Friday, November 26, 2004

It looks like the Bede v Barry blog has taken off rapidly enough! Let's hope we can all keep it civil in the heat of debate.

One of the stars in the Anglican firmament is Tom Wright, or NT Wright with his academic hat on. He has a web site devoted to him which is well worth a look. Recently, Wright was in the papers saying that the Church of England were being foolish selling off all its historical palaces and vicarages. He got a right old walloping from some people but I thought he was absolutely right. We sell our history off at our peril and doing it for short term gain and as a political gesture is just stupid. Even as a Catholic, I don't begrudge Anglican Bishops and Priests a nice suite of rooms in a historic building even if they did steel them all off us in the Reformation!

Less positively, the Telegraph reports a Mormon who is being harassed by a Christian preacher being forced to go to court to restrain him. This is precisely the wrong way to go about evangelisation. People who do not want to hear will not listen so pissing them off is totally counter productive. Evangelism is about being there to act as God's instrument when people are looking for Him. That is what makes the Alpha Course such as success and most doorstopping a waste of time. I hope this evangelical preacher will consider what he is doing and how his behavior is reflecting badly on the whole Christian community.

Thursday, November 25, 2004

An occasional new project has started.

The other day, Barry Foster, an intelligent and informed atheist, emailed me. This quickly developed into an interesting discussion and we thought we should blog our conversation so it could be read and commented on by all and sundry.

So, I announce the Bede v Barry blog is open for business!
There is a good article in Prospect Magazine this month about the Vardy academies. For readers who don't follow UK education policy, Peter Vardy is an evangelical business man who puts millions of pounds into schools in deprived areas. The schools are run on a Christian ethos and have become outstandingly successful with huge waiting lists. Dawkins and his anti-religious zealots have been campaigning against these schools on the false grounds they teach creationism as science. In fact, they don't. No creationism is taught in science lessons and this would not be allowed under the national curriculum anyway. The Bishop of Oxford, always looking for a chance to bash evangelicals, joined forces with Dawkins and is now looking rather foolish.

Recently a very deprived area near Doncaster was further deprived of a good school by campaigners against Vardy. They told a lot of lies and scared people into rejecting the school. Vardy could have forced the issue but pulled out. The main players were agents of the National Union of Teachers, for whom 'success' and 'discipline' are dirty words. Their objections were entirely political as they represent the hard left who oppose all efforts to improve schools. The anti-Christian line was simply a scare campaign.

This sorry episode shows that anti-Christians can do a lot of damage when their propaganda is not challenged. It is also a damning indictment of people who will deny poor children a good education for political or anti-religious reasons. Dawkins and the Bishop of Oxford should hang their heads in shame.

Monday, November 22, 2004

Some interesting news from the US today. Young teen pregnancy is at a 50 year low. Of course, the idiots in charge of sexual health in the UK, who have presided over an epidemic of teenage pregnancy, abortion and STDs want to bury their heads in the sand. They cannot bring themselves to admit their whole strategy was obviously flawed when any fool could have told them that providing easy access to contraceptives and abortion would encourage young people to have sex when they are too young to be responsible.

The abstinence campaign in the US is obviously having an enormous positive impact which actually far greater than the figures show. While the intelligentsia sneer that 88% of pledgers do eventually have sex before marriage, they fail to realise that if they just keep the pledge until they are 18 or 20, a massive amount of good has been done. Once people are adults they become better able to handle sex and deal with its consequences. Axiomatically teen pregnancies go down.

It is just possible, though, that the success of the US approach, for which the lateral thinkers who challenged conventional wisdom deserve massive applause, will convince even the family planning mafia that they have had their day and must stop blighting the lives of young people.

Friday, November 19, 2004

First, a public service announcement: the feedback form appears to be working now. I won't bore you with what went wrong but it seems to have involved to incompatible email systems.

Second, Professor Plantinga's third Stanton lecture was all about Evolutionary Psychology. I missed it and so am relying on third party testimony and the lecture handout but his ideas are fairly clear. He began by introducing us to various 'scientific' attempts to explain what religion is. The earliest effort at this was Freud, who came up with a just-so story with no scientific value at all but plenty of cultural baggage attached. He claimed that religion was based on fear and the need for a father figure. As an aside, some wags have suggested an equally uncompelling Freudian explanation for atheism: that is is based on the Oedipus complex and that atheists are trying to kill their true father by not believing in him. However, modern efforts to 'explain' religion have been based on how it is an adaptive mechanism that gives its believers an evolutionary advantage.

