Thursday, 27 December 2012

Peter Higgs Criticises Evangelical Protestants

© The Guardian
In a video interview with the Spanish paper El Mundo, Peter Higgs, the man after whom the Higgs Boson was named, has criticised that particle's epithet, 'The God Particle':
It's inviting people to confuse theoretical physics with theology, and that's not a good thing to do.
Indeed, it has nothing to do with god - the name was apparently just part of the marketing effort for this book by Leon Lederman - and does not replace any god. The god hypothesis is noticeably absent from any serious scientific papers, so the discovery of an elementary particle could not replace a concept that is superfluous.

But that has not stopped Christians from accommodating it to their philosophies. Consider this reported conversation between a believer, Larry Taunton, and an 'agnostic' unnamed particle physicist:
"As you look back on a long career, what is one thing that your study of science has taught you?"
He did not hesitate. "It has taught me that there are laws in the universe that science is powerless to explain. We understand the laws of physics, but where did the laws themselves come from? Why do they work?"
"Professor, if I understand you correctly, you are saying that just as the Higgs boson is the most logical explanation for how particles get their mass, there must also be a kind of Higgs-boson-to-the-universe, so to speak, establishing laws and making them work, yes?"
He tilted his head inquiringly. "You mean God?" I acknowledged that I did indeed mean the Almighty. If, by faith, we accept that there are immutable natural laws, why not accept the possibility of a Lawgiver? "Yes," he conceded with a smile, "I suppose you could say that."
(The conversation took place at Green-Templeton College at Oxford University, which, as the name suggests, was partly founded with money from a man dedicated to the reconciliation of science and faith.)

The logic is poor and the conclusion vacuous, but it goes to show the lengths to which believers will go to accommodate science and religion.  Higgs is reported by the Guardian to be similarly accommodating, in an article entitled Peter Higgs criticises Richard Dawkins over anti-religious 'fundamentalism':
In the El Mundo interview, Higgs argued that although he was not a believer, he thought science and religion were not incompatible. "The growth of our understanding of the world through science weakens some of the motivation which makes people believers. But that's not the same thing as saying they're incompatible. It's just that I think some of the traditional reasons for belief, going back thousands of years, are rather undermined.
"But that doesn't end the whole thing. Anybody who is a convinced but not a dogmatic believer can continue to hold his belief. It means I think you have to be rather more careful about the whole debate between science and religion than some people have been in the past."
Such a tenuous accommodation could also be made between Stalinism and faith, or National Socialism and faith, but no such link is sought. Science has something which even the most ardent believer values. The Higgs boson is enormously important in explaining reality, but has nothing to say about gods; that fact in itself suggests there is quite a difference between reality and gods.

So it's good to see Peter Higgs himself baulk at the nefarious use of the 'God Particle' meme; he also says:
There have been some evangelical protestants who go around trying to convert influence people to follow them, and that I think is a bad consequence.
I would agree. It's odd, then, that he also has a pop at Richard Dawkins. The video above doesn't seem to include it, but the report says:
"What Dawkins does too often is to concentrate his attack on fundamentalists. But there are many believers who are just not fundamentalists," Higgs said in an interview with the Spanish newspaper El Mundo. "Fundamentalism is another problem. I mean, Dawkins in a way is almost a fundamentalist himself, of another kind."
To be fair, he only says 'almost a fundamentalist', but the 'almost' gets lost in the edit. As the article itself notes, the 'Dawkins is a fundamentalist too' notion is a canard that Dawkins has been at pains to refute; he holds to no sacred text, so cannot, by definition, be a fundamentalist of any kind, if a fundamentalist is defined as one who holds unerringly to a sacred text (the Wikipedia definition). Dawkins does not really concentrate his attack on fundamentalists, in my opinion, but he obviously has to spend more time refuting creationists, because it is they who threaten science education the most; if Higgs does not recognise this, he is in danger of looking sadly complacent. And one may ask what Higgs is doing simply attacking evangelical protestants, when it's plain to me that any number of apologists have used the 'God Particle' to their own ends. Should Dawkins refrain from calling out creationists if Higgs is allowed to call out evangelicals?

Of course, a looser definition of fundamentalism could be applied to Dawkins; the Oxford Dictionary of English includes this variation:
strict adherence to the basic principles of any subject or discipline
Well, on those terms, perhaps Dawkins is a fundamentalist, since he adheres strictly to the principles of science. But then, so too does Higgs in his opposition to evangelical protestants using the boson to convert people. If that is the only line any of us have to cross to be labelled a fundamentalist, maybe it is more appropriate to call Peter Higgs a fundamentalist, the man who predicted a fundamental element of the Standard Model, a 'theory of almost everything', but who still objects to evangelicals citing it as a reason to believe in their god.

Of course, he's no more a 'fundamentalist' than is Dawkins; it's a shame that he's fallen for the trite clichés that the religious and believers in belief like to propagate about those who dare to point out the errors of faith; he's effectively accusing himself of the same thing.

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Thursday, 20 December 2012

Gun Ownership and Gun Deaths

It seems intuitively obvious to me that deaths by firearm would increase according to availability of firearms, and the prevalence of gun crime in the United States appears to bear this out. But that is just one data point; do the statistics bear this out?

Well I'm no statistician, but I can just about use Excel, so here's the developed countries culled from this list and plotted:

A trend emerges, though it's a lot less emphatic without the US:

Here's the dataset:
Country/Territory Homicide by firearm rate per 100,000 pop Average firearms per 100 people
Australia 0.14 15
Austria 0.22 30.4
Belgium 0.68 17.2
Canada 0.51 30.8
Denmark 0.27 12
England and Wales 0.07 6.2
Finland 0.45 45.3
France 0.06 31.2
Germany 0.19 30.3
Greece 0.26 22.5
Ireland 0.48 8.6
Israel 0.09 7.3
Italy 0.71 11.9
Netherlands 0.33 3.9
New Zealand 0.16 22.6
Norway 0.05 31.3
Portugal 0.41 8.5
Spain 0.2 10.4
Sweden 0.41 31.6
Switzerland 0.77 45.7
Turkey 0.77 12.5
United States 2.97 88.8

It's interesting that the US makes quite a difference, but then it is currently that anomaly (gun crime in the States) that we are trying to explain, given the dreadful events at Sandy Hook. Nevertheless, it should be noted that there are difficulties comparing countries like this.

