Category Archives: superstition

A fight-back – or simply spite?

I urge you to read Brain Rudman’s article Blessings erode our secular bedrock – if you haven’t already. It’s been a while since I have found myself agreeing so much with a NZ Herald column.

Brian leads with the point that the current “proliferation of religious ceremonies in civic life is at odds with our democracy.”

He feels that the odd and anachronistic ceremony of “the religious blessing, New Zealand style, has burst from obscurity into public life, as Christianity disappears rapidly in the other direction. These days it doesn’t need a sneeze to attract a blessing. It’s as though there’s a decree from the Beehive that says you can’t open anything public without a ceremonial blessing.”

Less than half population

It is certainly strange. We didn’t have these blessings in my youth when Christianity enjoyed a very dominant position. Now they are everywhere, at a time when religious influence is declining and Christianity was nominally the religion of only 49.5% of the population in the 2006 Census (see Is New Zealand a Christian nation?).

Is this a result of a misguided belief that somehow exposure of the godless public to what Rudman describes as a “throwback to the Middle Ages” will reverse the decline? Is it a conscious attempt to return religion to its once dominant position in our society?

Or is it a spiteful response to its declining influence. A wish to impose on others ceremonies they claim are “sacred?” To make the godless public endure their “sacredness” whether they like it or not?

Sneaky use of “Maori voice”

I am pleased that Rudman raises the way that New Zealand Christianity manipulates multiculturalism and natural ethnic respect in their campaigns:

“God’s intrusion into our civic affairs has been quite sneaky. He/she has slipped in using a Maori voice, taking advantage of the increasing use of tangata whenua as providers of the ceremonial at public occasions.

This infusion of Christianity into public ceremonial has occurred by osmosis, really, drifting into our lives without debate, surviving because liberal politicians, who you might expect to raise objections, stay quiet, fearful of being labelled anti-Maori.”

It’s hard enough to protest when a non-consensual blessing, prayer or other religious ceremony is imposed – but infinitely harder when the objector is labelled a racist.

Rudman continues:

“But is it anti-Maori to fight to preserve the secular bedrock of our democracy? We don’t have a written constitution but our traditional practice has been to keep religion out of public life. The origins of that was an endeavour to stop bickering Christian denominations continuing the conflicts still festering in their European homelands.

In 21st-century New Zealand, the reasons for keeping the state and religion apart are very different.”

And these reasons relate to democracy and human rights:

“It’s not just that non-believers outnumber each of the Big Three Christian denominations – Anglican, Catholics, Presbyterians – by more than two to one; it’s only a matter of time before “non-belief” overtakes Christianity as a whole. Then there are other major world religions, now gaining a larger public face thanks to recent immigration.

This makes the belated invasion of Christianity into our public life rather perplexing. It wasn’t deemed acceptable when it was the main religion in town. It’s surely even less appropriate now that it’s fading away.”

Political risk of turning “blind eye”

Some people might argue that Rudman’s criticism is unwarranted. That New Zealanders are happy with the current situation. But these naysayers are ignoring the reality. Many people, believers and non-believers, do find non-consensual imposition of religious ceremony offensive. Even Christians can feel embarrassed by this unwarranted intrusion on others which violate human rights and religious freedoms.

And there are ongoing objections to the privileged involvement of Christianity in state occasions. The Christian prayer at the start of parliamentary business (and often in local bodies). And the blatant dominance of Christian personalities and prayers in state ceremonies and functions.

Our politicians have tended to acquiesce in Christian privilege – often because they are aware of the way the Christian conservative groups can mobilise against any changes they oppose.

But as Rudman concludes: “given the numbers, it’s something politicians preside over at their own political risk.”

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Evolution and education – advice for teachers

Creationists have far less influence in New Zealand than they do in the US. Still, quite a large proportion of Christians here do not accept evolutionary science. So, I imagine, their wish to undermine the teaching of evolutionary science sometimes becomes an issue, for some teachers.

