Posts Tagged ‘Atheism’

Science Britannia and the Need for a Programme on Medieval Science

September 22, 2013

Last week, the Beeb started a new series on the history of science, Science Britannia, broadcast on BBC 2 on Wednesdays at 8.00 pm. Fronted by Professor Brian Cox, now Britain’s answer to Carl Sagan, the series traces the development of British science and the personalities of the scientists involved from the mid-18th century. The name, Science Britannia, seems to come from the various music documentary series the Beeb has screened over recent years, such as Jazz Britannia, and one on caricature, political satire, the Music Hall and burlesque, Rude Britannia. Now any series on the history of science is to be welcomed, though my problem with such series is that they are always set in the Renaissance or later. In this case, I suspect the series has been influenced in its selection of the date at which to begin by Jenny Uglow’s, The Lunar Men. This was about the 18th century society of natural philosophers – the term ‘scientist’ was not coined until the 19th century – of which Erasmus Darwin was a member. He published his own theory of evolution fifty years before that of his better-known grandson, Charles. On this Wednesday programme Cox does go back to Isaac Newton in the 17th century, to examine his psychology, as well as that of later pioneering British scientists.

I do have one criticism of these series, however. They largely ignore the amazing scientific and technological advances that went on during the Middle Ages. Historians of medieval science, such as James Hallam in his book, God’s Philosophers, and A.C. Crombie in his two volume history of medieval science, have demonstrated that there was no Scientific Revolution in the 16th and 17th centuries in the sense that these ideas were a radical break with medieval science. They weren’t. Instead, they had their roots very much in the investigations and examination of nature of medieval natural philosophers even as they rejected their Aristotelianism. Roger Bartlet, in his programme on the medieval worldview, has demonstrated that the Middle Ages were not anti-science and that the mixture of science and faith made perfect sense to them, even if it now seems irrational to us. For example, I made a list of about 20 innovations that appeared in Europe during the Middle Ages. They were
Adoption for the purpose of preventing the deaths of unwanted children, Council of Vaison, 442.

Linguistics: Priscian, 6th century.

Floating Mills, Belisarius, 537.

Orphanage, St. Maguebodus, c. 581.

Electrotherapy, Paul of Aegina, 7th century.

Tide Mills, Adriatic and England, 11th century.

Armour plated warships, Scandinavia, 11th century.

Lottery, Italy, 12th century

Harness, Europe, c. 1150.

Spectacles, Armati or Spina, c. 1280.

Pencil – silver or black lead used for drawing, 14th century.

High Explosive Marine Shell, Netherlands, c. 1370, or Venice 1376.

Movable type, Laurens Janszoon, alias Coster, 1423,

Oil painting, H and J Van Eyck, 1420,

Diving Suit, Kyeser, c. 1400.

Double crane, Konrad Kyeser, early 15th century.

Screw, 15th century Europe.

Arquebus, Spain, c. 1450, first used at Battle of Moret, 1476.

Hypothermia, France, c. 1495.

Air gun, Marin Bourgeois, 1498.


Great Inventions Through History (Edinburgh: W&R Chambers 1991).

This is only a short list. There have been whole encyclopaedias written on medieval science and technology.

I think one reason why such as programme has not been broadcast is because it conflicts with the received wisdom about the Middle Ages, and the aggressively atheist views of some of the media own scientific darlings. Since the Renaissance, and particularly since the 19th century, the Middle Ages have been viewed as an age of superstition, in which the Church actively discouraged and persecuted science and scientists. This wasn’t the case, but the idea is still promoted very strongly. One of those, who continues to do this, is Richard Dawkins, who is now known as an atheist propagandist almost as much for his work as a biologists and science writer. Very many of the science programmes screened on British television, whether BBC or Channel 4, included Dawkins as an expert. He is a popular speaker at literary and science festivals, even though his views on the relationship between science and faith and the history of science are completely wrong. Nevertheless, it agrees with the historical prejudices of his audience and the media. James Hallam said that he found it difficult to find a publisher for his book, God’s Philosophers, but its demonstration that people of faith – Christian priests, monks and laymen – could do great science in the Age of Faith – directly contradicted the popular view of the period. One publisher explicitly told him that they weren’t going to be publish the book because they were an atheist. Censorship and bigotry is by no means the sole province of the religious.

Unfortunately, the current institutional structure of the BBC and its commissioning process appears to make this extremely difficult to correct, at least for those outside of the television industry. A year or so ago I was so incensed at the repeat of the media’s prejudice against medieval science, that I considered writing to the BBC to propose a series on it to correct it. I ended up giving up altogether. If you go to the relevant pages on this, you’ll find that while the BBC will accept scripts and suggestions from outside the industry for drama, fiction and comedy, all factual content must be developed with a production company before they will consider it. What this means is that unless you are already a media insider, you have absolutely no chance of getting your idea for a factual series developed for TV.

I hope, however, that the Beeb’s view of medieval science will change, and that we can expect a series on it sometime soon. In the meantime, if anyone has any suggestions, how I can approach the Beeb or another TV channel or production company to get such a series made, please let me know. It’s about time we did something to challenge this fashionable atheist myth.


The Historical Accuracy of the New Testament: A Reply to Atomic Mutant

July 10, 2013

I had this comment from an atheist blogger, Atomic Mutant:

‘It’s pretty hard to someone in Israel getting the layout of Jerusalem wrong, but that doesn’t mean, that the events described have really happened. The four gospels are NOT independent accounts, please do some research about how they are based on Mark and the Q source. And of course, the people then did NOT often live to become 50, 60 or older, so no, most eye witnesses were long dead when even the first gospel was written. And it’s stil just a text by a religious fanatic, nothing more. The fact that noone else seems to have noticed these important events (and details like the murdering of thousands of children) sheds more than a little doubt on this story…’

Let’s deal with criticisms, point by point.

Point 1:
The four gospels are NOT independent accounts, please do some research about how they are based on Mark and the Q source.