Now, it is fairly clear that religion really is a 'good' thing in this objective sense and writers like DS Wilson accept this. Indeed, for evolutionary psychologists, religion would have to be a useful adaptation or it would have died out ages ago. But, Prof. Plantinga claims that just because this is true, does not mean that there is not something 'real' that causes religious belief. We do not evolve a fear of snakes or a love of sugar unless there are real snakes and real sugar to set it off. And while religion could be caused by some other 'real' effect being confused for God, it is not at all clear what this might be (notwithstanding nineteenth century arguments about thunder gods and fertility cycles). The trouble is that science cannot ask this question because it has tied its hands with the binds of 'methodological naturalism' which rules God out of court.

So, says Prof. Plantinga, evolutionary psychology is what you get when you try to explain religion using only the methods of science. Hence, as an explanation, it is radically incomplete and need cause no concern to the believer who is able to draw on a wider sphere of experience. As a final aside, he looked at historical Jesus studies which, as I have said here many times, can tell us very little about the man. But this does not mean that we cannot open ourselves to other influences to learn about the Jesus of faith. That methodological naturalism is not very good at providing explanations in certain areas is just a weakness of naturalism as a method.

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Roger Steer has emailed me about his book, Letter to an Influential Atheist, which Steve Carr also mentioned in his comment (supplying a dead link). Roger's book, which I haven't read, appears to cover much of the same ground as McGrath. Neither of them challenge evolution, for instance, only the philosophy Dawkins tries to build on top.

On the case of Buttiglione, he is interviewed in the Spectator this week. I should mention that the interviewer will be the best man my wedding but I have never met Buttiglione myself.

Friday, November 12, 2004

Richard Dawkins is a lucky man. Few of use can expect to receive the privilege of having our ideas as carefully and courteously considered as Dawkins has enjoyed from Professor Alistair McGrath. Much as I enjoyed Prof. Plantinga's lectures, Prof McGrath was even better, speaking on "Has Science Eliminated God?Richard Dawkins and the Meaning of Life". The whole lecture will shortly be available at the CiS website but in the meantime here is an overview and some comments.

Prof. McGrath has had an interesting academic career. Once an atheist, he has degrees in biochemistry and theology and is now Professor of Historical Theology at Oxford. He is a prolific author and firmly in the evangelical tradition. His criticisms of Dawkins in this lecture centred on why it is he has such a bee in his bonnet about religion. Prof. McGrath identified four issues that Dawkins has used in his attacks on religion:

  1. Dawkins seems to assume that Darwinism leads inexorably to atheism. Indeed, given the provisional nature of all scientific work, Dawkins seems to be considerably more certain about his atheism than his Darwinism. Prof. McGrath correctly explained that as there are many Christian evolutionists who are neither mad nor stupid, Dawkins has simply been proven empirically wrong to claim Darwinism leads to atheism. Maybe the more cautious statement that Darwinism allows one to be a more intellectually fulfilled atheist is true but Dawkins oversteps this many times. Prof. McGrath insisted that science can only lead to agnosticism.
  2. Dawkins has adapted his theory of memes to suggest that religion is a mind virus. The trouble is that memes themselves have never been identified, allow no quantifiable predictions to be made and have huge philosophical problems attached to them. In other words, they are just psycho-babble. Likewise, the idea that religion is a mind virus tells us nothing except that Dawkins doesn't like religion. We can't model how ideas spread based on epidemicology or get anything else useful out of the idea. It is just an analogy used as a debating point and should have been left at that.
  3. Dawkins feels awe at the scientific universe and doesn't get the same kick out of religion. His asides about 'poky medieval universes' simply reveal his ignorance of medieval cosmology, but the fact he feels no awe at the majesty of God is not relevant to those of us who do. Likewise, his mis-characterisations of religious faith, as belief despite or contrary to the evidence, are strawmen that bear no resemblance to Christian thought. Attacking this strawmen gets him nowhere beyond gaining applause from his own constituancy.
  4. Dawkins believes religion is a bad thing. A lot of people agree (although most have little idea what they are talking about as far as I can tell). Prof McGrath responded by showing us studies that reveal religious people tend to be healthier and happier than the non-religious. Out of 100 studies surveyed, 79 showed a positive correlation between religion and health. He didn't claim this was definitive but it does show that Dawkins actually has to present an argument rather than ranting in the Guardian about suicide bombers and George Bush.

