Posts Tagged ‘richard dawkins’

Richard Dawkins Stripped of Atheist Award for Questioning the Trans Ideology

May 5, 2021

This story was over a number of right-wing and gender critical websites last week, and it’s interesting as it shows the comparative power of the trans rights lobby against both organised religion and one of atheism’s fiercest polemicists. Dawkins, the evolutionary biologist and anti-theist activist, was stripped of his Humanist of the Year Award because he’d posted a comment on Twitter comparing trans people to Rachel Dolezal.

Dolezal had been kicked out of the White chapter of NAACP – the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People – because she’d declared she considered herself ‘transracial’. Although White, she identified as Black. This obviously left many people very offended, and so she was expelled. Dawkins followed this with the comment ‘Now we have men identifying as women and women identifying as men. Discuss.’ As commenters like Graham Linehan and Sargon’s and his fellow Lotus Eaters said, it’s a very mild criticism, couched as an invitation for discussion. And indeed Dawkins tried to excuse it as just that – an invitation to discuss the issue. But it was enough to bring down on him the wrath of the trans rights activists and their supporters in the various atheist and sceptic groups. American Atheists accused him of minimising the persecution of marginalised groups, and the British Humanist Society stripped him of his Humanist of the Year Award, which he’d been given in 1996. Dawkins then made an apology, saying that he had no wish to minimise the suffering of trans people, and did not want to ally himself with ‘Republican bigots’.

This is the man, who has a deep, bitter hatred of organised religion and its supporters. Dawkins is the author of the God Delusion, which was published with the explicit aim of destroying people’s belief in the Almighty and converting them to atheism. He was the leader of the ‘New Atheists’, who were notorious for their bitter invective. Dawkins has described raising a child as a member of a particular religion as ‘child abuse’ and called religious people ‘faithheads’. He has also been accused of islamophobia because of comments he has made about that religion’s traditional attitude towards women and the practice among many Muslims of Female Genital Mutilation. HIs attitude towards religion is so bitter and intolerant, that it has actually alienated many more traditional, tolerant atheists. See for example Kim Sterelny’s foreword for his book, Darwin Wars, about the feud between Dawkins and the late Stephen Jay Gould over their differing interpretations of Darwinian evolution. But Dawkins has carried on undaunted with the same bitter polemic. But when faced with attacks for simply questioning trans ideology, he automatically caved in.

This shows the comparative power of organised religion compared to the trans rights lobby, at least within the sphere of progressive politics. Critics of the ideology have described how the trans lobby has captured a plethora of organisations, including the gay rights organisation Stonewall, various, mostly left-wing political parties and have advised organisations like the police and feminist organisations. The only political parties resisting them are those of the conservative right, which explains why Dawkins didn’t want to be seen supporting the Republicans. The problem is, however, that there is a feminist dimension to Republican opposition to trans rights, and that Dawkins asked a perfectly reasonable question.

Sargon of Gasbag and the Lotus Eaters made a video about this last week, pointing out that the academic magazine Hypatia had published an article defending trans-racialism. Hypatia describes itself as a journal of feminist philosophy. It had asked why it should be acceptable for people of one sex to identify as members of the other, but not people of one race to identify as members of a different ethnic group. Historically, there have been other Whites, whose admiration of Black America and its culture has led them to try to live as much as possible as Blacks. Years ago in the 1940s, I believe, one man went so far as to paint himself with melanin in order to live as a Black man. He then published a book about his experiences with the deliberate intention of challenging racism and bringing Whites and Blacks together. The Hypatia article stated that the arguments for transgenderism and trans-racialism are exactly the same, and there is no logical reason why one should be acceptable and the other not.

One of the objections to the transgender movement is the feminist concern that it will disadvantage natural, born women in sports. On average, men are stronger and more powerful than women. Hence there is the entirely justifiable fear that if biological men and boys are allowed to compete in female sports it will put biological females at a disadvantage. Natural women are at risk of being pushed out of their own sports. This has implications for university careers, as it means that sports scholarships to universities will go to transwomen rather than natural women. Hence Republican politicians in Maine and New Hampshire have put forward a bill banning biological men competing as women in women’s sports as a deliberate defence of the latter.

These are issues that at the very least need to be discussed calmly and logically, without accusations of bigotry and persecution. In my opinion, those attacking the trans ideology are right and are actually on the side of traditional feminism, and no amount of abuse will change this.

For all his deeply unpleasant intolerance towards religion, Dawkins was perfectly right in wanting it discussed.

Here’s the Lotus Eater’s video on the issue.

Here’s Black American feminist Karen Davies on the bill in Maine to protect women’s sports.

Thunderfoot Attacks Black South African Student Who Claims Western Science Is ‘Racist’

October 27, 2020

Thunderfoot is another YouTube personality like Carl Benjamin aka Sargon of Akkad, the Sage of Swindon, whose views I categorically don’t share. He’s a militant atheist of the same stripe as Richard Dawkins. He’s a scientist, who shares Peter Atkins’ view that science can explain everything and leaves no room for religion or mysticism. He’s also very right wing, sneering at SJWs (Social Justice Warriors) and attacking feminism. So he’s also like Sargon on that score. But in this video, he does make valid points and does an important job of defending science against the glib accusation that it’s racist.

Thunderfoot put up this video in 2016 and it seems to be his response to a video circulating of part of a student debate at the University of Cape Town. The speaker in this video, clips of which Thunderfoot uses in his, is a Black female student who argues that western science is racist and colonialist. It arose in the context of western modernity and excludes indigenous African beliefs, and if she had her way, it would be ‘scratched out’. One of the African beliefs it excludes is the fact, as she sees it, that sangomas – African shamans – can call lightning down to strike people. She challenges her debating opponent to decolonise their mind and explain scientifically how the sangoma is able to do that. Her interlocutor is not impressed, and laughs out loud at this assertion, which gets a sharp response from the moderator who claims that the debate is supposed to be a circle of respect and they should apologise or leave. The anti-science student states that western science is totalizing, urges her opponent to decolonize their mind, and calls for an African science. She also rejects gravity because Isaac Newton sat on a tree and saw an apple fall.

Thunderfoot answers these assertions by pointing out, quite rightly, that science is about forming models of reality with ‘predictive utility’. It is the ability of scientific model to make useful predictions which shows that the model is an accurate description of reality. Science’s discoveries are true for everyone, regardless of whether they are male or female, Black or White. He shows a clip of militant atheist Richard Dawkins talking to another group of students, and explaining that the proof that science works is that planes and rockets fly. The equations and scientific models describing them have to, otherwise they don’t. Dawkins is another personality, whose views I don’t share, and this blog was started partly to refute his atheist polemics. But the quote from Dawkins is absolutely right. Thunderfoot goes on to say that if African shamans really could call lightning down on people, then surely someone would have used it for military purposes. And to demonstrate, he shows a clip of Thor getting hit with a lightning bolt from an Avengers movie.

As for African science, he then hands over to another YouTuber, who talks about an attempted scam in Mugabe’s Zimbabwe. A women claimed that she had a rock which produced refined diesel oil, and called on the government to see for themselves. Which they did. If the woman’s claim was genuine, then Zimbabwe would be entirely self-sufficient in diesel. However, such hopes were dashed when it was revealed that the rock had a hole bored into it from which diesel was being pumped.

The video goes on to make the point that such ‘science denialism’ is dangerous by pointing to the claim of the former South African president, Thabo Mbeki, that HIV didn’t cause AIDS. He tried to stop people using the retroviral drugs used to treat HIV in favour of herbal cures that didn’t work. As a result, 300,000 people may have lost their lives to the disease.

Thunderfoot concludes that this is the situation this student would like to create: an African science which rejects gravity, asserts shamans can strike people with lightning, and in which hundreds of thousands of people die unnecessarily from AIDS. Here’s the video.

Racism and the Rejection of Conventional Science

Thunderfoot is right in that one current view in the philosophy of science is that science is about forming models of reality, which can make predictions. This is the view I hold. He is also correct in that science’s findings are valid regardless of where they are made and who makes them. And I’d also argue that, rather than science, it is this young Black woman, who is racist. She rejects science on the racist grounds that it was created by White Europeans. This is also the genetic fallacy, the logical mistake that a statement must be wrong because of the nature of the person who makes it. The Nazis, for example, made the same mistake when they rejected Einstein’s Theory of Relativity because Einstein was Jewish. They also believed that science should reflect racial identity, and so sacked Jewish mathematicians and scientists in an attempt to create a racially pure ‘Aryan’ science.

Science and the Paranormal

I don’t believe, however, that science automatically excludes the supernatural. There are very many scientists, who are people of faith. Although it’s very much a fringe science – some would say pseudoscience – there is the discipline of parapsychology, which is the scientific investigation of the paranormal. Organisations like the Society for Psychical Research and ASSAP have existed since the 19th century to carry out such investigations. Their members do include scientists and medical professionals. I don’t think it would be at all unreasonable for parapsychologists to investigate such alleged powers by indigenous shamans, just as they investigate appearances of ghosts, psychic powers and mediumship in the west. And if it could be demonstrably proved that such shamans had the powers they claim, then science would have to accommodate that, whether it could explain it or not.

On the other hand is the argument that science shouldn’t investigate the paranormal or supernatural, not because the paranormal doesn’t exist, but because it is outside the scope of scientific methodology to investigate it as different field altogether. Thus science can ignore the general question of whether tribal shamans are able to conjure up lightning bolts as outside its purview and more properly the subject of metaphysics or theology. In which case, it’s left up to the individual to decide for themselves whether these shamans are able to perform such miracles.