Actually, I’m well aware of the issues surrounding ‘Q’ and the supposed primacy of Mark’s Gospel. In fact, the issue of ‘Q’ has been debated since it was first suggested way back in the 18th century. Despite this and the loud noises made by the Jesus Seminar, the Q document has never been found. Some of the people I’ve spoken to have suggested that it may never have physically existed, but been a piece of oral tradition. As for Mark, it’s believed to be based on the preaching of St. Peter. In the Patristic period, however, it was regarded as a condensed version of Matthew, and there are still some scholars, who defend Matthew as the first Gospel. N.T. Wright, the former Anglican Bishop of Durham and New Testament scholar, deals with these issues and that of form criticism in general in his book, The New Testament and the People of God. So yes, I have done my research.

As for the Evangelists drawing on ‘Q’ or ‘Mark’ invalidating the statement that they are independent Gospel accounts, each Gospel writer deals with the material in a slightly different way to produce four slightly different, but complementary, views of the Lord’s life and ministry. There was an article I believe in one of the Biblical studies journals that took the line that the form of Gospels suggests that they are indeed memorates, people’s memories committed to writing.

Now let’s deal with point 2:

And of course, the people then did NOT often live to become 50, 60 or older, so no, most eye witnesses were long dead when even the first gospel was written.

This is simply wrong. The average life expectancy was low – perhaps about 30. It certainly does not mean that nobody lived well-beyond that age. People certainly could life to 70 or more. If you want an example from the Middle Ages, there’s William the Marshal. Most people in the Middle Ages also had short lives. The average was possibly 30, though in the later Middle Ages it could rise to about 40 or so. Nevertheless, William the Marshal fought off a French attack on Lincoln in the early thirteenth century when he was in his 70s. It also does not mean that the Gospel writers did not take their accounts directly from the eyewitnesses. John’s Gospel opens with the statement that it was taken from the disciple, who stood at the foot of the Cross. So that falls as well.

Point 3:

And it’s stil just a text by a religious fanatic, nothing more.

This is a bit of temporal chauvinism, nothing more. It assumes that because he describes religious event, he must automatically be wrong. Most people in the Graeco-Roman world lived in a conceptual world filled with the supernatural. You can find omens and other supernatural events in pagan Graeco-Roman histories, such as Josephus. The idea that the Greeks were all highly rational, sceptics has long ago been attacked. See for example the book, The Greeks and the Irrational. You’ve just taken the assumptions of our own time, and decided that because the Gospels don’t fit contemporary received opinion about how the Cosmos works, they must be wrong.

Point 4:

The fact that noone else seems to have noticed these important events (and details like the murdering of thousands of children) sheds more than a little doubt on this story…’

There’s little historical material surviving from ancient Palestine, full stop. Just about the only source we had for a very long time, outside of the Bible and Talmud, is Josephus’ Antiquities of the Jews. And many Romans or Greeks simply wouldn’t have been interested in what a wandering Jewish rabbi taught or was believed about Him. As for Herod killing thousands, nowhere in the Bible does it state how many he killed in Bathlehem. It needn’t have been very large. Most villages in the ancient world had populations of about 200. In such a number, how many would actually have been small boys? Probably very few. Now Josephus states that Herod was autocratic, murderous and cruel. He had three of his sons executed. He also states that the old tyrant committed many more atrocities, which he does not describe. Then you have to take into account the class biases of ancient historiography. Ancient and medieval histories concentrated on the actions of great princes, statesmen and members of the ruling classes. By and large they were not interested in what happened to the lower orders. Josephus may well have not written about the Massacre of the innocents, simply because that, as they were members of the peasant and artisan classes, they simply didn’t matter as much as what he did to his family.

So, I really don’t see these criticism as being valid.

The Historical Accuracy of the New Testament

July 10, 2013

You regularly hear attacks on the historical accuracy of the Bible, and particularly the New Testament. These consist of statements like ‘You can’t believe all that. It’s all made up’. The opponents and critics of Christianity have been arguing like this since ancient Rome. There is, however, a lot of evidence supporting the Gospel’s historical accuracy. These are a few of the arguments. Whole books have been written defending the Gospels. I’ve tried to make this as short as possible, so that they can be printed and distributed on a single sheet of paper as part of church activities or private study.

Trusting the New Testament

The Gospels are bioi, Graeco-Roman biographies. St. Luke begins his Gospel in the way Greek and Roman authors began serious historical or scientific texts – stating that they have examined the previous sources and then compiled their own account.

The Gospels were written between AD. 64 and the 90s, when many of the witnesses to Christ’s life and ministry were still alive.

The Gospels provide four independent accounts of Christ’s life and ministry. They were composed earlier, and there are far more copies of them, then contemporary secular Roman biographies of the Roman Emperors. Indeed, some of these are known from only a single coin. A fragment of John’s Gospel has been dated from the late 1st century to c. 125 AD. It has been suggested that it may even have come from the scriptorium of the Evangelist himself. This contrasts with the earliest extant copy of one of the biographies of the Caesars, which dates from the 9th century.

The New Testament frequently refers to named individuals, who were still alive at the time they were written. Graeco-Roman culture distrusted purely written accounts of events and facts, and preferred eye-witness testimony where possible.

Ancient Jewish culture stressed the importance of memorising texts. Rabbis’ disciples were expected to memorise their masters’ teachings.

Anthropological evidence states that the dates when the Gospels were written is too soon after the events for mythological or legendary material to have entered the Gospel stories.

The Gospels also reflect 1st century Jewish life. Many of the questions put before Christ are about issues discussed and debated in contemporary Jewish society, such as the question of divorce. Christ’s commandment ‘Hear, O Israel, you shall love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, with all thy mind and with all thy soul, and thy neighbour as yourself’ is a kelal, a rabbinical short summary of the Law. One of the questions asked during 1st century rabbinical debates was ‘Can you summarise the Law while standing on one leg?’ Christ’s commandment above is an example of the answer to just such a question.

The description of Jerusalem in St. John’s Gospel corresponds to the layout of the town, especially the Pool of Bethesda and the Temple forecourt as revealed by archaeology. Furthermore, types of the tomb in which Jesus was buried, which were closed by a stone have also been discovered. Christ is also described as deidaskalos – teacher – which is also known from archaeology to have been used of 1st century rabbis.

