Archive | May 2011

A Scientist’s Approach to the New Atheism – Edinburgh, 31 May 2011

This might be of interest to some:

Professor John Lennox, Public Lecture, 31 May 2011 at 4pm in New College, University of Edinburgh. Entitled “A Scientist’s Approach to the New Atheism”. See here for more details: NPBS Flyer (Draft).

I’ll definitely be there with both my academic hat on, and my slapping glove at the ready…


London, Edinburgh, Newcastle, Budapest: Drinks, Songs and an Emotional Roller Coaster

I have been pretty quiet on the blogging front for a while now… this is because I was at a reasonably useful conference on Young People and Religion at King’s College, London. This did mean, however, that I was able to catch with a number of good friends in London, and in Newcastle on the way back up to Edinburgh.

Upon returning to Edinburgh things pretty much immediately launched into the celebrations for the 50th Anniversary of the Edinburgh University Savoy Opera Group, a wonderful group with whom I spent many a happy year and performed in, directed or produced sixteen productions of musicals, operas and operettas between 2004 and 2010.

On the Saturday night, we had a fantastic Ball at the George Hotel, Edinburgh… with over 140 people dining, and many dozens more joining us later for a good sing and a Ceilidh. Below is a clip of us singing Gilbert & Sullivan’s “Hail Poetry!”, a regular party piece from The Pirates of Penzance. Some of us may have had slightly too much to drink… but what we lack in tunefulness we make up for in enthusiasm. And I don’t think the hotel will ever have heard such a glorious noise!

The following day we gathered a group of 60+ singers at the Reid Concert Hall, with one of the best hand-picked orchestras in Edinburgh and performed a semi-staged version of The Mikado, under the able direction of my good friend Vincent Wallace. Here, Vince and I rehearse the song “Our great Mikado, virtuous man…” the afternoon before I reprised the role of Pish Tush, which I performed in 2008.

It was quite an emotional weekend, both with seeing many faces from years gone by, and with realising that that part of my life is now gone… but it was very happy, and great to get a group of lifelong friends together and have the dynamic be identical to ‘back in the day’. Thanks so much to everyone who was involved in the organisation of this epic weekend!

Things are looking similarly busy over the coming weeks, with two weddings, paid employment, and the small matter of writing my thesis… but I shall endeavour to keep posting on the more serious stuff. There are interesting plans brewing for this blog in the post thesis world… watch this space.

And also…. do look out for me at the European Association for the Study of Religion’s Conference in Budapest this coming September, where I am thrilled to be presenting a paper! The nerves have already started!

Philosophy With Peter Millican (via Apologia)

I certainly know I shall be subscribing to this later!

Ever wish you could study philosophy at Oxford?  You can, and for free.  There is a video podcast course on general philosophy taught by Peter Millican that you can get on iTunes here. … Read More

via Apologia

So You Want To Study Secularism?

Via Harvard University Press Blog:

According to a report in yesterday’s New York Times that is making its way around the internet this morning, this fall Pitzer College will become the first institution to create a department of secular studies and offer a major in secularism. Phil Zuckerman, a sociologist of religion, proposed the department as a way of concentrating study on modern society’s shift away from religion as its primary organizational structure. The Times quotes Zuckerman as saying that “There are hundreds of millions of people who are nonreligious. I want to know who they are, what they believe, why they are nonreligious. You have some countries where huge percentages of people—Czechs, Scandinavians—now call themselves atheists. Canada is experiencing a huge wave of secularization. This is happening very rapidly.”

At HUP over the last handful of years we’ve developed an essential little list of books on this very topic. Consider this our pitch for course adoption.

Our list on secular studies is anchored by Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, published in 2007. The book begins with a simply phrased question that captures the spirit of inquiry behind Pitzer’s new endeavor: “What does it mean to say that we live in a secular age?” More simply asked than answered, of course.

Taylor notes three senses in which modern Western society could be said to have become secular. One applies to public spaces or social spheres, where behavior and interactions were once guided by religious principles but have now been ostensibly emptied of God. As Taylor notes, this sense of secularization is not incompatible with a continued individual belief in God and embrace of religion. So, a second sense he then identifies is that of a falling off of religious practice and belief.

