Monday, May 31, 2004

Been away for the Bank Holiday. We visited Windsor Castle and Eton College to view some spectacular architecture and interior decorating. Eton's chapel is a beautiful example of late perpendicular like our own King's College Chapel here at Cambridge (founded by the same king, Henry VI). And there were some fantastic Flemish murals that survived the vandals of the Reformation by being whitewashed over and hidden behind choir stalls only to be revealed in the 20th century. St George's Chapel in the Castle is simply perfect and one of the rare English churches untouched by the Reformation. Even the chantries are intact.

My feedback form allows anonymous feedback and I get the occasional masterpiece of incoherent stupidity and rudeness from those who don't want to own up to who they are. I thought I should share a couple. Here's one with a fixation on Nazis.

"name: Palladas

comments: The Big Lie technique works!
For you to claim that Xtians did not systematically destroy books, pagan & philosophical is a piece vileness on par with Goebbles;
You're not even funny. Poor darling, how do you explain the LAWS of Theo 1, 2, Just. et al. BANNING books and even talk of philosophy (ever heard of Porphyry, etc.?)rejecting Xianity."

Sadly for Palladas, I do know the Roman law codes (s)he is refering to and they don't say what (s)he thinks. The law setting up a school for pagan learning in Constantinople springs to mind. Ofcourse, they attacked literature that was attacking the state religion - exactly the same as pagan emperors did. Diocletian ordered all Christian writings destroyed and by all accounts got through quite a lot of it.

Then we have this exhibition in freethinking rationalism:

"name: f**k off....

comments: I guess you not even feel anymore any pains in the a**hole on repeating such idiocies, 'cause you already are so imbibed by the pressure of the "normality", that disguised lies seems true to you; the quiet with which you repeat 'em, makes you feel ensured that's the truth, and trying to trasmit to other gullible poor idiots. Indeed, it is only a case of delusion that amplificates itself, and comes to "clear" your fundamental uncertainity and weakness.
I know, with my words I do not resolve anything; "the more you pursue us, the more we believe", isn't?
Poor wretches; poor BRAINWASHED wretches."

No comment. But perhaps a spell checker on my feedback form would help...

I don't publish correspondence but will use this blog to answer anything particularly interesting with the permission of the sender. Anonymous feedback is usually just insults so I'll feel free to publish anything particularly juicy. Permission of the author, axiomatically, will not be sought.

Friday, May 28, 2004

While the idea of an inevitable conflict between science and religion is a myth there have undoubtedly been occasional issues between science and particular religious believers. However, these are down to historical continbency rather than out right epistomological opposition. To invent the eternal conflict, anti-Christians have been reduced to mischaracterising these events and sometimes just making stuff up.

An amusing way to demonstrate this is to show how their have also been occasional conflicts between science and particular atheists which are grounded in very similar circumstances to the science/religion episodes.

There is the famous example of Stalin and Lysenko to ponder, fulling discussed by Carl Sagan in Demon Haunted World (one of his better books). Atheists might claim that this was due to Stalin's communism rather than atheism, but that is precisely the point. In most alleged science/religion episodes the argument is about something else entirely.

There are some other examples too.

A well known case was the Cambridge Professor of Physics, Fred Hoyle, who refused to accept the Big Bang because of its uncomfortable theological implications. Internet Infidel, Richard Carrier, went through quite a journey before he could finally accept the Big Bang (a term coined by Hoyle as an insult) and there is little doubt that Hoyle's atheological objections sent a lot of his students on a wild goose chase for another theory.

Less well known is the case of Josiah Nott and George Gibbon (see G Blair Nelson, 'Men before Adam' in When Science and Christianity Meet referenced below). Both these men were anti-clerical nineteenth century polemicists along the lines of Thomas Huxley and John Tyndall, and had contempt for Christianity. In particular they objected to the idea that all men could be a single species, as Christians insisted, because they believed black people to be of a separate lower species. They went as far as to claim that whites and blacks did not breed true and based their polemic on rascism and attacking Genesis.

It is often claimed that the Church has put scientists to death. Oddly enough, it never did and the only important scientist to be executed who I am aware of was the great French chemist Antone Lavoisier who had his head chopped off by the anti-Christian Jacobins in the French Revolution. Not, I hasten to add, because of his science. But then that caveat did not stop the non-scientists Bruno and Servetus, executed for non scientific reasons, being held up as martyrs of science by the ignorant. All three men are covered by John Gribben's Science: A History 1453 - 2000 (Penguin, 2002).

The point of all this is empathically not to show atheism and anti-Christianity are opposed to science. Some people, at some times, have been opposed to some science due to beliefs they have. Atheism and anti-clericalism can be opposed to science, as can biblical literalism.

If you do a university course on science and religion you will probably be set the following reading as standard:

* David Lindberg and Ronald Numbers (eds.) God and Nature (1986) and When Science and Christianity Meet (2004) both by California University Press. These are both excellent essay collections by leading historians of science covering matters like the Scopes Trial, Galileo's Trial, Darwinism and the attitude of the church to science.

* John Hedley Brooke "Science and Religion: Some Historical Perspectives" Cambridge University Press (1991). A one man effort but still an excellent of summary of science and religion from Galileo onwards.

