Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Here we go again...

In the wake of austerity, councils across the U.K are having to make stringent budget cuts and this is prompting the closure of around 450 libraries around the country. Philip Pullman, author of the Dark Materials trilogy, is outraged and has penned a piece for on the subject. Seeking to anchor his polemic with a precedent from history he writes:

You don’t need me to give you the facts. Everyone here is aware of the situation. The government, in the Dickensian person of Mr Eric Pickles, has cut the money it gives to local government, and passed on the responsibility for making the savings to local authorities. Some of them have responded enthusiastically, some less so; some have decided to protect their library service, others have hacked into theirs like the fanatical Bishop Theophilus in the year 391 laying waste to the Library of Alexandria and its hundreds of thousands of books of learning and scholarship......

I love the public library service for what it did for me as a child and as a student and as an adult. I love it because its presence in a town or a city reminds us that there are things above profit, things that profit knows nothing about, things that have the power to baffle the greedy ghost of market fundamentalism, things that stand for civic decency and public respect for imagination and knowledge and the value of simple delight.

I love it for that, and so do the citizens of Summertown, Headington, Littlemore, Old Marston, Blackbird Leys, Neithrop, Adderbury, Bampton, Benson, Berinsfield, Botley, Charlbury, Chinnor, Deddington, Grove, Kennington, North Leigh, Sonning Common, Stonesfield, Woodcote.

And Battersea.

And Alexandria.

Leave the libraries alone. You don’t know the value of what you’re looking after. It is too precious to destroy.

Edward Gibbon would be overjoyed to know that even the most speculative and unsupported of his historical insights are still alive and well hundreds of years after he authored them (although maybe Pullman just got the idea from the movie Agora). However upon closer examination this Library of Alexandria turns out to be the Serapeum temple whose colonnades seem to have contained a library at some stage (although this structure was left standing after the destruction and the sources for the event - both Pagan and Christian - do not mention any such libricide). Of course you can't rule out the destruction of sacred texts - something mentioned following similar events in Gaza in the 5th century - but Pullman appears to have conjured up 'hundreds of thousands of books of learning and scholarship'; the most plausible estimate for the original library (not the Serapeum library) according to Dr Serafina Cuomo is 40,000 scrolls. Perhaps there are several kilometers of undiscovered book shelving lurking at the Serapeum's archeological site but more likely Pullman is talking out of his proverbial posterior. I am sympathetic with his article but it's hardly a good advert for the value of public learning when you can't be bothered to do the basic research.

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Sunday, March 27, 2011

The Bible's Buried Secrets

Dr Francesca Stavrakopoulou is a lecturer on religious studies at the University of Exeter and now has her own TV series on the BBC. In her shows, she claims to unearth the buried secrets of the Bible. Actually, what she is doing is communicating to the general public ideas which have been discussed in the academy for ages. And no worries there. It’s exactly what I do in the field of science and religion.

Dr Stavrakopoulou is a “minimalist” who denies the existence of King David and the United Kingdom of Israel. That’s a respectable, if minority, opinion among archaeologists. I happen to disagree, following Robin Lane Fox from The Unauthorised Version. Of course, Lane Fox and I are historians. This means we tend to give texts more weight than archaeologists do, at least when it comes to specific events and people.

Anyway, this week, Dr Stavrakopoulou’s buried secret was that God had a wife who was later edited out of the Bible. Now, once again, this is spun as something new. But again, it isn’t.

A quick reminder of the theme in the history books of the Bible: 1 and 2 Samuel and 1 and 2 Kings. The story these books tell is that the Israelites were a bunch of independent tribes who gather together under a leader in times of war. Eventually, they chose a king and briefly enjoy some success. However, the kingdom fragmented as they often did. In general, the Israelite kings worshipped the same gods as their neighbours. However, there was always a strand of opinion in Israelite society that insisted that they should worship only the one God Yahweh. With a few exceptions, most notably Josiah, the kings either continued in their polytheistic ways or hedged their bets by worshiping Yahweh, but not exclusively. That almost certainly involved marrying him up to a neighbouring fertility goddess. Only when the Israelite kingdoms were swept away by eastern invaders did the people, now rootless and kingless, become pure monotheists.

