an autodidact meets a dilettante…

‘Rise above yourself and grasp the world’ Archimedes – attribution

Posts Tagged ‘religion

The Roman Catholic Church: how to slowly kill off a seriously patriarchal institution

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Catholic patiarch, tastefull and elegantly dressed in a classical red 33-buttoned cassock of watered silk with matching baretta and sash. For simplicity's sake he appears to have eschewed the traditional laced undergarments, and his gold cross with tastefully inlaid jewels is clearly a mark of humility and servitude. Only one kissable ring is on display

Catholic patiarch, tastefully and elegantly vested in a classical red 33-buttoned cassock of watered silk with matching baretta and sash. For simplicity’s sake he appears to have eschewed the traditional laced undergarments, and his gold cross with tastefully inlaid jewels is clearly a mark of humility and servitude. Only one kissable ring is on display

The Roman Catholic Church is one of the few institutions in the western world permitted to discriminate, in terms of employment, on the basis of gender. Recently it announced that it would allow women to become deacons. The term deacon comes from ancient Greek, meaning servant, which of course accurately expresses the RCC attitude to women. There’s no upward employment pathway for women who become deacons, and I’d strongly advise any woman against applying for such a position. Of course I’d also strongly advise them to reject Catholicism altogether, as the religion, or business organisation, whatever it is, clearly has an attitude towards women which should have no place in modern society.

So given the outrageous discrimination practised by the RCC, why do so many women sheepishly accede to its restrictions? Well, maybe they don’t. I know this is anecdotal, but in a recent trip around Europe I took a few tours of major European cities. These unsurprisingly involved visits to quite a handful of historic cathedrals, featuring tombs of popes and sculptures of saints and such, but what impressed me more was that each of our tour guides felt obliged, apparently, to say that though their city was nominally Catholic, few of its residents actually practised the religion today. Maybe there was collusion among the tour guides, maybe they were all keen not to frighten the many Asian tourists, but they were surely speaking the truth. Roman Catholicism is the largest non-practiced religion in the world (though of course in some parts it’s practised fervently).

So since the RCC isn’t yet dead from indifference, perhaps something should be done to kill it off legally, and mounting legal challenges to its discriminatory policies on employment and other matters would be a good way to speed up the dying process. Sadly, I can’t find any legal or rights-based organisations keen to take up the challenge. The influential American Civil Liberties Union has many strong statements about Catholic and other religious charities and health providers discriminating against the women they serve, on issues such as abortion, family planning and homosexuality, but nothing about employment within the religious orders of the RCC. Of course the RCC doesn’t discriminate against women in their welfare arm, because to serve is a woman’s vocation. And of course the ACLU only highlights issues, it doesn’t have the resources to go any further, nor would it succeed, as religious groups are routinely exempt from anti- discrimination laws.

In Australia, the Sex Discrimination Act, particularly sections 37 and 38, provides the legal backing to religious sex discrimination. The sections are written with ‘religious freedom’ in mind, and with an eye to Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Religious Rights. These freedoms, though, aren’t absolute and are to be balanced against other human rights, such as equal opportunity based on gender.

There are of course good reasons why nobody is legally challenging the RCC on this issue. Women as priests, bishops, cardinals, popes – this is hardly low-hanging fruit, it’s the heart of the Catholic system. Better to focus on discrimination against homosexuals and LGBT individuals employed in, or just attending, RCC schools. This chips away at the edges of this dreadful patriarchy and slowly weakens it. Every concession the RCC makes to modernity is like another gulp of poison it’s forced to take. Its strength will ebb away…

Written by stewart henderson

August 22, 2016 at 7:11 am

Good Friday? We object..

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profound spirituality lives on

profound spirituality lives on

Canto: I’m sitting here thinking I’d like to take a ride to the beach and then breakfast at a seaside caf but I can’t because it’s ‘good Friday’ and every such outlet in this state is shut down.

Jacinta: Right, and so what’s so good about Good Friday? I’ve heard tell it’s good for us to have a complete day off from shopping or having paid servants wait on us – a bit like having a day off from using electricity or motorised transport or – imagine it – a whole day in which smartphones couldn’t be used. We would somehow be better human beings, more appreciative of the first-world splendour we bask in, if we experienced the horrendous suffering of being deprived of it for a day.

Canto: Well I’ve had thoughts of that kind in the past, but I’d rather be up-front and call it first-world-free day or some such, because we both know good friday isn’t about deprivation of our favourite indulgences, or, if it is, that deprivation is supposed to remind us that on a ‘good day’ around 2000 years ago someone was crucified. A horrible death but not so horrible in this case because this particular guy was an immortal being in disguise who is now still alive and all around us and loves us terribly much. So it’s all good.

Jacinta: Yeah…right… sooo…

Canto: Okay the reason they say it’s good is because this immortal being died, or pretended to, or went through enormous suffering, because this allowed us to be saved.

Jacinta: Ahh right… saved… saved… ummm

Canto: Look Jass … I know this seems confusing to you but if you take a thorough-going theology course, and maintain a deeply spiritual lifestyle for the next several years you might be offered a glimmer of the revelation enveloped in this outwardly mysterious form of knowing-as-being.

Jacinta: Ohhh… shit… but all I really wanted was a caffe latte..

Canto: Okay well the reason you won’t get your latte today is because a certain dwindling section of our society believes this story of Jesus on the cross is literally true, or symbolically true or true in some deep sense which is beyond our shallow faithlessness, and this section of our society, though now a shadow of its former all-powerful self, once had complete control of our polity and economy and thus dictated what holidays we should have and why. And since we really like to have holidays and it would be a pain in the national arse to rename or reconfigure them, the ship of state being very difficult to shift from its course and all that, we’re stuck with good friday until the dwindling near-minority dwindles to such a level that it becomes a national embarrassment that we’re still pretending to respect such inconcinnities.

