October 7, 2008

I’ve just returned from the Chaplaincy’s Multi-faith Public Conversation on the subject ‘The Richness of Diversity’. As a humanist and an atheist it can be difficult to go to such events, especially when they’re entitled ‘Multi-Faith’, but it’s often an interesting experience and it’s important that as a society we build up relations with other societies based at the Chaplaincy. That’s something we don’t do nearly enough, in fact I was sitting next to a couple of the Vedics who said they noticed we weren’t there at the interfaith dialogue (although I’m sure Greg went along – Stuart and I were both working). I do intend to go to a couple of the CU meetings when I’m not working in the next few weeks but I’ll have to see what’s happening.

In any case I was a little disappointed. Of course with such a short space of time to discuss such a vague and in many ways diverse topic, it’s difficult to come up with a satisfying response, and I’m not sure that was the intention, to get a response, that is. For some time the three speakers (whose names I’m afraid I don’t remember – it was a Rabbi, a Bishop and a representative from the British Muslim Council) spoke about why diversity was important and what kinds of diversity there are, which I think is something we all know. In many ways it was something of a ramble. The Bishop made some attempt to explain why there is so often an intolerance of diversity, stemming from a fear of losing their religious identity, as well as economic fears like “they’re taking our jobs and our benefits”, which made the conversation a bit more dynamic, and only the Rabbi had the balls to come out and say that at the end of the day if you believe your particular faith position is correct and someone else’s isn’t, you cannot embrace diversity in the way that people had been talking about.

Reflecting back, the opinions expressed were so watered down that they were in their lowest common form which sounded essentially like humanism. Several comments were passed like “flowers are each beautiful in their own way, but they’re most beautiful when they’re put together”, and even a saying used by the HSS, “we’re a’ Jock Tamson’s Bairns” (the Bishop said in that case, Jock has been doing a bit of globetrotting), and the last sentiment on the issue came from a woman sitting at the back who said that if we want to be truly tolerant, we have to approach the table as human beings. We’re people first above all. I think that’s a truly admirable sentiment and one I’ve used before, but mainly when talking about the Scout movement.

Anyway, frustrating but intriguing, I’m glad I went.


September 16, 2008

Faith is a strange thing, something we as humanists are generally opposed to. That sounds sad to a lot of people on the street, because ‘faith’ is so often used as a synonym for ‘trust’. But let’s be clear here, faith is a specific type of belief which goes beyond what the evidence says.

The reason I bring this up is because we had a conversation at the Chaplaincy Fayre today with Jack from the Christian Union. He started off by plugging one of their joint events with the Philosophy Society (which I’d also like to mention), which is called “Is Faith in God a Delusion?” It’s a debate on the subject between 2 fairly big names; Alistair McBay from the National Secular Society and David Robertson, author of ‘The Dawkins Letters’. It should be good, I’ll be there, it’s THIS TUESDAY 23rd September at 6.15pm in the George Square Lecture Theatre at Edinburgh University. Be there if you can.

Anyway so he was talking about the discussion they had deciding whether to use the word ‘faith’ or ‘belief’ in the title. It was interesting because he said the discussion was about whether to define belief in God as a belief or a faith position, but in my mind it doesn’t matter, that’s the subject matter of the debate. I would say that any faith is delusional by definition (after all, faith has been described as “an illogical belief in the improbable”), and so ‘belief’ would be the correct word to use, with the debate itself dealing with whether belief in God is logical or specifically a faith position. That in turn will determine whether it is delusional or not.

In any case that was merely the first sentence of our discussion. Jack denied that belief in God is a faith position because there’s plenty of evidence for the existence of God. We of course enquired what that was and he told us that the “rational information” of the universe was evidence enough to imply an intelligent designer. By that I presume he means that the universe is so complex it couldn’t have come about by ‘chance’. So then we realised we were talking to a creationist and gave other examples of rational information coming from an intelligent force, such as peanuts in a jar sorting themselves out through gravity with the smallest at the bottom, pebbles on the beach having the smallest ones furthest up the beach, craters on the moon as well as clouds that look like things. But he was having none of it. We also gave examples of how things are badly designed, such as the human eye, but he said he wasn’t commenting on the level of intelligence involved (even though he’s saying his perfect God did it :/).

We then got onto the problem of evil, and he said that it’s a punishment from God from the Fall. I said that there are a lot of innocent people who suffer, and the amount that people suffer isn’t proportionate to their sin, so what kind of judicial system does God run? Jack said it’s an imperfect system because the world has been corrupted by sin, and God’s waiting for everyone to repent before he fixes it. In the meantime he judges after death.

Now see, the problem is that a lot of people think that as long as the existence of God is possible, it’s perfectly rational to believe, regardless of whether things can be explained naturalistically. In fact, Occam’s Razor says that we should go with the option that presupposes the least, so even though the naturalistic option may seem against the odds, it’s better odds than presupposing the existence of an invisible, all powerful entity, for which we have no evidence whatsoever. Anyway, a bit of a ramble today. I apologize.