I should point out that Prof. McGrath was uniformly polite and sympathetic in his presentation. Far more so than I am in my own analysis given above. The only time he accused Dawkins of anything remotely underhand was in his mis-definitions of faith. Full quotations and sources for all Prof. McGrath's claims can be found in his forthcoming book Dawkins' God which is the only book length refutation of Dawkins' thought.

Thursday, November 11, 2004

Before reporting on Tuesday lecture by Alistair McGrath, let me make a few comments about what Alvin Plantinga said yesterday. I should first mention that the general theme of his five lectures is that there is a superficial conflict and deep concord between science and religion, and superficial concord and deep conflict between science and philosophical naturalism. The first three lectures cover science and religion while the last two will deal with naturalism.

Yesterday's lecture was entitled 'Divine Action in the World' and asked whether special intervention by God was possible in a scientific universe. Many theologians, Prof. Plantinga explained, thought that miracles could no longer be believed in by someone who participates in the scientific world view. Some of these theologians are just trying to be modern and 'with it' while not really understanding the limitations of science. Others have serious theological problems with the idea of God breaking the natural laws that he ordained himself, in order to perform a miracle. It is the former group to whom Prof Plantinga aimed his arguments.

Under the old Newtonian picture of the universe, determinism only prevails if we assume that not only the laws of physics hold, but also that the system is closed. In other words, God has to be assumed to shut himself out of the universe if he is to be forbidden to perform miracles. With modern quantum mechanics, Newtonian determinism is replaced by probabilities and hence simply closing the system is no longer enough to determine all future (and past) occurrences. But this does not seem to have much effect on the question of whether or not God can intervene.

I must say that I am rather confused about theologians who reject the possibility of divine intervention. Are they saying, as Prof. Plantinga suggests they are, that once God has set up the laws of nature even He can't break them? To a Christian, this is absurd as the laws of nature are only maintained by God actively keeping them going. They have no independent existence beyond being God's will upheld. So it hardly makes sense to say He cannot change them as and when He sees fit. Other theologians claim to know the mind of God and say that He would not change them as that would show He had made a mistake. Here, I have more sympathy with Prof. Plantinga's opponents. I do maintain that the laws of nature are usually maintained and that miracles are very uncommon. I disagree with the picture of God fiddling around (for instance) with genetic mutations and also believe God respects the integrity of the universe. However, this still leaves room for miracles as long as we believe them sufficiently uncommon not to undermine the constancy of nature.

Tomorrow, Prof Plantinga will talk about evolutionary psychology. I cannot attend but will try to get a copy of the handout and see what he has to say.

Tuesday, November 09, 2004

Yesterday evening, Professor Alvin Plantinga gave the first of his Cambridge University Stanton lectures on the subject of "Science and Religion: Conflict or Concord?". He will deliver five lectures and I hope to make it to at least three of them. Prof. Plantinga is a tall gentlemen of about sixty with a gray beard and no accompanying moustache. His dress is the typical slightly disheveled look of the academy with shoes best described as 'comfortable'. He has a deep voice with a strong mid-American accent and he speaks well, addressing the audience rather than keeping his head down over his notes.

As I have learnt to my cost, his books are notoriously hard as they assume a familiarity with the tools and notation of formal logic. These lectures, however, translate those concepts into words and so are easy enough to follow. However, underneath the words he is still presenting deductive logical arguments that deal with concepts such as incompatibility and defeaters. Ironically, this made his argument seem quite weak because what he was actually saying was rather limited. In fact, relying only on deductive logic, it is not possible to say very much at all.