Muti Witchcraft and Murder

Thunderfoot and his fellow YouTuber are also right to point out the harm that bad and fraudulent science can do. And there are very serious issues surrounding the promotion of indigenous African magic. Years ago a South African anthropologist defended African muti at an academic conference here in Britain. Muti is a form of magic in which someone tries to gain success and good luck through acquiring amulets made of human body parts. These include the fingers and the genitals. It’s believed they are particularly powerful if they are cut off the victim while they’re still alive. There’s a whole black market in such body parts and amulets in South Africa, with prices varying according to the desired body party. Way back in 2004-5 the police found the remains of a human torso in the Thames. It had been wrapped in cloth of particular colours, and it was believed that it had belonged to a boy, who’d been killed as part of such a ritual.

Indigenous Beliefs and the Politics of Apartheid

Years ago the small press, sceptical UFO magazine, Magonia, reviewed a book by the South African shaman Credo Mutwa. This was supposed to be full of ancient African spiritual wisdom. In fact it seems to have been a mixture of South African indigenous beliefs and western New Age ideas. The Magonians weren’t impressed. And one of the reasons they weren’t impressed was Mutwa himself and the political use of him and other African shamans by the apartheid government.

Before it fell, apartheid South Africa had a policy of ‘re-tribalisation’. This was the promotion of the separate identities and cultures of the various indigenous peoples over whom the White minority ruled. This included the promotion of traditional religious and spiritual beliefs. These peoples had intermarried and mixed to such an extent, that by the 1950s they had formed a Black working class. And it was to prevent that working class becoming united that the apartheid government promoted their cultural differences in a policy of divide and rule. Mutwa was allegedly part of that policy as a government stooge.

Attacks on Science and Maths for Racism Dangerous

I’ve put up several videos now from Sargon attacking the assertion that western education and in particular mathematics is racist and somehow oppressed Blacks. I’m putting up this video because it does the same for the assertion that western science is also racist.

Not only are science and maths not racist, it is also very definitely not racist to reject some forms of African magic. Killing and mutilating people for good luck is absolutely abhorrent and should be condemned and banned, and those who practise it punished, regardless of its status as an African tradition. At the same time it does need to be realised that the South African government did try to keep Black Africans down and powerless partly through the promotion of indigenous spiritual beliefs. It’s ironic that the young woman shown arguing against science does so in an apparent belief that its rejection will somehow be liberating and empowering for Black Africans. And Thunderfoot has a chuckle to himself about the irony in her arguing against science, while reaching for her ipad, one of its products.

Belief in the supernatural and in the alleged powers of indigenous shamans should be a matter of personal belief. Disbelieving in them doesn’t automatically make someone a racist bigot. But this young woman’s rejection of science is racist and potentially extremely dangerous, because it threatens to deprive Black South Africans like her of science’s undoubted benefits. Just like Mbeki’s rejection of the link between HIV and AIDS led to the unnecessary deaths of hundreds of thousands of desperately ill men, women and children.

Conclusion

What is particularly irritating is that this young woman and her fellow students are affluent and, as students, highly educated. If the woman was poor and uneducated, then her views would be understandable. But she isn’t. Instead, she uses the language and rhetoric of postmodernism and contemporary anti-colonialism. It does make you wonder about what is being taught in the world’s universities, arguments about academic freedom notwithstanding.

In the past, there has been racism in science. Eugenics and the hierarchy of races devised by 19th century anthropologists as well as the Nazis’ attempts to create an Aryan science are examples. But attacks on conventional science and mathematics as racist, based on no more than the fact that modern science and maths have their origins in contemporary western culture is also racist and destructive.

Glib attacks on science by people like the young student in the above video not only threaten its integrity, but will also harm the very people, who most stand to benefit. They should be thoroughly rejected.

LBC’s Maajid Nawaz Blames Protests and Riots on Postmodernism at Universities

June 4, 2020

It seems that it isn’t just Donald Trump and members of the far right, like Andy Ngo, in America who are blaming the current unrest on bogus, mythical far left conspiracies. On this side of the Pond one of the presenters on LBC radio, Maajid Nawaz did the same yesterday. And he then got terribly shirty when an American philosophy professor, Jason Stanley, called him out on it.

Nawaz had tweeted

The hard-left has fucked up our youth. These are fruits of their Long March & a consequence of us all giving the hard-left an easy pass on their morally relativist, post-modernism”.

To which Yale prof Stanley replied. asking if his Tweet was a joke and saying that it was impossible to take him seriously when he mentioned post-modernism in that context.

Nawaz replied in turn that he was a Muslim, who had lived through torture and racist violence, and accused Stanley of White privilege and having the dismissive racism of the American left. This did not impress Stanley, who stuck to his guns. He continued asking if Nawaz’s thread was a parody, and pointed out that postmodernism had nothing to do with the protests in his country, and that Marxists aren’t postmodernists. This upset Nawaz even more, who accused him of ‘Whitesplaining’. It didn’t stop Stanley from asking further if Nawaz’s thread was a parody. Mehdi Hasan then joined in to criticise Nawaz’s own, contradictory position:

Maajid Nawaz has this whole anti-identity politics schtick but as soon as someone calls him on his BS – as my friend Yale professor & fascism expert [Jason Stanley] did earlier – he instantly reverts to a ‘you-cant-criticize-me-because-youre-a-white-man’ line. He is beyond parody”.

Quite.

See: https://zelo-street.blogspot.com/2020/06/maajid-nawaz-post-modernism-fail.html

I’ve come across the same view before from the transatlantic right. The hard left, it is maintained by Conservatives on both sides of the Pond, is trying to destroy western culture through postmodernism and its radical destruction of traditional western society and questioning of objective truth.

Postmodernism, Architecture, Linguistic Theory and History

Postmodernism actually started out as an architectural movement. It meant a style of modern architecture which ‘quoted’ features of past building styles. For example, it might include turrets like a medieval castle, or the volutes above the doorways of the Baroque. It was then taken over into French philosophy, where it mixed Marxism with with poststructural linguist theory. Radical philosophers like Liotard, Derrida, Lacan and Irigay argued that, just as there was no innate link between the signifier – a word – and the signified – the object or concept that word represented, so there was no objective truth and all historical accounts were equally valid. Althusser in the late 60s demanded a ‘semioclasm’ – the liberation of words from their bourgeois meanings, In history, postmodernism also sought to attack traditional Eurocentric history which privileged White men. It’s fair to say that postmodernism continued to be strongly associated with the radical left into the 1990s. I can remember attending a seminar at my old college in the 1990s in which postmodernism was invoked to argue that White Europeans could never really understand extra-European cultures, and people talked about being ‘othered’ and alienated by conventional Western discourse.

Sokal and Bricmont’s Attack

But that, dear friends, was a long time ago. Things have changed somewhat since then. In the mid-1990s Sokal and Bricmont, one an American Maths professor, the other a Belgian philosopher, gave postmodernism a thorough intellectual drubbing with their Intellectual Impostures. This was an attack on the way postmodern philosophers, like the above, tried to use scientific and mathematical concepts in their writings without actually understanding them. They simply used them in order to show off. The results were articles that were nonsense scientifically, and really just plain gibberish whose impenetrability was meant to make them look profound. One the offenders the two critiqued was a piece which seemed to claim that philosophy’s job was to quiet down and smooth out the quantum foam, the phenomenon at the subatomic level where particles suddenly pop in and out of existence randomly. The targets of Sokal’s and Bricmont’s fierce demolition hit back by claiming that the two were right-wing reactionaries. They weren’t. Sokal was a member of the American Left, who had taught in Nicaragua under the Sandanistas. They were partly motivated to attack the postmodernists because they followed Orwell’s maxim that if you want to write politics, you should do so clearly.

Postmodernism Passe

By the late ’90s and certainly by the first years of the 21st century, the vogue for postmodernism had passed. When I did an MA history course around 2003, it included postmodernism in the historiography section, but only as one school of history. The others included Historicism, and the French Annales school amongst others. One of these is Marxism, which shows how Marxism and Postmodernism are two separate ideologies. The reading on it we were given accepted the premise that you couldn’t produce a completely objective account of an historical event or movement, but nevertheless considered that postmodernism was important in that it should spur the historian to try as hard as possible to approach this unattainable goal. This was very different from accepting the radical postmodernists’ claim that as objective truth doesn’t exist, all accounts and narratives are equally valid.

Colin Bennett, Postmodernism and the Far Right

By that time, postmodernism had also changed its political affiliation. It was no longer a movement of the left. This was stated very clearly by one of the lecturers. This is demonstrated very clearly by the writings of the Fortean author Colin Bennett. Bennett appeared in the 1990s, when he published a book on the UFO Contactee, George Adamski, Looking for Orthon. He’s now considered a fraud by most UFO researchers, not least because one of the photos he was trying to pass off as a picture of Venusian spaceship was of a chicken coop. He’s also supposed to have remarked in private that he founded his mystical organisation as a way of obtaining alcohol during Prohibition by claiming he was using it for spiritual purposes. Bennett appeared on a panel at the Fortean Times Unconvention one year to talk about his book, and got very irate and refused to give a straight answer when he was asked by another panelist if he thought Adamski was genuine. Bennett definitely considered himself a postmodernist, but he was very far from being a Marxist. He’s an ex-soldier, whose views on multiculturalism and non-White immigration in my view come very close to the White European Fascist fringe. He is Jewish, and so is also very critical of them for their anti-Semitism. As for sexual politics, from what I saw of his writings a few years ago, he was very definitely traditional in his view of gender roles and very bitterly opposed to homosexuality. Several of his pieces contained rants against the British cultural elite for refusing to accept postmodernism, and trying to drag British literature back to the Bloomsbury group and promote what the Beeb used to delicately call ‘effeminacy in men’.

