Sunday, May 31, 2009

Rowan Williams on Dostoevsky - and Guardian contra Dawkins

Rowan Williams's Dostoevsky is superbly interesting - I will have to read much more of D. I've found Karamazov Part 2 so that will do to begin with.

He begins in the preface by remarking that the Dawkins brigade "suggest a view of religion which, if taken seriously, would also evacuate a number of other human systems of meaning" and the do not "attend to the general question of how systems of meaning, or 'world-views' work". He emphasises that D. "is concerned as a writer to show what belief and unbelief are like rather than either to conclude an argument or to take refuge in the unfathomables of subjectivity". D. apparently "regared, or said he regarded, Book 6 of Karamazov as the reply to Ivan's protests; but some have seen the real reply as Ch 9 of Book 11, 'The Devil, Ivan's Nightmare'".

Interestingly The Guardian seems to be turning against Dawkins & co - and insofar as this is a bellweather of progressive opinion it is an excellent thing. I note for example:
  • Mark Vernon talks about "a good day for God at Hay" focusing on Rowan's book and talk - there is also a link to a video.
  • Charlotte Allen denounces atheists (esp Dawkins & Hitchens) in a piece repbulished from the LA Times which has attracted masses of comments.
  • John Harris praises Desmond Tutu and invites "Dawkinsites and Hitchenistas, militant atheists and unrelenting secularists" to spend an hour and a bit with Tutu for "a sobering lesson in the fact that religion can be a thoroughly progressive force and a source of hope in otherwise desperate circumstances"

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Hay: conclusion

Finally, the wonderful Desmond Tutu addressed a capacity crowd in the largest pavilion (2,000 people?) through an interview conducted by the Director of Hay. Tutu was greeted with a standing ovation and was in wonderful form, cracking delightful jokes (“The Dali Lama, he is such a holy man, but with a real sense of mischief. Sometimes, when we are together, I say to him: now then, the cameras are rolling, try to behave in a way that is appropriate for a holy man”) He spoke of the amazing wall of prayer that had sustained him throughout the apartheid struggle (“someone was getting up at 2am in a Californian forest and praying for me – what chance did the apartheid regime have?”) and the way in which he Truth and Reconciliation Commission, although an interfaith group, began and ended with a retreat and stopped at noon every day for “an invocation of the transcendent”.

He was asked about Zimbabwe by the Director, and said that the best approach was to allow the Government of National Unity to function and hope that at the next election there would be a decisive result. He says that 20 years ago Mugabe was a very good guy and it is terrible how he has changed – Tutu thinks that the generals would not let him step down because then they would be for the high jump. There was a very moving appeal from a young lady from Zim in the audience for him to “use your undoubted influence” but with great compassion he reiterated his line. He also very much hopes that Zuma will take a more forceful line in this matter.

He was also asked by a young man about the Israel/Palestine situation. He spoke very movingly about his harrowing experience going on behalf of the UN to investigate the shelling of Beit Hanoun in Gaza – the testimony of a mother whose baby and husband were killed and whose son was fatally wounded. He quoted the German Ambassador who said to him that Germany had been responsible for two terrible injustices, the Holocaust and the Palestinian situation. He believes in a two-state solution but said it was utterly essential to make this work. If not, so many other problems such as terrorism and nuclear proliferation would never be solved. Visibly moved he left to another standing ovation.

Stayed that night with my cousin just outside Prestigne – we had drinks in their garden as the night darkened and all the stars became visible. The next day I had lunch with Frieda Hughes in her amazing home further up in Wales, which she has been doing up in extraordinary style. I met her pet owls (she has a substantial aviary) and also she showed me the extraordinary garden that she has created, an intricate maze-like design almost like an abstract painting. She has personally done the construction, mixing 60 tonnes of concrete, and it is quite remarkable. I do so wish I had had more time but I needed to dash back to get to the office in the evening. Another time...

Hay: God is Back

Our session was pretty well attended – the venue held 800 and it looked noticeably more than half full – and we tried to get though our talks as soon as possible to open up time for questions. I started by referring to The Twilight of Atheism and also gave a plug for God is Back. I offered the audience the chance to skip the air molecules demo but they wanted it. Still we had ½ an hour for Q&A. The one new question was “if St Paul were alive today, how would he write differently”. John thought, rightly, that he would have been impressed by and interested in evolution. I added that he would have sent lots of emails with plenty of ccs, and would certainly have had a website.

