Tuesday, December 26, 2006

A Special Award to Services to Apologetics

Until this Sunday, John Cornwell was not someone I had a lot of time for. He is best known for his inaccurate and agenda-driven book, Hitler's Pope that converts scurrilous rumour and gossip into history to claim that Pius XII was in hock with the Nazis. These silly claims have been trashed so often (most recently by Michael Burleigh) that it is a surprise that Cornwell hasn't got the honesty to admit he got it wrong. His latest book, Seminary Boy, is a memoir about how beastly Catholic schools and seminaries used to be. Needless to say, Cornwell is most at home attacking Catholicism and all its works (he is, himself, a liberal Catholic of the sort who wants to remake the Church in his own image).

H. Allen Orr is one of Darwinism staunchest defenders. He has lambasted Intelligent Design with great effectiveness. While not a Darwinian extremist like Dan Dennett, he rejects any non-scientific explanations for anything. Andrew Brown and Terry Eagleton are hardly friends of organised religion either. One a self-declared atheist, the other a Christian Marxist of sorts.

I could go on, but you are getting my point. Not only has Richard Dawkins finally persuaded the Church of England to defend Christianity (a task previously regarded as impossible by many Christians), he has even united many of traditional Christianity's opponents in castigating his book, The God Delusion. Cornwell, with typical modesty, takes on the role of God himself in the Sunday Times. Orr's review in the NYRB is the most effective I have seen so far. I've already linked to several other reviews including Brown's and Eagleton's. In Prospect Magazine's list of most over-rated books of the year, Brown's submission was The God Delusion and his commentary on his choice just one word "Of course".

There is nothing wrong with bad reviews. If I ever get my book published, I'd give my eye-teeth to be trashed by A.C. Grayling. But when your natural allies unite against you, when your enemies finally make common cause, you have failed utterly in what you set out to do.

Comments or questions? Post them at Bede's dedicated yahoo group.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

The Trouble with Atheism

Last night Channel 4 broadcast a show hosted by Rod Liddle that was highly critical of the new atheism. I watched it and thought it was really good. No surprise there, as I am a fan of Liddle's journalism and he was preaching to the choir. It was also good to put some faces to several names. I had never seen Michael Burleigh or Denis Alexander before.

Liddle made four points. The first was that the new atheism is an intolerant creed with its fair share of nutters. He met a man in New York carrying a plackard outside St Patrick's Cathedral saying "God Does Not Exist" in an exact counterpoint to the "The End of the World Is Upon Us" plankard carriers we all know and love. He also met an intense woman who runs American Atheists and bears an unnerving resemblence to Ann Coulter. She had her own cable show on which Liddle appeared as a guest. Liddle himself is the man for whom the word shambolic was invented. He has bad hair, bad teeth and appalling dress sense. The least appealing aspect of the Trouble with Atheism were the frequent shots of Liddle walking up and down, clutching his chin and looking thoughtful. Frankly, thoughtful is not a look that he can do.

His second point was that science has nothing to say about whether or not God exists. Of course, this is true and Liddle found plenty of scientists ready to say it. John Polkinghorne and Denis Alexander appeared and demonstrated that there are plenty of religious believers who are distinguished scientists. This led to the quote of the show. Peter Atkins, a neo-atheist, was asked what he made of scientists who believe in God. He called them sad half-scientists. This made him look like a prat.

Liddle's next point was the weakest. He noted that Darwin's Origin of Species is a sacred text to neo-atheists and set out to find if the scientific theory of Darwinism was nearing its sell-by date. This made me nervous. Liddle's anti-creationist credentials are unimpeachable, but I still thought that he was falling into a trap that will allow neo-atheists to caricature him as anti-scientific.

His last point was the best. At the end of The God Delusion, Dawkins sets out a new ten commandments. They are, frankly, a bit wishy-washy. Dawkins admitted as much as said that the point of morals is that they change and are specific to particular cultures. Peter Singer was wheeled in to make the same point. Liddle used this as his cue to examine the periods in history when Christian morality was overthrown for a more 'rational' alternative. Michael Burleigh supplied us with the shocking facts on the French Revolution and we saw how Francis Galton's eugenics had led directly to the Nazi's Final Solution. Dawkins denied that anyone killed because of atheism but Liddle had already shown that this point (actually untrue) was irrelevant. The point, which I have made before, is that when you throw out our moral system, or undermine it by claiming all is relative, you open the door to horrors far worse then you would imagine possible.

Dawkins ended the show by admitting that maybe human beings are so weak that they need religion to guide them. St Augustine would have agreed.

Comments or questions? Post them at Bede's dedicated yahoo group.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

A.C. Grayling attacks Terry Eagleton

A poster on my yahoo group kindly brought A.C. Grayling's reply to Terry Eagleton's deprecatory review of The God Delusion to my attention. The original review and Grayling's letter are in the London Review of Books.

Grayling's letter is probably the most embarressing document to fall from the pen of a so-called philosopher since Ayn Rand hung up her quill. One of his points needs to be annihilated because it shows Grayling misunderstands science, experiment, reason and argument. In his review, Eagleton takes Dawkins to task for ignoring almost all the best theology and religious scholarship in favour of bashing fundamentalists and erecting strawmen. Grayling says that Dawkins is quite justified in neglecting any sort of academic theology because, as he writes,

if one concludes on the basis of rational investigation that one's character and fate are not determined by the arrangement of the planets, stars and galaxies that can be seen from Earth, then one does not waste time comparing classic tropical astrology with sidereal astrology, or either with the Sarjatak system, or any of the three with any other construction placed on the ancient ignorances of our forefathers about the real nature of the heavenly bodies.

Well no. Professor Grayling seems to imagine that Dawkins has carried out a rational investigation of religion by concentrating on easy targets. he hasn't. If I wanted to carry out such an investigation of astrology, I would not pick up the Daily Mail and analyse the mutterings of Jonathan Cainer, their resident sage. Rather, I would research the topic and seek out the best possible exemplars that I could find. I would ask whether sidereal or tropical astrology gave the best chance of a positive result, or whether I should prefer planetary astrology to sun signs. I would give astrology every chance to win me over, subject to not fiddling the results. To test astrology, I must allow it to present its most promising case, rather than only paying attention tobog-standard horoscopes on the grounds that most people just read their sun signs.

Dawkins only investigates the religious equivalent of a tabloid horoscope and Grayling thinks this is fine. This sort of reasoning is a disgrace from people who claim to be at the forefront of rational investigation. They wouldn't know what it was if it bit them on the nose.

Comments or questions? Post them at Bede's dedicated yahoo group.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Are we very big or very small?

How small is the smallest thing in the universe? How small is a quark? A superstring? Actually, no one knows but the smallest possible length in the universe is the universe is called the Planck length of about 0.000000000000000000000000000000000001 metres. This figure is a fundamental axiom of quantum mechanics and represents the 'lumpiness' of the universe that means that in quantum mechanics you can never be entirely certain of where something is.

How big is the biggest thing in the universe? That must be the universe itself. Latest figures suggest it is about 10,000,000,000 years old. It started from a point at the Big Bang and so the size of the whole universe is the distance that light could have travelled in the 10 billion years available. Light being very fast, this comes to about 100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 metres.

Of course, these big numbers are very unwieldy so we tend to use exponentials to tidy things up a bit. The Planck length is expressed as 10^-35 metres, the size of the universe 10^25 metres. How big are we? About 1 metre tall or 10^0 metres. So comparing our absolute size to the smallest and biggest possible things in the universe, we are about three fifths of the way up the scale. In other words, we are of medium to large size using the exponential scale, the only scale that makes any sense in physics.

All this makes nonsense of one of Carl Sagan's arguments, also picked up by Richard Dawkins, Stephen Hawking and lots of others who should know better. In Pale Blue Dot and elsewhere, Sagan invites us to believe that the universe is very large (true) and that we are very small (not true, as we have seen). This apparently means that we are not very important and God doesn't exist. Not only does this argument assume that value and physical size are directly comparable (which, obviously, they are not), but it also uses the wrong scale to determine what is big and what is small. Given that Sagan spent his career trying to explain why science sometimes doesn't say what common sense says, it is annoying that here he uses the everyday arithmetical scale to make a silly point which is invalidated by a scientific view of the universe anyway.

Another of Sagan's mistakes was to assume that when Copernicus moved the Earth from the centre of the universe, he was demoting it. This is also untrue as this paper shows. My thanks to the correspondent who sent me this link and thus inspired this post (which picks up on a point in the second half of the linked paper).

