Tuesday, December 27, 2005

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

Sorry for missing the post on Friday. We were staying with the family. With nine adults, one baby and five dogs under a single roof it was rather hectic. Luckily, my parents have Christmas cussed and thanks to their hard work, as always, we had a great time. I hope all readers enjoyed a very happy and peaceful Christmas.

Yesterday, my wife and I took advantage of the parents being able to babysit and slipped off to the cinema. Our choice was The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. I have to admit that it was a long time ago since I enjoyed a film as much as this. It was faithful to the novel which is a fine yarn in itself. The cast were excellent, especially the four children who were almost the only human leads in it. They had to act without much idea what the finished product would look like. Tilda Swinton was a fine White Witch, sexy and scary at the same time. Finally, the special effects were amazing. You are supposed to suspend disbelief at the movies but here, I hardly had too. I really couldn't believe what I was seeing. They say that fur is the hardest thing to model on computers. This movie has acres of furry animals and they all look absolutely perfect. I was stunned by how much better LWW looked than Lord of the Rings just a couple of years ago. Also, while LOTR was a sprawling epic, this was a small scale film with a high level of intimacy. I never felt the characterisation in LOTR was much good (it wasn't much shakes in the books either). LWW's four children were real people you have sympathy for. I felt so bad for poor Edmund in a way I never did about Boromir or Gollum.

A lot of ink has been spilled over LWW's religious subtexts. Rather nicely, village atheists Philip Pullman and Polly Toynbee have made themselves look very stupid (links to their stupidity). When I first read the books, I was the product of a Christian education and totally missed all the Christian imagery. When I reread the series aged 16 I was a confirmed atheist and, if anything, enjoyed them even more. Of course, redemption is a mainstay of many Hollywood movies, especially action films when there always seems to be a character who started the whole thing off (released the monster, pressed the wrong button, was out for a quick buck) who is redeemed by a heroic death. Likewise, the hero, like Aslan, always saves someone by facing certain death and then, just when we think all is lost, reappearing without a scratch. So don't loose sleep over Narnia. The main emotion I remember as a kid was gut-aching envy for the children who got to go to Narnia while I had to stay at home.

In short, see this movie. It is great family entertainment.

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

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Roger Bacon

According to all the standard biographies, the Franciscan authorities imprisoned Roger Bacon (1214 - 1292) for a long period of time. For those looking for evidence of the conflict between science and religion, this was a prime example of clerical intolerance. They had no doubt that the authorities incarcerated Bacon for his dangerous scientific opinions. For other historians, it was his sympathetic view of both astrology and alchemy that doomed him to a dungeon. Today a fresh look at the surviving sources show that it is difficult to prove Bacon’s imprisonment happened at all, let alone that it was for putting forward dangerous scientific views. The origin of the story is a Chronicle of the Franciscans dating from about 1370, a full century after the alleged arrest of Bacon. This document claims that Bacon was a doctor of theology, imprisoned for unspecified ‘suspect novelties’. We know Bacon never qualified as a doctor of anything, so it is hard to give this account much credence. Furthermore, the controversy in which Bacon was allegedly involved had nothing to do with science. Rather, a sect of extreme ascetics within the Franciscans was stirring up trouble. These men, followers of the apocalyptic prophet, Joachim of Flora (1132 – 1202), were convinced that the world was about to end and that the church should, forthwith, divest itself of all property in imitation of the poverty of Christ. The riches of the medieval church are proverbial and bishops certainly had no intention of living as beggars. Franciscans had sworn to do so but as the order’s wealth and influence grew, even the friars became less inclined to survive only with a staff and begging bowl. If Bacon had been a supporter of these Spiritual Franciscans and, given the enormous piety evident in his writings, this is plausible, he could have got into a great deal of trouble. Thus, if he the story of his imprisonment is true, then it had nothing to do with science and is further evidence that Bacon’s real concern was with Christianity.

In reality, it is extremely hard to find anyone beyond Galileo who was persecuted by the Church for scientific opinions.

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

Friday, December 16, 2005

Philosophical silliness

As the season to be jolly is rapidly approaching I thought that I might share some of the more entertaining websites whose URLs are being bandied around the Cambridge philosophy firmament. Philosophy is a subject so obtuse that it has a nearly boundless capacity for in-jokes. Many of these are extremely silly. It might be argued that some philosophers really don't need to be deliberately silly as they manage it perfectly well without even trying. However the three sites below are quite entertaining, provided that you have a basic knowledge of philosophy to start with. If you don't, I suggest reading Anthony Kenny's Short History of Western Philosophy before clicking on any of the links below.

Philosophical Power Toys - After the success of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, collectible figurines of your favorite philosopher.

The Deaths of Philosophers - Ancient Romans were obsessed by the idea of a good death. Philosophers should expire in an appropriate fashion too.

Analytical Philosophy Generator - Last, and indeed least, who needs On Certainty?

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

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Childcare and global warning - scientific fads

Here's an excellent article from the London Times printed last week. It's about why it is unwise to follow the pronouncements of scientists on childcare (or indeed anything else). A fine quotation from the article:

The problem with childcare is that it is too often entrusted to mothers who have
not read Thomas Kuhn's 1962 book The Structure of Scientific
. In that book Kuhn explained that all influential scientists,
which includes social and political scientists, are liars. He put it more
politely than that, yet that was his message. Most people are unconscious
followers of Karl Popper, and they suppose that scientists welcome the testing
of their hypotheses by others attempts to disprove them. So people believe that,
when scientists encounter a fact that clashes with their theories, the
scientists discard the theories.

Alright, he's not 100% accurate about Kuhn (but nothing beats a pithy aphorism). What he is accurate about is the public perception of scientists as somehow beyond reproach. In fact, they have their own interests and represent the interests of the people who pay their research bills. To be even more controversial, I am beginning to think of the whole gobal warming movement as a classic Kuhnian paradigm. This does not mean that global warming isn't happening, merely that all data on climate are showhorned into this paradigm. A typical example is the way that we English have been promised both higher and much lower temperatures in the near future, with both phenomena attributed to global warming. Another example is coastal erosion and subsidence. This has been happening since the beginning of time but now global warming and rising sea levels are usually blamed.

As the article linked above says, old fashioned childcare advice, like all old science, is quietly forgotten. If global warming turns out to be a passing phase, expect it to go the way of the last mega-scare story that never happened. Anyone remember the millennium bug? Be honest, you fell for it, didn't you?

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

Friday, December 09, 2005

Menander, Sappho and a comet

A hundred years ago, a parlour game that classicists liked to play was to ask what ancient author, now lost, they would most like to read. Invariably, the answer would be the comic playwright Menander whose works were once highly esteemed but none of which have survived in the manuscript tradition (bar a few quotations and aphorisms). Then, large chunks of Menander, including an entire play, were discovered in the sands of Egypt. There was great excitement that the lost master was now found and the publication of the discoveries eagerly awaited.

Sadly, the result was universal disappointment. Menander turned out to be decidedly second rate. Dull would be the kindest word to describe him. Even the famous aphorisms were seen, in context, to have been in rather coarse humour. Classicists realised that the Byzantines had actually shown good taste in preserving the old comedy of Athens rather than wasting time copying out Menander's drivel.

Today, if a classicist would risk playing the same parlour game they would probably ask for the collected works of Sappho. The loss of her poetry gave rise to all sorts of legends in the sixteenth century that supposed early Christians had trashed them. A few gullible atheists still believe them today. As an old book (on line here) states:
Scaliger says, although there does not seem to exist any confirmatory
evidence, that the works of Sappho and other lyric poets were burnt at
Constantinople and at Rome in the year 1073, in the popedom of Gregory VII.
Cardan says the burning took place under Gregory Nazianzen, about 380 A.D. And
Petrus Alcyonius relates that he heard when a boy that very many of the works of
the Greek poets were burnt by order of the Byzantine emperors, and the poems of
Gregory Nazianzen circulated in their stead.

Julius Caesar Scaliger, Jerome Cardano and Peter Alcyonius were all sixteenth century humanists but no earlier trace of their stories has even been found. As all three had issues with the church, we can dismiss them as late legends and bias. You will not find this stuff in modern discussions of Sappho but the myth lives on. Her poetry is a bit erotic but as we have works of Aristophanes, Horace and other very naughty ancient poets in full, this is not a reason that Christians would have destroyed them. Interestingly, Alcyonius was accused himself of burning the last remaining copy of Cicero's De gloria. It's alleged that he plagurised it and then destroyed the original to cover up the evidence. Modern textual studies of the supposedly plagurised material, however, have absolved him of any blame. Wherever he found it, it was not in Cicero.