A review of the literature 1 a few years back, however, does conclude that gun deaths and gun ownership are correlated, while noting my proviso:
4. Conclusion
The available evidence is quite consistent. The few case control studies suggest that households with firearms are at higher risk for homicide, particularly firearm homicide. International cross-sectional studies of high-income countries find that in countries with more firearms, both men and women are at higher risk for homicide, particularly firearm homicide. This result is primarily due to the United States, which has the highest levels of household ownership of private firearms, the weakest gun control laws, and the highest homicide rates. Time series studies of particular cities and states, and for the United States as a whole, suggest a positive gun prevalence-homicide association. Finally, perhaps the strongest evidence comes from cross-sectional analyses of U.S. regions and states. Again, places with higher levels of gun ownership are places with higher homicide rates.
None of the studies can prove causation and none have completely eliminated the possibility that the association might be entirely due to reverse causation or omitted variables. But the available evidence is entirely inconsistent with the hypothesis that increased gun prevalence lowers the homicide rate. Instead, most studies, cross sectional or time series, international or domestic, are consistent with the hypothesis that higher levels of gun prevalence substantially increase the homicide rate.
The comparison across US States apparently providing the strongest evidence. It would be interesting to see some more literature reviews; it's interesting reading about the difficulties in data comparisons across diverse countries and regions - cultural differences and data collection methods must affect the data significantly. Nevertheless, the consistency in the results, leaves us confident in concluding there is a correlation (note the causation caution above) between gun ownership and gun deaths, which suggests reducing gun ownership might well result in a decrease in gun deaths, which is in line with my intuitions, at least.

1 Lisa M Hepburn, David Hemenway, Firearm availability and homicide: A review of the literature, Aggression and Violent Behavior, Volume 9, Issue 4, July 2004, Pages 417-440, ISSN 1359-1789, 10.1016/S1359-1789(03)00044-2.
Keywords: Firearm; Firearms; Homicide; Guns

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Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Queenie and Cam

After attending today's Cabinet meeting, the Queen performs her celebrated ventriloquism act on David Cameron.

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Monday, 17 December 2012

The Land of the Weak and the Home of the Cruel

O say can you see by the dawn's early light,
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight's last gleaming,
Those broad smiles and bright eyes, through the madman's gunsight,
In the schoolrooms once safe, were no longer beaming?
And the barrels' red flare, shots shattering the air,
Gave proof through the day that our vice was still there;
O say does that ill-constituted right still rule,
O'er the land of the weak and the home of the cruel?

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Wednesday, 12 December 2012

The Pope is a Twitterer

Here are his first three tweets; the second I thought was rhetorical, but he answered it himself. Looks like talking to himself will be the holy order of the day.

Needless to say, this has caused quite a hubbub. Here are some responses:

Hmm, good point, well made. Pontifex needs some grooming advice.

Well, Christians are known for fishing, so this is not unreasonably cautious. Always beware an approach on the intertubez which starts with a leading question. Especially if the enquirer is covered in bling.

There's no need for that.

That's more respectful. Oh, no, it isn't.

Second child abuse reference; oh dear, I can see where this is going. What on earth could the dear Pope have done to merit such calumny?

This guy hits the nail on the head; until we see the Pope with his head down in the Popemobile (steady), feverishly thumbing away in 140 characters about the monkey shopper, I won't be satisfied that he's taking Twitter seriously.

Love can strike at any time. Good luck with those marriage arrangements, though.

I bet Benny doesn't even reply. Look at his tongue!

It turns out that 'Cupcakes' was the most popular answer to this question; who knew?

Faithless heathen!

DOH! Fourth reference.

Anyway, the bookies are laying odds on who the pope will have his first Twitter row with. Latest:

Evens Richard Dawkins
2-1 God
5-1 Archbishop of Canterbury
10-1 Rihanna
20-1 Piers Morgan

Follow the conversation on...

Here's a graphic of the Pope's followers around the world (click to enlarge):

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Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Steiner Update

Following on from my recent outline (inspired by Andy Lewis) of the issues with Steinerism now that some Steiner schools are to be funded by the taxpayer, here are a few more notes on the subject.

Andy Lewis has done some more posts:

What Every Parent Should Know About Steiner-Waldorf Schools

Steiner Schools and Risk Factors for Child Abuse

Steiner Schools: An Alternative to Education.

The BBC Report on Frome Steiner Academy

How Steiner Schools Justify their Occult Pedagogy.

Anti-immunisation policies

A judge in Australia has ordered a parent to immunise her child rather than treat her with homeopathic alternatives (that don't work, obviously). The child attends a Steiner school down under:

[The mother] told the court that she adhered to a ''simple and healthy way of life'', that included eating organic food, using non-toxic cleaning products and sending the child to a Rudolph Steiner school where the toys were made from natural products such as wool, wax and silk.
Steiner organisations are not explicitly anti-vax, but use the bogus parental choice 'code' to flag up to parents who are anti-vax that they do not immunise. For example, here's the statement from the European Council for Steiner Waldorf Education:

We wish to state unequivocally that opposition to immunisation per se, or resistance to national strategies for childhood immunisation in general, forms no part of our specific educational objectives. We believe that a matter such as whether or not to inoculate a child against communicable disease should be a matter of parental choice. Consequently, we believe that families provide the proper context for such decisions to be made on the basis of medical, social and ethical considerations, and upon the perceived balance of risks. Insofar as schools have any role to play in these matters, we believe it is in making available a range of balanced information both from the appropriate national agencies and qualified health professionals with expertise in the field. Schools themselves are not, nor should they attempt to become, determiners of decisions regarding these matters.

Is it fair to conclude from such anodyne statements that Steiner Waldorf schools follow anti-vaccination policies? I think so, because obviously childhood vaccination is a process that can achieve its aims, to protect the population, better through schools. This appears to be something else that Steiner schools are not keen to advertise, exactly, but obviously it gets out. For example, I can't find a statement of their policy on immunisation on the Steiner Academy, Hereford website. There might be one, but it's well hidden if so. There's no mention in the latest prospectus. But we can see from this Freedom of Information request from Michelle Brook (I think) that the only school in the Hereford Primary Care Trust area which refuses to allow clinicians or school nurses to administer the HPV vaccine is the Steiner Academy:

So the Steiner Academy 'states that it is not their policy to offer children immunisation within the school".