Comments or questions? Post them at Bede's dedicated yahoo group.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Rod Liddle on the Trouble with Atheism

Rod Liddle is my favourite journalist. He is a very witty writer who has no truck with political correctness, but also sees himself as a left-winger. His idiosyncracies have led to his being better suited to writing for right-wing publications. A few years ago, the conservative press were calling for Liddle to be sacked from his position as editor of a radio programme at the BBC for his clear idiological bias (the BBC is supposed to be neutral, although this is actually a bit of a fantasy). When he duly resigned, the same publications that had called for his head promptly employed him.

Liddle is also a Christian of an irreverent sort. He is undogmatic and made a programme for Channel 4 attacking creationism. Channel 4, by hosting this show and Richard Dawkin's recent screed The Root of All Evil, has become somewhat notorious among conservative Christians. Now the worm has turned and Liddle is hosting a show on 18th December called The Trouble with Atheism. For non-UK readers, you can read Liddle's interview for the show in this week's Spectator (free until next Thursday). It is quite fun although I'd have liked to see Dawkins squirm a bit more on morality and determinism.

Comments or questions? Post them at Bede's dedicated yahoo group.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Antikythera Mechanism

One of the highlights of my visit to Athens last year was to see the Antikythera Mechanism in the Archaeological Museum there. This artifact does not look like much in the flesh and my wife was slightly non-plussed about my excitement on seeing it (picture and article). It was found in an ancient Greek shipwreck over a hundred years ago and consists of a large number of gear wheels mealded together by rust.

The mechanism is a fine technical achievement. It uses an arrangement of gears to model the movements of the planets. It is hard to say how accurate it was, but scientists who have studied it seem to be impressed. It was not a computer in the modern sense of the world, although it was a calculating machine of sorts. It's purpose was almost certainly to fascilitate astrological predictions and horoscopes. These were big business in ancient Greece and no other profession could have afforded the enormous cost of such an artifact. An astrologer needed to know the precise positions of the planets on a given date and it was a laborious process to look them all up. The Antikythera Mechanism probably did the job for him.

The tradition of clockwork machines lasted through the Christian era. We have a description of a Byzantine automaton that featured birds, lions and a flying throne that dates from the 9th century AD. Although we tend to call this kind of technology clockwork, the Greeks never invented the mechanical clock. The reason for this was that they lacked a usable escapement mechanism to keep time. This was not invented until the thirteenth century when medieval craftsmen discovered it (although predictably there are claims the Chinese got there earlier and then let the idea drop).

The Antikythera Mechanism does not tell us that the Greeks were more scientifically advanced than we thought. But we can certainly admire their technical skill in producing this complex machine. It is unlikely that it was unique and perhaps more surprises are in store.

Comments or questions? Post them at Bede's dedicated yahoo group.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

The British Humanist Society Learns about Polling

Susan Blackmore, a Dawkinista who has recently popped up in the Guardian with some anti-religious diatribes (among other things), today claimed that the faithful have departed the United Kingdom. Her evidence for this was an opinion poll carried out by the British Humanist Association ("BHA").

Now I love polls, not so much for what they tell us as for what they don't. For political junkies who want to get into the nitty-gritty of polling, there is no better site than politicalbetting.com. Long experience has taught us that the important thing about polls is not the answers but the questions. You can ask the same question and get radically different answers depending on how it is phrased. Here's an egregious example. Asking "Do you support a woman's right to choose?" will get you a very different answer to "Do you support the murder of unborn children?"

Now the BHA understands this. It is an association of one-eyed atheists of the sort that think Richard Dawkins is fab and Sam Harris isn't a lunatic. However, they call themselves humanists because that sounds so much more gentle. After all, I am happy to call myself a humanist if it just means being nice to people (or, in its original sense, someone with an interest in classical literature). Their opinion poll is very similarly misleading.

They carefully crafted the questions so they could claim that most people give the 'humanist' answers to three queries about science and ethics. Well, I'm a committed Christian and I'd give the 'humanist' answer to all three. The first question gives two choices: 'scientific or other evidence' provide the best way to understand the universe; or religion is necessary for a complete understanding. It's a false dichotomy of course. The two statements are not mutually exclusive; the first statement is made as broad as possible (what exactly is the 'other evidence'?); the respondent effectively has to reject science in order accept religion; the first statement talks about 'best' while the second uses the word 'complete'. It is phrased so that only an out-and-out young earth creationist would answer with the second option.

The two questions on ethics are fixed in similar ways to give the desired result.

The third question asked , whether this is our only life, is the most transparent. It also gives the highest proportion of religious respondents. I'd usually be one of 45% who said there is something more, but on a bad day I would be a "don't know". Surprisingly, 38% of those who gave humanist answers to all three of the other questions believed in some sort of life after death.

Now, here is the kicker. In her article, Blackmore never mentions the most crucial figure that comes out of the poll. The proportion of people who gave the 'non-religious' answer to all four questions was only 20%. Yet Blackmore (and the BHA) are claiming their poll says 36% of us are humanists. How come? They simply ignore the result from the question that gave the highest proportion of 'religious' answers - the one about life after death. In other words, the question they ignore is the most explicitly religious one.

If I was commissioning a poll to show the UK is a religious country, it would not be hard to frame the questions to get a positive answer. All the BHA's poll shows is that they want you to be sceptical, but only selectively.

Comments or questions? Post them at Bede's dedicated yahoo group.

Monday, November 27, 2006

The Anglo Saxon Library by Michael Lapidge

In our recent exchange, Charles Freeman suggested that Michael Lapidge's The Anglo Saxon Library showed that the church did not preserve Latin literature during the early Middle Ages. I have now had a chance to get a good look at this fascinating book and respond to Charles's comments.

The book is excellent and contains a wealth of information. For instance, the appendices detail all the classical works about which we have evidence that the Anglo-Saxons knew. This comes from citations and library catalogues. The list is not exhuastive but it is clear that not much classical Latin existed in England prior to 1000AD. This means that whereever the Latin manuscripts that fueled the Carolingian Renaissance in the ninth century came from, it wasn't England. Previously the facts that Alcuin was English and Germany was evangelised by Anglo-Saxon missionaries had suggested to historians that the manuscripts might have come from England too.

The book does not say (or even imply) that the Church in Europe did not preserve classical learning. Indeed, Lapidge begins with an introductory survey that covers the large libraries of the early Popes and continental monasteries. Nowhere does he suggest Christians destroyed classical manuscripts. He does suggest that the remnants of private libraries could have supplied some works for Charlemagne's scriptoriums although there is no solid evidence for this. What is clear, is that the Church's primary concern was Christian literature. Pagan writing was copied only occasionally and there was no deliberate policy of preservation until Charlemagne.

To show how much has been lost, Lapidge quotes an often-used statistic worth repeating here. We have the names of 772 classical Latin authors. Of these, not a word survives from 276 of them. We have fragments ranching from an aphorism to several pages of 352 of the authors. Of the remaining 144, we possess at least one of their works but rarely all of them. We lost this literature because the entire Latin-speaking half of the Roman Empire was invaded by illerate barbarians. What we have left is due to the Latin literate clergy.

Comments or questions? Post them at Bede's dedicated yahoo group.

Friday, November 24, 2006

British Airways

I have to admit I don't like British Airways. It's largely because they are very bad at handling children. If you want your bambinas looked after you should fly with a Latin airline. British Airways live up to the myth that the British treat their pets better then their children.

Still, I've restrained myself from putting the boot in over the cross-wearing affair because I know how hard big bureaucracies find it to change direction. Just look at the Vatican's glacial crawl towards a sensible view on condoms. However, I am pleased that public pressure has forced British Airways to cave in and rejig their uniform policy. This was inevitable once the row became big enough. Companies do what is demended to of them and once British Airways realised they'd called it wrong, they were bound to change tack. That said, I am looking forward to the howls of outrage from the secular left (the secular right were right behind the Christian campaign).

Comments or questions? Post them at Bede's dedicated yahoo group.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Who Refused to Look through Galileo's Telescope?

According to popular legend, when Galileo presented his telescope to senior cardinals/Jesuits/Aristotelian philosophers/the Inquisition (delete as applicable) they refused to even look through it. This tale has become a standard trope for when we want to attack anyone who won't accept 'obvious' evidence. As the last chapter of my book will be on Galileo, I thought I should try to nail down the primary sources for the legend. So I asked the internet's resident Galileo expert, Paul Newall of the Galilean Library to chase them down for me. His reply was extremely interesting.