18th Century Religious Scepticism Not Based on Science: Part 2 – Atheist Materialism

June 8, 2013

In the first part of this essay, I examined how most of the arguments against Christianity and revealed religion used by the Deists were philosophical, rather than scientific. Science did play a part in their attacks on Christianity, but it was a subordinate role. The same is true of 18th century atheism. Most of the arguments used by Jean Meslier in his Testament, for example are again, moral, philosophical and political, rather than scientific. Meslier was a former Roman Catholic priest, who attacked Christianity and particularly Roman Catholicism for its supposed immorality. He considered that religions were artificial creations of ruling elites, intended to justify and further their own power. He attacked Christian morality for supposedly preaching an acquiescent attitude towards tyranny, like monarchist rule in contemporary France. Like many later atheists, he also attacked the idea of an immortal soul and rewards in the hereafter for discouraging people from social reform here on Earth.

The Three Scientific Developments Used to Argue for Atheism in the 18th Century

Like some of the Deists, he also believed that matter had self-organising properties. The evidence for this came from three sources. These were John Turbeville Needham’s experiments into spontaneous generation, Haller’s discovery that muscles from recently deceased animals contracted when pricked, and the hydra’s ability to regenerate when cut. Needham was an English Roman Catholic priest. In his experiments he noted the appearance of microscopic organisms from the remains of vegetable matter and even the gravy from roast meat. Albrecht von Haller was a Swiss naturalist, who believed that there was an unknown force present in the heart. This indicated that matter had its was able to move itself independently of the soul. La Mettrie, the author of the materialist, L’homme machine (Man a Machine) of 1747 incorporated it into his own arguments against the existence of the soul. The dissection of polyps showed that this creature would become two or more when cut into pieces, and so apparently disproved the idea of indivisible animals. Finally, the great 18th century atheist, Denis Diderot argued living creatures may have evolved over millions of years to produce their present forms. He suggested a kind of natural selection, in which useless or defective physiological features had died out. This gave living creatures the appearance of design, even though they were simply the products of chance evolution.

These Experiments Do Not Necessarily Lead to Atheism

In fact all three of these scientific discoveries could be interpreted in other ways that did not support materialist atheism. Needham himself did not see any danger to religion in his results. Indeed, he was attacked by Voltaire as an Irish Jesuit monger of fraudulent miracles, despite the fact that he was English, not Irish, and not a Jesuit. As for the new force of motion supposedly inherent in muscle tissue, Haller believed it was similar to gravity. Both forces were known through their effects, but were ultimately instruments of a Creator God. He considered the presence of this so-called “irritability” in muscle tissue was much less important than contemporary debates in embryology in supporting or leading to atheism. At the time Haller was engaged in an argument with C.F. Wolff over the nature of the development of the embryo. The debate centred around two rival concepts, epigenesis and pre-formation. Epigenesis was the view that the embryo developed from the less organised material of the egg. Pref-formation, by contrast, was the view that creature already existed, pre-formed in the egg or sperm of the animal. Haller strongly supported pre-formation. He considered that the development of living beings from unorganised matter would indicate that similarly life itself had originated through these forces without the action of a creator God. Wolff believed that his observation of chick embryos had indeed shown that individual organisms develop from the primordial, undifferentiated matter of the egg. Unlike Haller, he did not see any theological difference whether one believed in either theory. He stated that ‘Nothing is demonstrated against the existence of divine power, even if bodies are produced by natural forces and causes, for these very forces and causes … claim an author for themselves just as much as organic bodies do.’ Thus immaterial forces and the matter they shaped were both grounded in God.

AS for Abraham Trembley’s experiments with the polyp, this was only felt to show that polyps did not have indivisible souls. It was not believed to be relevant to other animals and humans. Indeed, more conservative naturalists believed that the polyp was actually a missing link in God’s great chain of being between plants and animals.

Joseph Priestley: Scientist, Revolutionary and Unitarian, Rational Christianity

Some Unitarians, such as the Dissenting Minister Joseph Priestly, also managed to combine materialism with a form of Christianity. Priestly was an active scientific research. His experiments on the various gases included the production of what he termed ‘dephlogisticated air’, which was later called ‘oxygen’ by Lavoisier. Priestly attempted to show that materialist science would serve to purify Christianity of what he considered to be superstitious features derived from ancient Platonism, such as, he believed, the doctrine of the Trinity. Priestly was a philosophical monist, who believed that God worked through forces that were neither physical or immaterial as commonly understood. They could be identified with matter, but this was a matter that possessed active powers of motion and organisation. He did not believe in an immaterial soul, but did look forward to the Resurrection. He also accepted miracles, and argued as proof that without them, Christianity could not possibly have spread. He was also an egalitarian, who supported first the French, and then the American Revolutions. He finally moved to America after the War of Independence. In an 1802 letter to Thomas Jefferson, Priestly described how he was looking forward to living under the protection of the American Constitution. He praised this as ‘the most favourable to political liberty, and private happiness, of any in the world’. Despite his scientific scepticism of orthodox Christianity, he always denied that he was an atheist. When one of his French materialist friends at a dinner stated that he no more believed in Christianity than they did, he replied that he was indeed a Christian believer.

Science as Means for Purifying Christianity, Unitarians Active in Scientific Advances of Industrial Revolution

For Priestly, scientific progress was ‘the means under God of extirpating all error and prejudice, and of putting an end to all undue and usurped ahtority in the business of religion as well as science’. These views were shared by other Unitarians in the main British manufacturing towns. These Unitarians were active in scientific research and their practical application in industry. They were particularly prominent in the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society, but were also strongly present in most of scientific societies outside London. William Turner, another Unitarian, was the dominant figure behind the Newcastle Literary and Philosophical Society. Turner has been described as believing that the Industrial Revolution was not happening behind God’s back, but at His express command.

Conclusion: 18th Century Science Not Necessarily atheist, Could Lead instead to Rational, Unitarian Christianity

Thus, scientific developments also played only a small role in the atheist arguments that arose during the 18th century. Like the arguments of the Deists, these were also primarily moral, philosophical and political. The three major scientific observations that did seem to argue for atheism and materialism – Needham’s observation of spontaneous generation, the response of dissected muscle tissue to stimulation and the polyp were largely seen as having no relevance to the wider debate about the Almighty. In the case of the continued activity in muscle tissue, this was seen as like Newton’s force of gravity in being based in God, and as a force through which the Lord worked.
Finally, Joseph Priestly and his fellow Unitarian scientists showed how some Dissenters combined a belief in science to produce an unorthodox form of rational Christianity.

