We gets email!

September 19, 2009

So like I say I’m not having much luck finding humanisty stuff around here in Malaga. I did find a(nother) cool video by QualiaSoup which I think I’ll be blogging at some point, but here’s something a little closer to home. The Humanist Society at UoE regularly hold a prayer contest, which goes like this. The morning of the contest, a member of the society randomly generates a number, which goes into a sealed envelope. Noone else knows the number. Two other members of the society run the contest, getting people to choose a ‘god’ which could be anyone, and pray to this god for intervention whilst they roll the dice, trying to get as close as possible to the randomly generated, and unknown, number. Whoever wins, well then their God is obviously the one to pray to for divine intervention! Last year we also ran a parallel experiment using the wisdom of crowds phenomenon, where people had to guess the weight of a candle, the object being that none of the Gods were right, but the general guess of humanity was more or less on the money. Harmless, you might say.

Anyway so someone’s complained and I’m going to take their complaint apart piece by piece. I should mention that I haven’t actually sent this email back. You may call this two-faced but a response has already been sent from the society and I think it would be inappropriate to send another which probably says more or less the same thing but a bit more diplomatically. But if this person decides to read it here I’ll be happy to address any other complaints.

“okay.. this Wednesday at your freshers fair one of members decided to taunt the other religions at the fair by requesting four digit numbers and names of gods, then rolling a series of dice to prove that the peoples gods did not care.”

That’s not actually true, we don’t do this to taunt (in fact I don’t believe the members of the religious societies I know would even be bothered by it), there are indeed many other reasons why we do it. It demonstrates that the supernatural is difficult to quantify and measure, it makes people realise that there is more than one god out there on the market, it encourages people to question the world around them, it shows that if you’re going to make a claim about divine intervention, you should back it up with evidence. Perhaps most importantly, it demonstrates a sense of humour.

“This was a vague and frankly stupid attempt to taunt people of faith and to demonstrate your own faith as superior (and yes I mean faith in the same way that Richard Dawkins, the confessed atheist, has faith). It was
purely a random attempt to insult and aggravate and proved only that you were little, and did not understand your own cause.”

As I’ve said, we didn’t do this to taunt anyone. Humanists do not have faith. Please try to understand this, because it’s an argument that comes up time and time again. Faith is believing something without evidence. Humanism and atheism are not faith, they are simply a lack of belief in God (or that and more, in the case of humanism) since there is no evidence to demonstrate that there is one. There is no leap of faith involved. If we were to say “there definitely is no God”, then yes, that would be a faith position, because we couldn’t back that up with evidence, because you can’t prove the non-existence of an invisible being that seems determined not to be detected. But in the absense of evidence we maintain the neutral position of not believing until sufficient evidence is supplied. Google “Russell’s teapot” or “the invisible pink unicorn” for more information.

Yes, many of us are passionate about our lack of belief, but that is because we see the harm that religion often does to society and the way it affects the rational thinking of the population, as well as in some cases the public understanding of science, but this does not make it a faith position. Some even lean to the side that the evidence (such as the Problem of Evil), points to there not being a god, certainly not in the sense that the Abrahamic faiths tend to see it. But again, this is only going where the evidence takes us, there is no faith involved.

“As you claim to be humanist, a belief/devotion to the respect of humankind as a whole and one that accepts that people, even those of faith, should be approached with compassion, I would like to hear a public apology from your society for its members actions.”

I wonder if you actually heard any of our members directly insulting anyone else in the room? I was not present but it would be very out of character of any member of the society. What this experiment did was challenge an idea, the power of prayer, not an individual. Religion is an idea just like any other, it is not protected from criticism. We do not hold respect for any idea, not even our own, because if you can’t defend your ideas from criticism, then what’s the point in holding them in the first place? The only apology you will get is that we’re sorry you think independently-minded students need to be protected from our gentle questioning of an extraordinary claim such as the power of prayer.
“Should this not be forth-coming I shall label your society as obviously only intended to offend and shall report its actions to the student societies council (who ban societies based upon racist or discriminatory views) and the various humanist organisations across the UK and request that your society should be shut down.”