Jacinta: Well I saw on the morning news that the Sydney fish market’s open today.. wherever that is..

Canto: I think it’s in Sydney.

Jacinta: … but nothing’s open in dear old Adelaide, the shitty of churches. I don’t think we should just sit back and accept this. Why aren’t people protesting?

Canto: Okay, yes, let’s protest. What do you suggest?

Jacinta: Well, ummm, we could write to our local MP?

Canto: Yes, that would turn the ship of state around quick smart.

Jacinta: How about a petition?

Canto: Now that’s original. We could put it out over the net through or some such, and sit back and watch the overflow of community outrage…

Jacinta: Well the fact is, as you say, we love our holidays, so many people are prepared to be completely hypocritical about the reason for the season, even to the point of accepting the inconvenience of one complete shut-down day…

Canto: So that’s the end of our protest?

Jacinta: Pretty much. Join me for a nice breakfast out somewhere tomorrow morning?

Canto: You’re on.


Written by stewart henderson

March 25, 2016 at 1:24 pm

why is evolution true? (if it is): part two, the problem of macroevolution

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So, in Darwin’s day, there was a clear problem. Fossilised bones turning up everywhere, sometimes of gigantic creatures unlike anything on earth, sometimes of creatures very like those then living but not quite the same – in any case all indicating change, change, change. And there were many other oddities, some of them observed by Darwin himself on his Beagle voyage. Marine fossils embedded in landscapes way above sea level. Darwin had a great interest in geology, courtesy of Charles Lyell, whose landmark work, Principles of Geology, he carried with him on his great voyage. He was very interested in Lyell’s view, derived from Hutton, that landscapes changed slowly, with mountains rising from the sea, over periods of time much greater than the biblical account. So imagine his mind, full of Lyell’s speculations, when on March 4 1835 he was exploring the cliffs above Talcuhano Harbour, near Concepcion in Chile, shortly after the devastating earthquake, and found maases of seashells embedded in the rock. The Andes had risen from the sea, surely! Yet he might well have been in two minds – slow change, yes, perhaps, but the earthquake had also changed the physical landscape in an instant, bringing rocks dripping and oozing with marine life up several feet above the sea surface…

Meanwhile, dinosaurs. Of course the bones of these critters have been unearthed for millenia, but it was only in the early nineteenth century that they were treated scientifically. It was Richard Owen, later to become Darwin’s bête noir, who coined the term in 1842 (it’s from the Greek, roughly meaning ‘terrible lizard’ though dinos weren’t lizards, and they weren’t all terrible, or terribly large). These huge beasts (dinos come in all sizes, but large bones are more easily preserved than small ones, giving a false picture, and of course bigness grabs the public imagination) had clearly disappeared, but when? Why? How long ago? It all made the question of the earth’s actual age and history rather more urgent.

Darwin, back in England after a richly stimulating voyage in which he’d collected and ruminated over a vast number of exotic species, was exercised by a number of problems. Why did whole species disappear? Surely this had some connection with changes of landscape and habitat? He’d been making observations with regard to predators and prey, how species depended on other species, how individuals competed for mates. It seems that, unlike Wallace who came upon the insight of natural selection more or less in one fell swoop years later, Darwin was piecing things together painfully slowly, with hesitation, scepticism and uncertainty, but also with a dogged accumulation of evidence, so that when, finally, impelled by the famous letter from Wallace in the late 1850s to express his views, he was able to do so fulsomely, in spite of a lack of writerly ability. And the rest, as they say, is history.

The theory of natural selection is the most spectacularly successful and productive theory in biology, and is in fact its foundation stone. It has been reinforced by all that has been discovered since, especially in genetics and microbiology, fields that didn’t exist in Darwin’s time. The basis of the theory is quite simple, though it has been much misrepresented. Creatures reproduce, and generally the offspring are pretty well identical to the parents, but sometimes mutations occur. The offspring is in some way different. Usually the difference is ‘negative’, disadvantaging the offspring. The offspring is thus unable to reproduce and its line dies out. Sometimes the difference is ‘neutral’ and the line continues to reproduce, until or unless natural (environmental) conditions change and that line becomes either positive or negative within the context of those conditions. In other words it thrives compared to others or it dies out. Sometimes the difference is immediately positive, and this line outcompetes the others. The variation is random, but the natural environment ‘selects’ the best fit – the birds with the best beak for pecking out food; the worms with the best chemistry for thriving in a particular soil; in more recent times, the bacteria that can best resist the antibiotics we throw at them.

So the theory of natural selection describes incremental, gradual change. Its effect upon species is more difficult to explain, and it’s with this that creationists like to play, raising lots of dust and fog with respect to the species concept.

So what exactly is a species? The first more or less universally accepted classification of living things into groups was that of Linnaeus in his Systema naturae of 1735. It was a thoroughgoing system, from kingdom at the top, ranging down through phylum, class, order, family, genus and species. It’s still used today, of course, with various additions intercalated with these layers, but in the 20th century a new taxonomic system called cladistics, based on a more scientific understanding of descent from common ancestry, and so incorporating the new science of genetics, has won increasing favour.

One of the main reasons for this new development is that the term ‘species’ has historically been  frustratingly vague. Originally it was based on morphological characteristics – in other words, visible similarities. Nowadays, though, with the emergence of population genetics and genomics, we can be more rigorous about species and speciation. Basically, a species becomes separated from another when it no longer breeds with that other. More often than not, this is due to geographic separation. Early on in the separation interbreeding is still possible, but over time, with continued lack of opportunity, the two groups become increasingly distinct and unlike (and one or both groups may go extinct). This branching has of course occurred oodles of times, creating an evolutionary bush, each twig of which can be traced back to the original stem.

