"Religion is a hypothesis about the world: the hypothesis that things are the way they are, at least in part, because of supernatural entities or forces acting on the natural world. And there's no good reason to treat it any differently from any other hypothesis. Which includes pointing out its flaws and inconsistencies, asking its adherents to back it up with solid evidence, making jokes about it when it's just being silly, offering arguments and evidence for our own competing hypotheses...and trying to persuade people out of it if we think it's mistaken. It's persuasion. It's the marketplace of ideas. Why should religion get a free ride"

Greta Christina

Friday, 28 October 2011

St Pauls and the Occupation: Not a lot to say really

The former Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey has taken a swipe at the dean and chapter of St Paul’s Cathedral over their handling of the Occupy London protest.
He seems to be siding with canon chancellor Giles Fraser, who resigned yesterday over suggestions that the Cathedral may now take legal steps to have the protesters removed.
In an article for the Telegraph he wrote
One moment the church was reclaiming a valuable role in hosting public protest and scrutiny, the next it was looking in turns like the temple which Jesus cleansed, or the officious risk-averse ’elf ’n safety bureaucracy of urban legend
Actually I’ve been equivocating about bothering to comment on this particular incident, despite it having a fairly high profile in the press. The cathedral has been closed to the public, ostensibly on health and safety grounds since Giles Fraser appeared to sanction the occupation of the area, resulting in the loss of some £20,000 per day in tourist revenue, but it has been difficult to tell whether this was a genuine concern or a passive-aggressive ploy to persuade the occupation to end.
In the event it actually now appears to be a conflict of opinion between members of the cathedral clergy, pitting a progressive liberal faction against a more conservative administration.
Carey and Fraser seem to be seeing this as an opportunity to align the Anglican Church with a popular liberal socialist agenda, in support of peaceful protest and grass roots activism. The Dean appears to be more concerned with revenue and displaying a more traditional church conservatism. There are similar stories of progressive Christians supporting the Occupy Wall Street protest in New York.
I have to be honest; I don’t really have a dog in this fight. The “Occupy” demonstrations don’t really seem to have much focus and whilst I support the peoples right to protest it’s not really clear what they are protesting against. I am not personally convinced that capitalism or even globalisation are unmitigated evils, so whilst highlighting the excesses and unfairness they can engender is fine and dandy, no one seems to be suggesting viable alternatives.
As for St Paul’s; they can’t have it all ways. If they want to be relevant and down with the kids on this they should shut up, be tolerant and stop playing games. The protest will have a natural life of its own and will wind down eventually without the church having to tie itself in ethical knots. Essentially as with all things, the church doesn’t really have anything useful to say here, as you can spin the Christian message to support any political or social agenda you like, as is evidenced by the Tea Party in the U.S. That dichotomy of opinion now appears to be evident in the microcosm of this little spat, but it should surprise nobody and concern us not a jot.

Monday, 17 October 2011

Good News

Back in March I wrote about a prospective Free School prepared to teach creationism as part of its ethos. Well, I'm pleased to report that its application has been refused, and for all the right reasons
The school’s bid was rejected on Monday, and the reason is now known. In having their bid rejected, the Church was told by the Department for Education that ‘The Secretary of State carefully considered your application, the views and beliefs of your organisation as set out in your application, your responses at interview and information about your organisation available in the public domain. He was unable to accept that an organisation with creationist beliefs could prevent these views being reflected in the teaching in the school and in its other activities. It is his firm view that the teaching of creationist views as a potentially valid alternative theory is not acceptable in a 21st century state funded school.’ The Church is now planning to re-apply for 2013, and is adamant that they would only teach the story of creation in RE.
This particular school was very high profile and many secularists wrote to Micheal Gove about their concerns for this particular bid. This proves that secular activism works, however we need to stay vigilant. Every round of approvals for free schools has a number of faith based applicants and few can be trusted to teach science in an unbiased Way. Until the secularisation of Children's education can be assured, every faith school needs scrutiny on the same level.

"There's no science without metaphysics", or is there?

