sawyl: (A self portrait)
From Nicola Upson's The Death of Lucy Kyte, Josephine and Marta attend harvest festival at the Polstead parish church:

"Trust us to get stuck with a warbler," she whispered as the woman in the pew behind found her stride. Marta's snort earned them a glare from a couple on the other side of the aisle and a nervous smile from Hilary, and as they reached the chorus Josephine marvelled at the number of syllables that the word "love" could have in the wrong hands. The singer built to a crescendo and the hymn struggled to keep up, and Josephine could feel the muscles in her own throat straining in sympathy. She tried to control her laughter by imagining a face to go with the voice, but the tears ran helplessly down onto her hymn book, smudging the worlds that she did not trust herself to sing. Next to her, she could feel Marta's shoulders heaving but she dared not meet her eye.

Which almost precisely mirrors my church-going experiences, with my great aunt standing in for the warbler and pater standing in for the friend who can't keep a straight face...

ETA: On consideration I can't help but think that the Warbler, whose face Josephine fails to see, is going to turn out to be a Significant Player in the drama.

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Struggling to keep track of the count of the endless Sundays after Trinity, I became curious about the method used to calculate the date of Easter. This in turn led to to a Metonic cycles, a whole load of clever Medieval attempts to nail down the correct date, and eventually to a handful of lines of python:
from datetime import datetime

def easter(year):

    year = int(year)

    a = year % 19
    b, c = divmod(year, 100)
    d, e = divmod(b, 4)
    f, r = divmod(b + 8, 25)
    g, r = divmod((b - f) + 1, 3)
    h = ((19 * a) + (b - d - g) + 15) % 30

    i, k = divmod(c, 4)

    L = (32 + (2 * e) + ((2 * i) - h - k)) % 7
    m, r = divmod(a + (11 * h) + (22 * L), 451)

    month, day = divmod((h + L) - (7 * m) + 114, 31)
    day += 1
    return datetime(year, month, day)

Because once you know the date of Easter, the remaining moveable feasts are almost easy to work out...

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Having a big thing for the English cathedral tradition, I really love R3's midweek broadcasts of choral evensong. But despite that, my shallow atheist sense of irony can't help be mildly amused by the recent series of power cuts and acts of God that have knocked out some of the live broadcasts over the last month or two.

I know it's wrong to feel this way — I enjoy the services, despite not believing a word of them, and I feel bad for the people who've put in a lot of effort only to see things fail at the last ditch — but I just can't help myself.

I very much suspect this makes me a Bad Person...
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Muzzily listening to Sunday Morning in bed, I caught a feature on how llamas were being used in Palm Sunday services following an acute shortage of donkeys. After a couple of minutes of listening I remembered that it was the first of April and that the piece was probably a spoof, but it didn't seem categorically more absurd than almost all of the rest of the programme's features. Could it be that the entire program was one giant spoof and has been ever since day one?
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According to the Sunday Telegraph, Richard Dawkins has ancestors. One of his ancestors owned slaves. Therefore Dawkins is wrong about everything ever. Therefore, presumably, God. The whole thing is so low that it's completely absurd: it's not even an ad hominem; it's an ad hominem on someone several generations removed.
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As has been widely noted, the Dorries-Field amendment to the Health Bill is nothing if not deeply disingenous. Zoe Williams summarises it rather neatly in the Guardian:

The exact wording is this: the government should provide "independent information, advice and counselling services for women requesting termination of pregnancy to the extent that the consortium considers they will choose to use them". "Independent" is defined as "a private body that does not itself provide for the termination of pregnancies or a statutory body".

In other words, GPs decide how much counselling to provide, and it can be provided by anyone except those performing the abortion. There is no requirement that "independent" mean "not faith-based": we'd have to rely on the discretion of the Department of Health to keep out groups such as CareConfidential, whose "counselling" consists of misinformation aimed at discouraging women from having abortions.

So the use of the word independent in this context is not independent as in morally disinterested in the eventual outcome — as noted, the intention of the amendment is to reduce abortions by a third — but rather, it's a specious claim about the funding of the counselling service that is only being made in order put yet more (religious) obstacles in the way of women's rights to choose. So much, then, for religious ethics.

ETA: The government seem to have got cold feet and are now advising their MPs vote against the amendment...