The Government's own website says:
Immunisation is the most important way of protecting individuals and the community from vaccine preventable infectious diseases. it's odd that it sees fit to fund schools that do not support the immunisation programme. But, hey-ho, Governments are strange beasts, and Tory ones more so. The latest Vaccine Update from the Government says this, in response to certain faith schools not administering the vaccine:

With the switch over from Cervarix HPV vaccine to Gardasil less than a month away, there have been reports in the press that some faith schools are refusing to immunise their eligible girls against cervical cancer. Furthermore, most of the PCTs in which these schools fall, have not informed the girls’ GPs that the girls have not been immunised (see, for example, web link 1).
It’s important that girls are immunised against the two types of human papillomavirus that cause over 70% of the cases of cervical cancer before they become sexually active. Leaving it until they are over 16 is putting them at increased risk of infection. 
If any eligible girl wants and consents to the vaccination, they are entitled to it and if the school won’t administer it, the PCT is responsible for making alternative arrangements – such as contacting the girl’s GP surgery or setting up their own clinics. It’s preferable that girls have their vaccinations with their parents’ consent but this is not essential if the girls fully understand what they are consenting to. 
It is incumbent upon PCTs to keep GPs informed of the vaccination status of the eligible girls in their administrative area (see web link 2). Failure to do so could have very serious consequences for the girls concerned.

It's a matter of grave concern that we are not only allowing schools to avoid this policy, but are actually funding some of them. Unfortunately I foresee easily avoided heartache resulting from this misguided commitment to parental choice.

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Friday, 2 November 2012

Craig's Communist Manifesto

William Lane Craig has produced some booklets for children:

Ah, sweet, and delightfully illustrated.

For forty years Dr. Craig has been drawing for his family pictures of the endearing characters Brown Bear, Red Goose, and their two children Charity and John. Now through the wonderful renderings by Marli Renee, these characters help to make deep theological truths accessible and exciting for your children. Brown Bear, Red Goose, and their children form a traditional—though rather unusual!—loving family in which Papa models the biblical role of fathers in bringing up children in the instruction of the Lord (Ephesians 6:4). The ten booklets in this series aim to stimulate intellectual curiosity in your children when they have questions about God. The stories thereby serve as a springboard to further conversations with them about spiritual things.
What's that? Brown Bear and Red Goose? The bear has long been representative of Russia, and the redness of Mother Goose shines from the front cover. Could it be any more obvious that these 'illustrated booklets' aim to spread communist lies to brave American children? And him posing as a supposedly mild-mannered God-fearing pater familias. Albeit one who is satisfied that a divinely inspired genocide is a good thing. Could it be that his life's work presenting frankly ludicrous apologia for Christianity was all along driven by an atheist agenda? It would explain some of his arguments. Or maybe I've been watching too much Homeland.

It's nice to see him promoting inter-species harmony, but even Rupert Bear observed the biological facts of the matter, reproductively speaking. I'll be interested to read the booklet where Brown Bear and Red Goose explain where babies come from, and then present the evidence for the evolution of species by natural selection ("Mummy, why are you and John of the order Anseriformes? Why shouldn't I eat you again?"). It seems obvious that this is a thinly veiled attack on opponents of same-sex marriage. Just because Brown Bear and Red Goose cannot have sexual intercourse a la Adam and Eve is no reason that they shouldn't feature in a Christian (or communist) booklet extolling the virtues of the Christian way of life (note the coded "traditional—though rather unusual!" reference to their arrangements).

Kudos to Dr Craig! A bold rebuttal of his own expressed bigotry against homosexuals. I never thought I would see the day.

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Monday, 22 October 2012

TV or not TV?

I attended the Healing powers of the mind? conference the other day, hosted by Stephen Law, which featured three fascinating talks on different sorts of healing, and a presentation by Andy Lewis, of Quackometer fame, on Anthroposophy and Spiritual Science. The story he told was intriguing, and links in with some of the things I said in my last blog. All that I've written here springs from Andy's talk, so a big h/t to him.

In a healthy functioning democracy, 'experiments of living', as Mill put it, can contribute to our basic freedoms. So it's in all our interests to allow a plurality of beliefs and not to police thought. However, it's also important that folk declare their interests, so we can see how their prescriptions and proscriptions in the public sphere are anchored. Without that transparency, we might disagree with their ultimate, invisible, goals, and this should make us doubt their immediate, visible, goals, even if those seem innocuous.

Consider the recent spate of articles prompted by Dr. Aric Sigman's piece in a BMJ journal calling for government restrictions on screen time for youngsters. Here's the Guardian:
Doctors and government health officials should set limits, as they do for alcohol, on the amount of time children spend watching screens – and under-threes should be kept away from the television altogether, according to a paper in an influential medical journal published on Tuesday.
It's not a paper, actually, but a leading article. And here's the BBC uncritically relaying Sigman's message:

Dr Sigman cites from a string of published studies suggesting links between prolonged screen time and conditions such as heart disease, stroke and diabetes.
But he suggests the effects go further than those simply associated with being sedentary for long periods.
He says prolonged screen time can lead to reductions in attention span because of its effects on the brain chemical dopamine.

All very worrying, and just the sort of prejudicial view of television that appeals to some parents. The kids should be out the house, getting some fresh air! But it's difficult to see how television watching could be so much different to book reading in its effect on youngsters, and I doubt those same parents would have the same prejudice against books. But, I think we certainly should consider such an illiberal measure if serious harm could be shown to come from simply interacting with a screen, rather than print. But, as Ben Goldacre has pointed out, Dr Sigman has form for distorting the scientific evidence:
Dr Sigman’s case is that social networking leads to loneliness, and loneliness leads to biological harm (he doesn’t mention cancer specifically, incidentally). I didn’t get near the second half of his argument, though: because he was so spectacularly misleading on the first that it became irrelevant.
Then Goldacre explains that Sigman has cherry-picked the evidence to support his contentions. So what gives?

Sigman previously produced a report on The Benefits and Mechanisms Associated with a Craft - Based Curriculum, criticising TV use, in conjunction with the Ruskin Mill Educational Trust. The Ruskin Mill Educational Trust is...
Inspired by the ideals of William Morris, John Ruskin and Rudolf Steiner, the Trust has since developed a unique and brilliantly successful approach to problems of social exclusion, economic decline and environmental degradation. Its model has been acclaimed by stakeholders ranging from Ofsted and CSCI to HRH the Prince of Wales.
Prince Charles, eh? Sounds as if it has the establishment stamp of approval. I'm not really familiar with Rudolf Steiner; I've been aware of Steiner Waldorf schools, but just thought they were hippy-ish outfits, with unconventional views. No harm in that, and what I knew of their ideas sounded healthily earthy.

