Candles in the dark

The Beyond Belief Conferences are becoming an annual event – the third conference occurring at the beginning of this month. The are a great source of new and stimulating material related to belief, reason and the popularising of science. Organised by The Science Network videos from the conferences go on line quickly and receive a lot of attention.

Videos from this year’s conference Beyond Belief: Candles in the Dark are currently going up. (There may be difficulties due to numerous downloads). I normally download the lot, burn them to DVD and watch at my leisure. DVDs of the previous two conferences can be purchased on line.

This year the speakers were asked  to propose a Candle – a potential solution to a problem that they have identified in their area of expertise or informed passion. Presentations are groups in session with the titles Human Flourishing/Eudaimonics, Politics and the Brain, Morality & the Brain, Money & the Brain, and Law & the Brain. More details on the Speakers and conference agenda are at the web site.

The list of speakers and the agenda indicate a very stimulating conference. I am looking forward to viewing these videos.

Download videos from Beyond Belief: Candles in the Dark

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9 responses to “Candles in the dark

  1. I will make this post in perhaps a better thread than last time. A further recommendation from the “beyond belief – Enlightenment 2.0” series. This is the talk from Scott Atran. This is some of the stuff that I had heard of before, which I was referencing when commenting about the talk from Sam Harris in the Candles in the dark talk. This is what made me straight away have some discomfort about what Sam was saying in that he did not seem very grounded in the evidence in his examples of suicide bombing etc…


  2. So Nick, what did you think about Scott’s point that there was not a “shred” of empirical evidence that religious beliefs were the result of group selection or adaptation? Two key concepts in the field of evolutionary psychology for explaining religious belief. And his point that the so called “meme” was pretty much a fiction?


  3. @2 Pretty obviously not the same thing as you. I have had my fill of repetitive drivel from you. Go away.


  4. Right Nick, I guess it’s ok to come to scientific conclusions with out any empirical evidence.


  5. @ Nick:

    I also found Atran’s talks in 2007 and 2006 interesting, although I find his sometimes unprofessional criticism of others a bit disconcerting. I tried to get our local library to purchase his book – unfortunately they turned down my request because it is so expensive.

    Thinking about it, I have grappled with the question of religion’s role in the terrorist attacks in the US and Europe. In 2001 my initial reaction was to see it as a result of political history – the US reaping what it had sowed. Later I read Sam Harris’s book. I reacted negatively to what I saw as his anti-Islam agenda. (Conversely I found his comments on Eastern religion interesting and as a result did follow up his comments on Buddhist meditation and see value in this). So I have been receptive to Atran’s ideas.

    However, I have come to see Atran’s polemic,and also Harris’s concentration on religion), as one-sided. I accept that ideas come out of real historical, political and economic conditions (as Marx advocated). However, ideas do develop a life of their own. They in turn can be a prime cause which influence economic and political situations (again Marx did accept that – rejecting a simple deterministic approach). So I have come to see that we can’t just concentrate on one or the other aspect. We must accept all the evidence.

    There is no doubt that whatever the social conditions encouraging young men (and some women) to get into this sort of activity religion is certainly involved in some modern terrorism. The individuals involved do justify their personal actions (and provide themselves with the hope of martyrdom, a glorious life in paradise and the prospect of 72 virgins) using religion. I suspect that most of those involved with specific acts of Islamic violence in Europe and the US would not have done so if they didn’t have their faith.

    Of course this perspective doesn’t imply a simple solution (like banning religion). But it should inform any political decisions we make to remove or neutralise those factors encouraging terrorism. I think we do have to look at the naive multicultural, relativist, response some people have to the problem (which makes excuses for things like stoning and murdering adulterers and apostates or genital mutilation). I think we should insist on a society where religion/faith does not get a “go home free” card enabling it to make absurd claims without allowing their discussion and criticism.

    I think the current concern about attempts to ban criticism of religion and the activity at the UN over the defamation of religion resolution are very valid. I also think concern over the actions of the IOC and Saudi Arabia at the UN is valid. Similarly, we should not give in to the self censorship which is preventing book publication or criticisms of authors and cartoonists while remaining silent at the violent bloodthirsty demonstrators.

    On the other hand we have to criticise some of the comments made by people like Harris and Dawkins. I particularly criticise Dawkins’ use of Weinberg’s statement “With or without ideology you’d have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things it takes religion.” I have criticised this in Sources of evil? and suggest we substitute the word ideology for religion. Concentrating on only religion is dogmatic and prevents proper investigation of the real causes of evil.

    (I should add that Dawkins makes it clear in lots of his lectures and writings that he doesn’t limit his criticism to religion – I just wish he would ensure that he doesn’t continue to use Weinberg’s quote without a proper qualification).