Now, this story simply comes from historians reading the Bible like any other ancient text. It seems quite plausible and isn’t that controversial among scholars. It is also nicely consistent with the archaeological record. A few of the characters named, including King David, King Omri and Baruch ben Neriah, have even turned up on inscriptions. The main argument is over the extent to which United Israel was anything like as impressive as the Bible says. Probably not.

So what is the buried secret? It seems to me that Dr Stavrakopoulou is an Old Testament Bart Ehrman trying to turn mainstream scholarship into something radical that is a serious problem for the Christian (and Jewish) faith. It’s neither and anyone who bothers read their Bibles would know this.

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Sunday, March 20, 2011

Parish Notices

Five years after its inception, I have finally joined Twitter as DrJamesHannam. The reason for the "Dr" is that plain old JamesHannam had already joined. I've already been tweeting for the last few days.

Also, The Genesis of Science: How the Christian Middle Ages Launched the Scientific Revolution is published in the United States tomorrow. If you live elsewhere in the world (and know that you spell analyse with an "s" and not a "z"), then God's Philosophers was the original UK edition of this book.

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Quantum by Manjit Kumar

Manjit Kumar’s book Quantum: Einstein, Bohr and the Great Debate about the Nature of Reality is a difficult project triumphantly accomplished. In popular history of science, the aim is to mould the history and the science together without compromising too much on either. When the science in question is quantum mechanics, an author already has his work cut out trying to explain it to the general reader. Another challenge is that the history of the quantum is about a clash of personalities and philosophical viewpoints. Turning that into a readable story is no mean feat. But Kumar has succeeded on both fronts.

The debate at the heart of Quantum is how to interpret the strange physics of the sub-atomic world. On one side was Albert Einstein. Despite the difficulty many of us have with relativity, it is actually a well-behaved physical theory that does not require us to compromise on the basic concepts of objective reality or cause and effect. Quantum mechanics, on the other hand, disposes of such foundations: it is a subjective realm where the observer appears to affect the result of experiments and where randomness is indelibly built in. Einstein could never accept this. He thought there were “hidden variables” behind quantum mechanics that would transmute it into a deterministic theory. “God does not play dice”, he said many times.

The other side of the argument was led by Niels Bohr, the greatest Dane since Tycho Brahe. Bohr developed the Copenhagen interpretation of the quantum which embraced its strangest aspects. Bohr accepted that the motion of sub-atomic particles can only be predicted as probabilities and that the experimenter is part of the same system as the thing being observed. Einstein set Bohr a number of fiendish puzzles to show that quantum mechanics was inconsistent and so incomplete. But every time, Bohr solved the problem. Eventually, after Einstein’s death, the Irish physicist John Stewart Bell developed a way to experimentally test one of the quantum paradoxes called non-locality. But, to date, the theory appears to pass even this trial.

All this has left science with a massive hangover. It is not as widely appreciated as it should be that the two crowning achievements of modern physics, relativity and quantum mechanics, are completely incompatible. It is not just that they give different results. They inhabit different metaphysical universes. Scientists have tended to assume that quantum mechanics is the more fundamental theory and string theory is an attempt, unsuccessful so far, to combine it with relativity.

I have a suspicion that current crisis in physics is a function of abandoning the metaphysical framework of a deterministic and objective universe. String theory has returned to the failed ancient Greek model of pure rationalism where clever ideas can never be tested. In the meantime, anyone who wants to understand the background to the The Trouble with Physics chronicled by Lee Smolin can do no better than to read Manjit Kumar’s Quantum.

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Saturday, March 19, 2011

Cacator, cave malum !

The inscriptions on Roman gravestones give us an arresting insight into the psyche of the empire’s citizens. What words did they use to sum up their allotted time on this mortal coil? What information can we draw out concerning their hopes fears and aspirations?