There are three peices of evidence that have gone into the construction of the legend, as far as we can tell. The first concerns Cesare Cremonini, a good friend of Galileo and a Professor of Aristotelian Philosophy at the University of Padua. Quoted in a letter from a mutual friend to Galileo, Cremonini says of the telescope "I do not wish to approve of claims about which I do not have any knowledge, and about things which I have not seen .. and then to observe through those glasses gives me a headache. Enough! I do not want to hear anything more about this." It's clear that Cremonini did look through the telescope long enough to give himself a headache but could not see what Galileo could. Frankly, it was more than Cremonini's job was worth to endorse Galileo because it would have refuted Aristotle.

The second case is Guilio Libri, Professor of Aristotelian Philosophy at Pisa and no friend of Galileo's. He died very shortly after the telescopic discoveries were made public. Galileo was viciously biting when he heard the news, writing to a friend to ask if Libri, "never having wanted to see [the moons of Jupiter] on Earth, perhaps he'll see them on the way to heaven?" Did Libri refuse to look through the telescope or look and not see the moons (which was not easy at all, especially if you were old and without the keenest of eyesight)?

Finally, the senior Jesuit astronomer Christopher Clavius said of the moons of Jupiter "One would first have to built a spyglass that creates them and only then would it show them." However, the fault was with the Jesuits' first effort to built a telescope. Once they had built themselves a better one, Clavius confirmed that he could see the moons.

So who refused to look through Galileo's telescope? According to the historical record, no one did for certain. The argument was over what they could see once they once they did look.

Comments or questions? Post them at Bede's dedicated yahoo group.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

The Devil's Doctor

I have recently read The Devil's Doctor: Paracelsus and the World of Renaissance Magic by Philip Ball and thought I should post my thoughts here. I thoroughly enjoyed it but I'm not sure how much popular appeal it has.

Ball is a successful science writer with half a dozen titles to his name. As a converted journalist, he is good at explaining and writing. His skill, like all good science writers, is to make his readers feel more knowledgeable than they actually are. They finish his books with the proud flush of someone who has run an intellectual marathon, but who really did no more than run around the block.

His latest book, The Devil’s Doctor, proved that he could do history as well. I think this is an excellent first attempt – well written, informative, thoughtful and historically aware. It would have been so easy to get wrong. In his television show The Ascent of Man, Jacob Bronowski claims that Paracelsus was an important figure in the rise of science. He wasn’t. He was an inebriated lunatic with a weird philosophy that even his followers couldn’t understand. His alchemical system may have led to one of the great dead ends of science, but in every other way his work was pointless drivel. There’s nothing anachronistic about saying this – it’s what many people thought in the sixteenth century.

Ball is not quite that negative but he knows the idea of Paracelsus as transitional figure between the Middle Ages and Modernity won’t wash. So instead, he simply describes the man and his times in their own terms. This is what a good historian should do. I’ve read a good few scholarly works on sixteenth century esotericism and still learnt something from this enjoyable book. That said, I was vaguely troubled by it and fear that Ball may have made a mistake launching himself as a writer of serious history. The problem is that the book is a scholarly study backed up with lots of documentation and full of long quotations from the primary sources. It should have been published by a university press and packaged as a monograph. For the popular history market, it is simply too hard and assumes too much background knowledge.

Unfortunately, Ball also makes a few slips that mark him out as an amateur. These sorts of mistakes we all make, but we do it in private and have a tutor to correct us. Ball makes his in public. The worst infelicity is his use of other popular history books, including the wildly tendentious and inaccurate William Manchester and Daniel Boorstin, as authorities. Ball needs to develop a historian’s nose for a dodgy source like Manchester or Boorstin as well as check his quotations in the original. This means that he will probably miss out on the academic market as well.

That said, I hope Ball perseveres. His next project sounds extremely interesting and I am concerned that it doesn’t look like being published when originally planned. Let’s hope he sends this one to OUP and they pick up an author who can write scholarly history well. In the meantime, I expect readers of this blog are exactly the sort of intelligent laypeople who would most enjoy The Devil's Doctor.

Comments or questions? Post them at Bede's dedicated yahoo group.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Would You Adam and Eve It?!?

"Would you Adam and Eve it!" is supposedly the Cockney rhyming slang for "Would you believe it!" A question I am frequently asked is, do I believe in Adam and Eve? As I've said before I am a Darwinist and supporter of the findings of evolutionary psychology, so some explanation of how this squares with Genesis 2 is probably in order.

I take the view that all of Genesis up until the start of the Abraham story is mythical. I think Abraham was real enough although I accept that with my historian's hat on, there's not a lot we can say about him. But the creation, the flood and the tower of Babel strike me as myths intended to explain certain facts about the world. The story of the Fall is intended to explain a fact too - that we humans are fallen from God's original conception of us. I take sin and indeed, original sin, to be real enough. Evolutionary psychology has shown us that Saint Augustine was right. Our propensity to sin is heritable, unavoidable and human efforts to wipe it out are worse than useless. Sin is 'of the world' or, in other words, natural.

So when did the Fall happen and what caused it? I don't think it happened at any particular moment. As man evolved into the being he is today, his propensity to sin increased. This came about partly through choice (our freedom to choose reinforced in-built prejudices from nature) and partly through interaction with the world (the environment allowed sinfulness to prosper). You can blame evolution if you like, but I think something went wrong with the world to make evolution function the way it does. It was not inevitable but once started was almost impossible to stop.

I'm only speculating of course and trying to make sense of facts as I understand them. However, I do think theology needs to keep a close eye on science and not hold hostages to fortune. Thus, I fear, the Adam and Eve story cannot be literally maintained.

Comments or questions? Post them at Bede's dedicated yahoo group.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Richard Carrier on Christianity and Science

Richard Carrier, the resident scholar at Internet Infidels has started his own blog. One of his first posts is an article on Science and Medieval Christianity. Sadly, it isn't very good.

I don't use this blog for lengthy articles and won't launch an in-depth rebuttal to Carrier's thinking here. Instead, I want to point out two egregious historiographical errors that he makes, which must throw the rest of his article into doubt. Both these errors are extremely obvious and I am certainly not the only person to spot them.

Firstly, Carrier seems very confused about ancient science. He consistently uses terms like 'scientist' and 'methodology' in an ancient context without the slightest indication of what these words are supposed to mean. This suggests that he thinks their modern meanings can be applied to the ancient world. Clearly, they cannot. There was no 'scientific method' in classical Greece and no scientists either. There were a good few philosophers but natural philosophy was rarely their primary concern. Physics, even for Aristotle, was only expected to play second fiddle to ethical matters. This was even more true of the Stoics and Epicureans whom Carrier seems to think were prototype scientists. When early Christians attacked the metaphysics and ethical content of these philosophies they showed a much clearer understanding of what they were about than Carrier demonstrates.

Carrier's second error is more subtle because he only makes it selectively. He appreciates that Christianity is not a uniform pattern of belief. What he does not see is that its theology has developed constantly over the last two thousand years. Early Christianity had very little to say about natural philosophy, it is true. The Early Middle Ages in western Europe were a chaotic battle for survival and Christian theology at the time was geared towards aiding that struggle. Late medieval Christian theology was a very different beast and did have a profound effect on the development of science. One of the commentators on Carrier's article, J.D. Walters, has grasped this. So, for all his faults, has Rodney Stark. Thus, while it is wrong to say that Christianity has encouraged science consistently and at all times, it is quite correct to say that the encourage it did provide, both practical and metaphysical, during critical periods was an important element in the rise of modern science.

My friend Joe Hinman has written a useful article on the positive impact of theology on science.

Comments or questions? Post them at Bede's dedicated yahoo group.

Friday, November 03, 2006

The Orpheus amulet

I have finally written an article summarising the evidence against the Orpheus amulet of the cover of The Jesus Mysteries. It also includes my case that at least one of the authors knew about this before the book was published, but didn't see fit to mention it.

Comments or questions? Post them at Bede's dedicated yahoo group.

Witchcraft prohibition

Exodus 22:18 famously reads, in the King James Version "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live." We hear that this passage was a central reason for the witchtrials craze of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. However, it is interesting to compare it with the Latin Vulgate which was the one that would have been familiar in the Middle Ages and to Catholics. It reads "Maleficos non patieris vivere." which means, "You will not allow a practioner of harmful magic to live." It is interesting that the Vulgate is narrower than the King James Version in its definition of the prohibited activity.

Could this be part of the reason for the Catholic Church's unwillingness to launch an assault on magic in the Middle Ages? Certainly the Vulgate understands the distinction between good and bad magic and stipulates punishment only for the latter. And how much effect did the King James Version's translation have in English speaking countries. Certainly, it was the one that the burghers of Salem would have had to hand. The Greek Old Testament uses a word that Liddell and Scott define as "a poisoner, sorceror, magician... a general term of reproach." Does anyone know what the Hebrew term used is?

