Sunday, April 26, 2009

Atheists target UK schools

source: via,3781,n,n highlights comments

Atheists are targeting schools in a campaign designed to challenge Christian societies, collective worship and religious education.

By Jonathan Wynne-Jones, Religious Affairs Correspondent
Last Updated: 2:03PM BST 25 Apr 2009

The National Federation of Atheist, Humanist and Secular Student Societies (AHS) plans to launch a recruitment drive this summer.

Backed by professors Richard Dawkins and AC Grayling, the initiative aims to establish a network of atheist societies in schools to counter the role of Christianity.

It will coincide with the first atheist summer camp for children that will teach that religious belief and doctrines can prevent ethical and moral behaviour.

The federation aims to encourage students to lobby their schools and local authorities over what is taught in RE lessons and to call for daily acts of collective worship to be scrapped. It wants the societies to hold talks and educational events to persuade students not to believe in God.

Chloë Clifford-Frith, AHS co-founder, said that the societies would act as a direct challenge to the Christian message being taught in schools.

She expressed concern that Christian Unions could influence vulnerable teenagers looking for a club to belong to with fundamentalist doctrine.

In particular, she claimed that some students were being told that homosexuality is a sin and to believe the Biblical account of creation.

"We want to point out how silly some of these beliefs are and hope that these groups will help to do that," she said.

The federation's bid to improve co-ordination among atheists in schools follows a successful campaign at universities.

The number of groups reported by the AHS to be active on campuses has risen from seven in 2007/2008 academic year to 25 in 2008/2009, including societies at the universities of Oxford and Durham.

Leeds Atheist Society claims to have experienced discrimination, vandalism, theft and death threats from religious groups on campus, who oppose the open expression of an atheist viewpoint and blasphemy.

AC Grayling, the philosopher and writer, said: "As well as making the case for reason and science, it is great to know that the AHS will be standing up against religious privilege and discrimination.

"The AHS shows that increasing numbers of young people are unwilling to put up with it."


Friday, April 24, 2009

Spring Report 2009: A report by our Chair on Accord’s progress since its launch

source: Alex Kennedy, Accord highlights comments
Please find below a report on what we have been doing at Accord since our launch last autumn.

Best wishes

Alex Kennedy
Coalition Coordinator
Spring Report 2009: A report by our Chair on Accord’s progress since its launch

Accord was born on 1st September 2008
Personally I had been concerned about faith schools for several years, but I always felt I was a lone voice - certainly within the religious world. While I was able to raise the issue every now and then, there was no structure through which to link up with others or to urge a change of policy.
It was that sense of frustration that led to Accord, which aims to unite all those with issues about faith schools - be it their very existence or the way they operate.
Accord can claim to be doubly unique:
First, it goes beyond the stale arguments by those ideologically pre-disposed for or against faith schools. Instead, it is much more nuanced. It asks: what is the best interest of the children and society at large? It believes the answer is schools that are inclusive, tolerant and transparent.
Second, it is a broad coalition of both those who are religious and secular: Jews, Muslims, Christians, Hindus, humanists, atheists; all of whom desire an educational system that is based on social cohesion - and not just as a slogan but in reality.
The actual birth of Accord was traumatic. Before the day was out, representatives of the religious groups which have faith schools had jointly produced a three-page press release which not only condemned us, but which deliberately tried to stereotype us as yet another secular conspiracy frothing at the mouth and trying to destroy all that was good in education.
There was also an avalanche of criticism in various religious papers, which served to give us a lot of prominence but which was also painful for Christians, Jews, Muslims and Hindus who value their faith without wanting faith schools.
Still, we did not turn the other cheek but have been forthright since then in putting our view forward, through radio and television interviews, as well as articles in various papers and on websites. And as well as criticism we received strong support from sources as diverse as the Economist and the Church of England Newspaper editorial.
We also kept in the headlines a fortnight later when Accord’s views were widely sought by the media on the opening of the first Hindu school in Britain.
Our response was simple: by dividing Hindu children from those of other faiths, there was now an enormous responsibility upon the school to work very hard to overcome the social barriers this could cause.
This in turn begs specific questions that apply to all faith schools, and which form the four key concerns of Accord (which will be particularly relevant to the forthcoming Equalities Bill):
  1. Admissions: should state funded schools operate admissions policies that take account of pupil’s religious belief, and which discriminate against those who come from what is deemed “the wrong faith” or no faith at all? This is the litmus test as to whether those schools are serving the local community or serving themselves.
  1. Employment: should state funded schools operate recruitment and employment policies that discriminate on grounds of religion. I can at least understand the argument that an RE teacher should be of a particular faith, but what about the Maths teacher, French assistant, kitchen staff or caretaker?
  1. Syllabus : as there is no National Curriculum for RE (why not ?) and as faith schools can opt out of the locally agreed SACRE syllabus (how come ?), how can we ensure they follow an objective, fair and balanced syllabus for education about religious and non-religious beliefs?
  1. Accountability: is it wise to have a system of inspection whereby special arrangements are made for faith schools that other schools do not have, which permits exemptions from the normal OFSTED regulation. Why should this be the case and why are faith schools not monitored like every other school?
Once the initial glare of publicity was over, the hard work began of campaigning for these reforms, targeting those most able to deliver. So Accord has met with government via the Department for Children, Schools & Families; with the Liberal Shadow Minister for Education and the Conservative Shadow Minister too, as well as other MPs and members of the Lords.
We have tried to expand the coalition with like-minded groups, both those in the educational world (from teachers union to educational think-tanks) and those from the religious communities (such as Christian clergy, the Chair of the Muslim Forum and the Hindu Academy).
We have also sought advice of, and made connections with, bodies that work in other spheres but who sometimes cross-over into the area of faith schools - such as the Runnymede Trust.
It is hard work, but we have found that there are many who profoundly agree with our position and are glad that such a forum exists.
There is definitely a new mood in the air: the rapid expansion of faith schools in the last two decades (without nearly enough public attention) is now being challenged by people who are uncomfortable at what has happened; people who feel that it is important that children from different backgrounds do not grow up as strangers, or even hostile to each other, but as fellow citizens
What is more, independent evidence has recently emerged that admissions procedures are being abused and some state-funded faith schools are acting unethically: either by covertly charging parents or by selection procedures that discriminate against children from less academic backgrounds.
Moreover, the case for examining faith schools has recently received a boost from a report issued by a report entitled ‘Right to Divide’, published by the highly-respected Runnymede Trust. It endorses faith schools, but suggests ways of improving them, many of which answer the key questions of Accord listed above.