The next talk I attended was John Mickelthwait on God is Back which added further insights into the genesis of this excellent book. He emphasised how they had not come to this topic with a thesis, and were astonished to find how vibrant religion had become all over the world except for W Europe - and, as a questioner pointed out, Australia, NZ and Canada. He thinks the Christianisation of China, which will quite quickly become the world’s largest Christian country - later on also the world’s largest Muslim country – will have enormous political ramifications. Forcing house-churches to split when they reach 25 is a recipe for encouraging massive growth , and it is also striking how Christianity appeals to the upwardly mobile in China (as it does in the US and S Korea). However he is concerned that of the 4 plausible Armageddon scenarios (Israel/Palestine, Iran, India/Pakistan and S Korea) all but one has a religious dimension. I asked why Dawkins had such prominence given that he was so unrepresentative of science – and Mickelthwait thinks it is an aaargh – a kind of canary calling because faith is back. If events were going his way he would not need to write such angry books.

He also thinks that faith-based diplomacy is crucial – things really moved forward in Northern Ireland when Catholic and Protestant clergy appeared after each outrage united in condemnation and this really needs to happen between rabbi and imam in Palestine. He thinks disestablishment would help revitalise religion in England – though was unable to account for the fact that Wales, where the Church has long been dis-established, is the least religious part of the UK.

Hay: Living in a Polyphonic World

Back from an amazing couple of days at the Hay Festival.

I arrive on Wednesday night and had dinner with John – catching up and discussing a bit how we were going to do our talks – resolving to leave plenty of time for questions.

The first talk on Thursday was Rowan Williams in conversation about his book new book on Dostoyevsky. It was great to meet him in the Green Room and it is clear that he is a deeply spiritual, learned and nice man. He drew the interesting contrast between George Eliot, who was convinced that throwing over religion would lead to sound moral progress and enlightenment, with Dostoyevsky who understood how destructive such a move would be. It is fascinating how shallow atheists quote the famous lines of Ivan in The Brothers Karamazov without realising that Dostoyevsky is a profoundly Christian author (indeed from his journalism you would see him as a right-wing bigot) who nevertheless as a great creative novelist truly allows his characters to live.
As Williams says, “Ivan is given all the best reasons for not believing in God. He piles it up, with more and more force. Nothing makes it easy. But I have to take it on myself to make sense, because in the end there is love.”

Williams was asked about what the church would do if it took God seriously and he said that this was something that concerned him, rather more than “border-skirmishes with Dawkins”. He worries that there is too much talk in most Christian worship, and not enough silence. He discussed how Philip Pulman was very persuasive about the value of imagination but falls to pieces when he brings God into it – where on earth does he get the idea that the Church is against imagination. It really brings it home to me the way in which atheism is collapsing under its own contradictions.

The 5 shortlisted writers for the Michael Ramsey Prize were then interviewed by Madeline Bunting. Sebastian Moore’s theme was “desire is love trying to happen”. Richard Bauckham spoke well about his excellent Jesus and the Eyewitnesses. Richard Burridge was fascinating about how he had been able to pray with, and engage with, Dutch Reformed Christians in South Africa – even though they had got apartheid so badly wrong. He was asked how he could bear to pray with such people – but he said it was by recognising and abandoning his own prejudices. He said that one of the challenges was how do we live in a polyphonic world. It seems to me that this is in a sense the essence of Christian theology – making sense of a polyphonic world – and that as we are called up into the life of God we are called to find our voice in the divine polyphony.

John and I then went to the Michael Ramsey Prize Lunch where the guest of honour was Desmond Tutu. Simon Kingston, who runs SPCK, was “hosting” and when he invited “the archbishop to say grace” Tutu smilingly pointed out that if you were referring to “the archbishop” you should mean “my hirsute friend over there” – but he said grace anyway. John and I had to go a bit early so we didn’t hear the announcement of the winner (it was Bauckham). I of course wanted to go up to Tutu and shake him by the hand, but two ladies on our table and done so already, and John, who is more sensitive than I am to the trials of an elderly and lionised man accosted repeatedly by perfect strangers, rightly dissuaded me. A lasting regret.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Making sense of The Cherry Orchard, Life and Running

On Fri we went to The Cherry Orchard at the Old Vic. Despite excellent performances from actors we greatly admire - Simon Russell Beale (no relation) and Rebecca Hall - it was a curiously disappointing production. Hard to say exactly why. The pace seemed excessively slow, and perhaps the central problem was that you never really felt convinced by, and involved in, the central character Madame Ranevskaya - played Sinead Cusack. This comes down eventually to the direction, I suppose.

