematics works - supreme language of the illuciadation and description of the world

Good Prejudices
1) No validity in question that begins in 'Why' (eg why was the universe created, why evil in the world, why are plants green): can it be deconstructed into 'How' questions (how is it that the world exists, . If it cannot be deconstructed it is not a real question and not worthy of further consideration
2) Reductionism is really assembalism
3) the world is nothing more than Mathematics

The Science Studio - AC Grayling -The Good Life

a one hour conversation with philosopher Anthony Grayling October 3, 2008
Pdf Download Transcript

On Darwin
GRAYLING: Well of course, I’m a great admirer of Darwin. And I think his life and work is not just important from the point of view of the contribution that he made to the biological sciences, you know, a transforming, revolutionary contribution really, but also his life and work is in itself iconic in a certain way. Because if you think about his own personal progression from a kind of unreflective, nominal faith, the possibility of going into the church, and then his own realization as he traveled and studied and looked at evidence. Contrast, for example, Darwin’s journey, intellectual journey, from a reflex unquestioning Anglican to an agnostic or an atheist, to somebody like Edmund Gosse who, presented with the same sort of evidence, struggled like mad to hang onto his religious faith and to reinterpret everything in the light of it. Between the two of them they are, as it were, the opposite poles of something that happens when science really does come into conflict with the ancient stories, the ancient creation myths and the rest.

And so there is something very courageous and poignant about Darwin’s life, because for a very, very long time he kept quiet, realizing the implications of what he was going to say. Very early on, early in the 1840s, he wrote, “I feel as if I have killed God.” In a sense, of course, he had. And heaven knows what might have happened if, you know, Russel Wallace hadn’t come along and chivvied him up a little bit and got him to publish eventually. Perhaps it would have all been posthumous.

On Science v Religion
You know I sometimes think that one of the impulses, and there are many, to accepting a religious view of the world is that it provides a narrative and closure and it’s very neat, it’s got a beginning and an end, and it’s got some solace attached to the story about the end. Whereas science gives us something very open-ended and inconclusive, that you have to live with, not knowing what the answers are yet, but being prepared to seek them, to carry on looking for them, and to struggling with the new and sometimes more difficult questions that arise when you do come up with some solutions.

And so it is with personal life, thinking about how you’re going to accept the inevitability of loss or grief. So for example, the minute that you enter into a relationship with another person, especially if you love that other person, one or other of you thereby contracts for loss. You know, if you marry somebody, one of you is going to die before the other one does. Loving somebody is buying into a certainty that there’s going to be hurt involved in it at some point. But to recognize that that is, in fact, part of the value of what you’ve done, and to accept that it’s in this life now, in the span of that relationship, that all the best that you can make out of it must be made. Now that seems to me to be deep and courageous, that view of life. Whereas, sticking with a sort of reflex view of, oh it doesn’t matter because you’ll meet up again later, or you know, everything’s going to come right in the end, is, it’s a kind of shallow, inexpensive view of life, if you like.

On Bertrand Russell
BINGHAM: who influenced you the most in your thinking?
GRAYLING: Well it’s hard to say that. I think, in my sort of more technical work, I suppose Kant and Aristotle and people like that have been big influences. But somebody I regard as having been quite an exemplary philosopher, both in the technical sense and in the more public sense, would be somebody like Bertrand Russell. Now there was a man who, whatever else you think about him, at least spoke his mind, and I think made quite serious and important contributions to social changes. That book of his, for which he won the Nobel Prize, published in the early ‘30s, Marriage and Morals, was a book which, if you were to trace its influence on thinking in the post-war period, probably a very significant one. So you know, the social and moral revolution of the ‘50s and ‘60s may have something to do with what Russell had to say. If true, that shows you that philosophy does bake bread.

On Proselytising to children (@ 40 minutes)
BINGHAM : Are there any discoveries that you’d like to have made? Anything you’re…? GRAYLING: Well I wouldn’t have minded coming up with the general theory of relativity, for example, that would have been fun. But I think, what I would like now is, above all else, to discover a way of persuading everybody to leave kids alone, I mean small children alone, from the point of view of them with religious beliefs. If you’d only just leave children to get on with a standard course of education, perhaps learn about all the, you know, the mythologies and religions of the past, without being persuaded by parents or schools or society into one or another religious commitment, before they’re in a position to evaluate it properly, then I’m sure the influence of religion in society would be considerably less.

On Creationism in Science Lessons
BINGHAM: It is interesting that, I mean, literally in the last four days, five days after the meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, Michael Reiss, who is Director of Education at the Royal Society, which is Britain’s major academy of science, I suppose, founded in 1660, had to resign because he gave a talk entitled “Should creationism be a part of the school curriculum?” And I believe, I think he makes that case, does he not, I mean, he is indeed a cleric, isn’t he. Could you speak to this a little bit, because this is an interesting story?
GRAYLING: He’s Professor of Science Education at the Institute of Education at the University of London and he’s a Fellow of the Royal Society, and was their Director of Education Policy. Now it happens that he’s been; it was I think a mistake, on his part, and a misrepresentation, on the press’s part, which is the usual way that these things get out of hand. He said that he thought that when school pupils brought up the question of intelligent design or creationism in science classes, that science teachers should talk to them about it, should be prepared to respond and explain why the idea of creationist thing didn’t, doesn’t wash, and what the scientific view is. But the line that he was taking was that they should be treated with respect, these views, and they should be responded to. So you might think that that was a reasonable thing to say. But the Royal Society itself has always had, as a policy, since the issue really blew up, that I.D. and creationism have no place in the science curriculum at all, and that responsible science teaching should teach science and not, you know, all these different stories. And other people have commented, as I have myself done, that of course schoolchildren should be taught about the religions and the mythological traditions and the legends, on a comparative basis, as part of history or social studies or something. And that if these questions were to arise in a science class, that science teachers should say, the proper place for this discussion is in your history lesson or your social science lesson, although they could take the opportunity perhaps to talk a bit about why scientific method is the more appropriate thing to be applying to those sorts of questions. Seems to me that the, that Reiss’ resignation was the right thing, it was the right thing for the Royal Society to say, I’m afraid you’re going to have to quit this. Not because it’s strictly fair to Reiss, but because it reinforces the point that the Royal Society came to make, mainly that science is one thing, and that all the different sorts of creationist stories and legends, of which of course there are dozens and dozens, are more properly dealt with elsewhere.