There have also been two major pieces of research by academics at the London School of Economics and the Institute of Education showing that religious admissions cause social segregation and don’t improve results over all.
And most recently we have seen the fruits of our hard work with the announcement of a new Lib Dem policy on faith schools. At the party’s Spring Conference in Harrogate on 7th March they announced that they will oppose the creation of new faith schools that discriminate in admissions and would require existing faith schools to prove that they are inclusive or loose state funding.

The policy also commits them to fighting for RE lessons that teach “about beliefs, not what to believe”, for the ability of children to withdraw themselves from collective worship on grounds of conscience and for the right of teaching and support staff to be appointed and promoted without regard to their personal beliefs.
It is another step towards our ultimate goal of changing legislation. Relying on the goodwill of governors or the common-sense of head-teachers is not enough. It is only by initiating legislation about admissions, employment and accountability that the goal of inclusive schools will be achieved.
So, to sum up the position so far: Accord is just over six months old, but we feel that we have started to make our mark....and we have created a vehicle that not only gives voice to concerns about faith schools but is in a position to press for change.
With the Equality Bill due to be published next week we know that the next few weeks and months will be busy. We will be in touch very soon to let you know how you can help, so please keep a look out for future emails
Wish best wishes,
Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain MBE
Chair, Accord

Creationism to be taught in science lessons in Hampshire

source: NSS Newsletter March 29

Creationism threatens to slip into science lessons in Hampshire secondary schools if the local Standing Advisory Council on Religious Education (SACRE) is allowed to have its way.

The SACRE (a multi-religious advisory body, required by statute, that guides local schools' religious education policy) has recommended that evolution and creationism be taught jointly in RE and science lessons.

The aim, says the SACRE, is for pupils to explore the science and theology together, then come to their own conclusions.

The new unit of work was set up after Clive Erricker, county inspector for RE, was asked to examine the suitability of a dual approach. According to the local paper, the Daily Echo, Mr Erricker said: "The tensions between religion and science should not be denied but nor should we paint a black and white picture."

Mr Erricker said the evolution-creationism debate is "complex" but can be simplified and has written a teachers' guide with subjects for pupils to study. When asked how it would work in practice, Mr Erricker said: "There are no models. We will create a new model of learning."

The National Secular Society expressed dismay at the news. "This is an extremely retrograde step," said Terry Sanderson, the NSS president. "Creationism and intelligent design are not sciences and schools have no business introducing them into science lessons. It is bad enough that such nonsense is even considered in schools at all, but if it must be discussed, let it be confined to RE lessons."

Government Guidance on teaching creationism in science lessons states : "Creationism and intelligent design are not part of the science National Curriculum programmes of study and should not be taught as science. However, there is a real difference between teaching 'x' and teaching about 'x'. Any questions about creationism and intelligent design which arise in science lessons, for example as a result of media coverage, could provide the opportunity to explain or explore why they are not considered to be scientific theories and, in the right context, why evolution is considered to be a scientific theory."

Terry Sanderson said: "There is a big difference between answering students' questions about creationism and actually introducing it into the lessons in the first place as part of the curriculum. If the teacher raises the topic, then it takes on an authority that it does not deserve. Hampshire should think again about this proposal. It will add nothing to the education of children, but will create confusion in their minds about what is science and what is religion."

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Sue Blackmore in Bath - Memetics & Universal Darwinism

source: my notes from Susan Blackmore's lecture "Darwin’s Memes—Evolution in the Cosmos" at Bath BRLSI

On Tuesday night 7 April 2009 I attended, along with 100+, a lecture by Professor Susan Blackmore (Distinguished BHA Supporter) at Bath Literary & Scientific Institution as part of the Darwin 200 celebrations. This lecture was included in the HASSNERS meetups.