So far, so clear, I hope. So where do the creationist terms micro-evolution and macro-evolution come in? Well, off the top of my head, I think that, since creationists really really dislike the theory of natural selection as presented by Darwin, they have to account for obvious changes somehow without abandoning divine creation, especially of humans, as soul-blessed, dominion-holding, image-of-god types. So, they distinguish micro-evolution, changes within species (e.g. different breeds of dogs) from macro-evolution, transformations from one species to another, which they claim doesn’t exist. Presumably they think that every species was specially created by their god, though why he should have created so many and rendered the vast majority of them extinct before humans even came on the scene is a mystery. This points up a major problem for those who believe in directed evolution as well as creationism.

Okay, to be clear, micro-evolution and macro-evolution aren’t terms invented by creationists, though they’ve taken to them like babies to their mothers’ milk. The terms were first used by evolutionary biologists early in the 20th century to characterise not different processes but different scales of evolution. Micro-evolution plus time (in which minute changes accumulate) equals macro-evolution. Creationists, then, are reduced to claiming that, because we don’t ‘see’ speciation, it doesn’t exist. Presumably they can say the same for the big bang and black holes, but we can detect such objects and events through increasingly precise instrumentation, and we can pretty well map the relations between species, and the branchings-off, by examining genomes. They tell us, for example, that we share an ancestor with our closest living relatives, the chimps and bonobos, dating back between 5 and 7 million years ago. We are equally related to these two species because they branched off from each other later, between one and a half and two million years ago. Richard Dawkins, in his monumental work The Ancestors’ Tale, attempted to trace these nodes of connections between the ancestors of humans and other species, back to the first life forms. There are gaps in our knowledge of course, but they’re being filled in on an almost daily basis.

As Dawkins points out in another of his books, River out of Eden, the DNA ‘revolution’ that got underway as a result of Watson and Crick’s unravelling of the molecular structure of the gene, is a digital revolution. The genetic code is quaternary, with four nucleotide elements – adenine, thymine, cytosine and guanine which can be combined in specific ways. Therefore the difference in the coding for different proteins, leading on the large scale to all the variation we see, can be worked out mathematically. This allows us to define more precisely our cousinship to other species – which are the more distant cousins, horses or pigs? Or, how closely connected are bees and butterflies? We can illustrate these relations using cladograms:



The technology we now have at our disposal allows us to map whole genomes increasingly cheaply and efficiently, and so we’re finding some surprising relationships. For example, recent DNA analysis has revealed that falcons, previously thought for fairly obvious reasons to be closely related to other birds of prey such as eagles, are in fact more closely related to parrots, songbirds and passerines such as the humble sparrow – a significant shift in taxonomic placement.

The obvious connections between species, and the fact that we can draw the evolutionary bush with increasing confidence, makes a mockery of creationist claims against natural selection, which not only explains speciation but also extinction. We may not know exactly why the neanderthals, or the trilobites, or the Australian megafauna died out, but natural selection points us in the right direction for answers – climate change, food scarcity and the introduction of new predators into the environment being the obvious candidates. The creationist, on the other hand needs to answer the question – why would their god keep creating these species, endlessly, only to have them snuffed out? No answers about the opacity of their god’s intentions are acceptable. And of course that’s far from being the only question they can’t answer.

Written by stewart henderson

June 13, 2015 at 5:14 pm

why is evolution true? (if it is): part one, the problem of fixity

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some Galapagos finches

some Galapagos finches

Much of my writing, especially about sciency stuff, is an attempt to own the knowledge. It’s perhaps never completely successful, especially for the non-specialist, the dilettante, who tries to own so much and to keep all those possessions together. You read about it, you cast it in your own words, you grasp it, you think you’ve grasped it completely, you move on to other things, and six months later you’re asked a curly question and in trying to answer it you find you’ve forgotten the half of it, and you wonder – did I ever really understand it after all?

So. We have the theory of evolution, or natural selection from random variation, and we have the theories of special and general relativity and quantum theory and so forth. And we have those in science who tell us that ‘theory’ is a technical term constantly misunderstood by the general public and deliberately misconstrued by those with particular agendas. And we have general talk and a lot of general ignorance about evolution.

Several years ago, when I was starting out as a teacher of ESOL (English to speakers of other languages) I observed a small community centre English class. The elderly teacher was asked by a well-dressed middle-aged African man, did she really think evolution – that we were descended from monkeys – was true? It was a polite, puzzled question. The teacher, understandably not wanting to dive down that rabbit hole, replied, ‘well, you know, it’s just a theory’, and the subject was changed. It unsettled me, to put mildly. It’s not how I would’ve dealt with the matter, and in fact I’ve twice since been placed in that position in recent times, and I’ve responded with ‘oh yes, it’s true, the evidence is in and it’s overwhelming,’ or words to that effect. Bam bam, take that and let’s back to grammar.

But of course, that response, too, is unsettling. After all, I could’ve given the exact same response to the question ‘Does God exist?’. It was just saying, an argument from my own authority.

Of course I had back-up from years of science and evolution-reading, but still I felt I was just imposing my authority as a teacher. I half-hoped for and half-dreaded being asked to elaborate.

The other night, at an atheist meet-up, the group was ‘invaded’ by three or four young street-preachers, self-confessed fundies who were apparently keen to debate evolution (they didn’t believe in it) and cosmology (the universe can’t create itself, ergo god). I didn’t engage with them myself, as I’m still recovering from a chest infection and want to avoid stress, but things got very heated over in their corner and I’ve since received an email asking for help to convince one of them of the evidence for evolution. It may be that the young man’s ignorance is wilful, but maybe not, and in any case it provides me with a useful opportunity to answer as best I can the title question.

Questions were raised about the fixity of species well before Charles Darwin was born. The most important figures in this early questioning of orthodoxy came from France. One of the founders of naturalism, Buffon, speculated that the earth might be much older than the standard biblical 6000 years, and that change, both geological and organic, might be endemic and constant. He mostly kept his views to himself, as the idea that the earth was maybe more than ten times older than the accepted figure was incendiary for the time. Lamarck, however, was the first to really go public with a theory of evolution. His essential view was that creatures adapted to their environment over time through the inheritance of acquired characteristics. Although he was generally incorrect as to his mechanism there is still some interest in his ideas today, but above all Lamarck strongly influenced future thinking on the subject as he was a first-rate scientist.

