"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

Monday, 30 July 2012

The DofE responds on creationist academy

In this post on the approval of more faith based free schools I said
"The groups applying for Free School status are noticeably more evangelical in nature and are unlikely to confine their religious content to the appropriate places in the syllabus. This is especially true in the case of the proposed Exemplar Academy, a rehash of a bid originally made by the Everyday Champions Church that was, quite correctly, rejected by the DoE. So, why Michael Gove should think that a change of name and the removal of the explicit link with the chuch should have actually changed this group’s creationist agenda is beyond my comprehension"
Well it was obviously beyond the comprehension of the BHA too as they launched a letter writing campaign to Michael Gove, in which I happily participated.
Here is the reply received from his office (emphasis mine):
Thank you for your correspondence, addressed to the Secretary of State, expressing disagreement with his decision to support the Exemplar New Business Academy Free School project with its links to the Everyday Champions Church. I hope you will appreciate the Secretary of State for Education receives a vast amount of correspondence and is unable to reply to each one personally. It is for this reason I have been asked to reply.No Free School is allowed to teach creationism. The Free School application guidance published by the Department now specifically says creationism, intelligent design and similar ideas cannot be taught as valid scientific theories.
Furthermore, the funding agreements for all Free Schools state that divine creation should not be taught as an 'evidence-based view or theory' (a scientific theory) in any lesson: so if a school did do this they would be putting their funding at risk. We are confident that the Free School project you mention will follow the rules, having explored these questions robustly with them at interview.
Prior to entering into a funding agreement, the Academy Trust is required to carry out a consultation about their plans to open a Free School. Consultations can be run in a number of ways including surveys, the launch of a simple website, meetings of key individuals and open public meetings. Academy Trusts also need to demonstrate that they have considered the views of their stakeholders. Most do this by publishing a report setting out the key findings of their consultation.
Every application approved has had to demonstrate that the new school will provide a broad and balanced curriculum. Free Schools are subject to Ofsted inspections in the same way as all other state schools, and the government has powers to intervene in a school where there is significant cause for concern.
Please be assured that the Department will be working with the project mentioned over the coming months to ensure that the assurances they have provided us with are honoured.
The rhetoric is encouraging (it is at least a relief to know that the Department of Education understand what a scientific theory is) but they are being very naïve if they think the Exemplar Academy won’t make it very clear to students what they are expected to believe about the theory of evolution. It is very easy to discuss evolution in a biology class in a “this is what scientists think happened” sort of way and even turn out children who correctly answer questions like “What is the scientific explanation for the diversity of life?” But it is equally easy to have the topic discussed in R.E or during assembly in definitive biblical terms, without claiming divine creation to be an evidenced theory.
What Michael Gove and the DofE need to realise is that fundamentalist Christians are intrinsically dishonest; they may well keep to the letter of the law, but they will not honour its spirit. He is expecting this academy’s staff to teach scientific theories, with which they profoundly disagree, in an independent minded and dispassionate way: Not - a - chance.

Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Tony Blair and his futile ecumenicalism

