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religion – DC's Improbable Science

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This was the title of a meeting organised by the Bristol University Atheist Agnostic and Secular Society on 1st November. The meeting wasn’t recorded, but here is (more or less) what I said.

bristol poster

 

I’m not quite sure why I’m here, because the fantasies of religion seem to me much like the fantasies of quack medicine, not only morally offensive, but also simply boring. Fruitless speculations about the existence of gods is about as useful a way to spend time as fruitless speculations about whether there really are fairies at the bottom of your garden.

Of course people are free to believe in any daft thing they want, as long as it doesn’t harm anyone else.  The problem is that daft beliefs about religion, just like daft beliefs about medicine, do harm other people.  I suppose it’s my job to point out that neither religion nor philosophy are likely to allow you to understand the world, whereas science has, at least, got a chance of doing so.  It has made a small start already.

What I like about science is that it is undogmatic. When the facts change you are forced to change your mind. If the facts contradict your theory, then your theory is wrong.

Very often, you have simply to say “I don’t know”.  In contrast, religious people virtually never change their minds and very rarely say they “don’t know”.  They invent pseudo-explanations, like “god did it”, for just about anything, and justify it with quotations from holy books. The holy books are so inconsistent, often downright weird, that you can pick a citation that justifies whatever your opinion was in the first place.  You might as well cite a book of magic spells.

I’d maintain that philosophers of science have contributed very little of substance to the conduct of science, but I’ll miss that bit out because I wrote about it last week,. 

Dr Baggini, among others, has claimed that the “new atheists” are too strident, and that they only antagonise moderate atheists (see The New Atheist Movement is destructive, though there is something of a recantation two years later in Religion’s truce with science can’t hold). 

I disagree, for two reasons.

Firstly, people like Richard Dawkins are really not very strident.  Dawkin’s book, The God Delusion, is quiet and scholarly. It takes each of the arguments put forward by religious people, and dissects them one by one.  It’s true that, having done this, he sets forth his conclusions quite bluntly. That seems to me to be a good thing. If your conclusions are stifled by tortuous euphemisms, nobody takes much  notice. Just as in science, simple plain words are best.

The second, and more important, reason that I like Dawkin’s approach is that I suspect it’s the only approach that has much effect.  There is a direct analogy with my own efforts to stop universities giving BSc degrees in subjects that are not science. Worse, they are actively anti-science.  Take for example, homeopathy, the medicine that contains no medicine.  I started by writing polite letters to vice chancellors.  Usually they didn’t even have the courtesy to reply.  All efforts to tackle the problem through the “proper channels” failed.  The only thing that has worked was public derision.  A combination of internal moles and Freedom of Information Act requests unearthed what was being taught on these courses. Like Westminster’s assertion that “amethysts emit high Yin energy”.  Disclosure of such nonsense and headlines like

“Professor Geoffrey Petts of the University of Westminster says they “are not teaching pseudo-science”. The facts show this is not true

are certainly somewhat strident. But they have worked.  Forget the proper channels if you want results. Mock what deserves to be mocked.

Religion is often immoral

When a pair of besuited Mormons knock on the front door, there are two reactions.  Most people hide under the kitchen table.  I don’t. I invite them in. It usually goes something like this. “why don’t you believe in god?”.  To which I respond, “I don’t believe in god on moral grounds.  All religions that I have encountered teach immorality”

This response is greeted with incredulity and indignation.  You may think, is a bit strong, so let’s have some examples. The bible says (amongst many contradictory things)

Deuteronomy , chapters 7 & 20. and Joshua, chapters 6, 8, 10, 11, 14, etc.: After wandering in the desert for four decades, God ordered the Hebrews to invade the "promised land" and totally exterminate "the Hittites, and the Amorites, the Canaanites, and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites"leaving "alive nothing that breathes." They were to fight and kill the soldiers of these groups, and then murder the defenseless elderly, women, youths, children, infants, and newborns. The book of Joshua records the progress of the genocide, city by city:

Deuteronomy 21
 20. And they shall say unto the elders of his city, This our son is stubborn and rebellious, he will not obey our voice; he is a glutton, and a drunkard.
 21. And all the men of his city shall stone him with stones, that he die: so shalt thou put evil away from among you; and all Israel shall hear, and fear.

and the Koran says

“The woman and the man guilty of adultery or fornication—flog each of them with hundred stripes: Let no compassion move you in their case, in a matter prescribed by God, if ye believe in God and the last day.”[Quran 24:2] “

If these aren’t deeply immoral, I don’t know what is. This gratuitous cruelty isn’t just Old Testament either. This is what persuaded me that religion is bad.

When I was about 15 I went to a summer camp which turned out to be run by christian evangelists (my parents swore they didn’t realise that it was a brain-washing camp).  I was converted and became rather earnest.  Then, at 18, I met a nurse.   Being on Merseyside, she was Irish. And being 18, I was rather interested in sex.  The price of sex was to go with her to mass, so of course I went.  It was Easter and they were doing the Twelve Stations of the Cross.  I still recall watching this, with mounting horror.  The priests were just enjoying it too much.  It was almost like a sado-masochistic orgy.  The priests seemed to be almost masturbating.   It was simply sick. Quite revolting.

Once, after walking in the Dolomites, I wrote to the Italian Tourist Authority to complain that my holiday was spoiled because every time I got to the top of a mountain, I was greeted with a scene of graphic torture (a crucifix). It is very offensive to any normal human.
 
Of course, since then, it’s turned out that a large number of priests were not just enjoying the torture in their heads, but had been acting out their nasty fantasies through rape of real children.  And that the Church (including the present pope) had gone to great lengths to conceal their activities from m the public and from the police.