Well – according to ‘A cabinet of Roman Curiosities : Strange tales and surprising facts form the World’s greatest empire’ by the classicist J. C McKeown - a common thread running through the dedications on the tombs is the fear of having the grave’s sanctity disturbed; or as one inscription rather more bluntly puts it:

‘Anyone who pisses or shits here, may the Gods above and the Gods below be angry with him’ (Corpus of Latin Inscriptions 6.13740)

In much the same vein another inscription reads:

‘Stranger, my bones beg you not to piss at my grave. If you want to be nicer, have a shit. This is the grave of Urtica (“Nettle”). Go away, shitter! It’s not safe to expose your arse here’ (Corpus of Latin Inscriptions, 4.8899)

McKeown also points out that the warning ‘cacator, cave malum’ (“Shitter, watch out!”) occurs several times among graves in Pompeii. Why did this concern exist among the Roman populace; perhaps the practice of grave desecration was common as an act of revenge against the deceased. Another inscription reads :

I’ll see to it in my will that no one does me wrong. For I’m going to have one of my freedmen guard my tomb, to prevent people from rushing to shit there (Trimalchio at Petronius Satyricon 71).

Nor was scatological vengeance confirmed to humanity. This particular chapter of J. C. McKeown’s book ends with divine justice administered against the heretic Arius for opposing the Trinitarian Christology:

The heretic Arius suffered a stomach upset and went into a public toilet in Alexandria. When he did not come back out, those who were with him went in to look for him and found him dead. The seat on which he died was never used again, in recognition of his having thus been punished there for his impiety (Sozomenus History of the Church 2.29–30).

The 'take home message' from this ? Beware dabbling too much into theology - lest you suffer the same fate as Elvis.

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Sunday, March 13, 2011

What do atheists tell their children?

A couple of times in the last few weeks, my wife and I have been settling down to a DVD with the children tucked into bed, when our five-year-old daughter has come down in some distress. Thinking about her late great grandfathers (whom she has never met although she does know one surviving great grandmother), she had become very upset at the prospect of eternal death. I suspect all children have to face this at some point and as Christians, there are good and honest answers we can give to reassure her.

Discussing this after our daughter was peacefully asleep, my wife and I began to wonder what atheist parents do in these circumstances. As chance would have it, I got an email this week from someone who thought I was too hard on Richard Dawkins in my review of The God Delusion. In the review, I mentioned a friend who had had similar existential crises as a child and took them to her atheist father. He just admitted that we are ultimately all worm food. As you can imagine, this did little to assuage my friend’s fears and I doubt it would have made my daughter any happier either.

My correspondent said my friend’s father was a moron (although he is actually a university professor) and that, “Dawkins says life is about enjoying every moment and living life in a happy and fulfilling way. Isn't that good enough? Why does there need to be more?” Clearly this answer wouldn’t satisfy my daughter. If someone is afraid of death, it is rather pointless telling them just to enjoy life.

So, it seems to me that atheist parents can either tell their children, in the kindest way possible, that their fears are wholly justified and they just have to tough it out. Or they can lie. Neither prospect can be very appealing.

This is hardly an argument against atheism or even a criticism of it. Rather the reverse. We tend to think of modern atheism as philosophically and morally rather vapid, but sometimes it can be tough.
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Saturday, March 12, 2011


Keith Burgess-Jackson, an atheist, has recently linked to three interesting essays. The first is "Engaging Today’s Militant Atheist Arguments" by Ian Hutchinson; the second is "Believe It or Not" by David Bentley Hart; and the third is "David Brooks’s Theory of Human Nature" by Thomas Nagel. Burgess-Jackson's comments on the latter are here. Have at it.
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Monday, March 07, 2011

The Genesis of Science available now from

The Genesis of Science: How the Christian Middle Ages Launched the Scientific Revolution is already available from Amazon a couple of weeks ahead of the official publication date.

This is the US edition of God's Philosophers, edited for American readers and with a few corrections.

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