The Telegraph has an interesting interview with former Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair. Since leaving political office he has converted to Catholicism, the religion of his wife Cherie, and set up his Faith Foundation which “aims to promote respect and understanding about the world's major religions and show how faith is a powerful force for good in the modern world.”
His personal approach is unrelentingly ecumenical and he seems to me to have an almost naïve expectation that dialogues between moderate representatives of different faiths can achieve a rapprochement that will stifle religious extremism.
Under the benign influence at Oxford of the Anglican priest Peter Thompson, young Tony came to believe that faith and reason could be reconciled. From this he concluded that different faiths, especially the ''Abrahamic’’ religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, could build on what they have in common. Now he reads the scriptures of other faiths, and finds his own enriched. In particular, he reads the Koran. ''I see the Koran very much as an outsider. It stands in the great prophetic tradition of trying to return people to the basic principles of spirituality. Taken for its time, it was an extraordinarily progressive declaration of principle. It is also extraordinary for a Christian to read: for example, there are more references to Mary than in the Gospels. The tragedy is that it has been so warped and misapplied.’’
The problem with this is that the people who don’t share his particular view of the Qu’ran presumeably won’t think their understanding is “warped and misapplied”, any more than Christian fundamentalists believe that their literal interpretations are incorrect.
The fault lines in religion are immense; the only thing they have in common is the belief that a supernatural entity is in ultimate control of the world and that they alone have the key to understanding the rules it wants us to live by. Unfortunately they don’t agree on the rules which is where the problem lies.
Blair has experienced this himself:
Mr Blair cites a meeting at the Davos Economic Forum a few years ago. There were representatives of four different faiths on the platform, each with what he calls ''an exclusive truth claim’’ for their religion. He asked them if they thought that only their faith led to salvation. ''It was interesting to see them reacting as politicians react. I spotted all the techniques of walking round it.’’
The fatal flaw with ecumenicalism is exacty this. No religion will give up its exclusive claim to the truth and none of these truth claims can be empirically verified to anybody’s satisfaction. It is impossible to settle the dispute and there is no middle ground, even for the most moderate of faith leaders.
This is not to say that individuals cannot concede that many paths to salvation may exist and indeed liberal interpretations are lived within many faiths. Blair himself is avowedly one of these:
As a Catholic convert, he ''accepts the doctrine of the Catholic Church’’, but ''I’m not a doctrinal ideologue’’. He feels ''no great revulsion, quite the opposite’’ for the Church of England, which he left. He became a Catholic because of his Catholic wife, Cherie, and their family: ''I didn’t really analyse a great deal. I just felt more at home there.’’
But he has thrown in his lot with an organisation that under Ratzinger has become, if anything, more doctrinal, more entrenched and more out of tune with liberal religious sentiment than ever. His personal support for gay marriage for example will not find favour in the Vatican any more than it has with the Anglican Church.
Faith leaders know that paying lip service to ecumenicalism is a requisite for keeping their positions of influence in civil and political society, but they must also be mindful that accepting too much liberal theology weakens the unique selling points of their individual faiths. The C of E is constantly wrestling with this very problem as its creeping concessions to liberalism lead it dangerously close to schism time and again.
Tony Blair has, correctly, identified religious fundamentalism as one of the biggest threats to global society and to give him credit he is using his skill and reputation to try to effect a change. But he is seeing religion through the eyes of a liberal believer and what he sees is not the picture I get looking from the outside. Religions may have some beliefs in common but they posses no truths, merely claims they cannot substantiate and high minded and high level discussions only serve to lend unwarranted credibility to those claims. Secularism, the only possible solution that values individual belief while protecting society from sectarian oppression would be a better goal for him to apply his energy and experience towards, but unfortunately he has fallen victim to the “straw Dawkins” argument:
he also believes that the anti-religion, Richard Dawkins crowd make everything worse. The extreme atheists ''require religious fundamentalists’’ to make their argument for them, so ''We must push back against aggressive secularism’’.
None of the new atheists to my knowledge argue entirely from the narrative of religious fundamentalism; secularism is not dependent on the actions of terrorists, as though they were a ‘necessary evil’ for the movement to exist. Secularists, Dawkins among them, see reason and verifiable data as the route to a fair and decent society. This is not calling for state imposed atheism, people of religious conviction can still argue for the kind of society they want, but religion itself cannot be the raison d’etre because Tony Blair’s ecumenical vision is unattainable, an ineffable carrot offered by religion to match their claims of salvation.

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

GLBTQ, Christian and in holy orders, why?