From starting as a left-wing movement, postmodernism had, at least in Bennett’s case, been taken over by the far right.

Anti-White Racism at University

That doesn’t mean that there aren’t radical left-wing postmodernists teaching at universities. There was a scandal a couple of years ago when a White student at Wash University in Utah recorded the rantings of the Black professor teaching the communications course. The professor rejected space because science was a White invention. The student also recorded his Black students screaming racist diatribes against Whites, some of which were tantamount to genocide. On the recording, one of them can be heard shouting that Whites should all be rounded up and shot into space. The recording caused immense controversy, and was the subject of a number of YouTube posts from American Conservative channels and individuals.

Conclusion

I doubt, however, that there are very many university professors like that one. I don’t doubt that there are others, but they’re going to be in a minority. The vast majority of scientists, for example, are utterly convinced that there is indeed an objective truth, and that their disciplines are finding it. It’s why Richard Dawkins has also strongly attacked postmodernism. Many scientists are themselves critical of some of Dawkin’s views on evolution and the existence of God, but I think they nearly all agree with him about this. Postmodernism is largely confined to the arts and humanities, and even there I very much doubt that very many academics and students really believe in it. I am also extremely sceptical of right-wing claims that universities are dominate by the left. In my experience, teaching staff are of all political opinions. Many of them also take seriously the difference between education and indoctrination, so that some of the most left-wing keep their private views very separate from what they say in the class room and lecture hall.

And it should be very obvious that on its own, no academic discipline, no matter how sophisticated, can get people on to the streets demonstrating. The people marching and protesting in America and Britain do so because of real social, political and economic grievances.

It has zero to do with any bogus conspiracies of far left, postmodernist College professors.

 

Shaw’s Classic Defence of Socialism for Women Part Three

May 16, 2020

George Bernard Shaw, The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism, Capitalism, Sovietism and Fascism, foreword by Polly Toynbee (London: Alma Classics 2012).

Socialism and Marriage, Children, Liberty and Religion

Shaw also discusses what socialism would mean for marriage, liberty, children and the churches, and these are the most problematic sections of the book. He looks forward to marriage being a purely voluntary commitment, where people people can marry for love instead of financial advancement. This will produce biologically better children, because people will be able to choose the best partners, rather than be limited to only those from their class. At the same time incompatible partners will be able to divorce each other free of stigma.

He defines liberty in terms of personal freedom. Under socialism, people will be freer because the amount of time they will have for their personal amusement and recreation will be greater. Legislation might go down, because the laws currently needed to protect people will become unnecessary as socialism is established and society advances. Shaw also believes that greater free time would be enough to attract the top brains to management positions in the absence of the usual inducement of greater pay. Shaw realised that not everyone could run industries, and that it was necessary to hire the very best people, who would be a small minority. Giving them greater leisure time was the best way to do this, and he later criticises the Soviet government for not equalising incomes.

But this is sheer utopianism. The Bolsheviks had tried to equalise incomes, and it didn’t work, which is why they went back to higher rates of pay for managers and so on. And as we’ve seen, socialism doesn’t necessarily lead to greater free time and certainly not less legislation. The better argument is that socialism leads to greater liberty because under socialism people have better opportunities available to them for careers, sport, entertainment and personal improvement than they would if they were mere capitalist wage slaves.

Religious people will also object to his views on religion and the churches. While earlier in the book Shaw addressed the reader as a fellow Christian, his attitude in this section is one of a religious sceptic. The reader will have already been warned of this through the foreword by Toynbee. The Groaniad columnist is a high-ranking member of the both the Secular and Humanist Societies, and her columns and articles in just about every magazine or newspaper she wrote for contained sneers at religion. Shaw considers the various Christian denominations irreconcilable in their theologies, and pour scorn on orthodox Christian doctrines such as the Atonement, that Christ died for our sins. Religion should not be taught in school, because of the incompatibility of the account of the Creation in Genesis with modern science. Children should not be taught about religion at all under they are of the age of consent. If their parents do teach them, the children are to be removed from their care. This is the attitude of very aggressive secularists and atheists. Richard Dawkins had the same attitude, but eventually reversed it. It’s far too authoritarian for most people. Mike and I went to a church school, and received a very good education from teachers that did believe in evolution. Religion deals with ultimate questions of existence and morality that go far beyond science. I therefore strongly believe that parents have the right to bring their children up in their religion, as long as they are aware of the existence of other views and that those who hold them are not wicked simply for doing so. He also believed that instead of children having information pumped into them, the business should be to educate children to the basic level they need to be able to live and work in modern society, and then allow the child to choose for itself what it wants to study.

Communism and Fascism

This last section of the book includes Shaw’s observations on Russian Communism and Fascism. Shaw had visited the USSR in the early ’30s, and like the other Fabians had been duped by Stalin. He praised it as the new socialist society that was eradicating poverty and class differences. He also thought that its early history vindicated the Fabian approach of cautious nationalisation. Lenin had first nationalised everything, and then had to go back on it and restore capitalism and the capitalist managers under the New Economic Policy. But Russia was to be admired because it had done this reversal quite openly, while such changes were kept very quiet in capitalism. If there were problems in the country’s industrialisation, it was due to mass sabotage by the kulaks – the wealthy peasants – and the industrialists. He also recognised that the previous capitalist elite were disenfranchised, forced into manual labour, and their children denied education until the working class children had been served. At the same time, the Soviet leaders had been members of the upper classes themselves, and in order to present themselves as working class leaders had claimed working class parentage. These issues were, however, gradually working themselves out. The Soviet leaders no longer had need of such personal propaganda, and the former capitalists could reconcile themselves to the regime as members of the intellectual proletariat. And some of the industrialisation was being performed by criminals, but this was less arduous than the labour in our prisons.

Shaw is right about the NEP showing that nationalisation needs to be preceded by careful preparation. But he was obviously kept ignorant of the famine that was raging in the USSR through forced collectivisation and the mass murder of the kulaks. And rather than a few criminals in the gulags, the real figures were millions of forced labourers. They were innocent of any crime except Stalin’s paranoia and the need of his managers for cheap slave labour. It’s believed that about 30 millions died in Stalin’s purges, while 7 million died in the famine in the Ukraine.

Shaw’s treatment of Fascism seems to be based mostly on the career of Mussolini. He considers Fascism just a revival of the craze for absolute monarchy and military leadership, of the kind that had produced Henry VIII in England, Napoleon, and now Mussolini, Adolf Hitler, the Shah of Iran and Ataturk in Turkey. These new absolute rulers had started out as working class radicals, before find out that the changes they wanted would not come from the working class. They had therefore appealed to the respectable middle class, swept away democracy and the old municipal councils, which were really talking shops for elderly tradesmen which accomplished little. They had then embarked on a campaign against liberalism and the left, smashing those organisations and imprisoning their members. Some form of parliament had been retained in order to reassure the people. At the same time, wars were started to divert the population and stop them criticising the new generalissimo. Industry was approaching socialism by combining into trusts. However, the government would not introduce socialism or truly effective government because of middle class opposition. Fascist regimes wouldn’t last, because their leaders were, like the rest of us, only mortal. In fact Mussolini was overthrown by the other Fascists, who then surrendered to the Allies, partly because of his failing health. That, and his utter military incompetence which meant that Italy was very definitely losing the War and the Allies were steadily advancing up the peninsula. While this potted biography of the typical Fascist is true of Mussolini, it doesn’t really fit some of the others. The Shah, for example, was an Indian prince.

Anarchism and Syndicalism

Shaw is much less informed about anarchism. He really only discusses it in terms of ‘Communist Anarchism’, which he dismisses as a silly contradiction in terms. Communism meant more legislation, while anarchism clearly meant less. He should have the articles and books on Anarcho-communism by Peter Kropotkin. Kropotkin believed that goods and services should be taken over by the whole community. However, rather than a complete absence of government and legislation, society would be managed instead by individual communities and federations.

He also dismisses syndicalism, in which industry would be taken over and run by the trade unions. He considers this just another form of capitalism, with the place of the managers being taken by the workers. These would still fleece the consumer, while at the same time leave the problem of the great inequality in the distribution of wealth untouched, as some industries would obviously be poorer than others. But the Guild Socialists did believe that there should be a kind of central authority to represent the interests of the consumer. And one of the reasons why nationalisation, in the view of some socialists, failed to gain the popular support needed to defend it against the privatisations of the Tories is because the workers in the nationalised industries after the War were disappointed in their hopes for a great role in their management. The Labour party merely wanted nationalisation to be a simple exchange of public for private management, with no profound changes to the management structure. In some cases the same personnel were left in place. Unions were to be given a role in management through the various planning bodies. But this was far less than many workers and trade unionists hoped. If nationalisation is to have any meaning, it must allow for a proper, expanded role of the workers themselves in the business of managing their companies and industries.

The book ends with a peroration and a discussion of the works that have influenced and interest Shaw. In the peroration Shaw exhorts the readers not to be upset by the mass poverty and misery of the time, but to deplore the waste of opportunities for health, prosperity and happiness of the time, and to look forward and work for a better, socialist future.

His ‘Instead of a Bibliography’ is a kind of potted history of books critical of capitalism and advocating socialism from David Ricardo’s formulation of capitalism in the 19th century. These also include literary figures like Ruskin, Carlyle and Dickens. He states that he has replaced Marx’s theory of surplus value with Jevons treatment of rent, in order to show how capitalism deprives workers of their rightful share of the profits.