Holocaust Memorial Day

January 29, 2008

I’m a bit annoyed with myself. This year is the first year I’ve missed a Holocaust Memorial Day service, which took place last night at the Chaplaincy at the University. It wasn’t my fault; I had to work. But at the same time if I’d thought ahead I could have made sure I wasn’t working. What’s worse is that I also missed the Remembrance Sunday service because my alarm didn’t go off and I slept straight through. Back at home I normally mark this occasion with a big parade through my local village with my scout district and it was a shame to not be there this time. So this is my way of commemorating the event

I think it’s imperative that we continue to mark events such as Holocaust Memorial Day. Only by remembering the mistakes in humanity’s history can we ensure that something similar doesn’t happen again. It is for this reason that Holocaust Denial is a crime in some countries; if we don’t remember it, it could end up happening again.

The problem is, though, that similar things have happened again. Saddam Hussein’s extermination of the Kurds and Marsh Arabs, the Rwandan genocide of the Tutsis by the Hutu, the Bosnian genocide in Srebrenica, and the Darfur conflict, which Colin Powell declared genocide in 2004, and which still continues today.

So is humanity learning from its mistakes? I don’t think so, in spite of the efforts of the organisers of Holocaust Memorial Day. It seems to me that the only time this remembrance is ever put into practice is when the government brings in a particularly adventurous piece of legislation, or an example of the “nanny state” is brought up, then people refer to it as “Nazi” in order to garner up opposition to it.

This is an insult to the memory of the millions of people who died in the Holocaust and in the Second World War.

Humanist Society Spring Program

January 11, 2008

Yesterday was the Refresher’s Fair, where each society sets up a stall, tells people what they do, and hope to attract new members. Thursdays are my stupid timetable days where I have classes at 9am, 11am, 1pm and 3pm, with one hour gaps between each of them, so I was darting in and out all day really. It was great to see so many societies in action; the tango soc gave a few demonstrations throughout the day, and there were quite a lot of societies there that I didn’t really know very much about, like Capoeira (a type of Brazilian martial art), and the Revelation Rock Gospel Choir, which we were sitting right opposite. The PhilSoc stall was also quite interesting, being made up of a woman knitting, a man drinking cans of Strongbow at midday, and a very scary teddy bear with a strange affinity for a bottle of Bitter and Twisted. They did have some flyers at some point as well, or so I’m told.

The fair was held in the Chaplaincy and Potterow, and all the societies were just placed in alphabetical order, rather than in categories like when it was at the Pleasance in September. This meant we weren’t very close to any of the religious societies, which is a shame because we didn’t have nearly as many ‘inter-faith’ (I use inverted commas there because Humanism really isn’t a faith, but a better term has yet to be coined) discussions as we did in September’s Fresher’s Fair and Chaplaincy Fair, which were very interesting.

I’m also quite disappointed at the lack of inter-faith events at the university. Although we only fairly recently had the Edinburgh Inter-Faith Week, very few of the events then were particularly suitable for a humanist audience, so most of us largely steered clear, and the Edinburgh University Student Festival has a grand total of zero religious events. The Jewish and Islamic Societies don’t seem to be doing anything anymore (indeed
the Islamic Society didn’t even have a stall at the Fair – they didn’t at the Chaplaincy Fair either but that was during Ramadan), and the Catholic Union’s events and meetings are separated away from everyone else in their own little Chaplaincy in George Square, which isn’t exactly very social, in my opinion.

Anyway I think I should probably get to the point. We had a decent number of ‘religious apologists’ as Dawkins would probably call them, who didn’t necessarily believe in any particular deity, but thought our society was just god bashing all the time. It’s simply not true. Although a lot of our own events do have religion as their focus, we’ve also been attempting to host talks on other topics of interest to humanists such as language separating us from other animals (we have a large number of linguists among us), with limited success, and we have our regular Humanist Blood Drive coming up on the 1st February (to which anyone is welcome), as well as a panel discussion on Humanist Ethics in the 21st Century. We’re also collaborating much more closely with the Humanist Society of Scotland and the Humanist Academy, as well as the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science.

But that aside, it should be noted that if any local religious church, association or society, inside or outside the university, attempts to spread their illogical and irrational doctrines to others, then we’ll be there to challenge it. We wouldn’t be very good humanists if we weren’t, and we encourage those same religious societies to do the same. We have a series of 3 documentaries coming up later in the semester entitled “God’s Warriors”, by CNN, each focusing on Christianity, Judaism and Islam, respectively. We intend to invite moderates from each of these three religions along for our discussion afterwards, to tell us where the documentaries have gone wrong, but seeing as the societies are so inactive, we may be forced to go outside the university and seek experts there.