Thursday, September 29, 2005

Last night, the BBC aired a show called God and the Politicians hosted by avowed secularist, David Aaronovich. Aaronovitch is a newspaper columnists and unlike many of that profession, is quite a sensible chap. His programme was moderate and consequently a bit boring. The premise was that religion in the UK has been taking an increasingly important role in public life but no evidence was given for this a part from some Moslems who called a gentile politician a Jew (presumably because she was pro-Israel). We just got lots of very unthreatening faith leaders who certainly did not look as if they were about to take over the country. Only on one point were they coaxed into controversy, when Christian leaders said they didn't want their children to go to Moslem schools. The reason for this is probably because they don't think Moslem schools would have enough of a British ethos although they couldn't admit that. Religion was probably irrelevant even here.

If the faith leaders were unthreatening, the atheists were hilarious. AC Grayling is one of those philosophers, in the tradition of Simon Blackburn, the late Freddie Ayer and Bertrand Russell, who checks out his brain out as soon as the subject turns to religion. He looked just plain silly. By then end of the programme, he was reduced to prophesying the return of the inquisition if we allow these cuddly clergymen an inch of slack. If he ended the programme looking ridiculous, he started it being ingenuous. We had a brief discussion about whether morality requires religion. Grayling's contribution was to say that the ancient Greeks had a deep and fruitful secular morality that the intelligent classes followed without any reference to the supernatural. What he didn't tell us is that this secular morality supported paedophilia, torture, slavery and infanticide. I wonder if he'd rather live under that moral regime than the Christian one he has inherited today. It took Christians a long time to abolish slavery and torture, but I see no sign that even the most 'enlightened' of Greek philosophers thought that either was problematic.

Comments or questions? Post them at Bede's dedicated yahoo group.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Here's one I haven't heard before.

Apparently the Catholic Church tried to ban zero in the Middle Ages. No honestly, I have it on the highest authority (Terry Jones of Monty Python). Does anyone know where this story comes from? It is probably as mythical as the flat earth or perhaps based on one writer who knew nothing about maths. If anyone can fill me in on how this ban escaped Lindberg, Grant and all the other distinguished historians of Medeival Science, I'd love to know.

Comments or questions? Post them at Bede's dedicated yahoo group.

Monday, September 26, 2005

Christianity started small and grew big. What a lot of us don't seem to realise is just how small. Both Keith Hopkins and Rodney Start estimate that there were less that 10,000 Christians in an Empire of 60 million in 100AD. Let's think about what that means.

First, the old canard about why pagan authors said so little about Christian becomes rather an obvious fallacy. One person in 6000 was a Christian or less than 0.02%. There were so few of them that almost no one would notice their existence. Even though they were preponderantly situated in towns so probably a bit more concentrated, that was no reason for patrician Romans, who preferred to lounge around on their country estates, to take any notice of them. What's more, there were about 6 million Jews with whom the Christians were easily enough confused to lack even an identity of their own to most Romans. Tacitus claim that a huge multitude were killed by Nero becomes clear hyperbole (but fairly typical of Tacitus). I doubt the number exceeded a hundred and many of them might well have been Jews caught up in the wrong place at the wrong time. I doubt Nero would care.

Second, it tells us something about the paucity of early Christian writing. It is no longer believed that early Christianity was primarily a poor persons' religion. Better to assume that it was broadly representative of the population as a whole with less country dwellers and more women. Estimates for literacy rates in the Roman world vary but no one suggests that more than 30% of free citizens could write their names. The total who could write a piece of theology in Greek must be a whole lot less - only about 1%. This means it is hardly surprising that Mark's Greek is poor but he was the only guy around who could do the job. Likewise, most Christian communities would have had one person at most who could write well. With such a small literary base, we would not expect many texts. Certainly, claims that there were loads of early Gospels later rejected by the institutional church are exaggerations (so is Luke's claim at the start of his Gospel although he may not have been referring to written accounts).

We inevitably have to speculate but we do need to bear in mind that when we read about the early church, just how few of them their were.

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Saturday, September 24, 2005

As a physics graduate I've always liked numbers and so was fascinated to read some of the results from the sociology of religion about who joins religions and why.

Drawing on Rodney Stark's work, it seems that the people most drawn to cults are not the poor and stupid but the prosperous and bored. Also, it is people who do not consider themselves religious who make up a disproportionate number of new cult members. Secularists applaud how many people answer 'none' when asked by pollsters what their religion is because they assume 'none' means secular humanist. In fact, it often means quite the reverse. The people who say 'none' are the ones who you find in New Age shops, at Kaballa centres and joining the Moonies. This is hardly surprising because those of us with a strong religious affiliation are much less likely to prance off and join a new one. For secularists this is a bit depressing as it seems all the people with no religion are not like them at all. The proportion of actively agnostic/atheist individuals is still miniscule in almost all societies. Indeed, I would expect that the profile and recruitment patterns for strong atheism are very similar to cults like the Moonies and Mormons.

