Naming Schools after Nobel Laureates

I had the pleasure of hearing Abdus Salam give a talk in Oxford, sometime around 1960. I naïvely asked why a neutron would decay into a proton and electron, rather than an antiproton and positron, and he gently explained to me the concept of baryon number, which I would have known about by that point if I had been paying proper attention to his talk

The Mountain Mystery

Abdus SalamAbdus Salam 1926-1996

The Washington Post recently ran a story about the late Abdus Salam, a physicist who won the Nobel Prize almost 40 years ago. The piece concerns the politics of naming a building at a Pakistani university in honour of a man from a religious minority background. Salam’s family belonged to the Ahmadiyya community – followers of a Muslim faith deemed heretical by Pakistan’s dominant Sunni Muslims. The religion was formally declared ‘non-Islamic’ by the Pakistani government in 1974. Before the new decree, extremists sometimes attacked and burned Ahmadi businesses, mosques and schools; after the decree, members could be imprisoned for their beliefs. In protest and for safety, Dr Salam moved to London.

Salam from Pakistan

Before leaving Pakistan, Salam had been the chief science advisor to Pakistan’s president, had contributed to theoretical and particle physics, was the founding director of the Space Research Commission (SUPARCO), and had…

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Historical Science: How do We Know a Fish Fossil is a Fish Fossil?

Creationists argue that historical science is different from, and more uncertain than, present-day observational science. But their choice of examples shows that they themselves don’t really believe this.

Naturalis Historia

The difference between what young earth creationists like to term “operational” or “observational” science and historical science doesn’t have the sharp distinction they like to project to their audience.  I was reminded of this recently when I had an opportunity to hear Tommy Mitchell speak at a local Answers in Genesis conference a few weeks ago.  One particular talk was entitled:  Jurassic Prank:  A Dinosaur Tale.  In it Mitchell presents the young-earth case that dinosaurs lived with man as recently as a few thousand years ago.  The “tale” of course is that scientists have been telling us that dinosaurs died out millions of years before man existed.  You could say the punchline to the entire talk was that the public has been punked with regards to the truth about dinosaurs.

There are many lessons to be learned from this talk but I want to focus on one seemingly simple observation that Mitchell makes.  Below is a YouTube version…

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Is “The Imminent Demise of Evolution” still imminent?

The demise of evolution, and of the geology necessary to support it, has been imminent since 1825. I hear and tremble.

My friend the rev Michael Roberts has reblogged my link here, with reference to his own experience. Michael is Anglican Priest, geologist, and historian, and has been following Creationist infiltration into the UK churches  for some decades.

Troy Britain’s piece reblogged here refers in turn to G.R. Morton’s classical compilation. Morton’s piece was originally posted on Answers in Science. The link from Morton to Answers in Science failed to work for me, but I am happy to say  that a direct link, here, works admirably as a source and resource.

Playing Chess with Pigeons

Ten years ago, in 2006, intelligent design creationistWilliam Dembski predictedthat in a decade evolution would be toast:

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) – To William Dembski, all the debate in this country over evolution won’t matter in a decade.

By then, he says, the theory of evolution put forth by Charles Darwin 150 years ago will be “dead.”

Yeah, well…

Meanwhile I stumbled uponthis today (dated 11-17-2016) from young Earth creationistRichard William Nelson:

Despite a flood of challenges since the publication of The Origin of Species in 1859 by Charles Darwin and more than 150 years of unprecedented scientific efforts in the history of mankind to prove otherwise, the evidence examined in nature tooled with unprecedented technology continues to be compatible with the Genesis record written by Moses…

…Evolution, once a theory in crisis, is now in crisis without even a cohesive unifying theory.