Here’s a couple of videos prepared by the US National Center for Science Education (NCSE) which does a great job in the US. They are of a talk given by NCSE programs and policy director Steve Newton to an audience of high school teachers from across the US.

Steve covers questions like:

  • What challenges do biology teachers face from creationists?
  • How do you respond to students asking the “10 questions”?
  • What are the different flavors of creationist belief?
  • And other issues.

Teaching evolution in a climate of science denial, Part 1.

Part 2: Teaching evolution in a climate of science denial, Part 2.

See also: NCSE YouTube Channel

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Religious theology of secularism

There has been a debate among local bloggers about the nature of secularism and the problem of religious privilege in a secular society. These sort of “god debates” generally produce more heat than light. However, it is worth actually considering elements of some the arguments being used. And how meanings have been manipulated to achieve a desired result.

I have listed a few of the arguments here.

What does “secular” mean?

I discussed this in Secular democracy and its critics. Here I favoured the meaning that is “Not at all opposed to religion, or denying a religious participation. It just describes procedures which cannot be appropriately treated as “sacred” (whatever that means).”

This certainly describes the secular arrangements we have in New Zealand – although Professor Paul Morris (Director of The Religious Studies Programme at Victoria University of Wellington), for example, acknowledges that our society is not completely secular in that it does tend to favour one religion – Christianity.

But even this simple definition gets distorted in ideologically motivated debates. Take how Madeleine Flannagan at MandM treats the document The Tolerant Secular State,”* prepared by the NZ Association of Humanists and Rationalists (NZARH), (see The New Zealand Association of Rationalist Humanists and the Privileging of Secularism). She takes the first sentence: “The NZARH strongly believes that government should be secular; that is dealing with the issues of this world rather than following a religious agenda” – then manipulates it!

She says:

“They start by defining secular in the first of these senses, in terms of “dealing with the issues of this world.” The switch to the second definition occurs immediately in the claim that a secular state must not follow a “religious agenda.” From what the NZARH subsequently argues it is clear that this second sense is what it really has in mind as much of what it says simply does not follow from the first sense.” (My bold).

See what she does? Takes a perfectly standard and proper definition of “secular” and converts the inclusive concept  that people of all religions and beliefs can come together to deal with the issues of the real world (not possible if the state has a religious or anti-religious agenda). Now comes the switch – she converts a simple inclusive approach to an exclusive anti-religion one.

She, not NZAHR, is doing the switching.

Her introduced words in bold, “must not follow,” creates an atmosphere of compulsion, of privileging a non-religious approach. A common trick of dishonest advertisers and politicians.

So now she can say “the second sense is what it [NZAHR] really has in mind as much of what it says simply does not follow from the first sense.” NZAHR’s second sentence: “Our law should not give one set of beliefs privilege over another and the state should treat religious organisations the same as any other organisation” then becomes sinister – according to her. Rather than describing an inclusive, democratic arrangement she claims it describes a “privileging of secularism” – and by that she means privileging anti-religion!

Secularism a “viewpoint” fallacy?

Here comes another switch in the meaning of “secularism:”

“So let us get this straight. Secularism is a type of viewpoint that 1) the NZARH seeks to privilege over religion.” (Again my bold).

She wishes to replace the meaning of “secularism” as an inclusive, over-all arrangement neutral to religion and anti-religion by a meaning which it implies it is actually a non-representative ideology!

It’s like saying democracy is  simply a political ideology – advocates of democracy seek to privilege their viewpoint over the ACT Party! (whereas, of course, our democratic political arrangements allow the ACT Party to work alongside all other parties. It’s just that our democracy does not have an ACT, National, Labour, or any other political party agenda).

Actually, Madeleine almost concedes her point – which illustrates she knows what she is doing:

“Of course, if one assumes from the outset that secularism is not a specific view and is somehow some kind of neutral position that everyone can subscribe to then the statements read together might make sense but that is an erroneous assumption.”