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The Guardian quotes the former Bishop of Rochdale as saying:

Nazir-Ali said: "Real life is quite different from Sir Terry's science fiction ... The Judaeo-Christian tradition is a surer guide. 'Thou shalt not kill' is about acknowledging the gift and dignity of human life which, whether ours or another's, we do not have the competence to take."

Clearly, the bishop does not know whereof he speaks: Pratchett is a fantasy novelist. You'd think someone whose career required them to be familiar with the Bible would have a pretty fair idea of the difference between fantasy and science fiction, wouldn't you?

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In a letter to today's Guardian from Rev Richard James quotes Hawking — "There is no heaven..." — and then John 3:13 — "No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven..." — concluding:

Whose information is more reliable, the speculator or the eyewitness?


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Walking home through the cathedral close, I happened to catch the end of choral evensong in honour of the 950th anniversary of Our Lady of Walsingham. Just as I was passing, the congregation came out and processed around the green, singing as they did so — speakers had been rigged to relay the organ. Despite my complete lack of faith, I found the whole thing rather wonderful; inspired by the distant memories of the cultural christianity of my schooldays, no doubt.

(A promotional video about the cathedral featuring the choir singing Byrd's Ave verum corpus, which just happens to be the anthem from today's service).
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When the Guardian ran their April Fools piece last week, I found myself complaining to my father that, so flaky has the Graun been over the last year or so, it wasn't much of spoof, so similar was it to some of their genuine articles. So today's editorial on Martin Rees and the Templeton prize, a piece so bad it would embarrass a Sixth Form philosophy student, might be disappointing but it isn't exactly surprising.

Detailed complaints )

Perhaps I'm being unnecessarily grumpy. I don't agree the basic premise, but that's fine. I don't expect to agree with the Guardian's editorial pieces. I do, however, expect them to at aspire to cogency and properly reasoned argument otherwise I might as well be reading the Mail...

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Discussing a piece by Stephen Asma, PZ Myers captures the essence of the gnu atheist commitment to truth:

Gnu atheism is not simply about what isn't. Our views do find expression in specific criticisms of specific faiths, but those are just the epiphenomena of a deeper set of positive values that Asma completely misses. Certainly I will make moral arguments against religious pathologies — Catholic priests raping children is bad — and I will judge beliefs by the foolishness of their explanations — creationist dogma is utterly absurd. But to say that is the guiding philosophy of atheism is to mistake the actions for the cause. I have one simple question you can ask of any religion, whether it's animism or Catholicism, that will allow you to determine the Gnu Atheist position on it.

Is it true?

I've told people this many times. The Gnu Atheism is a positive movement that emphasizes the truth of a claim as paramount; it is our number one value. This is why you're finding so many scientists who consider themselves in this movement — it's because that's how we're trained to think about hypotheses. Also, because there are many scientists and philosophers behind this idea, I should also emphasize that we're also well aware that "truth" is not some magic absolute, but something we can only approach by trial and error, and that truth is something you have to work towards, not simply accept dogmatically as given by some unquestionable source…which is another difference between us and religion. A scientific truth is more complex than a colloquial truth, it's requirements being that it is free of contradiction with logic and reality and supported by reason and evidence.

Exactly. It's a case of striving, sometimes unsuccessfully, to get closer to the truth and not to settling for something comforting which we might like to be true but which isn't supported by the evidence.

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Tucked up in bed, waiting for the rain to ease sufficiently to allow me to go for a run, I caught part of this morning's Sunday on R4. Mixed in with the usual weirdness — a bishop hocking Easter eggs, Samuel Ryder's golf competition for vicars — was a slightly odd piece on Ed Miliband's profession of atheism.

For some reason the BBC invited the Quentin Letts of the Daily Mail and Charlie Wolf, the former Communications Director of Republicans Abroad, to comment on the Labour leader's position. Letts complained that Miliband's profession of atheism sounded automatic and that he sounded as though he was slightly embarrassed by the question — although you can bet that the Mail would have been first in line to complain had Miliband come out with a piece of Dawkinsian fire and brimstone in reply to the question. Letts also complained that our traditional reluctancee to discuss religion in public was a sign of immaturity and that he thought that we were finally starting to grow beyond that.

I know that Sunday is marketed as a religious programme, but if it is going to discuss the atheism of a leading politician, then it might, in the interests of basic fairness, take the trouble to find someone who believes that a lack of belief might not be a wholy bad thing.