Comments or questions? Post them at Bede's dedicated yahoo group.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Religious Darwinism

The consensus of opinion among the latest crop of 'scientific' books about religion (by Dawkins, Dennett and Wolpert. More are in the pipeline) is that religion is a by-product of some useful evolutionary adaptation. Recently, I argued that this seems unlikely. From an evolutionary point of view, our religious behavior is distinctive enough to be selected for and this can only happen if they give us a reproductive advantage. So, do they? Empathically, yes!

It turns out that today, in Europe and America, religion gives its adherents an enormous evolutionary advantage over non-believers. The facts are laid out in this article from Prospect Magazine. It turns out that religious people are 40% more fertile than their non-religious countrymen. Non-believers don't even reproduce enough to maintain their population. In other words, atheism is a recipe for rapid extinction. The article also explained that you don't even have to go to church or be a regular member of a congregation to outbreed non-believers. These so-called "believing but not belonging" folk do not have as many children as the devout, but rather more than out and out non-believers.

It seems to me that non-belief must be the "virus of the mind" postulated by Dawkins, if anything is. Non-believers have to convert believers to keep their numbers up because they don't have enough children themselves. Once converted to non-belief, they die out in a couple of generations unless they happen to turn religious again. The article suggests that some sort of equalibrium will result where religious people have the children and the non-religous convert enough of them to maintain their population. It will be interesting to find out. One thing seems to be certain. The high watermark of secularism in Europe is already past. No wonder the new atheists are in such a panic.

Comments or questions? Post them at Bede's dedicated yahoo group.

Monday, October 30, 2006

The Closing of the Western Mind

Charles Freeman and I have had a productive exchange on my review of his book The Closing of the Western Mind which I reviewed here. You can read the full text of our exchange here. I think our replies make clear the nature of our disagreement and also highlight our different approaches to the business of history. Obviously, neither Charles or I are about to retreat from our positions so I expect that this debate will continue to run.

A quick update. In my last post, I mentioned that Terry Eagleton was an atheist. Apparently, this is not the case. Although he is a Marxist, he is also associated with some radical Christian groups. I think he demonstrates that Christianity is broader than Dawkins can possibly conceive. More criticism of Dawkins and Sam Harris from the position of a non-believer (no doubt about this one) can be found here. This article, in Wired Magazine, is well worth reading because it explains why so many secularists are concerned about the polemics of the 'new atheists' and shows how widespread such disquiet is. Thanks to a correspondent for pointing this one out.

Comments or questions? Post them at Bede's dedicated yahoo group.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

A fine review of Dawkins

I've got to say that while he's selling a good few books, Dawkins isn't making many friends. We saw Andrew Brown's opinion a while back in the Guardian and Prospect. Now Terry Eagleton has shredded the God Delusion in the London Review of Books. My thanks to Elliot of Claw of the Conciliator for pointing this out. The first paragraph is a classic:

Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology. Card-carrying rationalists like Dawkins, who is the nearest thing to a professional atheist we have had since Bertrand Russell, are in one sense the least well-equipped to understand what they castigate, since they donÂ?t believe there is anything there to be understood, or at least anything worth understanding. This is why they invariably come up with vulgar caricatures of religious faith that would make a first-year theology student wince.

Eagleton is an atheist and a Marxist, but most famous for being one of the primary vents through which literary theory has oozed into the UK. As such, despite being something of a post-modernist historian (a conservative post-modernist who likes to turn its insights on its creators), I find little to agree with in Eagleton's thought. What's remarkable about The God Delusion is that almost everyone, except Dawkins's precise clones, hates the book. I suppose that means that he is critic-proof, but if I was a professor and all my colleagues accused me of writing drivel, I won't be too happy.

Comments or questions? Post them at Bede's dedicated yahoo group.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Trying to Get Published Part Four

I had an agent. The next step was to go and meet him. Andrew's office is in Pimlico, central London, just around the corner from where I used to live. We had a good meeting. He was very bullish about the chances of finding a publisher for my book. Unfortunately, things turned out not to be so simple.

Having an agent means that editors at publishing houses will look at your work. It doesn't mean that they will buy it. Some of them provided varying degrees of feedback. One loved it, but couldn't get it through his marketing committee. Another said it was too high brow. Yet another (admittedly the trade arm of a university press), thought it was too low brow. Almost everyone agreed it was a great idea but not for them. After a few months of this we decided that it was time to have a rethink. Andrew sent the proposal and sample chapters off to another reader who was enjoined to be as critical as possible in his report.

Then, we had another meeting and decided that the problem was my book was falling between two stools. It read like an academic work that was trying to be accessible, not like a work actually written for laypeople. Like many authors, I was guilty of writing a book I would want to read rather than one with mass appeal. The new reader's report was very helpful in this regard and I was sent off to transform my idea into a truly commercial proposition. To do this I had to add colour, vignettes of everyday life and more anecdotes. The challenge was to do it without compromising my historical integrity. However, I was also told to be as controversial as I could manage. As I had toned down some aspects of my thinking in my first draft, I felt I had a licence to re-introduce them. Thus, I continued my war against judgmental terms for historical periods like 'Dark Ages', 'Renaissance' and 'Enlightenment'.

Finally, I took out almost all references to Christianity, especially my own beliefs. That's the world we live in, folks.

Comments or questions? Post them at Bede's dedicated yahoo group.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Feedback from Authors

Charles Freeman, the author of The Closing of the Western Mind, which I gave a very critical review to here, has responded. It is a great honour that the author of the book has taken the time to email me. You can read his email by logging onto my Yahoo group. I hope to publish it on my website as well if Mr Freeman gives his permission. I'll reply to his important points in the next few days but I need to visit the library first.

On another matter, Charles Mann, author of 1491 (published as Ancient Americans in the UK), was in touch a while back about whether or not the Church tried to ban zero, as he said in the first edition of the book. He promised to amend the relevant passage in the next edition and this has just come out. Chris Price, over at the CADRE blog, spotted that 1491's paperback edition has indeed changed to a more accurate note that Arabic numerals were banned by some secular authorities due to worries about fraud. Even better, Chris and I are thanked in the Afterward for helping sort this out. So thank you too, Mr Mann.

Comments or questions? Post them at Bede's dedicated yahoo group.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Science in the 21st Century

School children in England and Wales will soon be learning a new kind of science. A GCSE (an exam taken at 16) called Science in the 21st Century has been launched with the first candidates sitting the exam in 2008.

Scientists are up in arms because the new course is light on maths, test tubes and bad smells. They are afraid it is not rigorous enough to prepare students to study science at university. This is probably very true, but general education should be about educating everyone and not just the boffins with an affinity to lab coats. I had a look at the syllabus for the new exam and think that it is fantastic. We desperately need people to be able to make informed decisions about science and not be taken in either by the latest health scares or scientists telling them what to believe. Big questions like nuclear power, global warming, superbugs and obesity are not going to be solved by trigonometry or resolving forces. Children have to understand these issues to be useful citizens in 21st century democracies. It is not enough to expect them to pick the issues up from the TV or newspapers. So a round of applause for this new course. Ignore the naysaying scientists - they are just afraid of us having a population who knows what they are talking about.

I was surprised to find Simon Jenkins in the Guardian agreeing with me on this one. The last time I found myself nodding while reading one of his articles was in about 1997.

Comments or questions? Post them at Bede's dedicated yahoo group.

Friday, October 13, 2006

The Nobel Committee Gets It Right

I was pleased by the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to the Grameen Bank. The bank is a successful illustration that capitalism is a force for good and it is economic development that has the best chance of promoting peace in the world. The Nobel committee, which suffers from the mentality of a university social science department, has shown unexpected and welcome imagination here. Some previous winners of this prize have been laughable (Kofi Annan!?!).

Last year's literature prize went to a deserving recipient, Harold Pinter, but probably for the wrong reasons (his silly politics). This year the literature prize was also politically motivated when it was awarded to Orhan Pamuk. He has been persecuted by the Turkish authorities for his criticism of the official silence over the Armenian controversy and Kurdish policy. I have more sympathy for him than I do for Pinter, but I can't help wondering if a literature prize should be awarded for good writing.