So she labels any correct reading of the statement “erroneous.”

These little switching tricks have a purpose. She wishes to protect religious privilege – things like tax exemption for supernatural beliefs (see Avoiding tax – supernaturally). She sees this privilege threatened by secular democracy. Therefore she, quite naturally, wishes to discredit secularism. This switching of meaning also helps to divert attention away from the real inequalities – those areas of society where religion, and especially Christianity, maintains a privilege over other beliefs (in conflict with our human rights legislation).

Some ridiculous results

Madeleine disagrees with my description of accountancy as a secular activity (see Secular democracy and its critics).

“It is not secular. When a Christian does accounts he invokes God in the sense that his math is correct and his tallying of the books is honest. We do not turn God off and on when we do these things. You do not understand Christianity if you think this. I know Christians who pray through such activities and praise God when the numbers add up.”

” Therefore, by adopting a secular stance the State is taking a viewpoint that excludes Christianity (and other religions that hold to a similar stance).”

Yes it’s a strange old world! I have a picture of an old school with pupils being forced to read their books. They are surrounded by nuns who hit them with a ruler at any sign they are not praying or “invoking god” while doing their sums. Perhaps Madeleine could comment on whether these clergy in the Boston Archdiocese were praying and invoking their god in their activities? After all “We do not turn God off and on when we do these things. “

But what an insult, she seems to think that when I do accountancy my maths will be incorrect and my tallying dishonest because her god has no place in my work!

So Madeleine rejects educating our children in accountancy, mathematics, science, history, social studies and anything connected with the real world – unless its accompanied by prayer and invoking of her god. She rejects secular education.

To be consistent she should also reject anything that education has produced. Cars, banks, culture, medicine, etc., etc.

It’s an approach that very few Christians would support – and I honestly suspect Madeleine doesn’t run her life this way. She has just got into this ridiculous situation because of the way she has switched meanings to justify her argument about “privileging secularism.”

However this mental gymnastics has allowed Madeleine to define anything our democratic society does as “anti-religious” because it is secular. Therefore the current situation “privileges secularism” and she is disadvantaged because of her beliefs!

Perhaps while she is boycotting our secular schools, government departments, hospitals, research institutes, universities, etc., she could also boycott the NZ Charities Commission. Refuse to accept her tax exemption for supernatural belief (subsidised by the rest of us – see Examples of Charitable Purpose) because the institution is secular?

Yeah, right!

*It’s worth reading The Tolerant Secular State– it’s brief and gives a clear statement of the problem of religious privilege and the interference with human rights in New Zealand.

Are scientists hostile to religion?

Book review: Science vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think by Elaine Howard Ecklund.

Price: US$19.72; NZ$59.97
Hardcover: 240 pages
Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA (May 6, 2010)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0195392981
ISBN-13: 978-0195392982

This book reports on the recent  Religion among Academic Scientists study in the US. A research project identifying the range of views on religion held by US scientists, and determining the statistical distribution  of different beliefs among US scientists.

Elaine Howard Ecklund gives an overview of the research and the questionnaire it used. She also includes data from other studies. Data collection was funded primarily by the Templeton Foundation (the major grant was US$283,549) Participants were randomly selected from seven natural and social science disciplines at 21 US universities (I think the way such studies often neglect the non-university scientific institutions is rather short-sighted). The questions used related to religion, spirituality and ethics.

While the data and interviews of this study are interesting and useful I don’t think they necessarily support the author’s conclusions. I explain why below

Ecklund is a sociologist and currently the director of The Religion and Public Life Program at Rice University.

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Historical fiction

Sometimes a historical fiction by a good and responsible author can be very informative. Of course one should always check reliable sources for details. But a good author can do a lot of that research for you. And they can add environmental and dramatic material which helps to put the details of the history into context.