Rudolf Steiner was the founder of Anthroposophy, a  world view he developed out of his involvement with Theosophy. Anthroposophy (literally 'wisdom of the human being'), contrary to my view of Steiner schools, sounds less hippy-ish and more 'new world order'! For example, the Steiner view of human beings is decidedly spiritual:
Steiner believed that humans pass between stages of existence, incarnating into an earthly body, living a life, leaving the body behind and entering into the spiritual worlds before returning to be born again into a new life on earth. In earthly life, the individuality or ego awakens to self-consciousness through its experience of its reflection in the deeds and suffering of a physical body.
Because of this unscientific belief, the more persisting spirit of a person takes priority over the physical body, so the priority of Steiner schools is to develop this imaginary spirit:
The anthroposophical view of child development forms the philosophical basis for the educational theory, methodology of teaching and curriculum. Anthroposophy includes the belief that humans possess an innate spirit which, having passed through previous lives, in the current life works to fulfill a chosen purpose in a karmically determined environment. After death, the spiritual individuality returns to the spirit world where it will prepare for a future reincarnation.[69] Waldorf pedagogy views the teacher as having "a sacred task in helping each child's soul and spirit grow".
This can be done through a particular form of artistic expression:
At my school, we were taught to produce misty watercolor paintings with no straight lines or clear definitions. This was wet-on-wet watercoloring (wet brushes spreading watery paint over wet paper), a technique that effectively prevents a child from creating recognizable images of the real world, especially when only large, wide brushes are used. There was certainly something otherworldly about the images we created, bearing no resemblance to ordinary physical reality. Our paintings were in effect talismanic representations of the spirit realm — rich in color but devoid of harsh lines and clear-cut forms.
...and through Eurythmy:

All looks like fun. But some ideas are more controversial. Anthroposophy appears rooted in a a racial view of the world. Perhaps this is unsurprising, since Steiner lived at a time when people were embedded in a deeply racist world. But if this element was based on a flawed understanding of human nature, I think we are entitled to question the rest of its rather implausible view of human nature. And we cannot know if racism is still inherent in the philosophy, as this piece points out:
What must be stressed is that an adherence to Anthroposophy and aspects of this pedagogy can lead teachers to make decisions about individual children based on race and disability, which many people would consider to be outright discrimination.
The Steiner Waldorf Schools Fellowship have a tiny disclaimer on their website stating:
We also reject any racism stated or implied in any of Rudolf Steiner's speeches and writings. 
Concerns have been raised about Steiner-Waldorf schools discouraging vaccination, because of their advocacy of alternative medicine:

A story in the London Times (March 6, 2002) by Alan Hall traces these practices to the Waldorf School, “which actively encourages people not to have their children vaccinated. Now we have an epidemic.” The Waldorf School is described as “a holistic teaching centre based on the methods of the late Dr. Rudolf Steiner and is one of several in Germany that promotes alternative medicine.” Parents also received anti-MMR letters from activists “advising them not to vaccinate their children.”
In the United States, a Waldorf School is among those schools in Boulder, Colorado where children are not receiving their pertussis and other immunization — with fatal consequences both for those children and their younger siblings who have not yet been vaccinated. A letter to the Lancet (August 24, 2002) indicates that in the United Kingdom in a twelve-month period, “eight infants of preimmunization age have required extracorporeal support for intractable cardiorespiratory failure due to Bordetella pertussis infection.” Five of them died “despite extracorporeal membrane oxygenation support, and one survivor has substantial neurological disability.” Although the reported cases indicate infection by members of the same household, parents with infants who have not yet received their full complement of vaccinations might be wise to inquire of their New Age/alternative medicine friends whether their children have been immunized before allowing them to come over and visit.

Famously, they don't teach reading and writing in the first seven years, and sometimes beyond. A number of studies have shown that this does not seem to affect long term reading and writing abilities, so perhaps we should be relaxed about this. Maybe, but it's concerning that the reasons for these beliefs are rooted in an arbitrary and unscientific view of the human animal rather than careful pedagogical research. In fact, a whole raft of studies appear to show benefits to the child from the Steiner-Waldorf approach - consider those listed on Wikipedia. It's not clear to me how these studies adjust for circumstances, but I'm no educational researcher, so I must take these at face value. It certainly explains how these establishments become popular among parents.

And Michael Gove, the Secretary of State for Education, has now enabled State funding of these schools, as he promised when he was only shadow children's minister:
Shadow children's secretary Michael Gove today gave his backing to an expansion of state funding for Montessori and Steiner schools, which aim to educate "the whole child" instead of focusing on the three Rs.
But not all parents and pupils view Steiner-Waldorf so rosily. There are accusations that they think that bullying is karmic retribution:
One of the more persistent complaints levelled at Steiner schools by disenchanted former pupils/parent is not only that bullying is common, if not rife, but, more disturbingly, that these schools do almost nothing to deal with this particular problem when it arises. Now, in itself, that’s not that uncommon an allegation in mainstream state education but what you certainly won’t come across in the state sector, but will frequently encounter when reading criticism of Steiner schools put forward by former pupils/parent, id the allegation that these schools, and teachers treat bullying as form of karmic ‘payback’ for misdemeanours committed in a previous incarnation, a practice that elevates blaming the victim to heights unimaginable even in the more vicious element of the sin-obsessed Catholic Church.
The piece by the Ministry of Truth quotes many more pupils and parents who have concerns about Steiner-Waldorf, from the website, many of which stem from the frankly bizarre beliefs in Anthroposophy. And this is really my concern: would parents be so enthusiastic about these schools if they realised exactly the principles on which they are based? I suspect many would not be.

Now, many might still be very happy with it, of course, and that is fine. But where is the transparency?

Here is the Brighton Steiner School Curriculum:
All Steiner schools follow the comprehensive and distinctive Steiner Curriculum. This international education system is designed to mirror a child's development and nurture social and creative abilities alongside academic achievement. A broad range of subjects is included, each introduced at an age-appropriate time and taught in an interdisciplinary way. In the Steiner Curriculum, the teaching of arts, crafts, drama, music and languages, in which all children participate, is woven in alongside core subjects.
Here is what St. Pauls's Steiner School says:
Steiner’s philosophical work, known as anthroposophy, is not taught as part of the curriculum, but underpins the vision for the education, which seeks to nurture equally the child and later young person’s capacities of thinking, feeling and volition, as well as fostering a sense of respect. At the centre of the school’s activities is a set of principles that recognises the integrated nature of mind, body and spirit set in a social or cultural context. These principles encourage teachers to use their own skills and creativity, and accept each individual’s capacity to achieve and exercise moral autonomy.
And the Bristol Steiner School:

Steiner education embodies a practical, active and artistic approach to learning.
The teachers work with the children's three roots of personality: thinking, feeling and willing.
From Kindergarten through to early adulthood the education fosters these three roots of personality with a curriculum that brings a wide variety of subjects and experiences appropriate to the different age groups.

