Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Poll finds over half of Britons support teaching Creationism and Intelligent Design along with Evolution

From IBTimes:

"A Mori poll has found that over half of Britons believe Creationism and Intelligent Design should be taught alongside Evolution in science lessons.

The poll, which was part of a worldwide study into attitudes to the teaching on the origin of life on earth, saw 1,000 Britons questioned on the subject.

Around 54 per cent of those who responded said they thought teachers should talk about “alternative perspectives” to the Theory of Evolution, however only six per cent said they felt Creationism or Intelligent Design should be taught instead of Evolution.

Just over one fifth of respondents said that only the Theory of Evolution should be taught, as is currently the case under the national curriculum
." Read more...

Guardian article here.

What explains these statistics, and what if anything should be done?

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Battle of Ideas, this Sunday

This coming Sunday I am doing a Battle of Ideas event on Philosophy 4 Kids.

Go here and here for details.

Sunday 1 November, 10.45am until 12.15pm, Lecture Theatre 2 In Conversation Salons.

Philosophy for children (P4C) is a growing movement that seems to many teachers to restore faith in the education system. It is said to be able to create ‘little big minds’ and to enable children to become critical, caring, creative and collaborative. No more learning by rote for endless tests; here is a chance to develop young minds to think for themselves. Philosophy is employed as a key resource to improve the quality of children’s thinking and to help them explore ‘how things are’ and ‘who they are’, to ‘learn more from [their] experience and make better use of [their] intelligence’. Its popularity has increased since the introduction of SEAL (Social and Emotional Aspect of Learning) programmes in schools, which, along with other initiatives, attempts to develop critical thinking. When Education minister Ed Balls overhauled the primary curriculum recently, cutting the number of traditional subjects to make room for ‘concept-based’ lessons, many saw this as a chance to embed the new ‘personal, learning and thinking skills’ (PLTS) into teaching.

Various training schemes present philosophy for children as a way of introducing them to rigorous thinking, but some critics see it as another example of the therapeutic turn in education – a recent trend towards prioritising self-esteem and emotional well-being rather than traditional subject-teaching. When children’s ‘personal development’ is given equal status to English and maths, is there a danger that philosophy is reduced to little more than infantile ‘self help’ mantras? Others think philosophy is simply too difficult for children. How realistic is it for children to ‘do philosophy’ when traditionally the subject has been withheld from the young until at least university level precisely because it requires levels of abstract thinking way beyond the average pre-pubescent youth, let alone infants? Will the P4C movement wise up children or dumb down philosophy?
Speakers

James Gledhill
fellow, political theory, LSE; co-convenor, IoI Postgraduate Forum

Dr Joanna Haynes
senior lecturer, education, University of Plymouth; author, Children as Philosophers

Dr Stephen Law
editor, THINK; senior lecturer in philosophy, Heythrop College, University of London; author, The War for Children’s Minds

Chair:
Professor Dennis Hayes
professor, education, University of Derby; chair, Academics for Academic Freedom; author, Defending Higher Education: the crisis of confidence in the academy.

Facebook meltdown

My facebook page appears broken. I keep getting friend requests, but when I hit add friend, nothing happens. I cannot respond to friend requests, my inbox page is blank, when I hit friend labels (in "lists")I have set up they all show empty. There appears to be no way to report such problems. Anyone got an idea?

Saturday, October 24, 2009

50 Voices of Disbelief




I just got my copy of this book and must say I am impressed - much better than I was even expecting. I am strongly recommending it as a present for anyone who has an interest in atheism/theism, from either side of the debate. OK I have a piece in it, but that's not why I am recommending it (I make not a penny from any sale). It's just a great read, from great authors...

A.C. Grayling, Julian Baggini, Peter Singer and Marc Hauser, Michael Shermer, James Randi, J.J.C. Smart, Ophelia Benson, etc. etc.

My contribution: Could It Be Pretty Obvious There's No God?

Thursday, October 22, 2009

What is Humanism?

VERY ROUGH DRAFT FOR COMMENTS.

The word “humanism” has had, and continues to have, a wide variety of meanings. At its broadest, “humanism” means little more than a system of thought in which human values, interests and dignity are given central importance. Understood in this way, almost everyone qualifies as a “humanist”.

However, as understood by contemporary humanist organizations, the term “humanist” means something much narrower. Those who sign up to “humanism”, understood in this narrower, contemporary sense of the term, are embracing a particular sort of worldview that by no means everyone accepts. That worldview is the focus of this book.