The constant emphasis on guilt is horrible for adults. But telling happy young children that they are guilty sinners is obnoxious. It is a form of child abuse. And catholic schools that decorate classrooms with scenes of torture corrupt young minds.  Indoctrinating children in one particular sect of one religion are not part of a civilized society.  It promotes misunderstanding and prejudice between one child and another. This sort of divisive brainwashing is ghastly.

Ludicrously, when you pass 18, the law reverses itself.  Up to the age of 18 you are encouraged by moral politicians (you know, like Blair and Gove) to promote religious segregation but once you pass 18, that sort of behaviour would, very properly, be illegal. The Universities Tests Act (1871) made it illegal for a university discriminate on grounds of religion, as governments actively encourage schools to do. (The Act was passed, of course, to bring Oxford and Cambridge up to the standards set by UCL in 1826.)

Then, of course, there is the church’s contribution to the spread of AIDS, by telling direct lies about condoms. The list goes on and on.

And these people want to tell us about morals? You must be joking.

When Napoleon mentioned to the great mathematician, Laplace, that God is not mentioned in the Me’chanique ce’leste, Laplace replied, " Sire, I did not need that hypothesis." When Napoleon later reported this reply to Lagrange, the latter remarked, "Ah, but that is a fine hypothesis. It explains so many things."

History doesn’t relate whether Lagrange’s comment was deeply ironical, but I like to think it was. It hits the nub of the problem.  Religion explains nothing whatsoever, just muddles the ideas, and replaces one unknown with another.

At the time of the Reformation, Sir Thomas More was fond of burning heretics at the stake (merely possessing a bible in English was enough to get you tortured to death). .The protestants were no better, of course: they eventually decapitated More. But it won’t do to say that these things happened in the 16th century. In the 20th Century the pope declared the heretic-burner to be saint (one of the curious bits of make-believe that catholics seem to enjoy). Worse still, in 2000, Pope John Paul II declared Thomas More to be the “heavenly patron of statesmen and politicians” (whatever that means).

And of course it still goes on. Catholics and protestants kill each other. Sunnis and Shias kill each other. It’s characteristic of organisations whose beliefs are based on myths to be deeply aggrieved by people whose myths differ in some trivial detail. It happens in alternative medicine too. It’s all summed up in the "religious joke of the year".

I was walking across a bridge one day, and I saw a man standing on the edge, about to jump. I ran over and said: "Stop. Don’t do it."

"Why shouldn’t I?" he asked.

"Well, there’s so much to live for!"

"Like what?"

"Are you religious?"

He said, "Yes."

I said, "Me too. Are you Christian or Buddhist?"

"Christian."

"Me too. Are you Catholic or Protestant?"

"Protestant."

"Me too. Are you Episcopalian or Baptist?"

"Baptist."

"Wow. Me too. Are you Baptist Church of God or Baptist Church of the Lord?"

"Baptist Church of God."
 
"Me too. Are you original Baptist Church of God, or are you Reformed Baptist Church of God?"

"Reformed Baptist Church of God."

"Me too. Are you Reformed Baptist Church of God, Reformation of 1879, or Reformed Baptist Church of God, Reformation of 1915?"

He said: "Reformed Baptist Church of God, Reformation of 1915."

I said: "Die, heretic scum," and pushed him off.

In a nutshell, my objection to religion is that, with occasional honourable exceptions, it spreads immorality and violence. 

Of course non-religious people can be just as immoral and violent, but, in the words of Stephen Weinberg:

"for good people to do evil things, it takes religion."

Is there hope for something better?

It’s pretty clear that as education spreads, religion dies.  The process is well-advanced in the west, in every country apart from the USA, but in the USA religion is just another business, devoted to extracting money, mostly from the poor, and supporting the extreme right wing parties and military adventurism.

We shouldn’t be too smug about Islam either. Admittedly I was slightly taken aback when a second year undergraduate, on duty at an Islamic exhibition at UCL, told me that "when Islam came to power in the UK I would be executed" (and then asked for my name). But it’s little more than 100 years since we stopped whipping people and people were still being hanged in my lifetime.  My guess is that in another few hundred years, Islam will catch up. It will become gradually less cruel and women will, bit by bit, come to be treated as human beings. But once that happens, Islam will start to die out altogether, just as Christianity has (almost) done in the West.

So, in the words of the atheist bus campaign.

 "There is probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life."

Follow-up

In the questions after the talk, I was spurred into saying

Religion is what we had before the enlightenment

Times Higher Education published today a version of an earlier post on this blog, Why should a postman pay for your university education?.

Although the submtted version was within length, it got shortened and, worse, a bit garbled in places. I got no chance to check the final version. The penultimate paragraph was not written by me. So here, for the record, is what I sent them.

.We hear a lot about lifelong education, and a good thing too. But we have a government that seems to think socially-useful learning does end at 18. This age is a watershed in official attitudes to education particularly in two areas, religious discrimination and education as a public good.

In 1871 the Universities Tests Act made it illegal for a university to discriminate among applicants on the basis of religious beliefs (or lack thereof) and forced Oxford, Cambridge, and Durham to follow in the footsteps of UCL.  For the last 140 years it has been unimaginable that any university would allow religious discrimination.  In stark contrast, in 2010, religious discrimination (and the accompanying social discrimination) in entry to primary and secondary schools is not only legal, but is actively encouraged by the government. It was a trend that got worse while the ‘reverend’ Tony Blair was prime minister. The minister of education under the new conservative regime promised even more religious schools.  Why the rules should be diametrically opposite when you are under 18 from when you are over 18 is baffling.

