Monthly Archives: April 2013

More from Edinburgh on the future of religion, and some thoughts on accommodation and accommodationism

Update: Keith and I will be discussing this with the Edinburgh Humanists, 7:30 pm, Monday 3rd June; Mercure Hotel (formerly Mount Royal Hotel), Skyline suite on 7th floor (there’s a lift), 53 Princes Street, Edinburgh EH2 2DG (East End of Princes Street, between M&S and Jenners Department Store)

I have already posted my own introductory remarks at the Edinburgh International Science Festival discussion. Here are my summaries of those from Keith Gilmour (of Unintelligent Design fame, convener of Glasgow Brights, and Religious Moral and Philosophical Education teacher), and the Rev Andrew Frater, of the Thinking Allowed critical theology lecture series, and my own reflections on these. Keith looks forward to the coming together of rationalists with liberal-minded believers, I, in contrast, think that we are looking out some unbridgeable divides, on topics that matter greatly to the believers, but wonder how much they should be allowed to matter to the rest of us.

Keith: To quote Niels Bohr, prediction is always difficult, especially regarding the future. Who in 1988 would have foretold the incredible drop in crime, divorce, and teen pregnancies, the legalisation of gay marriage, the smoking ban, the resignation of a pope, or Martin McGuiness shaking hands with the Queen?

The obvious prediction for the Church is ongoing decline. I think of it more like an alcoholic, heading for rock bottom, at which point it might either go under, or make a comeback. Going under would mean continuing with the suicidal policies of gender inequality, and obsession with sexual guilt. A comeback would mean some major changes, leading towards a future with general acceptance of gay marriage and gay adoption, a Catholic church purged of paedophilia, a Christianity free from literalist mythology, gender discrimination, “God of the gaps” reasoning and similar nonsense, and, in time, an Islam that has also freed itself from obscurantist nastiness.

In any case, religion will never disappear as long as we retain our fear of death, the dark and the unknown, and our tendency to wishful thinking.

The big questions of life, death, and meaningfulness will not go away, nor should they. And so religion will not die out. Faith, perhaps, yes, but not hope or charity, awe, wonder or mystery. If Dawkins can quote Psalm 19 with approval, “The heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament show us his handiwork”, there may even be room for a grand coalition between non-dogmatic religion, and the rationalist’s sense of wonder.

Or, to put it another way: You say God is love, we’ll say Love is god, and let’s split the difference!

Andrew had walked that day in the steps of Thomas Aikenhead, executed for heresy in 1696, and to whom the General Assembly should now make a public apology. Jesus didn’t die as a sacrifice; he was killed. He was killed for being a protester by the power structure, of the rabbinical power structure who recognized him as a challenge, and the power structure of Rome who understood the threat posed by his message of love and common humanity. Aikenhead’s crime was to question biblical literalism, to suggest that Eden was a myth, and to attempt to bring the Church of Scotland of his day in line with the emerging Enlightenment.

Andrew’s hope is that some of the spirit of Aikenhead will survive. For him, Christianity is not a matter of accepting this or that belief, but of following in the footsteps of the Man on the donkey. The Church is not a hierarchy but a body of people, and its ministry is to serve people. The claim that same-sex marriage is a threat to Christian marriage is absurd, because there is no such thing as Christian marriage, only human marriage. When religion defines dogmas, develops structures, and limits enquiry, it is doing the very opposite of everything that Jesus stood for. The Church has already hit rock bottom. It hit rock bottom under the Emperor Constantine, when it allowed itself to be established as an official religion, and needs to redeem itself from this. As for the factual claims made by religion, these are simply beside the point. The message of love and self-worth does not depend on whether or not strange things actually happened in a particular tomb some 2000 years ago.

Andrew is as close a partner as Keith could hope for among believers, and yet I see the gap between them as unbridgeable. For Andrew, the universe has a purpose, even if we do not know what it is, the Gospel story has a special mystical significance, and some very precious part of a person survives physical death. For Keith, as for me, purpose is something we must each create for ourselves in an indifferent and unmotivated universe, the Gospels are an incoherent palimpsest, and the mind can no more exist without the body than a computer program can run without hardware. These are differences that cannot be “split”.