Comments or questions? Post them at Bede's dedicated yahoo group.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Evolution's Biggest Problem

A few years back I read lots of books about evolution and intelligent design in an effort to get to the bottom of the controversy. I came to the conclusion that neo-Darwinism is almost certainly correct and intelligent design almost certainly inapplicable to evolution. However, I also saw how difficult it can be to take on board all the facts that are necessary to prove the case for evolution. The basic idea of mutation and natural selection is quite simple, although not quite as simple as 'survival of the fittest'. However, to accept that this idea can account for the variety of life requires a great deal more information and comprehension.

I've got no doubt that many of those who think that they understand evolution actually don't. Reading one of Professor Dawkins's books will not provide enough information or convince anyone who doesn't want to be convinced. Dawkins's genius, like that of many popular science writers, is to make his readers feel they understand more than they do. But a reader who comes to his work with a critical eye is unlikely to be convinced by it because they won't fall into the trap of letting Dawkins flatter their intellect. Rather, his polemic and anti-religious bigotry are likely to dissuade just those people who he has to try hardest to convince.

The main problem for evolution is, I think, that to do the legwork needed for an inquiring mind to accept the theory in full requires some goodwill towards it. The evidence is wideranging and disparate. There is no magic-bullet argument and no killer experiment. Rather there is a huge range of material from different disciplines (such as paleontology, molecular biology, statistics, zoology etc.) that mould together into a single matrix that can, taken together, bear the theoretical load placed upon it. But comprehending the matrix as a whole is only something you'll do if you are willing to look. Many of the aggressive advocates for evolution discourage critics from even wanting to see the whole. Instead, critics try to pick at individual threads that alone cannot convince.

Many Christians have learnt to look at the Bible as a whole. They don't feel they have to provide a cast iron defence of every verse against sceptics who are determined to find mistakes. Christians tend to exercise some goodwill towards the Bible and give individual troublesome verses the benefit of the doubt. We reach truth by distinguishing the wood from the trees. The same principles are necessary, I believe, to accept evolution as a whole. By destroying goodwill towards the theory, Dawkins and company do it no favours.

Comments or questions? Post them at Bede's dedicated yahoo group.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Trying to Get Published - Part Three

The US agent wrote to whom I had sent my book proposal wrote back:

I'm afraid this material is not for me. I'm very anti-religion and all the references to Christianity made me uncomfortable. I realize you can't do a history of any aspect of the Middle Ages without dealing with Christianity, but for a book to be right for me, it has to deal with Christianity as a purely anthropological phenomenon. I certainly wouldn't say your book is any kind of pro-Christian propaganda but it definitely had a feeling of warm sympathy for the Church, a gentle bias, which does not fit with my own interests or prejudices.
I had been prepared for the agent telling me my idea was not commercial or that I couldn't write well enough, but this was a big surprise. Most annoyingly, he didn't actually say if he thought the book was any good. Back to the drawing board.

Next, I decided to send my proposal to the UK agents who had initially responded. However, before I had sent anything off I happened upon a useful website. It belonged to a literary agent in London called Andrew Lownie. He gave some useful submission suggestions and also said he welcomed initial contact by email. I dropped him a line and he quickly replied asking for me to email the proposal to him. I reworked my material according to the format that his submissions page asked for and emailed it off. You can read the book proposal here. Again a week passed and then Andrew wrote back to say that he had received an excellent report from his reader and would be happy to take me on. Before long, I had both an author page and a summary of my book on his website.

Finding an agent had been a good deal easier than I expected, but getting published has so far proved much harder...

Comments or questions? Post them at Bede's dedicated yahoo group.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Wrong but in a Nice Way

An good article in the Guardian today by Roy Hattersley. He is a Labour politician whose policies, IMHO, are decidedly wrongheaded in many ways. But he knows the history of the labour movement and social democracy is a history of Christianity. He has even thrown off much
of the prejudice of his 'rationalist' upbringing.

If only all atheists were as open to reason.

Comments or questions? Post them at Bede's dedicated yahoo group.

Friday, September 29, 2006

Trying to Get Published - Part Two

Everybody agrees that, in trade publishing, you need an agent. Agents do not tend to be involved in academic publishing, largely because there is not enough money in the business to make it worth their while. They are also rare in the textbook market because publishers often commission authors directly rather than waiting for submissions to come in. But in trade publishing, agents are essential. Publishers like agents because they act as gatekeepers. Many publishing houses no longer accept unsolicited manuscripts at all and those that do give them very little attention. However, when a trusted agent submits a proposal, an editor knows that it has already been approved by a fellow professional in the business and is probably worth a look. That doesn't mean the editor will publish it - they probably won't - but they will look at it.

Agents are paid by results. They get around 15% of an author's royalties. This makes them completely dependent on the success of their authors. An editor has a salary to support them if it all goes wrong. On the other hand, an agent can get very rich whereas salaries in the publishing industry are notoriously stingy.

As I wanted my book to be published as a trade title, it was clear that I needed an agent. I began the search with a copy of the writer's bible The Writers and Artists Yearbook. This includes a listing of literary agents that is also available on-line. I picked out three and sent them a one -page synopsis by post. The replies were polite but not all that keen. However, one of them enclosed a guide to producing a book proposal that made a number of very helpful suggestions. I got to work.

Then I had a sudden thought. I googled for 'literary agent' together with the names of several authors whom I thought were writing stuff similar to me. In this way I found several agents with websites that included detailed guidance on submissions. Some even said that they didn't mind an initial approach by email (although others said they didn't like this idea at all). This seemed a good idea and I composed a short emailing trying to sell the essence of my book. I sent it to a US agent who had represented some history of science authors. Due to other commitments, I didn't check my email until late next day and found not just a reply from the agent, but a chaser asking why he hadn't heard back from me. He wanted my proposal as quickly as possible! I polished it up as best I could and emailed it back. His reply took a week and when it came it was the last thing I was expecting...

Next, how I actually found an agent.

Comments or questions? Post them at Bede's dedicated yahoo group.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Trying to Get Published - Part One

I thought I should share with you my on-going and so far unsuccessful attempts to find a publisher for my popular history of medieval science. The book, called the Genesis of Science, is intended to show lay readers that quite a lot of science was happening in the Middle Ages. It also demonstrates how this science fed through into the work of Copernicus, Galileo and other early-modern natural philosophers. Finally, it debunks several of the most egregious myths about the Middle Ages, most of which involve the church.

Let me begin with some background to the publishing industry. There are three kinds of publisher that might be interested in a book about medieval science. First are the academic publishers including the university presses, Brill, Routledge and the like. They publish books written by scholars for scholars. You rarely find them in general bookstores and they can often be prohibitively expensive. Books published under an academic inprint are intended to further the writer's career rather than make him any money.

Next are textbook publishers. These bring out books for students that tend to go through multiple editions to keep them up-to-date. Textbook writers are usually academics although, for high school and primary school, the work is often done by retired teachers. It can be very lucrative, especially if your book becomes the standard work on the subject that every English speaking undergraduate has to have. Peter Atkins, the hostile atheist, made his money from the textbook Physical Chemistry. Working on a textbook can end up as a permenant job because you have to keep up with changes to the syllabus and sometimes this requires a new book every year. One important textbook on medieval science exists - David Lindberg's The Beginnings of Western Science. Others aspire to its crown.

Finally, there are trade publishers that publish books that normal people read. They are out to make money by selling to the biggest market that they can. They understand that this limits the number of titles that can sell on a particular topic. They are also usually unwilling to publish a book about a subject that has never been touched before. This is because they don't know if the market exists or not. The ideal book for a trade publisher is the same as one that has sold well already, but different enough to justify people reading it as well.

These three compartments are surprisingly watertight. Crossover is rarer than you might think despite many of the big houses having fingers in all three pies. Books tend to be targetted at one particular market and have packaging to match.

Next time, I'll tell you how I set about finding an agent.

Comments or questions? Post them at Bede's dedicated yahoo group.

Monday, September 25, 2006

The Richard Dawkin's Foundation

Dawkins has a new toy for his retirement: his very own foundation.

Comments or questions? Post them at Bede's dedicated yahoo group.

Religion and evolution

It seems to me that the starting point of Dawkins and Dennett in their analyses of religion is not "God doesn't exist". Rather, it is "we hate religion." The reason for their animosity is a strong belief that religion is harmful and we would be better off without it. They rationalise this belief with the usual string of historical anecdotes and misconceptions that are so popular on atheist websites (such as the imaginary conflict between science and religion; religion causing wars, intolerance and suicide bombers; no atheist ever killed someone else because their atheism etc etc etc.). It all boils down to Steven Weinberg's fatuous and false sound bite "For good people to do bad things, that takes religion." Presumably he lives in a world without jealousy, revenge, money, hunger, anger, a mistaken sense of duty, scientific ignorance or stupidity.

