Category Archives: atheism

Should We Use the ‘C’ Word in a Science Class?

This week I was at the British Science Festival where I was interviewed by the BBC about the resignation of Prof Michael Reiss who was effectively forced out of his post as Education Director at the Royal Society. At the 2008 meeting last year, Prof Michael Reiss suggested that science teachers should be prepared to discuss creationist beliefs in the classroom if asked about them by pupils.

Many scientists think that it is simply unacceptable to use the “c” word in a science class. By even discussing creationism, teachers may be giving it an air of plausibility as an alternative to natural selection. I am not so sure. If anything, it may have been a missed opportunity to address the importance of discussing empirical evidence when evaluating what makes something scientific. This is especially important if the natural inclination in children is towards a creationist stance. Simply ignoring the issue doesn’t make the problem go away.

I would have thought that it must be better to see an argument demolished through reason and evidence than by testimony alone. Creationism is such an easy target that any science teacher could easily dismiss it. There again, people seem to have such a hard time accepting the truth of human evolution through natural selection, then maybe those class hours are better dedicated to fixing this problem. What do you think?

Here’s what I said. I am on 24 mins into the piece.

UPDATE: I spoke to Prof Reiss yesterday as we are on the same advisory panel for the @Bristol Science museum. He confirmed what I suspected, namely that his view has been totally distorted by the press. I thought he was very balanced and not evangelical in the slightest. We must be wary of witch-hunts.

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More Cuts at the BBC

Germaine Greer & some bloody apologist!

Germaine Greer & some bloody apologist!

The producers of BBC’s primetime programme “The One Show” were good enough to plug my book last night on the broadcast last night. They had only intended to caption me as “University of Bristol” but I complained that I had trailed all the way down to London at the last minute to record a couple of minutes with Germaine Greer, who was not in the best of moods.

I arrived at 3.30 and met Germaine Greer and the crew having a late lunch in a Greek restaurant near Paddington. Then it was off to Little Venice to shoot a segment by the river. I had suggested that we film in Highgate Cemetery but apparently the budget didn’t stretch that far. Anyway I got into a very large chauffer-driven Mercedes and headed off with Germaine in the front and me in the back. Germaine told me all about her Australian rainforest and the problems with botanists – “They’re so bloody egotistical they name everything after themselves!”

At some point we lost the rest of the crew and the driver left us to try and find them. I suggested to Germaine that we could always run off with the car if he failed to come back. “It’s my bloody lease car” was her steely reply. The rest of the crew finally turned up and Germaine was given the questions that she was to ask me. It was quite clear that they wanted me to say that there is a gene to believe in god.

We started filming and every time I opened my mouth to speak there was some distraction off camera nearby – the old woman on the park bench who huffed when I spoke, the little boy rattling the railings with a stick, the numerous people walking into shot and staring at us and best of all, a bloke probably emptying the latrine of his canal boat.

Anyway, most of what I said was cut and here is what was left in with convenient cuts at critical points.

Serious Germaine

Serious Germaine

Germaine: We come into this world preprogrammed to breathe, to look around us, to feed, but the idea that we might also be preprogrammed to believe in God – well that rather beggars belief.

Pensive Bruce

Pensive Bruce

Bruce: I would say that our brains are programmed to try and understand what causes things to happen in the world and coming up with a supreme being seems to be the most sensible and easy solution [cut]…. that many people make and it is one of the reasons religions have been so successful. [cut]

At times of crisis we seek answers and of course, religion provides many of those answers and people find and take a lot of comfort in that.

[cut]

Germaine: Does religion have a social function?

Bruce: Well its been around for a very long time, as far back as we can trace there is evidence of religion so something about it seems to be very persistent. [cut] I think it is because religion builds upon these natural ways of interpreting the world that supernatural belief is so prevalent.

The next section was completely cut

Germaine: Is there a God gene?

Bruce: That question doesn’t make any sense. Religions are culturally constructed and transmit by story-telling. Genes do build brains and I think that our brains are predisposed to believing in the supernatural but that’s like saying there is a gene for Shakespeare because there are genes for acquiring language.