On why Science matters
BINGHAM: What do you think we should do, what should be happening vis-à-vis science now, in terms of getting it before the public? Proposals?
GRAYLING: Well I think everybody in science who has the ability and the interest ought to be trying to communicate with a much wider audience about what they do, why they do it and why it matters. And that people who care about science, even if they’re not in science themselves, should support that and should try to make people conscious of the fact that there are a number of different sciences, that many of them are of great and immediate interest and importance to progressive flourishing of society and to individuals. Because the case is easily made in connection with biomedical sciences but, you know, even in pure research in physics and in chemistry, we never know what new ideas might come forward and new things be discovered, and that tends to happen all the time. So make the point that science is important, that investment, even in blue sky science, really matters, that as an intelligent, mature society, we should always be pushing the limits of research, always be prepared to put our hands in our pockets for the big things like the north-south hemisphere investigations of the sky, you know, because there’s been controversy about the funding of that just recently, the CERN project. You know, there are all these big endeavors, and all the really important projects involved with science education and public understanding of science and keeping science alive in schools, that all those things tremendously matter. Why they matter--say something about the history, because the history of science is very exciting--and the preparedness of governments and societies as a whole, really to fund this properly and make it work and put their shoulders to the wheel. That, I think, is what we need to be saying now, because so long as the caricature view prevails, and as long as there’s this, you know, polarized debate between religion, as if that were one thing, and science, as if that were one thing, goes on, what we’re going to get in the end is a very evacuated, a very tenuous understanding of both sides of the argument.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Children of God? Religion is not hardwired


There's no real evidence to suggest that religion is hardwired – it's just wishful thinking on the part of religious academics

Earlier this week I had occasion to debate – if the soundbite culture of radio news permits that description – with a member of Oxford University's Centre for Anthropology and Mind the "findings" of its cognition, religion and theology project, to the effect that children are hardwired to believe in a "supreme being". The research is funded by the Templeton Foundation, an organisation keen to find, or to insert, religion into science and to promote belief in their compatibility – which, note, comes down to spending money on "showing" in the end that the beliefs of ancient goatherds are as good as modern physics.

Justin Barrett, a Christian and member of the centre's research team (whether it is research or propaganda is the moot question here) says with his colleagues on the centre's website:

Why is belief in supernatural beings so common? Because of the design of human minds. Human minds, under normal developmental conditions, have a strong receptivity to belief in gods, in the afterlife, in moral absolutes, and in other ideas commonly associated with 'religion' … In a real sense, religiousness is the natural state of affairs. Unbelief is relatively unusual and unnatural.

This claim was the subject of Barrett's lecture at Cambridge, in which he exhibited his reasons for thinking that children are innately disposed to believe in intelligent design/creationism and a supreme being. His real reasons for thinking this, of course, are that he is a man of faith funded by a faith-based organisation; but the reasons he professed were that children have an innate tendency when small to interpret what happens in the world to be the outcome of purposive agency.

Now on this point he and I, an atheist funded by no organisation keen on promoting atheism, agree. Children's earliest experiences are of purposive agency in the adults and other people around them – these being the entities of most interest to them in their first months – and for good evolutionary reasons they are extremely credulous, not only believing that things must be acting as their parents do in being self-moving and intentional, but also believing in tooth fairies, Father Christmas, and a host of other things beside, almost all of which they give up believing before puberty, unless the beliefs are socially reinforced – as with religious and, to a lesser extent, certain other superstitious beliefs. Intellectual maturation is the process in important part of weaning oneself from the assumption that trees and shadows behave as they do for the same reason that one's parents, other humans, and dogs and cats do; it is every bit as natural a fact about children that they cease to apply intentionalistic explanations to everything as that they give them to everything, on the model of their parents' behaviour, in the earliest phases of development.

But Barrett and friends infer from the first half of these unexceptionable facts that children are hardwired to believe in a supreme being. Not only does this ignore the evidence from developmental psychology about the second stage of cognitive maturation, but is in itself a very big – and obviously hopeful – jump indeed. Moreover it ignores the fact that large tracts of humankind (the Chinese for a numerous example) have no beliefs in a supreme being, innate or learned, and that most primitive religion is animistic, a simple extension of the agency-imputing explanation which gives each tree its dryad and each stream its nymph, no supreme beings required.

Barrett and friends say that children are hardwired to believe that nature is designed. This Barrett infers, apparently, from asking small children such questions as "why is this stone pointed?" It does not seem to have occurred to him that the semantics of "why" questions are such that they demand an explanation in terms of reasons or causes in response – the language game is constrained to that pattern: "why is/did?" prompts an automatic "because" – and that even small children know that "just because it is" does not count as satisfactory. So of course, from the limited resources they have in which reasons are vastly more familiar than causes (the causes that natural science later most fully discerns by investigation), they come up with what they know the questioner wishes to hear – an explanation – but in the absence of knowing very much about causes, they give it in intentionalistic terms. A small child might know why something might be made sharp, and for what sort of purpose, but not as readily how it might become so, especially if it is a natural object. All that this shows, therefore, is that the question was ineptly framed, not that the Templeton Foundation has proved that religious belief is innate.

"Religious belief" and early childhood interpretations of how the world work are so far removed from one another that only a preconceived desire to interpret the latter in terms of "intelligent design" and "a supreme being" – the very terms are a giveaway – is obviously tendentious, and this is what is going on here. It would merely be poor stuff if that was all there is to it; but there is more. The Templeton Foundation is rich; it offers a very large money prize to any scientist or philosopher who will say things friendly to religion, and it supports "research" as described above into anything that will add credibility and respectability to religion. Its website portrays its aims as serious and objective, but in truth it is just another example of how well-funded and well-organised some religious lobbies are – a common phenomenon in the United States in particular, and now infecting the body politic here.

But the Templeton Foundation would do better to be frank about its propagandistic intentions, for while it tries to dress itself in the lineaments of objectivity it will always face the accusation of tainting the pool, as with the work of this Oxford University institute.