The Sacrifice of Isaac: Francis Wheen Spouts Mumbo Jumbo

June 3, 2013

You may remember that way back in the last decade there was a spate of sceptical books attacking what their authors saw as pseudo-science. These included various New Age beliefs, and very often also Creationism and Intelligent Design. These books included Bad Science, by the Roman Catholic writer and science jounralist, Ben Goldacre, and How Mumbo Jumbo Conquered the World, by Francis Wheen. Wheen’s a left-wing journalist, who has, I believe, written for the Guardian. He is a frequent guest on the News Quiz, a satirical panel show about the news on BBC’s Radio 4. In his introduction he stated that part of his purpose in writing the book was to defend the Enlightenment. These revivals of what he considered irrationalism threatened it. He confessed his admiration for the Enlightenment and its values, including its secularism.

Strange Days and Paranoia, Terrorism and Psychiatric Abuse of Dissidents in the 1970s

Now Wheen is an excellent writer. His book on the paranoia and chaos of the ’70s, Strange Days Indeed: The Golden Age of Paranoia, is very good. It begins with Nixon and Watergate, and expands to include the fear surrounding Mao and the Gang of Four. He traces the way Mao’s doctrine of guerilla warfare formed the template for that decades western urban terrorists, including the Provisional IRA in Britain, the Rote Armee Fraktion or the Baader-Meinhof Gang in Germany and the Maoist terrorists in France. These latter emerged following the failure of the 1968 uprising to topple French capitalism, and drew intellectual inspiration and support from radical academics. One of these latter appears to have done little except march around his university campus disrupting the classes of other lecturers he considered to be bourgeois and reactionary. He also discusses the murky events surrouding Harold Wilson’s prime ministership and the preparations to remove him in a coup by those who suspected him of being a KGB agent. One of the most fascinating, and relevant pieces in the book is his description of how Soviet psychiatry came up with a new mental illness that would justify the forcible incarceration of dissidents. This was done under the pretext that they must be insane to challenge the great, Soviet workers’ paradise. The Soviet political abuse of psychiatry strongly influenced the BBC SF series, Blake’s 7. In the series, the totalitarian Federation used mind control, including drugged food and water, and the conditioning, brainwashing and psychiatric brutalisation of dissidents to maintain its brutal and corrupt rule. This particular episode in Soviet history should be particularly alarming and provide a stark warning to people of faith concerning some of the pronouncements made by contemporary atheists. Some of the New Atheists, like the Rational Response Squad, made it clear they thought religion was a psychiatric disorder. Even now some professional neurologists have stated that they look forward to the day when neuroscience will be used to cure radical or dangerous religious beliefs. Blake’s 7’s fictional federation also closed churches. Science Fiction has been described as the literature of warning, and Blake’s 7 provided a fictional treatment of the Soviet psychiatric persecution of dissidents. The Soviet medicalisation of religion as a psychiatric disorder is one that some atheist scientists now seem to be following on their own. They’re either unaware of or unconcerned by their totalitarian predecessors.

Wheen’s Mumbo Jumbo and the Sacrifice of Isaac in Genesis

Much of Wheen’s book on ‘Mumbo Jumbo’ is unremarkable. It tackles some of the bizarre New Age beliefs. It shows his own left-wing views in criticising Thatcherism and her pursuit of the free market. Wheen is, however, an atheist. Ian Hislop, the editor of Private Eye, to which Wheen has contributed, has joked about how Wheen called him an ‘irrational theist’. The book makes it clear that Wheen views religion as not just wrong, but dangerous. It shows the effect of 9/11 and the subsequent jihadi attacks on atheist opinions towards religion in general. Wheen does not consider them the action of just one religion, or even or a movement within that religion, but due to religion as a whole. He specifically blames the patriarch Abraham and the sacrifice of his son, Isaac, for causing suicide bombing. God’s call to Abraham to sacrifice Isaac is, in Wheen’s view, a demand for the blind faith and for believers to give up their lives in the service of their God. It is the origin of the blind faith of the suicide bombers. He then rants about how Abraham was a barbarian who should be excluded from the tables of civilised people.

This is profoundly wrong. Wheen misses the point about the sacrifice of Isaac completely. His Comments do, however, say volumes about received atheist opinion towards religion. Mostly, this is that many prominent atheists actually aren’t concerned about the basic facts behind religious events and phenomena before they utter their opinions.

Abraham and God’s Mercy: God Unlike Pagan Gods, Does Not Demand Human Sacrifice

For Jews, Abraham is not a symbol of fanaticism and blind faith, but mercy. This is shown by his conversation with the Almighty concerning the number of good people, who would have to be in Sodom before the Lord destroyed the city. This goes down to about ten, showing that even if only a minuscule number of righteous people are present in a place so steeped in evil that the outcry against it goes up to the Lord Himself, God will withhold His anger from it. As for the sacrifice of Isaac, that has to be seen in the context of the pagan religious practices of the Ancient Near East. Human sacrifice was an accepted part of the ancient Near Eastern religions. It’s found in the law codes of the Hittites. In ancient Phoenicia, Canaan and Carthage infant children were burned alive as sacrifices to the pgan gods. The tophets, the sacrificial altars on which these poor mites were killed, have been found in the remains of Carthage itself. The remains of these sacrifices have also been found in ancient Canaan. The point the story of God’s command for Abraham to sacrifice Isaac makes is that the Lord does not want people to sacrifice humans to Him. Yes, He rewards the faith that makes people wish to fulfill His commands, even to death, but does not want them to make that sacrifice. Abraham does indeed make the pyre and prepare to sacrifice his son, but this is halted by God sending a ram, caught in a thicket, for the patriarch to sacrifice instead. The whole point of the story is against suicide bombing.