Biological evolution…

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Presentation to Parliament: Removing Church nominees from Council Education Committees (Petition PE01623)

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Update: the transcript of the meeting is now available at http://www.parliament.scot/parliamentarybusiness/report.aspx?r=10656 then “New petitions” then “Local Authority Education Committees”

The petition progresses. Yesterday, Spencer  Fildes and I (actually, mainly Spencer) gave evidence to Holyrood’s Public Petitions Committee. The petition itself is now closed for signature, but submissions from  organisations, or from individuals, especially I would suggest parents and teachers, remain welcome at petitions@parliament.Scot. (Suggestions: specify PE01623, and keep it short.)

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Johann Lamont, Convener, leads the Committee’s questioning

As I reported yesterday, the Committee heard us with close attention, questioned us for almost half an hour, and resolved to seek further testimony from interested bodies. We could not have wished for more at this stage. There will now be an interval while responses and other submissions are collected, for consideration by the Committee, probably early in the New Year. The Committee will then have to decide whether to close (i.e. kill) the petition, or to forward it to the  Education Skills Committee for further consideration. It would be unwise to attempt to predict which of those options it will choose, but they clearly agree that we have raised an important and timely issue.

I posted the BBC’s Parliamant Live coverage here yesterday, and the full Parliamentary video of the proceedings is avvailable here. But time to let Spencer have his say:

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Spencer makes his opening presentation

Thankyou, Convener, and my thanks to the Committee for inviting us.

At present, every Council Education Committee in Scotland is required by law to include three full voting members nominated by the Churches. Voters and their elected representatives have no choice in the matter. This legal requirement dates back to 1929, and in its present form to 1973. It is so broadly worded, that it could well apply to any future education system.

We believe this current system is out of place and does not reflect a constantly evolving, rapidly modernising Scottish democracy. We would not dream of allowing the Churches to impose members on this Parliament’s Education and Skills Committee. But that’s what we’re doing to Scottish councils.The Scottish Secular Society believes it is time for change. Currently, the future of Scottish education is under active discussion. Now would be the perfect time to review the status quo.

One major consideration is the fact that parents who hold no belief now represent the majority among primary school parents. This has now created a democratic deficit across Local Education Authorities.

To address this changing demographic, we respectfully suggest that the simplest change would be to relax the requirement. We would like to see the law allowing, not compelling, the elected members to appoint up to 3 such representatives, and to decide whether or not to give them voting powers, much as they do right now for parent and teacher representatives.

To gauge the views of Scotland’s MSP’s on this matter, we wrote to every one of them to find we have considerable cross-party support. Two MSPs actually thought that the system already was the way we would like it to be, and approved of that. Other MSP comments, in brief:

“there may well be merit in looking afresh at this again”, and “there should be a greater amount of autonomy in choosing the best people whether they be religious leaders or not”, “I am broadly supportive of the concept of members of Education Committees being elected”, “it is up to each local authority to decide who should be on the education committee.”, “the current arrangement must change” and “the status quo is an anachronism”.

Our supporters include

  • Professor Dame Anne Glover, who was scientific adviser to the Scottish Government and then to the EU
  • Clergy Letter Project, which represents 15,000 ordained clergy worldwide
  • The Secretary of Glasgow Unitarian Church.
  • Glasgow Theosophical Society,

As our petition statement shows, the present situation is undemocratic, unjust, encroaches on human rights, and is highly problematic in enforcement. In addition, it is unnecessary, infringes local autonomy, and is the opposite of participatory democracy.

It is unnecessary, since denominational schools have their own separate mechanisms of governance. Many Churches are already involved in individual schools, including non-denominational schools. Believers, like everyone else, can and should vote, take part in public debate, and stand for office, however, unlike what we are challenging today – religion in this case should be afforded no privilege over those who may hold no belief.

It infringes on local autonomy because laws handed down by central government (in this case, the 1973 and 1994 Westminster governments) are imposed on local Councils regardless of their wishes.

It is certainly not participatory democracy. The broader community is not involved, and the appointees are answerable only to their own Churches.

Finally, many councils have difficulty filling some positions, and there are some, in our view, with questionable appointments. If the system was meeting a legitimate need, such recruitment problems would unlikely arise.