 

 

Weird Science: Plants as Interplanetary Communication Devices

January 9, 2020

Science Fiction has been described as the literature of ideas, and one of the most bizarre ideas is that grass is an artificial computing device. This strange notion appears in Clifford Simak’s 1965 novel, All Flesh Is Grass. This is about a small American town that finds itself completely enclosed beneath a forcefield. The town is on a nexus linking our world and its counterpart in a parallel universe. Investigating the force field and the strange disappearance years earlier of a mentally handicapped lad, the hero finds himself transported to this alternative Earth, where he meets the missing boy, now grown up. He also encounters a group of mysterious travellers from yet another universe, who have come to the world simply to listen to music and dance. Returning to our Earth, he finds that the force field has been put around the town by intelligent extradimensional aliens. There is a series of alternative Earths, who have come together to form some kind of interdimensional federation. These wise, enlightened beings wish to help humanity. They are skilled physicians, and show their good intentions by healing the town’s sick free of charge. It’s revealed that grass is some kind of intelligently engineered device, which was used by an alien race for information storage thousands of years ago.

As with many of the stranger ideas in literature, whether Science Fiction or not, you wonder where the idea came from. Some clue is perhaps given in the 1973 Erich Von Daniken book In Search of Ancient Gods: My Pictorial Evidence for the Impossible. Beginning on page 192, the world’s most notorious author on ancient astronauts discusses how two American scientists suggested that plants could be extraterrestrial communication devices. He writes

So far all attempts to capture signals from the cosmos with the aid of electromagnetic waves have failed. Dr George Lawrence of the Ecola Institute in San Bernardino, California, hit on a fantastic new way to communicate with extraterrestrial intelligences. Lawrence wondered if plants connected to an electronic control system would be suitable for communication with the universe. It is known that plants possess electrodynamic properties, indeed their capacity to assimilate tests and react in a binary way like a computer is sensational. Lawrence closely observed the semiconductive and general electromotive capacities of plants. He asked himself the following questions as part of his programme:

  1. Can plants be integrated with electronic apparatuses in such a way that they yield usable data?
  2. Can plants be trained to react to specific objects or events?
  3. Is the assumption that plants have the capacity for exception perception provable?
  4. Which of the 350,000 kinds of plants is most suited for the test. (p. 192)

Von Daniken then goes on to describe how plants respond to electric stimulation, and how Dr Clyde Backster, an expert in lie detectors, observed similar responses in 1969 during experiments in which he believed his test plants responded telepathically, at first to himself lighting a match, and then to a bucket of shrimps being plunged into boiling water. This response became known, apparently, as the Backster effect. Von Daniken continues

Dr Lawrence next tried to use plants for electromagnetic contact with the cosmos. A series of experiments, christened Project Cyclops, was organised over a distance of seven miles in the Mojave Desert, near Las Vegas. On 29 October 1971 at the same fraction of a second the measuring sets attached to the plants registered heightened curves which were transferred to the tape by an amplifier. What was going on? Was something underground stimulating the plants? Were there torrents of lava, earthquakes, magnetic influences? New sets were made, the plants were protected in lead boxes and Faradaic cages. The result was the same! Observed over a long period of time, curves and notes showed a certain synchronicity. The plants seemed to be communicating. Plants cannot think: they can only react. Every conceivable kind of magnetic wavelength was tried. At the moment of the different reactions, nothing could be heard. Could the process be connected with the fixed stars, with quasars or radiation? A new series of experiments clearly showed that the cause came from the cosmos. Radioastronomers with their gigantic antenna could pick up nothing, but plants showed violent reactions. Obviously a wavelength that functioned biologically was involved. This brought the experimenters into a territory whose existence has been suspected, but which is not measurable so far – telepathy. A biological contact took place in a way unexplained to date, but during the detour via the cells it became measurable. Dr George Lawrence said on the subject:

Obviously biological interstellar communication is nothing new. We have only 215 astronomic observatories in the world, but about a million of the biological type, although we call them by other names such as churches, temples and mosques. A biological system (mankind) communicates (prays) to a far distant higher being. Biological understanding is also the order of the day in the animal kingdom; we have only to think of dogs and cats which find their way home again by instinct. A fascinating feature of the experiments in the desert is the realisation that these biological contacts with the cosmos are connected with the speed of light.

The suspicion is growing stronger that the plants are called up by someone in the constellation Epsilon Bootes at a hundred times the speed of light. That is also why radioastronomers could not register the transmissions. Why use a big drum when a kettledrum is available? Perhaps we have investigated interstellar contacts with the wrong instruments, the wrong wavelengths and the wrong spectrum until now. (p.194-5).

This is clearly very fringe science, if not actually pseudoscience of the type likely to get Richard Dawkins grinding his teeth. It also merges into a kind of New Age pantheism, in which the cosmos itself may be some kind of God or supreme intelligence. It’s all very different from what I was taught in secondary school that grass was a monocotolydon. That means, it only has one leaf. I also note that the experiments started in 1971, some six years after Simak published his novel. But scientists and novelists were discussing plant intelligence from the 1950s onwards, including the idea that they could feel pain. It’s now been found that plants do communicate biochemically, and there was an article in the papers last week stating that they do feel pain. Perhaps Lawrence’s ideas, or ideas similar to them, were being discussed several years before Lawrence conducted his experiments, and influenced Simak when he wrote his book.

Zionist Bigot Jonathan Hoffman Disrupts Humanist Meeting because of ‘Anti-Semitism’

November 5, 2019

Jonathan Hoffman is a fanatical Zionist activist, who regularly protests against and tries to disrupt pro-Palestinian meetings and events because they are, to him, ‘anti-Semitic’. Even when the events are organised by Jewish and other organisations, who are very careful to exclude real anti-Semites and neo-Nazis. He and his bizarre antics have been all too frequently discussed and documented by Tony Greenstein, not least because of the extreme right-wing company he keeps. Tony has many times put up photographs showing Hoffman parading around in the company of extremist, islamophobic outfits like the EDL and Britain First. He was photographed outside demonstrating against one pro-Palestinian meeting next to Paul Besser, Britain First’s intelligence officer. Which must surely be a contradiction in terms, coming from that organisation. A few months ago Hoffman and one of his mates, to my recollection, lost a court case and were convicted of harassment. According to Tony’s article today, it was of a Palestinian woman. But Hoffman evidently hasn’t learnt his lesson, because he’s been out disrupting meetings again.

This time it was the turn of East London Humanists, who are affiliated to the National Secular Society, who felt his ire. They’d committed the heinous crime of inviting David Rosenberg, of the Jewish Socialist Group, to speak about anti-Semitism. Hoffman duly lost his fragile mind once again, and turned up with six other ‘vigilantes’ as he describes them, to disrupt the meeting. Tony has a photo on his blog of him with a couple of them standing next to two Israeli flags. Why the anger? Because David Rosenberg’s another Jewish critic of Israel’s barbarous treatment of the Palestinians. Thus, according to Hoffman, he’s an anti-Semite and a ‘renegade Jew’, and the East London Humanists are guilty of anti-Semitism for inviting him there, apparently. Hoffman complains that as the Humanists actively oppose religion, they are a pain to the Jews. As Tony himself points out in the article, the Humanists oppose all religions, not just Judaism. I certainly don’t support either Humanism or the National Secular Society, who, in my opinion, can be extremely intolerant in their attempts to force religion out of the public sphere. But I don’t think you can accuse them of racism. Nathan Johnstone’s book on New Atheist myths, which I reviewed a few days ago, attacked Dawkins and co. for their vitriolic rhetoric, which he believed could all too easily spark vicious persecution. But he acknowledged that Dawkins and the others, including Sam Harris, were actually humane people, who genuinely sympathised with the oppressed and marginalised. I also have the impression that there’s a split between the old-fashioned Humanists and the New Atheists about their rhetoric. Many Humanists and atheists are disgusted with the New Atheists because of their intolerance, which they associate with religion. So while I don’t doubt that Humanists object to Judaism as a religion, along with Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and the other faiths, I’m sure that they’re genuine supporters of the Jewish people’s right to live in peace, equality and safety, along with people of other races and ethnicities.

Also, David Rosenberg himself is very far from being any kind of ‘renegade Jew’ or anti-Semite. I’ve blogged about several articles from his excellent blog, Rebel Notes. Rosenberg is, like Tony, a very firm opponent of racism and anti-Semitism. He has spoken at meetings in Britain and abroad against racism and Fascism. He was in Warsaw a few months ago, attending a ceremony commemorating the heroes of the Jewish uprising against the Nazis. This included children from the local schools singing one of the rebels’ songs in Yiddish. He also posted another piece on his blog about the speech he gave at an anti-racism meeting in Manchester, in which he praised the local Jewish, Socialist, Communist and trade union activists in that great city for sticking it to Mosley and his stormtroopers when they tried to goosestep around it. He has also posted pieces about an exhibition at the London Jewish Museum on Marxism and Jewish identity, in which he viewed Marx as in the line of Jewish prophets and campaigners against oppression and exploitation. It’s glaringly obvious that Rosenberg wouldn’t do any of this, if he were a genuine anti-Semite.

But Hoffman and his fellows have decided Rosenberg is a Jew-hater, because his socialism is informed by the stance of the pre-War Jewish Bund. This was the Jewish socialist party in eastern Europe and the former Russian Empire. They saw the Jewish people’s homeland as whichever countries they lived in. They had no intention of supporting a separate Jewish state, and actively campaigned against Zionism. They demanded instead that Jews should live as equal fellow citizens with their gentile neighbours. This was by far the majority view of European Jewry at the time. But it runs counter to the right-Zionist message, which is that true Jews have always wanted their own state. And so Zionist extremists like Hoffman smear activists like Hoffman, Tony and Jackie Walker, as anti-Semites.