The point of lecture one, "Evolution and Christian Belief", was to show us that theistic evolution and naturalistic evolution are both equally likely. Prof. Plantinga explained his definitions and then asked us to consider 'weak' Darwinism (where random mutations, while not caused by the biology of the creature in question, are subject to a deeper cause such as God) and 'strong' Darwinism (where the random mutations are caused only by physical processes). He then correctly tells us that the scientific evidence is unable to distinguish between these two mutually incompatible possibilities. He even said that 'strong' Darwinism could not have a higher than 50% chance of being true on the basis that we cannot choose between two incompatible alternatives. Thus, theistic evolution is not in conflict with science and the theist can relax.

The questions, one of which was asked by your correspondent, focused on the weaknesses of his presentation. It was alleged that he gave us no reason to believe theistic evolution over naturalistic evolution. This is true but not what he was trying to do - people are not Christians because they believe it is the best explanation of the evidence but rather because they experience it. Thus, as he has said elsewhere, Christianity is a 'properly basic belief' that is used as an interpretive framework to access other evidence - including science. All that Prof. Plantinga is doing is showing that the evidence of science can be fitted into the framework of Christianity. An audience member suggested parsimony as a tie-breaker between strong and weak Darwinism, invoking Ockham's razor. Prof. Plantinga should have said that Ockham thought God the most parsimonious explanation but instead said he was not in the business of deciding, only demonstrating where conflicts did and did not exist. The final questioner asked how we could decide anything if all we had to go on was whether it conflicted with the evidence. I expect that this is true and a deep problem in the philosophy of science tied up with the limitations of deduction. But again Prof. Plantinga said he was only demonstrating that Christianity, in which he already believed, was not in conflict with the scientific evidence for evolution.

I asked about the theological problems of theistic evolution, as it interferes with the integrity of the universe and exacerbates the problem of evil. Prof. Plantinga admitted the problem of evil was a problem, but not the one he was presently addressing. He also suggested God might be collapsing every wave function as well fixing all the mutations. Needless to say, I don't like the sound of this and might take him up on it tomorrow when he lectures on divine action.

Sunday, November 07, 2004

The final word on the Guardian's ill fated attempt to influence the US election: Clark County, Ohio swung from Dem to GOP. No surprise there, but the whole episode perfectly underlines the stupidity to the so-called intellectual elite. Lots of good analysis in the London Sunday Times, including a fun article by Tom Wolfe. The main lesson (also still to be learnt by the Conservatives in the UK) is when you loose an election in a democracy, you blame yourself - you do not blame the voters. Until the Dems realise this, they are doomed. And that is not a good thing.

Tomorrow, I'll be in Cambridge attending a lecture from Alvin Plantinga, the esteemed Christian philosopher, who will be speaking on "Christian belief and Science: surface conflict, deep concord; Naturalism and Science: surface concord, deep conflict". I'll report back. Also, on Tuesday, Alistair McGrath will be talking on "Has Science Eliminated God?Richard Dawkins and the Meaning of Life" which is a plug for his new book Dawkin's God. Again, I'll report back and the whole lecture will be on the net.

Friday, November 05, 2004

Imagine you are a well educated chap in 1490. What do you know about the universe? You certainly know the earth is a sphere but also that it is stationary and the centre of the universe. You probably don't realise that you don't know about America and all your authorities on geography give no indication that it exists. If you were really up to date and had ready Ptolemy, whose Geographia had only recently been translated from Greek to Latin, you might have seen maps of the world than do not even allow room for another continent between Europe and far East. America also caused theological worries as the status of the natives vis a vis original sin and salvation were rather ambiguous. And of course, the bible also has no idea at all that this other continent is going to exist.

Trouble was that once America had been discovered, there was no denying it. Although there was initially some doubt as to whether Columbus had reached the East Indies as he was hoping, we find no trace of theological efforts to explain away this enormous problem and no efforts to censor the discoveries for fear of upsetting people. It seems that once something was established with good evidence, neither the Church or anyone else was going to gainsay it.

Fast forward to the 1630s and Galileo is told to deny that the earth moves. Now, the theological problems with a moving earth are like nothing compared to the problems caused by America, but this time there is a huge row. Why is the Church kicking up a fuss when it let the more serious difficulty of America pass it by? The reason, it seems to me, is simply that for Galileo the evidence was not good enough and he was making claims that appeared unjustified. The Church was not going to allow that to happen. As the reaction to the discovery of the New World shows, the Church was quite able to adapt to new scientific knowledge. What it could not do was allow Galileo to state terms when the facts had yet to be established.

