Tuesday, 30 June 2009

Camp Quest UK Launch

A very funny comment piece in today's Telegraph by Michael Deacon who is rationally sceptic about the Professor Richard Dawkins-supported launch of Camp Quest UK:

Here is a taste:

“At Camp Quest UK, children aged eight to 17 will be given lessons in evolution and rational scepticism.
“Now, I have no quarrel with Camp Quest's objectives. I am an atheist. And of course children should be taught to think scientifically. No, my worry is simply that the camp's teachings will be too effective. For if there's one thing to make my blood freeze, it's the thought of my child mutating into some kind of pedantic, humourless, eight-year-old mini-Dawkins.
"Imagine trying to celebrate the little beast's birthday: ‘Many happy returns, Darling. Now blow out the candles and make a wish.’
‘Certainly not, Father. This is a futile custom. There is no evidence to support the notion that blowing out the candles on a Marks & Spencer Victoria sponge increases the likelihood of one's desires becoming reality.’
‘Right. I see. Sorry. Well, luckily, we've bought some nice gifts for you.’
‘On the contrary, Father, luck did not influence your purchases. Indeed, there is no such thing. To believe otherwise is flabby thinking.’
‘Oh, God.’
‘Please don't say that, Father. You know perfectly well that the deity whose name you invoke does not exist.’
‘That Camp Quest thing really had an effect on you, hasn't it. I suppose you'll be wanting to go on the course they're organising for Easter…’
‘Most assuredly not. Easter is a spurious festival based on the fallacy that a man came back from the dead, which double-blind experiments have proved impossible. In consequence, I refuse to recognise Easter and shall spend the holiday period at school, whether or not my teachers are in attendance.’"

And here is the whole article: http://tinyurl.com/l2ontj

I have just checked out the Camp Quest UK website and watched a You Tube piece to camera by Religion and Contemporary Society Kings College Masters student and Camp Quest UK Director, Samantha Stein.

One of the highlights for the camp-goers is the “invisible unicorns challenge” which, Samantha says, is “a staple at any Camp Quest across the world”. The kids get introduced to the two invisible unicorns that they can’t see or smell or touch and they have to prove to the camp counselors that they don’t exist. “To be honest, I am not sure how they will manage that because we have faith that these exist, but err, there we go,” says Samantha (in the most see-through bluff ever).

If I was a kid and Samantha delivered the rules of the game to me in the same way she does in the You Tube clip, I wouldn’t want to play – the camp counselors are going to have to put a little bit more heart and soul into it then that. But - get this - the prize is (Samantha says, fluttering her eyelashes), “a £10 Darwin note signed by Richard Dawkins himself, so I am sure that will give the kids some incentive to participate in this activity.” What?! Not the activity itself?! I think the prize should be a unicorn – two of them. Those poor kids.

Seriously, watch the clip yourself: http://tinyurl.com/l2akfa

Monday, 29 June 2009

Women "Happiest at 28"

Women are happiest at 28, a study has claimed. "Everything in life hits its peak at some point, and nearly reaching your thirties isn't so bad now,” a Clairol Perfect 10 spokesman is reported as saying in the Telegraph:


The thing is - how can I know for sure?... I guess if the past 96 hours are anything to go by, then - on a superficial level at least - it can’t be so bad!

Friday, 26 June 2009

The Dawkins Argument

I have been asked to clarify why Professor Richard Dawkins’ views on sexual abuse in The God Delusion are particularly infuriating, so I will:

Presumably in an attempt to argue that mental abuse can be more devastating than physical abuse, Dawkins tries to compare the psychological fallout upon victims of both. He uses testimonies from people with lifelong mental scars following a childhood spent within the confines of a religious order where teachers would torment children with vivid descriptions of hell fires. He also quotes a woman who was sexually assaulted by a priest, but who said the experience paled against the psychological abuse of hell and damnation administered by the nuns. Dawkins then draws on his own childhood, adding, in the space of a sentence, that he too had an experience with a teacher when he was a schoolboy, but it didn’t do him any harm.

I think Dawkins was fortunate that he didn’t suffer long term. I know of people who have had years taken out of their lives because of the long-term effects of sexual abuse. I struggle to understand how Dawkins cannot be aware of people who do suffer for years, decades or even lifetimes, and I think pitting paedophilia against religious psychological abuse where the latter is argued as the winner in terms of lasting devastation is a very poorly chosen method of illustrating the point he was trying to make.

It reminds me of Martin Sherman’s play Bent, which Daniel Kramer produced at Trafalgar Studios in the West End in 2006 starring the fantastic Alan Cumming. The play was about the inhumane brutality inflicted upon homosexuals at the hands of the Nazis. Sherman would have driven his point home more effectively if he hadn’t decided to suggest that the torture suffered by gay men was worse than that of any other prisoner in the Nazi concentration camp. In a review I wrote of the play at the time I asked (rhetorically) how it was possible to measure differing levels of suffering among men, women and children in a Nazi concentration camp.