The York Steiner School:
Our curriculum is based on Steiner’s views and teachings on child development.  It works to educate the whole child, their head, heart and hands and not just their intellect. Please click on the curriculum above to see how our subjects are integrated to give a holistic education from the beginning of class one through to the end of class eight. As with good food, the children love the nourishment that the teachers prepare for them in their own ways, from Steiner’s original educational recipes.
It's all so anodyne and appealing, with no mention of Steiner's actual beliefs about human nature, reflected here in comments made by Eugenie Scott, of the National Centre for Science Education in the States:
But if schools follow Steiner’s views on science, education will suffer. Steiner believed that materialism was insufficient for the understanding of nature. He believed that science needs to “go beyond” the empirical and consider vitalistic, unobservable forces, a perspective also common in 20th century New Age healing approaches. Anthroposophical medicine, similar to homeopathy but even less scientific, claims that disease is caused only secondarily by malfunctions of chemistry and biology, and primarily by a disturbance of the “vital essence.” Anatomy and physiology a la Steiner are unrecognizable by modern scientists: the heart does not pump blood; there are 12 senses (“touch, life, movement, equilibrium, warmth, smell,” etc.) corresponding to signs of the zodiac; there is a “rhythmic” system that mediates between the “nerve-sense” and “metabolic-muscular” systems. Physics and chemistry are just as bad: the “elements” are earth, air, fire, and water. The four “kingdoms of nature” are mineral, plant, animal and man. Color is said to be the result of the conflict of light and darkness. Typical geological stages are Post-Atlantis, Atlantis, Mid-Lemuria, and Lemuria.
...and so on. These principles are nonsense, and parents should be made aware of them. If they still want to send their children to such establishments, then they are, of course, free to do so.

But that shouldn't be at taxpayers' expense. Is it right that schools that are underpinned with such a curious and unscientific philosophy should be funded by the taxpayer? I think not, but sadly that is the position we are in, now that Gove has introduced 'free schools'. As Francis Gilbert of Local Schools Network said in 2011:

The pressure on the government to give these schools state funding is intense. Their chief UK spokesperson for Steiner schools, writer Emma Craigie, author of Chocolate Cake With Hitler, is the sister of Tory MP, Jacob Rees Mogg, and prominent Tory Annunziatta Rees-Mogg. The whole family, headed by their father, William Rees-Mogg, former editor of the Times, are friendly with Michael Gove. Emma Craigie is on the left of the photograph here:
Gove with Annunziatta Rees-Mogg (middle) and Emma Craigie (left)
So what a surprise to find that Steiner schools are now receiving state funding:
The Steiner Academy Hereford, the first state-funded Steiner school, teaches science from a curriculum book sceptical of evolution and gives homeopathy to students, the British Humanist Association (BHA) can reveal. The revelations come as a result of Freedom of Information (FOI) requests submitted to the school by the BHA and other campaigners. The news comes the same week as Frome Steiner School opens as the second state-funded Steiner school and the first Steiner Free School, and not long after Steiner Academy Exeter was 'pre-approved' to open as a Free School from 2013. The Exeter Academy is proposed by a team originating from Exeter Steiner School, a private school which has used the same curriculum book as Hereford and has also run a homeopathy clinic for students. The BHA has expressed concern about the quality of science education in the schools and the promotion of unevidenced medicines to students.
Much more light needs to be thrown on this very dubious initiative.

For more, read Andy Lewis.

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Sunday, 14 October 2012

In Bad Faith

Gordon Wilson, of Solas

Eric MacDonald has written an insightful piece on the religious motivations behind political stances. He notes there are a number of issues where politicians base their views on their religious beliefs rather than their expressed arguments. He cites Matthew Parris's article in yesterday's Times (“Religion does not belong in the small print“) recounting an exchange Parris had with Michael Nazir-Ali, former Bishop of Rochester, on the latter's opinion of homosexuality (Nazir-Ali hummed and ha-ed, but refused to say that his antipathy was based on his religious beliefs).

Now, to be fair to the faithful, they should not use religious doctrine in the public forum of a secular society, which does rather put them between a rock and a hard place. Secular government must not be based on religious ideals, but most theists feel they must argue for their religious beliefs. In the end, they are reduced to putting forward poorly-supported prudential arguments based on little evidence and no principle. They try to avoid overt moral arguments, aware that their morality is founded in the divine. This, in principle, should disallow these arguments from the secular debate, although in practice a certain amount of latitude is granted to the faithful. The weasel words 'a matter of personal conscience' are wheeled out to protect their dogmatic morality.

I think this amounts to arguing in bad faith, because the religious are not plainly stating the reasons for their stance, but instead are offering arguments in which they don't really believe. By this I mean that if the secular arguments they put forward could be shown to be false, by, you know, reason and evidence, they still would not change their stance on the issue, because their religious convictions override any prudential arguments they might offer. But, we must concede, they are simply operating as they must in a secular democracy, and that is surely why religion and democracy are incompatible, as Eric discussed in a previous piece. The rather illiberal conclusion might be that religion has to be eliminated before democracy can be fully implemented. I think we may be tending toward that state of affairs, but in the meantime I'm happy not to pursue elimination  of religious belief in the overriding interest of plurality. And even in the long term I think an argument from plurality could be produced to outweigh the incompatibility of certain views to democratic processes. But everyone should be made aware of the status quo, and participants' dogmatic beliefs, for the sake of transparency.

Another example of this problem has just appeared on the BBC website: Ex SNP leader Gordon Wilson attacks gay marriage. Wilson's religious beliefs are not mentioned in the piece, but without even looking one knows that he is almost certainly attacking same sex marriage because of them. And sure enough, he's the Chairman of Solas - Centre for Public Christianity. (Solas also appears to be the soap box for David Robertson, a minister of the Wee Frees - the Free Church of Scotland - who has often argued for the sinfulness of homosexuality on the old front page discussions.) Given his organisation's title, you would think Wilson would make it clear that his opposition to same-sex marriage is not based on anything other than his Christian beliefs.

Well, I say nothing other than his Christian beliefs, but, as if to prove my point above, Solas also parade some pretty dreadful secular arguments against same sex marriage, in their submission to the Scottish Government Consultation on Civil Partnership and Same-Sex Marriage. They are:
Stirring up Dissension: "By opening up this minefield on behalf of a tiny minority, as evidenced from the numbers from the Registrar General for Scotland mentioned above, the Government cannot be unaware that the same-sex issue affecting the clergy in our largest church is causing distress. Equally, we believe the gay rights lobby will not rest until all religious bodies, be they Christian, Muslim or other be compelled to conduct same-sex partnerships (or marriages) under equality law."
Causing distress to clergy is irrelevant if the action being considered is to implement equality delivering legislation. We would not consider the distress caused to racists of anti-racist legislation, because we recognise that equality takes priority. And slippery slope scare-mongering is also irrelevant to the argument for or against same-sex marriage. The document continues:

Despite the proclaimed desire of both the Scottish and Westminster governments to ‘consult’, we are concerned that there will be little consultation, because the presuppositions of the gay rights lobby have already been accepted by the cultural and political elites of our culture.  It is assumed (rather than rationally argued) that evidence of a tolerant ‘liberal’ society is that one is for gay marriage.  The conclusion has been predetermined before the consultation has even been had.  This is hardly the action of a mature, reflective and tolerant democracy. It is little wonder that there has been little civilised and tolerant discourse.