There is a flip side to this. Stark has found that when old religions split into sects, the sectarians tend to be of lower class than average for the church in question. This is something else we can see in the real world. Mainline liberal protestant churches are the preserve of a higher proportion of comfortable, middle class people who don't go in for anything that smacks of fundamentalism. Conversely, the higher intensity Christian sects have a far higher proportion of poor, inner city and ethnic minority members. Now, this is a generalisation but one that the statistics support. Why is it the case? Well, either you believe that the poor are more susceptible to high intensity religion, or it is the sects who have remembered better to whom Jesus aimed his mission in the first place.

Comments or questions? Post them at Bede's dedicated yahoo group.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

Richard Dawkins is getting grouchy in his old age. His latest interview, with, plugging his new book, plumbs the depths of his hyperbole against religion. The best line: "Bush and bin Laden are really on the same side: the side of faith and violence against the side of reason and discussion." Yawn.

But there were a couple of interesting tidbits. Firstly, Dawkins' latest book is tentatively entitled The God Delusion. Presumably he will finally do what he has always avoided in the past - try to produce a coherent argument for his atheism rather than relying on one-liners hidden among his science writing. Arguing against the Dawkins view has always been a bit like wrestling with an octopus because he so rarely talks about religion beyond soundbites. Now perhaps, he will have a thesis which he will defend and can thus be refuted. The second tidbit is that he's signed up to do a TV series on religion in modern history possibly to be called The Root of All Evil. I'm not expecting a finely nuanced piece of television.

Comments or questions? Post them at Bede's dedicated yahoo group.

Friday, September 16, 2005

I'm back from my holidays and have recovered from the excitement of seeing England win the Ashes against Australia's cricket team, so it is time to get back to work. It is good to see some very intelligent discussion still ongoing on the difficult question of free will over at Bede's dedicated yahoo group while I've been away.

Among my holiday reading has been Anthiny Gottlieb's The Dream of Reason which is a layperson's guide to the history of philosophy from the Greeks to the Renaissance. Actually, it's a history of Greek philosophy with a chapter on post-antiquity tacked on the end. Gottlieb is a typical modern who doesn't think the Middle Ages are worth bothering with. Each of the major figures of Greek thought is covered in chronological order and if their ideas do not gell with Gottlieb's views they are dismissed as 'absurd' (a favourate word), 'lunacy' or 'silly'. Alas, the poor Greeks were not fully conversant with the world according to Gottlieb and so suffer much chastisement for their foolishness. Luckily, once in a while, they get something right and recieve a hearty pat on the back for successfully anticipating the twenty-first-century worldview. The author is an editor at the Economist and anyone familiar with that organ will know that humility is not among its virtues. Telling people they are wrong is its speciality.

Of course, clarity of expression is the among the Economist's good points, and The Dream of Reason also scores very highly in this department. Ideas are explained with a brevity and exactness that make the editorialising almost a price worth paying. It is highly entertaining as well although not always for the right reasons (Gottlieb's insults are often funny, however misguided they may be). So, I'd recommend this book to a layperson who knows nothong about philosophy just as long as they promise to read Father Copleston or at least Anthony Kenny as well.

Another huge problem with Gottlieb is he is the typical one-eyed scientific materialist who treats religion with something close to contempt. We hear nothing about the achievements of the Middle Ages and Gottlieb is happy to write off the entire period (as well as pagan neo-Platonism which he thinks is also far too mystical). Of course, Gottlieb has to pull his punches to some extent as the old myths are now just too well refuted to recycle yet again. He doesn't quite blame Christianity for the alleged Dark Ages, realises that most early modern polemic on scholasticism is malicious libel ("how many angels can dance on a pin?" etc.) and that the Church didn't really restrict intellectual inquiry outside the theology faculty. Still, he thinks that medieval achievements in logic were pointless, that not hardly a single Arab or Byzantine thinker is worth a mention and Newton was 'wasting his time' on theology. The Renaissance itself is also skipped over to a large extent so the book ends as a bit of a damb squib. We are promised a sequel in which I can predict Hume, Mill and Russell will be lionised while Liebniz, Kant and anyone French will get short shrift.

Comments or questions? Post them at Bede's dedicated yahoo group.