Wednesday, 21 January 2009

Are we losing opportunities for scientific curiosity and wonder?

This year has been designated International Year of Astronomy by UNESCO and IAU prompted by the 400th anniversary of Galileo's detection of the moon's of Jupiter with his telescope. Since then, great strides have been made in establishing the proportions and locations of the Earth, Sun, planets and stars; but day by day it is getting harder and harder to see these objects for ourselves. Light pollution is preventing any town or city dweller from relishing the dark night sky, and with this change, the young generation is growing up not having had the chance to experience for themselves the sheer numbers of pricks of light in the sky, and so begin to wonder what it all is, how big it is, and how it got there. Without wondering, curiosity does not follow – first the question, then the investigation.

The night sky is not the only area which is losing the capacity to inspire the naturally questioning mind of the young child. Lack of time and fear of strangers is keeping children inside, or in groups, and not able to see for themselves the way flowers grow, the way insects behave and examine other natural phenomena found in any garden – and then stop and think about it. Or they are being taught what to look at on scheduled expeditions, instead of discovering questions for themselves from their own observations. We do not seem in danger of losing new mavericks to challenge the conventional wisdom, but there is a real chance that such people will become more and more remote from “ordinary people” who will not have the context and experiences to connect with them.

We are making an artificial environment which will isolate us even further from the real world, its physics and chemistry. Driving everywhere is even lessening the effect of the weather on our own development. We are in danger of considering nature only as something to be controlled and modified, and not something we are part of and should be worked with.

When was the last time you saw the Milky Way and stopped to think about it? If the International Year of Astronomy leads more people to do that, then maybe they will begin to realise the ecological trade-offs we must make to survive on this pale blue dot

Does atheism foster immorality?

One of the many strange accusations directed against atheists is that we wish to undermine morality. This seems absurd to most humanists since we are, mostly, rather ordinary and conventional. We may not obey the local religious food laws or attend Sunday/Saturday/Friday worship but we’re rather less likely than the religious to lie, steal or assault our neighbours.

So why do they say these things?

Let’s start by asking why people practice a religion. For most believers it’s because that’s how they were raised (a point I heard made by the then Archbishop of Canterbury in 1968!). It’s not because they sought the truth and found that this religion, rather than all the others, expressed it. They also enjoy the rituals (prayers, meditation, hymns, dances) in which they’ve been raised and the fellowship of the believing community.

But it’s hard to see why enjoyment of singing or prayer should lead to the sheer energy, and sometimes hatred, with which religions inspire their followers. The religious often say that their faith gives meaning to their lives and this, I believe, is the key.

There are two kinds of meaning, existential and moral (though they are related).

Religions offer answers to existential questions like: Why are we here? What's the purpose of life? Philosophically these may be category errors but they are, for some people, emotionally powerful. People do not only, or even largely, ask these questions out of curiosity but rather because they find life frightening and want reassurance that are reasons behind the arbitrariness of ordinary life. They are likely to feel most in need of answers when life is most frightening and arbitrary.

Religions also offer answers to moral questions notably: Why should I be good? Most people know that courage, kindness and loyalty, at least to their clan, tribe or nation, are good and that lying, theft and murder are bad. But bad things are sometimes convenient and profitable. Most of us are tempted, and we fear that others may succumb to temptation. It would be reassuring to know that, even if wickedness is rewarded on Earth it will be punished in a future life.

Most religions (including Christianity, Islam, and some forms of Hinduism and Buddhism) therefore promise a future life that is either spiritual (in heaven or hell) or earthly (following reincarnation). This future life provides a basis for divine rewards and punishments.

I believe that religious claims that atheism promotes immorality arise because the religious feel that they would behave wickedly if they did not have the moral meaning provided by their religions. (In fact I think they’re mistaken. In this I think better of them than they seem to think of themselves.) They therefore believe that undermining their ideas of moral meaning, which we do do, must necessarily make people immoral. Their desire – which we generally share – that people should behave morally drives their hostility to atheism.