Charles Darwin had the best idea anybody has ever had - Evolution by Natural Selection.

Sue Blackmore explained the concept of Universal Darwinism by using the example of a chocolate bar. If humans and parrots were asked to choose between mass produced chocolate the minute variations in production would be favoured say 10%. If new production was only from this favoured 10% then more popular chocolate would evolve over time.

As Daniel Dennett explained in 1995 in 'Darwins Dangerous Idea', this process requires Variation, Selection and Heredity which was described as Universal Darwinism or an Evolutionary Algorithm. Out of the processes of Variation, Selection and Heredity you MUST (repeat MUST) get Evolution. Evolution is Design out of Chaos Without the Aid of Mind.

The term meme was coined by Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene in 1976. Originally conceived as the term mimema (Greek word mimema for "something imitated") it was shortened to meme by Dawkins. A meme is something that is imiatated or something that is replicated. A meme is replicated with variation and selection. Memes are selfish replicators - they get copied, whenever possible, without caring. Memes can succeed whether or not they are good or true. Memes use tricks to succeed and replicate. The tricks include altruism, pyramid selling (a meme virus). Memes succeed if they are copied.

Other examples of memes are toilet rolls in hotels folded with ends folded into triangles.

Memes can use up the earths resources. At TED a 3 minute talk was given by someone when Sue Blackmore gave her TED talk in 2008. Apparently sending a 1MB email uses up the same energy as a lump of coal the size of your fist.

Religious memes take up time and resources - eg Hindus bathing in Calcutta River Hooghly get ill from the floating exrement. Religion comprises as set of memes or memplexes eg singing, incense, beautiful churches etc. Religious memeplexes use threats (believe or burn in hell) and promises (believe and you will be saved). The exception to this is Buddhism. Sue Blackmore asked any muslim in the room to avert their eyes from the screen: Danish cartoon - muslims going to heaven - God says you can't come in - stop - we ran out of virgins!

2005 study by Gregory S. Paul looking at 18 democracies found that the more atheist societies tended to have relatively low murder and suicide rates and relatively low incidence of abortion and teen pregnancy.

Humans can imitate (no other animal can do so, so well). Dogs, Cetaceans (whales, dolphins, and porpoises.) can imitate but not as adept as humans who can eg copy lighting a fire or copy face painting or sticking a feather in your hair (and other useless copying).

Sue Blackmore introduced the term "Memetic drive" (only 300x in Google).

'Universal Acid' was a term coined by Daniel Dennett in his book "Darwins Dangerous Idea".

Sue advised us to go back to original sources to understand any concept better eg read The Selfish Gene to understand why meme was first described by Dawkins as another replicator cf. gene.

Language / Religion / Culture / Music is a selfish meme - it started out as a parasite / symbiosis / leads to a Big Brain.

After the gene, meme a 3rd Replicator is the Teme (can we think of a better term?) ie technological inventions of man eg writing, printing, transport, cars, roads (like veins in a human body), Google, World Wide Web. Are Personal Computers subordinate or sybiotic or parasitic? Memes can be dangerous and so too are Temes which can use up resources (Sue Blackmore has given up taking many long plane journeys each year and is worried by news today of ice bridges breaking up in the Artic).

She would like to have a conversation with William James and Charles Darwin.

Genes were originally dangerous - organisms gave out Oxygen which was poisonous to early anerobes. Memes, the 2nd replicator, give us big brains (as any women in childbirth will testify) which uses 20% of our energy utilised for an organ which is 2% of our body weight.

Temes are symbiotic (typing & texting at 4 years old) and suck resources out of the planet. Facebook / Second Life are temes. You don't need concepts of a mind or a soul or spirit - it is just an output of your brain. Temes are technologies that use tricks to get attention. Are temes just memes?

Susan Blackmore at TED, 2008.

Books by Susan Blackmore at Recommended by crabsallover

Sue Blackmore discussion with Joan Bakewell on 'Belief' (BBC Radio 3)

The thing that made the things for which there is no known maker. by YouTube Video

Monday, April 06, 2009

Teachers' union calls for an end to faith schools

source: highlights comments

by Richard Garner, Education Editor

Thanks to LWS for the link.
Reposted from

blankTeachers' leaders will this week demand the phasing out of the nation's 7,000 state-funded faith schools.

As a first step, delegates at the National Union of Teachers' conference will seek a ban on opening any new faith schools – on the grounds that their admissions policies have created "segregated schooling" in many parts of the country.

The move would put the union on a collision course with the Government, which has openly sought sponsorship by religious groups for many of its flagship new academies. Several of the new academies to be opened this year have church backing.

It is also likely to provoke fierce debate within the union, as many of its members work in faith schools.

At present, there are about 7,000 faith schools in the country – 600 secondary and 6,400 primary. The vast majority are Christian: there are around 6,955 Church of England, Roman Catholic and Methodist schools. The rest consist of 36 Jewish schools, six Muslim, two Sikh and one Hindu, Greek Orthodox and Seventh-Day Adventist.

The motion, which is set to be debated at the union's annual conference in Cardiff on Saturday, states: "Religious groups, of whatever faith, should have no place in the control and management in the control and management of schools."