Making Sense of Life continues to be fascinating. She is very compelling about how the essential ambiguity of certain metaphors siezed on by biological theorists allowed them to advance some rather confused thinking under a scientific banner. For example "Genetic Program" and "Genetic Action" elide whether the Genes are the actors or the subjects. It still seems to me that the fundamental problem was that most biologists of that generation had very limited mathematical abilities. But she is also surely right to say that the introduction of imprecise metaphors that can have multiple meanings is essential to science. "Scientific research is tytpcally directed at the elucidation of entities and processes about which no clear understanding exists, and to proceed, scientists must find ways of talking about what they do not know" (p118).

Ran the Wokingham Half Marathon on Sunday - very hot but I stuck to my (undemanding) race plan and finished in the middle of my time target. Great to meet up with some nice memebers of my running club - whom I had never previously met. Ran with one most of the way and then serveral of us went to a country pub. There is a real cameraderie of distance runners which is distinctly cheering.


Friday, May 22, 2009

Neuroimaging and Rationality

A fascinating lecture last night at the Royal Society organised by the Institute of Philosophy by Ray Dolan about the Neuroscience of choices and decisions.

He summarised some of the evidence from combinations of behavioural studies and fMRI that humans don't make choices the way classical economists suppose they ought to. These studies also show that dopamine is implicated in learning and in altering the balance between short- and long-term reward: higher dopamine seems to make you learn faster but discount more rapidly. Another intriguing finding is that people can accomplish simple learning tasks pretty much as well when the stimuli from which they learn are displayed to them so rapidly that they are unaware of them[ref(?)].

He also offered evidence that people discount hyperbolically and not exponentially, that people value prospective losses more heavily than the equivalent prospective gain, and that framing effects (when irrelevant numbers such as the last 2 digits of your Social Security number are called to mind) can influence the amount people are willing to pay in an auction.

The question I asked in the discussion was whether he thought that human decision making was stochastic but subject to various interesting influences that he was elucidating, or did he think that in the end it would be found to be deterministic? I'm pleased to say that he thinks it is stochastic. Afterwards we discussed whether this showed that humans were irrational or that the models of 'rationality' that were used were too simplistic. For example it is perfectly rational to value "a bird in the hand" higher than one "in the bush" if in fact, whatever people say, there is some uncertainty about whether the prospective gain is all it seems. I alluded to Nowak's observations that "irrational" behaviour is often rational in the context of finite repeated games.

Also met Tim Crane who is moving to Cambridge to be a Prof of Philosophy there. He is an atheist but defends a non-reductionist view of the mind, and also thinks that Dawkins is misguided and does atheism no favours. He taught Juilan Baggini - and was taught by my contemporary at Trinity Jeremy Butterfield.

Another contemporary Ross Anderson has just been elected an FRS. I saw him a few days before the announcement and it was good to catch up. He has been a thorn in the side of those who claim that their computer systems are "perfectly secure" and the RS did well to elect him.

Making the House of Lords Democratic but with Independent Peers

Independent peers are vital and I'm glad Will Hutton supports them.

I have long advocated a system whereby the voting strength of each group of peers is proportional to the votes cast at the last General Election, with the Independents, collectively, having the voting strength of all those electors who abstained from voting. We have weighted voting of shareholders at an AGM and there is no reason why this could not happen in the House of Lords.

To see how this might work, suppose for simplicity there are only 3 parties, and at the G.E. 30% of the voters voted for Party A, 20% for B, 10% for C and 40% abstained. Suppose each Party had 50 Peers and there were 100 Independent Peers. Then you give a "weight" of 6 to each Peer from Party A, 4 to B, 2 to C and 4 to the Independents.

This would mean for example that suppose Party A wanted to get a measure through that was opposed by Parties B and C. Assuming all the Party peers voted en bloc and everyone votes, the measure would pass only if 51 of the Independent Peers supported it. However if all Party C Peers also supported the measure then only 26 Independents would have to vote for it.