I have since read a chapter in a book called The Academic Face of Psychoanalysis in which the incredibly thorough Dr Louise Braddock informs readers that determining levels of psychological suffering is something one learns to perceive through training, but I digress.

Thursday, 18 June 2009

Geek Alert

The British Library has published an online archive of 49 British national and regional titles from the 19th and early 20th century.

The Guardian reports today that events such as the Battle of Waterloo in June 1815, the bank crisis of 1878 and the first FA cup final in 1872 can be rediscovered among more than two million pages which went online today: http://newspapers.bl.uk/blcs

At the bottom of the article (http://tinyurl.com/nknweq), journalist Maev Kennedy, carried away by the good news, chirps: “Searches are free, but users can pay to download information.”

Shouldn’t that be, “Searches are free, but users must pay to download information”?

Anyone wishing to avoid paying can just pop up (or down) to the British Library Newspapers Reading Room in Colindale and read it all for free on micofiche. And microfiche is more fun.

Tuesday, 16 June 2009

Hampstead Ladies Pond

When I was leaving Hampstead Heath Ladies Pond this weekend, I saw this gorgeous, tanned and toned guy in his late 20s/early 30s stripped to his shorts with a towel slung over his right shoulder starring devastatingly at the bathing times’ board by the entrance to the pond, which also carries the words NO MEN BEYOND THIS POINT.

Standing next to him was an elegant, sun-kissed and agile-looking woman in her late 50s/early 60s with a sports bag. The guy was looking at the board with such concentration it was as if he was in the middle of translating the English into Greek. The woman was dividing her attention between looking at the young man, looking at the board and looking at anyone looking at them. My smile broadened. I almost said to her: “Why don’t you go in? I am sure no one would mind...” but I was too busy giggling.

When I shot a glance over my shoulder after I had walked past them, they were STILL standing there.

Monday, 15 June 2009

House of Commons Speaker Hustings

On the strength of the six House of Commons speaker candidates who took part in the Newsnight hustings tonight, good luck to Sir Alan Beith (Liberal Democrat), Parmjit Dhanda (Labour) and Ann Widdecombe (Conservative). As for the other three – Michael Lord (Deputy Speaker, Conservative), Richard Shepherd (Conservative) and Sir George Young (Conservative) – your time has been.

Saturday, 13 June 2009

The God Delusion

I want to start by saying I have not read Steve Grand’s Creation: Life and How to Make It from which Professor Richard Dawkins takes the paragraph I am about to share with you. I want to say that because I may be interpreting the paragraph, quoted in The God Delusion, in a way that I might not have if I had read the book. But given that I read this today, I wanted to share it now as it maybe of interest to anyone else thrilled by the possibilities of identity:

Steve Grand, Dawkins writes, invites readers to think:

“… of an experience from your childhood. Something you remember clearly, something you can see, feel, maybe even smell, as if you were really there. After all, you were really there at the time, weren’t you? How else would you remember it? But here is the bombshell: you weren’t there. Not a single atom that is part of your body today was there when that event took place… Matter flows from place to place and momentarily comes together to be you. Whatever you are, therefore, you are not the stuff of which you are made. If that doesn’t make the hair stand up on the back of your neck, read it again until it does, because it is important.”*

*Here there is a footnote from Dawkins who adds: “Some might dispute the literal truth of Grand’s statement, for example in the case of bone molecules. But the spirit of it is surely valid. You are more like a wave than a static material ‘thing’.” (pg 416)

Isn’t that wonderful to think about?

The final section of the God Delusion, entitled Inspiration, reads almost like a poem to science and I am especially grateful to Dawkins’ for his perspective of quantum mechanics through his quoting on page 409 of Richard Feynman, “If you think you have understood quantum theory…you don’t understand quantum theory” and Niels Bohr, “Anyone who is not shocked by quantum theory has not understood it.” (I am remembering a particularly frustrating conversation I had with a physicist a while back.) Less helpful, however, is the absence of Feynman and Bohr from Dawkins’ “Books Cited or Recommended” reading list at the end of The God Delusion. That does seem a rather negligent oversight, given the scientific thesis. But he does cite David Deutsch’s The Fabric of Reality in the list, which embraces the ‘many worlds’ theory of quantum mechanics.