Incidently, yet another legendary conflict between science and religion is debunked here (this is a link to Oregonlive.com which requires you to enter your age and zip code). It turns out that the old saw of the pope excommunicating Halley's comet is an invention, reported as fact by My Gullibility himself, Carl Sagan (remembering his fantasy on a theme of the Alexandrian Library). It is extremely ironic that Sagan is revered by sceptics for his "Baloney Detection Kit" from Demon Haunted World. It is just a shame he never used it himself.

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

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Back from Paris

After just a weekend in France, I always find myself reflecting on what they do differently there. I am definitively Francophile and love to visit. Partly its a food thing, partly a culture thing. I must be one of the few genuine lovers of France who also feels very warmly about America.

However, I am always struck by how badly maintained many French churches are. In England, even the humblest parish church is kept in very good nick, especially in smaller towns and villages. The material legacy that the Church of England inherited in the sixteenth century has, after the initial iconoclasm, been carefully looked after. In contrast, many French churches appear moth eaten, badly lit and in need of a good clean. I suppose this is largely to do with money. Despite all the moaning, the Church of England has plenty of it. The French Catholic Church probably doesn't. I expect this is something to do with the appropriations that took place in the revolutionary era. Some large Parisian churches, like the Dome and Pantheon are secular rather than religious building even today (both are really glorified mausoleums to the deserving and not deserving).

Conversely, the great Cathedral of Notre Dame has been given a serious face lift. The west front is spanking new. This is not just a clean-up but a full scale restoration that has caused some controversy. Commentators such as Brian Sewell think that the patina of grime lent the building a dignity that its newly scrubbed incarnation lacks. Here are pictures of the old grimy version and the new clean look. Personally, I'm all for the restoration.

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

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Gays at the Guardian

No time for a proper post for today. I'll be back on Tuesday as usual.

In the meantime, I was intrigued by this Leader Article in Wednesday's Guardian about the Vatican's newish guidance on gay priests. It is extremely moderate and understanding of the Church's position. I didn't think the Guardians leftie readership would take this lying down and as Thursday's letter's page revealed, they didn't.

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

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Is religion a good idea?

When I reviewed Newberg's book Why God Won't Go Away (review here), I mentioned in passing that one of Newberg's good points is that man is a religious animal. You hear this rather a lot. Surely the mere fact that religion is a universal human trait means that atheists should accept that it is there for a reason. Man has evolved to be religious and unless religion provided a selective advantage then we wouldn't have it. I am talking biology here, not culture. Our brains are wired to be religious which is why we tend to come up with alternatives even when real religion is taken away (hence the ubiquity of celebrity worship and other kinds of religious displacement activity). The only alternative is that religion is a by-product of some useful trait that has such a high survival value that it is worth the price of having religion as well. Quite what this trait might be, no one knows and it looks like clutching at straws.

A slightly cannier atheist might claim that we needed religion once but we don't need it anymore because now we have (drum roll) science. All I can say is that all the attempts to get rid of religion have resulted in worse alternatives. Given atheists are supposed to have great faith in empirical results, I would have thought they would have accepted by now that they are better off sticking with the traditional religions. Some have realised this. Umberto Eco, the Italian novelist and atheist, says so in an article in this week's Sunday Telegraph. It is an interesting reflection on what happens when you get rid of traditional religions. Naive secularists dream of a republic of reason. Unfortunately, that's been tried a few times, first of all during the French Revolution when they replaced Catholicism with reason and set off an orgy of freethinking violence. Nowadays you get superstition, new age lunacy, sex and shopping. That's preferable to massacres but not a good return on abandoning traditional religion.

So, it is certainly true that man is a religious animal. Unfortunately the original quotation comes from that master of the snide one liner - Mark Twain. The quotation in full reads:

Man is a Religious Animal. He is the only Religious Animal. He is the only animal that has the True Religion - several of them. He is the only animal that loves his neighbor as himself and cuts his throat if his theology isn't straight.

This just goes to prove that if you mine for quotes selectively enough, you can even get Mark Twain to speak sense.

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

Friday, November 25, 2005

What is Intelligent Design?

Like all orthodox Christians, I believe God created the universe. It's right there in line two of the creed. For anyone to deny this basic fact is to deny that they are Christians. So, all Christians including me, are creationists and all Christians believe the universe had an intelligent designer. The Pope said that recently when he stated that the universe was an "intelligent project" (link to story).

But when we are talking about evolution, the words get muddled up. A young earth creationist is one who believes that the words of Genesis chapters 1 and 2 are a scientific description of how the world came to be. So, I suppose by adding "young earth" to "creationist" (often abbreviated to YEC) we have an unambiguous term. Or we would if atheist polemicists would stop trying to muddle it up. Take this article from the Guardian where the writer is trying to make out that anyone who challenges evolution is in the same boat as a YEC. Atheists like to call Intelligent Design proponents neo-creationists to try to weaken the ID movement by tarring them with the YEC brush.

My problem is I can't get a definition of Intelligent Design. I thought it meant that an intelligent agent had intervened at some point in history to do the work that evolution could not do. In that case, I think it is wrong and a typical 'God of the Gaps' argument. I also think it is bad theology because it implies that God couldn't design a universe in the first place to do what he wanted it to do. However, ID proponents have been saying to me that, in fact, ID includes any evidence for design in the universe as a whole. In other words, an advocate of ID is the same thing as an orthodox Christian. This is unhelpful because we no longer have a term for people who believe intelligent intervention was necessary to fix evolution's problems or get life started.

So, at the risk of being confrontational, I will use the term Intelligent Design proponent to mean specifically those people who advocate intelligent intervention in history and not those who believe that God did all his design work at creation. I do this because we need exact terms or play into the hands of atheists who want all Christians to be labeled as creationist.

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

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Why God Won't Go Away by Andrew Newberg

I have just finished Andrew Newberg's Why God Won't Go Away which was recommended by a correspondent a few months ago. I have to say that I was disappointed for a number of reasons. The most obvious is that Newberg is a bad writer who makes a potentially fascinating subject seem rather dull. He likes to use words like 'deafferentation' and 'reified'. His second problem is that he frequently has no idea what he is talking about. His conception of myth is based on discredited sources like Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung. It is depressing when scientists, who would not dream of using old-hat theories in their own field, think that this is fair game in the humanities. Finally, Newberg fails in his basic aim of providing a convincing explanation of religious experience. How he fails is quite interesting because he does make some important points.

Newberg is a materialist. No surprise there as most neurologists are. His aim is to show how mystical experience is derived from brain states which he tries to describe. Common everyday religious experience, he says, is simply on a continuum towards the most profound mystical visions. Newberg's first and most important point is that religious or mystical experience is not a sign of mental illness. In fact, they happen to people whose brains are functioning fine. Although some mentally ill people suffer from visions and hyper-religious sensation, these are not the same neurologically as normal religious experience. Newberg's second insight is that religious experience affects the brain and hence it is no surprise that it shows up on brain scans. This does not mean the experiences are not real. His third important point is that if religion was not a good thing for human survival then it would not have been selected by evolution. The human animal is clearly a religious creature and if religion is bad for you then evolution would not have allowed it to develop. Of course, you have to agree with evolution to buy this argument, but presumably atheists do. So, according to their own outlook, it is atheism that is heading for extinction.

So where does Newberg go wrong? It is that he tries to make the jump from a materialist view of brain function to some sort of meaningful religion. He decides that the mystical experience of Buddhists represents the ultimate reality and that this is the basis of some sort of universal religion. The mystical union with God reported by monotheistic mystics is dismissed by Newberg as an inferior sort of brain state merely on the way to the ultimate reality. He then gives us some rude remarks about literalist religions. The trouble is, as he nearly admits, the universal religion that he is espousing has no meaningful content. No one outside university common rooms would be the faintest bit interested in it.

Where does all this leave Christianity? For those people who are dualists in an old fashioned sense, it might be disturbing to see religious experience lighting up our brains. I am less concerned because I tend to follow Aquinas in assigning only our highest faculty to the soul. And the Bible is pretty much in favour of bodies - even after the resurrection. What Newberg does teach us is that religion is a central part of what it means to be human. He also suggests to me that religious experience remains deeply mysterious.

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

Friday, November 18, 2005

Modern Witch Hunts

The most notorious modern witch hunt was the McCarthy committee. Arthur Miller made the link explicit in his play The Crucible. Conservative commentator Mark Steyn once asked what the connection between Salem and McCarthy actually was. After all, he reasoned, witches don't exist but Communists surely do and in the 1950s they were a real threat to America. I'm not sure this is fair to people of the sixteenth century who had good reason to believe witches were real. But it does raise questions about the point Miller was trying to make.

