Friday, January 30, 2009

Sye is back - and telling fibs?

If you were reading this blog last July/August you will remember a very, very long exchange between myself and Sye, of Sinner Ministries.

Sye has a "proof" of God which is based on "presuppositonal apologetics". We spent ages - two or three weeks and over 30 main posts - slowly and carefully unpacking Sye's arguments and rispostes, until, eventually, he was left with nowhere to run.

I kind of enjoyed doing it, but some of you got highly irritated, I know.

Anyway, the 30 odd posts can be found listed under "sinner ministries" on my sidebar menu.

Well, Sye now turns up on the debunking atheists website where he is peddling the exact same arguments, winding people up all over again.

When one commentator mentioned that I had dealt with a point Sye raised on this blog, Sye, I'm told, said:

"I guess you haven't been paying attention Dale. We discussed my time at Stephen Law's blog at an earlier entry here, and also the fact that he never once said how his own wordlview accounted for the universal, abstract, invariant laws of logic."

Sye later added:

"He did not want to reveal his own worldview, because he did not want to commit to a view he knew I would dismantle."

Notice how Sye seems actually to be presenting himself as the victor in our discussions. He's suggesting that he cornered me.

Now some of you may remember that I did in fact offer not one but three different atheist-friendly views of logic, not one of which Sye was able to refute. If you want to count them, they are here, here and (Quinean one, from my book) here.

It's pretty difficult to avoid the conclusion that Sye is just telling a barefaced lie here and hoping no one will notice (Sye's lying for Jesus, I guess?)

Care to come over here and explain yourself Sye?

If you want to check out what Sye's up to now see the debunking atheism thread here (it's huge - you need to scroll down and then hit "newest" to reach the end).

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Playing drums Saturday

I am playing the drums with Ropetrick - one of three bands on at the Wheatsheaf pub in Oxford this coming Saturday (31st Jan). We probably should have rehearsed more....

Sunday, January 25, 2009

New York City - accom. required

I am in Manhattan nights of the 8th and 9th of April 2009 (and am around daytime 9th, flying to Washington evening of 10th) and need some cheap accommodation. If anyone can recommend anything do please let me know.

I'll also happily speak, do school event, etc. if you buy me a burger!

Friday, January 23, 2009

Klug - Not in My Name

My colleague Brian Klug has posted a couple of pieces on the Guardian comment is free section, which may be of interest (whether or not you agree with them). I paste one in here. The link to the other is here:

For many Jews today, Israel is not a normal state - it is a cause or ideal.

Not in My Name


In the midst of the carnage in Gaza, it defies belief that my synagogue has asked me to march in solid support of Israel

Brian Klug

In any conflict between peoples, there is a time for balancing the books, for placing facts neatly in the debit and credit columns, for issuing measured statements about the rights and wrongs on both sides. But not in the midst of one-sided carnage. The only decent thing to feel at the present time is outrage. The only thing for decent people to do right now is to condemn, without reserve or qualification, the brutal campaign that the Israeli military is waging against the population of Gaza. Every if and but derogates from decency.

Earlier this week, my synagogue sent its members an email containing details of two rallies in support of Israel "which we would urge you to support". No ifs and buts here, just solid support for the perpetrator in the midst of the horror it is perpetrating. Is it possible to go further in the opposite direction to decency?

Attached was a flyer for a "Mass Rally in Support of Israel" organised by the Board of Deputies of British Jews and the Jewish Leadership Council, with "the support of the major organisations of UK Jewry", to be held in London this weekend. The flyer proclaims: "End Hamas terror!" No ifs and buts here either. No hint at the unspeakable state terror being unleashed, day after day, by the Israeli military. It defies belief.

So, let me place on record the following fact: the board does not speak for all British Jews and certainly not for this one. Nor does the so-called Leadership Council, nor any of the organisations associated with this misbegotten event. None of them represents me or the Judaism that I cherish and which leads me to say as follows: I condemn utterly the military offensive by the government of Israel against the people of Gaza. The loss of any human life, on whatever side of this conflict, is a terrible thing. At this juncture, though, my heart is with the Palestinians on the ground in the midst of their misery. And I extend my hand to those Israelis who are speaking out against their own government.

For alternative views among Britain's Jews, see the website of Independent Jewish Voices.

This is also rather moving.