Indeed I question the advisability of Oxford taking funds from the Templeton Foundation for this kind of work. I wonder whether it has undertaken due diligence on this one. I hope it would not take money supporting research for astrology, Tarot divination, proof that the Olympian deities still exist, and the like. The general claims of religion differ not one jot in intellectual respects – or respectability – from these. Perhaps it should think again.

Center for Inquiry, UK

via Stephen Law:

T Shirts etc also available now.

There are probably lots of atheists out there

reposted from:

There are probably lots of atheists out there

Nov 23, 2008

Atheist symbolSince the Atheist Bus Campaign has made the headlines around the world, Christian organisations have been responding to its “There probably is no god” message. The Rev. Evan Cockshaw of the Evangelism and Outreach Team of Lichfield Diocese set up a new website, There Probably is a God, inviting believers to contribute their “stories of normal everyday people who aren't stupid, and haven't been brainwashed, but will talk honestly and openly about their experiences of the true and living God!”

Among others, P Z Myers, the biologist and associate professor at the University of Minnesota, whose popular Pharyngula science blog frequently mocks religious nonsense of one sort or another, prompted hoots of derision by pointing out the silliness of these stories. It isn’t difficult. For example, the “evidence” includes such gems as “I believe in God because god is real, god makes a difference, god changes lives,” and “I believe in God because ... He's answered my prayers to the specifics countless number of times. I talked with Him this morning! God is an incredible promise keeper. He has kept all His promises to me.” (I wonder what they were?)

The Reverend’s site is a response to the Atheist Bus Campaign. Now there’s a response to his site – a parody called There Probably isn’t a God where atheists are invited to submit their reasons for not believing – “stories of normal everyday people who aren't stupid, and haven't been brainwashed into believing in supernatural beings.” Like the bus campaign website, it’s quickly attracted lots of contributions. Why not add yours?

Thursday, November 27, 2008

George Carlin - Religion is bullshit.

George Carlin - Religion is bullshit via

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Barack Obama on Religion and Politics (Call to Renewal speech, June 2006)

Reconciling Faith and Politics

“(Obama's speech on faith) may be the most important pronouncement by a Democrat on faith and politics since John F. Kennedy's Houston speech in 1960 declaring his independence from the Vatican...Obama offers the first faith testimony I have heard from any politician that speaks honestly about the uncertainties of belief.”

— E.J. Dionne, Op-Ed., Washington Post, June 30, 2006

I already blogged Obama speech here:
. The transcript of the full "Call to Renewal" June 2006 speech is here.

Here is the IHEU repost of his speech

Given the great debate that has raged for decades in the United States regarding the role of religion in politics it was good to see a presidential candidate giving support for secularism. The edited speech can be seen at:

Given the increasing diversity of America’s population, the dangers of sectarianism are greater than ever. Whatever we once were, we are no longer a Christian nation, at least, not just.
We are also a Jewish nation, a Muslim nation, a Buddhist nation, a Hindu nation and a nation of non-believers.
And even if we did have only Christians in our midst, if we expelled every non- Christian from the United States of America, whose Christianity would we teach in the schools? Would it be James Dobson’s or Al Sharpton’s? Which passages of scripture should guide our public policy? Should we go with Leviticus, which suggests slavery is okay, that eating shell-fish is an abomination? Or should we go with Deuteronomy, which suggests stoning your child if he strays from the faith? Or should we just stick to the Sermon on the Mount, a passage that is so radical that it is doubtful our own Defense Department would survive its application? Before we get carried away, let’s read our Bibles now.

Which brings me to my second point. Democracy demands that the religiously-motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values. What do I mean by this? It requires that proposals be subject to argument and amenable to reason. I may be opposed to abortion for religious reasons, to take one example,
but if I seek to pass a law banning the practice I can’t simply point to the teachings of my Church, or invoke God’s will.
I have to explain why abortion violates some principle that is accessible to people of all faiths, including those of no faith at all. Now this is going to be difficult to some who believe in the inerrancy of the Bible, as many evangelicals do, but in a pluralistic society we have no choice. Politics depends on our ability to persuade each other of common aims based on a common reality. It involves compromise, the art of what’s possible, and at some fundamental level religion doesn’t allow for compromise. It is the art of the impossible. If God spoke then followers are expected to live up to God’s edicts regardless of the consequences. Now to base one’s own life on such uncompromising commitments may be sublime, but to base our policy making on such commitments would be a dangerous thing. And if you doubt that, let me give you an example. We all know the story of Abraham and Isaac. Abraham was ordered by God to offer up his only son. Without argument, he takes Isaac up to the mountain top, he binds Isaac to the altar, raises his knife, prepares to act as God commanded. Now we know the thing worked out. God sends down an angel to intercede at the very last minute. Abraham passes God’s test of devotion, but it’s fair to say that if any of us leaving the Church saw Abraham up on the roof of the building raising his knife, we would, at the very least, call the police and expect the department of children and family services to take Isaac away from Abraham. We would do so because we don’t hear what Abraham hears. We don’t see what Abraham sees. And so the best we can do is act in accordance with those things that we all see, and that we all hear, be it common laws or basic reason. So we have some work to do here. I am hopeful that we can bridge the gap that exists, to overcome the prejudices that all of us bring to this debate. And I have faith that millions of believing Americans want that to happen. No matter how religious they may be, or may not be, people are tired of seeing faith used as a tool of attack. They don’t want faith used to belittle or to divide because that’s not how they think about faith in their own lives.

Barack Obama – A Humanist President?

I don't think Obama is a Humanist - but he is a Secularist & Rationalist (of sorts) - crabsallover

by Sangeeta Mall, Editor in IHEU News

Is Obama a Humanist? Certainly he is religious, a church going Christian who was willing to stick his neck out for his pastor. But so far he hasn’t allowed his religion to come in the way of his politics. And, as his speech on religion and politics reproduced on page _ shows, he has consistently made allowance for both diversity and belief in secular laws.

He is a rationalist who has never worn his religion on his sleeve, or tried to thrust it down the throat of the unwilling.

It is this tolerance for the other that Humanism celebrates and welcomes.