I recently commented (see Waking from a coma!) about Stuart Clark’s new book. It’s the first in a trilogy of historical fiction describing the history of astronomy. The book, Sky’s Dark Labyrinth, is set around Galileo and Kepler, their scientific contributions, personal lives and their treatment by the church and society.

Having finished reading the book I can recommend it. It’s well written, informative on the  scientific history and provides good images of the culture of the times.

Some more Galileo myths

Recently some people of a historical bent have criticised my articles on Galileo. So I guess I may now be criticised for reading historical fiction after this revelation. But any such criticism will be irrelevant as I always do try to check details with reliable sources.

I am surprised at some of the criticisms I have already had. Perhaps I shouldn’t be as there are clearly some people who have motivations for misrepresenting Galileo and for criticising the status he has today. I commented on this before in The Galileo myths.

One Galileo myth I have heard came initially from a local theologian. He twisted and squirmed (as they do) to justify the church’s treatment of Galileo. In the end he actually made the claim that Galileo based his own heliocentric position on faith and that the Church based their geocentric one on the science! That Galileo was in conflict with all the scientists of the time.

This came up again recently when a commenter on another blog repeated this claim and told me that the church had consulted a committee of “scientists” in 1616 who confirmed that heliocentricism was scientifically wrong (as well as being theological heretical). I think the theologian may also have been using this to justify his claim.

(Galileo was initially investigated by the Inquisition in 1616 as a result of complaints he held the opinion of a heliocentric universe. However, the trial and conviction for which he is remembered was held in 1633).

“Scientists” or theologians?

Lets put aside the fact that a committee of “scientists’ would have been unlikely at that time (perhaps a committee of mathematicians and astronomers but not “scientists”). I pointed out that the panel was actually made up from eleven theologians – and got told I was incorrect and simply making the claim because of my “personal dislike of the Catholic Church”! Strange reaction considering I had already quoted from the preamble to Galileo’s “Inquisition’s Sentence (22 June 1633)” – a primary source”

“the Assessor Theologians assessed the two propositions of the sun’s stability and the earth’s motion, as follows:
That the sun is the center of the world and motionless is a proposition which is philosophically absurd and false, and formally heretical, for being explicitly contrary to Holy Scripture;
That the earth is neither the center of the world nor motionless but moves even with diurnal motion is philosophically equally absurd and false, and theologically at least erroneous in the Faith.”

The highlighting of the word theologian is mine.

A good source of primary documents

Still one can argue about the significance of the assessor theologians report and it always best to consult the actual documents before doing so. Therefore I have provided in full below the report from the assessor theologians. You can make your own inferences on their qualifications and reasons for making the assessments they did. You can also draw your own conclusions about the extent to which they consulted the astronomers of the time.

My point on the latter is that any “committee” trying to draw an objective conclusion on this question would have consulted, amongst others, the most outstanding Italian astronomer of the time, who incidentally was also in Rome when they sat, Galileo.

As for the apparent unanimity and confidence of the report – I find that strange as the Church in other documents of the time was expressing concern “about the spreading and acceptance by many of the false Pythagorean doctrine, altogether contrary to the Holy Scripture, that the earth moves and the sun is motionless.”

The source is Maurice A. Finocchiaro’s The Galileo Affair: A Documentary History.

Consultants’ Report on Copernicanism

(24 February 1616)

Assessment made at the Holy Office, Rome, Wednesday, 24 February 1616, in the presence of the Father Theologians signed below.

Propositions to be assessed:

(1) The sun is the center of the world and completely devoid of local motion.

Assessment: All said that this proposition is foolish and absurd in philosophy, and formally heretical since it explicitly contradicts in many places the sense of Holy Scripture, according to the literal meaning of the words and according to the common interpretation and understanding of the Holy Fathers and the doctors of theology.

(2) The earth is not the center of the world, nor motionless, but it moves as a whole and also with diurnal motion.

Assessment: All said that this proposition receives the same judgment in philosophy and that in regard to theological truth it is at least erroneous in faith.