One of the things that never fail to amaze me is that some GLBTQ individuals not only subscribe to Christianity (and Islam), they also want to be ministers in the Church. But in order to do this they must adopt such an extremely liberal interpretation of Biblical teaching as to make their beliefs completely at odds with the institution they belong to.
Dr Jeffrey John, the Dean of St Albans is a case in point. An openly gay clergyman living in a celibate same sex relationship, who has been twice denied ordination as a Bishop due to his sexuality, believes that the Anglican Church is mistaken in its opposition to gay marriage and has even considered suing them for discrimination, he still obviously wants to represent an institution that cannot, doctrinally, represent him. Dr John says on the Out4Marriage website…
"If you are gay, please don’t judge God by the Church. “The official Church doesn’t speak with integrity on this issue and so, frankly, doesn’t deserve to be listened to […]. If you are gay, then please understand that God made you as you are, and loves you as you are, and if you invite him into your relationship, then of course he will bless you and sustain your love just as much as he blesses and sustains any other marriage.
This of course is the reasonable position; the attitude of the loving God liberal Christians would like to believe exists. It is not however the God of Abraham’s position either in the Old or New Testaments as is easily demonstrated. Liberal Christians will point to the new covenant as established by St Paul who says that Christians have no need to follow the old laws, although Jesus himself is supposed to have had other ideas. Even so, Paul himself condemns homosexual acts specifically in his letters to the Romans.
Of course I am not pointing this out to suggest that the bible is morally correct in this: quite the opposite. Dr John is morally streets ahead of the Bible and the Church he represents, but he is deluded if he thinks that the Christian God is on his side. Personally if I found myself working for an institution so fundamentally at odds with my worldview and lifestyle I would leave it. Setting aside that there is no rational reason to believe in deities of any description, why endorse a church that worships one as bigoted as Yahweh?

Friday, 20 July 2012

On polygraphs and paedophiles

I was interested to hear this snippet of news on the radio today. The government have apparently been conducting a trial in the Midlands involving subjecting convicted sex offenders out on licence to lie detector tests as a way of monitoring their ability to adhere to their licence conditions. The trial, independently assessed by the University of Kent, has been hailed a success because offenders subjected to the test admitted to twice the number of breaches than did controls given standard interviews only.
There are obviously a few ethical issues here, one being that when this scheme is rolled out nationwide and adopted as policy, what will happen to offenders who are deemed by the machine to be lying as polygraph tests are notoriously unreliable. Although claims by the manufactures say that they can be correct up to 95% of the time, independent studies suggest 65% (not a lot more than chance) is a more likely figure.
Part of this is due to the fact that the physiological traits measured by polygraphs (blood pressure, pulse, respiration, and skin conductivity) are only partially indicative of the assumed stress brought on by lying. They can be indicative of stress for other reasons (not least being falsely accused of lying) and they can be absent if the subject is a practiced liar, which sex offenders notoriously are.
Regardless, the results of the trial convincing as they are still require some explanation and I suspect that ignorance of the true efficacy of lie detection is at the root of it. Those subjects who were interviewed under the polygraph probably believed that they could be caught out in a lie and therefore were more forthcoming with the truth, whereas, the controls were almost certainly behaving as they normally would. Which is, from a law enforcement and risk control point of view, still a good argument for using the technique. I just wonder how long its efficacy will last if offenders ever realise that the risk of being caught out is minimal.
Assuming the government and the probation service are aware of the dangers of relying on polygraph evidence and reaonable checks and balances are in place to protect offenders who are genuinely reforming and adhering to their licence, I see no harm in this policy. But the rational that is being presented to the general public for its utility is I think spurious and probably intentionally so.

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

More religious Free Schools approved

My fears about  Michael Gove’s Free Schools initiative are proving to have been justified. In the recent round of approvals for 2013, thirty-three new ‘faith’ schools, one of which is openly creationist’, and a Steiner school have been included.
It was inevitable that given the opportunity to have access to young people and to appropriate state funding to proselytise, religions of all stripes would take advantage of the system. The breakdown according to the BHA is as follows:
Church of England (8) Greek Orthodox (1): Christian (12): Including one creationist. Sikh (5): Jewish (3): Muslim (3): Multi-faith/spiritual (1):
This constitutes a full third of the schools approved in this round and can only serve to increase divisiveness in a generation that will need more than ever to be free of religious and racial intolerance. As a trend I find it extremely worrying especially as there seems to be no clarity on the extent to which such schools can discriminate on religious grounds in respect of admissions or recruitment.
It is extremely unlikely that these schools will be as religiously benign as existing faith schools that have been under the auspices of the state and OFSTED can appear to be. The groups applying for Free School status are noticeably more evangelical in nature and are unlikely to confine their religious content to the appropriate places in the syllabus. This is especially true in the case of the proposed Exemplar Academy, a rehash of a bid originally made by the Everyday Champions Church that was, quite correctly, rejected by the DoE. So, why Michael Gove should think that a change of name and the removal of the explicit link with the chuch should have actually changed this group’s creationist agenda is beyond my comprehension.
I suspect that a certain blind respect for faith is a work here and the government is not seeing the potential for damaging worldviews to be inflicted on the pupils at these schools. It should be sufficient that the parents and faith communities of our country’s children are able to bring them up in whatever tradition they feel is appropriate, without the state reinforcing those beliefs via an education system that should be secular and inclusive.
Children have a right to be exposed to ideas that contradict and conflict with those they hear at home and school is exactly the environment where that should happen. Faith schools cannot be relied upon to deliver impartial information, particularly in respect of evolution and, perhaps more seriously, gender equality issues and even with OFSTED oversight we will never be sure what bigotry they are being fed.

