Tuesday, 27 February 2007

Its been a long time..

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I haven't posted for ten days, becuase I've been busy producing the next issue of New Humanist- which is out next Monday (March 5). Its going to be good– stuffed with dinosaurs, porn, politics, creationists, foreskins, fascists (I'm not making this up you know) and the Rational Response Squad....

There's lots going on in the world of the godless at the moment what with Hitchens' new book, of which more anon, further responses in the unfolding debate about mlticulturaliism at sign and sight and yesterday's peice in the Guardian about secualr fundamentalists - did ya see it? Since you've bothered to show up here I'll give you a sneaky peeky of the next issue in the shape of my editorial which responds directly to the Guardian piece which is here. [NB the page numbers refer to the magazine which doesn;t actualy exist yet...] More soon.

I respect your ignorance
Caspar Melville
Editorial from New Humanist March/April 2007

“Dogmatic”. “Evangelical”. “Fundamentalist”. It’s suddenly become fashionable to use adjectives like these to describe atheists and secularists. Equating us with religious fanatics seems to be the new stance of a particular breed of liberal intellectual who would like to imagine that they can stand above the fray and, wryly, adjudicate.

Typical of the new “reasonable” approach is a recent feature in the Guardian by Stuart Jeffries (G2, February 26) which claims that there is a vicious and uncompromising battle going on between two equally intolerant clans, “shrill camps shouting unedifyingly at each other”– the believers and the faithful. The core thesis is that rather than accepting the beliefs of others, secularists have become hysterical in their quest to “airbrush” religion from public debate.

The evidence for this claim is increasingly routine and shopworn. Jeffries quotes without challenge the preposterous assertion from Colin Slee, Dean of Southwark, that “atheists like Richard Dawkins are just as fundamentalist as the people setting off bombs on the tube.” Jeffries also criticises both Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens for their “aggressive” attitude to believers, which, he argues, demonstrates that science has become just another faith. His piece concludes with an endorsement of the much-touted idea of a public sphere composed of groups “respectful of each other’s most cherished beliefs”. Or none, though this tends to be hastily added as an afterthought.

Jeffries is quite right to point out that these days secularists seem exasperated. But who can blame us when the case against unaccountable and undemocratic religious privilege is so misrepresented by articles like his? Nowhere, for example, does he make the point that while both Dawkins and Hitchens are polemicists whose aim is to challenge, stimulate and infuriate they do also make strong and serious arguments which should be engaged at the level of logic and reason. Are they wrong? If they are, where are the counter-arguments beyond calling them names, or equating them with book-burners and murderers? When Laurie Taylor interviewed Richard Dawkins for our last issue (January/February, 2007) he pressed him on several points where he felt the argument was weak, as well as finding much to agree with. And it is just this kind of critical engagement with ideas that is such a vital part of being a freethinker.

Underlying so much recent commentary on secularism is the false notion that secularists and atheists are driven solely by a blind conviction that God doesn’t exist. They are, we are told, obsessed with belief. This issue of New Humanist provides plenty of counter evidence, both local and global.

Uncovering the scandal of the Government’s City Academy project, for example, Francis Beckett has found that these academies provide a cheap backdoor route for religious interests to regain the influence they once had on education. In some cases creationism is finding its way on to the curriculum. His research suggests just how much faith we should have in the neutrality of the present government when it comes to religious special interests.

Our cover story (page 12) deals with the attempt by Angela Merkel and Pope Benedict to redefine Europe as Christian. Secularists find this unsettling not because they hate God but because, as Donald Sassoon makes clear, the current secular settlement is a hard-won, recent phenomenon, and one we should not easily let go.

A criticism frequently made against “hardliners” like Dawkins is that they criticise religion from a position of ignorance. The same argument could not be made against the American secularists featured in this issue. Chris Hedges, who reports from the soon-to-open creationist museum in Kentucky on page 24, is a graduate of Harvard Divinity School and a Christian. It is precisely because of the thwarting of science and distortion of truth being done in the name of Christianity that he is so appalled by the growing power of politicised religion. For him, the crucial point is that American Evangelicalism has now made it an explicit goal to acquire political power.

