Posts Tagged ‘Materialism’

‘I’ Review of Book on the Alma Fielding Poltergeist Case

October 12, 2020

Last Friday, 9th October 2020, the ‘I’ published a review by Fiona Sturges of the book, The Haunting of Alma Fielding, by Kate Summerscale (Bloomsbury, £18.99). Fielding was a woman from Croydon, who in 1938 found herself and her husband haunted by a poltergeist, the type of spirit which supposedly throws objects around and generally makes itself unpleasant. The review states that she was investigated by the Society for Psychical Research, in particular Nandor Fodor. Summerscale came across the case while going through the Society’s files.

I’m putting up Sturges’ review as I’ve friends, who are members of the Society and very involved in paranormal research, as are a few of the great peeps, who comment on this blog. Ghost hunting is also very big at the moment, and there are any number of programmes on the satellite and cable channels, as well as a multitude of ghost hunting groups across the UK, America and other countries. Despite its popularity, there’s a big difference between serious paranormal investigation of the type done by the SPR and ASSAP and the majority of ghost hunting groups. The SPR and ASSAP contain professional scientists as well as ordinary peeps from more mundane professions, and try to investigate the paranormal using strict scientific methodology. They contain sceptics as well as believers, and are interested in finding the truth about specific events, whether they are really paranormal or have a rational explanation. They look down on some of the ghost-hunting groups, because these tend to be composed entirely of believers seeking to confirm their belief in the paranormal and collect what they see as evidence. If someone points out that the evidence they show on their videos actually is no such thing – for example, most researchers believe orbs aren’t the souls of the dead, but lens artefacts created by floating dust moats – then the die-hard ghost hunters tend to react by decrying their critics as ‘haters’. Many of the accounts of their encounters with the supernatural by the ghost hunters are extremely dramatic. They’ll describe how members got possessed or were chased by the spirits on their home. I’m not saying such events don’t happen at all. I do know people, who have apparently been possessed by spirits during investigations. But the stories of such supernatural events put up by the ghost-hunters seem more likely the result of powerful imaginations and hysteria than genuine manifestations by the dead.

Academic historians are also interested in spiritualism and supernatural belief in the past because of what they reveal about our ancestors worldview and the profound changes this underwent during the 19th and early 20th centuries. Psychical research emerged in the 19th century at the same time as spiritualism, and was founded partly to investigate the latter. Both can be seen as attempts to provide concrete, scientifically valid proof of the survival of the soul after death at the time science was itself just taking shape and religious belief was under attack from scientific materialism. As the review says, spiritualism and psychic research were particularly popular in the aftermath of the First World War, as bereaved relatives turned to it for comfort that their loved ones still lived on in a blessed afterlife. One famous example of this is Conan Doyle, the creator of the arch-rationalist detective, Sherlock Holmes. Doyle was a spiritualist, who helped, amongst other things, popularise the Cottingley Fairies in his book, The Coming of the Fairies. Another of his books in this area was Raymond, an account of his contact with the spirit of his son, who was one of those killed in that terrible conflict.

But the history of spiritualism is also interesting because of what it also reveals about gender roles and sexuality, topics also touched on in the review. Mediums stereotypically tend to be women or gay men. At the same time, historians have also suggested that there was an erotic element to seances and investigations. More intimate physical contact between the sexes was permitted in the darkness of the séance room that may otherwise have been permitted in strictly respectable Victorian society. At the same time, there is to modern viewers a perverse aspect to the investigation of the mediums themselves. In order to rule out fraud, particularly with the physical mediums who claimed to produce ectoplasm from their bodies, mediums were tied up, stripped naked and examined physically, including in their intimate parts. Emetics could be administered to make sure that their stomachs were empty and not containing material, like cheesecloth, which could be used to fake ectoplasm.

The review, ‘Strange but true?’, runs

In February 1938, there was a commotion at a terraced house in Croydon. Alma and Les Fielding were asleep when tumblers began launching themselves at walls; a wind whipped up in their bedroom, lifting their eiderdown into the air; and a pot of face cream flew across the room. The next morning, as Alma prepared breakfast, eggs exploded and saucers snapped.

Over the next few days, visiting journalists witnessed lumps of coal rising from the fireplace and barrelling through the air, glasses escaping from locked cabinets and a capsizing wardrobe. As far as they could tell, the Fieldings were not responsible for the phenomena. One report told of a “malevolent, ghostly force”. The problem, it was decided, was a poltergeist.