Wheen Ignorant of Scholarship on Ancient Paganism and the Meaning of Isaac’s Sacrifice

Few people are experts in Ancient Near Eastern culture. But you don’t have to be. I remember studying the sacrifice of Isaac in RE (Religious Education) at my old Church of England School. Wheen went to one of the British public schools, which in this case, for transatlantic readers, means that he went to an elite private school. Despite having a very expensive education, he clearly either didn’t study this part of the Bible in RE, or simply wasn’t paying attention when they did. Even if they didn’t study that part of the Bible, Wheen could still have tried to understand it simply by consulting a commentary. There are a number of good commentaries on scripture, some of which are available online. But Wheen didn’t. He simply assumed that the apparent message he read into the text was the correct one. His failure to consult a commentary or what Christians and Jews actually historically believe and say about this event also shows a completely dismissive attitude towards their beliefs. He appears to beleive that traditional Jewish and Christian views of scripture are of so little importance, so automatically wrong, that an atheist should not even remotely consider studying them before making their pronouncements.

The Marxist Origin of Suicide Bombing

As for suicide bombing, although this is now a favourite weapon of militant Islam, it was first used by the Tamil Tigers. As Marxists, they were atheists, who clearly wre not following a divine command, still less of the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Jesus Christ. But this is not mentioned by Wheen. Possibly he didn’t know about it. It does, however, show the deep antipathy of part of the atheist Left towards Judeo-Christian religion. There’s also an element of the secularist belief that all religions are somehow the same. If that is true, then therefore all religions must be equally violent. Thus Wheen sought to find the ultimate origin of the contemporary jihadist attacks not in today’s politics, or the violent theology and ideology of the terrorists themselves, but further back in Abraham’s lifetime, so he could blame and disparage all of the three Abrahamic faiths. Wheen’s other book are well worth reading, and much of his book on Mumbo Jumbo is too. Rather than being a product of reasoned thought and careful consideration, Wheen’s views on the sacrifice of Isaac in the Old Testament are merely the product of atheist ignorance and anti-religious bigotry.

Lenin: Atheist Propaganda Official Soviet Policy

May 31, 2013

Lenin and The Official Publication of Soviet Militant Atheism: Necessity of Including Non-Communist Atheists

This is further to my post yesterday, in which I explained that atheism was a vital part of Communist ideology, citing Marx and Engels. In his article ‘On the Significance of Militant Materialism’, published in the March, 1922 issue of Trotsky’s journal, Pod Znamenem Marksizma (Under the Banner of Marxism), Lenin advocated the establishment of atheist materialism and propaganda as a vital part of Soviet ideology. He praised the above magazine, for including both Communists and Non-Communist materialists. ‘This statement says that not all those gathered round the journal Pod Znamen Marksizma are Communists but that they are all consistent materialists. I think that this alliance of Communists and Non-Communists is absolutely essential and correctly defines the purposes of the journal … Without an alliance with non-Communists in the most diverse spheres of activity there can be no question of any successful communist construction. … This also applies to the defence of materialism and Marxism’.

‘At any rate, in Russia we still have – and shall undoubtedly have for a fairly long time to come – materialists from the non-communist camp, and it is our absolute duty to enlist all adherent of consistent and militant materialism in the joint work of combating philosophical reaction and the philosophical prejudices of so-called educated society’. Lenin furthermore said of the magazine that ‘such a journal must be a militant atheist organ. We have departments, or at least state institutions, which are in charge of this work. But the work is being carried on with extreme apathy and very unsatisfactorily, and is apparently suffering from the general conditions of our truly Russian (even though Soviet) bureaucratic ways. It is therefore highly essential that in addition to the work of these state institutions, and in order to improve and infuse life into that work, a journal which sets out to propagandise militant materialism must carry on untiring atheist propganda and an untiring atheist fight. The literature on the subject in all languages should be carefully followed and everything at all valuable in this sphere should be translated, or at least reviewed’.

Communists Should Publish Atheist Propaganda

Lenin then cited Engels’ recommendation that Communists should translate and republish the militant atheist literature of the eighteenth for mass distribution amongst the people. This should be done in abridged editions omitting material that was unscientific and ‘naive’, and including brief postscripts pointing out the progress in the scientific criticism of religion since the eighteenth century. This material should not be purely Marxist. ‘These masses should be supplied with the most varied atheist propaganda material, they should be made familiar with facts from the most diverse spheres of life, they should be approached in every possible way, so as to interest them, rouse them from their religious torpor, stir them from the varied angles and by the most varied methods, and so forth’. He then stated that this material was more suitable than the dry material of Marxism.

He considered one of the journal’s tasks should be atheist propaganda, particularly using material showing the connection between the modern bourgeoisie and religious institutions and propaganda, particular in America, where the connection between the boureoisie and religion was not obvious:

Pod Znamen Marksizma, which set out to be an organ of militant materialism, should devote much of its space to atheist propaganda, to reviews of the literature on the subject and to correcting the immense shortcomings of our governmental work in this field. It is particularly important to utilise books and pamphlets which contain many concrete facts and comparisons showing how the class interests and the class organisations of the modern bourgeoisie are connected with the organisation of religious institutions and religious propaganda.

All material relating to the United States of America, where the official, state connection between religion and capital is less manifest, is extremely important’.

Communists to Ally with Militant Atheist Scientists

He also recommended that the Communists should also ally themselves with those scientists, who inclined towards materialism and were willing to spread it:

‘In addition to the alliance with consistent materialist who do not belong to the Communist Party, of no less and perhaps even of more important for the work which militant materialism should perform is an alliance with those modern natural scientists who incline towards materialism and are not afraid to defend and preach it as against the modish philosophical wanderings into idealism and scepticism which are prevalent in so-called educated society.’

Communist Atheism Threatened by Non-Communist Atheists and Science

For all that Lenin advocated an alliance with non-Communist atheist materialists, particularly scientists, he felt threatened by those atheists, that were, in his view, insufficiently hostile to religion. He inveighed against these as the ‘ideological slaves of the bourgeoisie, as ‘graduated flunkeys of clericalism’. He attacked an atheist account of Christianity’s origins by a Russian scientist, Professor R.Y. Wipper, because Wipper declared that he was above extremes of both idealism and materialism. He similarly attacked a book by the German author, Arthur Drews, which tried to make the case that Christ didn’t exist, because Drews wished for a revived, purified religion that would withstand ‘the daily growing naturalist torrent’. He was particularly afraid of contemporary philosophical trends towards religion that were based on the investigation of radioactivity – the discovery of radium – and particularly Einstein’s theory of relativity. ‘It should be remembered that the shap upheaval which modern natural science is undergoing ery often gives rise to reactionary philosophical schools and minor schools, trends and minor trends. Unless, therefore, the problems raised by the recent revolution in natural science are followed, and unless natural scientists are enlisted in the work of a philosophical journal, militant materialism can be neither militant nor materialism’. He believed that the interest caused by Einstein’s Theory of Relativity and other scientific developments since the late 19th century were leading the world’s people to atheism. This movement towards atheist materialism could only be politically and philosophically secure if it was firmly based in Marxist philosophy, particularly the Hegelian dialectic.