But how much does this matter? Keith and I totally disagree, whereas I suspect that Andrew and I generally agree, on questions of politics and economics. I see Keith’s acceptance of 21st century capitalism as an ideological delusion, whereas he sees the primacy I give to social concerns as soft-minded evasion. These also are differences that cannot be “split”. But they do not stop me from embracing Keith as an ally in the fight (it is a fight) against the infiltration of education by creationists and other religious obscurantists. And I do not see my differences with Andrew as reason not to embrace him in the same cause. Indeed, I value him particularly highly, as I value allies like Dennis Venema, because they can argue the case from within the tent of religion, as I can not.

And if this makes me an “accommodationist”, so be it.

The age of the Earth – how real science happens

If you want to teach about biology, or about the Bible, at Patrick Henry College for the evangelically home-schooled in Virginia, you will have to agree with the College’s view that “that God’s creative work, as described in Genesis 1:1-31, was completed in six twenty-four hour days.” Alternative views are to be presented, but should, “in the end, teach creation as both biblically true and as the best fit to observed data.”

Faculty teaching such courses might want to shield their eyes from the new Scientific American Classic, Determining the Age of the Earth, to which I wrote the introduction, for fear of having to change their minds and lose their jobs. For there they would find copies of articles, from 1857 to 1989, explaining in great detail just how, and after what exhaustive scrutiny, the scientific community was driven, much against its will, to conclude that “the best fit to observe data” requires a time of over 4.5 billion years.

Six days, of course, had long since ceased to be taken seriously as an estimate. The Scientific American account begins with Kelvin using arguments based on the then-new science of thermodynamics to challenge the geologists’ view that the earth was indefinitely old, and describes how he lowered his estimate from up to 100 million years to an upper limit of around 20 million. Meantime the geologists were developing what are sometimes called “hourglass” methods, based on observation of the Earth as it now is, and estimates of the rates of the processes that had brought it there. For instance, they  compared the total amount of salt in the oceans with the amount carried down in rivers annually. They added up the known thicknesses of sediments, and divided that by an estimated rate of deposition. This led them to estimates of around 100 million, enough (perhaps) for Darwinian evolution, but still longer than Kelvin was by the end willing to grant them.

When Rutherford’s group, followed in short order by Strutt, Arthur Holmes, and Bertram Boltwood, introduced radiometric dating, the geological community was initially sceptical. And with good reason. They were told that their careful estimates were wrong by a factor of five, then 10, and 20 or more. All this on the basis of a very poorly understood phenomenon. Remember that there was as yet no knowledge of the existence and nature of isotopes, the fact that there are three separate major decay sequences, or ways of distinguishing radiogenic from non-radiogenic lead. It was not until 1926, in fact, two decades after Rutherford’s initial work, that the method was generally accepted. And with our present knowledge, we can easily identify the flaws in the earlier reasoning, such as the inability to include the energy generated by nuclear processes, or the recycling of sediments back into the mantle. [Added edit: And, much more importantly, the role of convection in increasing the amount of heat to be disposed of; see here]

I had already written about this subject, mainly from the point of view of the conflict between Kelvin and the geologists. Nonetheless, I found it both enjoyable and instructive to retrace the thoughts of some of the scientists I had already met, and others whose names were new to me, in their own words and from the perspective of their own time. This was, for me, no mere antiquarian exercise, but an opportunity to experience for myself this wonderful story of discovery, not just from the point of view of the eventual winners, but as a journey over difficult terrain, where even concepts that we now recognize as misguided functioned, in their time, as signposts.

So what should we say about an institution of higher learning like PatrickHenryCollege? I would have preferred to say nothing at all, if it were not for the fact that it has an influence far beyond its numbers, that Professor John Lennox, whom I have discussed earlier, is speaking there next week, and that its 240-strong student body had by 2004 supplied seven out of the 100 interns in George W Bush’s White House, and support staff for 22 other politicians.


