Wednesday, 30 September 2009

Voices of Enlightenment

Apparently today is International Blasphemy Day, but I can't really think of anything I want to be blasphemous about. (I've already criticised Richard Dawkins, which is the equivalent of blasphemy in Atheist circles.)

There is a series of programmes in the "Essay" slot, late at night on BBC Radio 3 that is celebrating "Voltaire and Voices of the Enlightenment". The first programme notes that it is the 250th anniversary of the publication of Voltaire's philosophical satire Candide. This is a series well-worth listening to for Humanists, and indeed anyone.

Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Caspar's Confusion

Over on the New Humanist blog the editor of that magazine, Caspar Melville, has been desperately trying to row back from an endorsement he gave, on a Guardian Science podcast, to a film "House of Numbers" which claims that AIDs is nothing to do with HIV. In Was I Conned by AIDs-Denialists? and A Week of Humble Pie he tries at length to understand where he went wrong. The same posts have very extensive comments, many of them from one or two AIDs-denialist.

Personally I find it difficult to understand how anyone in the sceptical world of rationalism could possibly fall into this cess-pit of conspiracy theory, which is so thoroughly signposted. Perhaps I should add that the New Humanist is not published by the BHA but by the Rationalist Association (the new name since 2002 for the Rationalist Press Association). From his biographical note it seems that Caspar obtained a PhD in "Media" from Goldsmith College, but evidently this course didn't teach common sense. probably it emphasised cultural relativity and postmodernism.

Sorry if I'm sounding a bit mean, but this sort of woolly thought gets to me.

Sunday, 27 September 2009

Is Dawkins Moving the Goalposts?

In an article commissioned by Wall Street Journal and published on 12 September alongside an article by Karen Armstrong under the heading "Man vs. God", each article written independently as a reply to the question "Where does Evolution leave God?", Richard Dawkins claims that "Evolution is the creator of life, ..."

This goes further than many science writers normally do. They usually understand "evolution" to mean the process of natural
selection by which new species evolve from previously existing forms of life. How life originated in the first place they are usually a bit cagy about. Of course those of a theistic inclination maintain that this is where god put in his pennyworth.

However the process by which life emerged from non-life is known as "abiogenesis", and it seems it may have been quite complicated, and not the same process as evolution, though once it had reached a critical mass evolution took over.

Even more explicitly Professor Dawkins goes further by stating: "Never once are the laws of physics violated, yet life emerges into uncharted territory. And how is the trick done? The answer is a process that, although variable in its wondrous detail, is sufficiently uniform to deserve one single name: Darwinian evolution, the nonrandom survival of randomly varying coded information."

The article was republished on and has received many comments, however only one, the last time I looked, queried this point, I quote:

105. Comment #414485 by JDLipsitz on September 13, 2009 at 4:38 am
For a group of critical thinkers on this site, we really do let Prof Dawkins over-apply evolution via natural selection as an explanation for the origin of life. Evolution is a delicious explanation for biodiversity and the distinct characteristics of species, but it does nothing to explain how life originated in the first place. While I agree with most of what the Prof says, our nature as a group of atheists should help identify us as critical thinkers. Richard Dawkins is not - nor would he wish to be - exempt from our critical thought. If any opponent thinker came up with something so baseless, he would get trashed in these comments. Please be fair, and apply critical thought evenly.

This has received several reasoned replies, in particular 110 by "Quine", 119 by "bendigeidfran", 121 by Jos Gibbons and 153 by Steve Zara (as well as several unreasoned ones).

Professor Dawkins may perhaps say that he was trying to express a strong case to an unreceptive audience, but although I entirely accept his thesis that life is of solely material origin, I do feel that he has overstated his case here. Or is his view now justified by advances in understanding the chemical origin of life?

Friday, 18 September 2009

Letter to Editor on Spiritualism

I've had a Letter to the Editor published in the Hastings Observer today. It has been printed in full, but the Editor hasn't answered any of my questions. It reads as follows (the heading was added by the editor}:

Can you produce evidence?

I notice that the Observer newspaper series is supporting "An Evening of Clairvoyance with Stephen Holbrook" in October. Does this mean you are endorsing the authenticity of this man's claim to be an "Accurate Clairvoyant Medium"? As I understand these terms they mean that he is able to foresee the future and to communicate with spirits of the dead.

Do you have evidence to support these claims? Are the members of your Board of Directors spiritualists, or are you just promoting the show as a form of entertainment? It seems a strange subject for a newspaper to be associated with, since one would expect newspaper reporters to be of a sceptical frame of mind.

I should declare my own interests in this matter. I have helped to set up the Hastings Humanists group, and one of our aims is to provide a counter to all forms of superstition. Our next meeting, on 8th October, will be a discussion on Humanist views of spiritualism and spirituality.

George Jelliss
Magdalen Road

We are proposing to try out the "Pig in Paradise" pub on the seafront between the Pier and Robertson Street for our next meeting. They have an room on the left at the back which may be quiet enough for a discussion, so long as the juke-box is not blaring.