Communist Atheism and Science to be Based on Marxist Dialectic

‘For our attitude towrads this phenomenon to be a politically conscious one, it must be realised that no natural science and no materialism can hold its own in the struggle against the onslaught of bourgeois ideas and the restoration of the borgeois world outlook unless it stands on solid philosophical ground. In order to hold his own in this struggle and carry it to a victorious finish, the natural scientist must be a modern materialist, a conscious adherent of the materialism represented by Marx, i.e., he must be a dialectal materialist…In my opinion, the ediotrs and contributors of Pod Znamenem Marsksizma should be a kind of “Society of Materialist Friends of Hegelian Dialectics”. Modern natural scientists (if they known how to seek, if we learn to help them) will find in the Hegelian dialectics, materialistically interpreted, a series of answers to the philosophical problems which are being raised by the revolution in natural science and which make the intellectual admirers of bourgeois fashion “stumble” into reaction’.

Communist Atheism Highly Ideological, Soviet Science Explicitly Atheist, Communist Politicisation of Science Retarded Scientific Progress

Lenin’s demand for Marxist atheism to appeal to scientists partly explains why a number of scientists did join the Communist party, such as J.B.S. Haldane. It also shows that the Marxist conception of atheism felt itself to be highly vulnerable to developments in natural science that appeared to contradict a pure materialism. Furthermore, the highly politicised, ideological form of atheism that formed the core of Marxism was to be imported into science itself. Now the proponents of Intelligent Design theory have maintained that atheism and materialism have corrupted science. While this is generally highly contentious, nevertheless it was true of Soviet Science. Soviet Science was supposed to be informed and based on Marxist materialism. As a result, it was highly politicised. The Soviet Union could produce some superb scientists, such as the rocket pioneer Sergei Korolyev. Yet it could also viciously persecute those individuals whose scientific views did not find official favour, with the result that in many areas Soviet Science was remarkably backwards. They remained behind in computer technology, for example, because Stalin’s scientific advisor believed it was a pseudo-science. It is therefore very clear that for Lenin, Marxism was a kind of militant atheism to be promoted as the only true atheism, and that Marxist atheist materialism was to form a vital part of the Soviet scientific enterprise.


V.I. Lenin, ‘On the Significance of Militant Materialism’, in Lenin: Selected Works (Moscow: Progress Publishers 1968) 653-60.

Back in the USSR: Atheism and Pop Music in Soviet Propaganda

May 13, 2013

In the last article, I criticised David Bowie for including blasphemous imagery in his latest pop video. In the West there’s an attitude that somehow atheist or anti-christian popular music is politically, intellectually and spiritually liberating, that somehow you’re a free, independent, person if you listen to or participate in it. This isn’t necessarily the case. During the Cold War, the Soviet bloc was aggressively atheist. Christians and members of other faiths were persecuted, their churches and places of worship demolished and turned into museums of atheism. In the Soviet Union, atheism was explicitly taught as part of the science curriculum. And pop music was used to try and indoctrinate young people with approved atheist, Communist values. Way back in the 1980s the BBC broadcast a series of programmes on the USSR as it was then, including a programme on Soviet television. This latter was fascinating, as it opened a feature of Soviet society that was unknown to most people in the West. And besides, everyone likes to know what’s on TV, and what the other guy is watching. Soviet television was very mixed. Amongst the shows covered were historical dramas, comedy, a Russian version of Sherlock Holmes in which St. Petersburg, or Leningrad as it was then, stood in for Victorian London, and a spy drama in which the heroic forces of the KGB did battle with the CIA. It also showed a pop video attacking Christianity deliberately broadcast at the time of the Russian Orthodox Christmas Service. The song opened with the statement, addressed to the Lord, that the singer didn’t believe in Him, before attacking Christianity further.

Now atheism is not Communism, although atheism did form part of Communist ideology. And obviously, being an atheist certainly does not automatically mean that one supports tyranny. Needless to say, many atheists genuinely believe and actively support freedom, free speech and conscience. My point here is only that the obvious – that just as atheism does not necessarily stand for tyranny, it also doesn’t necessarily represent or support freedom and independence either. Ironically, pop music in the Soviet Union, like other forms of youth culture, was very heavily monitored and controlled. Much of the music that formed the backdrop to adolescent life in the West was banned, even such apparently innocuous songs as Boney M’s Rasputin. I can remember reading an interview with one Russian lady in which she remenisced how, when she and a group of other teenagers were on a Young Pioneers’ camp in Siberia, they sneaked away into the forest with an old reel-to-reel tape recorder to play a bootleg recording of the above record, and felt very rebellious. Pop music is simply a musical form, or rather, a series of musical forms. Like other art forms, there’s nothing wrong in itself. It just depends on the use to which it is put. It’s status as the music of youthful rebellion, however, means that it frequently is used to spread a particular message, which may be held up as the authentic voice of youth. In the USSR this meant that when it was permitted, it could be used to promote atheism as a deliberate and explicit form of ideological indoctrination. This is in stark contrast to the way anti-Christian pop music is viewed in the West, as somehow anti-establishment, anti-official indoctrination. Paradoxically, this means that in certain part of pop culture, anti-Christianity is pretty much part of the musical and artistic establishment. Music is very much a matter of personal taste, and in free societies people should have the right to listen to the kind of music they want without ideological restrictions. But it also means that people also have the responsibility of listening to the ideological messages in their music, and questioning and criticising them. Even when it includes commonplace attitudes like aggressive atheism and a violent rejection of Christianity.

