Archive for atheism

Religion is a Diversity Issue

Posted in Education with tags , , on June 22, 2015 by telescoper

Equality and Diversity issues in Higher Education  have been very prominent in the media recently, though usually in the context of gender. A recent article in the Times Higher urges academics to include religion as a diversity issue, which prompted me to make a few comments here. Then my attention was drawn to the following Code of Conduct for lecturers at the forthcoming STFC Summer School for new Astronomy PhD students. I’m one of the invited speakers, actually:

Code of Conduct

I gather that there are some who find the inclusion of “religion” to be somehow inappropriate…

Before I go on I should declare that I am an atheist and a secularist. I’m a paid-up member of the National Secular Society, in fact. That means that I’m in favour of the removal of religious privilege from all aspects of the government of this country. What it does not mean is that I think I know all the answers. I may be an atheis, but I am not a fundamentalist like Richard Dawkins. In fact, I think Dawkins does more harm than good to secularism.

People far cleverer than me – including many of my colleagues in astrophysics and cosmology – are deeply religious and I don’t respect them any the less for that. I may not understand their beliefs, but I respect their right to hold them. I don’t delude myself into thinking that everything that I think do or say is perfectly rational, so I don’t judge people whose beliefs I find hard to comprehend.

Sir Isaac Newton was a great scientist, but he was also a deeply religious man who also dabbled in alchemy and other forms of magic. Science may have displaced some of the more esoteric parts of Newton’s belief-system, but it hasn’t banished the magic of our Universe. It just describes it better.

I believe in free speech. As a consequence, I do not believe that it should be illegal or unlawful to say things that insult a religion. I have myself made jokes about religion, e.g. on Twitter, that some have found offensive. I have also mocked the bigotry and hypocrisy which seems to me all too frequently associated with certain types of religious belief. And those who use religion as a pretext for racism, homophobia or gender discrimination. But that’s not the same as poking fun at someone just because they have a religious beleief.

Although I don’t think such things should ever be made unlawful – there is too much law about this already – there are circumstances in which such things should not be said. This seems to be an aspect of free speech that people get very wound up about. If you don’t say what you’re thinking then surely that’s cowardly “self-censorship”? No. In everyday life there are countless situations in which things are better left unsaid. We make such decisions all the time. That’s not about cowardice, unless you hold your tongue just because you’re frightened of making waves. There can be many reasons for discretion including, and these certainly apply in the context of the Summer School, professionalism and respect for your audience. Just because you can say something doesn’t always mean you should.

So I think it’s perfectly appropriate to have a Code of Conduct to remind speakers that they should refrain from making “offensive verbal comments” related to religion (or the other things listed). I welcome it, in fact. Religion is a diversity issue, in science as it is everywhere else.


Living in the Vortices of Infinity

Posted in Biographical, Literature, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on January 16, 2014 by telescoper

As a boyhood fan of influential American horror writer Howard Phillips Lovecraft (known to his friends as “H.P.”), I was dismayed to discover some time ago a poem which revealed his obnoxiously racist attitudes. I always find it difficult knowing what to do when someone whose artistic work you admire turns out to have a dark side to his or her personality. It’s always hard to separate the creation from the creator. In the case of H.P. Lovecraft I’ve maintained an interest in him and his work, I suppose in an attempt to find some redeeming features.

Anyway, in Lovecraft’s Selected Letters, I came across a passage which is reminiscent of the following quotation from an interview with physicist Steven Weinberg:

I believe that there is no point in the universe that can be discovered by the methods of science. I believe that what we have found so far, an impersonal universe in which it is not particularly directed toward human beings is what we are going to continue to find. And that when we find the ultimate laws of nature they will have a chilling, cold impersonal quality about them.

I don’t think this means [however] there’s no point to life. Usually the remark is quoted just as it stands. But if anyone read the next paragraph, they would see that I went on to say that if there is no point in the universe that we discover by the methods of science, there is a point that we can give the universe by the way we live, by loving each other, by discovering things about nature, by creating works of art. And that — in a way, although we are not the stars in a cosmic drama, if the only drama we’re starring in is one that we are making up as we go along, it is not entirely ignoble that faced with this unloving, impersonal universe we make a little island of warmth and love and science and art for ourselves. That’s not an entirely despicable role for us to play.

This is the passage in Lovecraft’s Selected Letters

As you are aware, I have never been able to soothe myself with the sugary delusions of religion; for these things stand convicted of the utmost absurdity in light of modern scientific knowledge. With Nietzsche, I have been forced to confess that mankind as a whole has no goal or purpose whatsoever, but is a mere superfluous speck in the unfathomable vortices of infinity and eternity. Accordingly, I have hardly been able to experience anything which one could call real happiness; or to take as vital an interest in human affairs as can one who still retains the hallucination of a “great purpose” in the general plan of terrestrial life. … However, I have never permitted these circumstances to react upon my daily life; for it is obvious that although I have “nothing to live for”, I certainly have just as much as any other of the insignificant bacteria called human beings. I have thus been content to observe the phenomena about me with something like objective interest, and to feel a certain tranquillity which comes from perfect acceptance of my place as an inconsequential atom. In ceasing to care about most things, I have likewise ceased to suffer in many ways. There is a real restfulness in the scientific conviction that nothing matters very much; that the only legitimate aim of humanity is to minimise acute suffering for the majority, and to derive whatever satisfaction is derivable from the exercise of the mind in the pursuit of truth (from Letter to Reinhardt Kleiner  (14 September 1919), in Selected Letters I, 1911-1924 edited by August Derleth and Donald Wandrei, pp. 86-87).