A Secular Age mostly concerns itself with a third sense, which for Taylor consists of “a move from a society where belief in God is unchallenged and indeed, unproblematic, to one in which it is understood to be one option among others, and frequently not the easiest to embrace.” To Taylor this entails a fundamental shift in what it means to believe, which occurs when belief itself becomes merely an option. From the Introduction:

So what I want to do is examine our society as secular in this third sense, which I could perhaps encapsulate in this way: the change I want to define and trace is one which takes us from a society in which it was virtually impossible not to believe in God, to one in which faith, even for the staunchest believer, is one human possibility among others. I may find it inconceivable that I would abandon my faith, but there are others, including possibly some very close to me, whose way of living I cannot in all honesty just dismiss as depraved, or blind, or unworthy, who have no faith (at least not in God, or the transcendent). Belief in God is no longer axiomatic. There are alternatives. And this will also likely mean that at least in certain milieux, it may be hard to sustain one’s faith. There will be people who feel bound to give it up, even though they mourn its loss. This has been a recognizable experience in our societies, at least since the mid-nineteenth century. There will be many others to whom faith never even seems an eligible possibility. There are certainly millions today of whom this is true.

The book can fairly be said to have galvanized scholarly inquiry into secularism, and any new work on the subject must reckon with Taylor. One we published ourselves is a collection called Varieties of Secularism in a Secular Age, which we’d informally considered something of a user’s manual for A Secular Age. Edited by Michael Warner, Jonathan Vanantwerpen, and Craig Calhoun, and with contributions from Robert Bellah, Wendy Brown, Taylor himself, and nearly a dozen others, it’s another volume that should make it into the hands of Pitzer’s majors.

We also recently published Steven D. Smith’s The Disenchantment of Secular Discourse. Smith argues that public discourse has been drained of force and authenticity because religion was formally forced out but is then usually “smuggled” right back in. If we’re to remain a society that engages in profitable open discussion, Smith says, we’ll have to figure out a way to free discourse from the constraints imposed by secularism.

Forthcoming this fall we have two new books that will surely find a place within any serious curriculum on secularism. One is Brad Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society. The book was meant to be a new history of the Reformation, but instead became a much larger examination of its unintended consequences. All of the pluralism that we see in society today, much of which is evoked by the word “secular,” traces back five hundred years to the late Middle Ages, says Gregory. More on this one in the coming months.

Also this fall we’ll publish Robert Bellah’s Religion in Human Evolution. Like Gregory’s, this book might seem more suited to a traditional religion department than one devoted to studying secularism, but surely that line will prove itself to be one not easily drawn. As Zuckerman told the Times, part of the impetus for creating Pitzer’s new department was the now-huge number of people who consider themselves atheists. Though atheism and secularism aren’t exactly the same thing, clearly the growing embrace of the one leads us to a society more characterized by the other.

The surge in Atheism owes much to the writing of the so-called “New Atheists,” among them Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchens. Where the New Atheists cast religion as a war-mongering belief system that should be disproven and then discarded, Bellah synthesizes biological, historical, and sociological research to offer an understanding of what religion actually is and how it developed and changed over time. What’s unique about the book is its focus on human evolution and the development of capacities like storytelling, dance, and mythmaking, which evolved nearly simultaneously around the world into systems we’d now recognize as religion. So, at this world historical moment when so much of Western society seems in a rush to leave religion behind, Bellah, one of our greatest sociologists of religion, has taken the time to reexamine where it came from. So much of what he finds will challenge the very foundations of today’s Atheism that, like A Secular Age, Robert Bellah’s Religion in Human Evolution will be critical for understanding the West’s relationship with religion today.

So, secularism studies… surely there’s a syllabus to be made in here somewhere, no?

“Understanding Secularism” to be Focus of New Trinity College Website

“Understanding Secularism” to be Focus of New Trinity College Website

Site will facilitate the Dissemination of Course Materials and Research  

 HARTFORD, CT, May 13, 2011 – The Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture (ISSSC) at Trinity College today launched a new Website, Understanding Secularism ( Its aim is to provide a better understanding of the roles and forms of secularism around the world by disseminating material to educators, researchers, students, and interested members of the public.

 The new website is designed to be a teaching and learning resource. It will offer diverse media and materials, including academic course syllabi, articles, bibliographies, research reports, and essays by ISSSC-affiliated scholars and others. Audio-visual and photographic material will help enliven and elucidate the study of secularism.

 Course outlines and syllabi are varied, ranging from “Liberty of Conscience and the Creation of Secular Society” to “The Dao of Secularism: Political Transformation and Secular Values in 20th Century Asia.”  The articles and reports are equally diverse, and cover such topics as “High School Students’ Opinions about Science Education,” “Evolution in Nature and Society,” and “Anxiety in the Age of Reason.”

 Algeria, Australia, Canada, Denmark, Egypt, France, Great Britain, Greece, India, Iran, Israel, Italy, Lebanon, Spain, Turkey and the United States are among the countries that have material devoted to them.

 “Understanding Secularism is all about providing objective information,” said ISSSC Director Barry A. Kosmin. “Our aim is understanding, critical analysis, and education – not advocacy.”