What makes a witch hunt? I'd suggest that it requires a number of factors. First, a crime so awful that rational discussion of it becomes impossible. In the early modern era that might be witchcraft or heresy. Today it is child abuse. Second, you do need some genuine cases of guilt. Witches were real even if they lacked magical powers. Thomas Hobbes was happy to see a witch hung if he claimed to be able to work magic. And many did. Today there is no question that child abusers are real and dangerous. Third, you need cash - a lot of it. To get a witch hunt going there have to be plenty of victims. To easiest way to find them is to offer them lots of money. Of course, the cash should belong to the alleged witches or abusers and the victims are offered a way of getting their hands on it. Finally, you need a hue and cry to get public attention. The modern media are past masters at providing this and ensuring that rational debate remains impossible.

Let me give a couple of examples.

There was the Satanic abuse cases of the 1980s. Do you remember this? This was a classic witch hunt and is now viewed as totally preposterous. But the authorities fell for it and took a long time to crack down. Sadly, this witch hunt was partly driven by Christians who should have known better (link to article originally from the Daily Telegraph). In the US the driver was the myth of recovered memories.

Next came the paedaphilia in care homes witch hunt. This has been recently documented by Richard Webster in his book The Secret of Bryn Estyn. Boarding schools, foster homes and many other institutions were targetted by a concerted campaign by police, bien pensants and the media. You can read the Times Literary Supplement review at the author's website.

And now? Well, I'd suggest another witch hunt is going strong. The victims are being offered large amounts of money to dig up allegations sometimes decades old, rational debate is impossible and the media is in full cry. A very few real cases undergird the whole shambles. I don't even have to say what I am talking about.

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

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Zero redux

It's official: the Church never tried to ban zero. I have now checked all the books Mr Mann suggested (plus another) and none of them provide a scrap of evidence.

Kaplan's The Nothing That Is (Penguin, 1999) is a rather confused rambling monologue of a book without footnotes or references. He never really says that the church tried to ban zero. He does mention that Gerbert was accused of being a magician and loosely conjectures that this might have something to do with zero. I've seen the sources - it doesn't. There are a couple of interesting snippets, though without references its hard to know if they are reliable. Kaplan says that Florence city council banned Arabic numerals in 1299 because no one could agree which ones were which. All figures in accounts had to be written out in full. He also says William of Malmesbury called Arabic mathematical manuscripts "dangerous Saracen magic". I expect William thought that about anything written in Arabic, actually.

Next, Danzig's Number (Unwin, 1954). This is better but still unreferenced. He does not say the Church tried to ban zero. He does say that users of abacuses didn't like arabic numerals as they were incompatible with their beads. This ties in with what a correspondent wrote to me about earlier. More interesting, Danzig says the Arabic for zero is cifra from which we get cipher.

I also checked Charles Seife Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea (Penguin, 2000). This is another unreferenced rambling monologue. Seife says the church banned zero but provides not a scrap of evidence. He seems badly confused about Aristotle's rejection of a vacuum and the concept of zero. He repeats that the church rejected both without ever giving us a reference for anything. Oddly, he is aware that in 1277, the Bishop of Paris specifically stated that God could make a vacuum if He felt like it. He also says that Gerbert didn't use zero after all. My conclusion is that Seife has no idea what he is talking about.

In summary, it seems that the church trying to ban zero is another anti-Christian myth that just won't die. But if anyone knows better, please let me know. The only thing I like less than being proved wrong is to continue being wrong longer than necessary!

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

Friday, November 11, 2005

Did the Church ban zero? Continued...

My fellow blogger and friend, Layman, kindly picked up on the question of zero that I mentioned a while back. I was looking for evidence about whether or not zero was banned by the church in the Middle Ages. My feeling is that this is another anti-Catholic myth. Layman is reading a book called 1491 on pre-Columbian American civilisations by Charles Mann. Mann mentions the church ban on zero in passing and Layman emailed him to ask about it. Mann’s reply is on the ChristianCadre blog. The rest of my post refers to Mann’s email.

I would firstly say that I have studied a manuscript written by the Cambridge University maths lecturer in 1508 and it uses zero as a matter of course. So do all 16th century maths textbooks. I've looked at the collected letters of Gerbert (that’s Sylvester II) already and not found anything related to zero. However, he is credited with being one of the first to introduce Arabic numerals into Western Europe. I'll also check Sacrobosco's Algorismus as that was the main medieval textbook on arithmetic. The earliest version I've seen was printed in 1488 and I think that uses zero (I wasn't looking but it covers normal adding up and multiplying that is impossible without zero). I might dig back to look at some of the manuscripts which date from the thirteenth century.

An important question here is whether we are talking about a naked zero or zero used as part of another number (ie. 490 is not zero but we use zero to write it). For most kinds of arithmetic, you don’t need a naked zero and this might be what is rare in medieval sources. Merchants certainly don’t use it unless they are giving their goods away for free. However, the use of zero as part of other numbers is common from at least the early thirteenth century and it doesn’t appear to be controversial. Contrary to what Mann says, all medieval accounting records that I have seen use Roman rather than Arabic numerals. This is what we would expect as merchants continued to use the abacus to add up rather than arithmetic. Hence, they didn’t need a zero.

Dick Teresi's Lost Discoveries only refers back to Kaplan and Joseph so it is not much help. I’ll try and look at Kaplan and Dantzig’s books in the library on Tuesday and see if they shed any further light. The one thing we are missing is any kind of primary documentation.

Thank you to Layman and Charles Mann for helping make some progress with this.

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

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

A confused Gene Robinson and a clear-thinking Pope Benedict

Episcopal Bishop, Gene Robinson was in London yesterday and throwing his weight around. He has been acting in a way that can only be described as self-righteous in the extreme. The fact that he does not seem bothered about splitting the Anglican communion in two casts serious doubt on whether he should be a bishop, regardless of his sexual orientation. I am a studied neutral on the question of homosexuality. But the pro-gay wing of the Anglican Church do seem to try very hard to alienate everyone who does not agree 100% with them. They are not asking for tolerance but whole hearted acceptance of their sexual proclivities.

As well as being self-righteous, Robinson is also ignorant. He said (BBC story here): "Pope Ratzinger may be the best thing that ever happened to the Episcopal Church. I find it so vile that they think they are going to end the child abuse scandal by throwing out homosexuals from seminaries. It is an act of violence that needs to be confronted." In fact, we know that no such instruction has yet been issued despite the fact that most cases of abuse were carried out by homosexuals. We hear that the instruction will be a good deal milder and demand only a proven track record of celibacy. That seems sensible given the enormous damage that the child abuse issue has inflicted on the church. Robinson's rhetoric sails very close to the wind of anti-Catholic bigotry, something I thought the Anglican Church had finally got out of its system. The best thing that Robinson could do for gay rights in retire to a hermitage and never open his mouth again.

Meanwhile, some more evidence that Pope Benedict won't be sitting in the box expected of him. As reported here by William Rees-Mogg in the Times, the Vatican has further distanced itself from Creationism and Intelligent Design. Personally, I think this is the way to go. I wish the ID movement well but I fear they are wrong and heading for a fall.

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

Friday, November 04, 2005

Michael Burleigh and Religion

Are communism and Nazism religions? To many of the more intellectually challenged atheists, the answer is yes. After all, they are bad things and all bad things are religious. Usually, they are explaining why atheism has never harmed anyone while religion has killed millions. They will claim that any ideology that demands adherence unto death and makes people behave badly is a religion. Don't believe me? Here's a couple of letters from a recent edition of the Guardian supplied by a correspondent:

Marxist communism is a classic religion. It is structured like the Catholic church, it has schisms and sects (its more devout followers read selected
texts by Trotsky, Mao, Lenin or Stalin), and it is a "holy cause" for which
the true believers have the right to kill the unbelievers (like the kulaks).
Incidentally, Bertrand Russell was the first to point this out.

George Monbiot refers to Stalin as a non-religious man. He forgets
that Stalin was trained as a priest in a seminary for some years. His later
activities fall well within the scope of George's arguments on faith.
Of course, the argument is rather silly and best ignored. But, a slightly different alternative is worth pursuing.

