Sad news: Stirling University ends Religious Studies courses

Looking out over Airthrey Loch towards the University’s Library and central administrative hub, the Cottrell Building. (Image by Finlay McWalter via wikipedia entry “University of Stirling”

If you are surprised to see me regretting this, you shouldn’t be. Stirling is one of the few places where religion is studied in the same critical spirit as any other major human activity, without pre-commitment to doctrine or dogma. Meantime, Heythrop College, London, where anti-theist (if I may so call him) Stephen Law rubs shoulders with Canon Theologian Keith Ward is no longer recruiting undergraduates and is scheduled to close in 2018.  If you don’t know why we need such studies, now of all times, you haven’t been paying attention.

Here, by permission, is a report on these developments by Ekklesia, the widely respected liberal Christian think-tank:

http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/22008

Widespread dismay at university plans to end religion courses

Researchers, teachers, students and public figures are responding with alarm, surprise and anger at the University of Stirling’s plans to close its internationally-recognised teaching and research on religion in contemporary society.

Since the news broke yesterday (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/22005), hundreds of people have taken to social media to express their distress at the decision and to call for an urgent rethink.

Many have pointed out the significance of Stirling offering studies in religion and belief not linked to the discipline of Christian theology, as is the case in the ancient Scottish universities of Aberdeen, St Andrews, Edinburgh and Glasgow.

This is one of the factors, specialists say, that has enabled university’s small religion department to develop a distinctive analysis of the discourse around religion in the contemporary context, including politics, the media, academia and other spheres of public life.

Opposition to the closure has been coming in from all over the UK, Europe and beyond.

“This is bad, very bad,” tweeted Dr Teemu Taira, Senior Lecturer at the Department of Study of Religions, University of Helsinki and Docent at the Department of Comparative Religion, University of Turku, Finland.

Independent scholar Brain W. Nail wrote of the potential loss of “a world-class religion department built by world-class scholars”.

“Religion supposedly causes so much trouble in the world, so why is the University of Stirling planning to close its religion courses?” asked the Rev Peter Nimmo, a leading Church of Scotland minister.

“Perhaps it just isn’t a hot topic these days,” noted the organisation Secular Scotland, ironically.

Dr Chris Shannahan, a faculty member at the University of Manchester, described Stirling’s decision as a “really sad move”, noting that pioneering postgraduate work on religion and politics could now be scrapped.

“[it] seems to me as if a new course in Religion and Politics is about as relevant as a new course could be,” tweeted Dr Ealasaid Munro, a feminist geographer undertaking postdoctoral research at the University of Glasgow.

“The social sciences continue to be hammered,” observed Dr John MacDonald, who teaches American Studies and is Director of the Scottish Global Forum.

Dr Paraic Reamonn from Geneva, Switzerland, asked on Facebook: “Stirling takes a wrecking ball to religious studies. Whose bright idea was that?”

Meanwhile, former political researcher and public affairs consultant the Rev Matthew Ross, who is now General Secretary of the official ecumenical body Action of Churches Together in Scotland, wrote that he is “saddened and concerned to hear about the forthcoming demise of Religious Studies at the University of Stirling, particularly the implications for the staff and students.

“In today’s world Religious Studies is a vitally important topic; the University of Stirling is making a mistake,” he added.

“No, this can’t happen. Stirling is the only non-divinity centre for religion in Scotland,” declared Dr Mallory Nye, editor of the journal Culture and Religion.

Dr Rajalakshmi Nadadur, editor for the Critical Religion Association, McCrimmon Publishing, Dr Doug Gay from the University of Glasgow, ethnohistorian Dr Sarah Dees, and scholars in Australia and the United States are among many others to express deep concern about the situation at Stirling.

Simon Barrow, co-director of the religion and society think-tank Ekklesia, commented: “Closing a department that tackles one of the most crucial subjects in contemporary discourse – the relationship of religion and belief to momentous changes in the global situation – is the opposite of what a modern university that cares about applied knowledge should be doing.

“It is to be hoped that this precipitous decision, which appears to have been taken without any serious consultation, and just a few weeks before it is to be implemented, will be immediately reconsidered.”

Professor Jolyon Mitchell from New College , Edinburgh, who is also President of the UK-wide Theology and Religious Studies academic network (TRS), said: “Stirling’s approach to the study and teaching of religion, as something distinct from Christian theology, represents an invaluable element in the Scottish TRS landscape and a vital contribution to international efforts to understand the role of religion in the contemporary world.

“Following hot on the tail of indications that Heythrop College in London is under similar pressure, the news at Stirling underlines some of the challenges currently facing TRS across the UK.”

