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.