Archive for Religion

On Religion

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , on February 3, 2016 by telescoper

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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…

Science Propaganda

Posted in Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on January 2, 2013 by telescoper

I thought I’d do a quick rehash of an old post which is vaguely relevant to the still simmering controversy generated by the Cox-Ince editorial I blogged about before Christmas.

The legitimate interface between science and society has many levels to it. One aspect is the simple need to explain what science tells us about the world in order that people can play an informed part in our increasingly technological society. Another is that there needs to be encouragement for (especially young) people to study science seriously and to make it their career in order to maintain the supply of scientists for the future. And then there is the issue of the wider cultural implications of science, its impact on other belief-systems (such as religions) other forms of endeavour (such as art and literature) and even for government.

I think virtually all scientists would agree with the need for engagement in at least the first two of these. In fact, I’m sure most scientists would love to have the chance to explain their work to a lay audience, but not all subjects are as accessible or inspirational as, say, astronomy. Unfortunately also, not all scientists are very good at this sort of thing. Some might even be counter-productive if inflicted on the public in this way. So it seems relatively natural that some people have had more success at this activity than others, and have thus become identified as “science communicators”. Although some scientists are a bit snobby about those who write popular books and give popular talks, most of us agree that this kind of work is vital for both science and society.

Vital, yes, but there are dangers. The number of scientists involved in this sort of work is probably more limited than it should be owing to the laziness of the popular media, who generally can’t be bothered to look outside London and the South-East for friendly scientists. The broadsheet newspapers employ very few qualified specialists among their staff even on the science pages so it’s a battle to get meaningful scientific content into print in the mass media. Much that does appear is slavishly regurgitated from one of the press agencies who are kept well fed by the public relations experts employed by research laboratories and other science institutes.

These factors mean that what comes out in the media can be a distorted representation of the real scientific process. Heads of research groups and laboratories are engaged in the increasingly difficult business of securing enough money to continue their work in these uncertain financial times. Producing lots of glossy press releases seems to be one way of raising the profile and gaining the attention of funding bodies. Most scientists do this with care, but sometimes the results are ludicrously exaggerated or simply wrong. Some of the claims circulating around the time the Large Hadron Collider was switched on definitely fell into one or more of those categories. I realise that there’s a difficult balance to be struck between simplicity and accuracy, and that errors can result from over-enthusiasm rather than anything more sinister, but even so we should tread carefully if we want the public to engage with what science really is.

The Cox-Ince editorial is refreshingly clear about the limitations of science:

Science is a framework with only one absolute: all opinions, theories and “laws” are open to revision in the face of evidence. It should not be seen or presented, therefore, as a body of inviolate knowledge against which policy should be judged; the effect of this would be to replace one priesthood with another. Rather, science is a process, a series of structures that allow us, in as unbiased a way as possible, to test our assertions against Nature.

However, there is still far too much science reporting that portrays as facts  ideas and theories which have little or no evidence to support them. This isn’t science communication, it’s science propaganda and I think too many scientists go along with it. There’s a difficult balance to be struck, between engaging the public with inspirational but superficial TV programmes and explaining the intellectual struggles that science really involves.  Give the public the latter without any of the former and they’ll surely switch off!

Most worryingly is the perceived need to demonstrate black-and-white certainty over issues which are considerably more complicated than that. This is another situation where science popularisation becomes science propaganda. I’m not sure whether the public actually wants its scientists to make pronouncements as if they were infallible oracles, but the media definitely do. Scientists sometimes become cast in the role of priests, which is dangerous, especially when a result is later shown to be false. Then the public don’t just lose faith with one particular scientist, but with the whole of science.

Science is not about certainty. What it is a method for dealing rationally with uncertainty. It is a pragmatic system primarily intended for making testable inferences about the world using measurable, quantitative data. Scientists look their most arrogant and dogmatic when they try to push science beyond the (relatively limited) boundaries of its applicability and to ride roughshod over alternative ways of dealing with wider issues including, yes, religion.

I don’t have any religious beliefs that anyone other than me would recognize as such. I am also a scientist. But I don’t see any reason why being a scientist or not being a scientist should have any implications for my (lack of) religious faith. God (whatever that means) is, by construction, orthogonal to science. I’m not at all opposed to scientists talking about their religion or their atheism in the public domain. I don’t see why their opinions are of any more interest than anyone else’s in these matters, but I’m quite happy to hear them voiced.

This brings us to the question, often raised by hardline atheists, as to whether more scientists  should follow Richard Dawkins’ lead and be champions of atheism in the public domain. As a matter of fact, I agree with some of Dawkins’ agenda, such as his argument for the separation of church and state, although I don’t feel his heavy-handed use of the vitriol in The God Delusion achieved anything particularly positive (except for his bank balance, perhaps). But I don’t think it’s right to assume that all scientists should follow his example. Their beliefs are their business. I don’t think we will be much better off if we simply replace one set of priests with another. In this respect I wholeheartedly agree with Peter Higgs who has recently described Dawkins as “embarrassing”.