Have you ever had one of those conversations where, having admitted you are an atheist in Christian company you find yourself, yet again defending the scientific method as the only objective way of knowing things?
If you are unlucky, you’ll be subjected to a lot of metaphorical arm waving and claims that you are just blind to the evidence of God around you and stuttering badly informed appeals to the cosmological argument.
If you are luckier, as I was recently, you may get the argument that while the scientific method works up to a point, modern hypotheses for the nature of reality are more metaphysics than science.
There is some validity in this and so at least exercises the mind to explain. Take for example the standard model of particle physics with its exotic array of sub-atomic particles, endowed with flavours and spins to account for the diverse forces observed in nature.
A reasonable person could easily conclude that the existence of these particles is pure fantasy, that they have never been observed directly and any pretence that we really understand what they “look” like, is simply that.
However, said reasonable person is perhaps overlooking the fact that all of science is about constructing models. Newton had a model of gravity, as did Einstein, both of which work up to a point depending on circumstances but what is certain is that neither of them were absolutely correct. This inconvenient truth however does not prevent dropped objects from falling, or satellites staying in orbit.
This is really the point. Modern science can look like metaphysics but despite its esoteric appearance, it works. Without theoretical effects like quantum tunnelling your mobile 'phone wouldn’t function and the lack of direct observation of the phenomena is irrelevant to its efficacy.
This is why it is wrong to point to, say, string theory and insist that just because it is empirically un-falsifiable at the moment all sorts of epistemological relativism is justified. The statement “No-one has ever seen an electron ergo God”, is false and models of the world that require the existence of gods singularly fail to work as anyone who has prayed for a signal on a broken mobile could testify.

Friday, 7 October 2011

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Funny, but fail

A Christian friend of mine shared this on Facebook recently. It's funny... no really, it is. As a caricature of the atheist worldview it works and as an atheist I take it in good part. Let's be fair, atheists are fond of similar caricatures of religious people that represent all faith positions as irrational and unthinking. Now of course you will have seen the obvious holes in the argument, but phrased as a joke we may forgive the dinosaur references and egregious omission of evolution by natural selection as a reason other than "magic".
The interesting bit is the appeal to the cosmological argument at the top, because this is where the joke really fails. For one thing, this is a straw man; no atheist except the laziest would maintain that "nothing magically exploded..." The big bang is a well tested theory, there is little doubt that as a cosmological event it happened at a specific distance away in time from now in the order of 14 billion years. Observations by various telescopes have failed to falsify the predictions contingent upon the big bang and as a working model of the observable universe it seems sound. However, hypotheses of the state of the universe preceding that event are still speculative and largely immune to experimental falsification. Consequently all scientists and most sceptics would say; "Hey! Just now, we don't know"
If this joke is representative of how theists interpret our position, we have work to do. It is work that won't go away just by pointing out the absurdity of the theistic position (which I did on Facebook anyway, 'cos you have to) as the real points are not in the scoring, but in the understanding of what science can reveal now and where its current limitations are.
It is, or seems to be, inevitable that the further science probes into the mysteries of this immense, complex and beautiful universe we inhabit the more improbable specific creation myths will become. It is also probable that, "common sense" perceptions of the universe will become undermined as working models become ever more abstract, not only to the layman but even the moderately scientifically literate.
That is both the comic appeal of this caricature and the root of its failure . It's not the literality, as there is none; It's the simplicity.

Monday, 3 October 2011

BC/AD Vs BCE/CE on the BBC

What is it with this Christian persecution complex? It seems some Christians are never happy unless they can prove their precious and over privileged beliefs are being marginalised or “banned”.
This time it is over the substitution of the secular BCE (Before Common Era) and CE (Common Era) for the “traditional” BC and AD on the B.B.C Religion and Ethics web site.
Since the site is for all flavours of religion this seems fair enough to me, after all what relevance is Anno Domini to a Buddhist? Also BCE/CE is the accepted academic format so would seem the logical choice.
Some people have protested that there is a BBC wide edict against the use of BC/AD, but this has been denied by Aaqil Ahmed the B.B.C head of religious programming.
"We have issued no editorial guidelines or instructions to suggest that anyone in the BBC should change the terms they use."
In any event colloquially many people read CE as Christian Era instead of Common Era, which is fine and makes some logical sense. The abbreviations themselves have also been around for some time
The English phrase "common Era" appears at least as early as 1708, and in a 1715 book on astronomy is used interchangeably with "Christian Era" and "Vulgar Era"
There is a definite oversensitivity to issues like this lately. Christians (and the more generally religious) don’t seem to realise the difference between not privaliging their world view and attacking it. Neither this country or the world at large is predomonantly Christian and with luck the last census will indicate this country isn’t even mostly religious, we shouldn’t need public discourse to be littered with assumptions of religious truth where other secular alternatives are available.