I fail to see how the experiment was discriminatory. Anyone who wished to take part was allowed to, and those who declined to (only 6 out of over a hundred) were not asked again. EUSA and the student societies council are well aware of our group and what we do, and I’m certain that any attempt to have the society shut down would result in failure. We comply with EUSA rules and enjoy the freedom of speech that being a member of a liberal democracy involves. The hypersensitivity of others is no reason to suppress freedom of speech.

Furthermore if you think this is sufficient justification to shut down a society, perhaps you should consider making a complaint about the majority of the religious societies, many of which explicitly state that anyone who doesn’t believe as they do will suffer for eternity. We do not take this seriously, although it is certainly much more offensive than what we were doing at the Fresher’s Fair.

“Before you ask.. I’m an agnostic (In the words of Old Harry’s Game an Atheist without courage in their conviction). However I have more respect for a Christian evangelist who believes he is trying to save my soul that an atheist who preaches just to taunt me because they believe they are right.”

Atheists who argue against religion do not do so because they believe they are right. They do it because they see the bad effects that holding religious belief can cause, some of which I have already mentioned. They do it simply to search for the truth, just as a scientist would publish a paper refuting the ideas of a well-respected theory. Ideas, as I have said, are not immune to criticism, they should invite it! I have little respect for someone who makes the claim that my soul is in danger, and then uses that claim to convince me of that same claim’s truth, without consideration for the evidence. If it held any sway with me then I would simply believe the faith which has the greatest penalty for disbelief. I would expect anyone to respect more someone who strives for the truth via science and evidence, than someone who gets their truth from an Iron Age text or a nice feeling in their stomach, for example. I also presume you would respect such a person more than someone who denies women their rights, or who discriminates against gay, lesbian and transsexual people, or who preaches to children that they are going to burn in hell unless they adopt a certain lifestyle?

Rectorial Elections

January 29, 2009

None of you are probably interested in this but I just spent over an hour tolerating George Galloway’s opinions and I’m determined to make sure it wasn’t in vain.

So here’s the background to the story. Stuart mentioned ages and ages ago at a pub night that George Galloway is a creationist, mentioning vaguely an article written by Johann Hari, writer for The Independent. Now George Galloway is standing for the position of Rector at the University, so I checked it out, made sure for myself the allegation had been made, and mentioned it briefly whilst commenting on the Student Newspaper website (that link), which consequently got published in the paper copy the next week.

Anywho during the pub night tonight, one of our members Alex got a phonecall saying that Galloway was over in Frankenstein’s. Turns out he was just showing his face at a Debating Union event on sex tourism, but we approached him outside whilst he was having a smoke just before the event. After Stuart saluted his strength, his courage and his indefatigability, I shook his hand and asked him whether the allegation that he’s a creationist is true or not. He looked me straight in the eye and denied it, saying he’s not a creationist and he’s never been a creationist. I told him I’d read a transcript of a radio show he’d presented and he said that it was not a transcript. I began to wonder if Johann Hari had been lying, since I had nothing but his word to go on. Stuart then asked him to repeat on a recorder what he’d just said, and he said something along the lines of “I believe evolution to be a scientific fact. But I also believe that, since God created everything, he also created evolution.”

Well I wasn’t really satisfied, so I decided to check for myself. I correlated the date of Hari’s accusation with Galloway’s radio shows, which are handily archived on his website, and decided that if he said it, it would’ve been on the 1st December [Edit: 2007]. So I put in my headphones and listened to the show instead of going to bed and forgetting about it like most people probably would have. 56 minutes in, an atheist calls up (one of the themes of the show was ‘militant atheism’) and says that if God did create us, evolution isn’t the best way to do it because it involves so much death and destruction. George Galloway then said this, which I’ve taken from Hari’s original allegation linked above, but I checked against the recording and is correct. You have the details, you can listen for yourself:

“I was looking at my little six month old baby today beginning to take his first steps crawling across the hall of the Methodist Central Hall today, and it doesn’t look like an accident to me. He doesn’t look like an accident of evolutionary chance to me. I’m not really prepared to believe that from the bottom-dwelling slugs of the pond came the voice of Pavarotti. I’m not really prepared to believe that Albert Einstein and a spider are really the same thing, that they just took a different evolutionary path.”

The lying get. He’s not getting my vote (not that he would’ve anyway).