At the last GE the % of the electorate who voted for the 3 major parties was 22%, 20% and 13%, with 39% not voting. Of the 727 Peers, 214 (29%) are Labour, 196 (27%) are Conservative, 72 (10%) are LibDem and 228 (32%) are Independent. If we weighted each Labour and Conservative Peer with 4 votes and each LibDem and Independent with 7 this would get the party representations exactly right.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

More Making Sense of Life

Making Sense of Life continues to be fascinating. I've just finished Part One in which she reviews some of the early attempts to apply mathematical models to development. She starts with the rather absurd (to our eyes) experiments of Leduc ( quoting Thomas Mann's wonderful remark in Dr Faustus: "I leave it to the reader's judgement whether this sort of thing is a matter for laughter or tears") and then d'Arcy Thompson's much-praised (but, she says, little-read) On Growth and Form. Then she tells the story of Rashevsky (so forgotten that I had to create his Wikipedia article) and of Alan Turing's contributions to this.

I think a fundamental problem has been the traditional innumeracy of biologists - and only recently has there been a steady break-in of mathematical ideas.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Eyewitnesses in Mark, and starting Making Sense of Life

Much fascinating substance in Jesus and the Eyewitnesses. He is making a convincing case for Peter as the main source of Mark, and also that Mark shows strong evidence, at least in the passion narrative, of being sensitive to conditions in pre-70 Jerusalem, concealing the identities of people who committed subversive acts like annointing Jesus or providing him with a mount for his Messianic Entry. He also explains the significance of Jesus turning to the other disciples and rebuking Peter in Mark 8:30-33 which puzzled me earlier this year: the others are complcit in Peter's "prudent" concern for Jesus' safety.

However I have started reading Evelyn's book Making Sense of Life as well, and I am enormously impressed. She speaks eloquently of her path from theoretical physics to mathematical biology to philosophy, and she is going to explore what counts as explanations in biology by reference to the standards of different epistemological cultures, pointing out how what counts as explanation varies a great deal. She says she is being normative and not prescriptive: "more as an attempt to raise than to resolve questions, more as an effort to stimulate new kinds of enquiry than to settle old scores." I'm sure I shall learn a great deal, and really look forward to seeing her when I'm next in Harvard.

PS The UK agent of our publisher says there has been a spike in sales of QoT and they have run out of stock in their warehouse. Not sure whether to be pleased about the spike or cross about poor planning. They should have more by the end of the week. The Hay organisers claim that they moved us to the Guardian Stage becasue of high ticket sales, and that we should expect about 300. We shall see. I think I will do the talk against neurodeteminism.

We are #6 in Science and Religion on Amazon.co.uk and would be #5 on Amazon.com were it not for the bizzaire misclassification that means we are not on that list.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Eyewitnesses and Hay

Jesus and the Eyewitnesses is very interesting. I'm 1/2 way through Ch 6. Bauckham reviews an exhaustive statistical analysis of the names of all known Palestinian Jews from 330BC to 200AD to demonstrate that a few names (Simon/Simeon, Joseph, Lazarus/Elazar, Judas, John & Jesus/Joshua) were extremely popular, and that people with popular names often had additional/alternative ones to disambiguate them. This resolves the puzzles about slight differences in the names of the 12. He also argues that the names of otherwise un-named characters are not later inserts because they appear to be drawn from Palestinian Jewish names and not from those popular in the diaspora.

He's also convincing about the way in which the evangelists "frame" their narratives between their principal witnesses. And interestingly refers to the work of Loveday Alexander who argues that the prologue to Luke is similar to the prologue of a medical treatise.

It's also great learning more about the background to this most fascinating of times, and some of the extraordinary characters that crop up. Would that there were more time. I also want to get on to Evelyn's book.

I expect I'll meet Bauckham at Hay on Wye - this book is up for the Michael Ramsey Prize which will be awarded the day I am there. It looks as if we have been moved to the Guardian Stage which is a bigger venue than the original café (seats 500 apparently!). I hope this is because of a massive demand for tickets, though I fear there is a more prosaic reason.

We have dropped off the Amazon.com "bestseller" lists in Science and Religion but this is not due to a massive decline in sales but to the fact that we are (for some odd reason) no longer classified as such. We would have been #13 yesterday.

PS: Nice little blogs on QoT here and here.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Cruelty and Freewill

A couple of interesting items in Science.