The rest of the piece had others responding to the proposition that we are programmed to believe in God including philosopher AC Grayling and Michael Reiss, the former Director of Education for the Royal Society who was forced to resign. I am not going to comment on their remarks as I guess they were also heavily edited but I know that AC Grayling and I do not disagree about where the content of religious beliefs come from – that must be from what others tell us. But as I have been at pains to point out in the book – all religions are supernatural beliefs but not all supernatural beliefs are religious. And some supernatural beliefs are entirely personal such as superstitious rituals.

So it was cut here, cut there and generally cut to make a simple nature versus nurture argument that every science student is taught is a completely nonsensical way to understand biological development. Is it the case that people cannot understand the complexity of the issues or is it more the case that they are less newsworthy?

Anyway, the cuts I take most exception to are those imposed on the BBC. They made me travel 2nd class off-peak so I had a good two-hour wait at Paddington before I could board a train home with a valid ticket. They wouldn’t do that to Jonathan Ross.

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I never said…..Update

Well, what did I expect? A fair representation in the press and a balanced view from commentators? Come off it. Whenever, religion comes up, people lose all sense of reason and impartiality.  This is why I wanted to construct a theory that addresses secular supernatural beliefs to avoid the problems of focusing just on religion. However, bloggers and commentators have completely misunderstood my position and the ideas I am proposing about the origins and prevalence of supernatural beliefs because of the recent press articles.

A couple of things. First, most of the articles in the press are based on the original article in The Sunday Times by Jonathan Leake and Andrew Sniderman. Jonathan did have the courtesy to phone me on Friday afternoon to talk about the piece. He had not read the book but had a copy of SuperSense sent to him. I thought I made my position relatively clear as we discussed the evidence and studies that indicate that we are born with brains to seek out patterns and infer hidden mechanisms, forces and entities. That does not make me either religious or a religious apologist. For example, if there is a gene for psychopathic killers that does not make it morally acceptable.

I talked about the early emergence of mind body dualism and how it relates to the notion of an after-life and my particular research interest, psychological essentialism. I said that I thought many supernatural beliefs had a natural origin in the way children reason about the world and that while story-telling was one way of transmitting beliefs, in many instances cultural stories reflected notions that were intuitively plausible to children. In fact, I categorically said that religions were cultural constructs as Richard Dawkins had proposed. Where I differ from Dawkins (and again this is very clear in the book) is the likelihood of removing supernatural beliefs through education but this is an empirical question that is not yet resolved. I also think that we need to understand individuals differences. Belief formation is not simply hard-wired or indoctrination.  To use Ben Goldacre’s dictum, “I think you’ll find it more complicated than that”

Jonathan thanked me and said that he would run the piece past me on Saturday for my approval. He didn’t.

As Saturday night passed, I thought that they had probably decided to drop the piece as it did not fit with the simple “Born to Believe in God” angle that he wanted to push when we initially spoke.  So imagine my horror to read the title of the piece in the Sunday Times. In fact, when you read the actual piece it does have me saying that beliefs are much more complex than either nature of nurture (to use that completely unsatisfactory dichotomy that is the mark of naive reasoning so favoured by journalists). And there were factual errors. I have not done a study on atheism and moral contamination beliefs about hypothetical organ transplantation though I daresay that all people irrespective of their religious persuasion would show the same effects that we found in groups of students. Still it was printed as a study on atheism.

The problem was compounded the following day with pieces in “The Daily Mail” and “The Daily Telegraph” regurgitating new versions of the story with added insertions. And so on…. like Chinese whispers the story has become distorted with individuals adding their own interpretations and agendas.

So before you start putting words in my mouth, judging me or the ideas I am putting forward, then please read the book. I think that it is relatively clear what I am saying.

UPDATE: Tim Lambert just posted a criticism of Jonathan Leake but I have to say that Jonathan was very quick to respond to my initial complaint back when this was first posted and an updated article was posted online. So I have no complaint (esp as I understand that it was probably the sub-editor who came up with the headline!)