In fact, I don't see how any consistent Darwinist could say religion is a 'bad thing'. Religion is human nature. Dennett and Dawkins both try to explain it as an unwelcome side effect of some other evolutionary adaptation. But this is highly unlikely because it is too in-built and multi-centred. Religion is caused by our brains ability to generate mystical experience; our instinctive desire for God or gods; our feeling for an objective moral order; our sense of wonder at nature and our skills at social cohesion. These traits are far too varied mean that religion is not a side-effect, it is a fundamental part of human nature. We also know religious belief is partly inheritable which further proves that speculation about memes is way off beam.

If religion is fundamental to our nature then, according to Darwinists, it can only have arisen in one way - selected by evolution. And it would only be selected if it was advantageous. The inherent propensity towards religion, that everyone bar a few mutants have, must be an adaptation that helped human beings dominate the planet. Furthermore, about the only working definition of 'good' and 'bad' that a Darwinist can get a handle on is whether or not a behavior has helped humans survive and multiply. Religion must, by Darwinian lights, be a 'good thing'.

It is just that like many other good things, it can go wrong.

Comments or questions? Post them at Bede's dedicated yahoo group.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

The Closing of the Western Mind

A little while ago, I was asked to write a review of Charles Freeman's The Closing of the Western Mind. Then I was asked again. And the other day, I found an existing review on the internet that is completely misguided. So, I thought, I must get my act together and finally do one myself.

My review is here. I posted it onto the Secular Web to see how the pit liked it. Notalot, as you can see but it sparked a great deal of discussion. Freeman is totally wrong, of course. The closing of the western mind was caused by a horde of barbarians over running the Roman Empire. Christianity is why the western mind reopened a few centuries later. Somehow, Freeman never seems to mention that...

Comments or questions? Post them at Bede's dedicated yahoo group.

The God Delusion

Richard Dawkin's new book The God Delusion is nearly upon us and reviews have started to appear. Obviously, some people are going to love it, especially if they mistook Sam Harris's rant, The End of Faith, for an intelligent analysis of religion.

Andrew Brown kicked things off in the Guardian with his article (that I linked to earlier in the week as well) taking serious issue with where Dawkins is coming from. Even more revealing were the cries of pain from Dawkinites in the comments section:
"I've now read this several times and I'm still boggling. It is just utter rubbish. Why are the religious allowed to publish this sort of drivel?"
"That's why I, and perhaps others, f**king hate religion Mr. Brown. Get it ? F**king HATE it. Or is that just jeering, smug atheism as well?"
"No, it calls for intelligence, which those who adhere to religious beliefs not only lack (as it is impossible to hold a religious belief and to be intelligent), but openly disavow. Hence religion is nothing more than a grotesque display of wanton stupidity and should be ridiculed and derided at every possible opportunity."
"but they are deluded fantasists!!!"
The review that Brown refers to in the opening sentence of the article above was for Prospect Magazine and it now on-line here. Needless to say, he eviscerates Dawkins's book from the standpoint of an intelligent atheist. His main attack is on Dawkins's blind spot, shared by most denizens of the Secular Web, that atheism has never caused anything bad to happen. I'd like to review the book myself but my wife has forbidden me to line Dawkins's pocket by buying it. I tell me myself it can't be as bad as Harris's but Andrew Brown seems to think it might be.

Comments or questions? Post them at Bede's dedicated yahoo group.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

The Pope is Right

Pope Benedict XVI's speech last week was, of course, excellent - measured, rational and almost irrefutable. He explained that unless faith is grounded in reason, it is dangerously prone to violence. If you can't win an argument with reason then there is always the temptation to fight it out instead.

The resulting fuss, riots and possible murder from Islamicists rather proved his point. However, the treatment of the row in the western media showed the Pope is right about another matter of concern to him - relativism. Reading some of the related comment articles (Madeleine Bunting, Will Hutton and Karen Armstrong being three egregious examples), I realised just how much trouble we are in. Almost no one dares to face up to the fact that the Islamic reaction shows us that we have a serious problem. The west is built on freedom of speech. Thus, I have no objection to the articles (mainly in the Guardian) by Moslems who want to defend their religion, even though the articles are packed full of historical inaccuracies and modern wishful thinking. But for the European left to side with Islam against freedom of speech is nothing less than suicidal. Where are the immortal words, usually attributed to Voltaire "I may disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." The Islamicist version: "If I disagree with what you say, I have the right to put you to death."

So kudos to Andrew Brown. I recently applauded this article of his on Richard Dawkins. He has also provided one of the few careful analyses of the Pope's speech. If you read nothing else about this matter, read Brown's article. One other ground for hope: The BBC's Have Your Say page is nearly unanimous in its condemnation of the Islamicist reaction. It's just a shame the BBC's editors didn't take that on board.

Comments or questions? Post them at Bede's dedicated yahoo group.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

The God of the Philosophers

I was reading some blurb by John Selby "rent-a-quote" Spong yesterday. This is the guy who used to be a bishop in Newark and wrote a load of books on why Christians and Christianity suck. He now says nice things about anti-Christian books, most amusingly calling The Jesus Mysteries "provocative, exciting and challenging." So yesterday I read that he was promoting Bob Price's attack on something called The Purpose Driven Life, which I understand is a sort of evangelical self-help manual. I've never seen Spong criticise fundamentalist atheists although I get the impression they view him as a 'useful idiot'.

Spong, like some other liberal theologians (Don Cupitt and Richard Holloway spring to mind), views conservative Christians with contempt. But he also sees himself as a leftwinger who hates 'elitism'. There's a contradiction here. By ridiculing the idea of a personal God, he attacks the beliefs that give meaning and purpose to the lives of millions of ordinary people. His idea of good religion can appeal only in the salons of Harvard or among people to whom Spinoza makes sense. The monumental irony of Spong is that he honestly believes that traditional Christianity is the problem and his non-religious religion is the answer. The best way to promote Christianity is to make it so undemanding that it becomes meaningless. I doubt we'll see many more transformed lives if Spong gets his way.

But this is not an attack on radical theology. For centuries scholars have struggled with the concept of God and often produced something that is not going to go down a storm in the pews. Dionysius invented 'negative theology' because our language is not equipped to say positive things about God - only what He is not. The scholastic understanding of God, especially the Ockhamists, was so far removed from experience it was impossible to relate to individual religious experience. That's why Luther hated it. Today, Keith Ward and Rowan Williams might find they could agree with quite a lot of what Spong says, if not how he says it. But being a liberal or radical theologian does not make you unorthodox, any more than being a conservative Christian makes you politically conservative.

The problem with Spong, Holloway and others is they aim their fire at Christians, not at anti-Christians. Ward and Williams remain solidly orthodox and know who the enemy is. It is interesting that Bishop of Oxford, who once foolishly shared platforms with Richard Dawkins, seems to have realised that cross-dressing in such a way is unacceptable, even for a bishop.

For me, the question to ask a theologian is not "what is God?" but rather "whose side are you on?". Comparing the books of Keith Ward to those of John Selby Spong, I am reminded of the phrase "By their fruits you will know them."

Comments or questions? Post them at Bede's dedicated yahoo group.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Book burning - a comparative study

Many radical theories about Christian origins excuse the lack of primary evidence for their reconstruction of events by postulating a successful exercise in suppression of the relevant documents by the early Church. The usual suspect is Constantine, but many Jesus Mythers have realised that to be credible, the suppression must have taken place earlier. The reason for this is the lack of any rebuttals against the Jesus Myth heresy by Christian apologists of the second and third centuries, despite their detailed refutation of literally dozens of other heresies. Also, the many Christian documents to have been found in Egyptian archaeological digs gives us a considerable amount of material uneffected by any edicts of Constantine and his successors.

I think the lack of rebuttals by the early heresiologists is, itself, fatal to the Jesus myth hypothesis. After all, this was a heresy that, according to mythers, was true and so surely was more worth refutation than the weird fantasies of the gnostics. But let me also add a few notes on how successful, or otherwise, the Church has been in suppressing documents it doesn't like.

The medieval papacy has become the very byword for successful control of ideas. The inquisitors were accorded extreme powers to hunt down and destroy subversive literature. There was nowhere to flee, nowhere outside the control of the papacy where Latin literature could realisitically be studied. Almost all literate people were clergy under direct ecclesiatical control. Furthermore, copying manuscripts required skills that hardly existed outside monestaries and universities, not to mention a great deal of money. Surely, in this case, a text specifically condemned and ordered to be burnt by the pope had no chance of survival.