The first is a review of Cruelty: Human Evil and the Human Brain by Kathleen Taylor. This book is a first attempt to examine this pheonomenon from a neuroscientific perspective. The reviewer (Prashanth Ak) quotes Bertrand Russell who found himself "incapable of believing that all that is wrong with wanton cruelty is that I don't like it". He also notes that "philosophers have generally avoided the topic—as, surprisingly, have political theorists. In general, academic (especially American) discourse, which holds dear enlightenment notions of an inexorable march to perfection, has not focused on the darker recesses of the human condition, other than to treat them as (regrettable) anomalies."

Taylor seems an interesting person: she finished her DPhil in neuroscience but has become a science writer (check out her website) and I am intruiged by her little paper on the self and the soul. I don't think the idea of the soul as the "ideal or potential self" captures what we mean by soul - and why should there be a unique optimum? But I note her position that "neuroscience struggles with the idea of an immortal soul, unless death precedes some form of re-embodiment" which is in line with ours (and indeed traditional Christianity: the resurrection of the body).

There is also an interesting paper on "Movement Intention After Parietal Cortex Stimulation in Humans" (see commentary here) which identifies particular areas of the brain (in a v small sample - three- cancer patients being operated on) where electrical stimulation led to them reporting that they "felt a desire" to move their arms without actually doing so. Other regions of the brain might stimulate movement without desire. This of course is not at all problematic for our notions of freewill as an emergent property of the brain/mind.

Nor do I see why the evidence that the potential to move precedes the decision to move is a problem. If we are right about freewill it is precisely when the probability of action = 50% that it is excercised. This means that the potential is a logical precursor to the freedom. (I know of course that the "potential" being discussed is electrical rather than philosophical, but I don't think this matters to my point). However we really do need to get on with that grant application. I must catch up with Hava.



Also there is a paper by

Friday, May 15, 2009

Love, Cooperation and Eyewitnesses

A nice little review in Church Times concludes with: "The final appendix raises an intriguing thought: the realisation that a principle of co-operation (equals love at the human level?) has a fundamental part to play in the process of evolution. What a wonder­ful counterbalance to the tendency to see it all as a matter of selfish survival!" I wish I could claim that was my own, but it was Martin Nowak who put this forward as a basic principle of evolution.

Evelyn Fox Keller's Making Sense of Life has arrived and it looks very good although being written in 2001 it will not have much about evolution of cooperation: amazing how the field has developed in the last few years.

I'm enjoying Jesus and the Eyewitnesses which is very effectively challenging the lazy assumption that the Gospels were writing down oral tradition. He argues that they were writing down oral history - ie when reports come from named eyewitnesses in accordance with the prevailing standards of historiography at the time. I hope to blog more about this later, then get on to Evelyn's book.

For fun I am re-re-reading EM Delafield's wonderful The Provincial Lady Goes Further - and have found another cameo appearance of my grandmother at the Time and Tide party which EMD (for reasons that would completely mystify the contemporary reader who was unaware that, far from being the provincial simpleton who happens to write a best-seller, she was a highly respected novellist and a Director of Time and Tide) was co-hosting.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

A category mistake re syntheic biology

Went to final part of opening symposium for the EPSRC Centre for Synthetic Biology and Innovation at Imperial College. Sadly I had to miss the talks by Robert Winston, Evelyn Fox Keller and Pam Silver but caught the short talk by Howard Davis and the fascinating keynote speech by Jay Keasling.

Howard was irrepressible and jokey, noting that Gordon Brown thinks "science" and "research" mean the same thing so they are re-branding everything the LSE does as science. But public engagement and economic issues are very important in sythetic biology.

Jay described their program to synthesis Artemesic Acid (a vital anti-malarial) with E.Coli & yeast which was funded by the Gates Foundation. They have now licenced it to Sanofi on condition that Sanofi sell the drugs at cost as part of combination therapies for the 3rd world. The combination therapies are important becuase otherwise there will be Artemisin-resistant strains of malaria developnig and it is the last drug so that would be a disaster. No-one really knows how the drug works (for that matter no-one really knows how Quinine works).

