November 28, 2008

Just a quick one today. Work is really piling on so I’m not getting much chance to blog, hopefully after exams I’ll have more time.

I had an interesting conversation with Stuart (President of the Student Humanist Society) about Interfaith. I’ve been very much involved in this kind of thing, much to the surprise of the religionists at the Chaplaincy, as I think the society has in the past come across as very ‘militant’, as much as I hate the expression.

Stuart’s position was that it’s a very useless, facile, wishy washy excercise to have people with totally contradicting beliefs sitting around a table together pretending to be friends, what’s the point? I replied that you don’t have to hold the same beliefs to partake in the exchange of information, and in the meantime we can coordinate joint events together (such as a joint application for funding which we tried a few weeks ago), and learn about religions and cultures we otherwise wouldn’t know about. That’s pretty cool!

Stuart then said that it’s hypocritical to have people working together when each of them believes the others are going to hell! I agree it would be much easier to bash religion if people did think and act that way, but that idea of hell is totally outdated, noone I know thinks of hell as fire and brimstone, it’s a separation from God and all that’s good. The point I pushed most, though is that when religious people look a “heathen”, they don’t think “you’re going to hell”. First and foremost they see another human being, and in that sense they share common ground with humanists. It’s where scripture and practice differ, even if the text says you should be killing people of other faiths, doesn’t mean that’s what you do.

It’s becoming something of a problem, all this interfaith stuff. I’m really mellowing out. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not succumbing to any religious belief, I’m just becoming less outspoken on matters of religion and atheism. I may soon be undeserving of the title “not-so-friendly humanist”.


January 21, 2008

I sound like a lecturer, but before I start I’d like to remind anyone reading in Edinburgh that THIS WEDNESDAY 23rd January, the Edinburgh University Humanist Society will be showing the Richard Dawkins “Dawkumentary”, ‘The Root of all Evil?’, at 6pm in Room 3 of Appleton Tower, George Square. It will be followed by a group discussion on topics raised in the documentary.

Today I had a politics lecture on ideology in the British political system. It was rubbish, but it’s got me thinking about things only tenuously related, so that’s always good. Anyway the vast majority of socially liberal people are concerned about people’s rights and liberties: the right to free speech, freedom of assembly and things like that being the main ones, (although today someone started harrassing me with leaflets and stuff while I was eating my lunch in Teviot. I’d like people to care more about my right to eat in peace).

Another of the more highly esteemed basic rights is the freedom of religion, ie:

Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship, and observance.

Source: Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Now call me ultramodern, but I think this is a bit out of date. Ok, everyone generally accepts that this also includes the freedom to follow no religion (although it’d be nice to have it in writing one of these days), but I think that “everyone has the right to freedom of thought” and “to manifest his religion or belief in teaching” can sometimes be very slightly contradictory. Only a little bit, not completely.

How can you have freedom of thought if you’re not making informed choices? Anyone who doesn’t have the whole story will naturally believe what they’ve been told. I think you know where I’m going with this, bloggers. The right “to manifest his religion or belief in teaching”, which has been cemented into International Law, basically gives any religious nutcase (no offence) justification to set up a faith school and brainwash kids that are too young to know any different with nonsense. I’m fairly certain that anyone who knows that we can explain the world without resorting to a fairy tale would not choose to believe religion, not unless it had been instilled in them from a young age or it was a big part of their family’s culture or some other excuse which has nothing to do with what’s correct and what isn’t.

I now firmly oppose teaching religion to children in schools. Earlier I wasn’t so sure, but it’s sick. How can we encourage our children to be thinking for themselves, rather than just regurgitate facts in exams, when from such an early age they’re being brainwashed with some dodgy worldview which doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, but permeates much of their lifestyle? Especially in an environment where they’re otherwise being exposed to useful, factual information. It’s just plain confusing and it shouldn’t be allowed. I remember once when I was about 8, we’d just finished RE and were moving on to our science class. The teacher asked the question “how do we see?”, and one kid replied without hesitation, “because Jesus is the light of the world.” It’s not right to expect kids to separate facts from fiction for themselves at such an early age.

But what about if parents want to teach their kids about religion privately? Personally I’d probably charge them with child abuse, but it’s a subject of some controversy. As the child is under the age of consent, the parents make decisions in her name, so they decide whether they can teach her or not, even though they themselves are the ones teaching her. It’s the equivalent of telling them repeatedly in all seriousness that if they don’t do something pointless like clap their hands 30 times at midday, then a big scary man will come and torture them forever. It’s probably perfectly legal, but I’m sure you’ll all agree it’s wrong. Actually it’s not the equivalent at all, that’s exactly what it is, just replace the hand clapping with praying, believing nonsense and following the 10 Commandments.

In my opinion, religion should not be taught. It’s spreading lies. Maybe teaching it to people who have already given consent by becoming a member of the church would be ok (and of course I don’t think baptising children counts, they can’t consent). But I don’t think many will turn to the church if it hasn’t been part of their lifestyle previously. It should be there if people want it, but it shouldn’t be taught as the norm, as is the situation now.