It declares that "all children should have the opportunity and the right to meet and work with children from a variety of backgrounds and faiths within their day-to-day education".

Supporters of the move argue that admitting pupils on religious grounds risks undermining the Government's calls to them to promote community cohesion, which has just become a legal obligation on all schools.

The union's leadership is prepared to back the motion's main aim – to declare a long-term commitment to creating a single community comprehensive system that covers all state secondary schools. However, it would rather place the emphasis on getting existing faith schools to change their admissions policies than campaign against all new proposals to establish religious schools. It will seek to persuade delegates to back a call for all schools to adopt "non-discriminatory admissions procedures".

Christine Blower, general secretary of the NUT, said: "Our preference would be that schools admissions rely on the proximity of the family to the school. The important thing for us is to ensure that all schools have to abide by the duty to promote social cohesion, rather than select on religious grounds."

The drive to create more faith schools gained impetus under Tony Blair's premiership, when he sought to persuade faith groups to become one of the key sponsors of academies.

Since then, Schools Secretary Ed Balls has insisted the Government does not have a policy in favour of creating more faith schools. However, department officials insist that ministers still value the work done by faith schools in the state education system.

Certain religious sectors agree that faith schools should do more to be more inclusive. In 2006, the Rt Rev Dr Kenneth Stevenson, the Bishop of Portsmouth and chair of the Church of England's Board of Education, wrote to then Education secretary, Alan Johnson: "I want to make a specific commitment that all new ... schools should have at least 25 per cent of places available to children with no requirement that they be of practising Christian families. The places would not be left empty if they were not filled by such children so this would technically not be a 'quota' but a 'proportion'."

Religion's role in a nation's education

There are about 6,400 primary and 600 secondary faith state schools in England

Of these, about 4,700 are Church of England, 2,100 Roman Catholic, and 150 Methodist, with 36 Jewish, six Muslim, two Sikh, one Greek Orthodox, one Hindu and one Seventh-Day Adventist

There are a further 140 Muslim schools in the UK which are not part of the state system

The only state faith schools which existed before the 1997 general election were Christian or Jewish

The state pays up to 90 per cent of the running costs

All faith schools have to teach the National Curriculum

For religious education, more than half only teach their own faith, while the remained teach a locally agreed religious syllabus

Admissions are determined by school governors, and schools can insist on proof of baptism and regular church attendance.

National Secular Society claims that 80 per cent of the population disapproves of faith schools

Did Darwin Kill God - BBC

source:,3707,n,n highlights comments

Science highlights errors in logic in the bible. Theologicians say that the statements that incorrect are metaphors which allows for deeper theological philosophising. They say the Book of Genesis should not be read literally. Cunningham says "they are stories that reveal deeper truths about the fundamental aspects of life". Genesis Chapter 1 says that plants were made on the third day and man on the sixth day. Genesis Chapter 2 says that Adam was made before ANY plants appeared. The two accounts in Genesis Chapters 1 and 2 directly contradict each other. Philo of Alexandria says that if there was a contradition then this was a clue to how the bible should be read ie metaphorially not literally. Philo said the allegorical was sometimes more important than the literal readings (ref: 6min 44s) and said that both stories are myths. You need myths & metaphors to convey complex truths says Cunningham (8 min 56s). If you read the bible literally you will have no room for theological reflection says Cunningham (10 min 28s)

My view
My view is that the bible is wholly man made. God (or gods) do not exist. So they have no involvement in writing the bible. Any mistakes or contradictions found in the bible are due to mistakes of the authors. Science illuminates these mistakes and contradications adding further weight to the hypothesis that the bible was written by man alone.

by BBC 2

Update 4/4: As noted by several people this is now available on YouTube so those outside of the UK can also watch the series

Click on the link to go to the BBC video site if you are viewing from a UK location. The video is not playable outside of the UK but a reader has sent in the subtitle teletext for the deaf.

Reposted from (available till 8 April 2009)

There are some who believe that Darwin's theory of evolution has weakened religion, fuelled in part by Richard Dawkins' publishing phenomenon The God Delusion. Conor Cunningham argues that nothing could be further from the truth.

Cunningham is a firm believer in the theory of evolution, but he is also a Christian. He believes that the clash between Darwin and God has been hijacked by extremists - fundamentalist believers who reject evolution on one side, and fundamentalist atheists on the other. Cunningham attempts to overturn what he believes are widely held but mistaken assumptions in the debate between religion and evolution.

He travels to the Middle East where he shows that from the very outset, Christianity warned against literal readings of the biblical story of creation. In Britain, he reveals that, at the time, Darwin's theory of evolution was welcomed by the Anglican and Catholic Churches. Instead, he argues that the conflict between Darwin and God was manufactured by American creationists in the 20th century for reasons that had very little to do with science and religion and a great deal to do with politics and morality.

Finally, he comes face to face with some of the most eminent evolutionary biologists, geneticists and philosophers of our time to examine whether the very latest advances in evolutionary theory do in fact kill God.