Fast-forward to 2017 and the writer Kate Summerscale, best known for the award-winning The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, was in the Society for Psychical Research Archive in Cambridge looking for references to Nandor Fodor, a Hungarian émigré and pioneer of supernatural study, who investigated the fielding case.

She found a dossier of papers related to Alma, compiled by Fodor, containing interviews, séance transcripts, X-rays, lab reports, scribbled notes and photographs. The file was, says Summerscale, “a documentary account of fictional and magical events, a historical record of the imagination.”

The Haunting of Alma Fielding is a detective novel, a ghost yarn and a historical record rolled into one. Blending fact and fiction it is an electrifying reconstruction of the reported events surrounding the Fieldings, all the while placing them in a wider context.

The narrative centres of Fodor, who at the time was losing faith in spiritualism – the mediums he had met were all fakes, and the hauntings he had investigated were obvious hoaxes. He was increasing convinced that supernatural occurrences were caused “not by the shades of the dead but by the unconscious minds of the living”.

But he was intrigued by Alma, who now experiencing “apports” – the transference of objects from one place to another. Rare stones and fossils would appear in her hands and flowers under her arms. Beetles started to scuttle out from her clothes and a terrapin appeared in her lap. She would later claim to be able to astrally project herself and give herself over to possession by spirits.

Summerscale resists the temptation to mine the more comic aspects of the story. She weaves in analysis on class, female emancipation and sexuality, and the collective angst of a nation. At the time, spiritualism was big business in Britain, which was still suffering the shocks of mass death from the First World War and Spanish flu. Seances to reach the departed were as common as cocktail parties. There was dread in the air, too, as another conflict in Europe loomed.

Alma became a local celebrity, released from domestic dreariness into the gaze of mostly male journalists, mediums and psychiatrists. Chaperoned by Fodor, she made frequent visits to the Institute of Psychical Research, where she submitted to lengthy and often invasive examinations.

We come to understand how Fodor stood to benefit from the cases, both in furthering his career and restoring his faith in the possibility of an afterlife. You feel his pain, along with Alma’s, as the true story is revealed.

It sounds very much from that last paragraph that the haunting was a hoax. There have been, unfortunately, all too many fake mediums and hoaxers keen to exploit those seeking the comfort of making contact once again with deceased relatives and friends. There was even a company selling a catalogue of gadgets to allow someone to take a séance. But I don’t believe for a single moment that all mediums are frauds. There is a psychological explanation, based on anthropologists study of the zar spirit possession cult of one of the African peoples. This is a very patriarchal culture, but possession by the zar spirits allows women to circumvent some of the restrictions of women. For example, they may be given rings and other objects while possessed through the spirits asking, or apparently asking, through them. It’s been suggested that zar possessions are a form of hysteria, in which women, who are frustrated by societal restrictions, are able to get around them. The same explanation has also been suggested for western mediumship and alien abductions. Many of the women, who became mediums and who experience abductions by aliens, may do so subconsciously as these offer an escape from stifling normal reality.

I also believe that some supernatural events may well be genuine. This view was staunchly defended by the late Brian Inglis in his history of ghosts and psychical research, Natural and Supernatural, in the 1990s. As an Anglican, I would also caution anyone considering getting involved in psychical research to take care. There’s fraud and hoaxing, of course, as well as misperception, while some paranormal phenomena may be the result of poorly understood fringe mental states. But I also believe that some of the supposed entities contacting us from the astral realms, if they exist, are deliberately trying to mislead us. The great UFO researchers, John Keel and Jacques Vallee, came to the same conclusion about the UFO entities. One of Keel’s books was entitled, Messengers of Deception. There’s also the book, Hungry Ghosts, again written from a non-Christian perspective, which also argues that some of the spirits contacting people are malevolent and trying to deceive humanity for their own purposes.

If you are interested in psychical research, therefore do it properly using scientific methodology. And be aware of the possibility of deception, both natural and supernatural.

Scientists Demand Outlawing Teaching of Creationism in Wales

September 6, 2019

Here’s a different issue to Brexit and the Tories, but one which, I think, also raises profound questions and dangers. According to today’s I for 6th September 2019, David Attenborough has joined a number of other scientists backing a campaign to ban the teaching of Creationism as science in Welsh schools. The campaign was started by Humanists UK. The article, titled ‘Attenborough calls for creationism teaching ban’, by Will Hazell, on page 22, runs

Sir David Attenborough is backing a campaign urging the Welsh Government to outlaw the teaching of creationism as science from its new curriculum.

The broadcaster is one of dozens of leading scientists to sign a letter calling for evolution to be taught at primary level as well as an explicit ban on teaching creationism as science.