At the reception talked to John Dupre who is a good philosopher of biology. I am concerned that there is a category mistake at the heart of much of the thinking on synthetic biology which is that an organism is some kind of machine. This of course depends on how you define a machine - I suggest that this is a Turing Machine and of course all real objects are only approximations to this. Also begin to formulate a principle which is that the more important a system becomes economically the more serious category mistakes become: eg the banking system which suffered from a mistake of thinking that an economic system was a physical system. Pam and Jay respond that anyone actually doing synthetic biology knows how cussed and un-machine-like organisms actually are: they are trying to make them more like machines. But I think this is an important distinction.

At dinner afterwards Pam very kindly asks if I can be on the speakers table so sit next to Jay and opposite Pam - also able to talk to Evelyn who I'm delighted to hear has been at Oxford with Denis Noble. Also met Prof Molly Stevens who seems very bright and young.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The pitfalls of criticism - and speech

A young lady doing Arcadia for English AS level had dinner with Tom Stoppard. She put to him some of the theories she and her teachers were discussing about the play, and he made it clear that these were points which he either hadn't considered at all or which were basically mistaken (eg he put the garden in, not for some deeply symbolic reason, but because he wanted a hermitage).

CS Lewis reported years ago (in Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism) that his experience of reviewers making statements about the origins and ideas behind his work was that they were 100% wrong. This made him very skeptical about the "assured results of modern criticism." He suggests that, if near-contemporaries can be so wrong, the chances of getting these right nearly 2000 years later are close to zero. And he adds that the men who knew the facts can't blow the gaff: "the Biblical critics, whatever reconstructions they devise, can never crudely be proved wrong. St Mark is dead. When they meet St Peter they will have more pressing matters to discuss."

On last chapter of God is Back. They discuss the competition between Islam and Christianity - pointing out that "in the long run, uneven playing fields weaken the home players" Massive subsidies and state control are not healthy for religions, and the fact that Islam is so marginalised intellectually ("more books are translated into Spanish every year than have been translated into Arabic in the past millenium") does significantly counterbalance the vast petro-subsidies without which its global influence would be much reduced.

I still remember as a student listening to Richard Nixon live on radio launching "Project Independence" to reduce the US's dependence on imported oil, in which he solemnly assured the world that he was working for a situation where the US was not dependent for its oil "on any foriegn enemy ....I mean... energy source," How a major diplomatic incident was avoided (remember that this was pre the Iranian revolution so all the major sources of imported US oil were "friendly" states in the Middle East) I never discovered? (it is referred to in OPEC: 25 years of Prices and Politics by Ian Skeet who says "this slip of the toungue did not go un-noticed" but I only have the google of the book so can't see the footnote)

Monday, May 11, 2009

Christianity in Korea

The accounts of Christianity in Korea in God is Back are very striking. They talk about David Cho's Yoido Full Gospel Church. This sits opposite the National Assembley in Seoul and has over 830,000 members, with 7 services on a Sunday that attract 12,000 into the main chapel and a further 20,000 in overflow chapels. The services are also beamed to hundreds of sattelite churches around the world, and to Prayer Mountain, "a grueling religious camp close to the border with the North" The church also has two office blocks with a total of 24 stories, and services are translated into English, Japanese, Chinese, Spanish, French, Indonesian, Malay and Arabic.

Asked in 2004 which faith had most spurred on their country's modernisatin, 43% of South Koreans named Protestantism and a futher 11% catholicism. 42% of the CEOs of listed companies are Protestants.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Post-secular society

In 1998 I posted a short note called Notes Towards a Post-Secular Society. So I was very pleased to read in God is Back that, following a wide-ranging debate with the future Pope Benedict in 2004, ("By common consent, the cardinal held his own: on the topical issue of whether religion shopuld be part of the European ideal...Benedict won.") Jurgen Habermas now talks about the emergence of post-secular societies.

Habermas' definition of a post-secular society seems to include "the potential for violence innate in religion" but he says "Today, public consciousness in Europe can be described in terms of a ‘post-secular society’ to the extent that at present it still has to “adjust itself to the continued existence of religious communities in an increasingly secularized environment.” My own earlier attempt was "post-secular society is one that has stopped pretending that spirituality is an epiphenomenon."