Of course, you already know what I'm going to say. Oddly, condemned documents seem to have a better than usual chance of surviving. Here are two examples: Peter Abelard's Ethica and Theologica were condemned by Innocent II in 1140, worthy only to be burnt. We have an eyewitness account of the bonfire in Rome. Of course, both survive in multiple manuscript copies. Admittedly, there are few from the 12th century, but these multiply in the 13th and 14th. All the power of the medieval church could not prevent its own staff from copying these forbidden works.

The second case is Cecco D'Ascoli, burnt at the stake in 1327. At the same time two of his books, De sphera and Acerba, were thrown to the flames and utterly condemned by the Florentine inquisitor. Of course, they both survive. The rarest of his works is the one that wasn't condemned!

It seems clear that if the medieval church could not stamp out a text of which it disapproved, it is absurd to suggest that the early church was in a position to do so. It is almost as absurd to believe Constantine, in a world with a far higher literary level than the 12th century, could have managed it either. And, in both cases, they leave us no trace at all, even in rebuttals, of the works they allegedly covered up.

Comments or questions? Post them at Bede's dedicated yahoo group.

Conspiracy Theories

While I haven't finished my thesis, I do feel things are under control so I'll try to get back to short, twice weekly additions to this blog.

In today's Independent, the columnist Johann Hari (link to a free version of the article) wonders why we have so many conspiracy theories milling around. Of course, the Jesus Myth is a conspiracy theory as far as I'm concerned, although Hari doesn't mention that one. However, he does bring up the idea, recently dramatised by the BBC, that the Prime Minister Harold Wilson was subject to coup attempt by rightwingers. This is a classic conspiracy and no real evidence for it exists that I know of, beyond the recollections of a couple of journalists about Wilson's paranoia. But Hari seems to believe it is true. He also implies that the invasion of Iraq was a conspiracy rather than a mistake made in good faith. Thus, Hari ends up looking like the pot commenting on the kettle's poor complexion.

Of course, the main drift of his article is that conspiracy theorists are like religious people and thus mad and deluded. Rational argument is of no avail against either the religious bigot or the conspiracy aficionado. Somehow, you have to admire the way that almost any subject can be used to attack religion if you put your mind to it.

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Monday, July 17, 2006

Still snowed under

I'm afraid this blog will be remaining in hibernation for the time being. This is likely to remain the case until my thesis is completed.

However, an old project has now seen the light of day. A while back, I wrote a rebuttal to an article on religious history by Kyle Gerkin that was hosted by the Secular Web. They have kindly agreed to host my rebuttal as well and you can read it here.

In another development, reader Andrew Criddle has tracked down the German article which explains why the Crucified Orpheus is probably a fake (see my previous post). His summary of what he found is here. In short, he explains how the Orpheus amulet uses a kind of iconography that didn't develop until five hundred years or more after it was supposed to have been made.

Comments or questions? Post them at Bede's dedicated yahoo group.

Friday, May 26, 2006

Crucified Orpheus

A quick update on the state of play of the amulet used on the cover of Freke and Gandy's The Jesus Mysteries. Regular readers will remember I discovered that this amulet had been denounced as almost certainly a fake.

Two new bits of information. Firstly, a reader has tracked down some of the German scholarship relating to the amulet and given us a translation of the relevant portion. It's worth reading to get chapter and verse on the matter. Secondly, another reader, who knew Gandy and Freke (and defends them) put my charges to them. Initially, Gandy tried to muddy the waters. I presented the evidence with references and he then admitted that not only had he read the note in his book that said the amulet was probably fake, he had even marked it on his copy.

Only two conclusions are possible from this. Either Freke and Gandy are dishonestly suppressing information that counts against their thesis, or they are too stupid to remember their own research. Either way, everything in their book should be treated with the deepest suspicion and scepticism. On a final amusing note, Gandy was threatening to sue Wikipaedia because my entry there exposed their mistakes/duplicity. After the Da Vinci trial, I'm not sure that conspiracy theorists would be well advised take their case to court.

Comments or questions? Post them at Bede's dedicated yahoo group.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Free Inquiry

The idea that free inquiry is needed for the advance of science is one of the quainter and more naive myths of the enlightenment. Attached to it is the common misconception that science took off in Europe when the grip of the Church was loosened.

In the academic world there is a newish discipline called the Sociology of Scientific Knowledge (SSK for short). SSK made itself deeply unpopular with scientists because it insisted on studying them and not simply assume that they were objective and disinterested. This approach has taken some flack from the usual opponents of 'postmodernism' but it remains important because the questions it asks are good ones. The biggest question is "How do scientists do science?"

Getting back to the question of free inquiry, it was long assumed that if you put a lot of clever people to work without any strictures at all, they will produce something useful. We now realise that they won't. The problem is not that they won't think of anything, it is that they will think of everything with no way of telling the good ideas from the porkers. It's not my area of expertise, but I have long suspected that this was the problem with science in the ancient world - it was just too free and hence could never construct any linear research programmes. There was no authority to decide between Aristotle and Epicureus apart from everybody else's personal opinions.

What you need for science (and what we have today) is a strong, agreed authority responsible for training new scientists within the orthodox citadel and casting out heretics if they stray too far from the paths of righteousness. Thus, creationists, parapsychologists, Brian Josephson and most of the alternative medicine community are branded as heretics and excluded. And jolly good it is too, I say. I completely agree with this modus operandi of science even though, unlike most scientists, I see it for what it is. There is nothing much free about all this inquiry. Science sticks within orthodox methods and assumptions and thrives as a result.

What about the Church? True, this was the authority that once decided on orthodoxy and heresy. That power has now been taken over by science itself where it belongs. But science could only do this when it had already become sufficiently successful to become an authority in its own right. Before that, it sheltered under the authority of the Church and the result was largely benign. Magic, astrology, alchemy and the like were excluded from mainstream science. Theology was kept out of the question by forbidding natural philosophers to talk about it. Realist metaphysics was enforced. All in all, the Church was an excellent step-parent until science could stand on its own two feet. Then, like all adolescents, it started to rebel against its elders. Hopefully, now it is grown up enough to admit that it actually owes them a lot.

Comments or questions? Post them at Bede's dedicated yahoo group.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Civilization IV

Yes, I admit it. Occasionally, I get a bit addicted to a computer game. The latest is Civilization IV. I've been around since the first incarnation of this game, way back in 1991 and will opine to anyone who listens that Civ 2 was the best by far. But the new version has an interesting dynamic that the previous ones avoided - religion. Now, in Civ 4 you can discover and adopt religions. The manual contains a disclaimer saying that they don't want to offend anyone and, I can say, they haven't offended me. What they have done is produced a neutral opinion of the pros and cons of religion (judging by the game effects) that I found quite interesting.

There are seven religions, including Islam, Christianity, Taoism and Hinduism. They are all treated exactly the same in the game (ie you don't get suicide bombers by adopting Islam or crusaders by being Christian) except they arise roughly in historical order. Nor is there any link between particular religions and nations. I'm currently presiding over a Buddhist England. The Spanish are Jewish which is a nice historical inversion.

The first effect of religion is to make people happier. Building temples and churches puts a smile on everyone's face. When you adopt a policy of having a secular state, then the more different religions you have in your cities, the happier people are. Thus, in the opinion of the game designers, not only is freedom of religion a good thing, but the more of them you have, the better. Without religion, your people will be positively miserable. Less positively, having no state religion is good for science.

In international relations, the effects are what you'd expect. You get on best with countries with the same religion as you. Needless to say, this reflects the real world where the propensity towards keeping the peace among co-religionists is at least as great the desire to go and biff the infidels. The old 'religion causes wars' canard is belied by the number of wars that religion prevents by giving different nations a common cause.

If a religion is founded on your territory, you get significant financial advantages from the pilgrimage potential. You also get the chance to produce some great holy people who are definitely a good thing for your society. Finally, the game allows you to adopt either a pacific or militaristic religious policy. Again, this reflects the reality whereby religion is used to justify many different viewpoints.

In all, I'd say the designers of Civ 4 have made quite a good job of intergrating religion into their game. They have concluded that religion is not only a central part of human history, but also that it was essential to our development in good ways and sometimes, in bad.

Comments or questions? Post them at Bede's dedicated yahoo group.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

The London Library

Academics collect library cards in the same way that compulsive shoppers accumulate credit cards. I have only seven or eight (library cards, not credit cards) but then I'm only a graduate student. My latest is the London Library in St James's Square.