Humanists UK, which organised the letter, claims the draft national curriculum does not teach evolution until ages 14 to 15.

The letter reads: “Pupils should be introduced to [evolution] early – certainly at primary level – as it underpins so much else.

“Without an explicit ban on teaching creationism and other pseudoscientific theories as evidence-based, such teaching may begin to creep into the school curriculum.”

In 2015, the Scottish Government made clear that creationism should not be taught in state schools, while in England, state schools – including primaries – have to teach evolution as a “comprehensive, coherent and extensively evidence-based theory”.

The new Welsh curriculum, due to be rolled out in 2022, set out six “areas of learning and experience”, including science and technology.

A spokeswoman for Wales Humanists said it “could allow schools much more flexibility over what they teach”. “This is very worrying, as it could make it much easier for a school to openly teach creationism as science,” she added.

But a spokesman for the Welsh Government denied the claims, saying: “It is wholly incorrect to claim that evolution will only be introduced at 14 to 16.

“We believe that providing children with an understanding of evolution at an early age will help lay foundations for a better understanding of wider scientific concepts later on.”

Both Mike and I went to an Anglican comprehensive school, which certainly did teach evolution before 14 or 15 years of age. In the first year I can remember learning about the geological history of the Earth and the formation of the continents. We were also taught evolution, as illustrated by the development of the modern horse from ancestral species such as Eohippus.

Theories of Evolution before Darwin

I am also very much aware that the history of religious attitudes towards evolution is much more complex than the accepted view that Christians and other people of faith are uniformly opposed to it. One of the first books promoting the evolution of organisms from simpler ancestral forms was written by Erasmus Darwin, Charles Darwin’s grandfather. Erasmus Darwin was part of the late 18th century scientific group, the Lunar Society, who were the subject of book, The Lunar Men, published a few years ago by the British writer and academic, Jenny Uglow. I think Erasmus was a Quaker, rather than a member of a more mainstream Christian denomination, but he was a religious believer. In his book he argued that the evolution of different organisms made the existence of a Creator ‘mathematically certain’. Erasmus Darwin was followed in turn by the great French scientist, Lamarck, who published his own theory of evolution. This was highly influential, and when Darwin was a student in Scotland, one of the lecturers used to take him and the other students to a beach to show them the shells and other fossils showing the evolution of life. And one of the reasons why Darwin himself put off publishing his magnum opus, The Origin of Species for so long was because of the reception of another, preceding book on evolution, Joseph Chambers’ Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation. Chambers’ book had caused a sensation, but its arguments had been attacked and refuted on scientific grounds. Darwin was afraid this would happen to his own work unless he made the argument as secure as possible with supporting facts. And he himself admitted when it finally was published that even then, the evidence for it was insufficient.

The Other Reasons for Darwin’s Loss of Faith

Darwin certainly lost his faith and it’s a complete myth that he recanted on his deathbed. But I think the reasons for his loss of faith were far more complex than that they were undermined by his own theory, although that may very well have also played a part. Rather, he was disturbed by the suffering in nature. How could a good God allow animals to become sick, prey on each other, and die? I might also be wrong here, but I think one of his daughters died, and that also contributed to his growing atheism. As you can understand.

Christian Acceptance and Formulation of Theories of Evolution

At the same time, although Darwin’s theory did cause shock and outrage, some Christians were prepared to accept it. Bishop Samuel Wilberforce, when he debated T.H. Huxley on Darwin’s theory, opened the debate by stating that no matter how uncomfortable it was, Christians should nevertheless accept the theory if it were true. And after about two decades, the majority of Christians in Britain had largely accepted it. One of the reasons they did so was theological. Some of the other theories of evolution proposed at the same time suggested that evolution was driven by vital, supernatural energies without the direction of a creator. The mechanistic nature of Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection rebutted the existence of these non-materialistic forces, so that Christians could still believe that God was in charge of the overall process.

In the 1840s in Britain, Samuel Baden-Powell, a professor of Mathematics at Oxford, proposed a view of evolution that attempted to prove that it was driven by the Almighty, by comparing it to the manufacturing process in factories. In 1844 the Polish writer, Juliusz Towianski, published his Genezis z ducha – ‘Creation through the Spirit), an explicitly religious theory of evolution. He believed that God had created the world at the request of disembodied spirits. However, these were given imperfect forms, and since that time have been striving to ascend the evolutionary ladder back to God through a process of transformation and catastrophe. By the 1900s in many Christians eye evolution had become an accepted theory which posed no obstacle to religious faith. The term ‘fundamentalism’ is derived from a series of tracts, Fundamentals of Christianity, published in America in the early 20th century. This was published as a response to the growth in religious scepticism. However, it fully accepts evolution.