Evolution vs Intelligent Design

September 5, 2008

Last night I attended a talk at the Edinburgh Zoo given by Stuart Ritchie, President of the Humanist Society at the University of Edinburgh, as part of the Darwin 200 celebrations. Stuart is a good friend of mine and I looked forward to the talk a lot, as I know he’s very enthusiastic on the subject of creationism.

Basically he outlined the difference between Creationism and Intelligent Design (ie. not much, according to the Wedge Document), then outlined the theory put forward by evolutionists. He then took arguments used by Creationists and Intelligent Design proponents in turn and demolished them as he knows how to do so well, incorporating the circular logic of the Bible, information theory, the bacterial flagellum, the Climbing Mount Improbable analogy, the scrabble analogy, and pretty much everything important that needed to be included, although I’m sure he could have continued for much longer afterwards if he’d had the time. He placed evolution side-by-side with both creationism and Intelligent Design to see which one stood up to scrutiny, and lo and behold evolution came out on top.

What interested me was the Q&A section towards the end. Several people who appeared to be from a religious background said that Stuart was simply bashing religion and its theories in the same way as ID proponents bash evolution. This is completely untrue! If ID theorists stood their own theories up to half as much scrutiny as Stuart did to evolution, I would be a happy man. In reality it is a blinkered, religiously motivated view which holds them back from seeing the truth and leads them to take others into their false beliefs. And if nothing is done, they will still be doing it when we’re celebrating Darwin 300.

Another man who confessed to being a Christian and a former RE teacher said to me afterwards that really both his position and that of Stuart were against fundamentalism. Whilst Stuart repeatedly said he had no qualm with religious people who kept their beliefs out of science (I happen to know otherwise 😛 ), my major problem with the so-called “religious moderates” is that they rarely, if ever, speak out against fundamentalists within their ranks. How often do we see the British Muslim Council speak out against lies told in the name of Islam? How often do Christians turn on creationists and say “hold on a sec, you’re talking rubbish, I’m not letting you represent me”? We only ever see religious people speaking out against fundamentalism after a serious terrorist attack, when they’re effecively forced to. Instead the debate is between different faiths, or between faith and science, and too seldom do religious people scrutinize themselves. I suspect there’s a reason for that; if they did, there wouldn’t be too many religious people left.

In any case, I fully support the Darwin 200 events, and urge anyone who’s remotely interested to get along to one of the many events happening nationwide. You won’t regret it. I think we’ll be getting Stuart to do the same talk again in the Humanist Society’s first semester programme, too.

Humanists in Education

April 23, 2008

One thing that a lot of humanists like to get worked up about is education. I don’t know if it’s the terrifying thought of all those little kiddies being brainwashed in faith schools or what, but something about it makes our blood boil. But as one of the key functions of the state, the education system is something secularists of all types like to concentrate on.

This year education has become a big feature of Scottish humanism. The Humanist Academy has been slogging at the issue for a while under the enthusiastic June Maxwell, and has a humanism course available for the national curriculum for 16 year olds in the Scottish education system.

Seeing her getting things done, the HSS have doubled their efforts to outdo her (for some reason I don’t fully understand the HSS and the HA don’t get along too well) and are making education their prime target, launching their education programme this weekend at Our Dynamic Earth (what a venue) which, as an officer of the Student Humanist Society, I’ve been invited to.

And whilst these two heavyweights battle it out, the rest of the humanists in Scotland sit back and reap the benefits. Magic!

Hopefully the BHA will get moving on it so these benefits can be nationwide. What they need is an arch-rival counter organisation right on their patch to motivate them. Maybe we should start a fake one just to annoy them. We’ll call it… the People’s Front of Judea! Even better, the Judean People’s Front! Maybe not.

Humanist Society AGM

April 10, 2008

This time of year appears to be AGM season. The Edinburgh HSS had theirs on Monday, the National HSS is having theirs on the 26th, and the student Humanist Society had ours last night. First of all I’m proud to announce that I’ve been voted in as the Secretary of the society, stepping into Stuart’s shoes, who is now Society President. This means I’ll be doing such things as the Monday newsletter (which may well change day depending on my timetable next year). If anyone reading here would like to be added to the mailing list, drop me a line and I’ll see what I can do. Lucy will be continuing as Treasurer, and we also announced the creation of several new officer positions, namely the Publicity officer which has been temporarily filled by Jo and Daniel, the Webmaster taken by Nick, and the Library officer which Gareth has kindly agreed to take on, as well as Ordinary Member positions (aka Minions), taken up by Roger, Dave and Amy (IIRC).