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US Atheist Buses Stirs Up Controversy

 

Controversial Ad Pulled then Reinstated

Controversial Ad Pulled then Reinstated

Yesterday, I learned that a dispute has broken out in Des Moines, Iowa –  home town of anglophile Bill Bryson.  Iowa atheists paid for the above bus ad compaign that was initially pulled and then reinstated by the Des Moines Area Regional Transit Authority (DART) officials on Friday. The excuse was that they had never allowed the word “God” in any advertisement for a church. After meeting with representatives from the Iowa Atheists and Freethinkers group on Friday afternoon, DART officials decided to reinstate the adverts. However, DART will also be updating advertising policies to clearly communicate its position to uphold both civil liberties and the protection of citizens from that which is obscene or profane.

Methinks that DART are going to shift the goalposts on this one as they found that commuters did not want to ride on buses displaying the ad. “Drivers said people weren’t getting on buses or getting off the buses because of it,” said advertising director Kirstin Baer-Harding. “So with all the calls, it wasn’t something we wanted.”

Was the atheist campaign offensive? What do you think?

UPDATE: Just learned that a driver has been suspended for refusing to drive one of the buses. As one of her bosses points out it would be like a government employee claiming a religious right to refuse to work with someone of a different faith. “When you work for the government, part of your job is to respect the rights of your fellow citizens, and you cannot use your religious beliefs to evade that responsibility,” he said.

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It’s P***ing Down at Camp Quest

 

British Summer Time (Again!)

British Summer Time (Again!)

Maybe there is a God and (s)he(it) has not taken kindly to Camp Quest, UK because it is absolutely chucking it down, cats and dogs, in Bruton, Somerset at the moment. What was it the Met Office predicted back in April? – Oh yes  I remember “a barbeque summer.”

Anyway, my littlest (we call Ez) is there and I am afraid when I pick her up on Friday that she will have trench foot. Still she seemed to be having a lot of fun yesterday as we watched her on the National BBC News when they ran an item on every news slot.

Camp Quest raised a few eyebrows yesterday and got the rumour-mongering going. I swear to the GSM in the sky, that they introduced it as Richard Dawkin’s athiest camp where children are taught to hate religion and sit around the campfire singing John Lennon’s “Imagine.” Purleease!

First, Dawkins has nothing to do with it personally. It was set up by a couple of grad students following the model of Camp  Quest in the US. They got a one-off (small) check from the Richard Dawkins Foundation. It is a humanist camp that teaches critical thinking and if that just so happens to be an approach that challenges religion so be it. And the bit about singing imagine was a typical Daily Mail snipe in an earlier article that has been taken as gospel by the BBC producers. It’s true. Journalists are lazy and can’t be bothered to check sources or facts.

Anyway, Little Ez and I appeared on the same edition of the local BBC new programme “Points West” last night which was weird. She was there again pushing another child through a giant cats craddle on the videotape shot at the camp and me in the sunny gardens behind BBC Bristol, interviewed later on as an “expert” (Ha!) on developmental psychology (I never told them that my youngest was at the camp). I said that if Camp Quest is teaching critical thinking to young children then bully for them, because the students we get coming through the doors to University haven’t been taught these skills at school.

Oh, by the way, it wasn’t my idea to send Little Ez to Camp Quest…. she found out about it and pestered me to go.I just hope she doesn’t dissolve by Friday.

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Church Condemns Reiki & New Age Movement

I am sitting in my hotel room in Denver at 4am in the morning awaiting to make several appearances on Colorado TV and radio. This gives me an opportunity to bring to your attention several articles I discovered on my cross-atlantic journey that I think you should know about. The first was a short piece in yesterday’s “Guardian” entitled, “Catholic bishops in US ban Japanese reiki.” Guidelines issued by the US Catholic Church warn of the dangers of reiki, the Japanese New Age therapy that seeks to improve health through channeling energy. Reiki translates as ‘universal life energy’ and as many of you know is gaining popularity in today’s New Age culture. The church dismiss it because it “lacks scientific credibility” and could expose patients to “malevolent forces.” Talk about the kettle calling the pot black. One Christian reiki expert said that the church has misunderstood the channeling of energy to mean spirits. It’s all the SuperSense at work to me.  I looked into this further and found a really interesting Pontifical report on the New Age movement that made me realize that the church is worried about the switch in spiritual allegiance that appears to be taking place in Western culture. Far from assuming that Christians can entertain a variety of belief systems, the Vatican is concerned at the prospect of the erosion of Christianity by New Age beliefs and practices.