The world today is haunted by intolerance and division. The West has to own up to its share of culpability in this state of affairs. It is no less guilty than the Islamic world in encouraging the politics of identity on a global scale. The Church has managed to woo most political leaders into believing that the world is essentially divided, and the only way to make “our” world more secure is by encouraging this divisiveness. Perhaps Mr. Obama will take the lead in proving that the Church, as much as the mullahs, is wrong in this as well. The United States might just, for a change, lead the world from the front in uniting humanity. Someday other nations too might think of treating all their citizens, irrespective of caste, race, sex or religion, as equals. Sceptics will declare that Barack Obama’s victory does not signify that America has overcome its traditional intolerance towards its largest minority group. Certainly that would be a miracle. But on the other hand, it has made that great leap of imagination of according leadership to a man who, traditionally, belongs to the ‘other’. How many of us can do that? And isn’t it high time we tried?

November 2008 IHN published

Nov 21, 2008

The November 2008 issue of International Humanist News has been published. This edition includes features on Barack Obama; Humanism and Islam; and Caste and Untouchability. We have:
available on this web site.

read more

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Why we believe in gods


I've not had time to listen to all of this video. Do you agree with the content of his talk?

Was a triple helix the precursor to RNA in the origin of life?

original article:

Peptide nucleic acid (gold) readily enters DNA's major groove to form triple-stranded and other structures with DNA, allowing it to modify the activity of genes in new ways.
Jean-Francois Podevin

Origin of Life?
A major goal of these efforts to create life de novo in the laboratory is to better understand how life may have started on earth. Considering the detailed microbiology of contemporary life-forms, it seems very clear that RNA is probably more primordial and central to life than DNA and proteins. This one molecule can carry both the genotype (the genetic sequence information) of an organism and the phenotype (catalytic functions). For this reason as well as other evidence, many scientists now accept the idea that our DNA/RNA/protein world was preceded by an RNA world [see “The Origin of Life on the Earth,” by Leslie E. Orgel; Scientific American, October 1994].

Yet it is very unclear how primitive prebiotic conditions could have produced RNA molecules, in particular the sugar ribose in the RNA backbone. Further, even if RNA molecules were produced, RNA’s very poor chemical stability hardly would have allowed the molecules to survive unprotected long enough to play a central role in the initial chemical evolution of life. Thus, a molecule like PNA appears very attractive as a candidate for a pre-RNA world: it is extremely stable and chemically simple, and it carries sequence information.

In 2000 Stanley L. Miller, famous for his seminal experiments more than 50 years ago showing that amino acids can form under conditions believed to simulate those on the primitive earth, identified precursors of PNA in similar experiments. Researchers have also shown that sequence information in a PNA oligomer can be transferred by “chemical copying” to another PNA oligomer or to an RNA molecule—processes needed for a PNA world and then a following transitional PNA/RNA world. Admittedly, it is a long leap from these scanty observations to building a strong case for a pre-RNA world based on PNA or some very similar molecule, and for the hypothesis to have any legs at all, scientists must uncover PNA molecules possessing catalytic activity.

Much remains to be learned about PNA 15 years after its discovery: Are catalytic PNA molecules possible? What is a good system for delivering therapeutic PNA into cells? Can a totally alien, PNA-based life-form be created in the lab? I am confident these questions and many others will be well answered over the next 15 years.

In addition to fomenting exciting medical research, these amazing molecules have inspired speculations relating to the origin of life on earth. Some scientists have suggested that PNAs or a very similar molecule may have formed the basis of an early kind of life at a time before proteins, DNA and RNA had evolved. Perhaps rather than creating novel life, artificial-life researchers will be re-creating our earliest ancestors.

Yet a genetic replication system is only one component of life, albeit a central one. The essence of life is a network of chemical reactions functioning in a state that is relatively stable yet not in equilibrium and that is open to both inputs and outputs [see “A Simpler Origin for Life,” by Robert Shapiro; Scientific American, June 2007]. A major challenge will therefore be to incorporate the self-replicating molecule in a larger system that carries out other catalytic activity and has a metabolic cycle and to integrate the system with a physical compartment such as a lipid vesicle, forming what some researchers call a “protocell.

Regenerating a Mammoth for $10 Million


Regenerating a Mammoth for $10 Million

by Nicholas Wade, NY Times

Thanks to SPS for the link.

Nicholas Wade is the author of Before the Dawn, an excellent book on human evolution that I'd recommend to everyone. - Josh

Reposted from:

An intact skeleton of a woolly mammoth that is on display at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh.

Scientists are talking for the first time about the old idea of resurrecting extinct species as if this staple of science fiction is a realistic possibility, saying that a living mammoth could perhaps be regenerated for as little as $10 million.
The same technology could be applied to any other extinct species from which one can obtain hair, horn, hooves, fur or feathers, and which went extinct within the last 60,000 years, the effective age limit for DNA.
Though the stuffed animals in natural history museums are not likely to burst into life again, these old collections are full of items that may contain ancient DNA that can be decoded by the new generation of DNA sequencing machines.
If the genome of an extinct species can be reconstructed, biologists can work out the exact DNA differences with the genome of its nearest living relative. There are talks on how to modify the DNA in an elephant’s egg so that after each round of changes it would progressively resemble the DNA in a mammoth egg. The final-stage egg could then be brought to term in an elephant mother, and mammoths might once again roam the Siberian steppes.
A woolly mammoth hair ball. Hairs like these were used to sequence the mammoth genome.
The same would be technically possible with Neanderthals, whose full genome is expected to be recovered shortly, but there would be several ethical issues in modifying modern human DNA to that of another human species.
A scientific team headed by Stephan C. Schuster and Webb Miller at Pennsylvania State University reports in Thursday’s issue of Nature that it has recovered a large fraction of the mammoth genome from clumps of mammoth hair. Mammoths, ice-age relatives of the elephant, were hunted by the modern humans who first learned to inhabit Siberia some 22,000 years ago. The mammoths fell extinct in both their Siberian and North American homelands toward the end of the last ice age, some 10,000 years ago.

Dr. Schuster and Dr. Miller said
there was no technical obstacle to decoding the full mammoth genome, which they believe could be achieved for a further $2 million. They have already been able to calculate that the mammoth’s genes differ at some 400,000 sites on its genome from that of the African elephant.
There is no present way to synthesize a genome-size chunk of mammoth DNA, let alone to develop it into a whole animal. But Dr. Schuster said a shortcut would be to modify the genome of an elephant’s cell at the 400,000 or more sites necessary to make it resemble a mammoth’s genome. The cell could be converted into an embryo and brought to term by an elephant, a project he estimated would cost some $10 million.
“This is something that could work, though it will be tedious and expensive,” he said.