It is equally baffling (and perhaps a partial explanation) that universities are not regarded as part of education at all by this government and its immediate predecessors. Universities are governed by the Department of Business, not the Department of Education. Education is not regarded as a continuum, or as a life-long project: it’s something you do at school.

The government has managed the remarkable feat of devising a system for universities in which everybody loses.  It saves the taxpayer little or no money (according to HEPI). It leaves universities worse off.  And it does both of these while tripling the debt incurred by students.  It’s hard to believe that such monumental ineptitude has motives that are other than ideological.  The virtual privatisation of post-18 teaching, particularly of humanities, was a step too far even for Margaret Thatcher.

The only too brief debate on these changes focussed almost entirely on how to repay an enormous debt.  That was the wrong starting point.  The first thing that should have been decided was what sort of university system we want. It is arguable that the honours degree system is quite unsuited to an age when half the population get higher education. A general first degree, at a teaching-only institution, would be much cheaper, and it would be a social leveller.  If that were followed, for those who wanted and merited it, by a properly taught graduate school (as opposed to the present powerpoint-teaching charades), and this was taught by active researchers at research intensive places, the standard of education would be increased.  There might be some problems with such a system, but they were not even discussed before rushing the changes through.

The organisation that should have been at the forefront of fresh thinking, UUK, was paralysed as the elite VCs, all in favour of maximum fees, wrangled with the post-1992 VCs who saw themselves at greater risk. The result was total inaction. They may have been on leadership courses, but they failed to lead.  The elite VCs are now finding that even £9000 will leave them worse off than before.  They really should have thought a bit more about how to adapt to tertiary education for half the population rather than trying to fund things as they are at the moment.

Whatever the system, the question will always arise: why should a postman pay for your university education?  My answer is that they should pay, but not very much. They should pay because, although they may not get any direct benefit themselves, their children certainly may. The fairest, most progressive, tax is income tax. If you are a postman, or indeed a graduate, on a low income, you shouldn’t pay much tax, so you won’t pay much for other people’s university education.

I can see no reason for the sudden change in attitude to, and funding of, education that happens when you reach 18.

I see every reason why kids should be angry. I doubt that we have seen the last of the riots.

I hope not anyway.

Follow-up

One member of parliament, above all others, has championed reason for the last 13 years, But Evan Harris was not re-elected in Oxford West and Abingdon. On May 6th he got 23,730 votes, a mere 176 votes fewer than his conservative rival.

harris-clip2
Click picture to see hero movie (be patient) (or right click to download mpg file)

Let me declare an interest. Evan Harris is one of the most principled men I have ever had the pleasure to meet. His stands on human rights, civil rights and libel law reform have been exemplary. He is also one of the few (and now fewer) members of parliament who understands how science works and its importance for the future of the UK. He has been a tireless advocate for the idea that policy should be based on evidence (as opposed to guesswork)..

Harris is also an atheist, something that one would not expect to be very relevant in a country where the influence of religion has declined progressively for many years. It would not be relevant if it were not for the fact that his defeat was brought about by poisonous lies propagated by, ahem, evangelical christians. I’m an atheist too, but I have met some good christians, I think they are wrong about their sky fairies, but I also think they should be free to believe in them if they want. Some of them do good things as a result of their beliefs. But not in Oxford West and Abingdon.

The (just) winner was conservative Nicola Blackwood. She is a member of the Conservative Christian Fellowship. But curiously a search of her web site for ‘christian’ shows not a single result. Shouldn’t voters know about your beliefs? It seems distinctly dishonest not to admit that your views come from an old book as interpreted by old men, The voter should know your motives.
  Her profile at the Conservative Christian Fellowship says

“Along with many Christians, she is concerned that right to freedom of religion is being undermined without proper understanding of the potential consequences for faith groups or the wider community. In particular, she fears that the voice of Christians and people of other faiths on key issues of conscience is too readily dismissed in public debate.”

But what did Nicola Blackwood know about the smear leaflets?

Nicola Blackwood’s web site not only doesn’t mention the word ‘christian. It says very little about policies of any sort, There is no
mention of euthanasia or any of the other questions raised in pamphlets that were distributed throughout the constituency. There is a well hidden disclaimer

"Nicola has distanced the Conservative Party from literature distributed by private individuals and special interest and pressure groups attacking her opponent".

That is a pretty weak response to the poisonous and inaccurate leaflets that were circulated (they can be seen here). The worst stuff came form two sources

The Reverend Lynda Rose.

Lynda Rose is an Anglican minister who seems to think it appropriate to call a good man "Dr Death" because of her religious ‘principles’. Here is part of her leaflet

Lynda Rose leaflet

Lynda Rose has extreme "pro-life" views, more like those of the pope than of the average anglican. She seems not unlike the extreme right wing fundamentalist religious groups found in the USA. Harris told the Oxford Mail that

“It is a pity that, instead of putting up a candidate to contest the election, an anonymous group, using money from no-one knows where, is distributing an inaccurate personal attack leaflet in this constituency for the first time ever.

“It is offensive and I would say profoundly unchristian to use the term Dr Death – associated with Nazi murderer Joseph Mengele or mass-murderer Harold Shipman – to describe any politician.”

The Reverend Rose replied to the this in a letter to the Oxford Mail (April 26th) that is reproduced on the web site Anglican
Mainstream
("Anglo-catholic, Evangelical, Orthodox, Charismatic, Mainstream"). There is not a word of apology for vilely defamatory use of “Dr Death”, but merely a huffy defence of Hansard’s voting records.

That takes some beating as uncharitable, intolerant, inaccurate (and defamatory) comment. But there is even worse to come.