So what distinguishes the humanist outlook? It is hard to be very precise. The boundaries of the concept are somewhat elastic. But most humanists would probably agree on something like the following minimal, seven-point characterization.

First, humanists are either atheists or at least agnostic. They are sceptical about the claim that there exist a god or gods.

Secondly, humanists believe that this life is the only life we have. We are not reincarnated. Nor is there any heaven or hell to which we go after we die.

Third, Humanists reject both the claims that there cannot be moral value without God, and that we will not be, or are unlikely to be, good without God and religion to guide us. Humanists deny that our moral sense was placed in us by God, and generally favour a naturalistic, evolutionary account of how our moral intuitions have developed. Humanists reject moral justifications rooted in religious authority and dogma. They believe our ethics should be strongly informed by study of what human beings are actually like, and of what will help them flourish in this world, rather than the next.

Fourth, humanists deny that that if our lives are to have meaning, that meaning must be bestowed from above by God. The lives of Pablo Picasso, Florence Nightingale and Einstein were all rich, significant and meaningful, whether there is a God or not.

Fifth, humanists emphasize our individual moral autonomy. It is the responsibility of each individual to make their own moral judgements, rather than try to hand that responsibility over to some external authority – such as a religion or political party – that might make those decisions for them. Humanists favour developing forms of moral education that emphasize this responsibility and equip us with the skills we will need to discharge it properly.

Sixth, Humanists believe science and reason are invaluable tools we can and should apply to all areas of life. No beliefs should be considered off-limits and protected from rational scrutiny.

Seventh, humanists are secularists, in the sense that they believe the state should take a neutral position with respect to religion, and should protect the freedom of individuals to follow and espouse, or reject and criticize, both religious and atheist beliefs. Humanists obviously oppose any attempt to coerce people into accepting certain religious beliefs. However, they are no less opposed to coercing people into embracing atheism, as occurred under the communist regimes of Stalin and Mao.

A number of other views are sometimes also associated with humanism that are not included here. Note, for example, that, as characterized above, Humanism does not require the following:

• That one be a utopian, convinced that the application of science and reason will inevitably usher in a Brave New World of peace and contentment.
• That one believe that only humans matter, morally speaking. Many humanists believe that the happiness and welfare of other species is also important.
• That one be a utilitarian – supposing that maximizing happiness and minimizing pain are all that matter, morally speaking. While some humanists embrace utilitarianism, and almost all believe that happiness and suffering are morally important (who doesn’t?), not all humanists are utilitarians.
• That one embrace those brands of naturalism that say that the natural, physical universe is the only reality there is, or that the natural, physical facts are the only facts that there are. Many humanists, perhaps the majority, do embrace some form of naturalism. Some humanists and humanist organizations even define their brand of “humanism” as involving naturalism. However, the looser definition of “Humanism” employed here allows humanists to reject naturalism if they wish. Yes, Humanists reject, or are at least agnostic concerning, belief in gods, but that doesn’t require they sign up to natrualism. Take, for example, a mathematician who believes that mathematics describes a non-natural, mathematical reality. This mathematician rejects naturalism, but that does not entail they cannot be a Humanist. Or take a philosopher who believes they have established that, say, moral facts, or the facts about what goes on in our conscious minds, are facts that exist in addition to all the natural, physical facts. Again, I see no reason why such a philosopher cannot be a humanist.
• That one embrace scientism, believing that every genuine question can in principle be answered by science. Take moral questions, for example. Humanists can, and often do, accept that, while scientific discoveries can inform our moral decisions, science alone is incapable of determining what is morally right or wrong. A Humanist can also suppose that other questions - such as “Why is there anything at all?” - are bona fide questions that science cannot answer. Humanists are just sceptical about one particular answer – that the universe is the creation of one or more gods.

In order to refute Humanism as I have characterized it, then, it is not enough that one refute utopianism, naturalism, scientism or utilitarianism. Humanists can reject, or at least remain sceptical about, all these philosophical stances.

Humanists are sometimes criticised for not being “for” anything. They are often caricatured as naysayers, defined entirely by what they oppose. Yet , as outlined here, Humanism is clearly “for” a great deal.