Scientists Against Evolution

The Intelligent Design crowd have also pointed out that rather than being the sole province of churchmen and people of faith, many of Darwin’s critics were scientists, like Mivart. They objected to his theory purely on scientific grounds.

Creationism, Christianity and Islam

If the history of the reaction to Darwin’s theory is rather different than the simplistic view that it was all just ignorant religious people versus rational scientists, I also believe the situation today is also much more complex. A decade ago, around 2009 when Britain celebrate the 150th anniversary of the publication of the Origin of the Species, there was a determined attack on Creationism, particularly by the militant New Atheists. Some of this was driven by anxiety over the growth of Creationism and the spread of Intelligent Design. This was framed very much as combating it within Christianity. The problem with that is that I understand that most Creationists in Britain are Muslims, rather than Christians. There was an incident reported in the press in which one Oxford biologist was astonished when a group of Muslims walked out of his lecture. This was Steve Jones, who presented the excellent Beeb science series about genetics and heredity, In the Blood back in the 1990s. One male student told him frankly that this conflicted with their religion, and walked out of the lecture hall, leaving Jones nonplussed. The far right Christian Libertarian, Theodore Beale, alias Vox Day, who really has some vile views about race and gender, caustically remarked on his blog that this showed the powerlessness of the scientific establishment to opposition from Islam. They were so used to Christians giving into them, that they didn’t know what to do when Muslims refused to cave. That said, I would not like to say that all Muslims were Creationists by any means. Akhtar, who led the demonstrations against the Satanic Verses in Bradford in the late ’80s and early ’90s, angrily declared in one of his books that Salafism – Islamic fundamentalism – did not mean rejecting evolution, and he could point to Muslims who believed in it.

Scepticism Towards Evolution Not Confined to the Religious

Another problem with the assumption that Creationism is leading to increasing scepticism towards evolution is that the statistics seem to show the opposite. Back around 2009 there was a report claiming that 7 out of 10 Brits didn’t believe in evolution. One evolutionary biologist was quoted as saying that this was due to the marginalisation of the teaching of evolution in British schools, and demanded that there should be more of it. Now it might be right that people don’t believe in evolution because of its teaching or lack therefore in British education. But this was the same time that the New Atheism was on the march, led by Dawkins’ book, The God Delusion. This was supported by statistics showing that Christianity and church attendance was well in decline in this country. According to the stats, although many people identified as Christians and about 70 per cent at the time declared they believed in God, the actual number who go to church is far smaller. Only a few years ago further polls revealed that for the first, atheists were in the majority in this country. The growth of disbelief in evolution can’t simply be explained as the product of Creationism, whether Christian, Muslim or whatever.

Atheists and the Problem of Persuading Creationists to Accept Evolution

There’s also the problem here in that, however, well meant Humanists UK’s campaign may actually be, at one level they and Richard Attenborough are the last people, who should be leading it. They’re atheists. A few years ago Attenborough was the subject of an interview in the Radio Times, in which he photographed chatting with Dawkins. He was also quoted as saying that he had stopped believing in God when he was child, and at school he used to wonder during services how anybody could believe in such rubbish. He’s not the first or last schoolkid to have felt that. But it does mean that he has a very weak personal position when dealing with Creationists. Many Creationists object to the teaching of evolution because not just because they think it’s unscientific, but because they also believe that its a vehicle for a vehemently hostile, anti-Christian or simply irreligious and atheist political and intellectual establishment to foist their views on everyone else. A campaign insisting on the teaching of evolution by an atheist organisation like Humanists UK will only confirm this in their eyes.

Anti-Creationist Campaigns also Attacking Reasoned Critique of Materialist Views of Evolution

Another problem with the campaign against Creationism is that is leading scientists to attack any critique of the contemporary neo-Darwinian theory or materialist views of evolutionary. Gordon Rattray Taylor, a former Chief Science Advisor to the Beeb and editor of the Horizon science series, himself published a detailed critique of conventional evolutionary theory, The Great Evolution Mystery, shortly before his death in 1981. He states in it that he doesn’t want to denigrate Darwin, but he concludes that it is not so much a theory, as a subset of greater theory that has yet to be formulated. He also quotes another evolutionary biologist, von Bertalanffy, who said

‘I think the fact that a theory so vague, so insufficiently verifiable … has become a dogma can only be explained on sociological grounds’.