I don't see any 'presuppositions of the gay rights lobby' (the homophobia oozes from these phrases) other than one - equal rights. It's ironic that in a document devoid of rational argument the accusation is made that the pro-equal rights lobby assumes rather than rationally argues for their position, but in fact little argument is needed for same-sex marriage. It flows naturally from principles of equality, just as the Solas position flows naturally from their anti-homosexual Christian doctrine. I don't agree with their prejudicial doctrine, and they don't present any arguments why anyone should. They continue:
Same-sex Marriages Versus Opposite Sex ‘Marriages’: "Whilst politicians might like to talk about how tolerant and liberal they are, thinking that there is little of consequence for them in going along with this headlong rush to ‘redefine’ marriage, we would encourage them to stop and reflect that in fact this is a major step which has potentially extremely destructive consequences."
There's lots of this sort of evidence free alarmism - "The Government’s perceived wish to give same-sex couples the same status and rights ... is ill thought out and ultimately harmful."; "We again ask if there is minimal demand for same-sex partnerships, where then will come the numbers to warrant such a revolutionary change in society."; "2% is not a solid foundation for tinkering with something that has been the foundation of British and Scottish society for over 1500 years.  You do not mend ‘Broken Britain’ by breaking its very foundations." (my emphases). But no evidence is produced to show that letting two men marry, or two women, is going to lead to the undermining of Scottish society. How could it?
Nature of Marriage in Society: "The meaning of marriage is straightforward.  It is the union between one man and one woman, for the threefold purpose of mutual companionship, the procreation and upbringing of children in a secure environment, and the good of society."
But, once again, simply making an assertion does not an argument make. The meaning of marriage is not straightforward. There; I've gainsaid them. If they don't support their contentions I can dismiss them that easily.

Now, to be fair, throughout the submission, mentions of Christian morality and 'foundations' abound, and the defence of some supposed definition of Christian marriage (™)  is presented as a reason for their opposition to same-sex marriage. This reason would be bad enough, since it's simply dogma, but the actual conclusion we should draw is that these are not the reasons for their opposition; the true reason is that they believe that homosexuality is sinful. This belief is notably absent from the document. And the reason it is absent, I'm pretty sure, is because Christians know that the doctrine is homophobic. We should know this about them; they should declare that they believe in a homophobic doctrine.
Human Rights to Same-sex Marriage: "There is no human rights entitlement to same-sex marriages." 
They cite the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the European Convention of Human Rights, and, because they don't mention same-sex marriage, conclude that the provisions don't support same-sex marriage rights. This does not follow, any more than their not mentioning marriage between people of different colour means the provisions do not support that.

However, they do go on and present something resembling an argument:

The generating and rearing of children is essential to the survival of the human race, and vital in Scotland which has an ageing population. Marriage is essential to the human condition; same-sex unions are a biological cul-de-sac.

But, setting aside the fact that same sex couples can raise families with assistance, this is irrelevant to the question of same-sex marriage. Allowing same-sex marriage is not going to decrease the rate of procreation in Scotland! Then, contrary to their assertion. the very existence of same-sex unions in the present day suggests that they are not 'biological cul-de-sacs', but even if they were, why should that count against them? We don't disallow heterosexuals from choosing to have no children.
Religious Celebration of Same-sex Marriages: "If unrest is anticipated over religious celebration of civil partnerships, then the comments made earlier on behalf of Solas apply with even greater force. By issuing this Consultation, the Scottish Government has effectively lit the blue touch paper. It should let well alone and leave the status quo in place, before causing needless stress to itself and its successors. It is the beginning of wisdom to recognise that you attack the essential building block of society at your peril." (my emphases)
The prophets of doom strike again. This overreaction to such a modest proposal is simply laughable. No evidence to support their assertions is presented. Much more spreading of despair and despondency follows, including the idea that extending marriage to same-sex couples somehow destroys marriage. Go figure.
Conclusion: "We do not however think that instigating gay marriage and thus undermining even further the Christian foundations of this society will lead to a better or fairer nation.   Indeed in our view, it will lead to further social disintegration, sexual confusion and greater intolerance, where any in public life or service, who dare to uphold the Christian view of marriage, will be ostracised and discriminated against."
But nowhere is there any evidence presented to support these assertions. In this respect, the document is a microcosm of religious thinking.

I have no doubt that if evidence was produced to show that same-sex marriage would have none of these consequences, Gordon Wilson would still oppose it, because of his Christian beliefs. That is why I call these 'arguments' from Christians in the public sphere (however much they are driven to it in secular democracies) bad faith arguments.

UPDATE: Take a look at John Danaher's discussion of the new natural law argument against same-sex relations, which suggests it's a religious argument masquerading as a secular one.

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Monday, 8 October 2012

Creationism: Conspiracy Road Trip

Here's Jerry Coyne discussing the practicalities of fitting all the world's animals onto a boat that is too large to remain stable.

In this show, Conspiracy Road Trip, Andrew Maxwell takes conspiracists on a variety of subjects, such as 9/11 and UFOs, and challenges their beliefs. On this occasion, he took five British creationists (four Christian and one Muslim) to the States to look at some of the evidence and discuss it with experts in their fields.

There's a good quote from Jerry in discussion with Maxwell:
Evolution is unique amongst the sciences because it strikes people in the solar plexus of their faith; it strikes them in the idea that they are specially created by God, because evolution says you're not. It says that there is no special purpose for your life, because it's a naturalistic philosophy, we have no more extrinsic purpose than a squirrel or an armadillo. And it says that morality does not come from God, it's an evolved phenomenon. And those are three things that are really hard for humans to accept, particularly those brought up in a religious tradition.
There tends to be agreement on these points between creationists and atheists, although more liberal theists and accommodationist atheists would disagree with them. One of the creationists articulated this well, by saying that if the young earth belief she held was wrong then it all was. I think the acid of science can have this effect on religious belief. But folk can be very flexible, so cherry-picking is entirely consistent with theism, if the person is already happy to commit to any random possibility that happens to appeal to them.