Hoffman is also upset ’cause he doesn’t like Tony mentioning how he keeps company with people, who could be described as Fascists. So Tony’s put up photos of him marching around with the EDL and their Jewish division, the JDL, as well as Paul Besser and a few other extreme right-wing Zionists.

Don’t be misled. It’s people like Hoffman and other extreme right-wing Zionists, both Jewish and gentile, who are behind the anti-Semitism smears against pro-Palestinian activists. Those they attack and smear are very frequently genuinely anti-racist opponents of anti-Semitism. Tony states that he has never seen Hoffman protest against genuine racists and Fascists. He has pointed out over and over again that the Zionist right will collaborate with real anti-Semites in order to advance their goals of getting more Jews to emigrate to Israel. Which is why the Conservative Jewish establishment in this country, like the Conservative establishment generally, has done everything it can to smear Corbyn and his supporters in the Labour party as anti-Semites, even when Corbyn and they have a proud record of combating racism and supporting the Jewish community. And they can be especially vicious in their attacks on genuinely left-wing Jews, who support the Palestinians.

The real fanatical bigotry here didn’t come from Rosenberg or the East London Humanists. It comes from Hoffman and those like him. They’re responsible for smearing decent people, and their lies are being used by a right-wing political establishment and media to prevent a Corbyn government getting into power. Because it would actually do something for British working people, who naturally include Jews.

Don’t believe their lies.

http://azvsas.blogspot.com/2019/11/another-feather-in-cap-of-jonathan.html

Review of Book on New Atheist Myths Now Up on Magonia Review Blog

November 1, 2019

The Magonia Review of Books blog is one of the online successors to the small press UFO journal, Magonia, published from the 1980s to the early part of this century. The Magonians took the psycho-social view of encounters with alien entities. This holds that they are essentially internal, psychological events which draw on folklore and the imagery of space and Science Fiction. Following the ideas of the French astronomer and computer scientist, Jacques Vallee, and the American journalist, John Keel, they also believed that UFO and other entity encounters were also part of the same phenomenon that had created fairies and other supernatural beings and events in the past. The magazine thus examined other, contemporary forms of vision and belief, such as the Satanic Ritual Abuse scare in the 1990s. It also reviewed books dealing with wide range of religious and paranormal topics. These included not just UFOs, but also the rise of apocalyptic religious faith in America, conspiracy theories, ghosts and vampires, cryptozoology and the Near Death Experience, for example. Although the magazine is no longer in print, the Magonia Review of Books continues reviewing books, and sometimes films, on the paranormal and is part of a group of other blogs, which archive articles from the magazine and its predecessor, the Merseyside UFO Bulletin (MUFOB), as well as news of other books on the subject.

I’ve had a number of articles published in Magonia and reviews on the Review of Books. The blog has just put my review of Nathan Johnstone’s The New Atheism, Myth and History: The Black Legends of Contemporary Anti-Religion (Palgrave MacMillan 2018).  The book is a critical attack on the abuse of history by New Atheist polemicists like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and so on to attack religion. He shows that the retail extremely inaccurate accounts of historical atrocities like the witch hunts and persecution of heretics by the Christian church and the savage anti-religious campaign in the Soviet Union in order to condemn religion on the one hand, and try to show that atheism was not responsible for the atrocities committed in its name on the other. At the same time he is alarmed by the extremely vitriolic language used by Dawkins and co. about the religious. He draws comparisons between it and the language used to justify persecution in the past to warn that it too could have brutal consequences despite its authors’ commitment to humanity and free speech.

The article is at: http://pelicanist.blogspot.com/2019/10/believing-in-not-believing-new-atheists.html if you wish to read it at the Magonia Review site. I’ve also been asked to reblog it below. Here it is.

Nathan Johnstone. The New Atheism, Myth and History: The Black Legends of Contemporary Anti-Religion. Palgrave Macmillan 2018.