So there you have my plea for both public and scientists to accept that science will never have all the answers. There will always be “aspects of human experience that, even in an age of astonishing scientific advance, remain beyond the reach of scientific explanation”.

Can I have the Templeton Prize now please?

The Crisis of Secularism – There isn’t enough of it!

Posted in Politics with tags , , , on September 1, 2012 by telescoper

I found this provocative video via the National Secular Society. The speaker is Pat Condell. He makes some excellent points, although I think he spoils it a bit with some cheap gibes. You can respect others’ religious beliefs and still be a secularist.

Here are some links relating to the comments he makes:

Evangelical leaders see secularism as a greater threat than Islam
http://www.voanews.com/english/news/religion/Evangelical-Leaders-See-Seculari…

Ten Commandments Judge Roy Moore: Secularism leads to sharia law
http://www.rawstory.com/rs/2012/05/29/ten-commandments-judge-roy-moore-secula…

Pope warns bishops about secularism
http://www.voxy.co.nz/national/pope-speaks-nz-bishops-about-impact-secularism…

Pope: New evangelisation needed to counter crisis of secularism
http://www.catholicculture.org/news/headlines/index.cfm?storyid=10494

Cardinal warns of ‘aggressive secularism’
http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/apr/24/cardinal-keith-obrien-aggressive-…

A Cut Below

Posted in Biographical with tags , , , , on July 23, 2012 by telescoper

This morning, sitting in the garden catching up on the weekend’s newspapers, I found an opinion piece in yesterday’s Observer about male circumcision. This of course stems from a story that broke a few weeks ago about a court in Germany ruling that the circumcision of male children constitutes “bodily harm” and is consequently in breach of their human rights.  Since this procedure is traditional practice in some religious groups, including Jews and Muslims, there has been a predictable outcry that the court ruling violates their right to religious freedom.

At the risk of causing discomfort among (especially male) readers of this blog I thought I’d comment on this issue from a personal perspective. I’m not going to go into the ethical question, actually. I can certainly see the argument that an infant is unable to give consent and there must be limits to what parents can do to their children in the name of religion.

I will however, state parenthetically that one thing that does puzzle me is the court’s statement that being circumcised as an infant interferes with a person’s right to determine their religion later in life. Huh? That’s a non sequitur because there’s nothing to stop a circumcized man becoming a Christian. Is there?

Anyway, in the modern world female genital mutilation is rightly regarded as abhorrent, so why should male circumcision be any different?

But there is an angle to this story that most commenters have ignored, and that is that not all male circumcisions are carried out because of religious or other traditions. You’ll probably all think this is too much information to write on a blog, but I myself was circumcised, not as an infant, but as a young boy of seven or eight. I’m neither Jewish nor Muslim nor anything else in particular when it comes to religious belief. I won’t go into the reasons I had it done, but they were entirely medical. Anyway, I’m not in the slightest bit embarrassed to be a Roundhead rather than a Cavalier. In fact, I like my willy just like it is.

Don’t worry. I’m not going to show you a picture.

Being gay, and therefore having more than a passing interest in such issues, I’d also say that a “cut” penis is arguably more attractive and certainly more hygienic compared to the “uncut” variety. I guess my aesthetic judgement is influenced by the fact that that’s what my todger is like, but I know plenty of other men and women who prefer their partners that way too. At any rate the operation certainly doesn’t impair sexual function in any way, and possibly even improves it. At least in that respect it’s very different from female circumcision.

Of course I’m not going to argue that such preferences constitute good reasons for the involuntary circumcision of young boys. My point is that virtually all the rhetoric on this issue implies that to be  circumcised is to is to be incomplete. Mutilated. Damaged.  Inferior. I don’t think of it that way at all. Indeed, it bothers me to think of the effect this language could have on younger guys just coming to terms with their adulthood. Do you really want anyone to feel ashamed or embarrassed because they have been circumcized?

What I’m saying is that it’s not circumcision that’s bad, but the circumstances in which it is sometimes carried out. So by all means let’s debate the deep ethical conflict that this issue highlights between religious observance and the prevention of bodily harm to infants, but let’s also have a bit more respect for those of us who are, and are happy to be, a cut above the rest.

P.S. I was going to relate the famous schoolboy exam howler about how Sir Francis Drake circumcised the globe using a 60ft clipper, but decided not to.

Thought for the Day

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on July 1, 2011 by telescoper

For naturalism, fed on recent cosmological speculations, mankind is in a position similar to that of a set of people living on a frozen lake, surrounded by cliffs over which there is no escape, yet knowing that little by little the ice is melting, and the inevitable day drawing near when the last film of it will disappear, and to be drowned ignominiously will be the human creature’s portion. The merrier the skating, the warmer and more sparkling the sun by day, and the ruddier the bonfires at night, the more poignant the sadness with which one must take in the meaning of the total situation.

From The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James, first published in 1902…