It should be noted though that all this speculation was brought on by the problems posed by evidence. The biblical fixity of species account was becoming increasingly difficult to reconcile with the discoveries of fossils of creatures not to be found anywhere, yet apparently related to current species. And then there were the fossils of ‘giants’, which had been discovered here and there for centuries, but which were not described scientifically until the nineteenth century. How could all these remains of  ‘disappeared’ creatures be turning up in a world where creation was fixed? The most popular explanation was ‘catastrophism’, a view held by Cuvier, a younger contemporary of Lamarck and one of his strongest critics. It was an attempt to reconcile fixity with a conveniently biblical diluvian view, but it continued to move thinking in a scientific, evidence-based direction.

Meanwhile, however, other fields of research, such as geology, were also becoming increasingly scientific, especially in Britain, with the work of Hutton and Lyell. Through inference from present conditions, they developed a gradualist, uniformitarian theory of physical change, with a more open-ended view of the earth’s age. This was the scientific background to Darwin’s naturalism. His own grandfather, Erasmus, dabbled in evolutionary ideas, and proposed that the earth had existed for ‘millions of ages’.

Now I know there’s a view out there among fundamentalists called ‘young earth creationism’, but I don’t know much about it. It would seem to be an absolutely crackpot notion, a denial of modern geology, astronomy and cosmology as well as biology and palaeontology, and I presume people who think this way consider the whole of modern science a massive conspiracy theory. How could they not? Yet the young man mentioned above has suggested we go and see a lecture by John Hartnett, an Adelaide University Associate Professor of Physics who’s also a young earth creationist. How could this be? Well I know something of cognitive dissonance and confirmation bias, but still I can barely imagine what he would say to justify his worldview, and I’m not really interested in trying to rebut his specific arguments, if he has them. These people tend to have martyr complexes about their positions, and I suspect they’d be happy to spend hours trying to bamboozle you. The main thing is to be clear about your own understanding of the evidence.

However, I also have an interest in the psychology of belief. Take the case of Hartnett, which I can only speculate about, but this is an obviously intelligent person who has apparently written scientific papers on dark matter and other aspects of cosmology and astrophysics. He knows, surely, how vast the universe is, that the Andromeda Galaxy, our nearest neighbour, is a barely-conceivable 2.5 million light years away, and there are billions of them beyond that, and yet he manages to square this with a six-day creation 6,000 years ago because it was written down by someone and collected much later with a whole mess of other writings by other people, compiled into a book and pronounced ‘holy’. Surely such thinking is more of a mystery than the gods themselves?

I can only speculate again, but Hartnett’s middle name is Gideon, a name inevitably associated with bible-bashing. Can it be that a person gets locked in, from earliest childhood, to a religious schema that they would never think to escape from, no matter how intelligent they are? Can cultural-familial influences have such a vice-like grip? Apparently so, but it’s unusual for someone to be regularly crossing the boundary between a rigid and dogmatic religious belief system and a highly speculative, often free-wheeling but rational and profoundly naturalist enterprise in the way that Hartnett must do. Ain’t people fascinating?

I’ve just read an article about rapid speciation among cichlid fishes in the African lakes. The authors note that this speciation, involving some 500 new species in Lake Victoria, has taken place over less than 15,000 years, unlike the famous speciation among ‘Darwin’s’ finches in the Galapagos (14 species, several million years). It’s called adaptive radiation, where ‘one lineage spawns numerous species that evolve specialisations to an array of ecological niches’, to quote Axel Meyer, writing in the April 2015 edition of Scientific American.

Yet this rapid speciation is still too much for young earth creationists, who believe the earth is less than 10,000 years old. What they make of stromatolites is anyone’s guess. Note that the term ‘earth’ is central, and presumably the universe or multiverse is of little concern to them, existing perhaps only as a fireworks show for our delectation.

As an Australian, this is all good for a laugh – though some Australians, such as John Hartnett, are full-on believers of a six-day creation a few thousand years ago – but apparently in the USA a substantial proportion of their very large population actually believes this (though to be honest, I can’t bring myself to believe the survey figures).

So, I wonder how I would deal with these young-turk young earth creationists who come to our atheist meet-ups spoiling for an argument. My hope is that I would have the wherewithal to ask these questions.

Is it your hope to convert the whole world to your view?

If you were successful, wouldn’t science classes be a lot shorter?

What would you do with those who insisted on being heretical? Preaching that the universe has existed for 13 billion years? Would you have them liquidated, or just permanently incarcerated? How about public recantations?

How come your god allowed us to be led astray by the evidence into getting it so wrong?

What would science be like if young earth creationists controlled all the levers of power? What would scientists do?

Of course I’m yet to hear what young earth creationists, many of whom are apparently highly intelligent, have to say about star formation, black holes and the big bang. They may well have the talent to bamboozle me with ingenious arguments. In the end, though, the best argument is to just keep doing the science, following the evidence. As long as we’re still allowed to.

Meanwhile, I haven’t yet answered the question – why is evolution (or more specifically, natural selection of random variation) true? But before I answer that, I believe that creationists do accept evolution of a particular kind, and distinguish between ‘micro-evolution’ and ‘micro-evolution’. I’ll pay some attention to that – but perhaps not too much – in my next post.