If you think Jerry's talk didn't go down well, then you should see how well persuaded the gang were by Christian scientists explaining the evidence gently. In short, they weren't. It's difficult to avoid the conclusion from this, admittedly unscientific, experiment that persuasion depends more on the personality of the persuadee than the style of rhetoric employed. It's a truism to say that faith is an integral part of a person of faith, but it's exposed in all its humanity in this episode. You can see that each person's faith reflects their personalities, their wants and needs; changing faith is changing the person you are, and not to be taken lightly. Anyone who says your faith is wrong, whether gently or bluntly, is, in a sense, attacking and potentially killing the person you are, and re-birth is needed if the evidence is to be taken seriously.

So, in the end, it's a lot less traumatic for these persons to simply ignore the evidence. I can see how that could be, and I'm just glad I never got so hooked into a faith that I would feel so destroyed by losing it.

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Thursday, 4 October 2012

Craig's Odd Views on Animal Suffering

Stephen Law has drawn attention to the above video, by SkyDivePhil (good work), that presents the scientific evidence to debunk William Lane Craig's odd view of the animal kingdom:
God has shielded almost the entire animal kingdom throughout its history from an awareness of being in pain! For those of us who are pet owners and lovers of animals, this is a tremendous comfort and a cause of praise to God for His goodness and wondrous, even ingenious, care of creation. Who would have guessed that God had done such a thing? These neurological insights, documented by Murray, greatly reduce the force of the problem of evil posed by animal suffering.
(The quote from Craig shows at least that he accepts that there is a problem of evil, or he wouldn't even bother to make such a silly unscientific suggestion. That is, if there is enormous suffering in the world, then this is evidence against his god.)

As the video points out too, Craig bases this determination of the science solely on the writings of Christian apologist philosopher Michael Murray. The video details what the science really says by asking, er, scientists:

Dr Anita Alvarez, Imperial College/UCL
Prof Stuart Firestein, Columbia University
Prof Joaquinn Fuster, UCLA
Prof Bruce Hood, Bristol University
Dr Lori Marino, Emory University
Dr Diana Reiss, City University NY

They say that Craig is wrong.

So, he gets the science completely wrong, which is odd for someone who wants to present himself as a scientifically-informed philosopher. As Law says, in the comments:
Of course Craig might well be entirely unaware it's misleading thing for him to say. He may have been misled by Murray into thinking this was a scientifically well-attested view.
This appears to be the situation. Craig himself has written this about his investigations into this key plank of his apology against the problem of evil, in a response in his weekly Q&A to a questioner who was not at all keen on his Cartesian dismissal of animal suffering:
So your attacks on Michael Murray’s credibility are quite unwarranted. True, Murray is a philosopher and not a scientist. But he has done a responsible job of studying the scientific literature on animal pain, and his book contains citations of the literature which the interested reader may pursue. 
This suggests that Craig wasn't an interested enough reader himself to examine the citations, else he would not have been so easily misled!

Clearly Craig got a lot of pushback from the Q&A that I quote at the top, since he said in this follow-up post:
I’ve been surprised by the emotional reactions I’ve received to last week’s Question! It almost seems as if some atheists would actually prefer that animals experience terrible suffering than have to give up the objection to theism based on the problem of animal pain! 
This is a daft thing to say. Atheists are responding to the uncomfortable facts that science has revealed about animal suffering, not rejoicing in their implications for theism. The facts show that we humans are part of the animal kingdom and that human exceptionalism cannot be used to justify ill treatment of our fellow travellers. That we share vast amounts of DNA with them, share much of the same ancestry and share many of the same features and functionality. These facts combine to show us we have no more reason to dismiss animal suffering than we do to dismiss the suffering of friends, relatives, or indeed strangers, in need.

In fact, Craig seems mightily confused about the whole issue. He uses Murray's arbitrary three level pain hierarchy:
Level 3: Awareness that one is oneself in pain
Level 2: Mental states of pain
Level 1: Aversive reaction to noxious stimuli
So this leads to the unfounded notion (as the video shows) that "Other animals lack the neural pathways for having the experience of Level 3 pain awareness." and  "So even though animals like zebras and giraffes, for example, experience pain when attacked by a lion, they really aren’t aware of it." What a relief for them, as they writhe on the ground being eaten alive!

The purpose of this nonsense is obvious: to show that animal suffering is not 'real' in some sense, to extinguish the problem of evil:
Viewed theologically, this discovery magnifies the mercy and goodness of God. God has shielded almost the entire animal kingdom throughout its history from an awareness of being in pain! For those of us who are pet owners and lovers of animals, this is a tremendous comfort and a cause of praise to God for His goodness and wondrous, even ingenious, care of creation.
The implication is clear that only third level awareness of pain matters. So the questioner the next week asks the obvious follow-up question:
If animals can not experience pain, is there anything wrong with committing acts against animals which if committed against humans would be expected to cause pain? 
After a lot of poorly thought out objections to a naturalistic grounding for morals, the only reason he suggests it is wrong is because his god has told us to be good stewards:
The theist enjoys the advantage that the ethical treatment of animals can be grounded in God’s commands to human beings to be good stewards of the Earth.
Inflicting unjustified pain on animals would be morally prohibited to us by God.
There's no other reason not to inflict animal suffering? He can't think of one other than that someone told him not to do it? In what sense are we being 'good stewards' by avoiding acts towards animals as if they would cause pain, when in fact they don't? Carving a rock into the shape of a kitten would not be inconsistent with good stewardship, and neither would carving a kitten into the shape of a rock, if animal suffering does not contribute to the problem of evil. But then he says:
Yes, remember that on the view we’re discussing, sentient animals do experience second-level states of pain, which should not be needlessly inflicted. So stunning animals before killing them for food is, indeed, a good idea. 
But this is a back-pedal. If the second level pains should be avoided as well as the third level ones then we still have a massive problem of evil to resolve. He could argue that they are lesser evils, which he does based on incorrect science, but his previous response left the impression that there was little left to worry about - remember he wrote:
For those of us who are pet owners and lovers of animals, this is a tremendous comfort and a cause of praise to God for His goodness and wondrous, even ingenious, care of creation.
But there is still a massive amount of second level pain which could be avoided if god was benevolent, even granting Craig's nonsensical proposition. This is no solution to the problem of evil, for any pet owner or animal lover.

(Incidentally, another curious point of Craig's apology is the idea that pain requires a pre-frontal cortex. Pain is a quale of the mind, and the pre-frontal cortex is material. So Craig is saying that minds require a material grounding, which rather blows his dualism. Do disembodied minds not have qualia? Is pain a peculiar quale? Now he could say, I guess, that this is just a feature of embodied minds only, but this is falling foul of all the usual problems that even Descartes saw in dualism - there is no way to relate the immaterial meaningfully to the material. Check out QualiaSoup's video for a good summary of its problems:

UPDATE: Jean Kazez has written a good analysis of the video, and how the scientists' responses relate to Craig's claims, here. Or, at least, to what Craig appears to claim because, as I say above, it's not too clear what Craig is arguing for, imo.