Atheist bus complaint rejected

More news on Stephen Green's silly complaint to the Advertising Standards Agency about the atheist bus adverts which say "There's probably no God". Green said:

"Advertisements are not allowed to mislead consumers. This means that advertisers must hold evidence to prove the claims they make about their products or services before an ad appears."

The above complaint resulted in this verdict:

"The ASA council concluded that the ad was an expression of the advertiser's opinion and that the claims in it were not capable of objective substantiation. Although the ASA acknowledges that the content of the ad would be at odds with the beliefs of many, it concluded that it was unlikely to mislead or to cause serious or widespread offence."

I disagree with this verdict because I believe the claim on the buses is capable of objective substantiation. Indeed, it's substantiated.

Source here.

A Level Philosophy One day Conferences 2009

A Level Philosophy One day Conferences 2009

Programme - Thursday 5th March 2009 and Friday 6th March 2009

10.30 Registration
11.00 Chris Horner: Ethics tips for A Level
12.00 Nigel Warburton (Philosophy: The Basics; Philosophy: The Classics): Mill and Plato on Freedom
1.00 - 2.00 Lunch break
2.00 Stephen Law (The Philosophy Files, The Philosophy Gym): Descartes proof that he is not his body
3.00 Michael Lacewing (co-author of Philosophy for AS Level): The origin of God
4.00 End

The venue is Heythrop College, Kensington Square, London W5 8HX, which is just a two minute walk from Kensington High Street tube station.

£16 per student/teacher.
Bookings will be accepted via e mail at and post.
Please note that payment must be received within ten days or the booking will be automatically cancelled.
Cheques should be made payable to HEYTHROP COLLEGE.
Please note that fees are non-refundable.
Confirmation of your booking will be sent along with travel directions.

A sandwich lunch will be provided for teachers.
There is a canteen on site which is open to all visitors selling a range of snacks, drinks, sandwiches and hot food.
Enquiries can be sent to
The college reserves the right to alter the programme.

CFI web forum on events

If you came to our WEIRD SCIENCE event you can now contribute to a web forum on the event at the website: www

Do please contribute!

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Reviews of CFI WEIRD SCIENCE event

Martin has been kind enough to put up links to various reviews of the Weird Science event we put on last Saturday. I had a great time... My talk was probably the most "serious" - Wiseman and French were very funny, as usual, and Ben Goldacre said the "F" word. All three talks were genuinely excellent.
Go here.

Here is Richard Wiseman's video of the amazing floating cork, which he used in his talk.

And also Wiseman's amazing colour-change card trick.

Our next event is God in The Lab, on 21st March. For details go to

Christmas without Christ

Doing a bit of vanity-surfing and just noticed I was quoted here...

Monday, January 19, 2009

"Religion is false, but useful!" Comment on Matthew Parris on religion

Following on from the previous piece, which was a response to Matthew Parris's piece "As an Atheist, I truly Believe Africa Needs God", a few more thoughts on using religion as a social tool.

Perhaps the right way to think about religion as a tool is as a catalyst. It does seem to have a supercharging power. Take our tendency to strive to improve our collective lot, to be benevolent and caring, etc. Add a pinch of religion, and the tendency is magnified.

However, the catalytic power works just as well with negative tendencies, such as the desire to dominate and exploit. Take the subjugation of women, mix in a few drops of the heady brew of religion, and watch how much more entrenched and hard-to-shift the subjugation becomes; add a few drops more, and watch how some become sufficiently intoxicated to start flinging acid in the faces of young girls who dare to attend school. Add a dollop of religion to homophobia, and suddenly the attitude becomes far more difficult to shift, grounded as it now seems to be in holy scripture. Mix some religion into an oppressive regime, and watch how its domination is magnified by the thoughts that God is on their side, that God has ordained them as leaders, that those who reject them are the enemies of God, etc. Take one slightly dodgy but charismatic leader, rub on a bit of religious snake-oil, and watch as he - it's almost always a he - takes on the irresistable persuasive powers of a David Koresh or the Reverend Jim Jones.

The catalytic power of religion is, in and of itself, morally neutral.

Yes, Parris can point to its application in positive ways, and can note how effective it has been in magnifying the positive. Dramatically effective.

But then, it has, often as not, magnified the negative. Dramatically.