In his book The Third Reich: A New History, Michael Burleigh calls Nazism a "political religion". I think his choice of words is unfortunate but his point is the opposite of the Guardian letter writers. What he meant was that Nazism was a substitute for religion. Burleigh actually thinks traditional religion is generally a good thing. But it is also necessary part of being human and when you get rid of it and replace it with a political ideology, you can get into big trouble. His new book, Earthly Powers, takes the story back to the Enlightenment. He shows how enlightened men, trying to replace old superstition with reason, invariably produced something much worse. Some of the efforts were cringe-worthy and Burleigh is quite happy to treat them with a little contempt. Others were disastrous - especially the cult of reason foisted on the French by the Jacobins who then slaughtered anyone who wouldn't play ball. Today's militant secularists are harmless but they should not be allowed to forget their history. It is not one of science defeating religion or rationalists defeating superstition. It is mainly rather an embarrassing tale of earnest people with absolutely no sense of how stupid they are going to look. The more serious strand of Burleigh's story is about ideologies like communism that have successfully replaced religions and then caused unprecedented death and destruction.

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

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Animal rights and human duties

One reader has posted an article by Peter Singer onto Bede's dedicated yahoo group and another emailed me on the question of animal suffering. I thought I'd put down some thoughts on the question. Let me say at once that Singer is not someone I would recommend paying much attention to. You can read a huge number of articles by him here, and if they haven't caused your brain to turn to cold custard, you are a stronger person than I.

The basic mistake of the animal rights movement is that animals don't have rights. How could they? Think how silly it would be if the gazelle tried to sue the cheetah for infringement of its right to life. How stupid that the ant might demand to be allowed to form a union with its fellows. The only time that animal rights are invoked is in their relationships with humans. This immediately tells us that it is the human side of the interface that matters, not the animal one. If we do not expect animals to enforce their rights against each other, it is daft to expect us to enforce their rights against ourselves.

Animals have no rights. Speciesism is simply misanthropy spelt differently. Singer is a pretty good case in point - he is in favour of killing the handicapped, the unborn and the old. He is against humans killing animals to eat, which is odd because he doesn't seem to expect lions to become vegetarians. We can dispose of the whole animal rights business.

What we cannot do is treat animals in a way that demeans us. Animals do suffer. They do feel pain and they do not like this. They have no sense of morality but we do. Consequently, as moral people we have a duty to treat animals well, especially the ones who serve us as pets, workers or food. But these duties are a function of our moral stature and nothing to do with the alleged 'rights' of the animal. Most Christians understand this. They know that humans are unique and that we dominate the natural world. But that domination brings with it duties of good husbandry. What we exploit, we must care for. By demanding animal rights, campaigners seek to diminish the value of the human. Don't listen to them, but do buy free range chickens, organically reared meat and local produce that hasn't spent days cramped into a lorry to get to you.

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

Friday, October 28, 2005

The Gospel Hoax

I have received (with thanks for the kindness) and read a proof of Stephen Carlson's The Gospel Hoax and thought I should note a few thoughts. If the etiquette is not to comment on books before they are published, then I apologise, but everyone else seems to be doing it.

Stephen has, I believe, proved beyond reasonable doubt that the Secret Gospel of Mark is a modern forgery or hoax. He does this by an analysis of the handwriting of the manuscript using the methods that are applicable for spotting forged signatures and other documents. On the Textual Criticism yahoo group Stephen has also produced expert testimony supporting his conclusion. Secret Mark is written on the flyleaf of a seventeenth century book which was smuggled into the monastic library where Morton Smith found it. This was dead easy to do because all security in libraries is planned against taking books out, not smuggling them in. Only a few months ago, forged documents were found to have been lodged in the UK National Archives (story from the Daily Telegraph). So Secret Mark has no value at all for scholarship and tells us nothing about Jesus or Clement of Alexandria.

Stephen also tries to pin the blame for the hoax on Morton Smith, the man who claimed to have discovered the manuscript. He is certainly the prime suspect and Stephen thinks he has found some clues to confirm the identity of the forger. Here, I am less sure. Yes, I think Smith did the deed. But Stephen's clues appear a little to clever and a little hard to swallow. I'll let you read the book and make your own mind up on this question. For me, the important point is that Secret Mark is now forged Mark. Who was responsible is a secondary issue. If it was Smith, he took the truth to his grave in 1991.

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

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Lightning Rods and the Church

One of the many stories of the great myth of the conflict between science and religion is that the Christians tried to prevent the use of lightning rods. Whenever I asked for a reference, all I ever got is Andrew Dickson White (extract here) so I knew that there was something fishy going on. However, all serious histories were silent on the subject. I nosed around to see if there was any academic work on the question and dug up an article by IB Cohen called "Popular Prejudice against the Introduction of lightning Rods" (Journal of the Franklin Institute, vol. 253, pp. 393 - 440, 1952). It is rather revealing.

White is correct to say that ringing bells was a popular way to scaring off lightning from church towers. But the it was also known to be dangerous and the Church disliked the practice because it was deemed superstitious (as long ago as the seventeenth century, Cardinal Bellarmine condemned it).

The real problems that caused late adoption were two-fold. Firstly, the working of the rod was not fully understood. It had to be grounded to work, otherwise it just attracted lightning. Abbe Nollet, a French scientist and rival of Franklin, wrote a critique based on this and other misunderstandings that did have some effect on the rods use. But Cohen states that "his objections were grounded in scientific concerns."

Second, ordinary people were not convinced by scientists saying that attracting lightning and sending it into the ground was harmless. After all, lightning was scary stuff and scientists were as arrogant about popular concerns then as they are today. But, Cohen states "slowness in adopting the new invention did not proceed from ecclesiastical ban or dogma." but from local concern about whether the rod worked. In fact, even Pope Benedict XIV had been a supporter of the use of rods. St Mark's in Venice had one as early as 1766. As Cohen summarises: "Even though the ringing of church bells during lightning storms continued in Catholic Countries long after the invention of the lightning rod, it was by no means the case that the Church as an institution was opposed to the new invention."

Another myth bites the dust.

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

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Possible interruptions to availability of Bede's Library

I am, once again, changing web space provider in an effort to find someone vaguely reliable. You may have noticed various features (feedback form, search facility etc) not working. Fed up with trying to persuade my current provider to fix all the problems, I have scheduled tomorrow (Monday) for the move. This may lead to the web site disappearing for a while and emails not getting through. Hopefully, it won't take too long but if you fail to get a reply to an email within a week or so, don't be afraid to send it again. Those of you with my college email address should be unaffected by this.

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

Friday, October 21, 2005

Some good news on the culture of death. The parents who have been trying to lift the court imposed death sentence on their handicapped daughter have finally been successful. One interesting point is that previous reports have always stressed that the parents were committed Christians (and hence, by implication, nuts) but now they have been successful in quashing the order, reference to their religion has quietly been dropped. Of course, the court order should never have been issued and we need a change in the law to make sure it doesn't happen again.

Comments or questions? Post them at Bede's dedicated yahoo group.
Here's the latest on the Holy Blood/Da Vinci Code lawsuit. I am wondering if this might have a big effect on academics. If the HBHG crew win (assuming they don't admit their book is fiction), it means that historians own their hypotheses and can expect compensation if someone else exploits them. That would be a bizarre situation and all of a sudden citation would become a legal and not moral duty. Let's see how it pans out. Personally, I don't give the HBHG crew a hope.

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

Thursday, October 20, 2005

My wife, fresh from reading the Da Vinci Code, demanded to know why I hadn't written it. After all, she reasoned, I knew a great deal more about religious history than Dan Brown and any vaguely literate human could write better than he does. I'm proud enough to agree with the first point but do think that the thriller writers' craft requires more skill than we often give them credit for. That said, pseudo-history sells. The current master of the genre is Graham Hancock who has had his own TV shows and a shelf of books to his name. His latest goes out as editor's choice in History Book Clubs and finds a comfortable niche in the bestseller lists. Of similar ilk are David Rohl (who actually has a PhD in Egyptology) and Graham Phillips. We could add the dedicated band who insist that Shakespeare didn't write Shakespeare or aliens visited early man (or aliens wrote Hamlet?!?), the pyrimidiots and our favourite Jesus mythologists. Yes, there is money in these old canards and the latest batch is hot of the presses for Christmas.

Of course, scholars cannot be too smug. Conservative New Testament experts got egg from the ossuary on their faces. Of rather more long term significance was the vast amount that poured from the pens of liberal scholars over the Secret Mark hoax. I'd be surprised if Dom Crossan will ever be able to look in the mirror again.

Would it be morally wrong to write a work of fiction, like the Holy Blood and Holy Grail or Hancock's latest knowing full well that people would take it seriously? I think it is and certainly, if you have to lie during interviews to defend your work, you are on the wrong side of the fence. But in some ways it is tempting. All the boring stuff about sources, evidence and logic can be thrown out for a thrilling story that your readers will enjoy far more. My only hope is that by writing about the way Christianity helped bring about modern science, I can produce a revolutionary narrative that has the added bonus of being true...