Other fascinating parts of God is Back include:
  • In 1992 only 3 med-schools in the US had programs examining the relationship between spirituality and health - by 2006 there were 141.
  • Attending religious services weekly, rather than not at all, has the same effect on reported happiness as moving from the bottom quartile to the top quartile of income distribution - and is a lot easier to do.
  • Accounts of Focus on the Family
  • The fact that Intel's CTO (who now runs a major business group for them) Patrick Gelsinger is a visible Christian who has written a book about balancing work and faith.
  • In 1984 there were only 4 centres for the study of religion in public life in the US, now there are over 200 think tanks and faculties devoted to the subject.
  • Stanley Fish predicted when Derrida died that the "next big thing" would be religion (p195)
  • It mentions the Veritas Forums as part of a significant trend of the re-engagement of evangelicals with academia in the US, and the Trinity Forum.

Saturday, May 09, 2009

Mock On Mock On

God is Back continues to provide fascinating insights. I'm a great fan of William Blake but until now I had missed his wonderful "Mock on, Mock on Voltaire, Rousseau"

"In the 1890s a priggish Harrrow schoolboy, GM Trevelyan, spoke for eductated opinion when he informed his teacher that 'Darwin refuted the Bible'" Nothing new in Dawkins, then. They remind us of the absurd faith in Science ("an object of unqualified veneration") Progress and Culture (the Nazis couldn't be evil, they liked Beethoven). Also the way in which dictators on the right and left attacked religion: a henchman of Plutarco Elias Calles had "the personal enemy of God" inscribed on his calling cards.

They are very good on how over-reach in the "culture wars" in the US, both by evangelicals and then the atheists, caused reactions, and they point out the very strong religious roots of both Bush and Obama, and remind people that Martin Luther King was not christened Martin Luther by accident!

Friday, May 08, 2009

God is Back

Reading God is Back with great interest. It begins in China, with a house church whose leader ("Wang") started it with 5-6 friends in Sept 2006 and which in mid 2008 had 3 branches with over 100 members. Wang believes that "America grew strong because it was Christian...If you want China to be a truly prosperous country, you must spread the word to nonbelievers. If you are a patriotic Chinese, you have to be Christian". As at 2008 a conservative guess at the number of Chinese Christians was 77M and it could be well over 100M. They also quote Zhao Xiao whose paper Market Economies With Churches and Market Economies Without Churches has been very influential (I have created a WikiPedia article on him).

They have a section called "The End of Atheism" which suggests that Dawkins & co's "secular fury" comes from exasperation that the idea that modernity will kill religion is an ancien canard.

I'll read a lot more, and meet the authors when in Hay.

Camilla Cavendish in The Times makes the excellent point that Children are safer with their natural families and that the main reason for child abuse is the discouragement of marriage.

Monday, May 04, 2009

Dawkins and Contempt

Andrew Brown in the Guardian draws attention to Dawkins bizzaire musings on how to treat religious believers. This is a comment on Jerry Coyne winging that the leadership of science in the US doesn't treat the his views and the views of "Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, A.C. Grayling" on science and theology with the same seriousness as those of "Francis Collins, John Haught, Kenneth Miller, Michael Ruse, Simon Conway Morris, John Polkinghorne, Joan Roughgarden."

Well Prof Coyne, first of all only you and Dawkins have any claim at all to be established scientists (OK Harris is a PhD student, big deal!) Dawkins would never have made Prof at Oxford if a rich admirer hadn't paid Oxford to make him a Professor. His contributions to science, for which he was elected an FRS as an attempt to broaden the fellowship, have been a number of well-written books (this was pre God Delusion) - fine but that's not really what cutting edge scientists do. So you are the only real scientist in the list, and sadly you haven't really made it as a scientist either. 3 papers in Nature and 2 in Science by age 60. Not a member of the NAS or anything like that. No really notable students.

Now admittedly Ruse and Haught are philosophers and not scientists, but the others have made major contributions to science and both Miller and Polkinghorne have had students who became Nobel Laureates.

Dawkins however muses that "we should probably abandon the irremediably religious precisely because that is what they are – irremediable. I am more interested in the fence-sitters who haven’t really considered the question very long or very carefully. And I think that they are likely to be swayed by a display of naked contempt. Nobody likes to be laughed at. Nobody wants to be the butt of contempt." He then goes on to boast about how his side is much better at contempt than the "faith-heads".