Robert Owen: Utopian Socialist, Promoter of ‘Rational Religion’

May 12, 2013

The founder of British Socialism was the 19th century Welsh reformer, Robert Owen. The son of a saddler and ironworker who was also the local postmaster, Own moved from Newtown in Wales to take over the mill at New Lanark in Scotland. There he improved the conditions of his workers through paternal management. Unlike other contemporary businesses, he did not employ children under ten, and the children of his workers were educated in the factory school. Owen later went on to denounce the social division, inequality, poverty and crime which he believed had their roots in private property, and advocated instead a series of utopian communities based on co-operation and the sharing of produce. He initially enjoyed the support of many members of the clergy and ruling aristocracy, including dukes and archbishops. He alienated them through his religious scepticism. His lecture on the New Religion given at the Freemason’s Hall in 1830 is essentially an attack on revealed religion. He believed that the revealed religions of the world kept people in ignorance and so prevented them from improving themselves, as well as creating bitter hatreds that served only to divide humanity. He also campaigned against the idea of marriage for life, which he viewed as chaining unhappy couples together permanently and consequently creating vice and crime through broken families that could nevertheless not be dissolved.

The 19th century was an age of social and political upheaval, with groups like the Chartists emerging to demand the extension of the franchise to the working class. The Christian Chartists, who were particularly strong in Scotland, objected to co-operation with the Owenites as they disliked being associated with ‘Socialists and infidels’. In fact, Owen was a Deist, and then later a Spiritualist, and took many of his ideas from the 17th century Quaker, John Bellers, the Moravians, and the Shakers and Rappites in America. He was also a firm advocate of freedom of conscience. Law 12 in his 1840 Manifesto states

‘That all facts yet known to man indicate that there is an external or internal Cause of all existences, by the fact of their existence; that this all-pervading cause of motion and change in the universe, is that Incomprehensible Power, which the nations of the world have called God, Jehovah, Lord, etc., etc.; but that the facts are yet unknown to man which define what that power is.’

He believed that God created human nature at birth, but that the good qualities of humanity could be brought out if developed in accordance with natural, rational laws.

‘Human nature in each individual is created, with its organs, faculties, and propensities, of body and mind, at birth, but the incomprehensible Creating Power of the universe; all of which qualities and powers are necessary for the continuation of the species, and the growth, health, progress, excellence and happiness, of the individual and of society; and these results will always be attained when, in the progress of nature, men shall have acquired sufficient experience to cultivate these powers, physical and mental, in accordance with the natural laws of humanity.’

He was also radical in arguing for complete religious freedom. Law 8 of his Manifesto states that ‘everyone shall have equal and full liberty to express the dictates of his conscience on religious and all other subjects.’ Law 9 laid down that ‘No one shall have any other power than fair and friendly argument to control the opinions or belief of another.’ Law 10 stated that ‘No praise or blame, no merit or demerit, no reward or punishment, shall be awarded for any opinion or beliefs’. Finally, Law 11 stipulated that

‘But all, of every religion, shall have equal right to express their opinions respecting the great Incomprehensible Power which moves the atom and controls the universe; and to worship that power under any form or in any manner agreeable to their consciences – not interfering with others.’

In many ways, Owen’s views are a product of 18th century rationalism. After the Fall of Communism, few would argue that a completely socialised economy can be successfully run. Nevertheless, the success of New Lanark did show 19th century businessmen that working conditions could be improved and the working classes provided for while still making a healthy profit. It also differs from later radical socialism in that, unlike later Communism, it was not atheist and specifically provided for freedom of conscience. Indeed, Owen is interesting for making the belief in God an article of his Manifesto, even if he looked to science, rather than revelation for establishing the Lord’s nature.

J.B.S. Haldane: Atheism, Communism and the Anti-Reductionist Case for God

May 12, 2013

One of the major figures in British biology in the 20th century was J.B.S. Haldane. Haldane was not only a distinguished physiologist, but a Communist who wrote articles for their newspaper, the Daily Worker. Some of these were determinedly anti-theist. One, ‘The Godmakers’, was a polemic against the belief in God and particularly Christianity, urging his fellow atheists and Communists to be on the guard against the theistic impulse and further attempts to create new deities. Yet Haldane himself was certainly not immune from this impulse to seek the existence of the divine.

At the end of his career Haldane wrote The Philosophy of a Biologist. This argued for the existence of the Almighty based on a consideration of the limitation of a purely scientific view of the world. If the world is examined purely from the point of view of physics, then only physico-chemical answers are produced due to the nature of the questions asked. The world, however, is not limited only to the realm of physics. To form a more complete picture of the cosmos, biology must be added. Haldane, a biologist, naturally considered that biology gave a truer picture of the universe than physics. Biology, however, is also incomplete, as it does not include the personality. So psychology must also be included as the scientific discipline that best approaches reality. Psychology, however, is also incomplete as the cosmos includes universal principles of goodness, truth and beauty. These elements in the constitution of the universe mean that the cosmos is also personal, and that individual human personalities exist in a relationship with the universal personality, God. Although it is not always clear whether Haldane believed that God was either the same as the biological universe, or transcended it, nevertheless he appears to have believed in God as the basic fact of creation and that the various physical laws were partial revelations of His nature. It’s a fascinating argument, which is similar to others advanced by contemporary theologians. It also shows that however exciting and tempting atheism appears when one is young, healthy with an exuberance for life, for many it becomes bleak and comfortless in old age, when one naturally thinks of one’s mortality. It is ironic that in this instance the ardent anti-theist became a God-maker himself.

Review: God’s Philosophers by James Hannam (London: Icon Books 2009)

April 8, 2013

Bede's Book Cover

I received a copy of this book about four or so years ago when it was first published for review on my blog. Unfortunately, I was buy with other things at the time, and increasingly frustrated with arguing with some of the commenters. So the review has been delayed until now.

Subtitled ‘How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science’, the book is the result of James’ research for his doctorate into the history of medieval science. James’ is a Roman Catholic with a background in physics. He is also ‘Bede’, who runs the Bede’s Library website, and the Quodlibitum blog. These are Christian apologetics websites discussing science, philosophy and history. James is a Roman Catholic, but his website deals with issues that affect all Christians, and specifically those with an interest in science and its history regardless of their particular denomination. He states on his website that he initially found it difficult to get the book published. One publisher explicitly told him they rejected it because they were atheists, which should show that atheists are as capable of intellectual bigotry and censorship as their religious opponents.