One of the things we wanted to do at the meeting was inform everyone about the activities at secularportal.com, and the upcoming conference which will be taking place in Edinburgh over the summer, and to formulate a makeshift programme for the event, which is shaping up to look pretty good. We also had a plethora (I’m using that word too often) of ideas for events next term, which is fantastic, and I’m sure we’ll be able to get a lot of them off the ground.

Anywho, a very fulfilling evening for the society, methinks.

Humanist Society Update

March 5, 2008

A plug first . Today and tomorrow are the EUSA election days. If you’re a student at the University of Edinburgh, I don’t care who you vote for but it’s very important that you vote. Don’t leave the decision in the hands of the politically-minded cronies in the various party headquarters, pull your finger out and go and vote. It’s a shame that, yet again, the elections are so male-dominated and that there isn’t such a diversity of choice, but there’s bound to be someone who says something you agree with.

I haven’t got a lot to say today seeing as I’ve mostly been writing essays or working for the past few weeks, so I’m just going to try and update the outside world on what we at the Edinburgh University Humanist Society are up to. I should be doing another essay so I really am just procrastinating.

This coming Friday is the last in our series of “God’s Warriors” video showings in Appleton Tower. Starting at 6 sharp, this week will concentrate on ‘God’s Christian Warriors’, perhaps tacking the sticky issue of Christian fundamentalism in the US. I urge you to come and see for yourself. It’ll be followed by a discussion, and in the past 2 showings these have proven to be refreshingly open-minded.

Talk at the moment is about the upcoming AGM (date TBC but at the moment we’re thinking late March/early April) and nominations for officer positions next year. It’s a little awkward because out of our active membership, several people are leaving the university, and so won’t be able to take positions. I think one of the main aims next year will be to attract some new blood, as I know we’re going to have similar problems this time next year. I for one will be going on my year abroad and other people will be either graduating or finishing off post-grad courses.

Recently we’ve been trying to get an honorary humanist chaplain at the Chaplaincy, with our preferred candidate being Tim Maguire from the HSS. This would be someone that any person at the university with humanist tendencies could go to for advice or counselling, rather than the Advice Place or any of the religious chaplains that exist already. In particular, we were keen to get more of a voice on issues relating to inter-belief events at the university and in the wider community, and although not in an evangelical sense, we thought Tim would be particularly useful when someone is considering leaving their faith, as some of us have found it quite distressing in the past.

Nevertheless, Di at the Chaplaincy has suggested that Tim take the slightly different role of humanist contact, which half-suits us at the moment because we don’t know how well used a humanist chaplain would be, and until we know we can’t really demand a chaplain, but at the same time we’re out of the loop just slightly on Chaplaincy issues. We’ll see if Tim gets much use as a humanist contact and try and raise his profile a little if possible.

The next thing on the agenda to consider is what we’re going to do during Fresher’s Week. Gordon Aikman, the current EUSA Vice President Societies and Activities, has given us until Monday to decide on what we’re going to do and give him some details. Suggestions today involved some kind of debate or discussion about what to do if your friend is a nutcase, something else which would involve going out and informing people about humanism (something similar to the prayer contest was mentioned, during which we tried to use scientific experimentation to find out which deity was best to pray for for divine intervention – IIRC it turned out to be Emmeline Pankhurst, the women’s rights campaigner who famously threw herself in front of a horse), and my own suggestion was a walk up Arthur’s Seat, not an awful lot to do with humanism except for an appreciation of nature, but it’s a good way to get people together.

So that’s what we’re up to at the moment.

Humanist Ethics

February 13, 2008

Last night, the Humanist Society held its Big Event of the Semester (BEotS), a panel discussion on Humanist Ethics in the 21st Century, with:

  • Roger Redondo, a neuroscientist and president of the Humanist Society
  • Sue England, a human rights lawyer and women’s rights expert
  • Patrick Harvie MSP, a humanist member of the Scottish Greens Parliamentary Party
  • June Maxwell, leader of the Humanist Academy, who stepped in at the eleventh hour to replace another speaker who fell ill

Each of the speakers made a 20 minute talk or so taking their own spin on the question, “why do we need evolving humanist ethics in the 21st Century?” Roger concentrated on how we know that morality is wired into each of our brains genetically. There is evidence of a sense of justice in chimpanzees, and the ‘Trolley Problems‘ show us that morals are to a large extent universal, regardless of social conditioning.