There have been several Russian attempts to cultivate eggs from frozen mammoths that look so perfectly preserved in ice. But the perfection is deceiving since the DNA is always degraded and no viable cells remain. Even a genome-based approach would have been judged entirely impossible a few years ago and is far from reality even now.
Still, several technical barriers have fallen in surprising ways. One barrier was that ancient DNA is always shredded into tiny pieces, seemingly impossible to analyze. But a new generation of DNA decoding machines use tiny pieces as their starting point.
Dr. Schuster’s laboratory has two, known as 454 machines, each of which costs $500,000.

Another problem has been that ancient DNA in bone, the usual source, is heavily contaminated with bacterial DNA. Dr. Schuster has found that hair is a much purer source of the host’s DNA, with the keratin serving to seal it in and largely exclude bacteria.

A third issue is that the DNA of living cells can be modified only very laboriously and usually at one site at a time. Dr. Schuster said he had been in discussion with George Church, a well-known genome technologist at Harvard Medical School, about a new method Dr. Church has invented
for modifying some 50,000 genomic sites at a time.

The method has not yet been published, and until other scientists can assess it they are likely to view genome engineering on such a scale as being implausible.
Rudolph Jaenisch, a biologist at the Whitehead Institute in Cambridge, said the proposal to resurrect a mammoth was “a wishful-thinking experiment with no realistic chance for success.”

Dr. Church, however, said that there had recently been enormous technical improvements in decoding genomes and that he expected similar improvements in genome engineering. In his new method, some 50,000 corrective DNA sequences are injected into a cell at one time. In the laboratory, the cell would then be grown and tested and its descendants subjected to further rounds of DNA modification until judged close enough to that of the ancient species. In the case of resurrecting the mammoth, Dr. Church said, the process would begin by taking a skin cell from an elephant and converting it to the embryonic state with a method developed last year by Dr. Shinya Yamanaka for reprogramming cells.

Asked if the mammoth project might indeed happen, Dr. Church said that “there is some enthusiasm for it,” although making zoos better did not outrank fixing the energy crisis on his priority list.

Dr. Schuster believes that museums could prove gold mines of ancient DNA because any animal remains containing keratin, from hooves to feathers, could hold enough DNA for the full genome to be recovered by the new sequencing machines.

The full genome of the Neanderthal, an ancient human species probably driven to extinction by the first modern humans that entered Europe some 45,000 years ago, is expected to be recovered shortly. If the mammoth can be resurrected, the same would be technically possible for Neanderthals.

But the process of genetically engineering a human genome into the Neanderthal version would probably raise many objections, as would several other aspects of such a project. “Catholic teaching opposes all human cloning, and all production of human beings in the laboratory, so I do not see how any of this could be ethically acceptable in humans,” said Richard Doerflinger, an official with the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Dr. Church said there might be an alternative approach that would “alarm a minimal number of people.” The workaround would be to modify not a human genome but that of the chimpanzee, which is some 98 percent similar to that of people. The chimp’s genome would be progressively modified until close enough to that of Neanderthals, and the embryo brought to term in a chimpanzee.

We should not be beholden to the religious to tell us whether or not we should create a Neaderthal from a human. Is there really something so special about humans compared to a chimpanzee?

“The big issue would be whether enough people felt that a chimp-Neanderthal hybrid would be acceptable, and that would be broadly discussed before anyone started to work on it,” Dr. Church said.


We can't hide in our labs and leave the talking to Dawkins

by Jim Al-Khalili

Reposted from: via,3372,n,n

Image: wikipedia commons
While people still cling to beliefs from the dark ages, more scientists must publicly defend rational, secular society.
I have come to the conclusion I don't like the phrase "science communicator". You would think that it goes without saying that all scientists must communicate their work, for what is the point of learning new things about how the world works if you don't tell anyone about them?

But, alas,
the term "science communicator" seems to be reserved only for that small minority of scientists - increasing though its numbers have been in recent years - who recognise the importance of sharing their theories and observations with more than just the dozen researchers around the world
who bother to read their highly specialised journal papers.

An even smaller minority, though - and I brazenly include myself - don't so much stick their heads shyly over the parapets of their ivory towers to peer out at the big wide world as jump out on to the ledge with a loudspeaker.
But a question I wish to address here is one that does not receive a universal answer.
Should these science explainers restrict themselves in their public utterances to their own subject, or are they right to join in with other social commentators in the public arena to opine on wider societal issues such as ethics or faith?

science explainers instead of science communicators
Which brings me to my reason for writing this piece. Richard Dawkins, that less than shy champion of militant atheism, stepped down recently from his famous Charles Simonyi chair in science communication at Oxford. His successor is the youthful professor of mathematics Marcus du Sautoy. This is a great appointment, as Du Sautoy is already doing the sort of things this chair was created for. But Dawkins's stature and reputation have raised the profile of the Simonyi chair, making it a platform for utterances that are hugely magnified in their reach and influence. In a way it is similar to what Stephen Hawking has brought to the Lucasian chair of mathematics at Cambridge - from which he retires next year - despite previous holders including the likes of Isaac Newton.

Of course, Du Sautoy will not, and probably should not, need to change what he does in his new role. He is already a successful broadcaster and author as well as a serious academic. And I certainly do not intend to offer him advice on the path he should take.
But whether or not one agrees with Dawkins's confrontational, firebrand style, there is no denying that he has made moderate atheism - that which tries hard not to insult those of faith by trivialising what they hold dear - respectable.

By positioning himself on one extreme, Dawkins has allowed this cuddlier atheist to occupy the centre ground. It is rather like the political spectrum of the latter half of the last century, when communism provided the buffer and excuse for the respectability of socialism. Today's world is very different, and with communism discredited, those of us who proudly labelled ourselves socialists in Thatcherite Britain now feel safer being re-branded as liberals with socialism the new extreme of the left.