Note from Exec Producer, Jean Claude Bragard:

This programme, part of the BBC’s Darwin Season, came from the realisation that it would touch on issues raised by Richard Dawkins in his book 'The God Delusion'. The publishing phenomenon has fuelled a widespread perception that the theory of evolution makes belief in God redundant, even perhaps perverse. But how compelling was that argument? It was clear that many Christians have easily been able to reconcile their belief in God with the theory of evolution. How was this possible? This was the question we wanted to explore and so we invited Dr Conor Cunningham, a Christian but also an eminent philosopher and theologian from the Centre of Theology and Philosophy at the University of Nottingham, to show how it was possible to believe in Darwin and God. Cunningham has just completed a book 'Evolution: Darwin's Pious Idea' to be published in the autumn, so he was ideally placed to explore this question. His argument is that we have been witnessing an unnecessary cultural war between religion and evolution that is damaging to both religion and science. Cunningham reveals that since the early days, mainstream Christianity’s view of God and Creation has not been literal. The idea of reading the Book of Genesis literally is essentially a 20th century American phenomenon that had very little to do with science and religion and a great deal to do with the morality and politics of the time.

Jean Claude Bragard
Executive Producer

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Center for Inquiry, London

from above website.. Visit CfI London for some interesting meetups in London.

Fascinating public talks and lectures from leading figures focusing on:
(i) the application of science and reason to religious and paranormal claims,
(ii) the application of science and reason to today's great political and ethical questions (global warming, stem cell research, euthanasia)
(iii) exposing flaky and pseudo-scientific claims

Wednesday, April 01, 2009


source:,3696,n,n highlights comments

by Jerry Coyne

Reposted from

Jerry Coyne's Bio Page


[JERRY COYNE:] Must we always cater to the faithful when teaching science?

As long as I have been a scientist, I have lived with my colleagues' view that one cannot promote the acceptance of evolution in this country without catering to the faithful. This comes from the idea that many religious people who would otherwise accept evolution won't do so if they think it undermines their faith, promoting atheism or immoral behavior.

Thus various organizations promoting the teaching of evolution, including the National Academy of Sciences and the National Center for Science Education, have published booklets or websites that explicitly say that faith and science are compatible.
In other words, that is their official position. The view of many other scientists that faith and science (or reason) are incompatible is ignored or disparaged.

As evidence for the compatibility, the most frequent reason cited is that many scientists are religious and many of the faithful accept evolution. While this proves compatibility in the trivial sense, it doesn't show, as I've pointed out elsewhere, that the two views are philosophically compatible.

As an example of the "official position" of some groups on compatibility, an alert reader sent me the URL of a site at The University of California at Berkeley, Understanding Science 101, that discusses the nature of science and how it's done. There are a lot of good resources at this site, but perusing it I found, to my dismay, a sub-site that pushes the compatibility between science and faith:-

"With the loud protests of a small number of religious groups over teaching scientific concepts like evolution and the Big Bang in public schools, and the equally loud proclamations of a few scientists with personal, anti-religious philosophies, it can sometimes seem as though science and religion are at war."

News outlets offer plenty of reports of school board meetings, congressional sessions, and Sunday sermons in which scientists and religious leaders launch attacks at one another. But just how representative are such conflicts? Not very.
The attention given to such clashes glosses over the far more numerous cases in which science and religion harmoniously, and even synergistically, coexist. In fact, people of many different faiths and levels of scientific expertise see no contradiction at all between science and religion.

Many simply acknowledge that the two institutions deal with different realms of human experience. Science investigates the natural world, while religion deals with the spiritual and supernatural — hence, the two can be complementary. Many religious organizations have issued statements declaring that there need not be any conflict between religious faith and the scientific perspective on evolution.
"One of the greatest tragedies of our time is this impression that has been created that science and religion have to be at war.'
— Francis Collins
Francis Collins (wiki) is a Christian who lead the Human Genome Project.

Furthermore, contrary to stereotype, one certainly doesn't have to be an atheist in order to become a scientist. A 2005 survey of scientists at top research universities found that more than 48% had a religious affiliation and more than 75% believe that religions convey important truths.
Some scientists — like Francis Collins, former director of the National Human Genome Research Institute, and George Coyne, astronomer and priest — have been outspoken about the satisfaction they find in viewing the world through both a scientific lens and one of personal faith.

It seems to me that we can defend evolution without having to cater to the faithful at the same time. Why not just show that evolution is TRUE and its alternatives are not? Why kowtow to those whose beliefs many of us find unpalatable, just to sell our discipline? There are, in fact, two disadvantages to the "cater-to-religion" stance.

1. By trotting out those "religious scientists", like Ken Miller, or those "scientific theologians," like John Haught, we are tacitly putting our imprimatur on their beliefs, including beliefs that God acts in the world today (theism), suspending natural laws. For example, I don't subscribe to Miller's belief that God acts immanently in the world, perhaps by influencing events on the quantum level, or that God created the laws of physics so that human-containing planets could evolve. I do not agree with John Haught's theology.

I do not consider any faith that touts God's intervention in the world (even in the past) as compatible with science. Do my colleagues at the NAS or the NCSE disagree?
2. The statement that learning evolution does not influence one's religious belief is palpably false. There are plenty of statistics that show otherwise, including the negative correlation of scientific achievement with religious belief and the negative correlation among nations in degree of belief in God with degree of acceptance of evolution.