The Church of Scotland itself admits that the system requires an element of reform, and the simplest, is the one that we suggest.

Scotland’s regions are highly diverse. We believe Local Councils themselves are the best judges of local needs, have a local mandate from their voters, and should be free to use it.

In conclusion, we would respectfully ask you to seek opinions from organisations representing non-believers as well as believers, and from organisations concerned with schooling and with human rights, such as Time for Inclusive Education and the Equality and Human Rights Commission, with a view to forwarding our petition to the Education and Skills Committee.

Update on petition unelected Church appointees on Local Authority Education Committees, Scotland

nov24_0This morning, Thursday November 24, the Public Petitions Committee listened to our evidence most attentively, and agreed to what we had asked for at this stage, namely for them to write to interested parties for their views. A pleasant occasion, which you can watch in full here.

The petition is no longer open for signature, but organisations and interested individuals may submit by email to petitions@parliament.scot , with “PE01632, Unelected Church Appointees” as the subject line.

Here is the BBC News Live report:*

The Public Petitions Committee takes evidence on on unelected church appointees on local authority education committees. MSPs consider PE01623 from Spencer Fildes

nov24_2The committee begins this morning by considering PE1623 by Spencer Fildes, on behalf of the Scottish Secular Society, on unelected church appointees on local authority education committees. Evidence from Spencer Fildes and Paul Braterman from the Scottish Secular Society.

PE1623 calls on the Scottish Parliament to urge the Scottish government to remove the constitutional anomaly that imposes unelected Church appointees on Local Authority Education Committees.

10:05 Spence Fildes makes an opening statement on his petition PE1623, on behalf of the Scottish Secular Society, on unelected church appointees on local authority education committees.

nov24_3Mr Fildes says the current system is out of place. Mr Fildes says religion should hold no privilege over those who hold no belief. He says the current system of unelected church members is certainly not participatory democracy.

Labour MSP Johann Lamont says there is currently a governance review of Scottish education and asks if this may be a way to address the issue. Mr Fildes says the Scottish Secular Society is participating in the consultation and has “chucked its oar in”.

nov24_4Paul Braterman from the Scottish Secular Society says there are concerns where committed creationists are nominees education boards.

SNP MSP Angus Macdonald says church appointees do not always have voting rights. [No he didn’t; he knows better. He was actually suggesting having church appointees without voting rights, as sometines happens for other non-elected committee members]

Mr Fildes says the argument is not against church appointees but the way they are appointed. He says to give the position just because someone is religious is wrong, they must be there due to the will of the local authority. Mr Fildes says the Scottish Secular Society run a facebook page where they canvas people’s opinions. He says the anecdotal responses regularly bring up this issue of unelected church representatives on education boards.

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The Scottish Secular Society representative says church members are imposed on the boards. SNP MSP Rona Mackay asks about other non-elected representatives on the board.

Mr Fildes says where there is a need by the local authority for expertise that is ok. He says if a local authority decided to have a church representative that would be fine. Mr Fildes says we need to get to a point that it is a win win for anyone. He says the Scottish Secular Society stands for “Freedom from religion and freedom of religion.” Mr Fildes he backs freedom of speech, however he is against imposed church appointees.

nov24_7andlast10:35 Committee convener Johann Lamont asks her fellow MSPs to consider the action the committee will now take. Tory MSP Brian Whittle agrees with Ms Lamont’s suggestion to find out if the Scottish government has changed its view on the issue. Ms Lamont says the committee should write to COSLA to find out local authority views.The committee agrees to contact a number of organisations with interests in the petition:

  • the Scottish Parent Teacher Council
  • the Association of Directors of Education Scotland
  • the Church of Scotland Education Committee
  •  the Scottish Catholic Education Service
  • the Educational Institute of Scotland
  • Interfaith Scotland
  • the Muslim Council of Scotland
  • the Equality and Human Rights Commission Scotland and the Humanist Society Scotland