Written by stewart henderson

June 8, 2015 at 6:56 am

the fall – when curiosity was shameful, and miracles abounded

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the benedictine abbey of Gottweig in the Danube Valley, now enjoying more freedom as a guesthouse

the benedictine abbey of Gottweig in the Danube Valley, now enjoying more freedom as a guesthouse

I’ve been reading some medieval literature recently, and I’d like to make a brief comparison here between the writings of Benedict of Nursia (c480-547) and Pope Greg the Great (reigned from 589 to 604), and the Roman writers of a few centuries before, such as Livy, Tacitus, Cicero and Plutarch. It’s maybe a bit unfair as Greg and Ben perhaps weren’t typical writers of the sixth century, I’m hardly medievalist enough to say, but still they capture for me the tragedy of the soi-disant Dark Ages for the development of thought and ideas. I’ll be quoting from the medieval writers, but only referring to the Romans – you’ll just have to take my word for it about their smarts.

Benedict of Nursia is probably better known as Saint Benedict, but I don’t like that appellation – not because he doesn’t deserve it, but because nobody does, as in order to become a saint it must’ve been ‘proven’ that you performed miracles, and such silliness shouldn’t be encouraged. More importantly, this nominatively determined method of severing such individuals from common humanity does us all a disservice. Anyway, Benedict was the founder of 12 monasteries or communities in Italy, and he wrote rules for them which were later adopted in other regions to form the basis of the Benedictine system of monks – though there was never really a strict Benedictine order (monks who live communally under a set of rules are called cenobites). I’ve just read these rules, followed by Pope Gregory’s  hagiography of Benedict, and it gives me a perspective on the closing of the European mind – if that’s not too grandiose a term – associated with the Dark Ages.

Benedict is praised for what Wikipedia calls the ‘balance, moderation and reasonableness’ of his rules, which facilitated their adoption by many European monasteries. However, moderation is a relative term, and as a rabid anti-authoritarian I probably chafe more than most under imposed rules. Still, I reckon most independent-minded modern westerners would find Benedict’s rules deadeningly stifling, and if they were considered moderate for the time, I’d hate to think about the more immoderate rules that the pious were forced to submit to. But judge for yourself.

Benedict states at the outset that ‘we are going to establish a school for the service of the Lord’. This isn’t of course a school in the modern sense, it’s more like certain types of Madrassa, in which nothing outside of sacred texts is studied. The school or institute is to be presided over by an Abbot, chosen for his personal qualities, including self-discipline, firmness, compassion and insight into the ways of the Lord. Recalcitrant souls need to be coaxed or reproved into the narrow path. However,

… bold, proud, hard and disobedient characters he should curb at the very beginning of their ill-doing by stripes and other bodily punishments, knowing that it is written, ‘The fool is not corrected with words’, and again, ‘Beat your son with the rod and you will deliver his soul from death’.

I suppose this isn’t too much worse than a lot of army-style biffo, as depicted in Full Metal Jacket and the like, but there’s more, and monasticism was a life commitment. Benedict goes on a lot about humility and seriousness – he frowns upon laughter. He also insists, ominously, on narrowness, for ‘strait is the gate and narrow is the way’ to salvation, as we all know. Clearly the lives of these life-long penitents are going to be highly circumscribed. Patience, endurance, humility and obedience are the watchwords.

The monks’ days are rigidly ordered. Prayers are to be offered up 7 times a day (more often than in Islam, even) because, according to Benedict, the Prophet says ‘seven times in the day I have rendered praise to you’. Who this prophet was I can’t ascertain, and there’s no such quote in the Bible, though Isaiah and Luke both display a fondness for the number. In any case, Benedict gives instructions about the number and type of psalms to be sung at the Morning Office, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers and Compline. Prayers are to be ‘short and pure’, in compliance with the spirit of silence that should inhabit, not to say inhibit, the school. One of the longest chapters is ‘On Humility’, in which Benedict defines 12 different degrees of humility, as the monk becomes more and more cleansed of vice and sin:

The tenth degree of humility is that he be not ready and quick to laugh, for it is written, ‘The fool lifts up his voice in laughter’.

The eleventh degree of humility is that when a monk speaks he do so gently and without laughter, humbly and seriously, in few and sensible words, and that he be not noisy in his speech. It is written, ‘A wise man is known by the fewness of his words.’

Again, Benedict doesn’t tells us where these dubious claims are written, but they don’t seem to come from the Bible. In any case, you get the idea, the fantasy that suppression of all spontaneity and originality leads through the narrow gate unto heaven.

Of course, the microcosm of the monastery doesn’t necessarily reflect the macrocosm of medieval Europe, but in a world of more or less homogenous Christian belief many of these ‘ideals’ would have been prominent. Not that the previous Roman world was that much better, as far as the nurturing of curiosity and intellectual inquiry was concerned. Roman society was also quite rigid in its structure, and philosophically, neither the Stoics nor the Epicureans thought in terms of intellectual progress. But the near-obsessive stifling of curiosity, the obsession with an obedient, humble, slavish attitude before an all-knowing master-god, that was very much a product of the Christianising of the Empire and ultimately of all Europe. The kind of reflective history-writing and philosophising found in the work of Tacitus, Cicero and Marcus Aurelius, dealing with human psychology and conduct in its own right, without reference to divine expectations, all but disappeared for centuries.

Interestingly, along with the fashion for slavishness came a flourishing of credulity. Pope Gregory the Great’s bio of Benedict teems with his miracles and fulfilled prophecies, reminding us that the age of Jesus wasn’t the dimmest for unbelievable beliefs, though it may have sparked the fashion for them. There’s virtually a miracle on every page, so I’ll quote here one of the first, from when he was a youth, having abandoned his studies to serve his Master, to give you a taste:

When Benedict abandoned his studies to go into solitude, he was accompanied by his nurse, who loved him dearly. As they were passing through Affile, a number of devout men invited them to stay there and provided them with lodging near the Church of St Peter. One day, after asking her neighbours to lend her a tray for cleaning wheat, the nurse happened to leave it on the edge of the table and when she came back she found it had slipped off and broken in two. The poor woman burst into tears, she had just borrowed this tray and now it was ruined. Benedict, who had always been a devout and thoughtful boy, felt sorry for his nurse when he saw her weeping. Quietly picking up both the pieces, he knelt down by himself and prayed earnestly to God, even to the point of tears. No sooner had he finished his prayer than he noticed that the two pieces were joined together, without even a mark to show where the tray had been broken. Hurrying back at once, he cheerfully reassured his nurse and handed her the tray in perfect condition.