The staff most immediately affected are Dr Tim Fitzgerald (Reader in Religion), Dr Andrew Hass (Reader in Religion), Dr Alison Jasper (Senior Lecturer in Religion) and Dr Michael Marten (Lecturer in Postcolonial Studies with Religion).

The university’s media relations policy, and the fact that their jobs are on the line, means that they are forbidden from commenting on the situation.

Staff are receiving backing from the University and College Union (UCU), the largest trade union and professional association for academics, lecturers, trainers, researchers and academic-related staff working in further and higher education throughout the UK.

See also http://criticalreligion.org/events/august-2015-religion-at-stirling-under-threat/ and links therein:

“The Religion staff at Stirling are not in a position to make public comment on the matter (their jobs are at stake), but it might be worth contacting key individuals at the university:

Further news and comment will follow on the Ekklesia website. Ekklesia has a partnership with the Critical Religion project that originated from staff at the University of Stirling.

 

The Church of England and Creationism.

Paul Braterman:

Even William Jennings Bryan, at the 1925 Scopes Trial (of which more later), prosecuting under the law he had helped form that made teaching evolution illegal, admitted the probability of an ancient Earth. Now, infiltrating CofE and Church of Scotland, and overwhelming Baptist and Evangelical churches on both sides of the Atlantic, the absurdities of such Old Earth creationism have been replaced by a Young Earth “flood geology” creationism that is beyond absurd.

Originally posted on Peddling and Scaling God and Darwin:

Caution Creationists3

I have been asked about creationist infiltration into the Church of England, which has only come about in the last forty years. By Creationism I means those who reckon the earth to be only thousands of years old and that evolution has not happened. I will not discuss Creationism as such, except to say it is scientifically worthless and wrong as well as being bad theology.

Well here goes.

First consider the make-up and history of the Church of England. Right from the beginning, i.e 1540s, it was not completely Protestant, and has been called a bone half-set. Elizabeth wished to retain both ultra-protestants and semi-papists, resulting in tensions for over a century culminating with the execution of William Laud and the Civil war. After the Restoration in 1662 the Latitudinarians (fore-runners of liberals) gained the influence but from the 1730s Evangelicals began their long reign. Until about 1790 they…

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Global warming: Could we hide rising seas in sunken deserts?

Paul Braterman:

Would the depressions that exist below sea level in 49 countries, many in desert regions, provide a way to accommodate rising sea levels? No.

Human folly is the root source of our greatest problems (actually, that’s as true and useless as saying that oxygen is the root source of forest fires). Creationism, on which I’ve written so much, is one manifestation; global warming denial another, and much more serious in its probable effects. [Reblogged from Mountain Mystery: Hiding Rising Seas in Sunken Deserts]

Edit: This just in; a frightening comparison of the size of anthropogenic and natural background effects;

“Today, the Earth is warming about 20 times faster than it cooled during the past 1,800 years,” said Michael Evans, second author of the study and an associate professor in the University of Maryland’s Department of Geology and Earth System Science Interdisciplinary Center (ESSIC). “This study truly highlights the profound effects we are having on our climate today.”

(Terra Daily reporting on Robust global ocean cooling trend for the pre-industrial Common Era, Nature Geoscience)

Originally posted on The Mountain Mystery:

Dead Sea shoreline, 428 metres below sea level.Dead Sea shoreline, 429 metres below sea level.

This weekend, a friend asked me if the rise in the oceans could be drained off into the world’s below-sea-level depressions. Could rising ocean waters be diverted to fill the Dead Sea and Death Valley Depressions, for example? It seems a creative solution. Instead of flooding the Maldives, Piazza San Marco, and south Florida, the expected ocean level rise could fill some of the Earth’s less inhabited wastelands instead.

At this moment, I don’t want to debate the idea of climate change and its impact on sea level. I think the evidence is substantial that Arctic ice and mountain glaciers are disappearing and the melt water is reaching the sea. But this may ultimately be a thousand-year-long melting blip before the return of another ice age. I don’t know. What I’d rather do today is simply try to put some numbers on…

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Pluto, Patterns, and Predictions; Creationism as Self-contradiction

Paul Braterman:

“Unfortunately, this evidence presents yet another problem for young-earth creationism. Not only would a dwarf-planet collision completely reshape the surfaces of both Pluto and Charon, but it would have taken tens of thousands of centuries for the system to settle into the perfectly-circular, dual-tidally-locked co-orbit we observe today.”