For example, Humanism is “for” freedom of thought and expression and an open society. Humanism is “for” forms of moral education that stress our moral autonomy and the importance of thinking critically and independently. Humanists don’t just reject dogma-based approaches to answering moral, political and social questions, they are very much “for” developing positive, rational and ultimately more life-affirming and life-enhancing alternatives.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Telegraph article: God is not the Creator, claims academic

Interesting, controversial article. By Richard Alleyne, Science Correspondent, Telegraph UK
Published: 5:45PM BST 08 Oct 2009
Available here.

The notion of God as the Creator is wrong, claims a top academic, who believes the Bible has been wrongly translated for thousands of years.


The Earth was already there when God created humans and animals, says academic.

Professor Ellen van Wolde, a respected Old Testament scholar and author, claims the first sentence of Genesis "in the beginning God created the Heaven and the Earth" is not a true translation of the Hebrew.

She claims she has carried out fresh textual analysis that suggests the writers of the great book never intended to suggest that God created the world -- and in fact the Earth was already there when he created humans and animals.

Prof Van Wolde, 54, who will present a thesis on the subject at Radboud University in The Netherlands where she studies, said she had re-analysed the original Hebrew text and placed it in the context of the Bible as a whole, and in the context of other creation stories from ancient Mesopotamia.

She said she eventually concluded the Hebrew verb "bara", which is used in the first sentence of the book of Genesis, does not mean "to create" but to "spatially separate".

The first sentence should now read "in the beginning God separated the Heaven and the Earth"

According to Judeo-Christian tradition, God created the Earth out of nothing.

Prof Van Wolde, who once worked with the Italian academic and novelist Umberto Eco, said her new analysis showed that the beginning of the Bible was not the beginning of time, but the beginning of a narration.

She said: "It meant to say that God did create humans and animals, but not the Earth itself."

She writes in her thesis that the new translation fits in with ancient texts.

According to them there used to be an enormous body of water in which monsters were living, covered in darkness, she said.

She said technically "bara" does mean "create" but added: "Something was wrong with the verb.

"God was the subject (God created), followed by two or more objects. Why did God not create just one thing or animal, but always more?"

She concluded that God did not create, he separated: the Earth from the Heaven, the land from the sea, the sea monsters from the birds and the swarming at the ground.

"There was already water," she said.

"There were sea monsters. God did create some things, but not the Heaven and Earth. The usual idea of creating-out-of-nothing, creatio ex nihilo, is a big misunderstanding."

God came later and made the earth livable, separating the water from the land and brought light into the darkness.

She said she hoped that her conclusions would spark "a robust debate", since her finds are not only new, but would also touch the hearts of many religious people.

She said: "Maybe I am even hurting myself. I consider myself to be religious and the Creator used to be very special, as a notion of trust. I want to keep that trust."

A spokesman for the Radboud University said: "The new interpretation is a complete shake up of the story of the Creation as we know it."

Prof Van Wolde added: "The traditional view of God the Creator is untenable now."

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Private schools bursaries - a question

Does anyone know how, if at all, how the awarding of private schools's bursaries is monitored? On what basis are they typically given? To whom? What is the background of those getting bursaries. Are kids tested? How?

If you don't have general knowledge, you may know of particular instances of how bursaries were awarded.

My guess is, they are not really monitored at all. But as this is the main "public benefit" private schools provide for 100 million pounds of public money (in tax), shouldn't it be very closely monitored?

The only kid I know who received a bursary had a father who went to a top public school and a grandfather who is a Knight of The Realm. No academic selection. Just an interview to see if he would "fit in". Which he obviously did.

How many kids from council estates get bursaries, I wonder? Maybe the mechanisms for awarding bursaries are not as dodgy as they appear to me to be, but I'd like to be reassured!

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Family event: Really, Really Big Questions with Stephen Law


KIDS EVENT AT CHELTENHAM FESTIVAL TOMORROW MORNING

Ever thought about what happened before the Big Bang? Or wondered what it is like to be a bat? Join top philosopher Stephen Law in this fun and thought-provoking introduction to philosophy and life’s important, weird and often unanswered questions.

Sunday 11 October 2009 at 10:00 am (45mins)
Event F4 at The Playhouse book online
£4
Age 9+

THIS RELATES TO MY NEW KIDS BOOKS (9+) OUT ON 5TH OCTOBER.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

St Theresa's relics in town


I was shopping in Oxford and noticed a long queue outside the Catholic Church on Woodstock Road. It turns out Holy relics are being displayed over two days, and Catholics are going to venerate them and also to gain a Plenary Indulgence.