The books’ chapters discuss technological innovation and advancement during the ‘Dark Ages’ following the fall of Rome, the beginning of medieval academic science with with the career of Pope Gerbert of Aurillac, the rise of rationalism and the intellectual prestige of theology, and the controversies of St. Anselm, Peter Abelard, Roscelin and Berenger. It also covers the twelfth renaissance, including William of Conches and Adelard of Bath, as well as the translation of scientific and philosophical works from Greek and Arabic, and the foundation of the first universities. It discusses the Church’s attempts to combat heresy during the thirteenth century, which included the University of Paris’ ban on Aristotle, the establishment of Inquisition and the foundation of the Dominican and Franciscan orders of friars. He also discusses the Christianisation of pagan Graeco-Roman science and philosophy by Albert the Great and Thomas Aquinas, and the controversies with the Latin Averroeists, such as Siger of Brabant. These followed Aristotle in believing in the eternity of the world, and that humans possessed a single, collective mind rather than individual souls. That chapter also describes the architectural innovations that led to the construction of the great cathedrals. There are other chapters on magic and medieval medicine, alchemy and astrology, including the philosophers stone and the elixir of life, and the occult forces which the medievals believed permeated the cosmos; Roger Bacon is also discussed along with medieval war machines such as the trebuchet and medieval optics, which had its background in the theological view that light illuminated not just the physical world, but also the mind and soul. There are further chapters on the great medieval clockmaker Richard of Wallinford, the Merton Calculators, and the culmination of medieval science in the great scholars and clergymen of the later Middle Ages, Jean Buridan, Nicole Oresme, and its decline following the Black Death. The book also discusses fifteenth century scholars and developments such as Nicholas of Cusa, medieval geography and the impact of Columbus’ discovery of the New World the Fall of Constantinople and the invention of printing. It also covers Humanism and the Reformation, the great polymaths of the sixteenth century, medicine and surgery in the sixteenth century, Copernicus and Humanist Astronomy, as well as the further, radical developments in astronomy introduced by Clavius and Kepler. The last three chapters are on the career of Galileo, which also include a section on the execution of the renaissance heretic Giordano Bruno.

Throughout the book, James criticises and attacks many of the myths that have grown up about medieval science, particularly that the medieval church was hostile to it and that the Middle Ages was a period of scientific ignorance until the Renaissance and the ‘Scientific Revolution’ of the 17th century. In his introduction, James traces the origin of this idea from Petrarch and the Renaissance Humanists, through Enlightenment anticlerical and atheist writers such as Voltaire and D’Alembert, through to 19th century scholars such as Andrew Dickson Wright and Thomas Huxley. Popular science presenters such as Carl Sagan, James Burke and Jacob Bronowski further promoted this myth in the 20th century. The book’s conclusion ‘A Scientific Revolution?’ further criticises this idea, and argues that there was never a scientific revolution in the sense that science somehow appeared only in the seventeenth century. Instead, he argues that the great advances of the seventeenth century were built on the considerable foundations of medieval science and its scholars. One of the most astonishing pieces in the book is the fact that in some respects Renaissance Humanism was actually a step backwards from the great advances of the Middle Ages. The popular view of Humanism, that generations of schoolchildren and adults have been taught, is that the revival of classical learning at the end of the Middle Ages led people out of the ignorance of the Middle Ages and into a new age of learning and discovery. The medieval scholars and natural philosophers were aware of some of the flaws in Aristotelian science. While they remained impressed with the Aristotelian system, they sought to refine and modify it so that it conformed to observed reality. The renaissance Humanists, by contrast, wished to purge natural philosophy of these accretions and so return to the original scientific views of Aristotle himself. This was the background to Galileo’s own attack on Aristotelianism in the Dialogue of the Two World Systems. This includes a passage where a natural philosopher attempts to show an Aristotelian that the brain, rather than the heart, was the centre of intelligence through dissection. The philosopher shows the myriad nerves running to the brain, compared with only a single, thin nerve leading to the heart. The Aristotelian agrees that he would be convinced that the brain is indeed the seat of thought, if Aristotle had not declared otherwise. Such scepticism towards Aristotle did not just come from developments in anatomy, but also from medieval revisions of Aristotle, such as Jean Buridan’s theories of motion. James also points out that the Reformation did not lead to advances in science, as has been argued in the past. He also shows that the medieval resistance to the Copernican sun-centred model of the universe were scientific, not theological in basis. One Spanish theologian wrote a book stating that the revolution of the Earth was perfectly acceptable theologically, as the Bible was written to express the view of the cosmos as it was seen from Earth, rather than from space. His next book attacked the idea that the Earth moved purely because it was believed to be scientifically nonsensical.

The book has numerous illustrations and a useful section for further reading. Its written for the popular, lay audience and provides a comprehensive overview of the development of medieval and sixteenth century science. This is much needed, as many of the classic treatments of medieval science and its advances, such as Jean Gimpel’s The Medieval Machine and A.C. Crombie’s Augustine to Galileo: Science in the Middle Ages were published decades ago – Gimpel in the 1970s, while Crombie’s as long ago as 1952. Both of these are still well worth reading. Several of the recent books on medieval science are written for a university readership and can be very expensive. One encyclopedia of medieval science and technology costs about £300, which is beyond the pocket of most people. Despite books like the above, the image of the Middle Ages as an age of scientific ignorance is still extremely strong. One popular history of science for children I found in my local library went straight from the ancient Greeks to the renaissance. If it did have a section on the Middle Ages, it was so short that I missed it. Modern historians of science have rejected the view that religion and science are somehow at war and incompatible. Nevertheless, it’s a fundamental part of the New Atheism, including Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion. As for Sagan, Bronowski and Burke, they were brilliant broadcasters and science journalists who did much to popularise it. Like Bede, I can remember being enthralled by Sagan’s Cosmos when it was broadcast on the Beeb back in the 80s, along with Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man. As good as they were, however, their view of the Middle Ages and its achievements was partisan and extremely flawed. For a much better view, I recommend people read this book.