Not surprisingly, the Young Earth Creationists are heralding the smoth-ish surface of Pluto as evidence for a young solar system. It does not seem to worry them that if the absence of craters on Pluto is evidence for its recent formation, then their presence throughout the rest of the Solar System is evidence for its antiquity. The post I am reblogging here presents yet more internal contradictions in the YEC description of Pluto, including the highlight that I quote above. And if you are willing to contradict yourself, you can, after a fashion, prove anything:

Nh-pluto-in-true-color_2x_JPEG.jpg (1800×1800)

Near-true-colour image composite of Pluto taken by the New Horizons spacecraft on 14 July 2015 from a distance of 450,000 kilometers (NASA / Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory / Southwest Research Institute)

Originally posted on Age of Rocks:

Guest post by David MacMillan

One of the great things about being home schooled was the way every experience could become a learning opportunity. We were always ready to investigate new things and build on what we learned, and it’s a habit that has remained with me for the rest of my life.

As a young-earth creationist, on the other hand, I took this principle a little too far. Instead of treating new scientific discoveries as exciting and valuable on their own, I felt obligated to find a way to turn them into evidence for creationism. Any new finding, no matter how obscure, demanded that I leap in with my “biblical glasses” and show how any discovery could be shoehorned into the creationist model.

Pluto surface Closeup view of Pluto’s surface, taken by the New Horizon spacecraft.

It’s a familiar pattern. Creationist organizations have earned a reputation for seizing upon every…

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Meeting creationists on their own terms: understanding the Genesis flood

Paul Braterman:

Maimonides said it best, over 800 years ago. The Divine Teaching is, of necessity, expressed in human language. We don’t believe that God has fingers and hands (Exodus, Isaiah, Psalms, Luke) or goes for walks in gardens (Genesis). I would add that no one takes the commandments in the Bible literally, and when Daesh comes close to following the rules of law laid down in Deuteronomy, we are quite properly appalled. All of this is familiar, but this piece combats biblical literalism on its own terms, shows how it is inseparable from interpretation, and thereby undermines its strongest attraction – the illusion of certainty.

Originally posted on The Logic of Science:

In this post, I am going to do something highly atypical for a science blog: I am going to talk about theology. I want to be very clear about why I am doing this and why you should pay attention (regardless of your personal religious beliefs or lack thereof). I have spent a great deal of time talking to creationists, and what I have found is that most of them are concerned primarily with what the Bible says, and they only accept science when it happens to line up with their religious views. In other words, it’s not that the creationists are unintelligent, it’s simply that they have different priorities. As a result, if you initiate a conversation with creationists by talking about the science of evolution, you won’t get anywhere because they think that the science conflicts with their religion, but if you start by explaining why the science

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21st Century Capitalism Subverting Democracy, Says Top Investment Manager

Financial system failing; real problems of climate, environment, resource limitation, and looming food shortages ignored; long-term consequences never considered; rising inequality; a rewards system that stops the market from behaving rationally; democracy ineffective against the influence of the financial elite.

Jeremy Grantham

Photograph by Erik Madigan Heck via WSJ

Who says? Left-wing intellectuals like Naomi Klein, contrarian Nobel Prize economists like Krugman and Stiglitz, political dissidents like Syriza in Greece, Podemos in Spain, or Scottish National Party, Green, and a cetain Labour would-be leader in the UK? No; one Jeremy Grantham, financial strategist whose firm manages more than US $118 billion in assets, in his keynote address to the 2015 Morningside Investment Conference in Chicago. I don’t normally write about financial matters, but here we have the chief strategist of one of the world’s largest asset management firms delivering one of the sharpest critiques of what now passes for capitalism that I have ever seen, and his remarks* deserve far wider circulation.

Grantham lists the following 10 major problems [my comments in brackets]:

Resource constrains, low capital expenditure, inequality itself, climate pressures, and the low-hanging fruit is mostly gone. Facebook is not the steam engine.

Human folly, avoiding unpleasant information, leading to bubble after bubble as we repeat past mistakes, and deny or ignore the really important matters, like climate change.

Resource limitations. Conventional economics pays no attention to this, and assumes endless growth, as if the free market were a perpetual motion machine that would never run out of anything.

In particular, oil. Our economy was built on cheap oil, which is running out now. [Shale gas has reversed this, but only for the moment.]

Climate problems. Tree ring data show that California is the driest it’s been in 1,200 years. The cotton crop in Texas failed for 6 years in a row because of drought, and then came devastating floods.