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

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Lord Winston, Robert to his friends, is a clever chap. He is a world renowned surgeon who has since become a presenter of various scientific programmes of varying quality. A year ago he came and talked to us at Cambridge about 'Science and Religion', saying some reasonably sensible things. It seems he has a new TV show and book out soon that investigates why we are religious. He thinks it is a good thing that must have helped man survive. This should be pretty obvious. If religion was as bad as the anti-Christians suggest, they should think that evolution would have got rid of it! I'll be interested in what Lord Winston has to say and how it fits with the book I am reading at the moment, Andrew Newberg's Why God Won't Go Away.

George Monbiot who, unlike Lord Winston, is a nutcase, had an amusing article in the Guardian today. He's picked up on some badly flawed research that claims to show that religion is bad for morality. It claims that the more Christian a country, the higher the incidence of teenage pregnancies and murder. Monbiot, of course, is dancing around with this like a kid with a lollipop because its exactly what he wants to hear. Sadly, it's rubbish and proves that it is easy to lie with statistics. You can read the actual article here. Take the United States out of the equation and there is pratically no correlation. In fact, take the most deprived communities in the US out of the equation, and I expect the correlation disappears as well. So we are trying to make a case from a single example. Why does the US have a high homicide rate, a high abortion rate and a high teenage pregnancy rate? Good questions. Almost as good as why the religious Irish and Italians seem to have lower rates and the secular British have higher rates. I expect you need to look for political and economic answers to these questions rather than try and pin the blame on religion.

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

Monday, October 10, 2005

As rare a sight in these parts as the Large Blue butterfly or the Great Awk is the Bishop of Oxford, the Right Reverand Richard Harries, standing up for a traditional moral teaching of the church. But this weekend, teams of dedicated bishop watchers gawped in awe at the appearence in the Observer of a column doing just that. Yes, the leader of the sex-for-all wing of the Church of England has come out against euthanasia. This is doubly surprising because most 'progressive' opinion is firmly in favour of slapping a 'use-by' date on human beings. Indeed, the Guardian's leader column, a text that Harries treats with all the reverence his more traditional colleagues reserve for the teaching of our Savior, is very much in favour. We shouldn't forget that Harries actually signed up to an open letter from Richard Dawkins and Peter Atkins on the teaching of creationism. If that is not jumping on anti-Christian bandwagons, I don't know what is.

But heaven rejoiceth and all, so we should be happy for any sign of Christian life in Oxford. Perhaps, now that he has decided against killing the very old and ill, Harries might also come out against killing the unborn too.

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

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Thanks to the readers of this blog who have been lending a hand over at the Sec Web. My main opponent is getting steadily more annoying as he shifts and changes his position while still refusing to admit he's wrong about anything. Still, he did point out an error I made ages ago in a short article on the Catholic Church's Index of Prohibited Books. That's the danger of a large website: you forget what you wrote and so errors can sit around for ages. Whatever you do, don't believe a word I say!

I've just finished Rodney Stark's Rise of Christianity and I have to say it is a much, much better book than his latest effort For the Glory of God which I was forced to trash despite agreeing with its premises. The reason Rise of Christianity is so much better is that it is a work of sociology and Stark is a lifelong sociologist. Thus he is writing in his field rather than as a amateur historian. Why, he asks, did Christianity manage to destroy paganism in the space of four hundred years? To answer this he uses the tools of the sociology of religion which he honed during his first hand studies of modern religions and cult movements. Thus, his method is perfectly scientific. You take your theory formed from the data you can observe firsthand and see how well it fits another area where you cannot directly see what happened.

We had a brief discussion about Stark's calculations of the number of early Christians on Bede's yahoo group but that is not much relevant to his larger themes. His aim with the numbers was simply to show that mass conversion and miracles are not necessary to explain the growth in the numbers of Christians. He also dismisses the Marxist idea, now much loved by sceptics, that Christianity simply out muscled the other religions and won out using the force of the state. His own answers are much more interesting.

Christianity succeeded because it provided the spiritual goods that people needed and pagan religions did not provide. It also provided a moral system that greatly benefited its converts and meant that they could breed faster than pagans. This included the banning of infanticide and abortion as well as the improved status of Christian women compared to pagans. Also, Christians nursed each other when sick which significantly enhanced their survival rates during the plagues that periodically swept the Empire. Finally, paganism was dying on its feet anyway because it was not a mass movement but simply a series of religious shops that one could visit as required. Paganism may have been easy going but conversely you didn't get much out of it.

Not everything Stark says will please everyone. Sceptics will like his naturalistic account of the rise of Christianity but not the fact that he insists that Christianity succeeded because it was a good thing - certainly better than contemporary paganism. He is especially strong on the misery of ancient urban life and how Christianity could enhance the life experience of converts. Christians might find the wholly naturalistic emphasis unnerving. On the other hand, Stark insists that Christian doctrine was important and a huge step forward compared to pagan mores. We Christians can rest comfortable that Christian morality is found in the preaching Jesus rather than the rationalistic thinking of the pagan philosophers AC Grayling thinks so fantastic.

Finally, Stark is a very fine writer who was able to bring me, a complete ignoramus, up to speed on sociological terminology and theory without it making my brain hurt. I wholehearted recommend this book to absolutely everyone.

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

Monday, October 03, 2005

Once again, I've been wasting my time trying to argue that the great conflict between science and religion is a myth. Here's the thread at Internet Infidels. It's been a while since I visited there and I'd not come across a couple of the people debating before. Needless to say, things had not improved much although I did note that a few more participants than usual seemed to be reading what I posted rather than just quoting Andrew Dickson White as if anyone believes him any more. At least no one is claiming that the church tried to ban zero....

It all started when an excitable soul posted a link to a website of truly stunning awfulness called Jesus Never Existed. "Christianity...Fraudulent and Evil ROTTEN – from beginning to end" it says. Not even JP Holding can be bothered to do a full refutation of this one. Every anti-Christian myth is exhumed and dressed up by the web master, Kenneth Humphries. He claims to have been originally inspired by Freke and Gandy, GA Wells, Earl Doherty and Acharya S. Clearly scholarship is not really Humphrey's cup of tea. Wikipedia calls him "a researcher into Christian origins." I see he also has a book coming out. It's not that I mind people posting rubbish on the web, what worries me is that believe it.

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

Thursday, September 29, 2005

Last night, the BBC aired a show called God and the Politicians hosted by avowed secularist, David Aaronovich. Aaronovitch is a newspaper columnists and unlike many of that profession, is quite a sensible chap. His programme was moderate and consequently a bit boring. The premise was that religion in the UK has been taking an increasingly important role in public life but no evidence was given for this a part from some Moslems who called a gentile politician a Jew (presumably because she was pro-Israel). We just got lots of very unthreatening faith leaders who certainly did not look as if they were about to take over the country. Only on one point were they coaxed into controversy, when Christian leaders said they didn't want their children to go to Moslem schools. The reason for this is probably because they don't think Moslem schools would have enough of a British ethos although they couldn't admit that. Religion was probably irrelevant even here.

If the faith leaders were unthreatening, the atheists were hilarious. AC Grayling is one of those philosophers, in the tradition of Simon Blackburn, the late Freddie Ayer and Bertrand Russell, who checks out his brain out as soon as the subject turns to religion. He looked just plain silly. By then end of the programme, he was reduced to prophesying the return of the inquisition if we allow these cuddly clergymen an inch of slack. If he ended the programme looking ridiculous, he started it being ingenuous. We had a brief discussion about whether morality requires religion. Grayling's contribution was to say that the ancient Greeks had a deep and fruitful secular morality that the intelligent classes followed without any reference to the supernatural. What he didn't tell us is that this secular morality supported paedophilia, torture, slavery and infanticide. I wonder if he'd rather live under that moral regime than the Christian one he has inherited today. It took Christians a long time to abolish slavery and torture, but I see no sign that even the most 'enlightened' of Greek philosophers thought that either was problematic.

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

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Here's one I haven't heard before.

Apparently the Catholic Church tried to ban zero in the Middle Ages. No honestly, I have it on the highest authority (Terry Jones of Monty Python). Does anyone know where this story comes from? It is probably as mythical as the flat earth or perhaps based on one writer who knew nothing about maths. If anyone can fill me in on how this ban escaped Lindberg, Grant and all the other distinguished historians of Medeival Science, I'd love to know.

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

Monday, September 26, 2005

Christianity started small and grew big. What a lot of us don't seem to realise is just how small. Both Keith Hopkins and Rodney Start estimate that there were less that 10,000 Christians in an Empire of 60 million in 100AD. Let's think about what that means.