  6. Andy Thompson gave an interesting talk titled “We Few, We Happy Few, We Band of Brothers” at the AAI 2007 conference in Washington, D.C (Andy Thomson on Suicide Terrorism Part 1 of 3; Andy Thomson on Suicide Terrorism Part 2 of 3 and
    Andy Thomson on Suicide Terrorism Part 3 of 3 (Q&A)

    He presents information on the evolutionary origins of terrorism. His talk is well worth watching.

    I think DVDs of these talks may also be available on


  7. Thanks Ken, that was an interesting watch.

    I must say, I find myself conflicted about one. Firstly I should state that I have quite probably a strong bias in my intuitions on this subject, primarily due to my lack of religious feeling, experience and understanding. Perhaps my instinct is to minimise the impact of religion because I don’t find it important.

    Having said the above, here are some of my thoughts on the subject.

    I think that religion does have a role to play in suicide bombing, perhaps as an enabler, but I worry that people get somewhat side tracked into the supporting ideas or ideologies (such as religions). To me, the evolutionary influences seem to be the key things. The instincts for coalitionary violence, the disenfranchisement, us & them, kin bonding psychology etc.. This seemed to be a very common thread between the message from Scot Atran and Andy Thomson.

    My thought is, that perhaps there is a “thinking persons” bias operating here, in that people search for an intellectual or ideological basis as having a central causative role for these acts, because they like to believe in people rationalising their actions and operating in accordance with an internal philosophy or worldview.

    This point touches on some of the other discussions over the last couple of months. My thought is that perhaps people are overstating the role of ideology and world view in peoples actions, and that these are often post facto “window dressing” when it comes to the actual perpetrators of the actions. I enjoyed the talk from Pat Churchland in the “beyond belief Enlightenment 2.0 conference” on this subject. Perhaps our vision of ourselves as fundamentally driven by reasoning (or even greatly capable of reasoning) is false?

    Obviously ideology motivates some people, and they in turn can effect other people. Twentieth century history alone provides a number of examples of this, but in the case of modern suicide bombings the connections between the people performing the different incidents seems very tenuous. This sort of decentralised movement would to me counter indicate ideology as the main causative factor. Are there historical examples of people acting in such a fashion without authoritarian and/or coercive sociological structures? In other words, what is the power of an idea without the social structures to communicate and enforce it.


  8. Hopefully this post doesn’t get lost amongst the flames of the other thread, but I have been working my way through more of the various presentations from the 3 beyond belief conferences, and wanted to revisit the Scott Atran vs Sam Harris issue.

    I have watched now some of the exchanges in the beyond belief 1 conference, and am feeling even more uneasy about Sam’s approach. My essential problem is not with the bit of his message about working on determining consequentialist objective moralities, rather when I get past the fact that he speaks very well about the subject, there does not seem to be any substance there. He speaks eloquently about trusting the scientific method, but does not appear to have engaged in much of looking at the evidence himself. He has stated that he has read the Koran many times, but then objects when Scott explains what his research and looking into the evidence of (for example) the backgrounds and lives of suicide bombers has led him to conclude. My intuition is telling me that Sam has arrived at a conclusion and is looking for supporting evidence in a very academic way by reading the relevant books (the bible, the koran etc..). Then he is stating this opinion as self evident to the scientific community (and thus not requiring research) and as self evident examples of objective morals should be taken up by that community.

    To summarise: Sam’s arguments, to me, do not seem to be illuminating the subjects at hand, but just much more sophisticated versions of the personal politics that play out on the world stage.

    In contrast, I have found Scott’s talks to be illuminating about the subjects at hand and to be consistent with my own knowledge of human behaviour. Of course, this could just demonstrate that I have a bias to consider Scott’s message more seriously than Sam’s. I have had this instinctual reaction, but I can also intellectualise this somewhat by knowing the Scott has actually done some research into the area in question a bit more involved than reading the Koran.

    Anyway, the main reason I am revisiting this, is to recommend an opinion piece written by Scott on the Huffington Post, which I will attempt to link to below. The reason I recommend it, is not that I necessarily agree with everything, or like everything that he states in his article, rather I found this to be illuminating on the topic. In particular, I found the idea of the distributed religious communities in America, in some way offsetting and ameliorating the consequences of individualistic free market capitalism (in particular, the rise of consumerism and the deemphasising of community by the ability to coexist without a community that a free market gives) very interesting.

    In other, hopefully clearer words, the market style capitalism practised and advocated in the states seems be de-cohesive and favouring to anti co-operative actions, which ultimately must weaken the society is balanced by the cohesive co-operative effects of religion.


  9. @8 I must offer a correction to the second to last paragraph above. The snippet should read as below:

    (in particular, the rise of consumerism and the destruction of community by the ability of the individual in a free market society to survive without a community. When everything can be purchased and has a price, does the individual need others?)


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