The Church's website says:

"The Apostolic Penitentiary has granted a Plenary Indulgence to all who venerate the relics of St Thérèse in our church. To gain the Indulgence:

1. Make a good sacramental Confession
2. Receive Holy Communion (within a few days)
3. Pray for the Holy Father's Intentions
4. Take part in a service or devotion in honour of St Thérèse, or spend some time in prayer, concluding with the Our Father, Creed and invocations to Our Lady and St Thérèse."

Source here.

I had no idea what a Plenary Indulgence is. This explanation is from the Catholic Encyclopedia.

"An indulgence that may be gained in any part of the world is universal, while one that can be gained only in a specified place (Rome, Jerusalem, etc.) is local. A further distinction is that between perpetual indulgences, which may be gained at any time, and temporary, which are available on certain days only, or within certain periods. Real indulgences are attached to the use of certain objects (crucifix, rosary, medal); personal are those which do not require the use of any such material thing, or which are granted only to a certain class of individuals, e.g. members of an order or confraternity. The most important distinction, however, is that between plenary indulgences and partial. By a plenary indulgence is meant the remission of the entire temporal punishment due to sin so that no further expiation is required in Purgatory. A partial indulgence commutes only a certain portion of the penalty; and this portion is determined in accordance with the penitential discipline of the early Church. To say that an indulgence of so many days or years is granted means that it cancels an amount of purgatorial punishment equivalent to that which would have been remitted, in the sight of God, by the performance of so many days or years of the ancient canonical penance. Here, evidently, the reckoning makes no claim to absolute exactness; it has only a relative value."

It appears that, by following the above 4-part instruction, Heaven-bound Catholics can go directly to Heaven without having to spend any intervening time in Purgatory during which their sins would be fully cleansed prior to their encountering God. Almost every Heaven-bound soul ends up being punished - and purged of sin - in Purgatory for a period; how long depends on how big a sinner you were [See here and scroll down to Purgatory for more info].

The offer, if you like, is a get-out-of-Purgatory card (POST SCRIPT 11TH NOVEMBER - My use of this phrase is intended to put into a nutshell, for the benefit of those unfamiliar with the idea, what such an indulgence essentially is. It was NOT chosen deliberately to cause offence to Catholics, as one commentator, appears to think! However, I guess the breezy tone probably implicitly communicates that I don't take the idea terribly seriously). That partly explains the length of the queue outside the church, I suppose.

Anyway, the reason I mention the relics and the Indulgence is: I wonder what Karen Armstrong would say about it all (see three posts earlier)? All sounds very literal to me!

Image - souls in Purgatory.

Quote for discussion

Even though they're soldiers and know killing is part of their responsibility and duty, a number of them come to me very bothered about it…Our challenge is to assure them that what they are doing is morally acceptable from a Christian perspective and a patriotic one.

Major Eric Albertson, a Roman Catholic Chaplain in Iraq The Times, 8 Dec 2004, p.37

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

MONSTERS FROM THE DEEP!


SUGGESTIONS AS TO HOW TO PUBLICIZE THIS EVENT, PLEASE! And do please pass info on to anyone you think might be interested. It should be great but am concerned we won't get the audience it merits.

SPES/CFIUK present:
MONSTERS FROM THE DEEP!

An interactive skeptical odyssey – with sound effects! University experts investigate tales of sea-monsters, mermaids, etc.

Saturday, 7th November, 11am-3pm (with break for lunch) Just £10. Free to members of cfi uk, glha, spes, bha, new humanist and Skeptic mag subscribers.

Ever wondered if there is some truth to sailors’ tales of monsters from the ocean’s depths?

Dr Charles Paxton, a scientist from the University of St Andrews, is one of the country’s most qualified cryptozoologists, and he will be running both a lecture and workshop on monsters from the deep – mythical and real. Dr Darren Naish is a researcher at The University of Portsmouth, who will talk about the ‘prehistoric survivor paradigm’ and what it means (or doesn’t mean) for ’sea monster’ sightings. An interactive skeptical odyssey….

Venue: Conway Hall, 25 Red Lion Square, Holborn, London WC1R 4RL – Main Hall. Book by sending a cheque with names of attendees to Suresh Lalvani, Ex Director CFIUK, PO Box 49097, Centre for Inquiry, London N11 9AX. Or use paypal – hit “Support cfiuk” button at www.cfiuk.org and follow instructions.