Rattray Taylor himself concludes

Actually, the origin of the phyla is not be any means the weakest point in the Darwinian position. Many facts remain inexplicable, as we have seen. Modern biology is challenged by ‘a whole group of problems’ as Riedl remarks. Now, however, the attempt to present Darwinism as an established dogma, immune from criticism, is disintegrating. At last the intellectual log-jam is breaking up. So we may be on the verge of major advances. The years ahead could be exciting. Many of these advances, I confidently predict, will be concerned with form.

It is unfortunate that the Creationists are exploiting this new atmosphere by pressing their position; this naturally drives the biologists into defensive attitudes and discourages them from making any admissions.

Evolutionists have been blinkered by a too narrowly materialist and reductionist approach to their problems. But the trend of the times is away from Victorian certainties and Edwardian rigidities. In the world as a whole, there is growing recognition that life is more complex, even more mysterious, than we supposed. The probability that some things will never be understood no longer seems so frightening as it did. The probability that there are forces at work in the universes of which we have scarcely yet an inkling is not too bizarre to entertain. This is a step towards the freeing of the human mind which is pregnant with promise.


This is an effective rebuttal to the charge that challenges to materialist conceptions of evolution are a science-stopper, or that they will close minds. Rattray Taylor’s book was published in 1983, 36 years ago. I have no doubt that it’s dated, and that scientific advances have explained some of the mysteries he describes in the book. But I believe he still has a point. And I am afraid that however genuinely Humanists UK, Attenborough and the scientists, who put their name to the letter, are about making sure Welsh schoolchildren are scientifically literate, that their efforts are also part of a wider campaign to make sure materialist views of evolution are not challenged elsewhere in society and academia.

Books on God and Religion

March 17, 2018

On Thursday, Jo, one of the great commenters to this blog, asked my a couple of questions on the nature of the Almighty, which I tried to answer as best I could. I offered to put up here a few books, which might help people trying to explore for themselves the theological and philosophical ideas and debates about the nature of God, faith, religion and so on. I set up this blog about a decade and a half ago to defend Christianity against attacks by the New Atheists. I don’t really want to get sidetracked back there, because some of these issues will just go on forever if you let them. And I’m far more concerned to bring people of different religions and none together to combat the attacks by the Tories and the Blairites on the remains of the welfare state, the privatisation of the NHS, and the impoverishment and murder of the British public, particularly the disabled, in order to further enrich the corporate elite. Especially as the Tories seem to want to provoke war with Russia.

But here are some books, which are written for ordinary people, which cover these issues, which have helped me and which I hope others reading about these topics for themselves will also find helpful.

The Thinker’s Guide to God, Peter Vardy and Julie Arliss (Alresford: John Hunt Publishing 2003)

This book is written by two academics from a Christian viewpoint, and discusses the Western religious tradition from Plato and Aristotle. It has the following chapters

1. Thinking About God – Plato and Aristotle
2.The God of the Philosophers
3. The God of Sacred Scripture
4. Religious Language
5. The Challenge of Anti-Realism
6. Arguments for the Existence of God
7. The Attributes of God
8. Life After Death
9. Miracles and Prayer
10. Jesus, the Trinity, and Christian Theology
11. Faith and Reason
12 Attacks on God, Darwin, Marx and Freud
13 God and Science
14 Quantum Science, Multi-Dimensions and God

God: A Guide for the Perplexed, Keith Ward, (Oxford: OneWorld 2003)

1. A Feeling for the Gods
God, literalism and poetry, A world full of Gods, Descartes and the cosmic machine, Wordsworth and Blake, the gods and poetic imagination, Conflict among the gods, Friedrich Schleiermacher: a Romantic account of the gods; Rudolf Otto: the sense of the numinous; Martin Buber: life as meeting, Epilogue: the testimony of a secularist.

2. Beyond the gods
Prophets and seers; The prophets of Israel and monotheism; Basil, Gregory Palamas and Maimonides: the apophatic way; Thomas Aquinas: the simplicity of God; The five ways of demonstrating God; Pseudo-Dyonysius the Areopagite; The doctrine of analogy; Three mystics.

3. The Love that moves the sun
The 613 commandments; Pigs and other animals; the two great commandments; The Ten Commandments; Jesus and the Law; Calvin and the Commandments, Faith and works; Theistic morality as fulfilling God’s purpose; Kant, the categorical imperative and faith, God as creative freedom, affective knowledge and illimitable love.