Keith Mann was another candidate in the same election. In 1994 Mann was sentenced to 14 years in jail, reduced to 11 years on appeal, for 21 offences including possession of explosives, incitement, criminal damage, and escape from custody (from Wikipedia). His leaflets were even worse than those of the Reverend Lynda Rose.

Mann leaflet header

This vile calumny, full of inaccurate allegations and written by someone wth a serious criminal record, was aimed at a deeply-principled man. No doubt helped Nicola Blackwood to scrape in, but I can find no direct denunciation of it from Ms Blackwood. Christians don’t seem to be fussy about their allies.

Then there were the newspapers, in particular the Daily Telegraph.

Cristina Odone was editor of the Catholic Herald from 1991 to 1996.  She is another ‘good christian’ who wrote an abominably nasty piece in the Daily Telegraph on April 19th. The Lib Dems are a Jekyll and Hyde party. Forget nice Mr Clegg. What about ‘Dr Death’? It is worth looking at it as a prime example of inaccurate, ad hominem, nastiness. It is also worth looking at for the comments: there were a lot of comments (thanks to an alert via Twitter) and most of them were along the lines of this of one of the first, from the redoubtable skepchick

"Thanks for the heads up, Cristina! Now I know to cheer for the LibDems. I want to know that if I end up in a vegetative state, I’m given a peaceful death rather than my own Telegraph column."

Most importantly, read the calm, diginified and polite response from Evan Harris himself.

I have never said that that the current abortion rate is not of import (you just made that up Christina!) and indeed have argued for more effective sex and relationships education as other countries manage and which also delays first sexual intercourse. And for better access to effective contraception. We can disagree on that too but best to have a rational discussion rather than a distortion.

I have never said “God is bad, his followers mad”. You made that up again Christina! I respect the religious view actually but believe that the state should be neutral on religion and it should not be privileged by the state above other beliefs.

My own comment took a while because of the Telegraph’s clunky registration system.

“This truly vile piece of writing shows all the tolerance of an Ayatollah who advocates rule by religious dogma (well actually, of course, by his own opinions). There could hardly be a worse moment to seek to impose catholic values on the rest of society. That church, including its head, has been seem to fail to report to the police the most vile crimes. It is in deep disgrace precisely because of its lack of moral principles.

One thing was very clear: she doesn’t understand the web. Her follow-up article seemed to think that the response was organised by Lib Den HQ! The Lib Dems’ spooky posse of internet pests. Sorry, Ms Odone, but these days concerned individuals can speak up.

The Reverand Goerge Pitcher, anglican minister at St Bride’s church, Fleet Street, was the next priest to bring disgrace on christianity with another incredibly nasty piece, again in the Telegraph, The best result of the election: Let’s rejoice that Lib Dem Evan Harris has lost his seat.

Again there were many hostile comments, including quite a lot from christians.

“Speaking as a Christian, I find it amazing how many Christians are capable of being thoroughly nasty about people they dislike. I have made a mental note that if I ever find myself seeking a church in central London, I shall avoid St Brides, Fleet St like the plague.”

and from ex-christians

“Dr Evan Harris is more of a doctor than either you or Nadine Dorris are “human beings”. You are both spiteful, evil people, and you are exactly the sort of person that drove me to reject the Catholic Church, and ask for an official notice of my defection to be placed in the baptismal register of my parish.”

 

Father Raymond Blake is another cleric who thinks you should vote according to his interpretation of the bible. His web site is as political as that of the christian taleban of the southern USA,
and just about as charitable.  He too uses the "Dr Death" abuse, with no consideration of what Harris actually advocates.

How is it that christians (and homeopaths) can be quite so unpleasant?

Religious people, and those with other belief systems that resemble religions are supposed, traditionally, to be warm, caring people, charitable, forgiving and selfless, That, at least is the image they like to cultivate. Of course it has never been quite as simple as that. Just think of the inquisition, the warring catholics and protestants and, right now, the sordid disgrace of child rape, and its cover up by the highest officials of the vatican.

Last easter, I added a bit to the 2008 diary section of this blog about why I’m not a christian It seems to be worth repeating here.

"When I was about 15 I went to a Summer camp which turned out to be run by christian evangelists (my parents swore they didn’t realise that it was a brain-washing camp).  I was converted and became rather earnest.  Then, at 18, I met a nurse.   Being on Merseyside, she was Irish. And being 18, I was rather interested in sex.  The price of sex was to go with her to mass, so of course I went.  It was Easter and they were doing the Twelve Stations of the Cross.  I still recall watching this, with mounting horror.  The priests were just enjoying it too much.  It was almost like a sado-masochistic orgy.  The priests seemed to be almost masturbating.   It was simply sick."

I was reminded of this streak of cruelty that runs through christianity by the comment made by an aide to Tony Blair who said

“I couldn’t help feeling TB was rather relishing his first blooding as PM, sending the boys into action. Despite all the necessary stuff about taking action ‘with a heavy heart’, I think he feels it is part of his coming of age as a leader.”

His enthusiasm for a war that has killed over 100,000 people (and cost a small fortune) seems sadly consistent with his catholicism,

Despite all this, some individual religious people have done good for humankind.

Likewise proponents of magic medicine are proud of their individual caring approach and this may indeed be helpful in eliciting a good placebo response.

The problem seems to be that neither group can tolerate criticism. They aren’t interesting in discussing anything, because they just know they are right. And if anyone tries to express an opinion that differs from their own, the niceness vanishes like the snow in spring.

The quotations above show the downright nasty vindictiveness of religious people towards an honourable man who happens to hold somewhat different views to their own.