Of course, this little tale is partly designed to show Benedict’s kindness and attentiveness in small matters, and perhaps that’s the best take-home message, but not all the miracles are so nice, and some display the wish-fulfilling fantasy of bringing down enemies. The point, though, is that these miracles are disseminated by the highest religious authorities in Europe, so that it would amount to sacrilege to deny them. Interestingly, when I was nine years old, my mother bought me a collection of books called ‘Uncle Arthur’s Bedtime Stories’ – about ten books each with about ten stories in them, and every one told of a miracle much like this one (and to be fair to my mother, she hadn’t vetted them first and wasn’t aware that they were Christian propaganda). People had fallen on hard times or had suffered an accident, they prayed to God, their fortunes were miraculously reversed. They were very formulaic stories, and I steamed with annoyance on reading them, but it’s fascinating to find a template for that kind of writing from nearly 1400 years before. How the world has changed and how some aspects of it remain.

What is interesting for me, though, is the connection between credulity and authority that marks the Dark Ages. As a youngster I was free to, and took delight in, spurning the ‘authority’ of Uncle Arthur and his benevolent miracles. I’m a creature of my era and social milieu, as we all are, but there are many social milieux in our world. I’ve just seen a TV clip about the ‘fight of the century’ between one Floyd Mayweather and the Filipino boxer Manny Pacquiao. I’m not much into boxing these days (I was a keen follower of the sport in my youth), but I hear this fight is being billed as goodie v baddie, because Mayweather is a convicted wife-beater and apparently something of a self-advertising loudmouth whereas Pacquiao is a member of parliament, charity worker and other respectable things. However, when I just looked at the screen I saw Pacquaio wearing a t-shirt with ‘Jesus is my Lord’ or some such thing emblazoned on it, and I felt a spurt of disgust. I have a visceral reaction to the slavishness and submission of the two most common religions on the planet. The old ‘pagan’ religions certainly engaged in seasonal placatory gestures but they didn’t practice or preach eternal submission to their invisible and undetectable masters. And not only are we supposed to accept our enslavement, but to exalt in our specialness. It’s the most horrible kind of unreality, to me. So there’s still plenty of darkness to deal with, or to avoid. Let’s remember Goethe’s reputed last words – more light.

some thoughts on humanism and activism

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What Australia needs


I’ve been a little more involved in ‘movements’ in recent years, though I’m not usually much of a joiner, and I’ve always been wary of ‘activism’, which is often associated with protesting, personning the barricades (doesn’t have quite the aggressive ring to it, does it?), even a bit of biffo – if largely verbal, by preference. I’ve just been hungry for a bit of stimulus – salon culture, witty and cultured and informative exchanges with people cleverer than myself. But since I’ve been occasionally asked to engage on a higher, or deeper level, in ‘the culture wars’, on the side of reason, atheism, secularism, humanism, whatever, my thoughts on the matter have started to crystallise, and they’re hopefully in evidence in my blog writing.

I don’t mind calling myself an activist for humanism, or for other isms, but I think we should be activists for rather than against. Now it might be argued that to argue for one thing is to argue against another, so it doesn’t really matter, but I think it matters a great deal. It’s a matter of trying to be positive and influencing others with your positivity. Secular humanism has a great case to promote, as do reason, self-awareness and ‘skepticism with sympathy’.

I’ve learned from years of teaching students from scores of different countries and cultures that we all can be excited by learning new stuff, that we’re amused by similar things, that we all want to improve and to be loved and appreciated. The ties that bind us as humans are far greater than those that divide us culturally or in other ways. I’ve also learned that the first principle of good teaching is to engage your students, rather than haranguing or badgering them. This may not seem easy when you’re teaching something as apparently dry and contentless as language and grammar, but language is essentially a technology for communicating content, and if we didn’t have anything meaningful or important to communicate, we’d never have developed it. So the key is to engage students with content that’s relevant to them, and stimulating and thought-provoking enough that they’ll want to communicate those thoughts.

I suppose I’m talking about constructive engagement, and this is the best form of activism. Of course, like everyone, I don’t always ‘constructively engage’. I get mad and frustrated, I dismiss with contempt, I feel offended or vengeful, yet the best antidote to those negative feelings is simple, and that is to throw yourself into the lives, the culture, the background of your ‘enemy’, or the ‘other’, which requires imagination as well as knowledge. I mis-spent a lot of my youth reading fiction from non-English backgrounds – from France and Germany, from Russia and eastern Europe, from Africa and Asia. It was a lot cheaper than travelling, especially as I avoided a lot of paid work in order to indulge my reading. Of course I read other stuff too, history, philosophy, psychology, new-wave feminism, but fiction – good fiction, of course – situated all these subjects and issues within conflicted, emotional, culturally-shaped and striving individuals, and provided me with a sense of the almost unfathomable complexity of human endeavour. The understanding of multiple backgrounds and contexts, especially when recognising that your own background is a product of so much chance, creates multiple sympathies, and that’s essential to humanism, to my mind.

However, there are limits to such identifications. Steven Pinker discusses this in The better angels of our nature (the best advertisement for humanism I’ve ever read) by criticising the overuse, or abuse, of the term ’empathy’ and expressing his preference for ‘sympathy’. Empathy is an impossible ideal, and it can involve losing your own bearings in identifying with another. There are always broader considerations.