A similar fear motivates the young web-savvy collective behind the Rational Response Squad interviewed on page 22. This group, all brought up in religious households, have had huge success in gathering members and responses to their “Blasphemy Challenge”. Rather like the vast sales of Dawkins’ book, the response suggests that there is a growing appetite for such views. It is worth remembering that America is a country without any national politician who will define themselves as non-religious; a country where, according to a recent survey, an atheist ranks below a member of every single religious group, as well as blacks and homosexuals, as someone who can be trusted to hold public office.

Finally, Laurie Taylor’s reflections on the “reality slips” (page 16) that occur even to the most rationalist of minds should be a refreshing rejoinder to all those curmudgeonly religious apologists who like to caricature us as drab and soulless, without any sense of the sacred.

The idea that a rich spiritual life relies on allegiance to a particular religious creed is another bit of common-currency ignorance we are only too happy to jettison.

Monday, 12 February 2007

Darwin Day Gift - Matt Ridley on Crick

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I'm not one of those who thinks that Darwin is necessarily incompatible with religion, or indeed that his theory is infallible. However when I got a call the other day from the American humanists who told me that in the US he is considered a 'controversial' figure, and when researching the soon-to-open Creationist museum in Kentucky (which Chris Hedges is writing about for our next issue) I find that they have an exhibit dedicated to Darwin's purported mental illness and the 'direct line' from Darwin to the Nazi and Soviet death camps... then I feel like bigging him up. If they want to make it a choice between Darwin and the Bible I’ll take Darwin every time. And so I offer you this, which is not about Darwin, but a précis of Matt Ridley's lecture on francis Crick (BNA dude) which will be delivered tonight in London on the occasion of Darwin Day. Respect to the monkey ancestors.

Vital signs
Matt Ridley unravels the humanist code of Francis Crick
From the Jan/Feb issue of New Humanist

Briefly, in the 1960s Francis Crick was as famous for his atheism as he was for his scientific achievements. The leading light of the Cambridge Humanists, he resigned from a fellowship of Churchill College in protest at the building of a new chapel, donated £100 for an essay competition on “What should be done with the college chapels?” and told Varsity magazine: “I do not respect Christian beliefs. I think they are ridiculous.” Some of this made the national newspapers.

It was not until 1968 that most of the world discovered just what else this opinionated don had achieved, when James Watson's book The Double Helix came out, with its extraordinary story of how the unappreciated middle-aged Crick and the brash prodigy Watson had snatched the very secret of life from under the noses of more diligent scientists in London by their discovery of the structure of DNA in 1953. The book's famous opening sentence was “I have never seen Francis Crick in a modest mood” and it included the story of Crick announcing to fellow drinkers in the Eagle on the last day of February 1953: “We've discovered the secret of life”.

But in the long view Francis Crick, who died in 2004 and whose biography I have just written, deserves his place in history for neither of these reasons. His role in the double helix story, though vital, was only auxiliary – it was Watson who made the running and the moment when arguments about atheism reached the national news soon passed. No, in my opinion Francis Crick was one of the great scientists not just of his time but of all time and this reputation rests on what he did after the double helix.

Consider what was known in 1950 about the nature of life, and then what was known 20 years later in 1970. In 1950 scientists knew that living creatures were made of organic polymers, of which proteins seemed the most varied, and that creatures had objects in them whose properties could be very specifically copied – genes. But how genes copied themselves and how proteins were made were two separate, baffling enigmas.

The first question was answered by the double helical structure of DNA – a structure so obviously designed to carry a linear code and copy itself that the conclusion virtually spoke for itself. It none the less took several years and numerous experiments before biochemists and geneticists were convinced, but to true believers like Crick there was never any doubt that they would be.

The second question was the one on which Crick's great reputation is based. It is all very well saying that a gene can copy itself. But what does it do? What's a gene's job? To make proteins, said Crick and set out to prove how. That code running down the DNA backbone must be a code spelling out the sequence of amino acids in a protein, written in three-letter words and translated at ribosomes by a mechanism involving an “adaptor”, a molecule that can both read in DNA-ish and write in protein-ish. Crick set all this out in 1957 in a paper of sublime deduction and proved some of it himself with experiments of surpassing ingenuity. By 1966 it was all proved correct and the code itself had been cracked and set out in a format devised by Crick himself.

Why do I say this was such a great scientific moment? Because it answered a really big question – what is life? – with a simple, beautiful and unexpected answer. Life is the use of linear digital codes to construct machinery that can cause eddies in the entropy stream. There is a universal genetic code, common to all living things, and what Crick called a central dogma (that nucleic acid sequences determine protein sequences, not vice versa).