4. The God of the Philosophers

God and Job; Plato and the gods; the vision of the Good; Appearance and Reality; Augustine and creation ex nihilo, Aristotle and the Perfect Being; Augustine and Platonism; Anselm and Necessary Being; Evil, necessity and the Free Will defence; Creation as a timeless act; Faith and understanding.

5. The Poet of the World

The timeless and immutable God; The rejection of Platonism; Hegel and the philosophy of Absolute Spirit; Marx and the dialectic of history; Pantheism and panentheism; Time and creativity, The redemption of suffering; History and the purposive cosmos; Process philosophy; The collapse of the metaphysical vision.

6. The darkness between stars

Pascal: faith and scepticism; A.J. Ayer; the death of metaphysics; Scientific hypotheses and existential questions; Kierkegaard: truth as subjectivity; Sartre; freedom from a repressive God; Heidegger and Kierkegaard: the absolute
paradox; Tillich: religious symbols; Wittgenstein: pictures of human life; Religious language and forms of life; Religion and ‘seeing-as’; Spirituality without belief; Non-realism and God; The silence of the heart.

7. The personal ground of being

God as omnipotent person; The problem of evil; Fichte, Schelling, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche: beyond good and evil; Omniscience and creative freedom; God: person or personal; Persons as relational; The idea of the Trinity; The revelatory roots of religion; Conclusion: Seven ways of thinking about God.


Teach Yourself Philosophy of Religion, by Mel Thompson, (London: HodderHeadline 1997)

What is the philosophy of Religion?
Why study religion in this way?
What is involved?
The structure of this book
What this book aims to do.

1. Religious Experiences
Starting with experience
What happens when you experience something?
What is religious experience?
Induced religious experiences
Charismatic experiences
Some features of religious experience
What can we know?
Authority and response

2.Religious Language
A private language?
Knowledge and description
Faith, reason and beliefs
The rational and the non-rational
Interpreting language
Cognitive and non-cognitive
Language games
The limitations of language

3. God: the concepts
God as creator
Transcendence and immanence
Theism, pantheism and panentheism
Atheism, agnosticism and secularism
Nietzsche: God is dead
Secular interpretations of God
A postmodernist interpretation
The Christian concept of God: the Trinity
Beliefs, language and religion
Religious alternatives to theism
Basic beliefs

4. God: the arguments
The ontological argument
The cosmological argument
the teleological argument
the moral argument
the argument from religious experience

5. The Self
Bodies, minds and souls
Knowing our minds
Joining souls to bodies?
Identity and freedom
Life beyond death
Some conclusions

6. Causes, providence and miracles

7. Suffering and evil
The challenge and the response
the problem
God as moral agent
Suffering and the major religions
Coming to terms with suffering
The devil and hell
Religion and terrorism

8. Religion and Science
The problem science poses for religion
the key issues
the changing world view
the methods of science and religion
the origin of the universe
evolution and humankind
Some conclusions

9. Religion and ethics
Natural law
absolute ethics
Morality and facts
How are religion and morality treated?
Values and choices

Postcript, Glossary, Taking it Further

God and Evolution: A Reader, ed. by Mary Kathleen Cunningham (London: Routledge 2007)

Part One

1. Charles Hodge ‘The Protestant Rule of Faith’
2. Sallie McFague ‘Metaphor’
3. Mary Midgley ‘How Myths work’
4. Ian G. Barbour ‘The Structures of Science and Religion’.

Part Two
Evolutionary Theory

5. Charles Darwin, ‘On the origin of species
6. Francisco J. Ayala ‘The Evolution of life as overview
7. Michael Ruse ‘Is there are limit to our knowledge of evolution?

Part Three

6. Genesis 1-2
7. Ronald J. Numbers ‘The Creationists’.

Part Four
Intelligent Design

10. William Paley ‘Natural Theology’
11. Michael J. Behe ‘Irreducible complexity: Obstacle to Darwinian Evolution’
12. Kenneth R. Miller, ‘Answering the biochemical argument from Design

Part Five

13. Richard Dawkins, ‘The Blind Watchmaker’
14. Richard Dawkins, ‘God’s utility function’
15. Daniel C. Dennett, ‘God’s dangerous idea’
16. Mary Midgley, ‘The quest for a universal acid’
17. Michael Ruse, ‘Methodological naturalism under attack’.

Part Six
Evolutionary Theism

18. Howard J. Van Till, ‘The creation: intelligently designed or optimally equipped?’
19. Arthur Peacock, ‘Biological evolution-a positive theological appraisal’
20. Jurgen Moltmann, ‘God’s kenosis in the creation and consummation of the world’.
21 Elizabeth A. Johnson, ‘Does God play dice? Divine providence and chance’.