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Legalise the highs, Ken

It’s almost painful to see Justice Secretary Ken Clarke admitting to the Commons home affairs select committee inquiry into drugs, that the tired approach of criminalising their use is failing miserably while at the same time refusing to change track.
"We are all disappointed by the fact that, far from making progress, it could be argued we are going backwards at times. But my own personal view is that I would be worried about losing the deterrent effect of criminalisation of youngsters who start experimenting … One thing that does put them off is that they would get into trouble with the police."
So, getting into trouble with the police deters would be drug users, yet there are more drug users than ever. Yeah right, that makes lots of sense. I know, first hand , that the decision to experiment with recreational drugs has very little to do with their illegality or otherwise. Usually, depending on circumstances, it’s a combination of curiosity, peer pressure and availability as the chances of getting caught in possession of a prohibited substance is actually quite small unless you bring yourself to the attention of the police for other reasons.
The casual use of marijuana, amphetamines and MDMA derivatives such as ecstasy is ubiquitous, not only among the young but also within ‘mainstream’ society. The generations that grew up through the seventies and eighties are more than familiar with the jargon, paraphernalia and effects of recreational drugs and in my personal experience do not suffer from the paranoia about their use and abuse in society to the extent that the government seems to believe they should. In this respect the general public are probably more in tune with reality than the authorities. Ken Clarke puts his position this way:
"I have not reached the stage of that blinding insight about exactly how we are going to improve our record, is the honest truth […] We have been engaged in a war on drugs for more than 30 years. We are plainly losing it. We have not achieved very much progress. The same problems come round and round. But I do not despair – we keep trying every method we can to get on top of what's one of the worst social problems for the country and the biggest single cause of crime."
Well one of the reasons drug use is a social problem, and definitely why it’s a cause of crime is precicely because it’s illegal. Illegality drives up the price of drugs on ‘the street’ (the actual base cost of many of them in their country of origin being very low), attracting already criminal elements into the supply chain so requiring users to associate with dangerous people to obtain them. Illegality also means that production is covert and with no quality control, so that many drugs are contaminated with other more dangerous toxins exacerbating the risk of use. Illegality criminalises otherwise law abiding people for making personal choices about what they consume and their preferred mental state. Illegality makes it difficult for people to seek help if their drug use becomes a problem. Illegality maintains the impression that all drug use is intrinsically a bad thing.
Nobody, well not me at any rate, is arguing that recreational drugs are risk free. They undoubtedly have detrimental effects on some aspects of health, and some are more harmful than others. But society is able to tolerate and control many risky lifestyle choices without making criminals of those that adopt them. Alcohol, nicotine and sugary snacks are all obvious and legal indulgences that can result in poor health outcomes. But so are skiing, rock climbing, sky-diving and a whole host of adrenaline fuelled pursuits that society positively endorses. The fact that a behaviour is a risk to someone’s personal health is not a reason to criminalise it.
But these socially sanctioned behaviours are all regulated to an extent. Alcohol and tobacco are sold under licence and the potential burden to the state of poor health is mitigated by taxation, while some countries are considering treating sugar in the same way. Extreme sports are usually only permitted in appropriate places, where the risk to non participants is minimalised.
This is exactly the way we should treat recreational drugs; legalise them, sell them from suitably licensed premises which in turn source them from legitimatised producers, then tax them but at a price that is not worth smugglers undercutting. You can also make the penalties for illegally importing and supplying drugs as draconian as you like.
The result would be; revenue for the state, controlled dosage and quality control for the users, the marginalisation of criminal networks, opportunities for addiction education, medical supervision and social inclusion for those currently marginalised by the law. The idea that droves of teens would start jacking up in back alleys just because it was legal is ludicrous, drugs are readily available now as Ken Clarke seems to agree.
The real harm is in the prohibition which filters profits into racketeering, people trafficking and terrorism, saddles users with a criminal record and becomes a self fulfilling prophecy creating a vicious cycle of social ills.
It really is time to ‘legalise those highs’ Ken.