But perhaps I'm being unfair. Perhaps it's not a conspiracy, just a simple matter of timing. Perhaps it's just that believers tend to be up early on a Sunday morning, the better to keep the sabbath holy, whereas most atheists are otherwise engaged, either sluging-a-bed or out running in the rain or whatever, and find it impossible to get to Broadcasting House first thing on weekend morning in time to take part in a thankless debate...
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Via the Guardian, I found a link to the Pew Forum quiz parts of where used in their survey of US religious knowledge which found that, on average, atheists seem to know about religions and religious dogmas than believers.

I'm not surprised. People who make a conscious decision to reject an existing belief system usually does so after giving due consideration to the various different sides of the argument. Whereas someone who has never questioned their beliefs might be expected to be less familiar with the arguments in favour of their position. For, as Mill says:

He who knows only his own side of the case, knows little of that. His reasons may be good, and no one may have been able to refute them. But if he is equally unable to refute the reasons on the opposite side; if he does not so much as know what they are, he has no ground for preferring either opinion. The rational position for him would be suspension of judgment, and unless he contents himself with that, he is either led by authority, or adopts, like the generality of the world, the side to which he feels most inclination.

Mill, J.S., On Liberty in Gray, J. (ed), (1991), On Liberty and Other Essays, OUP, 42

So, how did I do? I aced it, of course. The filial piety I owe to my RE teacher wouldn't let me do otherwise.

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It seems that the pope has equated atheism with nazism in a recent speech in Edinburgh:

Even in our own lifetime, we can recall how Britain and her leaders stood against a Nazi tyranny that wished to eradicate God from society and denied our common humanity to many, especially the Jews, who were thought unfit to live. I also recall the regime’s attitude to Christian pastors and religious who spoke the truth in love, opposed the Nazis and paid for that opposition with their lives. As we reflect on the sobering lessons of the atheist extremism of the twentieth century, let us never forget how the exclusion of God, religion and virtue from public life leads ultimately to a truncated vision of man and of society and thus to a “reductive vision of the person and his destiny”

While His Holiness is perfectly entitled to his opinion, it seems to me to be a slightly crass comment from someone on a state visit. It's rather like going to a party and criticising your host's morals and friends and dress sense whilst at the same time eating their food and slurping down their booze. Although I'm not terribly surprised by this behaviour, I'm still disappointed by the sheer boorishness of it.

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According to some unfortunately timed remarks from Cardinal Kasper:

The German-born cardinal was quoted as saying to the country's Focus magazine that "when you land at Heathrow you think at times you have landed in a Third World country".

I think anyone who has ever used LHR knows exactly how he feels...

ETA: Sadly, it seems His Eminence's comments were not related to the quality of Heathrow's lavatories but were, instead, about something else entirely. How deeply appalling.

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I had a slightly awkward conversation with a couple of proselytising Jehovah's Witnesses this morning. They very politely handed me a pamphlet and asked me whether I had views on the handful of leading questions it posed — does God really care about us; what happens to us when we die; etc. I said that I was quite satisfied with my current set of answers and they headed off to evangelise elsewhere.

I always find it slightly embarrassing dealing with people who are extremely religious because I'm completely uninterested in what they're selling and I think the whole business is absurd. But equally I don't really want to come out and say that to their face, because it's horribly crass, especially if they've been polite, and likely to get me hooked up in a futile argument — futile in the sense that anyone with serious faith is unlikely to be swayed by logic because, well, the very point of faith is that it involves believing in something in the face of logic, reason, evidence, etc...
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The Archbishop of Westminster condemns complaints about the cost of the forthcoming papal visit:

But Archbishop Nichols told the BBC's Andrew Marr programme it was right the taxpayer and the Church shared the bill because the Pope was coming at the invitation of the government.

"It is a state visit, and the day that this country closes its doors and says we can't afford state visits is a very sad day because it would be a real gesture of isolationism," he said.

Fine. Next time we decide to invite a religious leader to visit, let's ask one with enough money to spring for his own airfare. Like, say, George Lucas...

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A fun quiz in The Philosophers' Magazine which attempts to determines the consistency of the player's attitudes to God. I came through relatively unscathed, despite taking a hit on the question of omnipotence and biting the bullet on the question of proof. However, being a disputatious philosopher, I maintain that neither of these is really an example of inconsistency.