Part Seven:
Reformulations of Tradition

22. John F. Haught, ‘Evolution, tragedy, and cosmic paradox’
23. Sallie McFague, ‘God and the world’
24. Ruth Page, ‘Panentheism and pansyntheism: God is relation’
25. Gordon D. Kaufman, ‘On thinking of God as serendipitous creativity’.

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.

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.

Communism’s Basis in Atheism

May 30, 2013

A few years ago I got into a long argument with some atheists on here about my assertion that atheism was an integral part of Communism. Marx was influenced by Feuerbach’s view that God was a projection of humanity’s own alienated nature. For Feuerbach and his followers, humanity could improve itself by rediscovering its own creativity through a new ‘religion of humanity’. The atheists contended that atheism was not integral to Marxism by arguing firstly, that Marx wrote little about religion or atheism. Secondly, Marx’s conception of the origin of religion was different from Feuerbach’s. Lastly the connection between atheism and Communism was disproved by the granting of freedom of religion and worship by the Soviet authorities in the last days of Communism under Gorbachev.

Atheism of Marx and Feuerbach

Marx’s own view of atheism was certainly different from Feuerbach’s. Marx took from Feuerbach the idea that religion, and human culture in general, was formed through the material conditions in which people lived. Where they differed is that Feuerbach saw this as affecting only humanity in the abstract, while Marx held that it defined human society and their communities. There’s also a difference in that although Feuerbach was an atheist, he was not an anti-theist. He has even been described as a ‘pious atheist’, as he did not deny religious values.

Influence of Feuerbach on Friedrich Engels

Feuerbach’s influence on Marx’s friend and collaborator, Friedrich Engels, can be seen in Engel’s review of Thomas Carlyle’s 1844 Past and Present, ‘The Condition of England’. One of Engel’s criticisms of the book was that Carlyle failed to realise that the roots of the hollow, rotten state of British culture with its soullessness, irreligion and atheism, lay in religion itself, explicitly following Feuerbach’s critique of religion.
The next five pages are more or less one long rant against religion. This is explicitly anti-Christian:

‘We too attack the hypocrisy of the present Christian state of the world; the struggle against it, our liberation from it and the liberation of the world from it are ultimately our sole occupation’. Again in this section he cites Feuerbach and Bruno Bauer as exposing religion’s true nature. Engels then proceeds to state very clearly that the Communists aim to attack and destroy religion:

‘We want to put an end to atheism, as Carlyle portrays it, by giving back to the man the substance he has lost through religion; not as divine but as human substance, and this whole process of giving back is no more than simply the awakening of self-consciousness. We want to sweep away everything that claims to be supernatural and super-human, and thereby get rid of untruthfulness, for the root of all untruth and lying is the pretension of the human and the nature to be superhuman and supernatural. For that reason we have once and for all declared war on religion and religious ideas and care little whether we are called atheists or anything else’.

The next one and a half pages are an explicit attack on the Christian conception of history and the central position within it of the Lord’s incarnation, again stating Feuerbach’s idea that God is merely humanity’s own projection of its alienated nature. Engels felt that the Christian belief in the incarnation made the 1800 years since Christ’s birth meaningless. In fact the incarnation demonstrates that there isa transcendent meaning to history through the deep involvement in it of a loving God. God’s involvement in history did not end with Christ ascension into heaven. Rather, God remains active in the world, as St. Paul states. In Him we live and move and have our being. He is at work bringing good out of evil until the end of time when the world will be renewed and He will once again dwell with us.

Marx on the Economic Basis of Religion

Marx’s own views on the basis of religion in the economic structure of society is stated in the section ‘The Fetishism of Commodities and the Secret Thereof’ in volume I of Das Kapital. In it Marx stated that the form of society’s religion depended on its stage of social development. Christianity was suitable for contemporary society and its developed capitalism. The ancient world did not have trading societies except at their margins, and so these ancient societies were based on the worship of nature. This view of the nature of primitive religion is also highly flawed. Both the Phoenicians and their great colony, Cathage, were powerful trading civilisations with outposts all over the Mediterranean. The extent of their mercantile contacts is shown by the fact that objects from ancient Egypt have been found in Spain, where they had been brought through Carthaginian merchants. Archaeologists have discovered how extensive trading networks in Europe were as far back as the Bronze Age. These were not capitalist societies, and Marx was correct in viewing some of them as based on subjection. Nevertheless, trade was widespread and important.