I do feel strongly however that those scientists who have a voice must be doing more than simply popularising their field to attract the next generation into science. Yes, this is vital; but
it is also vital that we help defend our rational, secular society against the rising tide of irrationalism and ignorance. Science communicators, for want of a better term for now, have a role to play in explaining not just the scientific facts but how science itself works: that it is not just "another way of viewing the world"; and that without it we would still be living in the dark ages.

We should be popularising "the scientific method" - which is the vision and mission of BHA Science and the meaning of Scientific within HASSERS.
I do not mean that everyone should become an expert in quantum mechanics (although wouldn't that be great). But when
there are so many people (such as the thankfully defeated Republican vice-presidential candidate in the US) who truly believe that dinosaurs roamed the earth at the same time as humans, or that the universe itself was created six thousand years ago - or who spend millions of pounds on homeopathic remedies or magic crystals instead of real medicine - then we scientists simply cannot hide away in our labs.
I have recently been involved in making a BBC series on medieval science in the early Islamic empire. While we marvel at the contributions to mathematics, astronomy and medicine that these scholars made a millennium ago, we tend to scoff at the more naive notions they entertained in folklore, astrology or alchemy - until we remember that they wouldn't look so out of place in 21st-century Europe or America.

Science communicators are therefore more than just cheap popularisers providing soundbites for a public hungry to know what subatomic exotica will be conjured into existence at the Large Hadron Collider. They have a huge role to play in keeping the light of rationalism shining brightly. Love him or loathe him, Dawkins has played his part in this.

• Jim Al-Khalili is professor of physics and professor of the public engagement in science at the University of Surrey

School of Economic Science (SES) on Rick Ross

I spent 5 years at the School of Economic Science (SES) in London in the early 1980s. More of my news about SES.

Rick Ross Links:
  • Gurdjieffian magical beliefs and us-vs-them mentality,29350,49148
  • School of Practical Philosophy,2322,2340

War Heroes


Edward Baker ( 24, 2008 13:15:00 GMT

I haven't said much on my views on war, and the military in general. But I have been getting a bit annoyed with the automatic assumption that 'soldiers are heroes'. I would agree that sometimes some soldiers heroic. At the same time some soldiers are power mad murderers, rapists, homophobes, racists etc.

I found this post which has some arguments that I like, particularly this bit:

"Soldiers are not heroes. They can be heroes, they can act heroically, they can do heroic things - but the act of putting on a uniform and agreeing to put your conscience in a lockbox for the next so many years does not make your life more important than others, it does not make your opinions and insights more worthy of respect than others, it does not exempt you from moral judgment [sic]. It does not make you a hero."

Rick Ross archive of cults


An Internet archive of information about cults, destructive cults, controversial groups and movements. RI on-line files include news stories, research papers, reports, court documents, book excerpts, personal testimonies and hundreds of links to additional relevant resources.

This news page is about groups, organizations or movements, which may have been called "cults" and/or "cult-like" in some way, shape or form. But not all groups called either "cults" or "cult-like" are harmful. Instead, they may be benign and generally defined as simply people intensely devoted to a person, place or thing. Therefore, the discussion or mention of a group, organization or person on this page, is not necessarily meant pejoratively.

Top 100

Door to Door Atheists Bother Mormons

via via

Australian filmmaker John Safran is so fed up with mormons ringing his doorbell early in the morning that he flies to Salt Lake City Utah and tries to convert Mormons to atheism. Needless to say, the locals were not pleased.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Barack Obama nominated for Secularist of the Year

The US President-elect Barack Obama is among the 19 people nominated to receive the next £5,000 Irwin Prize for Secularist of the Year. The surprise nomination follows Mr Obama's strongly secularist speeches, in which he makes clear his support for a clear separation of the church and state.

Terry Sanderson, president of the NSS, said: "Mr Obama has a lot of expectations riding on him, and I am pleased he's been recognised as a secularist in the classic American tradition. It promises a much more just society in the USA if he can sustain his principles under the inevitable pressure from the Religious Right. If he is named the winner, I'd love him to come and accept the prize at our presentation event - but I have a feeling he may be a little tied up with other things."

The full list of nominations received, in alphabetical order:
1. Lord Avebury; 2. Roy Brown; 3. Nick Cohen; 4. Pat Condell; 5. Russell T Davies; 6. Richard Dawkins; 7. A.C.Grayling; 8. Andy Hamilton; 9. Dr Evan Harris MP; 10. Johann Hari; 11. Azar Majedi; 12. P.Z. Myers; 13. Barack Obama; 14. Pragna Patel; 15. Salvatore Pertutti; 16. Rabbi Jonathan Romain; 17. Flemming Rose; 18. Ariane Sherine 19. Ibn Warraq.

Young prefer being "spiritual" to being religious.

Editorial by Terry Sanderson, NSS

Organised religion is rapidly losing out to "spirituality" (which means whatever you want it to)
I have oft maintained that the
"I'm spiritual-but-not-religious" approach to life will eventually spell the end of organised religion.
More evidence of this comes from America, where a survey of 6,853 young people between the ages of 12 and 25 found that they preferred being "spiritual" to being religious. A third of the sample said they didn't trust organised religion.

The survey was conducted by the Minneapolis-based Search Institute and released last week. The first question was, "What does it mean to be spiritual?" There were nine choices, running from "believing in God" to "being true to one's inner self." They also could say that there is no spiritual dimension, and there was an "I don't know" option. 93% of the young people surveyed believe there is a spiritual aspect to life.

But before the "faith leaders" start jumping for joy, we have to look more closely at what these youngsters men by "spiritual". "Spending time in nature" topped the list of responses. "Listening to or playing music" was No. 2, and "helping other people or the community" was third. "Attending religious services" came ninth.

The churches are helpless in the face of this trend, which is mirrored throughout the Western world. Young people hate the authoritarian, unjust and bigoted way in which they see organised religion behaving. Some of them who were questioned further by the pollsters said they didn't like the sexism and homophobia and the attendant cruelty. They didn't like the way that religions all claimed superiority over other world views.

It's a trend we should welcome and encourage. Eventually it will rob the arrogant "faith leaders" of their power to create conflict. Young people are showing that it is time for a change. And they don't see that change coming from the churches or the mosques. They have started on a new journey, and although it will lead many of them to other forms of superstition and irrationality, many others will conclude that they don't need any of the supports of unreason and will end up perfectly contented atheists with an attendant "spirituality" that most of us would simply define as common sense and human compassion.

