Thursday, 26 November 2009

Our December Meeting

For the December Meeting we will be trying The Dripping Well public house. This is at 1 Dorset Place, though the main entrance is in Cambridge Road, which is the main road from the town centre uphill towards Bohemia.

We will gather there from 6:30 pm, and our End of Year Quiz will begin at 7pm. There will be a selection of books as prizes. The 1st, 2nd and 3rd prize winners will have 1st, 2nd and 3rd choice from the books. You can enter as an indivisual or as a team of two, but there is only one book prize per team I'm afraid, so you need to decide beforehand who gets the book if you win! There is no entry fee, and you don't have to be a regular supporter or even a humanist to take part.

There should also be time for relaxed general discussion before and after the quiz.

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Darwin, God and the Human Species

Yesterday I went to Westminster Abbey for the lecture by Nick Spencer, of Theos, publicising his book on Darwin and God. On the whole his treatment of the subject was objective, based mainly on Darwin's extensive correspondence, much of which survives. He admits that Darwin lost his christian belief in a benevolent god, and that at the end of his life he was an admitted agnostic. Any god belief that he might have had would have been in a deistic creator who left the process of evolution to natural selection.

Nick Spencer objects to modern evolutionists going further than Darwin and arriving at an atheistic viewpoint, but much more knowledge of the nature of the universe and of life has emerged since 1882. In the question and answer session at the end he cited Simon Conway Morris, the Cambridge biologist who in Life's Solution claims that evolutionary convergence would "inevitably" lead to the evolution of some creature like the human species. This argument appeals to christians who see human beings as the pinnacle of creation, but it is also attractive to old-fashioned "progressive" humanists, like myself, who see the emergence of rationality as the spearhead of evolution.

I've said some more about my visit to Westminster Abbey in my personal blog the "Jeepyjay Diary".

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Doubting Darwin

The Theos Thinktank has published a survey with the title Doubting Darwin of the differing attitudes of people, especially creationists, to evolution. Their interview approach doen't seem to have been to ask any probing questions, but simply to accept what people choose to say. Their conclusion, that religious fundamentalists take belief in god and the sacred texts as axiomatic, and try to distort scientific discoveries to fit within that straitjacket, is rather obvious. Why believers choose this starting point, rather beginning with an open mind and basing their worldview simply on the evidence available, they do not investigate.

Friday, 20 November 2009

Some Programmes to Listen To

I've just noticed that there is a play on BBC Radio 4 on Saturday, 2:30, which is a version of the 1925 Scopes "Monkey" trial in Tennessee. This is not the theatre or film version, which was revived recently at the Old Vic, but is based on the actual trial transcript.

I wonder if anyone will similarly dramatise the more recent Dover trial of "Intelligent Design".

Also, the "Essay" series on BBC Radio 3, weekdays 11 pm, is returning to its "Enlightenment Voices" theme with five programmes on Mary Wollstonecraft.

The Population Question

Here are some articles that may help to clear up some of the confusion spread by the lecture of the Chief Rabbi earlier this month.

Tom Rees explains Why Sacks is wrong on religion and fertility by citing the correct statistics.

Caspar Melville thinks the non-religious have their own rather more subtle strategy: Anti-natal atheists?

The Optimum Population Trust thinks the UK Population Increase 'Out of Control', but is unclear on the methods to bring it under control.

Thursday, 19 November 2009

Jabez and the Skeptical Voter

There is a new Wiki website called Skeptical Voter that has been set up to record the views of MPs in regard to humanist issues like evidence-based medicine and scientific advice. At first I couldn't find the Hastings and Rye MP on their list. There is another Michael Foster who is MP for Worcester. Our man is listed under J as Michael Jabez Foster. Is that really his name? Anyway there is very little information about him so far. So those in the know should get to work.

Saturday, 14 November 2009

Our November Meeting

Thanks to Alexander Hellemans for introducing our discussion on Evolution, Altruism and Ethics on Thursday Evening. Thanks also to our twelve Supporters who braved the heavy winds and made interesting contributions to the debate. Especially to Helene who looked after the finances and Elaine who made the coffee.

Generally I think we ended up being dubious about ethical advances in recent history being attributable to "evolution", certainly to biological evolution. If "social evolution" occurs in some way analogous to biological evolution, the mechanisms have yet to be elucidated. Perhaps there is something in meme theory, but it needs to show more results before it can be regarded as scientific.