* http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/live/uk-scotland-scotland-politics-38050473 24 Nov 2016, lightly edited to remove redundancies

Stornoway’s Sunday swimmers need your help (and a little bit of cash)

“Whatever you or any legal department has to say, our belief and values with regard to Sundays matter.”

stornowaypool

Main pool, Isle of Lewis Sports Centre Stornoway; there is also a kiddies pool complete with Nessie. Open Mon – Sat 8 a.m. – 10 p.m. Closed Sundays

Comhairle nan Eilean Sia (Western Isles Council) consider it sinful to swim in the public baths on Sunday. That is a matter for them. They wish to impose this view on all Stornoway sports facility users. That is a matter for all of us. It is discrimination against non-Christians, and indeed against the many Christians who think that taking a swim on the Sabbath is ok.

Such discrimination is illegal, and the Council knows it but doesn’t care. As one Councillor told a constituent, “Whatever you or any legal department has to say, our belief and values with regard to Sundays matter.”

Nonetheless, the official reasons are financial. And the beautifully named FiSH, Families into Sports and Health, want to call their bluff. FiSH is an organisation that has sprung up among the users of the sports facility, and has set out to raise the money needed for a twelve month trial by crowdfunding. We are not talking about a large sum (£11,400), and they are already a third of the way there.

You can contribute, comment, and learn more about the background, here. Your contribution will not be collected unless the full amount can be raised. If, faced with a successful campaign, the Council has second thoughts and the money is not needed, donors will be consulted about passing on the money to a local children’s charity.

So

  • if you think freedom of conscience matters
  • if you think it wrong for believers in one particular version of one particular faith to impose their rules on everyone else
  • if you think that public bodies such as Councils ought to respect the law

please help.

Information and donations at https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/isl-sports-centre-opening-sundays-12-month-trial-community#/ . You can join the FiSH Facebook group here.

With God, all things are possible

trumprallyWith God, all things are possible. Including the election to the most powerful position on Earth of a lawless violent narcissist swindler with no regard for reality, who supports the use of torture, thinks global warming is a scam, and boasts of molesting women.

This could not have happened without God. Or, at any rate, without the active support of His self-proclaimed representatives in small towns up and down America.

In return for what? In return for the promise of socially conservative judges who will overturn Roe v Wade on abortion or even Kitzmiller v Dover on the teaching of creationism? And will Trump actually do this, or will he treat his godly benefactors the way he has treated so many who have worked for him, and simply fail to pay?

But whatever happens as the result of the Trump presidency, remember to thank God for it.

FBI’s Comey admits there never was any new evidence against Hillary

fbiletterSo there never was any new evidence against Hillary (nor old evidence worth discussing either); and meantime hundreds of thousands have voted.

Meantime, we STILL haven’t seen Trump’s tax returns

Trump campaign using false flag “Hillary” ads, tweets to suppress, mislead, demotivate

This is new. We know about simple intimidation, lying about voter eligibility, and Republican State administrations making it physically difficult for people in Democratic-leaning areas to cast their vote.

What is new is the production of false flag “Hillary” material, lying in order to put people off voting, or to make them imagine that they have voted when they haven’t. There is the scandal of the “Vote by text” ads; of course you can do no such thing, and if you do what the ad says you will end up not voting at all. Even more contemptible are the ads, hashtag #StopThePot, targeted at marijuana supporters, that pretend to be approved by Hillary, and in memorable soundbites completely mis-state her position.

How anyone with any decency can continue to support a campaign that uses such tactics is beyond me.

The “Vote by text” scam: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2016/11/03/no-you-cant-text-your-vote-but-these-ads-tell-clinton-supporters-to-do-just-that/

The fake ad scam: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2016/11/04/stopthepot-trump-trolls-launch-a-new-misinformation-campaign-targeting-marijuana-supporters/

The Church, education, and “Christian values”; another bad reason for denying democracy

Reminder: there is still time to show support for our petition to abolish Church appointees on Local Authority Education Committees; just click here and fill in your details

Summary: Religious values, unless they are also shared human values, will be important to those who want to follow that particular religion, but have no special significance for the rest of us.