The New Atheists is a term coined to described the group of militant atheists that emerged after the shock of 9/11. Comprising the biologist Richard Dawkins, the journalist Christopher Hitchens, the philosophers Daniel C. Dennett and A.C. Grayling, the neuroscientist Sam Harris, the astronomer Victor Stenger, and others, they are known for their particularly bitter invective against all forms of religion. The above claim to stand for reason and science against irrationality and unreason. But while they are especially protective of science, and who gets to speak for it or use its findings, they are cavalier regarding theology and the humanities, including history.
Johnstone is appalled by this attitude. Instead of respecting history and its scholarship, he compares Dawkins, Harris et al to hunter-gatherers. They are not interested in exploring history, but rather using it as a grab-bag of examples of atrocities committed by the religious. In so doing they ignore what historians really say about the events and periods they cite, and retail myth as history. These he regards as a kind of ‘Black Legend’ of theism, using the term invented in the early twentieth century by the Spanish historian Julian Juderas to describe a type of anti-Spanish, anti-Roman Catholic polemic. He states his book is intended to be just a defence of history, and takes no stance on the issue of the existence of God. From his use of ‘we’ in certain points to describe atheists and Humanists, it could be concluded that Johnstone is one of the many of the latter, who are appalled by the New Atheists’ venom.
One such religious doubter was the broadcaster John Humphries,  the author of the defence of agnosticism, In God We Doubt. Humphries stated in the blurb for the book that he considered himself an agnostic before moving to atheism. Then he read one of the New Atheist texts and was so shocked by it he went back to being an agnostic. The group first made its debut several years ago now, and although New Atheism has lost some of its initial interest and support, they’re still around.
Hence Johnstone’s decision to publish this book. While Dawkins’ The God Delusion was published almost a decade ago, the New Atheists are still very much around. They and their followers are still on the internet, and their books on the shelves at Waterstones. Dawkins published his recent work of atheist polemics, Outgrowing God: A Beginner’s Guide a few weeks ago at the beginning of October 2019. He accompanied its publication with an appearance at Cheltenham Literary Festival, where he was speaking about why everyone should turn atheist.
The events and the atrocities cited by the New Atheists as demonstrations of the intrinsic evil of religion are many, including the Inquisitions, the witch-hunts, anti-Semitism, the Crusades, the subjugation of women, colonialism, the slave trade and the genocide of the Indians, to which they also add human sacrifice, child abuse, censorship, sexual repression and resistance to science. These are too many to tackle in one book, and it confines itself instead to attacking and refuting New Atheist claims about the witch-hunts, the medieval persecution of heretics, and the question of whether Hitler was ever really Christian and the supposed Christian origins of Nazi anti-Semitism and the Holocaust.
The book also tackles historical movements and figures, that the New Atheists have claimed as atheist heroes and forerunners – the ancient Greek Atomists and two opponents of the witch-hunts, Dietrich Flade and Friedrich Spee. It then moves on to examine Sam Harris’ endorsement of torture in the case of Islamist terrorists and atheist persecution in the former Soviet Union before considering the similarity of some New Atheist attitudes to that of religious believers. It concludes with an attack on the dangerous rhetoric of the New Atheists which vilifies and demonises religious believers, rhetoric which could easily provoke persecution, even if its authors themselves are humane men who don’t advocate it.
Johnstone traces these atheist myths back to their nineteenth and pre-nineteenth century origins, and some of the books cited by the New Atheists as the sources for their own writings. One of the most influential of these is Charles MacKay’s 1843 Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. In many instances he shows them to be using very dated, and now refuted texts. With some of the modern works they also draw on, examination shows that often they ignore the authors’ own conclusions, which may differ considerably, or even be the complete opposite of their own.
In the case of the witch-hunts, Johnstone traces the oft-quoted figure of over nine million victims to an early nineteenth century German author, Gottfried Christian Voigt, who extrapolated it from the murder of the thirty witches executed in his home town of Quedlinburg from 1569 to 1683. He assumed this was typical of all areas throughout the period of the witch-hunts. The figure was picked up by the radical neo-Pagan and feminist movements of the 1970s. But it’s false. The real figure, he claims, was 50,000. And its intensity varied considerably from place to place and over time. The Portuguese Inquisition, for example, only killed one witch c. 1627. In other places, the inquisitors were conscientious in giving the accused a fair trial. Convictions for witchcraft were overturned and evidence was taken to prove the accused’s innocence as well as guilt. The Roman Inquisition also demanded the accused to provide a list of their enemies, as their testimony would obviously be suspect.
In regions where the discussion of witchcraft had resulted in the mass trial and execution of the innocent, the religious authorities imposed silence about the subject. Johnstone rebuts the statement of some Christian apologists that the Church was only complicit in these atrocities, not responsible for them. But he shows that they were an anomaly. Nearly all societies have believed in the existence of witches throughout history, but the period of witch-hunting was very limited. The problem therefore is not that religion and belief in the supernatural leads inexorably to persecution, but how to explain that it doesn’t.
He shows that the Church moved from a position of initial scepticism towards full scale belief over a period of centuries. The witch-hunts arose when maleficium – black magic – became linked to heresy, and so became a kind of treason. As an example of how secular and political motives were also involved in the denunciations and trials, rather than just pure religious hatred, he cites the case of the priest Urbain Grandier. Grandier’s case was the basis for Aldous Huxley’s novel, The Devils of Loudoun, which was filmed by Ken Russell as The Devils. Here it appears the motives for the trial were political, as Grandier had been an opponent of the French minister, Cardinal Richelieu. Johnstone also considers that as secular societies have also persecuted those they consider to be politically or morally deviant there exists in humanity a need to persecute. This means finding and identifying an anti-group, directly opposed to conventional society, whose existence and opposition demonstrates the value of that society.
KEN RUSSELL’S ‘THE DEVILS’ (1971)
The medieval persecution of heretics may also have been due to a number of causes and not simply due to the malign attitudes of religious believers. There was a period of nearly 700 years between the execution of the Roman heretic, Priscillian, in the fourth century and the revival of persecution the early eleventh. This arose in the context of the emergence and development of states and the expansion of papal and royal power, which involved church and crown extending their power over local communities. At the same time, the papacy attempted reforming the church, at first in response to popular demand. However, it was then faced with the problem of clamping down on some of the popular reform movements when they threatened to run out of its control.
As the case of the Waldensians shows, the line between orthodoxy and heresy could be an extremely fine one. Johnstone also raises the question here of whether one of the most notorious medieval heretical groups, the Cathars, ever existed at all. It is possible that their existence is an illusion created by the categories of heresies the inquisitors had inherited from the Church Fathers. These were forced onto a group of local communities in the Languedoc, where popular piety centred around the Good Men and Women. These were highly respected members of the community, who were believed to live exemplary Christian lives. They were therefore due proper respect, which to the inquisitors looked like heretical veneration.
Hitler’s Christianity is also highly debatable. The little reliable testimony states that he was indeed Roman Catholic, but doesn’t provide any evidence of a deep faith. He certainly at times claimed he was a Christian and was acting in accordance with his religious beliefs. But an examination of some of these quotes shows that they were uttered as a rebuttal to others, who stated that their Christian beliefs meant that they could not support Nazism. This raises the question of whether they were anything more than a rhetorical gesture. There is evidence that Hitler was an atheist with a particular hatred of Christianity. This is mostly drawn from his Table Talk, and specifically the English edition produced by Hugh Trevor-Roper. The atheist polemicist, Richard Carrier, has shown that it is derived from a French language version, whose author significantly altered some of the quotes to insert an atheist meaning where none was present in the original. However, Carrier only identified a handful of such quotes, leaving forty requiring further investigation. Thus the question remains undecided.
Johnstone also examine the Nazi persecution of the Jews from the point of view of the theorists of political religion. These consider that humans are innately religious, but that once secularisation has broken the hold of supernatural religion, the objects of veneration changes to institutions like the state, free market capitalism, the New Man, Communism and so on. Those who follow this line differ in the extent to which they believe that the Nazis were influenced by religion. Some view it as a hydra, whose many heads stood for Christianity, but also Paganism in the case of Himmler and the SS. But underneath, the source of the real religious cult was the race, the nation and Hitler himself. If these theorists are correct, then Nazism may have been the result, not of a continued persecuting Christianity, but of secularisation.
He also considers the controversial view of the German historian, Richard Steigmann-Gall, whose The Holy Reich considered that the Nazis really were sincere in their Christianity. This has been criticised because some of the Nazis it examines as examples of Nazi Christian piety, like Rudolf Hess, were minor figures in the regime, against vehement anti-Christians like Alfred Rosenberg. He also shows how the peculiar views of the German Christians, the Nazi Christian sect demanding a new, Aryan Christianity, where Christ was blond and blue-eyed, and the Old Testament was to be expunged from the canon, were similar to certain trends within early twentieth century liberal Protestantism. But the German historian’s point in writing the book was not simply to put culpability for the Nazis’ horrors on Christianity. He wanted to attack the comfortable distance conventional society places between itself and the Nazis, in order to reassure people that they couldn’t have committed such crimes because the Nazis were different. His point was that they weren’t. They were instead uncomfortably normal.
DEMOCRITUS
The New Atheists celebrate the ancient Greek Atomists because their theories that matter is made up of tiny irreducible particles, first put forward by the philosophers Epicurus and Democritus, seem so similar to modern atomic theory. These ancient philosophers believed that these alone were responsible for the creation of a number of different worlds and the creatures that inhabited them by chance.
Some of these were forms that were incapable of surviving alone, and so died out. Thus, they appear to foreshadow Darwin’s theory of Natural Selection. New Atheist writers bitterly attack Aristotle, whose own rival theories of matter and physics gained ascendancy until Atomism was revived in the seventeenth century. The natural philosophers behind its revival are credited with being atheists, even though many of them were Christians and one, Pierre Gassendi, a Roman Catholic priest. Their Christianity is thus seen as nominal. One also takes the extreme view that Galileo’s prosecution was due to his embrace of the atomic theory, rather than his argument that the Earth moved around the Sun.
But scholars have shown that the ancient atomic theory grew out of particular debates in ancient Greece about the fundamental nature of matter, and cannot be removed from that context. They were very different to modern atomic theory. At the same time, they also held beliefs that are to us nonsense as science. For example, they believed that the early creatures produced by atoms were fed by the Earth with a milk-like substance. They also believed in the fixity of species. Even where they did believe in evolution, in the case of humanity, this was more Lamarckian than Darwinian. Aristotle’s views won out over theirs not because of religious narrow-mindedness or ignorance, but because Aristotle’s had great explanatory power.
The scientists, who revived it in the seventeenth century, including Boyle and Newton, were sincere Christians. They believed that atoms created objects through divine agency because the ancient Greek explanation – it was all chance without a theory of momentum – genuinely couldn’t explain how this could occur without God. As for Galileo, the historian who first suggested this extreme and largely discredited view, believed that he was a victim of papal politics, and that there had also been a party within the Vatican and the Church, which supported his theories.
Discussing the two witch-hunters celebrated by the New Atheists as atheist, or at least, Sceptical heroes, the book shows that this was not the case. Dietrich Flade seems to have been accused because he had fallen out with an ecclesiastical rival, Zandt, for being too lenient on the accused witches. But he also appears to have been protected by the church authorities until the accusations of witchcraft by accused witches became too many to ignore.
The other Sceptical hero, Friedrich Spee, was a Jesuit priest, who became convinced of the innocence of those accused of witchcraft through attending so many to the stake. He then wrote a book condemning the trials, the Cautio Crimenalis. But he was no sceptic. He believed wholeheartedly in witchcraft, but considered it rare. The use of torture was wrong, as it was leading to false confessions and false denunciations of others, which could not be retracted for fear of further torture. Thus the souls of the innocent were damned for this sin. But while good Christians were being burned as witches, many of the witch-hunters themselves were in league with Satan. They used the hunts and baseless accusations to destroy decent Christian society and charity.
But if the New Atheists are keen to ascribe a wide number of historical atrocities to religion without recognising the presence of other, social and political factors, they deny any such crimes can be attributed to atheism. Atheism is defined as a lack of belief in God, and so cannot be responsible for inspiring horrific acts. Johnstone states that in one sense, this is true, but it is also a question about the nature of the good life and the good society that must be constructed in the absence of a belief in God. And these become positive ideologies that are responsible for horrific crimes.
Johnstone goes on from this to attack Hector Avelos’ statement that the Soviet persecution of the Church was only a form of anti-clericalism, which all societies must go through. Johnstone rebuts this by describing the process and extent of Soviet persecution, from the separation of church and state in 1917 to the imposition of atheism by force. Churches and monasteries were closed and religious objects seized and desecrated, religious believers arrested, sent to the gulags or massacred. These persecutions occurred in cycles, and there were times, such as during the War, when a rapprochement was made with the Orthodox Church. But these periods of toleration were always temporary and established for entirely pragmatic and utilitarian purposes.
The goal was always the creation of an atheist state, and they were always followed, until the fall of Communism, by renewed persecution. The wartime rapprochement with the Church was purely to gain the support of believers for the campaign against the invading Nazis. It was also to establish state control through the church on Orthodox communities that had survived, or reappeared in border areas under Nazi occupation. Finally, the attack on the clergy, church buildings and religious objects and even collectivisation itself were done with the deliberate intention of undermining religious ritual and practice, which was considered the core of Orthodox life and worship.
Sam Harris has become particularly notorious for his suggestion that atheists should be trusted to torture terrorist suspects because of their superior rationality and morality compared to theists. Harris believed it was justified in the case of al-Qaeda suspects in order to prevent further attacks. But here Johnstone shows his logic was profoundly flawed. Torture was not introduced into medieval judicial practice in the twelfth century through bloodthirsty and sadistic ignorance. Rather it was intended as a reasonable alternative to the ordeal. Human reason, and the acquisition of evidence, was going to be sufficient to prove guilt or innocence without relying on supposed divine intervention. But the standards of evidence required were very high, and in the case of a crime like witchcraft, almost impossible without a confession.
The use of torture was initially strictly limited and highly regulated, but the sense of crisis produced by witchcraft resulted in the inquisitors abandoning these restraints. Similarly, Harris’ fear of terror attacks leads him to move from reasonable suspects, who may well be guilty, to those who are simply members of terrorist organisations. They are fitting subjects for torture because although they may be innocent of a particular offence, through their membership of a terrorist organisation or adherence to Islamist beliefs, they must be guilty of something. Finally, Harris also seems to see Islamism as synonymous with Islam, so that all Muslims everywhere are seen as enemies of the secular Western order. This is exactly the same logic as that which motivated the witch-hunts, in which witches were seen as the implacable enemies of Christian society, and so exempt from the mercy and humane treatment extended to other types of criminal.
From this Johnstone then goes on to consider how the New Atheists’ image of atheism and the process of abandoning belief in God resembles religious attitudes. Their belief that atheism must be guarded against the dangers of falling back into religious belief mirrors Christian fears of the temptation to false belief, such as those of the Protestant reformers towards the persistence of Roman Catholicism. At the same time, their ideas of abandoning God and so attaining the truth resembles the Christian process of conversion and membership of the elect. And the vitriol directed at the religious for continuing to believe in God despite repeated demonstrations of His nonexistence resembles the inquisitors’ attitude to heretics. Heresy differs from error in that the heretic refuses to be corrected, and so must be compelled to recant by force.
The book also shows the dangers inherent in some New Atheist rhetoric about religious believers. This runs in contrast to much New Atheist writing, which is genuinely progressive and expresses real sympathy with the marginalised and oppressed, and which advocates trying to see the world through their eyes. But no such sympathy is granted religious believers. They are described as children, who may not sit at the same table as adults. Or else, following the logic of religion as a virus, proposed by Dawkins, they are described as diseased, who do not realise that they have been infected and even love their condition.
Bringing children up religious is condemned as child abuse. A.C. Grayling is shown to have a utilitarian attitude in his own advocacy of secularisation. He first states that he supports it for creating multiculturalism, but then contradicts himself by stating that he looks forward to it undermining religion. This was the same attitude the Soviets initially adopted towards religion. When it didn’t disappear as they expected, they resorted to force. Peter Boghossian wants atheist ‘street epistemologists’ – the atheist version of religious street preachers – to attack believers’ religious beliefs in public. They are to take every opportunity, including following them into church, in order to initiate ‘Socratic’ discussions that will lead them to questioning their faith.
Johnstone states that this is an implicit denial of theists’ right to conduct their private business in public without atheist interference. It’s in line with the New Atheist demands that religion be driven from the public sphere, into the churches, or better yet, the home. The metaphor of disease and infection suggests that what is needed is for religious believers to be rounded up against their will and forcibly cured. It’s the same metaphor the Nazis used in their persecution of their victims.
He quotes the atheist philosopher Julian Baggini, who is dismayed when he hears atheists describing religion as a mental disease from which believers should be forcibly treated. As for the statement that religious upbringing equals child abuse, the seriousness of this charge raises the question of how seriously the New Atheists actually see it. If Dawkins and co. really believe that it is, then their lack of demand for state intervention to protect children from indoctrination, as they see it, from the parents shows that they don’t treat child abuse seriously.
The New Atheist rhetoric actually breaks with their concrete recommendations for what should be done to disavow believers of their religious views, which are actually quite mild. This is what Johnstone calls the ‘cavalierism of the unfinished thought’. They may not recommend coercion and persecution, but their rhetoric implies it. Johnstone states that he has discussed only one of several competing strands in New Atheist thinking and that there are others available. He concludes with the consideration that there isn’t a single atheism but a multiplicity of atheisms, all with differing responses to religious belief. Some of them will be comparably mild, but most will involve some kind of frustration at religion’s persistence. He recommends that atheists should identify which type of atheist they are, in order to avoid the violent intolerance inherent in New Atheist rhetoric. This agrees with his statement at the beginning of the book, where he hopes it will lead to an atheist response to religion which is properly informed by history and which genuinely respects religious believers.
The book is likely to be widely attacked by the New Atheists and their followers. Some of its conclusions Johnstone admits are controversial, such as the view that the Cathars never existed, or that the persecution of heretics was an integral part of the forging of the medieval state. But historians and sociologists of religion repeatedly show that in the persecutions and atrocities in which religion has been involved, religion is largely not the only, or in some cases even the most important reason. Johnstone’s views on witchcraft is supported by much contemporary popular and academic treatments. His statement that the figure of over nine million victims of the witch-hunt is grossly exaggerated is shared by Lois Martin in her The History of Witchcraft (Harpenden: Pocket Essentials 2002). The Harvard professor, Jeffrey Burton Russell in his Witchcraft in the Middle Ages (Ithaca: Cornell University Press 1972) also shows how Christian attitudes towards witchcraft passed from the scepticism of the Canon Episcopi to belief as the responsibility for its persecution passed from the bishops to the Holy Office.
Early law codes treated maleficium – black or harmful magic – purely as a civil offence against persons or property. It became a religious crime with the development of the belief that witches attended sabbats where they parodied the Christian Eucharist and worshiped Satan. A paper describing the scrupulous legality and legal provisions for the accused’s defence in the Roman Inquisition can be found in the Athlone History of Witchcraft and Magic In Europe IV: The Period of the Witch Trials, Bengt Ankerloo and Stuart Clarke eds., (Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press 2002). Other writers on religion have noted the similarity between the late medieval and early modern witch-hunts and paranoid fears about Freemasons, Jews and Communists in later centuries, including the Holocaust, Stalin’s purges and McCarthyism. They thus see it as one manifestation of the wider ‘myth of the organised conspiracy’. See Richard Cavendish, ‘Christianity’, in Richard Cavendish, ed., Mythology: An Illustrated Encyclopedia (London: Orbis 1980) 156-69 (168-9).
The Soviet persecution of the Russian Orthodox Church is described by Rev. Timothy Ware in his The Orthodox Church (London: Penguin 1963). Ludmilla Alexeyeva also describes the Soviet persecution of the Orthodox Church, along with other religions and national and political groups and movements in her Soviet Dissent: Contemporary Movements for National, Religious and Human Rights (Middletown, Connecticutt: Wesleyan University Press 1985). R.N. Carew Hunt’s The Theory and Practice of Communism (Harmondsworth: Penguin 1950) shows how leading Communists like Lenin believed atheism was an integral part of Communism and the Soviet state with a series of quotations from them. An example of Lenin’s demand for an aggressive atheism is his speech, ‘On the Significance of Militant Materialism’ in Lenin: Selected Works (Moscow: Progress Publishers 1968). 653-60.
It is also entirely reasonable to talk about religious elements and attitudes within certain forms of atheism and secular ideologies. Peter Rogerson in many of his well-reasoned articles in Magonia pointed out how similar some of the sceptics’ attacks on superstition and the supernatural were to narratives of religious conversion. His attitude is shared with some academic sociologists, historians and political theorists. Peter Yinger’s section on ‘Secular Alternatives to Religion’ in The Religious Quest: A Reader, edited by Whitfield Foy (London: Open University Press 1978) 537-554, has articles on the ‘Religious Aspects of Postivism’, p. 544, ‘Faith in Science’, 546, ‘Religious Aspects of Marxism’, p. 547, ‘Totalitarian Messianism’ 549, and ‘Psychoanalysis as a Modern Faith’, 551. For some scholars, the similarities of some secular ideologies to religion is so strong, that they have termed them quasi-religions.
While some atheists resent atheism being described as religion, this term is meant to avoid such objections. It is not intended to describe them literally as religions, but only as ideologies that have some of the qualities of religion. See John E. Smith’s Quasi-Religions: Humanism, Marxism and Nationalism (Macmillan 1994). New Atheism also mimics religion in that several of the New Atheists have written statements of the atheist position and edited anthologies of atheist writings. These are A.C. Grayling’s The Good Book and Christopher Hitchens’ The Portable Atheist. The title of Grayling’s book is clearly a reference to the Bible. As I recall, it caused some controversy amongst atheists when it was published, as many of them complained that atheism was too individual and sceptical to have a definitive, foundational text. In their view, Grayling’s book showed the type of mindset they wanted to escape when they left religion.
The fears of the terrible potential consequences of New Atheist rhetoric despite the avowed intentions of its authors is well founded and timely. There have been sharp complaints about some of the vitriolic rhetoric used to attack particular politicians in debates about Brexit which has resulted in assault and harassment. At the same it was reported that anti-Muslim hate crimes spiked after the publication of Boris Johnson’s column in which he described women wearing the burqa as looking like letterboxes. Neither religion, nor secularism and atheism should be immune from criticism. But Johnstone is right in that it should be correctly historically informed and careful in the language used. Otherwise the consequences could be terrible, regardless of the authors’ own humane feelings and sympathies.