Moreoever, once evangelical religion has been introduced into a community, it's a bugger to deal with when things start to go wrong. Attitudes can metamorphize fairly quickly, so that what started out as benign can quickly become highly toxic. And now you're really in trouble, because, being evangelically religious, it's now going to be very hard for any rational arguments and objections to reach them.

Introducing evangelical religion into a situation where there is already a great deal of corruption, homophobia, misogynism, etc. and yes, you may get some good impressive short-term effects. More dramatic effects than you could get by other means. But, boy, you are playing with fire.

Secularist, humanist views combined with a rational rather than a faith-based approach to problems may not have the short-term positive effects of evangelical religion. I admit they probably lack the dramatic impact religion can have.

But, over the long haul, such views are, I'd suggest, far more constructive and beneficial. And far less risky. I point to how Western civilization has gradually improved over the last 400 years since the Enlightenment.

Of course these are largely assertions, not here backed up by evidence, etc. But I think they are plausible claims and put them up for discussion (n.b. I know some religious folk will at this point start banging on about how the Holocaust was the fault of such Enlightenment-inspired secular views.)

Matthew Parris on religion - false, but useful!

Matthew Parris' piece, in which he suggest that, though he is an atheist, he thinks religion is a powerful tool for good in Africa, something he recommends we foster and encourage, has predictably provoked responses from atheists. See previous post.

My small contribution here is just to repeat and edited part of my earlier post Is Religion Dangerous. The moral I wish to draw is, obviously, that even if religion can be a highly powerful and useful tool, that doesn't necessarily mean it's a good idea to use it.

Many, including Keith Ward, recommend religion for social engineering purposes. They claim that (i) it helps build a sense of community, (ii) it makes people happier and healthier, and (iii) it makes them better behaved [more highly motivated to do good, etc.].

Suppose it does. Even if it were useful in these ways, it seems to me there are nevertheless special dangers attaching to the use of religion as a tool.

Religion is immensely powerful and can behave in unpredictable ways. Take the young earth creationists ... now about 100 million Americans, including smart, college educated people.

[Who would have predicted that in just 50 years or so they would come to have such political influence in the US - to the point where even the last President appears to be a convert? Who would have predicted that 12% of British graduates would come to believe it by 2006]

We have here an illustration of the gobsmacking power of religion to get even very smart people to believe palpably stupid things...

Religion, it seems to me, is a bit like nuclear power. Immensely powerful and (arguably) useful. And, perhaps most of the time, it runs quite happily, doing not much harm [and perhaps even quite a bit of good].

But unless it is extremely carefully controlled and monitored, it can very quickly run out of control. Indeed, just as with nuclear power, you can predict the unpredicted. Somewhere along the line, something probably will go wrong, and when it does, you have a toxic situation on your hands. A religious Chernobyl.

Is nuclear power safe, or dangerous? Perhaps it can be used safely, but that's not to deny that it is potentially hugely dangerous. The same, I'd suggest, is true of religion.

Keith Ward agreed with me, by the way.

Let's also not forget that less than five of my lifetimes ago the Catholic Church was still garroting Europeans who failed to believe what the Pope told them. Yes, I know your local vicar seems like a nice chap, but we'd be wise to remember that our freedom from religious oppression and violence is a very recent development.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Response to Matthew Parris from Norm Allen

Source: Africa Needs More Human-Centered Thought and Activism

Norm Allen

On December 27, 2008, the self-professed atheist Matthew Parris argued for religion in Africa in The Times Online, headquartered in the UK. In his article titled “As an atheist, I truly believe Africa needs God,” he spoke glowingly of “the enormous contribution that Christian evangelism makes in Africa….”

I readily admit that missionaries have done some great work in Africa—building roads, clinics, schools, etc. However, missionaries in recent years have also enriched themselves while exploiting the masses, discouraged millions of Africans from using condoms, thereby increasing unwanted pregnancies and the spread of Aids, promoted sexism, contributed greatly to the persecution and deaths of alleged witches, etc. Indeed, Africa provides the perfect example of what Robert Ingersoll said about the historic role of the Catholic Church: “In one hand she carried the alms dish, in the other, the dagger.” The same could be said of organized religion in general.

In Rwanda, Christians were complicit in the genocide that occurred there in the 1990s. Many people were brutally murdered in churches. In Nigeria, Christians and Muslims have been killing each other by the thousands. Throughout Uganda, Zimbabwe, Nigeria and many other African nations, Bible-based homophobia plays a major role in the persecution, and in some cases, murders, of LGBTs.