Personally I'm happy with traditional explanations of the advances that have occurred over the last few centuries, which put them down to reason, logic, enlightenment philosophers like Voltaire, and radical social reformers like Tom Paine, Richard Carlile, Robert Owen and many others, and of course the general advance of scientific knowledge.

The new venue at the Arts Forum got a unanimous vote of approval. I'm sure we will meet there again, though the December meeting, being a Quiz, will probably be held at a pub, though the venue is yet to be decided. Several of our regular Members were unable to attend due to family and business commitments. And I received last-minute phone calls from two new-comers who pulled out for similar reasons. So I think our group is in a healthy position for next year. I have approached James Williams of Sussex University as a possible speaker for our February meeting, but this has yet to be confirmed.

Thursday, 12 November 2009

Strange Thought for the Day

This morning's Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4, is one of the weirdest I've heard for a while. The author is named as Rhidian Brook, but without any details of his affiliations.

He begins with a story about receiving £1000 in a brown envelope through his letterbox from an unknown donor which he used to pay off his rent arrears. He says "The anonymity of the giver left me with no one to thank but God". He says nothing about reporting the find to the police, or how he decided it was meant for him. Might it have been put through the wrong door? Might it have been protection money, or a blackmail payment, or from a drug deal?

Then he goes on to the recent big lottery winners. "I found myself wondering who or what they would thank for the millions they had randomly won." and "The lottery almost certainly transgresses the 1st 8th and 10th commandments." Later he says: "they are people experiencing a shocking unmerited favour". Is he trying to make them feel bad about their luck?

Then he comes to the theology: "While lots were drawn in biblical times they were always a means of determining the will of god and underpinned by a belief that nothing in the universe is down to chance." Does he mean to claim that this is still the case, that nothing is due to chance? Surely this is the belief of fortune tellers and astrologers. This is simple reversion to primitivism.

He then talks of God's "amazing grace" whatever that is. If God is responsible for deciding who wins the lottery he is presumably also responsible for deciding who loses, in life as well as in the lottery. Religion seems unable to come to terms with the undoubted role of Chance in the universe.

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

UN in Crisis over Religion

Many humanist and even religious bodies have signed a statement urging the UN not to pass a binding resolution against "defamation of religion" in December. This would be the culmination of a series of earlier non-binding resolutions. The statement argues that such a resolution, effectively making criticism of religious beliefs a criminal offence, goes against all the principles of human rights and free speech. If such a resolution was passed it would be the greatest set-back to the UN for many years and undermine its essential principles.

Monday, 9 November 2009

Darwin's Delight

More good news about evolution in primary schools.

The schools minister, Diana Johnson, has confirmed the government is ready to put evolution on the primary curriculum, a blueprint for which is to be published in the next few weeks.

In the Guardian's Comment is Free column Andrew Copson of the BHA welcomes this as "A birthday present for Darwin". [Did he mean a Christmas New Year's Present?!] He wrote:

It's true that evolution can seem a difficult concept and that most resources on evolution are targeted towards pupils at secondary schools. But the wealth of new works published in this celebratory year for very young children, from What Mr Darwin Saw to Evolution Revolution or even older works like How Whales Walked into the Sea or Mammals Who Morph demonstrate that it is a subject easily made enjoyable and comprehensible by young children. This is a good thing, because as evolution is arguably the most important concept underlying the life sciences, providing children with an understanding of it at the earliest possible age will surely help lay the foundations for a surer scientific understanding later on.

I wish I'd had these books when I was at primary school.

Sunday, 8 November 2009

Remembrance Without Religion

While looking back at articles I've published in the past I came across this one on the Leicester Secularist blog from 12 November 2006 that seemed worth revisiting.

I've been thinking, along with the daylight atheist what would replace religion if we ever manage to get rid of it? These thoughts came to me after watching (on television) the remembrance day ceremonies at the cenotaph this morning and in the Albert Hall yesterday evening. It occurred to me that these ceremonies are essentially secular. It is only when the bishops come out to say their little piece, and in the wording of some of the hymns and verses, that the supernatural or theological comes into the picture.

The remembrance day ceremonies essentially provide encouragement for people whose lives are bound up in service to the state, as represented by the monarchy, or to society. That is service to all of us in providing protection, safety, security so that we can carry on our peaceful activities. The ceremonies provide assurance that lives lost in this dangerous work are appreciated by society as a whole, and also that the authorities deserve continued service.

It seems to me that very little value would be lost from these ceremonies if the religious aspects were removed. We are adult enough to know that the dead live on only in our remembrance, and don't need fairytales of an afterlife in a heaven. This is why continued remembrance is important to us.