Richard Dawkins Promoting Atheism at the Cheltenham Festival of Literature

October 7, 2019

This week is the Cheltenham festival of literature. It’s an annual event when novelists, poets, illustrators and increasingly TV and radio personalities descend on the town to talk about and try to sell the books they’ve had published. There can be, and often are, some great speakers discussing their work. I used to go to it regularly in the past, but went off it after a few years. Some of the people turn up, year in, year out, and there are only so many times you can see them without getting tired of it.

Dawkins, Atheism and Philosophical Positivism

One of the regular speakers at the Festival is the zoologist, science writer and atheist polemicist, Richard Dawkins. The author of Climbing Mount Improbable, The River Out Of Eden, The Blind Watchmaker and so on is appearing in Cheltenham to promote his latest book, Outgrowing God: A Beginner’s Guide. It sounds like a kind of successor to his earlier anti-religious work, The God Delusion. According to the accompanying pamphlet for the festival, he’s going to be talking to an interviewer about why we should all stop believing in God. There’s no doubt Dawkins deserves his platform at the Festival as much as any other writer. He’s a popular media personality, and writes well. However, his knowledge of philosophy, theology and the history of science, which forms the basis for his attacks on Christianity, is extremely low, and defenders of religion, and even other scientists and historians, who are just interested in defending their particular disciplines from factual mistakes and misinterpretations, have shot great holes in them.

Dawkins is, simply put, a kind of naive Positivist. Positivism was the 19th century philosophy, founded by Auguste Comte, that society moved through a series of three stages in its development. The first stage was the theological, when the dominant ideology was religion. Then came the philosophical stage, before the process ended with science. Religion was a thing of the past, and science would take over its role of explaining the universe and guiding human thought and society. Comte dreamed of the emergence of a ‘religion of humanity’, with its own priesthood and rituals, which would use sociology to lead humanity. Dawkins doesn’t quite go that far, but he does believe that religion and science – and specifically Darwinism – are in conflict, and that the former should give way to the latter. And he’s not alone. I heard that a few years ago, Alice Robert, the forensic archaeologist and science presenter, gave a speech on the same subject at the Cheltenham Festival of Science when she was its guest director, or curator, or whatever they term it. A friend of mine was less than impressed with her talk and the lack of understanding she had of religion. He tweeted ‘This is a girl who thinks she is intelligent.’

