Posts Tagged ‘Humanists’

Radio 4 Series Challenging Stereotype that Religion and Science Are at War

June 12, 2019

According to next week’s Radio Times there’s a new, three-part series beginning on Radio 4 next Friday, 21st June, at 11.00 am, Science and Religion about the relationship between the two disciplines. From the pieces about in the magazine, it attacks the idea that science and religion are at war. The blurb for the programme’s first part, ‘The Nature of the Beast’, on page 131, says

Nick Spencer examines the history of science and religion and the extent to which they have been in conflict with each other. Drawing on the expertise of various academics, he begins by exploring what the relationship says about what it means to be human.

The paragraph about the programme on the preceding page, 130, by Sue Robinson, runs

Are science and religion at war? In the first in a three-part series, Nick Spencer (of Goldsmith’s, London, and Christian think-tank Theos) takes a look back wt what he terms the “simplistic warfare narrative” of these supposedly feuding disciplines. From the libraries of the Islamic world to the work of 13th-century bishop Robert Grosseteste in maths and natural sciences, Spencer draws on the expertise of a variety of academics to argue that there has long been an interdependence between the two. I felt one or two moments of consternation (“there are probably more flat-earthers [believing the earth to be flat] around today than there were back then…”) and with so many characters in the unfolding 1,000-year narrative, some may wish for a biographical dictionary at their elbow… I certainly did. Yet somehow Spencer produces an interesting and informative treatise from all the detail. 

We’ve waited a long time for a series like this. I set up this blog partly to argue against the claim made by extremely intolerant atheists like Richard Dawkins that science and religion are and always have been at war. In fact no serious historian of science believes this. It’s a stereotype that comes from three 19th century writers, one of whom was reacting against the religious ethos of Harvard at the time. And some of the incidents that have been used to argue that science was suppressed by the religious authorities were simply invented. Like the story that Christopher Columbus was threatened by the Inquisition for believing that the world war round. Er no, he wasn’t. That was all made up by 19th century author Washington Irvine. European Christians had known and accepted that the world was round by the 9th century. It’s what the orb represents in the Crown Jewels. The story that Bishop Samuel Wilberforce, in his debate on evolution with Charles Darwin, asked the great biologist whether he was descended from an ape on his mother’s or father’s side of the family is also an invention. It was written years after the debate by Darwin’s Bulldog, T.H. Huxley. A few years ago historians looked at the accounts of the debate written at the time by the students and other men of science who were there. They don’t mention any such incident. What they do mention is Wilberforce opening the debate by saying that such questions like evolution needed to be carefully examined, and that if they are true, they have to be accepted, no matter how objectionable they may be. Wilberforce himself was an extremely proficient amateur scientist himself as well as a member of the clergy. Yes, there was opposition from many Christians to Darwin’s idea, but after about 20 years or so most of the mainstream denominations fully accepted evolution. The term ‘fundamentalism’ comes from a book defending and promoting Christianity published as The Fundamentals of Christianity published in the first years of the 20th century. The book includes evolution, which it accepts.

Back to the Middle Ages, the idea that this was a period when the church suppressed scientific investigation, which only revived with the Humanists of the Renaissance, has now been utterly discredited. Instead it was a period of invention and scientific discovery. Robert Grosseteste, the 13th century bishop of Lincoln, wrote papers arguing that the Moon was responsible for the tides and that the rainbow was produced through light from the sun being split into various colours by water droplets in the atmosphere. He also wrote an account of the six days of creation, the Hexaemeron, which in many ways anticipates the ‘Big Bang’ theory. He believed that the universe was created with a burst of light, which in turn created ‘extension’ – the dimensions of the cosmos, length, width and breadth, and that this light was then formed into the material and immaterial universe. Medieval theologians were also often highly critical of stories of demons and ghosts. The 12th century French bishop, William of Auxerre, believed that nightmares were caused, not by demons, but by indigestion. If you had too big a meal before falling asleep, the weight of the food in the stomach pressed down on the nerves, preventing the proper flow of vital fluids.

The Christian scholars of this period drew extensively on the writings of Muslim philosophers, scientists and mathematicians, who had inherited more of the intellectual legacy of ancient Greece and Rome, along with that of the other civilisations they had conquered, like Persia and India. Scholars like al-Haytham explored optics while the Bani Musa brothers created fascinating machines. And Omar Khayyam, the Sufi mystic and author of the Rubaiyyat, one of the classics of world literature, was himself a brilliant mathematician. Indeed, many scientific and mathematical terms are taken from Arabic. Like alcohol, and algorithm, which comes from the Muslim scholar al-Khwarismi, as well as algebra.