Monday, 2 July 2012

Daylight Atheism: Buy this book

If I think back and ask myself how long I have been an atheist, the answer, probably, is most of my life. I can certainly remember declaring a disbelief in the Christian God at my cub scout meeting at the age of maybe nine or so when I was trying to avoid participating in the closing prayer. I left scouting soon afterwards.
However, my serious engagement with atheism as a philosophy and as a social movement is actually only a decade or so old, the first stirrings of which, like so many other “new” atheists originated with the events at the world trade centre on the seventh September 2001. I read Sam Harris’ “The End of Faith” soon after it’s publication in 2004 and already a fan of Richard Dawkins’ evolutionary writing lapped up "The God Delusion” a couple of years later followed swiftly by Dan Dennett’s .’Breaking the Spell’
But following this rush to print of atheist themed books and looking further for thoughts and analysis of the fundamentalist religion phenomenon and the secular response to it I turned to the Internet and the various atheist themed blogs to be found there. It was not long before my attention was caught by a prolific and erudite commenter going by the handle of Ebonmuse and I followed him back to his own websites, the popular blog Daylight Atheism and his collection of essays at Ebonmusings
Daylight Atheism: Adam Lee
The mind behind both of these excellent resources is Adam Lee and his first book also called Daylight Atheism has just been published for the Kindle. The book, particularly in the first half draws heavily on the essays found in Ebonmusings, but sewn together in a sequence of arguments that plainly and cogently make the case for atheism and explain the problems with the religious worldview. Lee tackles key theological and philosophical topics such as the problem of evil and succinctly rebuts the apologetics of theologians such as Alvin Plantinga’s Free Will Defense. He also firmly defends atheism as a positive philosophy and gives the lie to the oft-heard religious assertion that we are all nihilistic, hedonistic, amoral communists. In this respect the opening chapters are a perfect atheism 101 both for newly minted atheists and the interested faithful alike.
What really sets this book apart from other atheist polemics is Lee’s suggestion for a post religion system of ethics. Following on from ideas developed on his blog, he calls it Universal Utilitarianism which he précis as
Always minimize both actual and potential suffering; always maximize both actual and potential happiness.
He argues succinctly that he considers morality to be objective if from natural rather than Platonic origins and that his system both avoids the pitfalls of other forms of Utilitarianism while steering a clear path between Moral Relativism and Divine Command. Although more competent moral philosophers than me (most of them) may raise eyebrows at the casual assumption of objective morality, there is no doubt that his ideas offer a practical and pragmatic way for society to reach moral conclusions that are independent of culture and religion.
The book concludes with some powerful and, in places, quite poetic guidance for those people of faith contemplating doubt and the possibility that they are atheists for the first time. For mainstream readers in the U.K this section of the book may seem a little overwrought living as we do in a society where the usual response to saying you’re an atheist is “so what?” but in Lee’s America atheists are among the most vilified of minorities in the country and leaving religion can also mean alienation from community, family and lost opportunities for work. It is also worth remembering that in multicultural Britain we have ethnic communities where atheists are almost certainly struggling with the same issues and I would hope that his words would be just as comforting and useful to them as to his compatriots.
This book has been a long time coming. It was back in 2008 that I was privileged to see an early draft and along with several others allowed to offer my opinion. Finally published by Big Think, Lee’s blogging home since 2011, the finished product deserves a place alongside the now near canonical output of the original four horsemen.