The Churches refer to “Christian values”, in order to justify their uninvited presence on Council Education Committees. Like other reasons offered (see earlier post), this one repays closer examination.

The Church of Scotland enjoins its appointees to assert their presence  “by exercising your statutory right and endeavouring to influence council education policies in areas of interest to the national church, including the development of the curriculum, Christian values, religious and moral education and religious observance in schools”. I have already discussed the implications for the curriculum and for religious and moral education and religious observance. Here I would like to concentrate on the concept of Christian values, and, indeed, religious values in general.

sacrifice_of_isaac-caravaggio_uffizi

The Sacrifice of Isaac, by Caravaggio

Most believers take it for granted that the morality derived from their own religion is superior to others, and indeed a very common argument in favour of religious belief is that, without it, there is no basis for moral conduct. (Note, by the way, that this is not an argument in favour of the truth of religion, but only of its usefulness.) But can morality be derived from religion? More specifically, if, by some means, we know what God does or does not want, is that enough to tell us the difference between right and wrong?

Consider, as many people have, the story of how Abraham was willing to follow God’s command and sacrifice his son, Isaac. As a teenager, I took this story very seriously, and asked myself whether Abraham was really doing the right thing. I gradually came to realise that this is a very interesting question, however you answer it, because it shows up a fundamental problem with the idea that morality comes from God.

What I did not know was that this problem had been pointed out over 2000 years ago, by Plato’s Socrates, in what is known as Euthyphro’s Dilemma. In today’s language, are good actions good because they correspond to what God wants, or does God want them because they are good? The first alternative makes morality dependent on the whim of the Deity, which few of us will find satisfying. Some religions, after all, have believed in a God who wants human sacrifices. The second implies that goodness can be defined independent of God, in which case religion is not the ultimate basis for morality anyway.

Then there is the small problem of deciding what God actually wants. Does God want us to kill homosexuals? The authors of Leviticus certainly thought so, and Daesh ( the “Islamic State”) thinks so today. Does He want us to kill blasphemers and heretics? The legal codes of many countries say that He does, and there was a period in the sixteenth century when Catholics and Protestants agreed that this is indeed what He wants, even though they could not agree on who was, or was not, heretical.

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The Ten Commandments, late 19C, stained glass in synagogue, Alsace; image by Ji-Elle via Wikimedia. In accord with Jewish tradition, this image shows “I am the LORD” as the first commandment.

Some say the Ten Commandments encapsulate what God wants. So here’s my own brief summary; full text in the Appendix to this post:

God brought you out of Egypt (only applies to Jews, and anyway completely unhistorical). Don’t make idols, take God’s name in vain, or worship other gods, because God is jealous and will be very cross and punish you for generations. Not much morality there. Honour your parents; generally a good idea, though I have seen exceptions. And take a day off each week; good advice. But the reason offered is strange; that God made heaven and earth in six days (yes, that’s what it says), and rested on the seventh (what does it mean, I wonder, for God to rest).

Don’t murder, don’t commit adultery, don’t steal, don’t bear false witness. Very good advice, but do we need a Deity to tell us this? And, finally, it’s wrong to covet your neighbour’s slaves, but slavery itself is okay. Indeed, following on from the Ten Commandments in Exodus we have the rules about slavery. A Hebrew slave can leave if he wants after seven years, but his wife and kids have to stay behind because they are the master’s property.

At this point, some people will accuse me of poking fun at the Ten Commandments. On the contrary, I am taking them seriously, looking at what they actually say, and evaluating them as guides to action. Isn’t that what we’re supposed to do?

I had two reasons for analysing them in such detail here. Firstly, to challenge the claim of the great moral worthiness of these Commandments as a basis for morality. And secondly, and more importantly here, to illustrate the difference between general values and religious values.