Marxism Based in Atheist Materialism, including that of Ancient Greeks

Marx himself was an atheist materialist while at university, before he adopted Hegelian philosophy. His dissertation was on Democritus and ancient materialism and scepticism, and he always considered his own political philosophy to be a continuation of that tradition. This for Marx himself, Marxism was inherently atheistic. The atheist with whom I was arguing also raised the point that it would be possible to adopt a Communist or socialist economic programme without basing it in atheism. This is true. There have been a number of ‘red priests’, clergy with Communist sympathies, in the various Christian churches, including the Anglican. However, Marxism is based on an exclusively materialist conception of the world: there is no God, therefore reality is defined and determined purely through material processes and natural laws. Human society is no different. Any form of belief in God, or a transcendent reality, such as Spiritualism, directly challenges this fundamental assumption, even if their believers adopt a Communist programme for other, moral reasons. Hence the Communists persecution of religion, and Lenin’s denunciation of his ideological opponents as philosophical Idealists, for the supposed basis of their views in a separate, transcendant realm.

Freedom of Religion in Last Days of Communism due to Pressure from Democracies and Human Rights Groups, not Based in Communism

Finally, there is the issue of Soviet state’s recognition of freedom of worship and conscience under Mikhail Gorbachev. Now Gorbachev was a convinced Communist. Indeed, he has been described as the last Communist, and he continued to beleive in the Communist system even as it crumbled around him. He tried to prevent its finally dissolution for as long as possible. He was, however, a radical reformer of Communism, which he believed was necessary for it to survive. In his book, Perestroika, he claimed to base these reforms in Lenin and the democratic nature of Soviet socialism, declaring that the solution was ‘More socialism, more democracy’. Yet Lenin was extremely autocratic, who persecuted the Orthodox Church. Gorbachev’s claims were therefore not convincing. Furthermore, the Soviet Union had been under immense diplomatic pressure to grant freedom of religious belief and conscience since the 1950s and particular after the foundation of human rights groups in the 1970s, such as Charter 77. The granting of religious freedom was to accommodate these groups, not from any rejection of the materialist basis of Communism itself. Gorbachev himself has made it clear that he is an atheist, but appears to have a sympathetic interest in religion. He has published a book with the Dalai Lama, and has visited and contemplated the Vatican. Regardless of his view of religion, I feel that Gorbachev should be admired simply because it was through his relationship with President Reagan that the Cold War finally ended. By stopping Soviet troops entering the satellites during the Velvet Revolution, Gorbachev secured these nations’ freedom and independence. These countries have suffered greatly during the transition to capitalism and democracy. However, the threat of war with Soviet bloc that hung over three generations since 1917 revolution has been lifted. People are now free to travel to and from the former Soviet countries largely unimpeded, to set up businesses and make friends. And that truly is an awesome achievement and one reason to be cheerful in this often threatening world.

Failure of Communism as Philosophical and Economic System, and Its Brutality

As for Communism, that resulted in monumental alienation, oppression and brutality on a massive scale. Marxism continues to have some intellectual vigour through its view of economics as the motive force of history. As an economic system, it has been largely discredited. Amongst the various explanations of the origin of religion, the views of Feuerbach and Marx are now unfashionable and Hegelianism has also been attacked. Even in the Soviet Union, scientists rejected the Hegelian dialectic of thesis-antithesis-synthesis. As the despair, alcoholism and drug abuse that permeated Soviet society demonstrates, Marxism did not provide its citizens with a sense of meaning, nor did it reconcile them to nature. The massive engineering projects have caused immense ecological damage to vast swathes of the former Soviet Union. The Chernobyl nuclear catastrophe is only one example. In fact the fall of Communism as an atheist system has been remarked on by at least one historian. Looking through one of the bookshops a few weeks ago, I found one history of the Fall of Communism that paid explicit homage to Sigmund Freud’s atheist attack on religion, The Future of an Illusion. This history bore the title The Failure of an Illusion. Despite Marx and Engel’s splenetic denunciations, Communism has been shown to be as, or even more, fallible and illusory as the religions it claimed to supersede and attack.


R.N. Carew Hunt, The Theory and Practice of Communism (Harmondsworth: Pelican 1950)

F. Engels ‘The Condition of England: Review of Past and Present by Thomas Carlyle, in Elisabeth Jay and Richard Jay, Critics of Capitalism: Victorian Reactoins to ‘Political Economy(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1986) 85-95

K. Marx ‘The Fetishism of Commodities and the Secret Thereof’ in Elisabeth Jay and Richard Jay, ibid, 96-104.