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Monday, 24 September 2012

William Lane Craig advises Gay Man to stay on the Straight Path

A gay Catholic has written to William Lane Craig asking: What Should Homosexual Christians Do?

I'm not sure if this is an example of WLC's humour, but he includes in his reply that:
You [Haydn, from the UK] need to stay on the straight and narrow path to avoid disaster.
He distinguishes between the desire, which is not sinful, and the act, which is:
I agree with you that it’s no sin to have a homosexual orientation. That’s probably something you didn’t choose and aren’t responsible for. But you can choose and are responsible for how you act.
But he then appears to contradict this concession that Haydn didn't choose his orientation nor is he responsible for it:
Second, I’d encourage you to seek Christian counseling to help you deal with your homosexual orientation. You may never completely shed your homosexual desires, but the testimony of many persons like yourself who have sought help is that one can reshape one’s orientation to a considerable degree. There is hope of change.
Well, is he responsible for his orientation or not? Advocating change to something as fundamental as one's sexual orientation is a reprehensible thing to do, and perpetuates the view that there is something wrong with homosexuality. WLC's homophobia is confirmed after he advises Haydn to find a Christian girl to marry and have sexual relations with:
Forget the unbiblical idea of finding some other man with whom you can build a monogamous love relationship. Not only is that a fantasy that will lead you only to heartache and profound disappointment, but, more importantly, it is contrary to God’s will for your life, as we know from Scripture.
It's a terrible thing to say that a homosexual monogamous love relationship is a fantasy that will lead 'only to heartache and profound disappointment'. I personally know gay couples who are very happy in their monogamy. I certainly see no evidence that they are any more likely to lead to disappointment than heterosexual couples and, more importantly, I see no reason to even assess this difference, to deny them marriage, just as I wouldn't assess it for different races, religions or social classes.

I hope Haydn sees the error of his ways and re-considers his religious beliefs in the light of their effect on the harmless lives of so many.

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Saturday, 22 September 2012

Authentic Theist Calls Atheists 'Sub-human'

My attention was drawn by my friend Quine to a post by Father Dwight Longenecker, who has a blog called Standing on my Head at Patheos. Father Longenecker is an American who has travelled the long (?) road from evangelical Christianity in his childhood to Catholic priesthood in his adulthood, via the Isle of Wight.

I cannot link to the actual post, which was originally here, because it has been taken down. The piece was called The Authentic Atheist, and went like this:

Not surprisingly, the bigoted nature of this did not go down well with many people, including some right-thinking theists. I responded to the last section by posting this comment:
It’s interesting that we could assert “These are the authentic theists. They plod through life eating, working, shopping, breeding and sleeping, and God never leaves their consciousness. Members of this sub-species may be sparkling sophisticates or ill-bred boors. They may be the decent and moral folks next door, or they could be despicable murderers. In a frightful way, it doesn’t matter. If they exist, perhaps they have bred and spread like the alien bodysnatchers, and exist in our midst like spiritual zombies—indistinguishable in the teeming mass of humanity except to those few who see them and tremble.”, and it would have as much traction as the original. Which is to say, none. (‘Spiritual zombies’ is amusingly ambiguous.)
My point was to draw attention to the bigoted nature of the Father's comments. In this short piece, he inspires prejudice against a group of people that he calls 'authentic atheists', describing them as a 'sub-species'. To say the same about 'authentic theists' would clearly be bigoted, I hoped he would see, and unjustifiable.

The priest was dissatisfied with the response the post received, so deleted it and all the comments. This is bad netiquette, imo, but since it's his blog, he has that right. He explained that the snippet had been taken out of context; as we can see from the screencap, it's an extract from a forthcoming book. Well, fair enough, but who took it out of context?

Once again my friend Quine uncovered an earlier piece that throws some light on this passage. Apparently written in 2003 and called In Search of the Authentic Atheist, in this he says something similar about the 'authentic atheist', and then talks about 'truly secret Atheists' (if we forgive the typo). Next he says:
My imagination is too vivid. I am spinning stories and jesting to make a point. Because people laugh and cry I'm sure all humans have souls, even if they neglect them.
So if we are being charitable, these characterisations are not meant to be taken seriously. Ha ha, he's just jesting. He's drawing attention to the hilarious stereotypical views some have of atheists. Well, that's all right then; the context is all, and we were too quick to judge him a bigot.

Unfortunately, the article continues with:
But if my hunch is right that some people never give God a thought, then they are the best evidence that such a thing as an atheist might exist after all. If such people exist then we are witnessing a radical and tragic decline in the human race, for it is sub-human to exist without a god of any kind. Real religion is a universal part of the human condition. In every culture and language — from primitive tribesmen who grunts at the stars to sophisticated technicians who grunt at computer screens — the troublesome religious instinct persists in a most stubborn and triumphant way.
So the Father sticks his neck out and calls it sub-human to live without a god. Of any kind! Literally, he would judge a person more human if they worshipped a god of any kind. They could worship the Flying Spaghetti Monster, or Satan, and they would be more human than an atheist. Remember, it's a god of any kind, so evil ones are preferable to none at all. But in the absence of an irrational worship of an invisible being,  a person becomes sub-human, a spiritual zombie, Father Longenecker thinks.

The Father commits Hume's classic 'is-ought' fallacy when he declares that how things have been in human society so they should be. 'Real' (not sure why he qualifies religion with this adjective) rape and murder are a universal part of the human condition, but we don't think it should be, I hope he agrees. He wonders where the 'universal, tender and mysterious instinct to fall on our faces and before our immense and intimate maker' comes from, but, of course, this is a far too simplistic view of humanity. Religious behaviour is extremely diverse, and appears to spring from a number of our evolved features. To reduce it to the features of the Father's favourite religion enfeebles humanity.

This is reminiscent of Cormac Murphy-O'Connor's comments that atheists are 'not fully human', so is perhaps to be expected from a Catholic priest. It's not enough that the Church promotes the repression of women around the world, denies rights to homosexuals, and protects child abusers within its ranks. Now, one of its representatives wants to draw atheists as 'sub-human'. Well, in light of their other crimes, this is small beer, and perhaps it's a good sign that they are aiming at atheists now, rather than persecuting heretics of any hue (remember, he's happier with folk who worship gods of any kind).

Nevertheless, I'd like Father Longenecker to wind his neck in and start treating everyone as a human being.

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