As a matter of shared human values, I think we would all agree that murder, theft, slander, and cheating on our partners is not desirable behaviour. But I don’t notice unbelievers going around being any more homicidal, personally and sexually dishonest, or prone to malicious tale-bearing than the rest of us. Covetousness is an interesting case; at what point does the natural desire to improve one’s lot, and cut a respectable figure in society, become socially disruptive? As for this stuff about slaves, perhaps the kindest thing that we can say is that the authors of Exodus were people of their own time, and accepted (as most of us do today) their time’s view of economic necessity.

That leaves all the stuff about Egypt, graven images, and not making God jealous. I don’t think we need to pay attention to any of this if we don’t want to. Religious values, unless they are also shared human values, will be important to those who want to follow that particular religion, but have no special significance for the rest of us.

But you might say that it’s unfair to judge Christianity by quoting the Old Testament. OK, let’s fast forward a bit. I won’t linger over St Paul’s views on the duties of slaves and women, or the Albigensian Crusade, or the Spanish Inquisition (after all, no one expects the Spanish Inquisition), or the cosy relationship between at least some Churches and Hitler, Mussolini, and the bloodstained dictators of Latin America. These are more enlightened times.

Nor will I belabour the sex abuse scandals of recent years, the havoc wrought by the doctrinal absurdity of priestly celibacy, and the numerous administrative cover-ups, since not even the various Churches involved pretend to moral justification.

As for the involvement of the Catholic Church, the Church of England, and the Salvation Army in forced adoptions, they’ve apologised and won’t do it again, so let’s move on.

Consider instead an area where the moral consensus in the West has shifted dramatically within my own lifetime, and how the Churches have responded to this change. I am referring to sexual morality, and the closely related subject of the treatment of women.

Not too long ago, in Scotland, lower pay for women, and restricted employment and promotion, were regarded as part of the natural order of things. Sex between men was illegal, and, the “promotion” (i.e. discussion) of homosexuality in school health education classes specifically forbidden. Sex outside marriage was, however hypocritically, considered wrong, and the availability of contraception to young adults was restricted, for fear of condoning such activity. Abortion was illegal, unless it could be shown to endanger the mother’s health, and the barrier for this was set so high that illegal abortions were commonplace. Now, by contrast, job discrimination against women is illegal, except for certain jobs (such as the priesthood!) where gender is regarded as important to performance. We have same-sex marriage, and a highly successful grassroots campaign (TIE; Time for Inclusive Education) is leading to the incorporation of nonjudgemental discussion of homosexuality in school education programmes. Sexual morality is seen as based on human values of respect and concern, and teenage pregnancy is at an all-time low. There is still a legal requirement for doctors’ agreement to the necessity of an abortion, but it would be extraordinary for such an agreement to be withheld.

All of these changes will to most of us seem to be changes for the better. And all of them have taken place in the face of opposition, in some areas still effective and active, from the clergy. Thus in the areas of morality of the greatest concern to schoolchildren, the Churches have not been leaders, but laggards. The very last people, one might argue, to be granted a position of privilege on the committees that decide education policy.

Adapted with additional material from a post that first appeared in 3 Quarks Daily, under the title Democracy or theocracy; the bid to reform Scotland’s educational system. It also appears on the Scottish Secular Society website, at http://www.secularsociety.scot/church-education-denying-democracy/

Appendix: The Ten Commandments, KJV, Exodus 20:1-17 (there are minor differences in the version in Deuteronomy)

And God spake all these words, saying,

I am the Lord thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.

Thou shalt have no other gods before me. Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me; And shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments.

Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain; for the Lord will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain.

Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work: But the seventh day is the sabbath of the Lord thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates: For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day, and hallowed it.

Honour thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee.

Thou shalt not kill [a more exact translation would be, thou shalt not murder]. Thou shalt not commit adultery. Thou shalt not steal. Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour.

Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbour’s.

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