  • Petrus Lombardus, Archbishop of Armagh.
  • Fra Hyacintus Petronius, Master of the Sacred Apostolic Palace.
  • Fra Raphael Riphoz, Master of Theology and Vicar-General of the Dominican Order.
  • Fra Michelangelo Segizzi, Master of Sacred Theology and Commissary of the Holy Office.
  • Fra Hieronimus de Casalimaiori, Consultant to the Holy Office.
  • Fra Thomas de Lemos.
  • Fra Gregorius Nunnius Coronel.
  • Benedictus Justinianus, Society of Jesus.
  • Father Raphael Rastellius, Clerk Regular, Doctor of Theology.
  • Father Michael of Naples, of the Cassinese Congregation.
  • Fra Iacobus Tintus, assistant of the Most Reverend Father Commissary of the Holy Office.

And what about this from the Inquisition Minutes of the next day:

“The Most Illustrious Lord Cardinal Millini notified the Reverend Fathers Lord Assessor and Lord Commissary of the Holy Office that, after the reporting of the judgment by the Father Theologians against the propositions of the mathematician Galileo (to the effect that the sun stands still at the center of the world and the earth moves even with the diurnal motion), His Holiness ordered the Most Illustrious Lord Cardinal Bellarmine to call Galileo before himself and warn him to abandon these opinions; and if he should refuse to obey, the Father Commissary, in the presence of a notary and witnesses, is to issue him an injunction to abstain completely from teaching or defending this doctrine and opinion or from discussing it; and further, if he should not acquiesce, he is to be imprisoned.”

Rather an extreme discussion to be based on such a flimsy report, isn’t it?

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Science, religion and respect for meaning

Religious apologists seem to be obsessed with the relationship between religion and science. Not so much for scientists who generally just want to get on with their job of understanding reality and helping humanity make use of the resulting knowledge.

But in retirement I have had more opportunity to come across the argument’s used by apologists to explain away the differences between scientific and religious knowledge, or to deny scientific knowledge. The overwhelming impression I have is one of bafflegab, mental gymnastics, strawmannery and jelly wrestling. Certainly not honesty.

One thing that gets up my nose is the lack of respect for language, for the meaning of words. Particularly important words like “truth” and “knowledge.” An example is this comment in a review of  apologist John Lennox‘s new book at Christian News (see Can Science, Creationism Coexist? One Christian Author Says Yes):

“In his recently published book, Seven Days that Divide the World, Lennox sets out to prove that Christians can believe in the theories of science and maintain the truth of Scripture.”

These people use the word “truth,” or very often “Truth,” to describe a collection of bronze age myths, parables and mysticism!  As for science – well that’s only “theory” – and you know what meaning they usually give to that word. No, not the scientific understanding of theory as “a set of facts, propositions, or principles analysed in their relation to one another and used, especially in science, to explain phenomena.” No, more the vague popular use of “theory” as “an idea of or belief about something arrived at through speculation or conjecture.”

This always strikes me as the height of arrogance – an arrogance that often leads to problems. One has only to think of Galileo’s treatment because his persecuters thought he was daring to question the “Truth” of scripture.

Not that scientists usually use the word “truth”, and especially not “Truth” to describe scientific knowledge. We are well aware of the provisional, but progressive, nature of scientific knowledge. Always amenable to improvement and change as it is checked against reality.

Scientific knowledge is relative  – not absolute, not “Truth”, but it’s the best we have. If science cannot give us specific knowledge about reality one can be sure no other method can.

That’s the other thing that get’s up my nose. The arrogance of some apologists who will seriously suggest they have higher standards. Because while scientific knowledge is amenable to change and improvement religious knowledge is not. It is the “Truth.”

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Clarifying some myths in the history of science

I want to deal here with some myths about religion and science. Specifically the religious apologetics claim that Christianity was a requirement for the scientific revolution. And the more widespread popular belief that blames early Christianity for the “dark ages.”