 Continuing, Kosmin said, “The topic of secularism spans many areas of study and so requires an interdisciplinary approach. Because of this, the site will take a cross-cultural approach that offers a wide range of scholarly and ideological perspectives. The idea is to make the website a vital forum for the exchange of knowledge and ideas among educators, researchers, journalists, policy makers, and concerned citizens.”

 Around the world, secularism is in the news. Whether it is the decline of organized religion in Europe, cultural battles over reproduction and the family in Latin America, or political change in the Middle East, secularism plays a central role in the discussion. It is a perennial issue in India, where the term is used to refer to ideological tolerance and religion-state separation.

 In the United States, the percentage of secular American adults (as indicated by those who reported no religious identification) almost doubled from 8 percent in 1990 to 15 percent in 2008, or from 14 to 34 million people.

 Yet, despite the importance of secularism in contemporary discourse and society, there has been no single place to go for information about it. Understanding Secularism will be that place.

 The ISSSC, which has a global research agenda and strong international ties, was established in 2005 to advance understanding of the roles played by secular values and institutions in contemporary societies. Nonpartisan and multidisciplinary, the ISSSC conducts research, helps develop course curricula, and serves as an educational forum through lectures, seminars, and conferences.

Via the Nonrelgion and Secularity Research Network.

Explaining Islam to the Public

I have just read the following superb post from Edward E. Curtis IV, entitled Explaining Islam to the Public. Whilst I suggest that you have a look yourself, I have pulled out what I consider to be the most relevant bits… mostly on Shari’a Law and Violence.

He begins with a cautionary tale on how Scholars of Islam were suddenly called upon to become public spokespeople in the decade since 9/11:

“Perhaps no group of scholars has had as much at stake in the public understanding of religion of late as Islamic studies specialists. The attacks of 9/11 indirectly created opportunities for career advancement for Islam specialists. […] The expectation that Islamic studies scholars were prepared to “cover” the Islamic tradition and speak to its beliefs and practices on a normative, global basis was stressful for many of us. The idea that we could speak with authority about the practices of 1.4 billion people who speak dozens of languages and have inhabited the planet for the last 1400 years is absurd, of course. Like other academics, Islamic studies scholars are trained in certain fields of knowledge; in the best of programs, they are trained to be exceedingly careful about claiming too much. The pressures to become the academic voice of Islam both on campus and in the media frequently led scholars to abandon caution.”

He continues with a response to the Ground Zero Mosque fiasco, ‘shedding light on Muslim contributions to the histroy of the United States’ and concluding that:

“It may be a strange, even perverse fact of history, but Islam in New York began on or near Ground Zero.”

He then enters into an extended discussion of a piece he wrote for the Washington Post on addressing their proposed ‘myth’, that “Mosques seek to spread shari’a law in the United States”.

Following the scholar Khaled Abou El Fadl, I responded to the myth about shari‘a by writing that shari‘a is an ideal, that it is not codified, and that the human attempt to realize this ideal is called “fiqh,” or jurisprudence. I said that most contemporary mosques don’t actually teach the shari‘a because it is too dry, too pedantic, too arcane. I stressed that mosques devote their weekend classes instead to discussions of the Qur’an and the Sunna and how they apply to everyday life. […]

My answer hadn’t exactly been wrong, but my response to the question was not sufficient. In addition, it did not respond explicitly to the public’s biggest fears, for instance, about the cutting off of hands and stoning. When a Middle East studies newsletter asked for permission to reprint the piece, I kept some of my original answer but added the following: “most mosques in the United States teach only those parts of the shari‘a having to do with religious rituals and obligations. They do not teach the part of the shari‘a having to do with criminal law.” And further: “Few Muslim Americans advocate a shari‘a-based theocracy. Instead, most Muslim Americans insist that democracy is the most Islamic system of governance in the world today.”

Getting rightly annoyed about the one way process of this question and answer approach, he continues:

Responding to the public’s misconceptions about Islam is part of what we do.  But if we cannot question the assumptions on which questions are posed, we cease to be critics. We must retain the ability to ask questions as well as to answer them. The problem with my Washington Postpiece was that I did not explicitly name the prejudice that was animating the question about the shari‘a in the first place. As recent legislation passed in Oklahoma demonstrates, there is a special animus on the part of millions of Americans toward shari‘a, which is viewed, like Islam more generally, as particularly dangerous.

As I reflect on my moment of high-profile public scholarship, and on teaching religion more generally, I want to conclude with two further responses to the “myth” that “mosques seek to spread shari‘a law.” First, perhaps my response to the myth should have been: Yeah, but so what? Most American religious organizations seek to educate others about their ethics and rituals, and that is exactly what most of the shari‘a taught in American mosques is all about. Second, most Muslim Americans are not “spreading” shari‘a; they are trying to figure out how to apply it to their own lives.