The other speakers spoke more about humanist ethics in action. Sue England’s talk was particularly interesting because she led with the statement that religious discrimination is nothing whatsoever like other types of discrimination, in that you can’t easily change your sex or your race or get rid of a disability, but you can very easily change your religion or get rid of it completely. She then went on to show how religious organisations are gaining ground and getting privileged consultation in the EU, exemption from taxation and widely in Europe in such places as Germany, the Church gets money directly from pay packets like a second “voluntary” income tax. She also claimed that the European Convention on Human Rights mentions nothing about religion, but the Human Rights Act 1998 had section 13 put into it by Blair, which means courts have to respect the rights of a person to freedom of thought and religion. I’ve since been and checked this out, and article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights does outline freedom of thought and religion, so I think she must have got her wires crossed there.

Patrick Harvie’s talk was also very interesting. He concentrated on his time as the shadow for the Communities Portfolio, during which he was lobbied by all kinds of religious groups, and how religious groups get privileged in all kinds of ways in politics as well as in law. It tied in quite well with what Sue was saying. He finished by saying emphatically that a fixed moral worldview can’t adapt to new ethical problems such as stem cell research, abortion and climate change. We can’t just look in the Bible and ask “what did Jesus say about nanotechnology?”

June Maxwell’s talk was understandably a little less well jointed, since she had no time to prepare it. She concentrated on education, and how an evolving humanist ethic taught in schools would encourage children to be more responsible, and to think more about their actions rather than just not doing something because they’ve been told to.

She also claimed that Abraham, Moses and even Jesus never existed, which was more than a little controversial with 2 of the members of the Edinburgh Creation Group who came along for the show, missing their own event which was happening at the same time. She justified this by saying that the pagan gods that were celebrated on the 25th of December bore startling resemblances with Jesus, citing Attis, Osiris, Dionysus and Mithras as examples. I’ve checked a few of these out and the theory doesn’t really stand up to scrutiny. Mithras was worshipped after Jesus died, so if anything he was a copy of Jesus, and I can only find very tenuous similarities between Jesus and Dionysus. Lots of people know the links between Osiris and Christianity, but since the legend of Osiris is so old (about 2400 BC), I think it’s more likely to have affected the Old Testament prophecies about the Messiah than the legends surrounding Jesus himself. I think it’s more likely that he did exist as a person, but that he was exaggerated and lied about by his followers in order to fulfil the OT prophecies. I’ve heard a theory on my local radio phone-in show that Jesus was a drug dealer (I am from Liverpool), but I’ll leave that for now.

There was also a lot of controversy during the Q&A session when someone raised the issue of faith schools. The question-asker said that she’d been to a faith secondary school and she was always taught to be open minded, and she was taught about other faiths as well. June then replied (very passionately, I might add, she was almost shouting by the time she finished) by taking the example of the story of Abraham, which teaches obedience, but says nothing about the right of his son to live. I don’t know when June was last in a faith school, but I spent 14 years in the faith school system and I only ever learned about that story when I read the Bible in my own time, it wasn’t taught as part of the curriculum. Generally speaking my school was very liberal, it taught evolution and everyone I know believed in it, and I came out with a good sense of morals and a good education. There were certain problems which I won’t go into, but it certainly wasn’t the brainwashing zombie-factory June seems to think they are.

This entry’s getting far too long and I’ve had nothing to eat yet today (in my Chinese oral exam this morning I apparently told the examiner that my dad’s a professional socialist, instead of a social worker), so I’ll wrap it up with a comment. I was a little disappointed. I was hoping this would be something I could point to in the future and say “look, humanism isn’t just about bashing religion”, but religion was a topic which came up far too much throughout the evening. Sue England’s talk was not much more than arguing against religious practices in Europe, and the only talk that didn’t have religion at its centre was Roger’s, who I’m pretty sure didn’t talk about it at all.

All in all though, it was a good event and I’m glad I went, even if it did mean I didn’t do enough revision for my Chinese exam.