Not for the first time, one wonders at the extraordinary lack of insight that Dawkins displays. Winning people over to your cause by "a display of naked contempt" is hilariously misconcieved. Presumably even Dawkins doesn't imagine that "treating Tom with contempt" will make Tom more sympathetic. But he supposes that "treating Harry with contempt" will make Tom, who hasn't really decided between Dick and Harry, more likely to support Dick. This is the attitude of an arrogant bully, and might just "work" if the arrogant bully already had a position of unchallenged power. As a Christian apologist I suppose I should welcome such stupidity from the Militant Atheists. But as someone who wants to promote intelligent dialogue, I deplore it.

Dawkins is of course notorious for his lack of insight. But can anyone explain why he thinks treating people with contempt is likely to help win people over to his cause? It seems that all he is trying to do is to make his supporters more fanatical - a typical "fundamentalist tactic", usually associated with wanting to raise money.

PS on a much more uplifting note I have just seen an article about a former England footballer now training to be a pastor. Great!

PPS Someone called Carlo Strenger has an article in the Guardian pointing out how misguided Dawkins' approach is, in scientific terms.

Saturday, May 02, 2009

Physics 100 years ago - and Ken Miller

Found a book called Progress of Physics written by Arthur Schuster FRS in 1910 (given to my Grandfather in 1918) based on lectures he gave to the University of Calcutta in 1908. He speaks briefly of Einstein who "in a paper of great interest and power, has developed [the idea that we are only able to detect relative motion of matter], calling his imagined law 'the principle of relativity,'... It is impossible for me to discuss in detail the reasoning by which this principle is justified, and an account without explanations of its consequences would lay me open to the charge that I was playing with your credulity... strict adherers to the principle cannot admit the existence of the aether...they must further accept, as a consequence of their dogma, that identical clocks placed on two different bodies..."

He goes on: "In bringing the principle of relativity to your notice I have characterised it as one of the most startling developments of recent science, and you may ask why have I qualified the superlative; have I reserved some even more surprising fancy of the scientific imagination?" He then discusses Max Planck who "deduced [the black body radiation law] theoretically by assuming that ... as far as this type of energy is concerned, it behaves as if it were made up of a number of finite bits of equal value...the hypothesis has been formulated that all energy is made up of finite bits. That such a hypothesis should be advocated by men whose opinion deserves the most serious consideration, shows the restless turmoil which agitates the scientific thought of the present day. During the last century we felt sure that we were building our scientific edifice on a secure basis; to-day many have become suspicious of the soundness of the foundations"

He does say in his introduction that he made some modifications from 1908 - fascinating to see a great scientist on the cusp of such a bewildering time. I wonder what people in 2109 will think of similar lectures given in 2008?

Dinner with Ken Miller last night at the Royal Institution was delightful - I showed him the refurbished Ri and we played the Elements game. We were the only diners at the excellent Time and Space restaurant - more people should get there. While waiting for Ken at King's Cross (he had come down from St Andrew's University where he had given a packed lecture) I bumped into my old tutor Julian Hunt on the station - small world!

Friday, May 01, 2009

Terry Eagleton and Mike Bowron both shine

Mike Bowron, the Commissioner of the City of London Police, came to talk at our livery company at lunchtime yesterday. He also has national responsibility for Fraud within ACPO. A very good guy: strategic, deep thinker, wanting to get to the roots, but also practical, operational, down to earth - and runs marathons. I can't blog the details of what he said (Chatham House rules) but it's very encouraging to know that there are Chief Constables like that.

I'm enjoying Terry Eagleton's Reason, Faith and Revolution, and not just for the way in which he elegantly eviscerates the vapidity of Ditchkins (Dawkins/Hitchin) and Dennett ("like someone who thinks that a novel is a botched piece of sociology, and who therefore cannot see the point of it all... like saying thanks to the electric toaster we can forget about Chekhov" In my piece for Think on theodicy I want to emphasise what we say in QoT that Creator is not Designer - a better metaphor is a creative artist. Eagleton makes the point strongly: "God the Creator is not a celestial engineer at work on a superbly rational design that will impress his research grant body no end, but an artist, and an aesthete to boot, who made the world with no functional end in view but simply for the love and delight of it".

He also says things like "The difference between science and theology...is one over whether you see the world as a gift or not; and you cannot resolve this just by inspecting the thing, any more than you can deduce from examining a porcelain vase that it is a wedding present."

I'm sure I won't agree with a great deal of what he goes on to say (I have just finished Chapter 1) but it is fascinating stuff, and deserves to do well.