In fact these three books constitute the bare minimum you must have read to talk intelligently about this subject. They are available in cheap paperback editions and in most libraries.

Thursday, May 27, 2004

Spent the day in the University Library reading an eighteenth century edition of the Annals of Oxford University by Anthony Wood which is mercifully in English. The only complication is the use in printing of the 'long s' which looks a bit like an 'f'. Connoisseurs of double entendres should check out Robert Boyle's the Spring of the Air (about his vacuum pump) to see the word 'suck' spelt with a 'long s'. They got rid of it about 1800 and I have never been able to figure out the logic of its use as they use a normal 's' as well. The 'long s' is one of the things that makes medieval manuscripts hard to read and it just got carried over into printing. The end of the eighteenth century also marks the point that spelling becomes completely modern and I've always wondered if we have Samuel Johnson and his dictionary to thank for that. The further back you go, the worse English spelling becomes but even in 1500 there are very few English words that we don't still such today ('sith' for 'since' is a rare exception). I have been reading an awful lot of sixteenth century English and have been pleasantly surprised at how easy it is.
After the failure of Atkins and co to impress, I thought I should mention a rather more fruitful lecture I went to a few weeks ago. That was here at Cambridge on science and the bible by Ernest Lucas. Dr Lucas has degrees in biochemistry and Old Testament Studies and spoke about Genesis 1.

His central contention was that Genesis is not a scientific treatise and neither was it intended to be. Whoever wrote it did not think that it reflected reality and we would be foolish to suggest otherwise. Instead, we should interpret it within the milieu of its own time and consider the purpose that it was supposed to serve. Cutting to the chase, I would summarize Dr Lucas's position as follows: Genesis 1 is a piece of polemic against contemporary views about God and creation. It is supposed to counter certain erroneous views but does so within the kind of narrative framework that the author was familiar with. So, whereas most ancient Middle Eastern theologies said that the world was created from chaos, Genesis says it was created ex nihilo. Likewise, there were many stories about the birth of the Gods. Genesis makes clear that God existed before the universe. There were many ideas about the duality of spirit (good) and matter (evil). Genesis is clear that matter is good because God created it. I suppose you might say Genesis is part of an argument which has become hard to understand because we only have one side of the story.

I must say, I found this explanation intellectually very satisfying. Genesis as a work of theology from the ninth century BC is a far more accurate document than Genesis as twenty first century science, which is what YECs want to make it. I hope Dr Lucas, himself an evangelical, can persuade a few of them.

Wednesday, May 26, 2004

Degree number three, as the long gap indicates, is rather a time consuming process...

So, much as I love the idea of being able to muse about this and that, I haven't really managed to get around to contributing to this Blog with enough regularly. But with so much to talk about it is time to try again. Typing here should be the substitute for wasting my time at the Secular Web's discussion boards. Anyway, onwards and upwards.

I turned up at this debate on science and religion on Tuesday, dragging along my girlfriend with the promise of an academic bun fight. Alas, it was not to be. Peter Atkins was as odious as ever and deserved to be eviscerate by either Keith Ward or Peter Lipton, but both these guys are far too nice to do the deed. One poor girl had her long question dismissed by Atkins with "That's nonsense". It may have been, but he should be politer. He also had some heavy metal tee-shirt wearing groupies (ie science students) who clapped hard at every gem that dropped from the lips of their hero.

Ward is an occasionally interesting liberal theologian who looks like William Lane Craig. His presentation was to dilute 'religion' to a sort of meaningless 'contemplation of the highest good' which makes it so unthreatening, not even Atkins can be keen on its 'elimination' (Atkin's word, not mine). Like David Hope, Archbishop of York, I do worry about theologians whose reaction to the modern world is to jettison everything mysterious and interesting about religion in the hope of not offending anyone.

Only Peter Lipton had something interesting to say, although I must admit that I have a slight interest here as he is my Head of Department at Cambridge. I've also heard this particular idea from him before and now feel more confident about why he is wrong. Essentially, he argued for an instrumentalist approach to religion. Professor Lipton is Jewish and thinks this is a good thing he wants to celebrate. Consequently he uses his inherited religious tradition as a way to assert his culture. But he does not actually believe that it is a reflection of 'reality' and remains an atheist. This idea has been defended my many politically conservative thinkers and journalists like Roger Scruton, AN Wilson and Peter Jenkins who all are non-believers who see the church (the Church of England to these English nationalists) as a valuable cultural resource.

The problem is that Professor Lipton insists that we take the religious texts literally before we decide we are not going to believe them. In other words, he has almost erected a strawman argument that claims you have to be a fundamentalist or you can't be a proper religious realist. Rejecting two thousand years of Jewish and Christian scholarship, he refuses to countenance a metaphorical reading that would allow someone to claim the text was 'true' at some level. His argument for this is that we don't take novels metaphorically to get their meaning but literally and we know they are fiction. This argument fails firstly because the Bible is not a novel and second because Gulliver's Travels (where the main messages are metaphorical rather than literal) is.

It seems to me that for religion to be anything other than a museum, we must takes its claims as having a reality, even if we need to think carefully about what those claims actually are. Furthermore, the value that Professor Lipton rightly sees in Judaism probably would not be there if most Jews had not been realists.

In all, a disappointing debate and certainly not worth leaving the cricket at Lords early for.