Likewise the cuddly homeopaths show astonishing abusive nastiness to anyone who doesn’t believe in their magic. I allow them to say what they want on this blog but they routinely delete comments. Along with most of my scientific friends, I’ve been subject to abuse and utterly incorrect allegations. I don’t enjoy it, but if its the price of free speech, so be it.

I fear that these things represent the incursion into UK politics of the extreme polarisation seen in the USA. a place where religious people seem to think it is moral to shoot doctors who do abortions.

Some morality. Thank you Tony Blair.

Some other blogs on this topic

Dr Aust wrote Catholicism plus writing in the Telegraph apparently makes you barking mad.

Tessera wrote Playing dirty politics. Attacks on Dr Evan Harris

A liberal Dose (Neil Fawcett) wrote Extremists to the left of me, fundies to the right.

Richard Dawkins wrote Evan Harris: Is this why he lost his seat?

Ophelia Benson wrote three good posts (via comment from Swiss Frank)

http://www.butterfliesandwheels.org/2010/gloating-for-britain/

http://www.butterfliesandwheels.org/2010/byrnes-on-harris-pitcher-on-pitcher/

http://www.butterfliesandwheels.org/2010/peculiar-george/and, via Butterflies and Wheels,

Clifford Longley has trenchant comment on Platitude of the Day

Follow-up

Texas schools board rewrites US history with lessons promoting God and guns.     Chris McGreal, in the Guardian writes about the sort of thing that the clerics mentioned here might love.

“US Christian conservatives drop references to slave trade and sideline Thomas Jefferson who backed church-state separation”

“Several changes include sidelining Thomas Jefferson, who favoured separation of church and state, while introducing a new focus on the “significant contributions” of pro-slavery Confederate leaders during the civil war.”

“The new curriculum asserts that “the right to keep and bear arms” is an important element of a democratic society. Study of Sir Isaac Newton is dropped in favour of examining scientific advances through military technology.

There is also a suggestion that the anti-communist witch-hunt by Senator Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s may have been justified.

The education board has dropped references to the slave trade in favour of calling it the more innocuous “Atlantic triangular trade”, and recasts the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as driven by Islamic fundamentalism.”

Jump to follow-up

Latest: Michael Reiss resigns 16 September 2008: see below

There has been something of a rumpus in the media today when the education secretary of the Royal Society, Michael Reiss, appeared to endorse the teaching of creationism in science classes,  The BBC’s report was only too typical.

“Call for creationism in science”

“Creationism should be discussed in school science lessons, rather than excluded, says the director  of education at the Royal Society.”

The Guardian’s report, perhaps also not entirely accurate, started with the words

“Creationism and intelligent design should be taught in school science lessons, according to a leading expert in science education.”

After lunch today the email below was sent out to Fellows

Dear Fellow/Foreign Member

Royal Society’s position on the teaching of creationism in schools

You may have seen in the today’s media coverage of the Royal Society’s position on the teaching of creationism in schools, following a speech by the Society’s Director of Education.  Unfortunately, much of the coverage has given a misleading impression of the Society’s policy.

To prevent further confusion, a statement clarifying the Society’s position has been issued today and the text is given below:

“The Royal Society is opposed to creationism being taught as science.  Some media reports have misrepresented the views of Professor Michael Reiss, Director of Education at the Society expressed in a speech yesterday.

Professor Reiss has issued the following clarification. “Some of my comments about the teaching of creationism have been misinterpreted as suggesting that creationism should be taught in science classes. Creationism has no scientific basis. However, when young people ask questions about creationism in science classes, teachers need to be able to explain to them why evolution and the Big Bang are scientific theories but they should also take the time to explain how science works and why creationism has no scientific basis.”

In addition, we are working actively to correct the misunderstanding by dealing directly with individual newspapers and broadcast media.



So that seems clear “The Royal Society is opposed to creationism being taught as science.”.  So I shan’t have to resign.

You can be sure that proponents of creationism, and its dishonestly disguised version, “intelligent design” will exploit this misunderstanding ruthlessly.

Much more of this and I’ll have to revive my old religion page. I thought for a moment that we were going back to the dark ages of Sarah Palin.

Watch this space for developments.

Follow-up

Perhaps this matter is not so trivial after all. The Guardian report Reiss as saying

“science teachers should not see creationism as a “misconception” but as an alternative “world view” “

The BBC says

“Rather than dismissing creationism as a “misconception”, he says it should be seen as a cultural “world view”. “

Most importantly, Reiss himself said, in a Guardian blog (not the original speech), on September 11th,

“I feel that creationism is best seen by science teachers not as a misconception but as a world view.”

None of those versions sounds at all acceptable to me.

Creationism is a misconception.

The original speech can be heard on a Guardian Play the mp3 file.

It seems to me all to turn on what Reiss means by “showing respect” for ‘alternative world views’, which you believe to be pernicious bunkum. The term ‘alternative world view’ is itself cause for concern. It smacks of alternative medicine.  In what sense is a piece of nonsensical bunkum an ‘alternative’ as opposed to being simply bunkum?. I don’t envy teachers who have to deal with young children, who have been brainwashed by religious parents, on matters like this, but older ones should not be encouraged to think that religious nonsense is a proper alternative to sensible thought and observation.

The Observer on Sunday 14 September reports

Creationism call divides Royal Society

Two Nobel prize winners – Sir Harry Kroto and Sir Richard Roberts – have demanded that the Royal Society sack its education director, Professor Michael Reiss. The call, backed by other senior Royal Society fellows, follows Reiss’s controversial claim last week that creationism be taught in schools’ science classes.

Reiss, an ordained Church of England minister, has since alleged he was misquoted. Nevertheless, several Royal Society fellows say his religious views make him an inappropriate choice for the post.

