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.
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:
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!"
"Are you religious?"
He said, "Yes."
I said, "Me too. Are you Christian or Buddhist?"
"Me too. Are you Catholic or Protestant?"
"Me too. Are you Episcopalian or 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."
In the questions after the talk, I was spurred into saying
Religion is what we had before the enlightenment
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
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?