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 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.