War of Science and Religion a Myth

No, or very few historians of science, actually believe that there’s a war between the two. There have been periods of tension, but the idea of a war comes from three 19th century writers. And it’s based on and cites a number of myths. One of these is the idea that the Church was uniformly hostile to science, and prevented any kind of scientific research and development until the Renaissance and the rediscovery of ancient Roman and Greek texts. It’s a myth I learnt at school, and it’s still told as fact in many popular textbooks. But other historians have pointed out that the Middle Ages was also a period of scientific investigation and development, particularly following the influence of medieval Islamic science and the ancient Greek and Roman texts they had preserved, translated, commented on and improved. Whole books have been written about medieval science, such as Jean Gimpel’s The Medieval Machine, and James Hannam’s God’s Philosophers. Hannam is a physicist, who did a doctorate in examining the development of medieval science, showing that, far from retarding or suppressing it, medieval churchmen were intensely interested in it and were active in its research. Medieval science was based very much on Aristotle, but they were well aware of some of the flaws in his natural philosophy, and attempted to modify it in order to make it conform to observed reality. The Humanists of the Renaissance, rather than bringing in freedom of thought and scientific innovation, were actually a threat. They wanted to strip philosophy and literature of its medieval modifications to make it correspond exactly with the ancients’ original views. Which would have meant actually destroying the considerable advances which had been made. Rather than believe that renaissance science was a complete replacement of medieval science, scholars like Hannam show that it was solidly based on the work of their medieval predecessors.

Christian Theology and the Scientific Revolution

The scientific revolution of the 17th century in England also has roots in Christian philosophy and theology. Historians now argue that the Royal Society was the work of Anglican Broadchurchmen, who believed that God had created a rational universe amenable to human reason, and who sought to end the conflict between the different Christian sects through uniting them in the common investigation of God’s creation. See, for example, R. Hooykaas, Religion and the Rise of Modern Science (Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press 1972).

Christian Monotheism and the Unity of Physical Law

It is also Christian monotheist theology that provides one of the fundamental assumptions behind science. Modern science is founded on the belief that the laws of nature amount to a single, non-contradictory whole. That’s the idea behind the ‘theory of everything’, or Grand Unified Theory everyone was talking about back in the 1990s. But this idea goes back to St. Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century. Aquinas said that we must believe that the laws of nature are one, because God is one.  It’s the assumption, founded on Christian theology, the makes science possible.

Atheist Reductionism also a Danger

When The God Delusion Came Out, it was met by a series of books attacking its errors, some of them with titles like The Dawkins Delusion. The philosopher Mary Midgley has also attacked the idea that science can act as a replacement for religion in her books Evolution as a Religion and The Myths We Live By. On page 58 of the latter she attacks the immense damage to humanity atheist reductionism also poses. She writes

Both reductive materialism and reductive idealism have converged to suggest that reductivism is primarily a moral campaign against Christianity. This is a dangerous mistake. Obsession with the churches has distracted attention from reduction employed against notions of human individuality, which is now a much more serious threat. It has also made moral problems look far simplar than they actually are. Indeed, some hopeful humanist reducers still tend to imply that, once Christian structures are cleared away, life in general will be quite all right and philosophy will present no further problems.

In their own times, these anti-clerical reductive campaigns have often been useful. But circumstances change. New menaces, worse than the one that obsesses us, are always appearing, so that what looked like a universal cure for vice and folly becomes simply irrelevant. In politics, twentieth-century atheistical states are not an encouraging omen for the simple secularistic approach to reform. it turns out that the evils that have infested religion are not confined to it, but are ones that can accompany any successful human institution. Nor is it even clear that religion itself is something that the human race either can or should be cured of.

Darwin Uninterested in Atheist Campaigning

Later in the book she describes how the Marxist Edward Aveling was disappointed when he tried to get Darwin to join him in a campaign to get the atheist, Bradlaugh, to take his seat as a duly elected MP. At the time, atheists were barred from public office by law. Aveling was impressed by Darwin’s work on evolution, which he believed supported atheism. Darwin was an agnostic, and later in life lost belief in God completely due to the trauma of losing a daughter and the problem of suffering in nature. But Darwin simply wasn’t interested in joining Aveling’s campaign. When Aveling asked him what he was now studying, hoping to hear about another earth-shaking discovery that would disprove religion, Darwin simply replied ‘Earthworms’. The great biologist was fascinated by them. It surprised and shocked Aveling, who hadn’t grasped that Darwin was simply interested in studying creatures for their own sake.

Evolutionists on Evolution Not Necessarily Supporting Atheism

Other evolutionary biologists also concluded that evolution has nothing to say about God, one way or another. Stephen Jay Gould stated that he believed that Darwinism only hinted at atheism, not that it proved it. Charles Darwin’s grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, who published his own theory of evolution in Zoonomia in 1801, believed on the other hand that the development of creatures from more primitive forebears made the existence of God ‘mathematically certain’.

Frank H.T. Rhodes of the University of Michigan wrote in his book Evolution (New York: Golden Press 1974) on its implications the following, denying that it had any for religion, politics or economics.

Evolution, like any other natural process or scientific theory, is theologically neutral. it describes mechanisms, but not meaning. it is based upon the recognition of order but incorporates no conclusion concerning the origin of that order as either purposeful or purposeless.

Although evolution involves the interpretation of natural events by natural processes, it neither assumes nor provides particular conclusions concerning the ultimate sources or the significance of materials, events or processes.

Evolution provides no obvious conclusions concerning political or economic systems. Evolution no more supports evolutionary politics (whatever they might be) than does the Second Law of Thermodynamics support political disorder or economic chaos. 

(Page 152).

Conclusion

I realise that the book’s nearly 50 years old, and that since that time some scientists have worked extremely hard to show the opposite – that evolution support atheism. But I’ve no doubt other scientists, people most of us have never heard of, believe the opposite. Way back in 1909 or so there was a poll of scientists to show their religious beliefs. The numbers of atheists and people of faith was roughly equal, and 11 per cent of the scientists polled said that they were extremely religious. When the poll was repeated in the 1990s, the pollsters were surprised to find that the proportion of scientists who were still extremely religious had not changed.

Despite what Dawkins tells you, atheism is not necessarily supported by science, and does not disprove it. Other views of the universe, its origin and meaning are available and still valid.

Book on What’s Really Needed for Artificial Intelligence: Emotion, Spirituality and Creativity

July 6, 2019

The Muse in the Machine: Computers and Creative Thought, by David Gelernter (London: Fourth Estate 1994).

I came across this book looking around one of Cheltenham’s secondhand bookshops yesterday. I haven’t read it yet, but I fully intend to. Although it was published nearly a quarter of a century ago, I think the issue it addresses is still very real, and one that isn’t acknowledged by many computer scientists. And it’s immensely provocative. Gelernter argues here that the brain is not like a computer, and by concentrating on rationality and logic, computer scientists aren’t developing genuine Artificial Intelligence – true minds – but simply faster calculating machines. What is needed instead is creativity and inspiration, and that can only come from emotion and spirituality.

The blurb for the book in the inside cover runs

Is Artificial Intelligence really getting any closer to understanding the workings of the brain? Or is it, despite generations of smarter, more logical reasoning machines and more refined philosophical theories, missing the point? Is the AI model, for all its apparent sophistication, simply too crude?

David Gelernter believes that it is. In this dazzling, powerfully persuasive new book he argues that conventional AI theory is fatally flawed, ignoring as it does the emotional elements in the human mind. AI can go on improving its creations as much as it likes, but as long as it insists upon seeing the mind as a machine, it will always been building machines and not minds.

It’s time to tackle a fundamental truth: feeling isn’t incidental to thought, a pleasant diversion or unwelcome distraction. It’s essential, a precondition and part of all our thinking. A mind that can’t be irrational can’t be rational; a machine that can’t feel can’t think.

Spirituality is not failed science, anymore than poetry is botched prose. Significant as recent developments have been, suggests Gelernter, the real renaissance is yet to come. The new science of the mind will involve art and theology as closely as it does technology, and will owe as much Wordsworth and Keats as to Papert and Minsky.

Bound to cause a furore in the field of Artificial Intelligence, the Muse in the Machine has far wider implications than this, and far great importance. It is a book which demands to be read by everyone who values human thought and its achievements. If it offers much to intrigue and to provoke in its daring, wide-ranging discussion of the mind and its workings, it provides much, too, to delight and move.

It’s probably no surprise that Gelernter believes that art, literature and spirituality/ theology should also be important components of genuine machine intelligence. Not only is he credited as an associate professor computer science at Yale University, but also a lover of philosophy and published poet, with an MA in Classical Hebrew Literature.

For all that the book and its thesis were – and no doubt still are – controversial, he has correctly identified a major problem. Other philosophers and scientists, both of computers and the human brain, have pointed out that the brain isn’t a computer. Rather, the computer is simply the latest metaphor for the brain. Before then, the metaphor was of an immense telephone exchange. And before that, in the 17th century, when modern neurology was only just beginning, it was as a series of fountains. I also understand that many neurologists now believe, following the ideas of the paranormal researcher Stan Gooch, that much of human thought and cognition actually occurs deeper in the more primitive sections of the brain, connected with emotion. And I can imagine many atheists distinctly unsettled by the idea that true rationality also requires a spiritual, religious and theological component. That’s enough to send Richard Dawkins completely up the wall!

It’s going to be an very interesting, provocative book, and one I shall look forward to reading. And I’ll definitely post about it when I have.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.