Food problems. Probably, the biggest problems that we face, with water running out, soil erosion, population growth, and climate change. This may well lead to chaos in the world’s poorest countries. [Food problems were predicted in the 1940s, and failed to materialise, but that was because of the Green Revolution and Haber process fertiliser. There are no comparable innovations in sight.]

Income inequality. The economy can’t grow when wages are failing to rise.

Slow rise in output, for many reasons. What technology can most readily provide, we already have [as in my example regarding food]. As Grantham puts it, “Resource constrains, low capital expenditure, inequality itself, climate pressures, and the low-hanging fruit is mostly gone. Facebook is not the steam engine.”

Systematic failings of modern capitalism, which focuses exclusively on profit, neglects common resources such as air, water, and soil, and discounts the future of our grandchildren. As a Princeton University study shows, the [US] financial elite has massive influence on legislation, while public opinion has little or none; “This is not really effective democracy in action.”

Bad management by the central banks, and a corporate culture where 80% of the rewards of top management are in stock options, making financial manipulation (specifically, share buyback using cheap borrowed money) more rewarding than real investment in new productive capacity.

This is not really effective democracy in action.

Finally, market bubbles. These are built into the structure of the financial industry. Investment managers protect their jobs by following the herd. So everyone does the same thing, pushing markets away from correct valuations, and making the rational distribution of resources, which is after all the whole point of free market capitalism, impossible.

The rest of Grantham’s presentation was highly technical, directed at his fellow investment managers; that part of his talk is summarised here, as reported by an investors’ website, which did not, however, bother to relay his remarks on the wider issues discussed above.

*Behind a pay and membership wall, but this summary is my own personal review and may be freely copied with acknowledgement.

Linguistic Creationism and the Tower of Babel

Paul Braterman:

The Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1563), via Wikipedia

This from Uncyclopedia by way of my friend John Zande’s Superstitious Naked Ape.  To the arguments used there, I would add the following:

Linguistic evolutionists cannot explain the origins of language. Therefore the theory of language evolution fails its very first test

If English is derived from German, why are there still Germans?

No one has ever observed one language change into another. Were you there?

The real reason why people deny that the different languages were created by God, is so that they can use bad language. After all, if language is not God-given, there are no objective standards and anything goes.

And when I first came across the arguments below, I thought that no one could really be using them to defend the Tower of Babel story. I was wrong. See e.g. Creation and Human Language (Creation Social Science Quarterly) and The Origin of Language (Creation Magazine); h/t John Zande. Links to creationist sites are nofollow.

Originally posted on :

The following is taken directly fromUncyclopedia.

fingerprint-dm Linguistic Creationism is a theory stating that all of the natural languages could not have developed naturally, so they must have been intelligently designed by God when he destroyed the Tower of Babel.

ARGUMENTS FOR LINGUISTIC CREATIONISM

Irreducible Complexity: If you remove letters from the word “book” you get “ook”, “bok” and “boo”, all of which are nonsensical and hence not sustainable by usage for subsequent evolution into meaningful words. It is thus impossible that the word “book” developed from any other word, it must have been created by God so in order to be used.

Improbability of spontaneous linguistic genesis: It is highly improbable that even the simplest English sentences were formed from alphabet letters spontaneously, since the odds of monkeys banging away on hypothetical typewriters and in so doing generating a readable and semantically meaningful text is vanishingly small. Hence the English language…

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Exposing the Roots of Young Earth Creationism

Paul Braterman:

Long but worth it. See in particular the section “Advice from a Former Young Earth Creationist”. This post exposes Young Earth Creationism as a 20th-century heresy, with sinful disregard for reality. It also considers from the inside (as I cannot) the claims Creationists make based on Christian faith, and dismantles them. Compare my own posts Biblical literalism as blasphemy and Anti-Creationists need to think about tactics, extensive writings by my friend the geologist historian priest Michael Roberts, at Peddling and Scaling  and elsewhere, and Numbers’ detailed scholarly analysis  The Creationists.

For my own blog, I’ve settled on Primate’s Progress as title; a clear favourite. Many thanks to those who shared your thoughts on the matter, here and elsewhere. H/t John Bunyan, of course, but I shall do my best to avoid the Slough of Despond.