And with that, all vitalism – the metaphysical notion that life is animated by some kind of extra physical “life force” – becomes unnecessary. Superstition had always hung about the subject of life like fog over a lake: life would surely prove to contain an enigma that could never be explained by physics, chemistry or even philosophy. Life was an essentially spiritual thing, not accessible to reductionism. Until 1950 that was at least a tenable idea. By 1970 it was utterly perverse to think in such a way. The mysterians fell back on the mysteries of consciousness, hotly pursued by Crick, who switched to neuroscience in the 1980s. Apart from the farther reaches of the organic farming movement, vitalism became essentially extinct. Indeed, Michael Crick, son of Francis, points out that the word is unrecognised in Microsoft's spellchecker – “Score one for Francis!”, he cried at his father’s memorial “service”.

So Crick’s great achievement was of a piece with his humanism. He set out deliberately to topple a citadel of spiritual thinking, claiming its hinterland for rational inquiry, and succeeded beyond his wildest dreams. His science both caused his atheism and was caused by it. “If some of the Bible is manifestly wrong,” he wrote in his memoirs, “Why should any of the rest of it be accepted automatically?” And “What would be more important than to find our true place in the universe by removing one of these unfortunate vestiges of early belief?”

Matt Ridley delivers the Darwin Day lecture Francis Crick the Darwin of the 20th Century? Today at the University of London

Friday, 9 February 2007

More on Enlightenment fundamentalism

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Following the Pascal Bruckner vs Buruma and Garton Ash dispute (see previous posts) J Carter Wood over at his blog Obscene Desserts is very reasoned and convincing on Bruckner's willful misreading of both and overall shrill tone... mean anyone who accuses Garton Ash (he of the cut glass accent, crossed legs and clipped Edward VIIth beard) of displaying too much machismo has got to be a bit twisted, no?

(thanks John)

Monday, 5 February 2007

Sam Harris and Andrew Sullivan duke it out on faith

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In what they are describing as a 'blogalogue' (urgh!) self described uncompromising critic of religion Sam Harris debates with gay Christian blogging Brit Andrew Sullivan here. I haven't read it yet, but will post again when I have - should be good?

Book Review - Ghost Hunters by Deborah Blum

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Michael Binyon, who works for the Times, writes frequent book reviews for us - he's really good on a wide range of topics. Here's one I particularly like from the current issue...

The Victorians were possessed by spirits. At a time when Darwin had shaken the foundations of religious belief and the notion of “progress” had spurred an unprecedented materialist boom, more and more people were fascinated by the supernatural – and especially the question of whether there was, after all, life after death. The hunt was on for scientific proof of those phenomena that seemed to be emanations from another world: ghosts, poltergeists, apparitions, telepathy, ouija boards and conversations through mediums with the dead.

Those seeking answers immediately ran into difficulties, however. For a start, serious scientists would hear none of it. Having themselves braved the wrath of the religious establishment for embracing Darwinism and admitting no concept that was not grounded in material proof, they were deeply hostile to any of their number who dabbled in the mystic or who proposed an investigation into spiritualism. Scientific journals in Britain and America shunned papers published on the subject. Those studying the workings of the mind – forerunners of psychologists – were denounced by all sides: by professional bodies which mocked their naiveté, and by those caught in the thrall of spiritualism, who were furious at the exposure of many psychic phenomena as tricks, frauds and the work of charlatans.

Many prominent figures were caught up in the controversy. Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, was famously intrigued. So too were Mark Twain, Arthur Balfour, the future Prime Minister, John Ruskin, Lewis Carroll, Leslie Stephen the father of Virginia Woolf, the sister of Rudyard Kipling and Marie Curie in France. The poet Robert Browning was also drawn in, but only to ridicule “Mr Sludge”, a caricature of Daniel Dunglas Home, one of the many famous frauds.