Has religion a future? My remarks to Edinburgh International Science Festival

Update: Keith and I will be discussing this with the Edinburgh Humanists, 7:30 pm, Monday 3rd June; Mercure Hotel (formerly Mount Royal Hotel), Skyline suite on 7th floor (there’s a lift), 53 Princes Street, Edinburgh EH2 2DG (East End of Princes Street, between M&S and Jenners Department Store)

I took part in the discussion on this topic, as part of the Edinburgh International Science Festival, together with Keith Gilmour (of Unintelligent Design fame), and the Rev Andrew Frater, of the Thinking Allowed critical theology lecture series, and chaired by Alex Wood, ex-politician, education consultant, and journalist. Here are the notes of my own introductory remarks; for the other speakers’ remarks, and a fuller discussion, see here.

A not-so-cheerful prognosis

I see much of merit within religion, and hope that it can get its house in order. But I’m not optimistic. I see tough times ahead, and an increasing threat from obscurantist fundamentalism at the very moment when Government is unloading its responsibilities onto the churches.

Tough times ahead

Population pressure; built-in momentum will push this to 8 billion in the next 25 years

Rising food prices worldwide

Economic instability

Growing inequality

Failed states, wars, terrorism; consider Congo, Somalia, Afghanistan, Mali, Iraq

Nuclear proliferation; North Korea, Iran… and when a nuclear power is also a failing state, like North Korea and Pakistan in their different ways, what then?

Climate change; I wish it wasn’t happening but it is

The realities of power

 Representatives of religion complain of being marginalised, but the very opposite is the case. The embedded power of religion includes

School advisory boards, with representatives in Scotland of Church of Scotland and the Catholic Church, and religious observance (not just instruction) in all state schools

Chaplaincies, paid for with public money, in Universities, the armed forces, and the financially struggling NHS

“Christian value” pressure groups, some with esteemed and well-connected educators

26 Church of England Bishops in the House of Lords, involved in making the laws that affect us all

Privileged access to politicians; Cardinal O’Brien, during his last months in office, met Scotland’s first Minister several times in a n attempt to influence legislation

For the first time, a Minister for Religion in the UK government

Government abdication adds to this power

On 1 Jan this year, Justin Welby, designate Archbishop of Canterbury, said that the financial crisis could signal the “greatest moment of opportunity since the Second World War” for churches to grow

Food banks run by Trussell Trust (Evangelical); now over 300, up from 20 pre-crisis Thank goodness, by which I mean human goodness, that someone is running these things, but do we really want to be relying on so erratic a mechanism to stop kids going to bed hungry?

100 million hours/year volunteer work by the Churches on social projects (according to Daily Telegraph, 14 Feb). This would be worth 50,000 full time employees, or over £1 bn

Schools; One third of schools in England are already religious. CofE plans for more

Just when religion is under threat from within

General drift away from religion

But difficult times favour extreme beliefs

Upsurge of absolutism

Biblical literalist and creationist infiltration

Example of infiltration; Highland Theological College

No ancient institution, but Founded in 1994; Now part of University of Highlands and Islands

Awarding its own degrees since 2008

Website: “This enables HTC to retain its strongly evangelical, Reformed ethos within the university sector giving HTC a unique opportunity to impact on the training of ministers from a number of denominations.” No two ways about what they’re doing

Church of Scotland has been sending seminarians there since 2006

Why is this their theology our problem?

Basis of faith (from website), to which all teaching staff must subscribe: Bible “verbally inspired by Almighty God and therefore without error.” How does the College interpret this?

Website lists only two theologians among trustees, both of whom have written books promulgating literal six-day creationism, and both based in US Southern Baptist seminaries; Douglas F Kelly of Reformed Theological Seminary, Charlotte, North Carolina, author of Creation and Change, and the Rev Dr J Ligon Duncan III, Reformed Theological Seminary Jackson, Mississippi, author of The Genesis Debate

HTC teaching based on doctrine that (I quote)[1] a historical Fall “has ushered us into a state of bitter bondage, sad shame and total depravity”

So do we want our children taught that the earth was created 6,000 years ago, and that as a result of what happened at that time they themselves were born totally depraved?

More generally, do we want

… to be receiving a wide range of social services from religious organisations

at the same time that religion is losing its appeal

and its organisations are being infiltrated by the enemies of reason?

If not, what can we do about it?

[1] Information supplied “in the spirit of openness” by HTC in response to a Freedom of Information request, which the College did not, however, agree that it was required to answer.

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