Thursday, 29 April 2010

Faith Shuts Down Critical Faculties

An interesting piece of research by Uffe Schjoedt at the Department of the Study of Religion at Aarhus University, Denmark, using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) finds that when strongly religious people fall under the spell of a charismatic figure, areas of the brain responsible for scepticism and vigilance become less active. It is reported in New Scientist. This explains why certain individuals can gain influence over others, and concludes that their ability to do so depends heavily on preconceived notions of their authority and trustworthiness. It seems likely that the results extend beyond religious leaders to such figures as parents, doctors and politicians.

Friday, 23 April 2010

Asbo for Atheist Propaganda

This story got a small mention in the news but seems to have been drowned out by other minor issues, like the volcano and the election, but could have serious consequences for unbelievers especially those interested in being actively antireligious.

Atheist gets Asbo

Jurors found Harry Taylor guilty of causing "religiously aggravated intentional harassment, alarm or distress". This merely for putting on display some well-known cartoons: one image showed a smiling crucified Christ next to an advert for a brand of "no nails" glue; another Islamic suicide bombers at the gates of paradise being told: "Stop, stop, we've run out of virgins".

Would it be possible for atheists to claim "aggravated intentional harassment" the next time we are stopped by Mormons, or Jehovah's Witnesses knock at our doors, or when we pass by a church with a depiction of a man being tortured by being nailed to a cross, or when Bishops tell us that atheists are "less than human"?

This case seems to be bringing back a law of Blasphemy, which I thought we had just abolished.

Thursday, 15 April 2010

Misunderstandings of Science

Our April meeting proved popular, with 20 people in attendance, despite the competition of the big political debate on television. Or is it that everyone is disillusioned with politicians?

Alexander Hellemans presented a wide-ranging talk on science, using a projector and screen, tracing the origins of science back to Thales in ancient Greece, and discussed how science differs from belief systems, and from technology, with illustrations from a variety of subjects including climate change and the large hadron collider. The subsequent discussion involving the audience was quite lively, touching on James Lovelock's Gaia theory, and the inevitable evolution versus creationism argument (which we will be returning to in June). And too much else to report in detail here. Thanks are due to Dean Morrison for technical assistance with the projector, and to everyone who participated in the debate.

Friday, 9 April 2010

Our April Meeting

The following is the text of the Press release that I sent out about our April meeting. Unfortunately it doesn't seem to have received any mention in the local press, this week or last.

Misunderstandings of Science

There are many ways in which science is misunderstood, even among scientists themselves! Is science a matter of belief, or of social consensus, or of ultimate truth? Can scientists be truly objective? Are scientists responsible for technology? When scientists disagree, who decides? You will probably have your own questions.

Alexander Hellemans, who is co-author of several books on the History of Science, and has contributed articles to many science journals, will introduce a discussion on "Misunderstandings of Science" at the Hastings Humanists meeting on Thursday 15th April. This will be held at the Arts Forum, 36 Marina, from 6:30 pm. There is an entrance fee of £2. Everyone is welcome, you don't have to be a humanist, just remember to bring your questions and join in the discussion.

Thursday, 8 April 2010

The Pullman Bandwagon Rolls

I have to admit that I am not a fan of Philip Pullman's fiction, mainly because of its derivative nature based on christian symbolism, and will not be buying his new fable "The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ". However, I've been going the rounds of the reviews, by the christian illuminati, for whom he is their kind of cuddly atheist, which make interesting and varied reading:

Rowan Williams, Guardian

Richard Holloway, Observer

Alan Wilson (Bishop of Buckingham) Blog

Bryan Appleyard, Times

George Pitcher, Telegraph

My own preferred take on the Jesus story is that it is a myth refined from many previous god-man myths based ultimately on sun worship and the renewal of the seasons, and there is little evidence that anyone called Jesus actually lived. All of the more sensible humanist teachings attributed to Jesus are not original but derive from earlier sources. The christ-the-messiah religion was developed by Paul of Tarsus and institutionalised in the time of the Roman Emperor Constantine.

Tuesday, 6 April 2010

Brian Cox's Voltaire Lecture

I've just returned from The Voltaire Lecture given by Brian Cox at Conway Hall. It was a privilege to have been able to get a ticket, since there was greater demand than the hall could contain. Not only was his recent TV programme on "The Wonders of the Solar System" inspiring and instructive, but he is also an excellent speaker. He made it clear that this country still "punches above its weight" in Science, but a lot of this is down to our scientific heritage and we may end up living off this capital and decline if we fail to invest in research. The other side of his lecture was on the simplicity and elegance of the standard model of the fundamental particles, as it is now conceived, and the details of the big bang scenario. He joked about an astrologer's claim that everything in the universe is connected, but pointed out that this is in fact the case, though possibly not in the way envisaged by the astrologer.

Friday, 2 April 2010

Opposing Views

In the Radio Times this week there is an article by the Bishop of Croydon, Nick Baines, who calls himself an "e-vangelist" since he writes a blog at, "normally five times a week" - it's a wonder he can find time for anything else.

He says he tries to practise "confident humility", surely an oxymoron, but he is not averse to the occasional arrogant put-down such as: "Richard Dawkins isn't alone in excelling in one field - such as biology - while being awful in another - such as 'thinking'." Ouch! The implication being that his own thinking is hunky dory.

He also has the usual complaint: "An area of challenge relates to the atheists in the blogosphere, particularly those who represent perfectly what their prejudices tell them is the preserve of religious people: fundamentalism and an unswayable confidence in their own unargued-for assumptions about the world and human meaning." I must admit I've encountered a few who give that impression! However all atheists and humanists I know most certainly have thought very hard about their assumptions and about giving meaning to their lives."

There is a point in which I can agree with him: "... what's the point in simply talking to those who agree with you when you could be arguing your way to a better understanding ...", though we may differ as to what needs to be understood. To this end I propose to add a series of links in the right-hand column to various sites that represent Opposing Views, beginning with the Bishop's blog. If you have any links that you think ought to be included please let me know.