There have been periods of tension between religion and particular scientific doctrines, like the adoption of the Copernican system and Darwin’s theory of evolution by Natural Selection, but the relationship between science and religion is rich, complex and has never been as simple as all out war. This should be a fascinating series and is a very necessary corrective to the simplistic stereotype we’ve all grown up with.


Shock! Horror! Gallup Poll Shows Majority Muslim Countries Less Likely to Support Attacks on Civilians

December 23, 2015

This is another really interesting piece by The Young Turks, and one that should be taken on board by everyone concerned with the spread of terrorism and the War on Terror throughout the world. It’s a report by Cenk Uygur on the findings by Gallup that 74 per cent of the population of Muslims countries wanted the introduction of sharia law. However, the vast numbers of Muslims wanting to return their countries to theocracies did not coincide with support for deliberately killing civilians. Only 14 per cent of Muslims in Muslim countries supported deliberately killing civilians, as opposed to 33 per cent in Britain and 50 per cent in America. In fact the leading nations supporting attacks on civilians are America, Israel and Haiti, and New Zealand.

The poll revealed that poorer countries suffering from internal violence tended to support attacks on civilians much more than richer, more stable societies. The exceptions to this pattern were Egypt and Lebanon, whose inhabitants overwhelmingly rejected attacks on civilians. Uygur argued that fact shows that we need to concentrate more on increasing aid and development for these countries, not because we’re great humanitarians, but because it means they’ll become more peaceful and support attacks on civilians less.

Uygur was also surprised to find that in Europe and the Middle East, people who made their religious faith an important part of their lives were less likely to support attacks on civilians. This surprised him, as he’s an agnostic, and would have believed the opposite: that people of faith, whether Muslims, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists or whatever, were more likely to support attacks on civilians. It doesn’t surprise me. in Christianity, Christ is the ‘Prince of Peace’, and there are numerous passages in which Christ tells people not to return violence for violence. ‘Turning the other cheek’ is just one of these. There is also the ‘Just War’ tradition going right back to St. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, which debates the circumstances under which war is justified, and which states that non-combatants should not be attacked.

In Islam, Muslims have been very keen since 9/11 to stress that Islam is a religion of peace. There are also rules under sharia law, which also forbid attacks on women, children, the sick and other non-combatants. Similar rules have been developed in the Sikh religion, while Hindus in the Middle Ages also debated what constituted a righteous war, and the proper rules under which it should be fought.

Now I also think that probably a very high proportion of people in organised atheist groups would also probably reject attacks on civilians. Those who join Humanist groups do so in order to find a secular alternative to religion, including a concern for morals.

Uygur notes, however, that in America, there’s only a slight, statistically insignificant difference between religious and non-religious people over the deliberate killing of civilians.

The Gallup poll also notes that there is also generally no connection between how militarised a country is, and its support for killing civilians. Countries that have a very high military expenditure don’t, as a rule, support attacks on civilians. They don’t need to. They have an army to protect them. Also, there’s no statistical relationship between the status of women and gender disparities, and support for attacks on civilians. Very sexist societies, where the status of women is low, such as in much of the Developing World, don’t support the deliberate killing of civilians. You don’t have to go back very far to see that this was also the case in our society. In the Victorian West, the status of women was very much lower than men. Despite this, there was also a tradition, stressed by Victorian social reformers, of gallantry to women, and attacks on women, children and non-combatants in general was loathed by the public at large. There was a notorious demonstration of this in London during the premiership of Viscount Palmerstone. General Heynau, an Austrian officer responsible for atrocities, was jostled when he toured a London brewery. He was reviled in the press as ‘The Hyena’. Palmerstone then went a turned this into a diplomatic incident by making a speech declaring his support for the British worthies, who made the old butcher’s visit uncomfortable.

So, contrary to what we might expect, the public in Britain and America are far keener to kill civilians than Muslims.
Here’s The Turks’ report:

The Republicans in America and the Conservatives and New Labour cheerleaders in Britain are leading us backwards. In the case of Trump and the other Islamophobes, they are making us worse than the Muslims they despise. Cameron and the Tories in Britain are dragging the whole country down to the same level as the Islamists, to whom they claim to be superior. For the sake of the moral health of our society, as well as win over the hearts and minds of the Muslim world against the efforts of the Islamists, we need to kick them out.