What Africa needs is what Ingersoll called “a caring rationalism.” The Bible simply contains too many ultra-reactionary and inhumane messages to be blindly embraced by believers. Christian ideas of tolerance are inconsistent with the biblical notion that acceptance of Christ is the only way to reach heaven. The Prince of Peace said he came to bring not peace, but a sword. It is no wonder that there are so many different conceptions of Christianity, not all of them benign.

A humanistic life-stance is the best way to approach the many divisive religious and ethnic conflicts that plague Africa. Human-centered thought and action offer much more for African uplift than piety and prayers ever could. Christian charity is, indeed, commendable. However our appreciation of the missionaries’ alms dish must never blind us to the dagger that so often accompanies it.

Stephen adds: Norm Allen does a great deal of work for CFI in Africa.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Train woes

It's almost 5pm. I am supposed to be live on Little Atoms radio show at 7pm (studio nr. Borough tube station, London), but I went into Oxford railway station at 4.30pm to find there are no trains to London. Now sitting on the bus (which has wireless) but I think it's a long shot I'll make it. Annoying.

But they have promised to plug tomorrow's WEIRD SCIENCE event in anycase.

How Many British Schools Are Covertly Teaching Young Earth Creationism "As Fact"?

The recent revelation that about 30% of secondary school teachers want "creationism" taught in schools reminded me of the results of a survey reported back in 2006, which is still one of the most disturbing educational surveys I've ever seen. If you are not aware of it, it's worth checking out.

Go here.

The original tables of results of the Opinionpanel survey are here (scroll down to 2006)

Students from British Universities were surveyed on a range of questions, including whether they were Young Earth Creationists, and whether Young Earth Creationism had been taught to them by their parents, school, sunday school, etc.

Amazingly, 12% of these undergrads were Young Earth Creationists. But the real stand-out statistic for me was that 19% of students said that they had been taught Young Earth Creationism "as fact" in school.

19%! One in five students. We are not talking mostly Muslim schools either. The figure for those who were of other non-Christian religion was actually much lower.

If 1 in 5 British students are taught in school that it's a fact that the entire universe is less than ten thousand years old and that God made all species as literally described in Genesis, that's a national educational disgrace.

As comparatively few schools (esp. non-Muslim schools) publicly admit to teaching children Young Earth Creationism "as fact", it would appear that much of this teaching is going on under the public radar.

Shouldn't checking up on this - and doing something about it - now be a priority for the Government and for OFSTED? For as I said elsewhere, teaching children that Young Earth Creationism is supported by the available empirical evidence involves teaching them to think in way that are, quite literally, close to lunacy.

In some cases, it may be that the schools themselves are unaware of what's being pushed in their classrooms. I once discovered a YEC science teacher at a top public school - a teacher whose nutty YEC views even the other science teachers were unaware of. Some students then confirmed that this teachers' YEC views were indeed cropping up in his teaching.

Any other anecdotes?

POSTSCRIPT. Put this another way - we have prima facie evidence that Young Earth Creationists now constitute a fifth column in UK schools, presenting YEC "as fact" to perhaps as many as 1 in 5 pupils.

POSTPOSTSCRIPT. The British Government is now clear YEC cannot be taught as fact, or even as a valid theory, in science classes in State schools. See here for their guidelines for teachers. However, there are no statutory guidelines for RE, even for state-funded schools. That's right. None.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Gene Stolzfus talks over next weeks

As you may know I wrote this piece looking at non-violent solutions to the Israeli/Palestinian Conflict for my book Israel, Palestine and Terror.

This guy is giving talks on the subject around the country in next week or two. This is just for your information. Of course, he is a Christian and the venues are all Christian but I am sure they let heathens in.


Pioneering Christian peace activist and organizer Gene Stoltzfus will be in Britain and Ireland from 16 January 2009, speaking about nonviolent intervention in situations of conflict and injustice. With the tragedy unfolding in Gaza, the trip could not be more timely. The visit is part of a larger tour.

Gene Stoltzfus was the director of the Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT) since its founding in 1988 until September 2004. CPT trains and places violence reduction teams in high conflict situations like Iraq, the West Bank, Colombia and various native or indigenous communities in the United States and Canada.

