Please Don’t Label Me

Last night I was discussing my opinions of religion with some friends. I made it clear that, contrary to what it might appear from what I write, I don’t actually want religion banned. I believe that people should be free to believe whatever nonsense they like. There are, however, three conditions that need to be met. You can belief whatever you like as long as you do it a) in private, b) amongst consenting adults and c) never in front of the children.

I think that these are three very important conditions. The first would curtail the effect that religious groups have on public life, the second would prevent anyone from forcing their religious beliefs on anyone else and the third would stop parents from forcing religion onto children while the children are still gullible enough to believe anything their parents tell them.

And completely coincidently, I see today that the people behind the Atheist Bus Campaign (was that really a year ago?) have launched a new campaign and that the subject of this campaign is faith schools – which neatly addresses my third point.

The “please don’t label me” slogan of the campaign comes from a theme that Richard Dawkins covered in The God Delusion. Speaking at the launch of this campaign, he said:

We urgently need to raise consciousnesses on this issue. Nobody would seriously describe a tiny child as a ‘Marxist child’ or an ‘Anarchist child’ or a ‘Post-modernist child’. Yet children are routinely labelled with the religion of their parents. We need to encourage people to think carefully before labelling any child too young to know their own opinions and our adverts will help to do that.

This campaign is initially being funded from money left over from the Atheist Bus Campaign, but there’s a page where you can donate more money if you like.

I firmly believe that the majority of religious people only have those beliefs because they were indoctrinated as children. If people decide to follow a religion when they are old enough to make up their own mind then of course I have no objections to that. But forcing children to believe the same fairy stories as their parents is clearly wrong and should be stopped.


Darwin, Humanism and Science

Darwin Humanism Science
Darwin Humanism Science

Yesterday I was at the British Humanist Association’s one day conference, Darwin, Humanism and Science, at the Conway Hall. I confess that I was really going to see Richard Dawkins speak, but actually I got a whole day of fascinating speakers.

Following a brief introduction by Polly Toynbee, Dawkins was the first speaker. His talk was based around the final words from The Origin of Species.

There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

Dawkins dissected these words and showed how they are a powerful and succinct summary of Darwin’s ideas. It was a very interesting talk and serves as a good precursor to Dawkins’ book, The Greatest Show on Earth, which will be published later this year.

Following Dawkins, Professor Charles Susanne talked about how the teaching of evolution in schools is under attack in various parts of Europe. Many different religious groups (sometimes with the help and support of national governments) are suppressing the teaching of evolution in favour of myths of legends.

Next up was James Williams with a talk entitled “Insidious Creationism”. This was the highlight of the day for me. Williams talked about the amount of creationist literature which is aimed at young children. Many of the images he showed were very funny (the one of Jesus cuddling a baby dinosaur was a particular favourite) but there is, of course, a very serious side to this. He talked about creationist books that were found in school libraries having been donated by parents. He also mentioned Genesis Expo, a creationist museum in Portsmouth which sounds worth a visit – if only to point and laugh.

I think that it was during the Q&A following these talks that we had the only nutter question of the day. Well, it wasn’t really a question. Someone a few rows behind me stood up and tried to use evolution as evidence that homosexuality was wrong. There was stunned silence from the hall and the moderator moved swiftly on to the next question.

Following lunch, we had the most scientific lecture of the day. Johan De Smedt talked about we may well have evolved brains which find it counter-intuitive to accept evolution as a fact. Then Michael Schmidt-Salomon talked about fighting the idea that evolution leads to a lack of morals. He ended by showing us a rather bizarre video called “Children of Evolution” – Darwin reinvented as a rock star!

After a coffee break we had what was, to me at least, one of the most surprising talks. I’ve always had this sneaking suspicion that Hindism was slightly more rational than other religions. Babu Gogineni soon put me straight. He told us about an Indian university that had started a department of astrology (and cut back the study of chemistry and physics to pay for it). His talk was full of interesting (but worrying) anecdotes of religious stupidity in India.

The final speaker of the day was AC Grayling. Whilst many of the day’s speakers had mentioned this year’s Darwinian anniversaries, Grayling took as his theme the 50th anniversary of CP Snow’s influential lecture The Two Cultures. Grayling suggested that the gap between the two cultures (art and science) is now wider that it was fifty years ago and that we need to do what we can to bring the two together.

It was a very interesting day. I’m grateful to the BHA and the South Place Ethical Society for organising it. I’ll certainly be looking out for similar events in the future.

All of the talks were filmed. I hope that means that they’ll appear on the BHA web site at some point in the future.

There were a few twitterers there. You might be interested to read what they said during the day. James O’Malley has also blogged the event.


The Press on Dawkins

Richard Dawkins‘ new documentary series, The Genius of Charles Darwin, begins on Channel 4 this evening. He has therefore been doing a round of publicity interviews and the results have been appearing in the press over the weekend. It’s interesting to see how different papers treat it.

The Times ran a pretty straight article about Dawkins and his work (actually they ran another piece a couple of weeks ago).

The Guardian gave the article to Charlie Brooker. Brooker has no time for religion in any form so his piece is as funny and unapologetic as you would hope.

The Mirror’s piece is quite strange. The writer takes the approach that actually, the evidence for evolution isn’t quite as strong as Dawkins claims and that an intelligent person wouldn’t take a firm position in the discussion. The Mirror writer is, it would appear, a fool.

But the strangest approach comes from the Daily Mail and the Telegraph. Both of these papers have found a way to spin the story so that it backs up their xenophobic agenda. They do this by picking up on a remark from Dawkins where he says that many muslims have creationist beliefs and that it is therefore muslim families who are largely responsible for the increase of creationism that we are seeing in the UK. Now, no-one will deny that there are a large number of creationist muslims. Or that their children are being indoctrinated into believing that evolution by natural selection is “just a theory”. But I strongly suspect that this is rather missing the point of the documentary which, from what I understand having not seen it yet, is to explain the power of Darwin’s theory.