Of course, there are issues on which Humanist morality really is different from that of the religious. There are various issues, notably about sex, death and personal freedom, on which we generally take positions to which they object. Doubtless this contributes to their feelings. But these aren’t usually the focus of their claims.

It’s likely that the religious anger against atheists has more than one source, but the issue of moral meaning must be a main one.

Tuesday, 20 January 2009

Woods! Hamilton! Obama! Let’s hear it for miscegenation!

What have the world’s greatest golfer, champion racing driver and liberal hope for the US presidency got in common? Well one thing is that they are all mixed race. All are products of miscegenation.

What a word. Who would care?

But it’s not long since many people, not just those of us of mixed race or having partners of other races, cared deeply. Miscegenation was illegal in Nazi Germany, in 16 of the states of the USA until 1967, and in South Africa until 1985. And in many other countries, including the UK, it was legal but widely disapproved of.

Most of the anti-miscegenation laws were based on the view that there was distinct white race and that it was better than other races. Scientifically speaking the first point is more than doubtful; there is more genetic variation within each so-called race than between races. The second point is equally hard to defend. It was, after all, members of the white race who invented concentration camps, atomic bombs and fascism.

Orthodox religion has, unsurprisingly, also been hostile to miscegenation. From the Dutch Reformed Church (known to English-speaking South Africans as the Much Deformed Church) to American fundamentalists like Jerry Falwell. As recently as 2000 the Bob Jones University – a Southern fundamentalist outfit – was unrepentantly hostile to inter-racial dating. Students who offended could be expelled. (BJU is, of course, the source of the Reverend Ian Paisley’s doctorate.)

These backward attitudes were not unique to the churches – indeed they were widely held by many westerners throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries. But they survived longest in these religious ghettos.

So let’s recognise the success of these, and other, products of miscegenation. Long may they prosper! And let’s hope we’ve seen the last of the prejudice that would have prevented their births.

(First posted 3 Nov 2008)

The cheek of the archbishop

Recently New Scientist carried a series of articles called “7 reasons why people hate reason” (26 July 2008). The one by the Archbishop of Canterbury was called “Reason stands against values and morals”. What a cheek!

In his article Rowan Williams criticised the enlightenment by saying:

Revolutionary America and France lost no sleep over slavery. Humanity had to wait for [a] more traditional … vision of what human beings were in the eyes of God and in the frame of the cosmos, to see the slaves finally emancipated.”

Indeed, their tolerance of slavery does the revolutionaries no credit (though it’s a fault they shared with most of their contemporaries).

But it is the most extraordinary cheek for Williams to criticize the enlightenment for failing to abolish slavery in its first century when Christianity’s own failure to do so lasted 18 times as long!

Williams signally fails to explain why European Christians began to oppose slavery in the 18th century after so many centuries of tolerating or even applauding it. The historical record shows that abolitionist campaigning, following a change of sentiment amongst Christians, played a major part. It can hardly be coincidental that this change followed the enlightenment and that some leading abolitionists were liberals in matters of theology. Consider, for instance, the Reverend Elhanan Winchester, an American abolitionist who moved from the USA to the UK, from Baptist Christianity to Universalism, and who helped to found South Place Ethical Society. South Place later became one of the first UK humanist organizations.

In fact reason supports morality. It is democratic and undermines traditional beliefs about the inferiority of foreigners, women and ethnic and sexual minorities. Thus it expands the circle of people to whom moral consideration is due. It causes us to question and makes us cautious about our beliefs. Thus it protects us against absurdities and, as Voltaire warned us, many atrocities have been committed in the name of absurd beliefs.

Reason alone can never motivate moral commitments which derive from our social existence. But it’s an invaluable tool and guide to moral thinking. Though he may not mean to Rowan Williams’ article encourages irrationality and immorality alike.

(First posted: 8 August 2008)