In the Americas, Teams and peacemaker delegations have worked in Chiapas, Vieques, Puerto Rico and Washington DC. Meanwhile, investigative teams have visited Chechnya, Afghanistan, Congo and the Philippines.

Stoltzfus traveled to Iraq immediately before the first Gulf War in 1991 and spent extensive time in Iraq again in 2003, consulting with Muslim and Christian clerics, Iraqi human rights leaders, families of Iraqi detainees and talking with American administrators and soldiers.

Gene's commitment to peacemaking is rooted in his experience in Vietnam as a conscientious objector with International Voluntary Service during the US military escalation there from 1963-68.

He recalls that watching the helicopter personnel unloading their cargo of bloodied bodies in Saigon set him "on the search to make sense of life and death where the terms of survival, meaning and culture don't forbid killing. I had to ask myself," he said, "whether I was as willing to die for my conviction as the Vietnamese and American soldiers all around me were being asked to do."

His peacemaking is also solidly rooted in theology, derived from his own Mennonite commitment, and the theory and practice of nonviolent action, conflict transformation, resistance and social change.

For the most up-to-date information, check out Gene's blog "Peace Talk" at

Dates and venues

16 January, 7:30pm - Sustaining Spirit, Body & Mind for Long Term, Disciplined Peacemaking

Friends’ Meeting House, 43 St. Giles, OXFORD, tel: 01865 557373

17 January, 3:00pm - Case Studies - Peacemakers in the Midst of War

Friends' Meeting House, South Terrace, HASTINGS, tel: 014 2443 7820

18 January, 2:15pm - How can we regain a sense of compassion in the face of the frustrations of activism?

London Islamic Network for the Environment, at 14 Shepherds Hill, LONDON, tel: 0845 456 3960

18 January, 7:30pm - Invitation to Global Peacemaking

Cheap Street Church Hall, Cheap Street, SHERBORNE, email: l.docksey at

19 January, 7:30pm - Following the Call to Peacemaking: the experience of Christian Peacemaker

The Friary Church Hall, Crawley Town Centre, Hasslett Avenue, CRAWLEY tel: 0129 354 2853

20 January, 7:30pm - Iraq as a case study: does nonviolence work in this century?

Friends Meeting House, 2 Church Street, READING, tel: 0118 9671362

21 January, 2:00pm - Case Study — Peacemakers in the Midst of War: Iraq

CCR Training Room, Peace Studies Department, Pemberton Building, BRADFORD, tel: 012 7423 5171

21 January, 7:30pm - Bending Our Lives to Active Peacemaking

South Parade Baptist Church, Kirkstall Lane, Headingley, LEEDS, LS6 3LF, tel: 0113 2754989

22 January, 6:30pm - Peacemaking and Anger

St. Ethelburga’s, 78, Bishopsgate, LONDON, EC2N 4AG, tel: 020 7496 1610

23 January, 6:30pm - Does Nonviolence Work?

Friends’ Meeting House, Hill Street, COVENTRY, CV1 4AN, tel: 024 7667 8735

24 January, 9:30am - A Peacemaking Vision: a Seminar on Realities and Risks

London Mennonite Centre, 14 Shepherds Hill, LONDON, N6 5AQ, tel: 0845 450 0214

25 January, 8:15pm - Case Study — Peacemakers in the Midst of War: Iraq

Cordner Hall, Cooke Centenary Church, BELFAST, BT7 2FW, email: reconsec at

26 January, 7:00pm - Does Nonviolence work in this Century?

Bishop Lloyd's Palace, 51-53 Watergate Row, CHESTER, CH1 2LE, tel: 0759 003 1388

27 January, 7:00pm - Does Nonviolence work in this Century?

Friends’ Meeting House, Dean Street, BANGOR, email: mail at

28 January, 7:00pm - Following the Call to Peacemaking: The Experience of Christian Peacemaker Teams

Evesham Methodist Church, Bridge St, WR11 4SF EVESHAM, email: gematthews at

29 January, 7:00pm - Case Study: Peacemakers in the Midst of War - Iraq

Quaker Meeting House Bean street, HULL, HU3 2PR, tel: 079 5292 8829

30 January, 7:30pm - Burns’ Night: Iraq, A Case Study in Peacemaking

The Christian Centre, Glebe Street, FALKIRK, tel: 013 2471 6231

31 January, 2:00pm - Bending Our Lives to Active Peacemaking

Bull Street Meeting House, 40 Bull Street, BIRMINGHAM, B4 6AF, forbesbarbarae at

Wednesday, January 14, 2009


I'll be live on London's Resonance FM radio show called Little Atoms, which is a live chat show about rationalism, humanism and science. 7-7.30pm.