But if we’re going to get into the discussion of who is behind the current growth in creationism, it looks to me like the Mail and the Telegraph are ignoring some convenient facts. There are also a growing number of christians who are telling their children that evolution is unproven and Genesis is literally true. Of course that doesn’t sit well with the papers’ agenda. They want to promote the idea that it’s the evil foreigners who are destroying our society. Their argument is as weak as it ever is, but it seems that an argument doesn’t need to be particularly logically coherent in order to convince the readers of either paper.

Oh, and I don’t recommend reading the comments on either of those stories. Discussions of creationism and evolution always seem to attract the hard of understanding and it seems that the Mail and Telegraph readership has more than its fair share of people like that.


Dawkins on Doctor Who

Russell T Davies was interviewed by the Independent last Sunday and he happened to mention that Richard Dawkins will be appearing in this series of Doctor Who.

The evolutionary biologist and best-selling author of The God Delusion will appear as a guest star in the new series of Doctor Who, which began last night. “People were falling at his feet,” says Davies, creator of the BBC’s flagship show. “We’ve had Kylie Minogue on that set, but it was Dawkins people were worshipping.”

Slightly unfortunate choice of words with “worshipping”, but this sounds like really good news to me. And it would be a great nod to the older Who fans if they could squeeze in a cameo by Dawkins’ wife too.


Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed

Here in the UK we don’t have many problems with creationists. We  have to be vigilant because it looks like they might be on the increase, but currently we mainly just point and laugh at them. It’s therefore hard sometimes to understand how much of a problem creationism is over in the US.

Unless you keep a close eye on our transatlantic cousins you might not have heard of Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed – a forthcoming film which claims that a number of educators and scientists are being persecuted for their belief in “Intelligent Design” (the modern rebranding of creationism). The film first came to my notice last year when Richard Dawkins mentioned that he had been interviewed for the film under false pretences. Amongst the other people tricked into appearing in the film was PZ Myers, the Minnesota biology professor who is well-known for his blog Pharyngula.

Dawkins is currently in the US on a speaking tour. As part of the tour, he was in Minnesota on Thursday where he was due to speak at the American Atheists Conference. That evening he met up with his colleague and friend Myers. Also in Minnesota that evening was a screening of Expelled. This was one of a number of pre-release screenings of the film which have been held all over the country in order to build awareness of the film. Myers had reserved seats in the screening for himself, his family, Dawkins and some people who work on Richard Dawkins’ web site. He did this by registering on a web site. He didn’t use a false name or in any way try to disguise that he would be attending the screening.

Whilst the party was waiting in the queue, a security guard approached Myers and told him that couldn’t attend the screening and would have to leave – apparently missing the fact that Richard Dawkins was standing right next to him in the queue. Myers went off to the local Apple Store (where he posted this blog entry) and Dawkins watched the film with the rest of Myers’ family. In the Q&A session following the film Dawkins asked the film’s director why he asked for Myers to be removed and the director just lied in reply.

This is a brilliant own goal by the creationists. They seem to be as inept at public relations as they are at science (and also, if reports are to be believed, at filmmaking).

Myers published another, more detailed, account later and the story has also made the NY Times. The account on the Expelled web site seems extremely unlikely to anyone who knows anything about either Myers or Dawkins.

Finally, here’s a film of Dawkins and Myers discussing the incident.

Update: Here’s Richard Dawkins on both the incident and the film.

religion science

Conservapedia on Dawkins

I’ve written before about Conservapedia, the web site that is using the same software as Wikipedia to build an encyclopedia of the US christian right’s view of the world.

Usually their nonsense is just amusing. But their article on Richard Dawkins has recently verged on libel. They seem determined to promote the opinion that Dawkins is not a professor. On the off-chance that sanity breaks out eventually and they article is cleaned up, here’s an archive of what it currently says:

Richard Dawkins is the holder of a donated “post” at the Museum of Natural History, an institution owned by the University of Oxford. The “post” does not entail “substantial teaching.”

Currently Richard Dawkins claims on his resume the academic authority of a “professor” at the University of Oxford, but his “professorship” is actually described by Oxford as a “post” during which Dawkins enjoys the income pursuant to the donor’s intent. Leading universities do not permit the “buying” of a professorship for someone. The post becomes a “professorship” when a subsequent beneficiary is promoted to the position based on a peer review election process.

The special terms of this gift allowed Richard Dawkins to bypass the peer review promotion process customarily required before receiving the title of “professor”. In other words, the gift establishes an endowment for future professors, but is held initially as a “post” by Dawkins who was apparently never subjected to the full peer review election process specified in the endowment.

As of October 5, 2007, the Oxford University’s Zoology Department lists the status of Richard Dawkins status as “other” rather than as “academic”. Since March 30, 2005, Dawkins’ online resume has stated his academic credential as “Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science, University of Oxford,” when in fact Dawkins’ position is at the Museum of Natural History, an institution merely owned by the University of Oxford. The title “professor” is misleading, if not fraudulent, as the position donated for his benefit does not satisfy the Merriam-Webster definition of “professor”: “a faculty member of the highest academic rank at an institution of higher education.”

It’s a shame that these enemies of reason feel they have to resort to such underhand tactics. They can’t argue with Dawkins’ points about religion so they resort to trying to undermine his academic standing.

It’s worth reading the discussion page associated with the article. You’ll see that there are quite a few people arguing on the side of reason, but that the loudest voice denying Dawkins’ title is the owner of the site. And he is the final arbiter of what the page says.