Christian Voice make their most hated poet famous

From NSS Newsline 21/11/08

Stephen Green has been preening himself about his "victory" in getting a poetry reading by Welsh poet Patrick Jones cancelled at a Waterstone's bookshop.

Well, Mr Green will be finding his victory is pyrrhic, because Patrick Jones' "blasphemous" poetry is getting a much wider audience than it ever would if Christian Voice hadn't opened its trap. The book of poetry, Darkness is Where the Stars Are, is flying off the shelves in Waterstones and Amazon as people buy it in support (and because they like it).

Members of the Welsh Assembly have weighed in to condemn Waterstones in Cardiff calling the cancellation a violation of the right to free speech. Now Jones, the brother of Manic Street Preachers bassist Nicky Wire, will read his poems in a room at the Welsh Assembly on the invitation of Lib-Dem Assembly Member Peter Black. This has now caused the splenetic Mr Green to turn his ire on the Lib Dems, saying the party had "made it official policy to insult Jesus Christ".

However, Tory AMs are objecting to the reading. But in the meantime, Borders bookshop in Cardiff has stepped in and offered Patrick space to do a reading. He'll also now be doing one in Borders in London, too. The whole ballyhoo has also brought an invitation for Patrick Jones to speak at the Hay Literary Festival next year.

I suppose Stephen Green would advise us that the Lord moves in mysterious ways - which is certainly true when it comes to the answering of Stephen Green's prayers.

Our Secular President

"Obama's religion, far from resting on the Supernatural, is summed up in the State and driven by democratic ideals and possibilities. Therefore, when he talks, he sounds much more like a Jacobin from the French Revolution than he does a Christian from the Protestant Reformation that so impacted this nation's beginnings. In speech after speech, he asserts a type of democratic unity as his ultimate goal while discarding the religious convictions of our Founders."
(A.W.R. Hawkins, fulminates about a secularist president on Human Events, a "conservative" US website)


Consider the following words from Obama’s speech during the “Call to Renewal” conference in 2006: “Politics depends on our ability to persuade each other of common aims based on a common reality [and] this is going to be difficult for many who believe in the inerrancy of the Bible, as many evangelicals do, but in a pluralistic society we have no choice.”

Please understand what he said here. When Obama uses the word “inerrancy,” he is referring to the knowledge and conviction that God is perfect in all his ways and in all his words, and therefore cannot be in error. BUT THAT DOESN’T MATTER TO OBAMA. What matters is that we make ourselves willing to ignore or at least suppress what the Bible teaches so we can achieve a secularized, “pluralistic,” common aim.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Darwin, Science and Humanism talk in Bournemouth

Darwin, Science and Humanism
a talk by: Chris Street BSc MBA is a Biochemist and Founder of HASSERS group.
When: Thursday Feb 12th 2009 7:30 PM
Where: Bournemouth, Venue to be announced.

Talk Summary
Chris will talk about the role of science in the life of a humanist. In February 2009, we mark the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth and the 150th anniversary of his great, seminal work, On the Origin of Species. Just as Copernicus had upset the view that the Earth was the centre of the Universe, so Darwin upset the view that humans were privileged beings, specially created by divine will and totally distinct from the rest of life. Chris will explain how it is no exaggeration to say that Darwin's discoveries have provided a basis for modern Humanism

Booking and more details....

Friday, November 21, 2008

Simon Singh sued by the British Chiropractic Association

Stephen Law Source: says
"Alternative medicine calls in the lawyers

Science author Simon Singh (who is speaking at the CFI London Science and Religion event in April) is being sued by the British Chiropractic Association (BCA).

The action is being taken over a passage in an article Singh wrote for the Guardian about the BCA.

The case was reported here by the Telegraph.

The excellent Jack of Kent sets out the alleged libel here.

This case is important because if the BCA wins there is a host of other alternative medical practitioners (homeopaths, etc.) who will probably also sue if it's suggested there's no evidence their treatment works.

If the case goes ahead, we'll see the evidence for and against the efficacy of chiropractice as a treatment for various ailments set out in court - which will be interesting!"

Facebook Site:
have following key supporters:
Ben Goldacre (London)
Nick Cohen
Chris French (Goldsmiths)
David Colqhoun (UCL)
Tracy King (London)
Sid Rodrigues (London)
Nick Pullar
Jack Of-Kent (London)

Thursday, November 20, 2008


TED is Technology, Entertainment, Design. I'll try to organise a HASSERS meeting around a TEDTalk. Email received today from TED:-

Thank you for your ongoing support of TED. We are about to embark on a grand new experiment, and hope you will help us with some advice. In the spirit of "ideas worth spreading," we are looking to take TED and the TEDTalks deeper into communities around the globe -- and we need your assistance.

Have you ever thought of holding your own TED-like event? Creating a salon or book club around TED content? We are collecting stories of people who have hosted any kind of group screening around the TEDTalks: a dinner party, brown-bag lunch, TED Tuesday at the office, a small salon at home or a larger screening. We also want stories from anyone who has used TEDTalks as a teaching tool in a classroom setting or university lecture hall.

If you have any stories (and photos) from events you've hosted using TEDTalks, we would love you to share them with us.

If you have never hosted a TEDTalks gathering, consider doing so, and sharing the feedback with us.

We are going to use your feedback to shape TED's next big experiment -- to be announced soon!

Please send your stories of TEDTalk events you hosted or attended to: with the header "TED stories"

Please upload any images of your event to your flickr account and use flickr tags to tag them "TEDstories"

Please upload any videos of your event to your YouTube accounts and tag them "TEDstories"

Please know that we may use your images and video to help inspire others -- so don't post anything you wouldn't want the world to see. (We'd use your video and images under a Creative Commons license like the one we use for TEDTalks themselves -- details below.)

We look forward to hearing your story.

Lara Stein
TED Licensing Director

TEDTalks are distributed under a Creative Commons (CC) license. This doesn't replace copyright -- which remains undivided with TED Conferences LLC -- but it makes the terms more flexible. This Creative Commons license allows you to reproduce, distribute, display or perform publicly the TEDTalks as long as you follow some basic guidelines. See:

God Trumps

Reposted from:

New Humanist

Struggling to choose the top religion? Can't decide between Bible-thumping evangelism or benign, gentle Buddhism? Make the process fun and easy with God Trumps, our cut-out-and-keep metaphysical card game for all the family. Cartoons by Martin Rowson.