Thursday, 17 September 2009

A little light amusement

I came across this, and found it funny.

I hope you do too.

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Alternative Views

Since I posted John Crace's digested version of Karen Armstrong's recent book, I thought I ought, to be fair and balanced as journalists are supposed to be, provide a link to his take on Richard Dawkins' new book on the evidence for evolution in The Guardian. I take it that the Homo guardiensis megalocephalus from Stoke Newington is a reference to Crace himself, which goes some way to excuse his representation of Richard as a megalomanic obsessive.

Another worthwhile link, mentioned by one of the commenters on Crace's digest on, is to which provides a take on the "Thought for the Day" on Radio 4, and is inevitably more enlightening and thought-provoking than the original. Some of the items in between are of interest too.

Sunday, 13 September 2009

All Things Darwin

There was a really excellent discussion on Newsnight Review on Friday evening, about all things Darwin, which I missed but have now seen on BBC I-player:

Newsnight Review

The strong panel of speakers consisted of Richard Dawkins, Margaret Atwood, Ruth Padel and Rev. Richard Coles. Besides discussing The Origin of Species, and Dawkins's new book on the proofs of evolution, they covered the new film about Darwin called "Creation", and exhibitions at Fitzwiliam Museum Cambridge, and at the Natural History Museum's new Darwin Centre.

Friday, 11 September 2009

Report on AGM

We had eight members at the meeting and held a good two-hour discussion on the way the group should be organised and how it should be developed.

The main result was that we now have a Treasurer, Hélène White. However we did not set a subscription fee for members, instead we will collect donations to build up a fund so that we can pay speakers expenses, hire rooms, etc as necessary.

As Secretary I will be going to the one-day BHA Groups Representative Annual Meeting at Conway Hall on Saturday 3 October, to glean advice on running local groups. There is room for one other representative to attend if you have the time to spare, but the application probably has to be in within the next few days.

It was thought that meetings should have a pre-specified topic, but allow plenty of time for discussion. Lecture-type meetings could be held at longer intervals, perhaps every three months.

The topic for the meeting in October was decided to be about Humanist views on Spiritualism (and perhaps spirituality) in view of the "Evening of Clairvoyance" being promoted by the local newspapers.

We are looking into the feasibility of other venues than the White Rock Hotel, preferably with easier access, perhaps in a pub or cafe where we don't have to pay for a separate room. More on this shortly.

Friday, 4 September 2009

AGM and Newsletter

Our first Annual General Meeting will go ahead on Thursday 10th September in the Notley Room at White Rock Hotel. I hope everyone interested will make an effort to attend, since this meeting is to decide the future of the group.

The September Newsletter, and back issues of earlier Newsletters, can now be downloaded in PDF form from a page on my website devoted to Hastings Humanists. A printed version of the Newsletter will be sent out to those members who have no internet connection (or to others who request a printed copy).

The content of the Newsletter is largely based on what appears on this blog, and the September issue is rather short of material since I've not had the time to devote to it and had to meet the deadline for posting the printed copies in time for the meeting. It would be helpful if members could bring subjects and articles and programmes to my notice that ought to get a mention in the newsletter or on the blog.

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

Questionnaire Response

Out of 22 questionnaires sent out to people who have attended our meetings or have expressed an interest I have received 11 replies.

The following were the questions, together with a summary of the responses received.

Our next meeting is the AGM on 10 September, to decide the future of the Group.

Please could you answer the following 6 questions.


1. Will you be able to attend the 10 September Meeting? (Knowing the likely number attending will justify advance booking of the room.)

--> 4 Yes, 5 Will try/possibly/don't know/can only decide at short notice/not sure, 2 No.

2. Do you think the Hastings Humanists Group should be formalised or remain informal? (This will mean electing a Committee, and fixing an annual membership fee and Constitution.)

--> 7 informal, 2 formal with qualifications (not yet, maybe later), 1 happy either way, 1 not interested at present.

3. Is Tuesday evening a convenient time or day for you? (If you have another preferred time or day please state.) [This should have said THURSDAY of course, but I don't think it makes any difference to the responses, only one respondent noted the error.]

--> 6 OK with any weekday evening, 1 would prefer Wednesday, 1 any day except Friday, 1 mixture of midweek meetings and Sunday morning, 1 unable to attend but supports group, 1 now has other priorities.

4. Are you a member of the British Humanist Association? (The BHA may help us more if we have direct members.)

--> 4 yes, 7 No.

5. Would you be willing to serve on the Committee? (We need to make use of all the talents available. Please indicate preferred role.)

--> 7 No, 2 Yes, 1 perhaps, 1 not at present.

6. Would you prefer more open social-style meetings rather than prearranged subjects or speakers? (You may prefer a mixture. If you have ideas for how we should go, please bring them to the meeting.)

--> Difficult to assess the replies, but most would seem to prefer a mixture, but would also like every meeting to have a prearranged topic for discussion and not just be social.

Perhaps I should have asked whether the present venue is OK. Its main problem is lack of disabled access and the pub atmosphere.