The Feedback form on the 'Contact Me' page has ceased to work. I don't know how long ago it failed but certainly it has been down a couple of months. So, if you used it to contact me, and included your email address but never received a reply, then please email me. I will let everyone know on this page when the feedback is working again.

Sorry for any inconvenience.

Thursday, November 04, 2004

So Bush won it. I can't loose as much sleep over that as many Europeans. What I found most interesting, though, was the way that moral issues such as gay marriage, abortion and family values were so important to so many American voters. Now, the big question for the next four years is probably whether Bush will be able to rejig the Supreme Court. The result of that would either be to shift the US decisively to the right, or set the individual states free to decide their own policies. Which of these two results is the correct description is a matter of which side of the culture wars you are on. It is likely that the votes to outlaw gay marriage will be the first battleground.

Jack took me to task for not following up the Buttiglione case. This was due to my promise to drop politics (in abeyance for this post!). I think the way the left was able to claim Buttiglione's scalp was disgusting and will further undermine the European project. The attempt to force metropolitan values onto the south and east of Europe will probably fail and lead to yet another fault line in the EU. I can say this despite having studied Professor Buttiglione's comments and finding I disagree strongly with them. He might have been lazy (or misquoted) but I fear he actually misunderstands Catholic teaching (but so does everyone else, so no surprise). Buttiglione said that homosexuality is a sin. This is not actually true. Homosexual acts are sinful but the homosexual disposition itself is not. The fact is that all sexual acts outside of marriage are considered a sin by the Church which calls for celibacy for all unmarried people, including homosexuals. Given the Church asks most of its employees to be celibate, it isn't unreasonable that they ask the same of homosexuals (who are certainly not stopped from being priests as long as they are as celibate as all the rest are supposed to be). Neither do Professor Buttiglione's views on the family chime with the latest Vatican document. While it is true that the best place to bring up children is within a family of two married parents, it does not follow that a woman's place is automatically in the kitchen, protected by her husband.

We are left with a marked contrast between Europe and US. In Europe, the elites lead opinion and try to mould popular sentiment. In the US, politicians follow the people who vote for the party that reflects their values. Is this democracy or mob rule? The answer depends on who is asked the question.

Monday, November 01, 2004

Oh dear. More anti-religious thinkers making fools of themselves.

The discovery of the 'hobbits' of Indonesia has caused a flurry of rather misplaed excitement among those who still long for science to replace religion. Desmond Morris's rather stupid article for the BBC really shows that he knows nothing about either religion or the history of science. This is a bit depressing coming from someone who writes quite good books about human anthropology but par the course. I'm not even going to bother refute his nonsense about this being a blow for religion for anyone other that young earth creationists. Every big scientific discovery brings out people who think it will bring about the end of religion, and every time religion sails serenely on while the scientific theory is, as often as not, quietly dropped. And that might be the fate of the hobbits.

You see, while they are not very big, these hobbits also have very small brains. As Richard Dawkins explains here, our hobbits have a brain the same size a chimp, relative to their size. Our human brains are two to three times larger and even the extinct homo erectus packed a considerably larger brain than the hobbits. So, unless neuroscience is going to be completely re-written, the hobbits were not very bright, could not talk and the tools the skeleton was found with are the products of ordinary humans who probably hunted the little guys. All of which will be a serious let down for Desmond Morris and company. His article appears to be a product of blind faith rather than a rational examination of the evidence.

Better luck next time, guys.
Robert Price is as close to a Jesus mythologist as you will find in academia. His books Deconstructing Jesus and The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man are required reading for those seeking to undermine the veracity of the Gospels. Now he has produced a new website for himself which contains a couple of interesting articles. We actually had Price to thank for trashing Achyra S and thus showing that even intelligent atheists realise her work is rubbish. He has now also written an article on the Da Vinci Code explaining that it really does not have a basis in fact at all. I would recommend that people be steered towards it if they are the type who won't believe a word Christians say about this book.

Another interesting article is the one on US foreign policy and especially Iraq. Price appears to be a dyed in the wool neo-Con which surprises this European observer as we have been told in the media that all the neo-Cons are conservative Christians and Jews. Interesting to find that this is not necessarily true.