I think my own philosophy of life is some sort of juxtaposition of these two…

The Necessity of Atheism

Posted in History, Literature, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , , , on February 15, 2011 by telescoper

In the course of doing a crossword at the weekend, I learnt that the poet Percy Bysse Shelley was sent down from (i.e. kicked out of) Oxford University 200 years ago this month for writing a pamphlet entitled The Necessity of Atheism. He was at University College, in fact. A bit of googling around led me to the full text, which is well worth reading whatever your religious beliefs as it is a fascinating document. I’ll just quote a few excerpts here.

The main body of the tract begins There is No God, but this is followed by

This negation must be understood solely to affect a creative Deity. The hypothesis of a pervading Spirit co-eternal with the universe remains unshaken.

That’s pretty close to my own view, for what that’s worth.

More interestingly, Shelley goes on later in the work to talk about science and how it impacts upon belief. A couple of sections struck me particularly strongly, given my own scientific interests.

In one he tackles arguments for the existence of God based on Reason:

It is urged that man knows that whatever is must either have had a beginning, or have existed from all eternity, he also knows that whatever is not eternal must have had a cause. When this reasoning is applied to the universe, it is necessary to prove that it was created: until that is clearly demonstrated we may reasonably suppose that it has endured from all eternity. We must prove design before we can infer a designer. The only idea which we can form of causation is derivable from the constant conjunction of objects, and the consequent inference of one from the other. In a base where two propositions are diametrically opposite, the mind believes that which is least incomprehensible; — it is easier to suppose that the universe has existed from all eternity than to conceive a being beyond its limits capable of creating it: if the mind sinks beneath the weight of one, is it an alleviation to increase the intolerability of the burthen?

The other argument, which is founded on a Man’s knowledge of his own existence, stands thus. A man knows not only that he now is, but that once he was not; consequently there must have been a cause. But our idea of causation is alone derivable from the constant conjunction of objects and the consequent Inference of one from the other; and, reasoning experimentally, we can only infer from effects caused adequate to those effects. But there certainly is a generative power which is effected by certain instruments: we cannot prove that it is inherent in these instruments” nor is the contrary hypothesis capable of demonstration: we admit that the generative power is incomprehensible; but to suppose that the same effect is produced by an eternal, omniscient, omnipotent being leaves the cause in the same obscurity, but renders it more incomprehensible.

He thus reveals himself as an empiricist, a position he later amplifies with a curiously worded double-negative:

I confess that I am one of those who am unable to refuse my assent to the conclusion of those philosophers who assert that nothing exists but as it is perceived.

This is a philosophy I can’t agree with, but his use of words clearly suggests the young Shelley has been reading David Hume‘s analysis of causation.

Later he turns to the mystery of life and the sense of wonder it inspires.

Life and the world, or whatever we call that which we are and feel, is an astonishing thing. The mist of familiarity obscures from us the wonder of our being. We are struck with admiration at some of its transient modifications, but it is itself the great miracle. What are changes of empires, the wreck of dynasties, with the opinions which support them; what is the birth and the extinction of religious and of political systems, to life? What are the revolutions of the globe which we inhabit, and the operations of the elements of which it is composed, compared with life? What is the universe of stars, and suns, of which this inhabited earth is one, and their motions, and their destiny, compared with life? Life, the great miracle, we admire not because it is so miraculous. It is well that we are thus shielded by the familiarity of what is at once so certain and so unfathomable, from an astonishment which would otherwise absorb and overawe the functions of that which is its object.

Finally, I picked the following paragraph for its mention of astronomy:

If any artist, I do not say had executed, but had merely conceived in his mind the system of the sun, and the stars, and planets, they not existing, and had painted to us in words, or upon canvas, the spectacle now afforded by the nightly cope of heaven, and illustrated it by the wisdom of astronomy, great would be our admiration. Or had he imagined the scenery of this earth, the mountains, the seas, and the rivers; the grass, and the flowers, and the variety of the forms and masses of the leaves of the woods, and the colors which attend the setting and the rising sun, and the hues of the atmosphere, turbid or serene, these things not before existing, truly we should have been astonished, and it would not have been a vain boast to have said of such a man, Non merita nome di creatore, se non Iddio ed il Poeta. But how these things are looked on with little wonder, and to be conscious of them with intense delight is esteemed to be the distinguishing mark of a refined and extraordinary person. The multitude of men care not for them.

I think the multitude care just as little 200 years on.

P.S. The quotation is from the 16th Century Italian poet Torquato Tasso; in translation it reads “None deserve the name of Creator except God and the Poet”.