Take the case of the vaccination debate. While there are definitely charlatans out there directly benefitting from the spread of misinformation, most of the people we meet who are opposed to vaccination aren’t of that kind, usually they have personal stories or information from people they trust that has caused them to think the way they do. We can surely feel sympathy with such people – after all, we also have had personal experiences that have massively influenced how we think, and we get much of our info from people we trust. But we also have evidence, or know how to get it. We owe it to ourselves and others to be educated on these matters. How many of us who advocate vaccination know how a vaccine actually works? If we wish to enter that particular debate, a working knowledge of the science is an essential prerequisite (and it’s not so difficult, there’s a lot of reliable explanatory material online, including videos), together with a historical knowledge of the benefits of vaccination in virtually eradicating various diseases. To arm yourself with and disseminate such knowledge is, to me, the best form of humanist activism.

I’ll choose a couple more topical issues, to look at how we could and should be positively active, IMHO. The first, current in Australia, is chaplaincy in schools. The second, a pressing issue right now for Australians but of universal import, is capital punishment.

The rather odd idea of chaplaincy in schools was first mooted by Federal Minister Greg Hunt in 2006 after lobbying from a church leader and was acted upon by the Howard government in 2007. It was odd for a number of reasons. First, education is generally held to be a state rather than a federal responsibility, and second, our public education system has no provision in it for religious instruction or religious proselytising. The term ‘chaplain’ has a clear religious, or to be more precise Christian, association, so why, in the 21st century, in an increasingly multicultural society in which Christianity was clearly on the decline according to decades of census figures, and more obviously evidenced by scores of empty churches in each state, was the federal government introducing these Christian reps into our schools via taxpayer funds? It was an issue tailor-made for humanist organisations, humanism being dedicated – and I trust my view on this is uncontroversial – to emphasising what unites us,  in terms of human rights and responsibilities, rather than what divides us (religion, nationality, gender, sexual orientation etc). To introduce these specifically Christian workers, out of the blue, into an increasingly non-Christian arena, seemed almost deliberately divisive.

Currently the National School Chaplaincy Program is in recess, having been stymied by two effective High Court challenges brought by a private citizen, Ron Williams, of the Humanist Society of Queensland. As far as I’m aware, Williams’ challenge was largely self-funded, but assisted by a donation from at least one of the state humanist societies. This was a cause that could and should have been financed and driven by humanists in a nationally co-ordinated campaign, which would have enabled humanists to have a voice on the issue, and to make a positive contribution to the debate.

What would have been that contribution? Above all to provide evidence, for the growing secularism and multiculturalism of the nation and therefore the clearly anachronistic and potentially divisive nature of the government’s policy. Identification with every Christian denomination is dropping as a percentage of the national population, and the drop is accelerating. This is nobody’s opinion, it’s simply a fact. Church attendance is at the lowest it’s ever been in our Christian history – another fact. Humanists could have gone on the front foot in questioning the role of these chaplains. In the legislation they’re expected to provide “support and guidance about ethics, values, relationships and spirituality”, but there’s an insistence that they shouldn’t replace school counsellors, for counselling isn’t their role. Apparently they’re to provide support without counselling, just by ‘being there’. Wouldn’t it be cheaper to just have their photos on the school walls? The ‘spirituality’ role is one that humanists could have a lot of fun with. I’ve heard the argument that people are just as religious as ever, but that they’ve rejected the established churches, and are developing their own spirituality, their own relationship to their god, so I suppose it would follow that their spirituality needs to be nourished at school. But the government has made a clear requirement that chaplains need to be members of an established religion (and obviously of a Christian denomination), so how exactly is that going to work?

While humour, along with High Court challenges and pointed questions about commitment to real education and student welfare, would be the way to ‘get active’ with the school chaplaincy fiasco, the capital punishment issue is rather more serious.

The Indonesian decision to execute convicted drug pedlars of various nationalities has attracted a lot of unwanted publicity, from an Indonesian perspective, but a lot of the response, including some from our government, has been lecturing and hectoring. People almost gleefully describe the Indonesians as barbarians and delight in the term ‘state-sanctioned murder’, mostly unaware of the vast changes in our society that have made capital punishment, which ended here in the sixties, seem like something positively medieval. These changes have not occurred to the same degree in other parts of the world, and as humanists, with a hopefully international perspective, we should be cognisant of this, aware of the diversity, and sympathetic to the issues faced by other nations faced with serious drug and crime problems. But above all we should look to offer humane solutions.

By far the best contribution to this issue I’ve heard so far has come from Richard Branson, representing the Global Commission on Drug Policy (GCDP), who spoke of his and other commissioners’ interest in speaking to the Indonesians about solutions to their drug problems, not to lecture or to threaten, but to advise on drug policies that work. No mention was made about capital punishment, which I think was a good thing, for what has rendered capital punishment obsolete more than anything else has been the development of societies that see their members as flawed but capable, mostly, of development for the better. Solutions to crime, drug use and many other issues – including, for that matter, joining terrorist organisations – are rarely punitive. They involve support, communication and connection. Branson, interviewed on the ABC’s morning news program, pointed to the evidence showing that harsh penalties had no effect on the drug trade, and that the most effective policy by far was legalisation. It’s probably not a story that our government would be sympathetic to, and it takes us deeply into the politics of drug law reform, but it is in fact a science-based approach to the issue that humanists should be active in supporting and promulgating. Branson pointed to the example of Portugal, which had, he claimed, drug problems as serious as that of Indonesia, which have since been greatly alleviated through a decriminalisation and harm-reduction approach.

I hope to write more about the GCDP’s interesting and productive-looking take on drug policy on my Solutions OK website in the future. Meanwhile, this is just the sort of helpful initiative that humanists should be active in getting behind. Indonesians are arguing that the damage being done by drug pushers requires harshly punitive measures, but the GCDP’s approach, which bypasses the tricky issue of national sovereignty, and capital punishment itself, is offered in a spirit of co-operation that is perfectly in line with an active, positive humanism.