Here’s something I did not know ( and a good reason to keep reading rather than ignoring beliefs if you are a skeptic like me). Do you know why it is called the “New Age?” This is because the two thousand years period after Christ is known as the age of Aries by astrologers and as it draws to a close, we have the new Age of Aquarius. I remember the hippie song about “this is the dawning of the new age of Aquarius,” but I did not understand the reference. So the church has a good historical reason to fear the times are a changing. Ironically, that fear is based on astrology, another belief system the Vatican tried to condemn. I think that the current tension that many of us see between the religious and the atheist is misplaced. I think the real turf wars are going to take place within the spiritual realm as each group struggles to fight for or retain popularity. Again how ironic that natural selection will probably shape the face of the spiritual landscape of the future. In my opinion, one thing is for certain. That landscape will always have the SuperSense as I think it is the natural disposition of humans to believe in the unbelievable.

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A Master’s Degree In….. Creationism

noahs_ark_photo6Well, those of us in higher science education have long known that standards have been slipping for some time but this latest move from the creationists takes this beyond belief. Actually beyond belief and well into faith.

Texas State Representative Leo Berman has proposed House Bill 2800, which would exempt any private non-profit institution that requires students to complete “substantive course work” from having to acquire a certificate of authority from the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board (THECB). 

What does that mean? Well that any institution can offer higher degrees. Apparently he has the Institute of Creation Research Graduate School in mind who have been trying to get certification in Texas for two years. These are the so-called “Young Earth” creationists who take the Old Testament literally and believe the Earth is no older than 10,000 years. These are the über creationists not to be confused by the intelligent design bunch.

When Michael Shermer and I visited Anthony Bush as his Noah’s Ark Zoo, Anthony was quick to dismiss these Young Earth creationists as “American loonies.” Which was kinda of cute coming from someone who had dedicated his life to teaching intelligent design. And once these young earthers get their MSc degree, it will become increasingly harder to distinguish the scientists from the believers.

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Nursing a Guilt Complex.

nurseThe last post on the bus slogan has generated the most comments to date for any of my blogs. So clearly there is still a passion for arguing about whether promoting religion should be tolerated in our society. As this story is so close to home, (I live in North Somerset) I thought I would canvass your opinion on the Christian nurse who has been suspended for offering to pray for her patients.

Having some links with the NHS, I am all too aware that many junior doctors and nurses engage in life styles that engender the mantra, “Work hard & play hard.” I could tell you some stories that would shock you. Of course, not all medical care workers are like this but given the choice between your regular NHS nurse and one that has chosen a Christian lifestyle which normally eschews the worst excesses of personal pleasures, I honestly believe I may feel more comfortable with the bible-basher.

That said, looking into this particular case more thoroughly, I was a bit alarmed to see that Nurse Petrie had taken to handing out cards which read, “I am sorry for what I have done wrong in my life and I ask for forgiveness. Thank you for Dying on the Cross for me to set me free from my sins. Please come into my life and fill me with your Holy Spirit and be with me forever. Thank you Lord Jesus. Amen.” That’s a guilt trip that seems a bit much for those who may be already terrified at the prospect of death.

I am happy for people to pray for me, adore me, worship me or any other form of positive adulation. But don’t make me feel guilty for your belief systems.

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Just Stop It With the Bus Signs!!!!

That’s it. I have had enough! Get out of my face ! Leave us sensible people alone!

Following the atheist bus slogans campaign last month, we now hear that there is going to be a theist counter-campaign by the Trinitarian Bible Society,  the Christian Party and the Russian Orthodox Church!!! It’s time to step in and ban the lot of them. It really has become a name-calling exercise.

You can’t persuade people to change beliefs with slogans! I think this has all gone far enough. It almost makes you welcome a  return to sexist, moronic advertising.

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This is Just Getting Silly….

atheistbus460Now, a UK Christian bus driver has refused to drive one of the buses bearing the atheist slogan.

He said, “This is a public attack on people’s faiths. I have a lot of passengers who are over 90 or are seriously ill, and to tell them there is no God seems a bit insensitive, when God is probably all they have left in the world. Faith is a very important thing in people’s lives, and I think [the poster] pushes the issue too far.”

You know what? Even as an atheist , I agree with him.

But let’s get rid of all this advertising from both sides.

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