But what about teaching about religion? Censoring religion is no better than brainwashing kids in faith schools, so we shouldn’t do that. Religion has also been a big part of our culture, so it is definitely worthy of being taught about. BUT I think it should be made perfectly clear that it’s not necessarily true, and I think other non-religious worldviews should be taught alongside it, such as humanism. It should be in the history books by now anyway.

Maybe religion should be taught similarly to the way we teach about political or philosophical ideologies. Often religion, philosophy and politics are very closely linked, so it’s certainly appropriate.

Edinburgh Creation Group

December 5, 2007

I think now is a good time to introduce the Edinburgh Creation Group, seeing as I’ve just come back from one of their talks. I got involved through the Humanist Society, which had some copies of their leaflets, including this amazing piece of reading (notice how both Communism AND Capitalism are both a product of evolution, as well as student debt and STD’s, apparently). Basically each week someone with a scientific background will give a presentation on how science fits into religious interpretation in one way or other. Often several of our members will go to listen to the talk, and then ask awkward questions at the end, which is often quite a good way to get into the nitty-gritty of creationist theory which doesn’t come up in normal conversation.

Previous weeks’ talks have been on very fundamental things like “geological proof for the global flood” (apparently, trees can survive a year underwater) and “the cosmos: hallmarks of design?” (or how much of a coincidence life on this planet is, which when you think about it, is really a statistical certainty), which are easily disputable, but in the last few weeks I must admit that the talks have been very much geared towards a Christian audience, in that they already assume the existence of God, or they make no premise about evolution or creation, so there’s really nothing to dispute from my point of view. Tonight’s talk, for example, was just on Persian history and how it fits in quite well with what the Bible says in the Old Testament, supposedly proving that we should treat it as a historical document. My one question at the end was whether the speaker, Dr Mark Woolmer, thought that what we know is true about the Bible lends authority to the things that are harder to believe, like the miracles. He said yes. Surely that’s like saying that Harry Potter’s all true, just because it mentions real places like King’s Cross Station? The logic doesn’t follow.

In any case, there are a few things I’ve learned, thought about, or gained a new appreciation for during this series of talks, the last of which is happening next week (a new series will begin next semester):

First of all, although I was aware of the dogma of the Fall of Man in Genesis, I never knew that so many creationists think it has real, physical consequences in the real world. When I was a Catholic, people didn’t talk about the Fall like it was something that’s still happening, but like it happened in Genesis but has since stopped. Many of the creationists I’ve met believe that the fall means we are all genetic degenerates, and we will continue to degenerate until Christ comes again to save us. It might be easy to dismiss this, as life expectancy has consistently risen in the past rather than declined as you might expect, but it’s strange that this view isn’t more common among Christians, seeing as it’s necessary to explain a multitude of things from a creationist point of view, such as how we now have more than one blood type if we’re all descendants of two people (according to Dr Marc Surtees, a member of ECG with degrees in Zoology and Geology, and who owns a shop on Leith Walk, Adam and Eve were both A+. B, O and rhesus negative blood types are all degenerations which mean you’ve lost one, two or all of the proteins on your blood cells, which is only compatible with religion if you believe in a physical degeneration of humankind).

Another big point I’ve made to the group is that if all of this evidence is true, and science really does point to the Bible being true, then why aren’t we seeing a mass exodus of scientists converting to Christianity? The answer, I suspect, is that what’s been presented to the group is actually bad science, and that science actually doesn’t support the Bible and Christianity. I’m no scientist and I can’t dispute it very well, so that I leave to the more qualified, such as Dr Richard Dawkins, who I must say does a good job, on the whole.

Thirdly, I have a newfound respect for creationists, such as Dr Marc Surtees from the ECG, who actually think about their beliefs and why they hold them. As a humanist I find this much more palatable than the everyday Christian who doesn’t know why they believe, and doesn’t really even know what they believe. Many Christians nowadays see the Genesis story as a giant metaphor that didn’t really happen, but shows how much God loves us. But if Adam and Eve didn’t really exist, and original sin and the Fall didn’t really happen, then Jesus came to Earth and sacrificed himself for a nonexistent sin to save us all from nothing, so if you don’t believe in Genesis as it happened, they you undermine the entire Christian faith. So if you’re going to be a Christian, be a proper one.

One thing that does annoy me about Dr Marc is that he himself has said that when his science clashes with his religion, he always chooses his religion. So effectively he’s saying he chooses his unfounded beliefs over his rational knowledge. And this isn’t unique among creationists, either. Some people would rather believe what a book tells them than what they discover themselves. Ok, science isn’t perfect and it’s always being revised, but just because religion doesn’t change, that doesn’t make it better or more reliable than science. In fact I’d say it makes it much worse, outdated and old-fashioned. But that’s just me.