There were also many with distinguished academic reputations who were nevertheless fascinated. One of the most dogged was William James, the brother of the American writer Henry James. His fellow ghost-hunters included Darwin’s co-discoverer of the theory of evolution, a French physiologist who would win the Nobel prize for medicine, an Australian who became a founding member of the American Anthropological Society, a female mathematician who became principal of the first Cambridge college for women, a pioneer in British utilitarian philosophy and a trio of respected physicists. Even Michael Faraday, one of the most gifted of all 19th-century scientists, admitted in a letter to The Times that he had performed laboratory tests to investigate the medium’s “talking table”. He found nothing but superstition – the board moved, he said, during a séance owing to “mere mechanical pressure exerted inadvertently by the turner”.

Those sure there was more than mere superstition were constantly disappointed. Despite dozens of claims, painstakingly collected, of sceptics astonished by a medium’s uncanny ability to reveal details of distant relatives or to pass on messages from people hundreds of miles away who unexpectedly died minutes later, psychic researchers found it almost impossible to rule out trickery and coincidence. Some of the frauds were laughably blatant. One of the most famous was the notorious Madame Blavatsky, a Russian living in India who had founded the Theosophical Society in New York and attracted a wide following. Her psychic powers were found partly to depend on her getting hold of letters, by bribery or otherwise, steaming them open, reading them and resealing them. In her shrine, one researcher persuaded the servants to reveal that she had a set of double-sided drawers that opened into a chamber behind a gold facade that was her bedroom, where she read letters that they passed through. The Society for Psychical Research, which first convened in 1882, concluded that she was neither the mouthpiece of seers nor a vulgar adventuress but “one of the most accomplished and interesting imposters in history”.

Other mediums used hidden wires or collapsible rods to make things move. Some replaced blank slates during a séance with those pre-inscribed with a spirit message. Some darkened the lights so that they could produce fine muslin fabric concealed in their underwear to fake “full-form materialisation”. Each fraud brought ridicule on the weary researchers and eventually the American branch of the society was obliged to disband under the scorn of scientific opinion.
But William James had colleagues willing to carry on. The writer Henry Sidgwick, a respected classics don at Trinity, Cambridge, spent years tracking down spiritualist phenomena. So did his wife Nora, although she had a full-time job as principal of Newnham College. Frederick Myers and Edmund Gurney persisted through thick and thin, exhausting themselves and, in Gurney’s case, almost breaking up his family. There must be something there, they insisted. They recruited volunteers to compile a Census of Hallucinations. They sent in papers to the Metaphysical Society or lobbied international congresses. In vain.

They were sometimes ahead of their time. The church wanted nothing to do with spiritualism, which it saw as akin to devil-worship; the Darwinists believed any such research discredited the new rationalism which was attempting to establish its monopoly in science. But the researchers came up with terms and hypotheses such as telepathy or psychometry (the belief that a spiritual trace of an event could be left in a building or on an object) that do not provoke such ridicule nowadays. Modern psychology has discovered much about auto-suggestion, hypnosis, the subliminal and the subconscious that was unknown to the pre-Freudian world.

Deborah Blum’s account, in Ghost Hunters, of their dogged investigations, their failures and their occasional stupidity is wonderfully entertaining – full of anecdotes, snatches of correspondence, weird detail and moving accounts of the disappointments and personal tragedies that overtook many of them. What gives her book edge and authority is her helpful depiction of the mental atmosphere of Victorian England – and America: societies caught between belief and disbelief, shaken by change and unable to reconcile new ideas with old doctrine. The psychical researchers saw their goal as bridging research and religion, to show that they were not incompatible and that one could even help explain the other.

Blum does not come down on either side. She does not attempt to explain the one medium whom no one was able to fault – the American Leonora Piper, who allowed herself to be put through excruciating tests but still demonstrated inexplicable evidence of telepathy, premonitions and communication from the deceased. The ghost-hunters never established a creditable science, but they have left a corpus of work that still fascinates today’s more sceptical age. Who will ever know what might lie on the other side?

Friday, 2 February 2007

Buruma and Garton Ash answer back

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In a previous post I highlighted Pascal Bruckner's attack on Ian Buruma and Timothy Garton Ash - he called them 'armchair philosophers', suggested that they were multicultural racists and were mean to Ayaan Hirsi Ali. They have both now responded, Buruma here and Garton Ash here... and I have to say I think they win. Funniest bit, from TGA's response: "Incidentally, I wonder how much time Pascal Bruckner has spent in the unhappy outskirts of his own city? Or does he merely deduce what he calls "the superiority of the French model" from first principles? It may not work in practice, but it works in theory, so that's alright."

Tally ho!