All of us know this, but we pretend otherwise. (In my book I note that "enlightened" religion can be compatible with science, but by "englightened" I meant a complete, hands-off deism.) I think it is hypocrisy to pretend that learning evolution will not affect either the nature or degree of one's faith. It doesn't always, but it does more often than we admit, and there are obvious reasons why (I won't belabor these).

I hate to see my colleagues pretending that faith and science live in nonoverlapping magisteria. They know better.
Because of this, I think that organizations promoting the teaching of evolution should do that, and do that alone. Leave religion and its compatibility with faith to the theologians. That's not our job. Our job is to show that evolution is true and creationism and ID aren't. End of story.
In 25 years of effort, these organizations don't seem to have much effect on influencing public opinion about evolution. I think that this may mean that the USA will have to become a lot less religious before acceptance of evolution increases appreciably.
While going through the Berkeley website Understanding Science (discussed yesterday), I found something more of interest. It's a page called "Astrology: Is it Scientific?", which sets out a checklist of questions that the student should answer to see if astrology is indeed a science. Here's part of the checklist:

Here we'll use the Science Checklist to evaluate one way in which astrology is commonly used. See if you think it qualifies as scientific!
Focuses on the natural world?
Astrology's basic premise is that heavenly bodies — the sun, moon, planets, and constellations — have influence over or are correlated with earthly events.

Aims to explain the natural world?
Astrology uses a set of rules about the relative positions and movements of heavenly bodies to generate predictions and explanations for events on Earth and human personality traits. For example, some forms of astrology predict that a person born just after the spring equinox is particularly likely to become an entrepreneur.

Uses testable ideas?
Some expectations generated by astrology are so general that any outcome could be interpreted as fitting the expectations; if treated this way, astrology is not testable. However, some have used astrology to generate very specific expectations that could be verified against outcomes in the natural world. For example, according to astrology, one's zodiac sign impacts one's ability to command respect and authority. Since these traits are important in politics, we might expect that if astrology really explained people's personalities, scientists would be more likely to have zodiac signs that astrologers describe as "favorable" towards science. If used to generate specific expectations like this one, astrological ideas are testable.

Relies on evidence?
In the few cases where astrology has been used to generate testable expectations and the results were examined in a careful study, the evidence did not support the validity of astrological ideas. This experience is common in science — scientists often test ideas that turn out to be wrong. However, one of the hallmarks of science is that ideas are modified when warranted by the evidence. Astrology has not changed its ideas in response to contradictory evidence.

The page concludes by saying:
Astrology is not a very scientific way to answer questions. Although astrologers seek to explain the natural world, they don't usually attempt to critically evaluate whether those explanations are valid — and this is a key part of science. The community of scientists evaluates its ideas against evidence from the natural world and rejects or modifies those ideas when evidence doesn't support them. Astrologers do not take the same critical perspective on their own astrological ideas.
It seems to me that some of the claims of many faiths are similar to those of astrology–the four ideas given above. Religion focusses on the natural world (at least some of the time), purports to explain it, uses testable ideas (e.g., efficacy of prayer), and relies on evidence (Scripture, archaeological findings, etc.) Like astrology, religion fails all of these tests.

I'm not trying to say anything portentous, except that scientists are really keen to denigrate astrology while at the same time bending over backwards to respect religion, even though there is the same amount of evidence supporting each. This is a point that science writer Natalie Angier makes in her wonderful essay, "My God Problem."

Consider the very different treatments accorded two questions presented to Cornell University's "Ask an Astronomer" Web site. To the query, "Do most astronomers believe in God, based on the available evidence?" the astronomer Dave Rothstein replies that, in his opinion, "modern science leaves plenty of room for the existence of God . . . places where people who do believe in God can fit their beliefs in the scientific framework without creating any contradictions." He cites the Big Bang as offering solace to those who want to believe in a Genesis equivalent and the probabilistic realms of quantum mechanics as raising the possibility of "God intervening every time a measurement occurs"

before concluding that, ultimately, science can never prove or disprove the existence of a god, and religious belief doesn't—and shouldn't—"have anything to do with scientific reasoning."

How much less velveteen is the response to the reader asking whether astronomers believe in astrology. "No, astronomers do not believe in astrology," snarls Dave Kornreich. "It is considered to be a ludicrous scam. There is no evidence that it works, and plenty of evidence to the contrary."

Dr. Kornreich ends his dismissal with the assertion that in science "one does not need a reason not to believe in something." Skepticism is "the default position" and "one requires proof if one is to be convinced of something's existence."

In other words, for horoscope fans, the burden of proof is entirely on them, the poor gullible gits; while for the multitudes who believe that, in one way or another, a divine intelligence guides the path of every leaping lepton, there is no demand for evidence, no skepticism to surmount, no need to worry.

A couple more points of clarification about the last post:

1. I am by no means denigrating the worthwhile achievements of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Center for Science Education in pushing back the tide of creationism. Their effects (especially the NCSE's) in court cases and school-board hearings have had a real and positive effect on keeping evolution in the schools. My beef is that these effects are temporary ones.