The Reverend Professor Reiss presumably believes the Nicene Creed. That creed seems to make about as much sense as homeopathy (with the same reservation that some of the words have no discernible meaning at all). I’m inclined to agree that it makes no sense to ask someone who believes that stuff to take charge of science education.

Steve Jones, the UCL geneticist, has his say in the Sun

Latest: Michael Reiss resigns

On 16th September, the following statement was made by the Royal Society.

Some of Professor Michael Reiss’s recent comments, on the issue of creationism in schools, while speaking as the Royal Society’s Director of Education, were open to misinterpretation. While it was not his intention, this has led to damage to the Society’s reputation. As a result, Professor Reiss and the Royal Society have agreed that, in the best interests of the Society, he will step down immediately as Director of Education a part time post he held on secondment. He is to return, full time, to his position as Professor of Science Education at the Institute of Education.

The Royal Society’s position is that creationism has no scientific basis and should not be part of the science curriculum. However, if a young person raises creationism in a science class, teachers should be in a position to explain why evolution is a sound scientific theory and why creationism is not, in any way, scientific.

The Royal Society greatly appreciates Professor Reiss’s efforts in furthering the Society’s work in the important field of science education over the past two years. The Society wishes him well for the future.

Sadly, I’m inclined to believe that this is the best solution. Reiss’s soundness on evolution is not in doubt. but there was sufficient ambiguity in his statements that he should perhaps have anticipated the furore that would, and did, ensue.

Now the trivial stuff.

This video about Sarah Palin’s church was pulled from YouTube for “inappropriate content” -found it on richarddawkins.net



Sarah Palin’s Churches and The Third Wave from Bruce Wilson on Vimeo.

And this hilarious one from CNN


OK this is not very serious (or is it?). A computer game: players of PolarPalin must help a polar bear to navigate its way across Alaska to blow up oil wells, all the while avoiding Palin, the governor of the state, in her campaign tank.



This has been reposted from my old religion and education blog.

Derek Gillard’s excellent "Education in England" site had this beautiful piece. With his permission, I reproduce it here, because it has now vanished from his site. However you can still read also Gillard’s excellent essay “Creationism: bad science, bad religion, bad education”

Marcus Atkins, a classroom assistant at a Cornish secondary school, is taking the school’s governors to an industrial tribunal claiming unfair dismissal. He says the governors have discriminated against him because of his religious beliefs.

Atkins (pictured in class) is a member of the Fraternity of Neptune, a little known religious group which believes that, since life was created in the sea, they must honour the sea god by wearing full diving gear, including heavy metal helmet and lead-lined boots.

Governors at Porthnutnow High School decided to sack the classroom assistant on the basis that the children couldn’t hear what he was saying, that he refused to work in any classroom where children of fishing families were present, and that his lead-lined boots were wearing out the carpet in the school library.”

“Atkins says he has been unfairly treated. ‘The children can hear what I’m saying perfectly well,’ he told a BBC reporter. ‘All they have to do is stick the other end of my breathing tube in their ear and bingo.’ (At least, that’s what the reporter thinks he said).

Asked about the charge that he had refused to teach the children of fishing families, he replied ‘I’ve got to stick to my religious principles. Why can’t the head simply arrange the school’s timetable so that none of these children are in the classes I work with? What’s difficult about that?’

And the library carpet? ‘That’s ridiculous too,’ said Atkins. ‘I’ve refused to go in the library because there are books about trawlers in there, so how can I be wearing out the carpet?’

Atkins doesn’t have much support – hardly surprising given that Porthnutnow is a fishing village. His local MP is backing calls for him to be sacked and one government minister told the Sunday Mirror that the teaching assistant was ‘denying the right of children to a full education’.

Meanwhile, the government is pressing ahead with plans to open hundreds more religious schools, including a handful of academies sponsored by the Fraternity of Neptune. Grand Merman Sir Cyril Driftwood said ‘It’s a wonderful opportunity to teach children Neptunian theology, a subject I feel has been sadly lacking from the National Curriculum for too long.’

This item appeared originally on my old Religion and Education page. It has been moved here because of the discussion that followed my review in the BMJ of Unscientific America and the discussion that followed, on this blog and on P.Z. Myers Pharyngula blog.


 

Until recently, the idea that the earth was created 6000 years ago was largely restricted to right wing religious fundamentalists in the USA. Now we have a government in the UK which seems to be happy that such “fruit-cake” nonsense should be taught at the taxpayers’ expense.

The following article, Good God Almighty, was commissioned by Punch magazine, which folded before it could be published.
It refers to the fuss that followed the discovery that a state-funded school was being run by extreme ‘young earth’ creationists. If you want to see just how extreme, look at the speech made by Steven Layfield, the head of science at Emmanuel School. The views expressed are so extreme that the speech was actually deleted from the web site of the Christian Institute as soon as the fuss blew up. Luckily, thanks to the Google cache, this did not work and you can still read it at here.


Good God Almighty!

or Jurassic Theology

[This article was commissioned by Punch, but the magazine went out of business before it was published]

OK class, settle down. Here is your quiz. Compare and contrast the following.

(1) ” . . if the Bible really is the Word of God – and the internal evidence is overwhelming – true Science will always agree with it.”