First, the old canard about why pagan authors said so little about Christian becomes rather an obvious fallacy. One person in 6000 was a Christian or less than 0.02%. There were so few of them that almost no one would notice their existence. Even though they were preponderantly situated in towns so probably a bit more concentrated, that was no reason for patrician Romans, who preferred to lounge around on their country estates, to take any notice of them. What's more, there were about 6 million Jews with whom the Christians were easily enough confused to lack even an identity of their own to most Romans. Tacitus claim that a huge multitude were killed by Nero becomes clear hyperbole (but fairly typical of Tacitus). I doubt the number exceeded a hundred and many of them might well have been Jews caught up in the wrong place at the wrong time. I doubt Nero would care.

Second, it tells us something about the paucity of early Christian writing. It is no longer believed that early Christianity was primarily a poor persons' religion. Better to assume that it was broadly representative of the population as a whole with less country dwellers and more women. Estimates for literacy rates in the Roman world vary but no one suggests that more than 30% of free citizens could write their names. The total who could write a piece of theology in Greek must be a whole lot less - only about 1%. This means it is hardly surprising that Mark's Greek is poor but he was the only guy around who could do the job. Likewise, most Christian communities would have had one person at most who could write well. With such a small literary base, we would not expect many texts. Certainly, claims that there were loads of early Gospels later rejected by the institutional church are exaggerations (so is Luke's claim at the start of his Gospel although he may not have been referring to written accounts).

We inevitably have to speculate but we do need to bear in mind that when we read about the early church, just how few of them their were.

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

Saturday, September 24, 2005

As a physics graduate I've always liked numbers and so was fascinated to read some of the results from the sociology of religion about who joins religions and why.

Drawing on Rodney Stark's work, it seems that the people most drawn to cults are not the poor and stupid but the prosperous and bored. Also, it is people who do not consider themselves religious who make up a disproportionate number of new cult members. Secularists applaud how many people answer 'none' when asked by pollsters what their religion is because they assume 'none' means secular humanist. In fact, it often means quite the reverse. The people who say 'none' are the ones who you find in New Age shops, at Kaballa centres and joining the Moonies. This is hardly surprising because those of us with a strong religious affiliation are much less likely to prance off and join a new one. For secularists this is a bit depressing as it seems all the people with no religion are not like them at all. The proportion of actively agnostic/atheist individuals is still miniscule in almost all societies. Indeed, I would expect that the profile and recruitment patterns for strong atheism are very similar to cults like the Moonies and Mormons.

There is a flip side to this. Stark has found that when old religions split into sects, the sectarians tend to be of lower class than average for the church in question. This is something else we can see in the real world. Mainline liberal protestant churches are the preserve of a higher proportion of comfortable, middle class people who don't go in for anything that smacks of fundamentalism. Conversely, the higher intensity Christian sects have a far higher proportion of poor, inner city and ethnic minority members. Now, this is a generalisation but one that the statistics support. Why is it the case? Well, either you believe that the poor are more susceptible to high intensity religion, or it is the sects who have remembered better to whom Jesus aimed his mission in the first place.

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

Sunday, September 18, 2005

Richard Dawkins is getting grouchy in his old age. His latest interview, with Salon.com, plugging his new book, plumbs the depths of his hyperbole against religion. The best line: "Bush and bin Laden are really on the same side: the side of faith and violence against the side of reason and discussion." Yawn.

But there were a couple of interesting tidbits. Firstly, Dawkins' latest book is tentatively entitled The God Delusion. Presumably he will finally do what he has always avoided in the past - try to produce a coherent argument for his atheism rather than relying on one-liners hidden among his science writing. Arguing against the Dawkins view has always been a bit like wrestling with an octopus because he so rarely talks about religion beyond soundbites. Now perhaps, he will have a thesis which he will defend and can thus be refuted. The second tidbit is that he's signed up to do a TV series on religion in modern history possibly to be called The Root of All Evil. I'm not expecting a finely nuanced piece of television.

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

Friday, September 16, 2005

I'm back from my holidays and have recovered from the excitement of seeing England win the Ashes against Australia's cricket team, so it is time to get back to work. It is good to see some very intelligent discussion still ongoing on the difficult question of free will over at Bede's dedicated yahoo group while I've been away.

Among my holiday reading has been Anthiny Gottlieb's The Dream of Reason which is a layperson's guide to the history of philosophy from the Greeks to the Renaissance. Actually, it's a history of Greek philosophy with a chapter on post-antiquity tacked on the end. Gottlieb is a typical modern who doesn't think the Middle Ages are worth bothering with. Each of the major figures of Greek thought is covered in chronological order and if their ideas do not gell with Gottlieb's views they are dismissed as 'absurd' (a favourate word), 'lunacy' or 'silly'. Alas, the poor Greeks were not fully conversant with the world according to Gottlieb and so suffer much chastisement for their foolishness. Luckily, once in a while, they get something right and recieve a hearty pat on the back for successfully anticipating the twenty-first-century worldview. The author is an editor at the Economist and anyone familiar with that organ will know that humility is not among its virtues. Telling people they are wrong is its speciality.

Of course, clarity of expression is the among the Economist's good points, and The Dream of Reason also scores very highly in this department. Ideas are explained with a brevity and exactness that make the editorialising almost a price worth paying. It is highly entertaining as well although not always for the right reasons (Gottlieb's insults are often funny, however misguided they may be). So, I'd recommend this book to a layperson who knows nothong about philosophy just as long as they promise to read Father Copleston or at least Anthony Kenny as well.

Another huge problem with Gottlieb is he is the typical one-eyed scientific materialist who treats religion with something close to contempt. We hear nothing about the achievements of the Middle Ages and Gottlieb is happy to write off the entire period (as well as pagan neo-Platonism which he thinks is also far too mystical). Of course, Gottlieb has to pull his punches to some extent as the old myths are now just too well refuted to recycle yet again. He doesn't quite blame Christianity for the alleged Dark Ages, realises that most early modern polemic on scholasticism is malicious libel ("how many angels can dance on a pin?" etc.) and that the Church didn't really restrict intellectual inquiry outside the theology faculty. Still, he thinks that medieval achievements in logic were pointless, that not hardly a single Arab or Byzantine thinker is worth a mention and Newton was 'wasting his time' on theology. The Renaissance itself is also skipped over to a large extent so the book ends as a bit of a damb squib. We are promised a sequel in which I can predict Hume, Mill and Russell will be lionised while Liebniz, Kant and anyone French will get short shrift.

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

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

We have got over the Phillip Pullman bandwagon now but this short summary of His Dark Materials (supplied by a friend) is still quite funny. Highly condensed books are often amusing. Here's my own take on Trollope's Small House in Allington: "Girl is told to grow up, but doesn't".

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

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

One of the oddest things about academia in the West is that supporting barbarous tyrannies can be socially acceptable as long as they are communist barbarous tyrannies. On the other hand, supporting a fascist tyranny or even a fascist anything, quite rightly, gets you hounded out of the college door. I don't have much time for fascists myself but was reminded of the inequality of odium because I have recently been reading a book by the late Christopher Hill. Hill was not just your plain vanilla Marxist but an out and out supporter of Stalin who denied the purges ever happened. I actually saw him on a BBC show saying this (which was acutely embarrassing to my girlfriend of the time because she had previously admired him). Anyway, Hill's reward for the equivalent of holocaust denial was to be elected the Head of Balliol College, Oxford.

The argument has always been that Hill was a great historian so we should forgive his political peccadilloes. No doubt he was also nice to animals and didn't molest his students. But reading his The Intellectual Origins of the English Revolution has shown me that he wasn't much good as a historian at all. Rather he was an expert Marxist propaganda writer who twisted facts and selected his sources to make a case that is in all probability complete fantasy. While we all have our agendas, Hill had already written the minutes before even looking at the evidence. I suppose one of the advantages of doing a PhD is that it means you become an expert in a very small field and thus can see where anyone else who steps in it has gone wrong. Hill wrote Intellectual Origins in the 1960s so could be forgiven for getting it wrong then. However, he stuck to his guns in the 1997 new edition which is less forgivable. I can also see where he has deliberately left things out that damage his thesis - a crime beyond forgiveness in a historian. Ironically he accuses other historians who oppose his thesis of doing just that themselves.

It is not (quite) true to say that we should discount Hill's history simply because of his odious political stance. But it is not unreasonable to take special satisfaction in dismantling his work because of it. At least I am spared having to wade through anything by EP Thompson or Eric Hobsbawn confident that it too is probably complete tosh.