Creationism is like herpes: it keeps coming back again and again until you extirpate the root cause. The court cases and school board hearings are outbreaks of herpes, which are stanched by our colleagues. But until the underlying virus is extirpated (that is, the kind of faith that is incompatible with evolution), the outbreaks will continue to occur.

2. The NAS and NCSE seem to always trot out the "religious scientists" or "scientific theologians" when they need to sell evolution: John Haught, Ken Miller, Michael Ruse, etc. I would feel better about the whole issue if they'd also trot out Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and the many other evolutionists who represent a non-accommodationist point of view.

3. By saying that we should leave the reconciliation of faith and science to theologians, I am not endorsing the idea that they can or should be reconciled. Personally, I don't think they can be. I'm saying only that that reconciliation is not the job of scientists or pro-evolution organizations.

John Brockman, Editor and Publisher
Russell Weinberger, Associate Publisher
Copyright © 2009 By Edge Foundation, Inc
All Rights Reserved.

Pope comments about condoms use

source: highlights comments
The Lancet, Volume 373, Issue 9669, Page 1054, 28 March 2009 

Redemption for the Pope?

The Lancet
The Vatican felt the heat from an unprecedented amount of international condemnation last week after Pope Benedict XVI made an outrageous and wildly inaccurate statement about HIV/AIDS. On his first visit to Africa, the Pope told journalists that the continent's fight against the disease is a problem that “cannot be overcome by the distribution of condoms: on the contrary, they increase it”.
The Catholic Church's ethical opposition to birth control and support of marital fidelity and abstinence in HIV prevention is well known. But, by saying that condoms exacerbate the problem of HIV/AIDS, the Pope has publicly distorted scientific evidence to promote Catholic doctrine on this issue.
The international community was quick to condemn the comment. The governments of Germany, France, and Belgium released statements criticising the Pope's views. Julio Montaner, president of the International AIDS Society, called the comment “irresponsible and dangerous”. UNAIDS, the UN Population Fund, and 
WHO released an updated position statement on HIV prevention and condoms, which said that “the male latex condom is the single, most efficient, available technology to reduce the sexual transmission of HIV”. 
Amidst the fury, even the Vatican tried to alter the pontiff's wording. On the Holy See's website, the Vatican's head of media, Father Federico Lombari, quoted the Pope as having said that there was a “risk that condoms…might increase the problem”.
Whether the Pope's error was due to ignorance or a deliberate attempt to manipulate science to support Catholic ideology is unclear. But the comment still stands and the Vatican's attempts to tweak the Pope's words, further tampering with the truth, is not the way forward. When any influential person, be it a religious or political leader, makes a false scientific statement that could be devastating to the health of millions of people, they should retract or correct the public record. Anything less from Pope Benedict would be an immense disservice to the public and health advocates, including many thousands of Catholics, who work tirelessly to try and prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS worldwide.

Richard Dawkins says Pope is 'stupid'

source:,3697,n,n highlights comments

by Telegraph

Reposted from:

Richard Dawkins has described the Pope as "stupid" for claiming that the use of condoms could increase Africa's Aids problem.

Professor Dawkins, the prominent biologist and atheist, said that Benedict XVI would have blood on his hands if his beliefs were followed by Catholics around the continent.

Speaking at a university in Spain, he said: "I wonder on what basis anyone can say condoms make Aids worse. The Pope is either stupid, ignorant or dim.

"If people take his words seriously he will be responsible for the deaths of thousands, perhaps millions of people."

Prof Dawkins, 67, was speaking at a press conference at the University of Valencia after having been awarded an honorary degree.

He also urged people to think for themselves on the subject, adding that the more they did, the less they were likely to believe in God.

He congratulated Barack Obama, the US President, for having overturned a ban imposed by his predecessor, George W. Bush, on state funding for stem cell research.

Prof Dawkins, who recently stepped down as the Professor for Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University, is renowned for his strident views on faith.

He wrote the bestselling book The God Delusion in 2006 and supported the recent £140,000 advertising campaign on London transport, which featured posters reading: "There's probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life."

Last year, he announced his intention to write a book warning children of the dangers in believing what he called "anti-scientific" fairytales, including Harry Potter.

Last month Pope Benedict told reporters that condoms were not a solution and even "increase the problem" of Aids, as he arrived for a visit to Africa.

His comments prompted widespread criticism around the world from health activists, medical professionals and politicians.

In an editorial earlier this week, the Lancet, the respected medical journal, called on the Pope to retract his statement and said his comments could be "devastating for the health of millions of people".

Scandinavian Nonbelievers, Which Is Not to Say Atheists

source: highlights comments

Published: February 27, 2009
Phil Zuckerman spent 14 months in Scandinavia, talking to hundreds of Danes and Swedes about religion. It wasn’t easy.

Anyone who has paid attention knows that Denmark and Sweden are among the least religious nations in the world. Polls asking about belief in God, the importance of religion in people’s lives, belief in life after death or church attendance consistently bear this out.