Originally posted on Letters to Creationists:

SUMMARY

The Protestant consensus since the time of the Reformation has been that the physical universe and its history are real, not illusory. As God’s creation, the physical world conveys genuine information about the Creator and can serve to inform our interpretations of the Bible. Therefore, when geologists (many of them devout Christians) in the early 1800’s found that the rock layers showed the earth to be far older than the 6000 years derived from a literal reading of Genesis, Bible-believing Christians did not ignore, suppress, or lie about these findings. Rather, they adjusted their interpretation of the relevant Bible passages away from a simplistic literal reading, just as they had done 200 years earlier with the verses that depicted a stationary earth. Through about 1960, nearly all Christians, including conservative Old Testament scholars and most fundamentalists, were comfortable with interpretations of Genesis which accommodated an earth that was many…

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‘Stone Age’ tools are a problem for YEC; but Noah’s Flood solves everything

Paul Braterman:

(Reblog of Terry Mortenson concedes: ‘Stone Age’ tools are a problem for YEC, Age of Rocks) Lava flows across Antrim? Blame Noah’s Flood. Palaeosols in between them? Noah’s Flood again. Moving continents? Obviously the result of Noah’s Flood. All those poor extinct dinosaurs (the ones that weren’t later exterminated by Nimrod the Mighty Hunter) – drowned in Noah’s Flood. And radiometric dates proving, by any sane standard, an ancient Earth? You guessed it; they don’t take account of the radiation associated with Noah’s Flood.

And now, with breathtaking disdain for reality, a Creationist explanation for the Palaeolithic toolmaker’s rubble that covers so much of Africa (but nowhere else). All produced by colliding rocks, during Noah’s Flood.

Wait a bit and we’ll be told that cratering on the Moon, Mars, and Mercury is somehow caused by Noah’s Flood. Come to think of it, we don’t even need to wait. There’s one school of Creationist thought, if you’ll forgive the oxymoron, the one behind Noah’s Ark Zoo Farm near Bristol, that says exactly that.

Originally posted on Age of Rocks:

Answers in Genesis generally does well not to acknowledge its best critics, because doing so exposes their audience to the fact that theirs is a ministry rooted in pseudoscience, which is ultimately damaging to the cause of Christ. If we abhor the truth as it pertains to the natural world, how are we to persuade anyone that we hold the keys to God’s kingdom?

When AiG does respond, typically it is prefaced with caveats highlighting the ‘naturalistic’, ‘atheistic’, or ‘evolutionary’ assumptions that motivate their attackers. This strategy is effective in dismissing those like Richard Dawkins, who are not shy about such convictions, or Bill Nye, who—though less antagonistic—is still not a confessing Christian. However, as Terry Mortenson demonstrated yesterday, AiG cannot entirely ignore pleas from within the church, despite that it simultaneously informs their readers that most Christians—especially those holding advanced degrees in theology or the natural sciences—also describe creationist’s efforts as bad…

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What’s in a name? The Pensive Primate, or Primate’s Progress? Tell me what you think

Orangutans are capable of having mental maps and calendars of the forest

Orangutans are capable of having mental maps of the forest

Update: Primate’s Progress it is.

And now for something a great deal less serious.

I originally planned to concentrate on scientific topics, especially the quirks of evolution, so I called this blog “Eat Your Brains Out”. I was referring in particular to the sea squirt. A sea squirt is a tunicate, a member of the group most closely related to vertebrates (that’s you and me and frogs and fishes), but you wouldn’t think so to look at it. As I wrote the story, it starts out as a free-swimming larva, clearly related to our tadpole ancestors, but when it grows up it just sticks its head on a rock and turns into a couple of slimy tubes and reabsorbs its juvenile nervous system because it doesn’t need it any more. Nice story but, as a well-informed reader pointed out, it’s more a matter of rearranging than reabsorbing. Besides, I suspect that more people know about Zombie Apocalypse than about the metamorphosis of sea squirts. And in any case, I’ve found myself writing about all kinds of things, such as politics, education, and freedom of speech, not just about science. Time for a new title.

So, after watching the final episode of BBC’s Monkey Planet (“how primates are individuals with a sense of self and why brainpower is essential to primate survival”), I decided to assert my sense of self and advertise my brainpower by renaming my blog The Pensive Primate. But then I discovered a company selling what it calls Pensive Primate gifts, such as mugs and T-shirts with pictures of orangutans on them, so I settled for Primate’s Progress instead. However, I have mixed feelings about the word “progress”. It makes me sound little bit like (perhaps I am a little bit like) a naive optimist left over from an earlier century. More seriously, it suggests a common misconception about evolution, which is that it is somehow always Onwards and Upwards.

Further searching showed that the label “Pensive Primate” has actually been used many times by photographers and artists, and as far as I can see it is not a trademark. It follows that I can use it too if I want to. After all, there’s no real risk that this blog will be mistaken for a multi-million marketing enterprise.

So now I have to decide. Which is it going to be, The Pensive Primate or Primate’s Progress?

Comments welcome

Image: BBC web site

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