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

Monday, August 22, 2005

I have been reading Richard Swinburne's The Existence of God (Oxford, 2004) and have found it challenging, interesting but not entirely satisfying. Swinburne is a philosopher rather than a theologian and thus is trained within a tradition of Hume and Kant rather than Aquinas and Barth. This shows itself with his being very little interested in what God is like and far more concerned about arguing to Him. Theologians generally go the other way, granting a certain religious tradition and seeing where it leads them. Admittedly, Swinburne says more about what God is like and his actions in the world in other books so I cannot criticise him for staying focused in this one. Except that whether or not God exists has a huge amount to do with which God we mean. Discussion at Bede's dedicated yahoo group on omniscience has shown us this, if nothing else.

The arguments to God have been looked upon as a dead loss by most philosophers for some time now as they have realised that they do not work as proofs. Trouble is, philosophers have found they can't be sure of anything else either and so the question has shifted to what I have a justification for believing. Even this, as the problem of induction shows, is no easy question. Simon Blackburn, a typical enlightenment thinker, gives the impression in his Cambridge lectures on the theory of knowledge that the only thing he is sure about is that God doesn't exist. Meanwhile, Alvin Plantinga seems to be happy to assert that God's existence is a fact so basic that it doesn't even need to be justified.

What about Swinburne? He tries to built a probabilistic argument to God. He builds up his case by asking if the various arguments to God (cosmological, design, experience etc) add up to a probable case after taking into account the counter arguments (evil and hiddeness). He concludes that they do, just about and that our religious experience is the essential tipping point. I'd prefer to put it the other way around by asking if the design and other arguments mean we are justified in interpreting our religious experience as 'real'. Of course, I think they do but then they cease to be arguments to God and become arguments from religious experience. On specifics, I think Swinburne places too much emphasis on simple solutions always being the best ones. This is partly in reply to Dawkins' attack on Swinburne in this review that claims God is actually very complicated. Also, I fear Swinburne's defence of a dualistic soul is leaving hostages to fortune. That said, the point of the book is that taken together the arguments have a great force. This is undoubtedly try which is why atheologists have always tried to refute the arguments one by one. But if each is simply evidential, they can have a cumulative effect as each piece of evidence slots into place. Just how big that effect is depends more on the individual than the implicit strength of the arguments.

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

Thursday, August 18, 2005

The question of whether God’s omniscience can defeat freewill is a very old canard indeed. Boethius brings it up in his Consolation of Philosophy written during the early sixth century. As it happens, Boethius got the answer right when he pointed out that God’s foreknowledge was not causal. Let me flesh this out a bit before moving to a possible limitation to omniscience that might help explain the problem of evil.

Imagine you and I are sitting together having a drink. At time t you make a free choice to ask for a gin and tonic (we assume you have freewill). Before t I cannot know what your choice will be (even if I have a pretty good idea that you like a G&T and don’t much like whisky). However, after t I do know precisely what your choice has been. No one would deny that my knowledge after t could have an effect on your choice at t so freewill is preserved even thought I now occupy a vantage point from which I can know for certain what your choice was.

So far, so uncontroversial. Now, a little after t, I retire to the men’s room. But unknown to me, the toilet cubicle is actually an experimental Chronojohn which whisks me back in time to before t. Thus, I leave the men’s room and see you and I already sitting at the table and behold, you order a gin and tonic. Once again, it seems uncontroversial that my knowledge, now before t, of what you will order is not going to effect your freedom to order what you like. We can agree that mere knowledge cannot remove freewill unless it also leads to some sort of action. Many science fiction authors have suggested that there are laws of time that prevent paradox and so just as I watch myself leave the table to go to the men’s room, I am sucked back through a temporal wormhole to the moment when I should have left the loo in the first place.

Now God, when he sees the universe, sees all of time at once. And he knows that you will choose a G&T because he can watch you do it (of course he also knows you better than me and might have a very good idea what you’ll order but it is not certain except that he has actually seen you do it). God’s act of seeing you choose can no more invalidate your freewill than my act of seeing you choose. Omniscience in this sense cannot effect freewill. Almost all philosophers and theologians would, I understand, agree here.

Let me now take things one step further and suggest an important limit to omniscience. God, I think, cannot know for sure what we would have done if things were different. Why not? Because if he can predict our actions in a counterfactual situation that would imply a deterministic formula and defeat freewill. Yes, God does have a pretty good idea of what we would have done, but he can’t be certain.

Let’s return to our previous example, forgetting all the time travel stuff. You have, if you recall, just ordered a G&T. The waitress then turns to me and I order a G&T too. Now, God knew I would do this because he could watch me do it from his frame of reference. But suppose you had ordered a whisky. That order might influence my own order because the social option of having the same thing is eliminated (I really don’t want a whisky before dinner). Perhaps then I’d order a beer or a glass of wine. God knows my preferences so would have a good idea what I’d order in this case, but He cannot be certain because that would preclude free choice. Now this, I also suggest, has serious implications for the problem of moral evil because God does not have the kind of perfect information about all probabilities that we often assume he must do. And, if quantum mechanics is truly random, then God might also have less than perfect knowledge about a great deal of the possibilities in the natural world too. He can only know precisely what a universe with a random element will be like by letting it happen. This has implications for the problem of natural suffering. But that it for another time.

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

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

There is an excellent op-ed in today's Guardian by...

There is an excellent op-ed in today's Guardian by the Anglican priest, Giles Fraser.  Fraser is a high church liberal, political leftie  and also a professional philosopher.  When he gets stuff wrong it is usually because he has mixed up his leftiness with his orthodoxy.  He is often not helped by Guardian sub-editors putting silly headlines on his articles.  Fraser is a short and powerful looking man with little hair and lots of brain.  He delivered an excellent sermon one Christmas when he described the birth of one of his children (a messy business as I know from recent experience) to hammer home the humanity of Jesus.  It is unlikely His birth was any quieter and sanitised than any other, especially given it happened in a stable and not a hospital.

Fraser's point in today's article is that Islam is already 'reformed' in the historical sense.  When people say Islam needs a 'Reformation', what they really mean is that Islam needs an 'Enlightenment' to render it quiet and harmless (and probably useless).  While we are right to worry about Islamic fanatics (and wrong to pretend that they are somehow not really Islamic), I am not sure Christians are wise to be calling for the neutering of Islam as a whole.  In many ways, it might be out best ally against the even more dangerous threat of extremist secularisation.  As for which of the two religions is the theologically correct, I am pretty confident that we can win that one using argument rather than violence.

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

Sunday, August 14, 2005

After Theowiki merged with Wikipedia, Peter Kirby's latest project is ErrancyWiki. He recently copped some abuse on the Secular Web for attacking 1001 Errors of the Bible which is a rambling effort from someone who has way too much time and way too little expertise. Anyway, Peter was right on the money to nail 1001 Errors so I am not sure what his new site is supposed to achieve. I'm not an inerrantist and the whole subject bores me. I would have thought that Peter feels the same way. He usually tries to interact with scholarship and you will find very few scholars who bother with this sort of thing either. Errancy is a game played by fundamentalist atheists and very conservative Christians which shouldn't be of any interest to the rest of us.

The whole Wiki project is deeply suspect anyway. The idea that anyone can declare themselves an expert and then amend the work of a real expert is just plain crazy. My own experience there was mercifully brief as I quickly realised the site was in the hands of people determined to push their agenda, and to hell with scholarship. I thought it might be helpful to edit the article on the Great Library of Alexandria. Trouble was a German atheist was trying to put in lots of entries making Christianity look as bad as possible and kept amending my article. It has now been amended again (by the same guy) to make it seem that Christians were responsible for the destruction of the library when I have all but proved that this cannot be the case. The atheist is now 'Chief Research Officer' of Wikipedia and can happily go on peddling his anti-Christian propaganda however he likes.

Of course, Wikipedia has set itself up as an authority and you get pointed to it increasingly often. My advice: don't believe a word you read there.

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

Saturday, August 13, 2005

I have been buried in libraries for half the week and riveted by the cricket for the remainder, so must apologise for the continuing infrequency of these entries. Here's some controversy to make up for it.

I have a good friend who is very intelligent and an atheist. He has moved through many beliefs in his time and has now decided that he has no choice but to buy into the whole naturalistic caboodle. He takes no great pleasure from this but feels he has been compelled into his position by the evidence presented to him. He is a fully consistent atheist and materialist who also denies freewill and thinks that the 'self' is an illusionary epiphenomenum of brain states. No matter that I find all this deeply implausible, that is where he stands. However, he is not particularly pleased by this and agrees that it is a pretty grim philosophy for life. He has no desire to convert people to his views (beyond the entertainment value of a good argument) and generally thinks religion is a good thing. He does not make the mistake of confusing certain elements of religious belief or practice with which he has problems with the whole thing.