It is also well known that in various rankings of nations by life expectancy, child welfare, literacy, schooling, economic equality, standard of living and competitiveness, Denmark and Sweden stand in the first tier.

Well documented though they may be, these two sets of facts run up against the assumption of many Americans that a society where religion is minimal would be, in Mr. Zuckerman’s words, “rampant with immorality, full of evil and teeming with depravity.”

Which is why he insists at some length that what he and his wife and children experienced was quite the opposite: “a society — a markedly irreligious society — that was, above all, moral, stable, humane and deeply good.”

Mr. Zuckerman, a sociologist who teaches at Pitzer College in Claremont, Calif., has reported his findings on religion in Denmark and Sweden in “Society Without God” (New York University Press, 2008). Much that he found will surprise many people, as it did him.

The many nonbelievers he interviewed, both informally and in structured, taped and transcribed sessions, were anything but antireligious, for example. They typically balked at the label “atheist.” An overwhelming majority had in fact been baptized, and many had been confirmed or married in church.

Though they denied most of the traditional teachings of Christianity, they called themselves Christians, and most were content to remain in the Danish National Church or the Church of Sweden, the traditional national branches of Lutheranism.
At the same time, they were “often disinclined or hesitant to talk with me about religion,” Mr. Zuckerman reported, “and even once they agreed to do so, they usually had very little to say on the matter.” 

Were they reticent because they considered religion, as Scandinavians generally do, a private, personal matter? Is there, perhaps, as one Lutheran bishop in Denmark has argued, a deep religiosity to be discovered if only one scratches this taciturn surface?
“I spent a year scratching,” Mr. Zuckerman writes. “I scratched and I scratched and I scratched.”
And he concluded that “religion wasn’t really so much a private, personal issue, but rather, a nonissue.” His interviewees just didn’t care about it.
Beyond reticence, Mr. Zuckerman found what he terms “benign indifference” and even “utter obliviousness.” 
The key word in his description of their benign indifference is “nice.” Religion, in their view, is “nice.” Jesus “was a nice man who taught some nice things.” The Bible “is full of nice stories and good morals, isn’t it?”
Beyond niceness came utter obliviousness.

Thoughtful, well-educated Danes and Swedes reacted to Mr. Zuckerman’s basic questions about God, Jesus, death and so on as completely novel. “I really have never thought about that,” one of his interviewees answered, adding, “It’s been fun to get these kinds of questions that I never, never think about.”
This indifference or obliviousness to religious matters was sometimes subtly enforced. “In Denmark,” a pastor told Mr. Zuckerman, “the word ‘God’ is one of the most embarrassing words you can say. You would rather go naked through the city than talk about God.”
One man recounted the shock he felt when a colleague, after a few drinks, confessed to believing in God. “I hope you don’t feel I’m a bad person,” the colleague pleaded.
Social conformity or not, Mr. Zuckerman was deeply impressed with the matter-of-fact way in which many of his interviewees spoke of death, without fear or anxiety, and their notable lack of existential searching for any ultimate meaning of life. 
A long list of thinkers, both believers and nonbelievers, have posited something like an innate religious instinct. Confronted by the mystery of death or the puzzle of life’s ultimate meaning, humans are said to be hard-wired to turn to religion or something like it. Based on his experience in Scandinavia, Mr. Zuckerman disagrees. 
“It is possible for a society to exist in which most people don’t really fear death all that much,” he concluded, “and simultaneously don’t give a great deal of thought to the meaning of life.” 

Are these Scandinavians out to prove that Socrates was wrong and the unexamined life is definitely worth living? Mr. Zuckerman emphasizes that his interviewees were in no way despairing nihilists but “for the most part, a happy, satisfied lot” who “generally live productive, creative, contented lives.” 
André Comte-Sponville, the French philosopher whose “Little Book of Atheist Spirituality” (Viking, 2007) was discussed here two weeks ago, maintains that individuals can live well without religion but that society, or even humanity as a whole, needs a set of bonds that might be considered “sacred,” at least in the sense of something “that would justify, if necessary, the sacrifice of our lives.”

A fidelity to inherited values, a “nonreligiousness” that is “more than just an empty shell or an elegant form of amnesia,” is Mr. Comte-Sponvilles’s atheist answer to his own question, “What remains of the Christian West when it ceases to be Christian?”
He might find reassurance in Scandinavia and in Mr. Zuckerman’s description of the “cultural religion” that he discovered there. The interviewees affirmed a Christianity that seems to have everything to do with “holidays, songs, stories and food” but little to do with God or Creed, everything to do with rituals marking important passages in life but little to do with the religious meaning of those rituals. 

Others may be puzzled or even repelled by the apparent dissonance, but Mr. Zuckerman, comparing it to the experience of many Jews in the United States and Israel, strives to make sense of it, and he suggests that it deserves much more study all around the world.
This cultural religion may partly explain aspects of Denmark and Sweden that he admires.
At one point, he queries Jens, a 68-year-old nonbeliever, about the sources of Denmark’s very ethical culture. Jens replies: “We are Lutherans in our souls — I’m an atheist, but still have the Lutheran perceptions of many: to help your neighbor. Yeah. It’s an old, good, moral thought.”