Each show features a guest from the worlds of science, journalism, politics, academia, human rights or the arts in conversation. This Friday it's me - I'll obviously be plugging the WEIRD SCIENCE event on Saturday (details at

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Christian complains about atheist buses

Stephen Green of Christian Voice has complained to the advertizing Standards Authority about the Atheist Bus Campaign. 800 buses carry an advert saying "There is probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life."

Green has challenged the adverts on grounds of ‘truthfulness’ and ‘substantiation’, suggesting that there is not ‘a shred of supporting evidence’ that there is probably no god.

See the BHA's response here.

This could be a lot of fun. Suppose Green wins - then the BHA can complain about adverts saying "God loves you" etc. on the very same grounds.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Institute of Ideas Event

From Fatwa and Book-Burning to Jihad and Hate Laws: Twenty Years of Free-Speech Wars
Thursday 12 February 2009, 7-9pm @ Bishopsgate Institute, 230 Bishopsgate, London EC2M 4QH

Two speakers will give lectures exploring the impact of the Rushdie affair on our perceptions of free speech, multiculturalism and Islam:

Kenan Malik, author, From Fatwa to Jihad: the Salman Rushdie affair and its legacy (forthcoming)

Tariq Modood MBE, professor of sociology, Bristol University; director, University Research Centre for the Study of Ethnicity and Citizenship

Claire Fox will then chair a panel debating the issues and the audience will also have their say in what promises to be a lively discussion.

Respondents include:

Jo Glanville, editor, Index on Censorship
Stephen Law, Provost, Centre for Inquiry London
Amol Rajan, reporter at the Independent
This event is in association with Index on Censorship and Bishopsgate Institute

Info + tickets

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Face to Faith

Here is something from today's Guardian - the Face to Faith section. I have asked if I can respond...

The source is here.


by Thomas Crowley

You reported a recent poll which indicates about 25% of UK teachers support the teaching of creationism in secondary school science courses (Would you Adam and Eve it? Quarter of science teachers would teach creationism, 23 December). In a sidebar, Professor Richard Dawkins states that it would be a "national disgrace" if such a high percentage of teachers believe this, adding that the teachers must be either "stupid" or "ignorant".

But an important point of confusion involves the poor use of the term "creationism" in the original poll question: "Alongside the theory of evolution and the big bang theory, creationism should be taught in science lessons." The question is ambiguous because there are at least two interpretations of "creationism".

A "hard" definition is that the Earth is about 6,000 years old and that God created man and all the other creatures as in the Book of Genesis. This definition is out of line with virtually all scientific evidence and cannot fit in a science course. Sir Michael Reiss says: "Some students have creationist beliefs. The task of those who teach science is ... to treat such students with respect". I agree - if for no other reason than that sneering sarcasm almost never changes someone's mind.

But a softer definition of creationism is not as easily dismissed. Although science can state a great deal about what followed after the big bang, it cannot in fact explain how "something" (the energy of the universe compressed into a volume the size of a golf ball) arose from nothing beforehand.

This yawning logical gap leaves open the possibility that something else may be going on. The history of life is consistent with Darwinian evolution, although life's increasing complexity - including the very recent appearance of modern man - is also consistent with (but not proof of) the possibility of some special creative agent existing.

A further point of confusion is that "intelligent design" - again a term not properly clarified in the article (or apparently in government guidelines) - is not just a figment of Christian fundamentalist thought. It is embedded in any Christian religion that continues to treat the promise of a messiah, the incarnation and the resurrection as historical fact (the reasoning being that, if God is responsible for creating the big bang, then the incarnation and resurrection would be child's play by comparison).

This could be used to make a case against outright dismissal of the concept of creationism and intelligent design in the science classroom. However, if included at all, it should still take only a small amount of total class time to discuss. And it is essential for any teacher to point out that, even if "soft creationism" and "intelligent design" are true, they cannot be considered science until they make predictions that can be falsified.