On the question of omnipotence, my view is more nuanced than the quiz allows. Accepting that anything called God can do impossible things means, in my view, accepting that God can do the contingently impossible, but not do the necessarily impossible. As Aquinas says somewhere, it should not be said that there are things that God cannot do but rather that there are things that cannot be done. Thus, it is not reasonable to expect God to be able to create a square circle because the impossibility of such a thing stems not from a limit on God, but the internal incoherency of the notion being expressed.

On the question of proof, I'll bite the bullet and admit that demanding strong proof for the existence of God may open me to accusations of inconsistency. But again, I'd argue that this is only because my view is more nuanced than is allowed for by the quiz. I'd argue that any proof for the existence of God should be as rigourous as any other scientific proof. I'm not sure, on balance, that I'd agree that a proof should be irrefutable — as nothing ever really is — but I'd argue a la Hume, that if a claim makes extraordinary demands then it requires extraordinary evidence.

Thus it is quite reasonable to consider evolutionary theory a settled issue (but not an irrefutable one!). There is a great deal of fossil evidence for the theory. We can draw upon it to make predictions in the form of both lab experiments and retrospective predictions based on where in the fossil record we might expect particular forms to appear. It explains particular quirks of biology which only make sense in the light of evolution. So although the claims made by the theory are relatively strong, it fulfills all the requirements of a testable scientific hypothesis, and is supported by the facts.

However the claims about God are stronger than those made for evolution, touching as they do on almost ever aspect of existence. But the evidence is largely equivocal, depending on the subject and the circumstantial, and the predictions the idea makes are weak and difficult to test. So it does not seem unreasonable to expect an idea that makes grand claims and offers little evidence should, given current levels of knowledge about the world, be subject to a greater degree of scrutiny than an idea that has strong foundations and that has repeatedly stood up to challenges.

It is clear, then, that two ideas are not equal and therefore it is false to impose an equal burden of proof on each. Which means that although I've bitten the bullet and accepted that there might be an inconsistency, I think there are reasonable grounds to believe that I might be able to catch the shot in my teeth...
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It seems as though Pope Benedict XVI will not be beatifying John Henry Newman at Coventry Airport in September after all. Not, apparently, for reasons of cost but rather because a smaller location more closely associated with the life of the Venerable Newman has been chosen instead.

I'm not surprised. While the airport undoubtedly has good transport links and was visited by John Paul II back in 1982 — an event which gridlocked the south of the city — it hardly gives the impression of being a deeply spiritual of location...
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According to a recent and rather muddled piece on the Guardian's Comment is Free site — the article is, in essence, little more than a strawman set up in response to a throwaway comment by Richard Dawkins — the idea of an atheist school is a non-starter because it won't be able to talk about religion in a coherent way:

So, how would this free-thinking school be different? It would, Dawkins explained, "teach comparative religion, and teach it properly without bias". In case you were wondering, "without bias" means "as a branch of anthropology". What about religious texts? How exactly do you teach them "without bias"? Quite simply, you teach that they are untrue. "The Bible should be taught, but emphatically not as reality", Dawkins explained. "It is fiction, myth, poetry, anything but reality."

This is a legitimate opinion – although one from which millions would dissent – but to imagine it is neutral, objective or self-evidently correct is absurd. To arrive at (and teach) such ideas is to take a whole series of contestable positions on a range of theological, philosophical and scientific questions.

To claim that an atheist school would "teach comparative religion, and teach it properly without any bias towards particular religions" is so naive as to beggar belief. Does it mean you should dedicate equal time to Zoroastrianism as to Christianity, take the claims of Judaism as seriously as those of Jedis?

Unfortunately, this argument is extremely weak. When I studied RS, each of the major religions — givn Coventry's big christian, muslim, hindu and sikh communities, the choice of which religions to study was an easy one for the teachers to make — were taught in just such a neutral way. We discussed the beliefs, practices and scriptures of each religion and we were required to understand each faith in the context of what its adherents believe to be the truth. But we were not asked to do was take a position on the truth of any particular religion. Rather, we simply had to ut ourselves into the mindsets of others and to understand their ideas — something that surely counts as part of the basic skillset of being human.


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