(2)Science teachers should

“Note every occasion when an evolutionary/old-earth paradigm (millions or billions of years) is explicitly mentioned or implied by a text-book, examination question or visitor and courteously point out the fallibility of the statement and, wherever possible, give the alternative (always better) Biblical explanation of the same data”.
[Steven Layfield, Head of Science at Emmanuel School Gateshead, 2000]

(3) “There are those that argue that Science and Christianity can be harmoniously reconciled . . . We cannot subscribe to this view”
[John Burn & Nigel McQuoid; ex-head, and head, of Emmanuel School Gateshead, 2002]

(4) “Then there is science. Science is a God-given activity. Scientists are 5using their God-given minds and God-given creativity to explore and utilise God-given nature. Sadly, biblical literalism brings not only the bible but Christianity itself into disrepute.”
[The Bishop of Oxford. The Rt. Revd. Richard Harries, 2002]

(5) “God created the world and everything in it.” “It is about 6000 years old”
[Kate and Simon, pupils of Emmanuel School, Gateshead, interviewed by Mike Thomson, BBC]

(5) [Jenny Tonge, MP:]   “Is the Prime Minister happy to allow the teaching of creationism alongside Darwin’s theory of evolution in state schools?”

[Tony Blair]. First I am very happy.”  
“Secondly, I know that the honourable lady is referring to a school in the north-east, and I think that certain reports about what it has been teaching have been somewhat exaggerated”.

The prime minister is right. Something has been exaggerated:

The idea that teachers realise that the scientific method involves not declaring the outcome in advance.

Clearly, the head of science at Emmanuel doesn’t. To proclaim, before looking, that one view (the literal interpretation of the bible) is “always better” might be expected of an itinerant preacher in the deepest bible belt, but that is the view of the man in charge of educating children at a state-funded English school.

It is a view that offends the Bishop of Oxford, and it is contrary to the views expressed by Pope John Paul II. But don’t worry, our leader is “very happy” with it. To give equal time to a simple assertion (that the earth was created 6000 years ago), and to the wealth of hard-won reasons for thinking it to be untrue, is deeply offensive to every scientist who is trying to fumble towards the best approximation to the truth that can be found. Rarely can a couple of teachers and one prime minister have managed to offend so many people, everyone from bishops to professors, at a single sweep.

Of course neither the prime minister nor anybody else knows exactly what Emmanuel School has been teaching (though the reports from the children themselves give us a good idea). The glowing report from OFSTED was actually the result of a “short inspection” which does not look at such details. The school has not been given a full inspection since 1994, before the serious zealots took control. Views such as those in the first two quotations are so obviously relevant to the quality of science teaching that you may well ask how OFSTED managed not to notice that the views of the head of science were at the very extreme edge of fundamentalism.

Consider also the following amazing coincidence. The team of inspectors who found no fault with the unusual science (biblical is always best) teaching at Emmanuel was almost the same as the team that inspected the Huntington School, York. At that school they said that there was not enough teaching of religion (in the narrow sense, as opposed to spiritual values in general). The Huntington head teacher Chris Bridge lodged a complaint against that report, and it was partially upheld by OFSTED.

Does all this mean that extreme fundamentalism has infiltrated OFSTED, or does it simply mean that the inspectors did not do their homework?

The latter is the more charitable interpretation, but the inspectors are not going to get the chance to ‘try harder next time’. Instead Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector, wrote a letter to the chairman of the governors, asking for “clarification”. Unlike most schools, the Emmanuel School does not publish the names of its governors in the school prospectus, and neither OFSTED, nor the Department of Education, knows who they are. OFSTED does give the name of the chairman as “Dr `Peter Vardy” (as does the school if you phone). It turns out that the learned Dr Vardy is one and the same person as Sir Peter Vardy, the man who gave the government two million pounds to pay for the school. Don’t worry about the “Dr” bit though –it is perfectly genuine. The University of Sunderland was generous enough to give him an honorary doctorate in business administration (after he generously gave the University £1 million). The Chief Inspector (by then changed) recieved a suitably emollient letter from Sir Peter, but did no investigation whatsoever. Ofsted gives the firm impression of having born yesterday.

It is hard to appreciate the manic fervour of Mr Layfield’s notorious speech from only two quotations. It used to be on the web site of the Christian Institute (www.Christian.org.uk), and that site is still worth a visit. Mr McQuoid is a major contributor (see quotation no 2), but other bits are well worth reading too, like the vigorous defence of beating children (don’t get me wrong –I know there are lots of sites that deal with that sort of thing, but this is different; it is holy beating).

Mr Layfield’s speech suddenly vanished from this web site shortly after Tania Brannigan (of the Guardian) told us what was going on. Luckily, though, some kind folks thought it was such an outstanding piece of work that should still be available to everyone (just go to http://www.darwinwars.com/lunatic/liars/layfield.html).

Time’s up folks. Put down your pens and now go out and vote.

This item appeared originally on my old Religion and Education page. It has been moved here because of the discussion that followed my review in the BMJ of Unscientific America and the discussion that followed, on this blog and on P.Z. Myers Pharyngula blog. Evan Harris MP and I were up against the head of fundamentist school that had been started by wealthy used-car dealer, Peter Vardy. Being rather daunted by the Oxford Union, I actually wrote down my bit. The order of speaking because Evan Harris had to rush back to the House of Commons to vote against the Iraq war. The rest is history.


Oxford Union talk on ‘faith schools’ and creationism

Monday 25th November 2002

This debate is meant to be about ‘faith schools’, but I suspect that the differences between the views of my two friends opposite are rather large. Mr Brady will, I presume, advocate schools that teach conventional religious views, and that I take to be the topic under discussion. First let’s get the issue of Mr McQuoid’s view on creation out of the way before coming to the serious matter of the debate. We have to be clear about one thing -there is a spectrum of religious views and Mr McQuoid is at the extreme fruit cake end of that spectrum. A true flat-earther.