But as long as science cannot explain how our universe evolved from nothing, scientists should not be so quick to dismiss the "soft form" of creationism. And the subject certainly does not warrant arrogance from those who seem to think that scientific materialism is the only logical option for the 21st century.

Thomas Crowley is a professor of geosciences at the University of Edinburgh and has previously taught evolution in a US university with many fundamentalist students

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Face to Faith piece

Just stumbled over this old unpublished piece. It was submitted for Face to Faith in The Guardian, but the old editor of that section reacted in a very hostile manner! Of course, it cover stuff I have written about in depth elsewhere.

Face to Faith

Stephen Law

The smoke generated by the battle over faith schools has obscured a far more fundamental dispute – that between liberals and authoritarians.

Liberals believe individuals should be encouraged to think independently and make their own judgements about, say, whether stealing from supermarkets is wrong or if Jesus literally rose from the dead. Authoritarians believe individuals, and particularly children, should defer to some external authority that can make these judgments for them.

The issue here is freedom of thought, not freedom of action. We can all agree children shouldn’t be allowed to do whatever they like. But should they be encouraged to think freely. Liberals say yes. Authoritarians are far less enthusiastic.

This liberal/authoritarian divide cuts across the religious/atheist one. Christians can be Liberal. A Liberal Christian school would teach children about Christianity, but it would also encourage independent critical thought about Christian belief. And of course, atheists can be authoritarian. Stalin and Mao were just as determined as the Holy Inquisition to stamp out free thought.

Suppose your little Johnny ends up with mistaken moral or religious beliefs. A liberal educator will try to explain to him why he is mistaken by giving Johnny reasons and arguments. But for those at the Authoritarian end of the scale, rational persuasion is not an option. Rational persuasion involves getting Johnny to apply his own powers of reason and think for himself – exactly what Authoritarians dislike. Authoritarians prefer other methods.

The most brutal include torture and murder. The Inquisition forced acceptance of religious and moral belief on pain of death. Under Stalin, those found guilty of thought crimes faced a slow death in the Gulag. Nowadays, torture and murder are no longer deemed acceptable ways of shaping belief (though several Islamic states continue to execute unbelievers) But there are still plenty of other techniques available to an enthusiastic authoritarian. These include isolation, control, uncertainty, repetition and emotional manipulation.

Isolation. If, as an authoritarian, you want children to believe what you tell them, it is unwise to let them mix with unbelievers. Better to put them into religious or political schools where they will not be “corrupted”.

Control. Restrict the range of ideas to which children have access. A political or religious authoritarian may remove books from libraries and cancel talks (I have had mine cancelled) on the grounds that they will only “confuse” children.

Uncertainty. Authoritarians tend to play on the discomfort we feel when faced with uncertainty. They often offer a simple set of principles designed to give meaning to and cover every aspect of life. By constantly harping on the vagaries and meaninglessness of life outside their belief system, the pure, geometric certainties offered by a political or religious Authority can be made to seem increasingly attractive.

Repetition. Another popular method of molding minds is rote learning and mindless repetition. This seems to work especially well when applied in a situation in which there is powerful social pressure to conform. Totalitarian regimes are fond of lining up pupils up in playgrounds for a daily recitation of the regime’s key tenets. Regimented acts of worship have the same effect.

Emotional manipulation. Constantly associate your belief system with positives, such as love, brotherhood and happy smiling children. Associate alternatives with negatives: meaninglessness, selfish materialism, amorality, hell, and so on. It’s also a good idea to hang images of Authority – be it God or Joe Stalin – on classroom walls as a constant reminder that, like Big Brother, Authority is always watching.

Kathleen Taylor, a scientist at Oxford who recently published a study of brainwashing, writes:

“one striking fact about brainwashing is its consistency. Whether the context is a prisoner of war camp, a cult’s headquarters or a radical mosque, five core techniques keep cropping up: isolation, control, uncertainty, repetition and emotional manipulation.”

Taylor doesn’t make the connection, but what’s striking about these five techniques is that religious schools have traditionally been heavily reliant upon them. Some will balk at the suggestion that traditional religious schooling of the sort to which many would now like us to return involves brainwashing. But perhaps we should call a spade a spade.

By all means let’s have faith schools. But let’s make sure they are liberal faith schools. An authoritarian religious school is surely just as unacceptable as its political equivalent.