Reading the God Delusion is a rich intellectual journey spanning a wave of emotions from amusement to rage. Particularly infuriating, for example, are his views on sexual abuse in chapter nine. Particularly funny, on the other hand, is his rebuttal of the ontological argument for God’s existence by imagining two kids arguing it out in the playground (pg 104). Illuminating was his inclusion (in a footnote, bizarrely) of A.N. Wilson’s claim in a biography of Jesus that the (particularly Catholic) understanding of Mary being a virgin came about via a mistranslation of the Hebrew word for young woman, “almah” into the Greek word for virgin, “parthenos”(pg 122). Baffling was his sci-fi digression at the end of chapter two (the tone here is earnest):

“Science-fiction authors, such as Daniel F. Galouye in Counterfeit World, have even suggested (and I cannot think how to disprove it) that we live in a computer simulation, set up by some vastly superior civilization. But the simulators themselves would have had to come from somewhere. The laws of probability forbid all notions of their spontaneously appearing without simpler antecedents. They probably owe their existence to a (perhaps unfamiliar) version of Darwinian evolution: some sort of cumulatively ratcheting ‘crane’ as opposed to ‘skyhook’, to use Daniel Dennett’s terminology.”
(pg 98)

But by the time we get to chapter four, the inverted commas around ‘crane’ have been dropped and there is no more mention of Daniel Dennett:

“I am not advocating some sort of narrowly scientistic way of thinking. But the very least that any honest quest for the truth must have in setting out to explain such monstrosities of impossibility as a rainforest, a coral reef, or a universe is a crane and not a skyhook. The crane doesn’t have to be natural selection. Admittedly, nobody has ever thought of a better one. But there could be others yet to be discovered. Maybe the ‘inflation’ that physicists postulate as occupying some fraction of the first yoctosecond of the universe’s existence will turn out, when it is better understood, to be a cosmological crane to stand alongside Darwin’s biological one.” (pg 185)

That, to me, is exciting, especially as love can act as a cosmic force. The idea of the multiverse and the anthropic principle excites as well.

I am also enlightened from having read sentences like these in The God Delusion:

“The late King of the Belgians is a candidate for sainthood, because of his stand on abortion. Earnest investigations are now going on to discover whether any miraculous cures can be attributed to prayers offered up to him since his death. I am not joking. That is the case, and it is typical of the saint stories. I imagine the whole business is an embarrassment to more sophisticated circles within the Church. Why any circles worthy of the name sophisticated remain in the Church is a mystery at least as deep as the ones theologians enjoy.” (pg 83/84)

And this:

“Time and time again my theologian friends returned to the point that there must be a reason why there is something rather than nothing. There must have been a first cause of everything, and we might as well give it the name God. Yes, I said, but it must have been simple and therefore, whatever else we call it, God is not an appropriate name (unless we very explicitly divest it of all the baggage that the word ‘God’ carries in the minds of most religious believers).” (pg 184/5)

I know people, theists and non-theists alike, who admit they haven't read The God Delusion because they fear they will not be able to stomach Dawkins' tone. Really, it is not so bad. I think he would only really upset a fundamentalist.

(Note: page references correspond to the 2007 paperback edition.)

Tuesday, 9 June 2009

The Big Bang

I have just watched the first part of a new three part documentary from a Christian perspective arguing that it is possible to believe in evolution and in God. Because of the bias of the documentary (no atheist or agnostic scientists were featured although they were frequently referred to), the makers had no success networking it in the UK (it may network in the US), but it will be available to purchase as a dvd from July 3 and will eventually be streamed online.

It is very beautifully edited by the Farady Institute (which received funding from the Templeton Foundation) with some wonderful visually poetic shots.

However, I was disheartened to hear Katherine Blundell, Professor of Physics at Oxford University, argue in the documentary that science is not able to go further than one second after the Big Bang. Science can't just give up like that! If it hadn't been for the work Stephen Hawking and his colleagues, science would not have known that it could go up to one second after. Don't give up!

Thursday, 4 June 2009

The Berlin Wall

A couple of weeks ago I uttered the phrase, “it would be like talking to a brick wall”. I meant it to mean exactly what the expression is commonly understood to mean – a communication that has broken down because one person or party has ceased to communicate while another person or party still has a message to convey. But not all walls are silent (stay with me here!)

The longest remaining stretch of the Berlin Wall – the East Side Gallery stretching 1.3 kilometres – is being given a fresh lick of paint. As part of a 2.5 million euro project funded by the Berlin Senate, the federal government and lottery money, the 118 artists who created murals along the wall following its collapse in November 1989 have been invited back. The old murals covered with graffiti (like the one taken on my mobile phone) are being stripped and then repainted.

The wall has a double-edged magnetism because some of the visitors who stop to admire the murals feel compelled to write on them too. No one stops them. I just hope, when the revamp in preparation for the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall is finished, that the authorities won’t think it necessary to put a barrier all along the wall to stop people getting close to it. That would be too terrible an irony.