I joined because I needed books at home to complete my PhD thesis that usually only reside on reference shelves. The London Library has a relatively small reference collection and almost everything else is borrowable. They also let you hang onto a book for as long as nobody else wants it, as long as you renew it regularly online. I have been correcting my thesis today and having the books to hand has been extremely useful. Thus, I felt that the London Library deserved a little plug here. It is kitted out like a Gentleman's Club (although it has no restrictions on membership) in a beautiful old building in the heart of clubland. They have a million or more books and presently they are almost doubling their size with a new extension.

There are only two drawbacks. One is a rather hefty membership fee (with no allowances for academics). The other is the metal stacks which can give you a serious electric shock if as you brush against them. But overall, I found it an excellent place to work and fantastic resource.

Comments or questions? Post them at Bede's dedicated yahoo group.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Who can suffer?

Just before I went up to Cambridge in 2003, my girlfriend (now wife) and I had a celebratory meal to say goodbye to my old flat. I like to cook and decided to do a lobster. Getting hold of a fresh lobster in London meant visiting Borough Market where I met Joe. Joe (who might have been male or female) was sitting on a bed of ice waggling its antennae at passers by. It cost me £25 and weighed around 2 kilograms. For the record, a two kilo lobster will feed four people comfortably. The pair of us just pigged out and still couldn't finish it until the next day.

Joe had to be cooked and I followed the standard advice of popping it in the freezer until the cold had caused it to pass out. Then it was dropped into a big pan of boiling water and never knew what had happened to it. There was no struggle and no indication it had suffered at all.

I'm no sentimentalist about animals, especially the ones I eat. But I do strongly object to unnecessary animal suffering and took steps to ensure that Joe's was kept to a minimum. This is despite many scientists claiming that the lobsters' nervous system is not well enough developed to feel pain. I think that if the animal responds to painful stimuli in the same way as creatures that we know feel pain, then we must assume it does. Even with a lobster, I want to play safe and make a small effort for its sake.

Which brings me to this news story: Foetuses 'cannot experience pain'. Let's hear it for Dr Stuart Derbyshire for the most excruciating and dangerous piece of pseudoscience so far this year. At least the story admits that Derbyshire is linked to pro-abortion pressure groups. If we are supposed to assume that lobsters feel pain, surely it is ridiculous to assert that foetuses do not.

Comments or questions? Post them at Bede's dedicated yahoo group.

Friday, May 05, 2006

A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson

Another trashy book (albeit not as trashy as DVC) that I read on holiday was Bryson's breezy survey of modern science. I've enjoyed it, as one can hardly fail to enjoy Bryson's writing. But as a work on science, this is a very, very bad book indeed.

The problems are two-fold. Firstly, it doesn't contain much science. It is mainly a good example of the history of science genre I call "How about that and here's another thing." Bryson is most interested in writing about all those weird and wacky boffin types and their amazing discoveries. His vision of the history of science is the traditional march of true knowledge. There is no real history here, just a lot of anecdotes (many of which are fictional) strung together to make us feel good about science.

But this attention to history is no bad thing, because it means there less of Bryson failing to explain science to his readers. The conceit of the book is Bryson, a layman who knows nothing about science, informing his equally ignorant readers. If this sounds like the blind leading the insane, then that is because it is. Read this book and you will learn nothing about science except a few factoids and an impression that it is so difficult that scientists must be real swell guys. I realised this when I asked my Dad after he had read the book if I could test him. No, he said, he didn't know any more than when he started.

Added to this is an editor who can't seem to tell the difference between million and billion, controversy given as fact and the rather obvious materialistic bias of the author. In the chapter on the Big Bang, Bryson admits the universe is fine-tuned and lets Martin Rees have his say on there being an infinite number of universes. But there is no room for the rather more obvious solution to fine-tuning, that the universe was created deliberately. Why not talk to Polkinghorne?

Thus, most readers will leave this book thinking even less critically than when they started. It won't help them evaluate the next health scare. It won't help them understand the differences between science and religion. It won't educate them on the limits of science. It will just give them a warm feeling inside about people who wear white coats.

Comments or questions? Post them at Bede's dedicated yahoo group.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Back from Australia

This blog has been quiet for a month as I have been on holiday in Western Australia. That allowed me to do plenty of reading and I'd like to share my thoughts on a few of the books I've looked at.

First up is the Da Vinci Code. I am a bad flyer and so have a strict policy to read only mindless books on aeroplanes. DVC certainly fits the bill but I also found myself defending it in some ways.
First the bad news. I was stunned by how badly written it was. Awful beyond words. It reads like a primary school project by Jeffrey Archer. Of course, everyone says it is badly written but, like the taste of John Locke's pineapple, it is something you can only really comprehend by experiencing it. It is also lazily edited and has a few howling continuity errors. Still, who cares? This is the literary equivalent to a Big Mac. Junk fiction. It has no nutritional value at all but slips down easily enough.

What about the bogus history? It is true that Brown puts a notice upfront saying that the Priory of Zion exists and that his various descriptions of art and places are accurate. These things are untrue. So is most of what the novel says about Opus Dei (who have no monks and didn't rescue the Vatican from bankruptcy). So is almost everything that Brown tells us about early Christianity. I must say that I really have no problem with Brown doing this. He is writing a trashy novel and injecting a bit of verisimilitude into his work is a standard ploy. We all enjoyed The Day of the Jackal a lot more because Frederick Forsyth went to such an effort to make his hokum seem real. So did Jack Higgins in The Eagle has Landed. So indeed, did the not-so-trashy Umberto Eco in The Name of the Rose. With the possible exception of the last of these titles, no one believed a word of them. Sadly, Eco did manage to reinforce some prejudices about the Middle Ages but then subverted his readers' expectations so successfully that we have to forgive him.

So Brown's tricks are standard tricks of the trade. He is not even terribly good at it. So why, oh why does anybody believe anything in his book? This is not Brown's fault. It's widespread public stupidity. Bryan Appleyard, in the Sunday Times this week, summed up my views on the whole Magdalene conspiracy when he said of Michael Baigent's latest:

Nothing in this book need concern grown-ups. It will appeal to conspiracy theorists and militant secularists -? well, to thick ones with no friends -? but it leaves me cold: in my experience, almost all conspiracies are just cock-ups in fancy dress. So, in short, don'?t read this book, but, if you must, do what I did, remove the cover and keep your hand over the spine. People might see, and you don'?t want them to think you'?re an idiot with nothing better to do.

Next time someone aks you if something in the DVC is true (or worse tells you it is), don't waste your time explaining the truth. Simply express utter distain. Hopefully, that will shame them into realising that the pages of pulp fiction is not the place to find history or anything else of value.

Comments or questions? Post them at Bede's dedicated yahoo group.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

A One Month Hiatus

This blog will be in suspended animation until May as I will not be able to add any updates. I should still be able to reply to emails but do wait until May unless it is urgent.


Comments or questions? Post them at Bede's dedicated yahoo group.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Science and Truth

Despite my last post here, I am not a particular cynic about science. I am happy for my children to have the MMR jab and unlike Mr Blair, I will say so. I trust scientific medicine over so-called alternative medicine. I have as much time for homoeopathy and Chinese herbs as I have for Galen's humours. I majored in Physics at Oxford and feel I understand what science is and what it isn't.

All of which makes me rather annoyed with people who suggest that the scientific = true actually holds. In common parlance, using the adjective 'scientific' seems to add no end of credibility to a proposition. Advertisers know this well. They are not the only ones to misuse the term. In their new books, Lewis Wolpert and Daniel Dennett have both come up with some just-so stories to explain religion naturalistically. They call their stories 'scientific' to add credibility but in fact there is nothing much scientific about them. Judging by the summaries I have seen they are just interpretations foisted onto a few observations and then extended with a series of non-sequiturs. Just because an explanation is naturalistic, does not make it scientific. A scientific explanation is one that has been subject to tests independent of the observations from which it was derived.

Another abuse of the false 'scientific = true' equation is the treatment of Intelligent Design ("ID") theory. This is often attacked as not science. In fact, it passes almost every test that determines whether something is scientific. The only test it fails is where it stands in the opinion of most other scientists (which is a test that would fail all pioneers). In fact, what people mean when they say that ID is not scientific is that it is wrong. But being wrong is no bar to being scientific.

Part of the reason for widespread public mistrust of science is that scientists have been guilty of overselling their product for too long. Science will not win back credibility until it admits that it is a method and not the truth. It certainly produces reliable objective knowledge but only within a limited sphere. Dennett and Wolpert are guilty of building up further mistrust of science by abusing the term and trying to merge it with metaphysical naturalism.

Comments or questions? Post them at Bede's dedicated yahoo group.