I have been reading about that early period lately. A couple of historical novels on the philosopher and mathematician Hypatia‘s murder by a Christian mob in 415 CE were interesting. These were Hypatia’s Feud by Nicholas Fourikis and Selene of Alexandria by Faith L. Justice. I recommend both, but especially Selene of Alexandria. Both authors have taken care with  known historical facts.

The religious mysticism of that early period is undeniable. But the causes may not be as  the popular concepts imply. Reality is, after all, never simple.

So I was pleased to read Richard Carrier’s comments on these myths. The science of the ancient Greeks and Romans is a research speciality of his.

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Converting beliefs to “truths”

Michael Shermer‘s latest book looks interesting – The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies—How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths.

Chris Mooney interviews him about the book in the latest Point of Inquiry podcast (see Point of Inquiry or  download the MP3).

Shermer’s thesis is that with humans belief comes first – then we look of evidence to support that belief. I have often made the same claim – we are a rationalising species, not a rational one. There are good evolutionary reasons for this.

At first sight this seems a rather pessimistic thesis for a scientist and sceptic. However, in the book Shermer deals with the tools that science offers for overcoming this problem. For approaching a more objective knowledge of reality. He asserts that science is unique in this.

I have managed to get a copy and look forward to reading it.

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Visible signs of the rapture

Credit to Peter Griffin – I don’t know where he gets these things from.

If only I was a student again –  and could afford such a big bill at the local sex shop.

Don’t drink the punch!

Photo Credit: @snipeyhead New York

I liked this little nerdy counter demonstration at a Judgement day demo in the US.

Apparently many people are getting into the mood with rapture parties on the evening of the 20th May. Anyone familiar with The Simpsons episode on rapture parties will know to avoid the punch. Otherwise its the obvious way to respond to such ridiculous predictions.

I am pleased to see many Christians are also heaping on the ridicule. Mind you, it was a bit disconcerting the find that what many of them are ridiculing is not the concept of a rapture but just the fixing of a specific date! For example local blogger Bosco Peters  at Liturgy injected a bit of humour with Jesus is coming. But his humour was somewhat spoiled by a commenter who said:

“The simple answer to Harold Camping is from Our Lord’s own words: “Ye know not the day nor the hour.” It’s more than a little presumptuous of Mr. Camping to presume that he DOES know, is it not?”

And Donald Perkins at the Prophecy Mission in the USA warns of The Dangers of Date Setting:

“The Word of God is clear on this subject of Date-setting. To set dates on the return of Christ is to err. Because of these recent events, the church has become a laughingstock and many Christian faith were shaken by it; some had their hopes raised to high levels, only to have them come crashing down to the truth. Many even quit their jobs, and still others closed their businesses.”

Its  bit of a worry. Criticise Harold Camping because he dares to work out dates! But this whole idea of raptures, destruction of the world and the universe, etc. still seems acceptable to many Christians. I think that’s dangerous.

Seattle Atheists are offering some rapture Relief. Good idea really. They are asking for donations to enable them to help rebuild the lives of all those left behind by the rapture. In the event there is no rapture the proceeds will go to a good secular cause – Camp Quest West.

Seattle Atheists Rapture Relief

But isn’t it amazing what crazy ideas we humans can get. Appparently an all female sect in Russia believes that Vladimir Putin, Russian prime minister, is a reincarnation of early Christian missionary Paul the apostle (see Russian sects: from Rasputin to the ‘Jesus of Siberia’)!

Richard Dawkins had the most sensible comment on all this in his Washington Post article Science explains the end of the world:

“Why is a serious newspaper like the Washington Post giving space to a raving loon? I suppose the answer must be that, unlike the average loon, this one has managed to raise enough money to launch a radio station and pay for billboards.”

But he does take the opportunity to get back to the scientific approach to the end of the world. Which takes us back to the photo above.