So humanism should be as active as possible, in my view, and humanists should strive to get themselves heard on such broad issues as education, crime, equity and the environment, but they should enter the fray armed with solutions that are thoughtful, practicable and humane. Hopefully, we’re here to help.

the anthropic principle lives on and on

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The anthropic principle, the idea that the universe – and let’s not muddle up our heads with multiverses – appears to be tweaked just right, in a variety of ways, for the existence and flourishing of humans, has long been popular with the religious, those invested in the idea of human specialness, a specialness which evokes guided evolution, both in the biological and the cosmological sense. And, of course, God is our guide.

Wikipedia, God bless it, does an excellent job with the principle, introducing it straight off as the obvious fact that anyone able to ascertain the various parameters of the universe must necessarily be living in a universe, or a particular part of it, that enables her to do the ascertaining. In other words the human specialness mob have it arse backwards.

So I’ll happily refer all those questing to understand the anthropic principle, in strong and weak forms, it proponents and critics, etc, to Wikipedia. I’ve been brought to reflect on it again by my reading of Stephen Jay Gould’s essay, ‘mind and supermind’, in his 1985 collection, The Flamingo’s Smile. 

Yes, the anthropic principle, which many tend to think is a clever new tool for deists, invented by the very materialists who dismiss the idea of supernatural agency as unscientific, is an old idea – much more than 30 years old, because Gould was critiquing not only Freeman Dyson’s reflections on it in the eighties, but those of Alfred Russel Wallace more than a century ago, in his 1903 book Man’s Place in the Universe. Gould had good reason for comparing Dyson and Wallace; their speculations, almost a century apart, were based on vastly different understandings of the universe. It reminds us that our understanding of the universe, or that of the best cosmologists, continues to develop, and, I strongly suspect, will never be settled.

Theories and debates about our universe, or multiverse, its shape and properties, are more common, and fascinating, than ever, and accompanied by enough mathematics to make my brain bleed. The other day one of my regular emails from Huff Po science declared that maybe the universe didn’t have a beginning after all. This apparently from some scientists trying to grab attention in a pretty noisy field. I’ve only scanned the piece, which I would hardly be qualified to pass judgment on. But not long ago I read The Unknown Universe, a collection of essays from New Scientist magazine, dedicated to all ideas cosmological. I didn’t understand all of it of course, but genuine questions were raised about whether the universe is finite or infinite, about whether we really understand the time dimension, about how the laws that govern the universe came into being, and many other fundamental concepts. It’s interesting then to look back to more than a century ago, before Einstein, quantum mechanics, and space probes, and to reflect on the scientific understanding of the universe at that time.

A version of the universe, based on Lord Kelvin's calculations, used by Wallace

A version of the universe, based on Lord Kelvin’s calculations, used by Wallace

In Wallace’s time (a rather vague term because the great scientist’s life spanned 90 years, which saw substantial developments in astronomy) the universe, though considered almost unimaginably massive, was calculated to be much smaller than today’s reckoning. According to a diagram in Man’s Place in the Universe, it ended a little outside the Milky Way galaxy, because we had no tools at the time to measure any further, though Lord Kelvin, the dominant figure in physics and astronomy in the late 19th century, made a number of dodgy calculations that were taken seriously at the time. In fact, Kelvin’s figures for the size of the universe, and for the age of the earth, though too small by orders of magnitude, were considered outrageously huge by most of his contemporaries; but they at least began to accustom the educated public to the idea of ginormity in space and time.

But size wasn’t of course the only thing that made the universe of that time so different from our own conceptions. The universe of Wallace’s imagination was stable, timeless, and, to Wallace’s mind, lifeless, apart of course from our planet. However, he doesn’t appear to have any good argument for this, only improbability. And an odd kind of hope, that we are unique. This hope is revealed in a passage of his book where he goes off the scientific rails just a bit, in a paean to our gloriously unique humanity. A plurality of intelligent life-forms in the universe

… would imply that to produce the living soul in the marvellous and glorious body of man – man with his faculties, his aspirations, his powers for good and evil – that this was an easy matter which could be brought about anywhere, in any world. It would imply man is an animal and nothing more, is of no importance in the universe, needed no great preparations for his advent, only, perhaps, a second-rate demon, and a third or fourth-rate earth.

Wallace, though by no means Christian, was given to ‘spiritualism’, souls and the supernatural, all in relation to humans exclusively. That’s to say, he was wedded to ‘human specialness’, somewhat surprisingly for his theory of evolution by wholly natural selection from random variation. This is the chain, it seems, that links him to modern clingers-to the anthropic principle, such as William Lane Craig and his epigones, who must needs believe in a value-laden universe, with their god as the source of value, and we humans, platonically created as the feeble facsimiles of the godhead, struggling to achieve enlightenment in the form of closeness to the Creator, with its appropriate heavenly rewards. And so we have such typical WL Craigisms as ‘God is the best explanation of moral agents who apprehend necessary moral truths’, ‘God is the best explanation of why there are self-aware beings’ and ‘God is the best explanation of the discoverability of the universe [by humans of course]’. These best explanation ‘arguments’ can be added to ad nauseum, of course, for they’re all of a part, and all connected to the Wallace quote above. We’re special, we must be special, we must be central to the creator’s plan, and our amazingness, our so-much-more-than-animalness, in spite of our many flaws, suggests a truly amazing creator, who made all this just for us.

That’s the hope, captured well by the great French biologist Jaques Monod when he wrote

All religions, nearly all philosophies, and even a part of science testify to the unwearying, heroic effort of mankind desperately denying its contingency.

I think modern philosophy has largely moved on from desperate denialism, but Monod’s remarks certainly hold true for religions, past present and future. Basically, the denial of our contingency is the central business of religion. It’s hardly surprising then that the relationship between religion and science is uneasy at best, and antagonistic at its heart. The multiverse could surely be described as religion’s worst nightmare. But that’s another story.