Richard Harries - Atheists' favorite Christian

Thought for the Day, Radio 4, 15 March 2002
Good morning. In 1860 there was a famous meeting in Oxford on the subject of evolution at which a predecessor of mine as Bishop of Oxford, Samuel Wilberforce and Thomas Huxley, the scientist, took opposing points of view. Wilberforce was a well-informed amateur scientist and did not think that the case for evolution had at that point been made out, so he opposed the idea.

However, it soon became clear to most thinking people that the earth was not, as it were, simply plonked down ready-made, but that it had evolved gradually over a very long period of time. Indeed historians of science note how quickly the late Victorian Christian public accepted evolution. It is therefore quite extraordinary that 140 years' later, after so much evidence has accumulated, that a school in Gateshead is opposing evolutionary theory on alleged biblical grounds. Do some people really think that the worldwide scientific community is engaged in a massive conspiracy to hoodwink the rest of us? I find what this school is doing sad for a number of reasons.

First, the theory of evolution, far from undermining faith, deepens it. This was quickly seen by Frederick Temple, later Archbishop of Canterbury, who said that God doesn't just make the world, he does something even more wonderful, he makes the world make itself. God has given creation a real independence and the miraculous fact is that working in relation to this independent life God has, as it were, woven creation from the bottom upwards: with matter giving rise to life and life giving rise to conscious reflective existence in the likes of you and me. The fact that the universe probably began about 12 billion years ago with life beginning to evolve about 3 billion years ago simply underlines the extraordinary detailed, persistent, patience of the divine creator spirit.

The second reason I feel sad about this attempt to see the Book of Genesis as a rival to scientific truth is that stops people taking the bible seriously. The bible is a collection of books made up of very different kinds of literature, poetry, history, ethics, law, myth, theology, wise sayings and so on. Through this variety of different kinds of writing God's loving purpose can come through to us. The bible brings us precious, essential truths about who we are and what we might become. But biblical literalism hinders people from seeing and responding to these truths.

Then there is science. Science is a God-given activity. Scientists are using their God-given minds and God-given creativity to explore and utilise God-given nature. Sadly, biblical literalism brings not only the bible but Christianity itself into disrepute.
The Rt Revd Richard Harries (Copyright 2002, BBC)

Harries (or Temple) says:-

God doesn't just make the world, he does something even more wonderful, he makes the world make itself.
The above view (and Christianity with it) collapses in the face of David Hume’s famous argument (“Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion”, 1779) published eighty years before Darwin’s “The Origin of Species”:-

How, therefore, shall we satisfy ourselves concerning the cause of that Being whom you suppose the Author of Nature, or, according to your system of Anthropomorphism, the ideal world, into which you trace the material? Have we not the same reason to trace that ideal world into another ideal world, or new intelligent principle? But if we stop, and go no further; why go so far? Why not stop at the material world? How can we satisfy ourselves without going on in infinitum? And, after all, what satisfaction is there in that infinite progression? …... If the material world rests upon a similar ideal world, this ideal world must rest upon some other; and so on, without end. It were better, therefore, never to look beyond the present material world.

Hume’s point, without knowledge of Evolution, was that, if, to explain the complexity of life, we postulate a Creator, he must be no less complex than life. Therefore, to explain the complexity of that Creator, we must postulate a Creator of the Creator. Then, we must postulate a Creator of the Creator of the Creator and so on, ad infinitum. If, on the other hand, we accept the existence of the Creator as a brute fact without the need for further explanation, then we might as well accept the complexity of life as a brute fact without the need to postulate a Creator at all.

In light of Evolution, Hume’s argument can be applied in a new way. Harries’ statement: “he makes the world make itself” becomes the infinite progression: “he makes something that makes something … that makes something … that makes something that makes the world make itself”.

Evolution, unknown to Hume, provides the satisfaction, in that infinite progression, that he had no means to enjoy; it also allows us to stop at the material world, for every step in the progression, except the first, can be within it. Evolution explains how each step in the progression is more complex than its predecessor. Therefore, the “he”, in the first step, is precisely nothing!

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

myths about the so-called "developing world.

You've never seen data presented like this. With the drama and urgency of a sportscaster, statistics guru Hans Rosling debunks myths about the so-called "developing world."

Shilpa BhardwajNovember 11 2008 said " I have never been so impressed with a presentation of stats. This was outstanding. A wide-eyed jaw-dropped thunderbolt-struck ovation to Hans Rosling".

Monday, November 17, 2008


Nov 17, 2008 08:54:35 GMT
At the Annual Representatives Meeting of the British Humanist Association in Holborn, London on Sat 15th  Nov, Berkshire Humanists were awarded an accolade of the best website award for 2008.This is an annual award for the 95 groups, both local and special interest of the Humanist community who run BHA affiliated websites in the UK

It was awarded for

Providing a positive, attractive, useful web-site for the local Humanist
community- and providing a local presence for Humanism in general.

Accepting the award on behalf of the team who produced the website, David McKnight, General and Education Secretary, said
“This is particularly pleasing because we did not get a mention last year and the team set out to win it this year. The most important contribution was the technical expertise and rigorous care of Robert Ede of Blackwater. Thanks are also due to Robert Ager of Twyford and all the posters and general public individuals who sent comments in and made this a really interactive and informative facility for all interested in what Humanism has to say.”
There are some 186,000 people in Berkshire and according to independent research there will be 17% of these (31,000) will actually think in the way that we do. A very large proportion of these do not know that they are Humanists or that we exist. It is our mission to inform and represent their views. This completely new web-site will be a major tool in seeing that the Human Rights of the non-religious will be protected, and that we recruit enough volunteers to act on a multitude of committees. Another major aim will be to ensure that we will have enough members to join Inter-faith groups and smaller satellite discussion groups throughout the county and in the further education establishment in Berkshire. It is really great that the technical ‘know how’ of the Thames (silicon) Valley will be used to such humanitarian ends. The web-site has a local bias, but information on national and global items of interest is brought to your attention also.