Friday, 6 November 2009

Chief Rabbi Confuses Everyone

A lecture given by the UK Chief Rabbi, Lord Sacks, to the Theos Think Tank has been variously reported in the media. Theos has the headline "Religion set to play a bigger role". The Guardian "Falling birth-rate is killing Europe". The "Europe is dying from secularism". The Times "Islam must separate religion from power". The actual text of his speech, a 12-page MS.doc, can be downloaded from the Theos site. Here is part of the text:

Now I am going to do something here which is deliberately provocative, but why should the angry atheists get all the best tunes? So let me give you two very provocative examples; let me begin with the neo-Darwinians. After all, it’s their year – the 200th anniversary of Darwin and 150th of The Origin of Species. I haven’t seen this argument ever presented before; a five step neo-Darwinian refutation of neo-Darwinism.

1. A person is, in Richard Dawkins’ beautiful phrase, “a gene’s way of making another gene”. So forget religion, forget values, forget ideals, its all about reproduction; handing on our genes to the next generation.

2. Europe today is the most secular region in the world.

3. Europe today is the only region in the world which is experiencing population decline. As you know, zero population growth – a stable population – requires an average of 2.1 children for every woman of child-bearing age in the population. Not one European country has anything like that rate today. Here are the 2004 figures: In the United Kingdom: 1.74, in the Netherlands: 1.73, Germany: 1.37, Italy: 1.33, Spain: 1.32 and Greece: 1.29.

4. Wherever you turn today anywhere in the world, and whether you look at the Jewish or Christian or Muslim communities, you will find the more religious the community, the larger, on average, are its families.

5. The major assault on religion today comes from the neo-Darwinians.

From which it follows, as night doth follow day, that if you are a true neo-Darwinian believer you want there to be as few neo-Darwinians as possible. QED.

Now, actually, it sounds like a joke, but beneath it, is a very serious point indeed. Parenthood involves massive sacrifice: of money, attention, time and emotional energy. Where today, in European culture with its consumerism and its instant gratification ‘because you’re worth it’, in that culture, where will you find space for the concept of sacrifice for the sake of generations not yet born?

I thought neo-Darwinism was the modern theory of evolution, not a political philosophy of consumerist capitalism! There are other parts of his talk where he advocates compromise with secularism and cooperation with science. Behind it all, as the Times seems to have detected, is a fear of Islam taking over, though this si not explicit in the text.

Bad Faith Award, Vote Now!

The New Humanist's annual Bad Faith Award is open for voting. Unfortunately my suggestion of the UN, or the part of it responsible for trying to make Islam immune from criticism, has not been included, but there is a colourful choice of candidates.

Monday, 2 November 2009

World's oldest spider web in Bexhill!

Spider webs encased in amber which were discovered on an East Sussex beach have been confirmed by scientists as being the world's oldest on record, says the BBC. The amber, which was found in Bexhill by fossil hunter Jamie Hiscocks and his brother Jonathan, dates back 140 million years to the Cretaceous period.

Sunday, 1 November 2009

Was That All There Was?

On Saturday I went to the BHA conference of Humanist Philosophers with the title "Evolutionary Theory: Is This All There is?". The most interesting speaker to my way of thinking was Susan Blackmore who expounded the theory of Memes in an enthusiastic manner. She was however challenged by Simon Blackburn who wondered whether the theory was really scientific and could be "falsified" as the philosopher Popper requires.

The second part of the conference, on Value and Virtue I found unhelpful since the speakers seemed to be bound to the idea of there being absolute standards of "the Good", whereas I've long taken a more relativist view, that it depends who or what it is Good for. There was much mention of Altruism, and I wanted to ask why there seemed to be a general assumption that Altruism is a Good thing. Aren't suicide bombers Altruists, since they are giving up their lives to a cause?

The last session was on Evolutionary Psychology and the meaning of life. Regrettably I don't seem to have much recollection of what was said, probably because it didn't amount to very much. Richard Norman said some things that I'm sure were very sensible but not at all exciting. I see that there is a programme on BBC Radio 4 on Monday at 9pm on Evolutionary Psychology, fronted by Steve Jones, with the title "Aping Evolution" which may be more stimulating.

In the final debate, in which all the seven contributors were on the platform, Susan Blackmore was again the most memorable.

Among the audience I met three of our Supporters, who have attended our past meetings, though they hadn't travelled up from Hastings. The subject of the conference clearly overlaps with that of our own November meeting.