My point is this. I can see why someone might be an atheist (although I'd disagree with them) but I cannot for the life of me see why any knowledgeable and mature adult should want to be an atheist or want other people to be.

The first reason for wanting reject God is that it might give a sense of liberation. I'd expect this from adolescents chaffing at the bit and wanting to go out and have sex with anything that moves. However, I would also expect them to grow out of it once they have finished growing up and realised that there is more to life than sex, drugs and libertarianism. As an adult, perhaps, having a lot of money and wanting to make more of it might also make someone want God out the picture. We often hear from individuals who think they have been 'damaged' by a religious upbringing and have hence rejected religion. Ironically, science (as we learn from Steven Pinker and others) would say that these people are sad cases due to their genes and that their upbringing was irrelevant. The fact that most people who have had religious upbringings are perfectly well adjusted and often religious themselves rather kills the 'damage' argument as well.

A second reason for wanting to be an atheist is a confused idea of history. If you have bought into the various anti-clerical myths you might see religion as a bad thing and hence reject it. The trouble is that the way people cling so tenuously to these myths when their errors are pointed out suggests these are just providing ballast for an already existing idea.

Thirdly, there is politics. In the US in particular, the defence of secularism has become a battle against Bush by proxy. I do not want to get mixed up in a foreign dispute but I do fail to see why disagreeing with Republican policies or even the religious right should encourage anyone to reject religion altogether. That said, American activist atheism is a minority sport more deserving of pity than contempt. It is also built on the huge misconception that church/state separation is bad for church. In fact, as the UK's state religion shows, it is the best thing ever to happen to US Christians. They should be guarding it assiduously.

Fourth, I suppose, is the feeling that religion just gets in the way of sex and shopping, the two major concerns of our society. But most of these people do not want to be atheists, they just don't want to think too hard about hard questions. When they do, many find themselves drawn to Alpha Courses and realising they do want more from life than endless distractions.

So, why would anyone want to be an atheist? Why does anyone want to spread atheism? Is it all just teenage foolishness, historical ignorance and lefties with a bee in their bonnet? Frankly, I have no idea and would welcome suggestions.

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

Saturday, August 06, 2005

A reader has kindly sent me this link to a site put together by a computer programmer on information in the genome. I was struck that some of his thoughts have run along similar lines to mine on the genetic language and random mutation. However, I received some very interesting feedback to the Yahoo group from a Christian molecular biologist which might shed some light on how mutation works in practice. In short, we have many copies of each gene of which we are only using one leaving the others free to mutate without causing trouble. I'm not user I understand how these mutated genes get switched on or why it would be good if they did, but the picture does seem to be more complicated than I, or the page I linked to above, imagined.

I have just finished Ian Barbours's book When Science Meets Religion (SPCK, 2000) and I thought it was rather good. Barbour splits all science/religion interaction into the categories of Conflict, Independence, Dialogue and Intergration which sounds a bit artificial but works reasonably well. Each chapter of the book (on evolution, the big bang, quantum mechanics, neuroscience etc) is split into the four categories and the many different viewpoints of thinkers assigned to each one. Sometimes I disagree with Barbour's categorisation - he puts Michael Behe in the 'conflict' category with YECs rather than 'integration' where he belongs. This is because, like me, Barbour, thinks Behe is ultimately wrong and wants 'integration' to include ideas he agrees with.

The major strength of this book is the number of potted explanations of philosophers and theologians that Barbour summarises under each heading. Huge amounts of material have been condensed into a two hundred page book including process theology, creationism, dualism, the anthropic principle and loads of others that don't even have names. True, this is all in the manner of a brief introduction, but the notes double as a short bibliography allowing anyone to push off much further if they desire. In all, I strongly recommend this as a first book on science and religion. Also, if you think you have covered quite a lot of this ground through popular works and the internet, read Barbour to find that there is a great deal more territory out there than you probably imagined.

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

Thursday, August 04, 2005

I have spent the last few weeks doing some serious leg work among the old libraries of Cambridge looking for sixteenth century scientific books. Actually, I have sat at desks and the librarians have kindly done a great deal of leg work for me. They have all been incredibly kind and helpful which makes research a great deal more fun than just slogging away on your own. Add to that being able to work in some of the world's most beautiful buildings (like the Wren Library) in Cambridge in the summer and it has been a very pleasant time.

Of course, part of the fun is being able to handle and look really closely at the rare books. Students doodled five hundred years ago and some of these are quite funny in their way. Likewise, they sometimes had very bad handwriting which is considerably less funny when you are trying to read it. Finally, the pang of recognition when you come across the signature of someone you have already studied closely is spooky. You never really get closer to people than when you handle the books they read and wrote in.

Some books transcend time and place. No matter that I had already read it in English, it was a real thrill when I was handed the first edition of Copernicus's De revolutionibus (1543) and read the first few lines. This copy was in pristine condition and had not moved from the Perne Library in Peterhouse since the 1590s, before Copernicus had even become controversial or well known. I know a good deal about Andrew Perne, its original owner, and seen his copy of Copernicus included in the list of his books made when he died (valued at a few shillings). To handle the actual book completed the circle. In fact, I had no reason to ask for it, but the librarian knew perfectly how much I would enjoy seeing it and handed it to me anyway.

On the subject of important texts, the Codex Sinaiticus, the world's earliest complete Bible, is to go on the web. I have often seen it in its cabinet in the British Library, pressing my nose against the glass to decipher the first line of John at which it is usually open (not easy to read by any means!). Glad that it is going to be more widely available.

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

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Another exciting new project is Chris Price's Genre, Historicity, Date and Authorship of Acts. Chris is basically arguing that Acts is pretty much what it says it is and counters the various arguments that have been presented to suggest it is actually something else. For instance, a scholar called Professor Pervo has tried to sell the idea that Acts is an ancient Greek novel. This seems rather odd at first sight especially given that Acts is clearly the sequel to Luke's Gospel and that is certainly not a novel. If one is, the other would have to be as well. Chris marshals the evidence to demolish Pervo's idea but I would like to also see some analysis of the language used in novels and historical writing to see which is closer to the literary style of Acts.

Chapter two is the core of the work as it shows that Acts gets almost everything right as far as its history goes. It is also independent of Paul's letters but substantially agrees with them. Sure, Luke can make mistakes but he has a much better record than, say, the Venerable Bede and no one denies that he was a historian. As for Acts' date, it is certainly late first century and it was written by a companion of Paul. Sceptics make themselves look very silly with some of their efforts to escape the later conclusion. Again, Chris gives us heaps of evidence all of which is consistent with the standard conclusions. Finally, in chapter five, Chris looks at Steve Mason's novel suggestion that Acts is dependent on Josephus (a theory that was briefly Richard Carrier's clever idea of the month before he moved on the imaginary Homeric parallels in Mark).

All in all, Chris has produced the most comprehensive defence of the common-sense view of Acts since the relevant section in Donald Guthrie's NT Introduction. So next time a sceptic starts wittering away about how Acts is a second century fiction, you know where to come!

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

Saturday, July 30, 2005

Some interesting develops in the land of the Jesus Myth.

Richard Carrier, the closest that the Internet Infidels have to a resident scholar, has announced his conversion to mythicism. Exactly why remains unclear but it is related to the old canard that you can reconstruct the New Testament with the Old Testament and thus there is no need to posit any underlying historical facts in the Gospels. While there is undoubtedly a lot of OT influence in the Gospels, I find the idea that Mark's artless and rather poorly executed hodge-podge of episodes is actually a devilishly clever retelling of many different bits of the OT rather unconvincing. Mark's Gospel reads like the recollection of lots of stories that the author has heard, thrown together into something approaching a narrative, which is exactly what church tradition says it is. Mark as the literary and creative genius just won't wash in the face of a text that was patently not written by anyone of the kind.

On the other hand, GakuseiDon has written a telling critique of Doherty's use of second century Christian apologists. Doherty likes to claim that many of these writers didn't believe in a historical Jesus and thus the idea that Jesus never existed was accepted in parts of the early church. GakuseiDon analyses the relevant texts and refutes Doherty's suggestion. But is it fatal to Doherty's entire thesis? Probably not. The dividing line that he can always point to (assuming he does retreat from his second century examples) is the Jewish revolt ending in 70AD. Aside from Paul, getting back before that is always hard (although Hebrews is a big help here), and the only way to kill mythicism is to prove that Paul knew of a historical Jesus. Given almost all scholars (all until Carrier's so far unexplained conversion) already think this is proven, the argument is unlikely to develop. What we need is someone very good at Greek to carefully analyse the relevant Pauline passages with all the critical apparatus that is available. Then we will see where we are. I suppose the advent of computerised texts does make this much easier, though.

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