An article by John Burn & Nigel McQuoid; (ex-head, and head, of Emmanuel School) stated:

“There are those that argue that Science and Christianity can be harmoniously reconciled . . . We cannot subscribe to this view”

This appeared on the web site of the Christian Institute, and that site is well worth a look. Apart from promoting ‘young-earth creationism’, it has two other obsessions, the evilness of homosexuality and the desirability of corporal punishment of small boys. It is truly bizarre. Well, at least Mr McQuoid’s job is not to teach science, but the head of science in his school, Steven Layfield, said in a speech published on the same web site (in 2000)

“…if the Bible really is the Word of God – and the internal evidence is overwhelming – true Science will always agree with it.”
Science teachers should… “Note every occasion when an evolutionary/old-earth paradigm (millions or billions of years) is explicitly mentioned or implied by a text-book, examination question or visitor and courteously point out the fallibility of the statement and, wherever possible, give the alternative (always better) Biblical explanation of the same data”.

He is free to express that view, but it disqualifies him from teaching science. The speech from which this is quoted, incidentally, disappeared form the web site of christian.org as soon as the row became public -one does wonder why, but don’t worry you can still ready it at the quaintly named site http://www.darwinwars.com/lunatic/liars/layfield.html However offensive it may be that such extremism is subsidised by taxpayers money, however offensive it may be that no full inspection of his school has been carried out since he came to power, and however offensive it may be that the prime minister supported his views, it is an irrelevant issue for the purposes of serious discussion. The pope does not believe that the earth was created 6000 years ago, the Anglican church does not believe that the earth was created 6000 years ago, hardly anyone but Mr. McQuoid thinks that the earth was created 6000 years ago (except in some parts of the south USA). The number of people who have that capacity to deny the obvious will never be more than handful, and to that extent we need not bother any further about them, and we can get on with the real issue of religious schools. As the Bishop of Oxford (The Rt. Revd. Richard Harries) said (2002)

“Then there is science. Science is a God-given activity. Scientists are using their God-given minds and God-given creativity to explore and utilise God-given nature. Sadly, biblical literalism brings not only the bible but Christianity itself into disrepute.”

Now to the real question…

What is wrong with allowing parents to choose a school for their child that teaches the parents’ religious belief? At first sight this sounds quite innocent, apart from the fact that it is the parents’ religious belief, not the child’s. In any case there are not many parents in the country who have religious (well Christian) beliefs. No more than 7.5 % now go to church regularly, and recently, for the first time, the proportion who profess even a nominal attachment to the church fell below half (as did the proportion of parents who have children baptised).

Why, then, are religious schools quite popular? The reason appears to be that they are selective. The rules say that selection must be on religious grounds only, but it simply does not work out like that. It is bad enough that children’s access to education should depend on their parents’ religious views (or, not infrequently, on their parents’ skill at lying about their religious views). But of course, selection of some implies exclusion of others, and, it turns out, not only because of their religion. Religious selection leads inevitably to racial selection too. In Oldham, scene of the recent race riots, the christian schools are almost exclusively white. Selection by wealth occurs too. In Accrington a C of E school has 12.5% of special needs pupils, while its neighbouring non-religious school has 69.8%; eligibility for free school meals is and 5% in the C of E school and 33% in its neighbour (on average the factor is almost 2).

How could such a disgraceful state of affairs come about? I believe that, as so often, a look at history might help, so let’s go back to see how the world looked in 1820.

Apart from 9 years I have spent all my working life at University College London.
The relevance of that will be obvious if we recall that in 1820, there were only two universities in England, Oxford and Cambridge (though 3 in Scotland). Both Oxford and Cambridge restricted entry to members of the Church of England – not only did they exclude Jews, atheists and muslims, but they also excluded many christians -catholics, protestants and dissenters. They would, no doubt, have excluded Mr McQuoid from getting higher education. It was in this context that liberals and dissenters in London founded the University of London, soon to become known as University College London, with the specific aim of admitting good students regardless of their religious beliefs, and with providing them with non-sectarian education in science as well as humanities (there was little science in Oxford and Cambridge at that time). Despite prolonged opposition from Oxford and Cambridge, UCL opened its doors in 1828.

At that time the fiercely conservative Duke of Wellington had just, albeit reluctantly, made the transition from general to prime minister. Even his government passed measures to increase the rights of catholics and dissenters, but his implacable opposition to electoral reform led to his resignation two years later, to be replaced by the Whig administration of Earl Grey.

The country was in ferment and change was rapid -in 1830 the Liverpool-Manchester railway opened and Faraday’s work on electricity was well-developed. But the electoral system was still mediaeval. The ‘rotten borough’ of Old Sarum (an iron age fort and 7 inhabitants) had two MPs while Manchester, already busy with the cotton trade, had none at all. In 1831 three attempts at electoral reform failed in parliament, but Earl Grey had told William IV “it is the spirit of the age which is triumphing and that to resist it is certain destruction”. The next year, in 1832, Lord John Russell (grandfather of Bertrand Russell) successfully got parliament to pass the (first) Reform Act and the modern age of democracy had begun.

The political ferment was paralleled by scientific ferment -people were no longer constrained by dogma and authority and new ideas came into medicine and biology too.

After another 40 years, Oxford and Cambridge caught up, when the Universities Test Act of 1870 eliminated religious criteria for university entrance. After 1870 it became quite unthinkable that a selection for higher education should be dependent on what a person believed, or did not believe in their private lives about religion.

That was 1870. Now it is 2002.. Can you imagine Oxford reintroducing religious selection of undergraduates now? Yet my friends opposite, and the government, are supporting a view of education that started to vanish in 1828 with the foundation of UCL, and finally died in 1870 with the Test Acts. They are trying to set back progress not by 10 or 20 years but by 175 years.

What next? Bring back rotten boroughs?