And finally, on the widespread conception that Islam is a very violent religion, and the clash of interests between the USA and ‘Islam’:

There is a clash of interests between the U.S. and those whose lives it seeks to shape, often in its own image. But this story does not begin in Mecca; it begins in Washington. Middle Easterners, including Osama bin Laden, were not fantasizing when they saw the U.S. establish military bases in the Gulf region nor when it restored the Kuwaiti amirate to power in 1991, when it intervened on behalf of both the Iraqis and Iranians in the Iraq-Iran war, when it shelled Lebanon in the 1980s, and the list goes on. This is not primarily a story about religious fanaticism but a story about secular, imperial power.

[…] we should spend more time exposing the political contexts in which popular understandings of Islam and religion more broadly are generated, disseminated, and used. And if we must produce a sound-bite about Islam’s role in making violence for the media, then let it be this: “Islam is not the cause of violence, but it does offer one means of resistance to U.S. political, military, and economic domination in Muslim lands.”

A thoroughly engaging post, which contained almost nothing I could disagree with. Here’s hoping as many people as possible read it. I’d also suggest reading some sections from my Very, Very Short Introduction to Islam. Enjoy.

Wordsworth: The Tables Turned

Yesterday was not a good day for me. My research has not been going very well… mostly because I have a vast amount of material and don’t quite know how to deal with it (I think I am getting somewhere now though). I had a long meeting with my supervisor who advised me to take some time off, get some perspective and come back to it. Thus, spending a night in the flat with nothing do… I cracked open a bottle of beer and picked up my William Wordsworth – Selected Poems which I very occasionally dip into.

If I believed in fate, I would say that it was fate that had me turn quickly to this one. It most surely spoke to my current situation… one of the few times that this has happened. Sometimes it is too easy to get bogged down in books (and rightly so, sometimes) and not appreciate the world around us. I give you… The Tables Turned:

Up! up! my Friend, and quit your books;

Or surely you’ll grow double:

Up! up! my friend, and clear your looks,

Why all this toil and trouble?

The sun above the mountain’s head,

A freshening lustre mellow

Through all the long green fields has spread,

His first sweet evening yellow.

Books! ’tis a dull and endless strife:

Come, hear the woodland linnet,

How sweet his music! on my life,

There’s more of wisdom in it.

And hark! how blithe the throstle sings!

He, too, is no mean preacher:

Come forth into the light of things,

Let Nature be your teacher.

She has a world of ready wealth,

Our minds and hearts to bless–

Spontaneous wisdom breathed by health,

Truth breathed by cheerfulness.

One impulse from a vernal wood

May teach you more of man,

Of moral evil and of good,

Than all the sages can.

Sweet is the lore which Nature brings;

Our meddling intellect

Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things:–

We murder to dissect.

Enough of Science and of Art;

Close up those barren leaves;

Come forth, and bring with you a heart

That watches and receives.

Is “Beyond Belief” Beyond Critique?

A very sensible opinion piece about academic credentials not protecting one from criticism. Cheers for this.

 I don’t know Tristan Vick, the blogmeister at Advocatus Atheist, but I think I like him. Back in April, when I wrote a series of articles criticizing New Atheism for being loud and obnoxious, Tristan said I was being loud and obnoxious and to put a lid on it.  I was being so persistently obnoxious, in fact, that if I’d replied to the article then I would have been even louder.  So I’m glad I waited. Time’s a healer. Tristan points out: “Obviously … Read More

via The New Oxonian

College becomes US’s first to offer major in secularism

I am very glad to see that this is happening, though am surprised I have not heard about ti before. I love how the comments on this article, and even the article itself, seem to misunderstand the point. People will not be going to Pitser College to ‘Learn Secularism’ in the same way that people go to a Madhab to ‘Learn Islam’ or to a Bible College to ‘Learn the Gospel’. They will be going there to learn about secularisation…

I am did a Religious Studies undergraduate degree… I learned about religion. Along the way, I learned a lot about secularism, did a dissertation on atheism, and am currently researching the nonreligious. None of these things entail agreeing with that position… nor is it anything to do with preaching, or even legitimating.

By learning about nonreligion, we can expand our knowledge of religion. Just like this works the other way around. We do not make judgements on which is the default position, or on which is the right position…

Here’s to hoping more of these degree programmes appear across the globe. A step in the right direction Phil Zuckerman :)

By Dan Gilgoff, Religion Editor (CNN) — I don’t know whether to be surprised that it happened or surprised that it took so long: a California college has become the first in the nation to offer a major in secularism. The New York Times reported this weekend on the move by Pitzer College, a liberal arts institution in Southern California that’s one of seven Claremont Colleges. Some back story from The Times: The department was proposed by … Read More

via CNN Belief Blog

On a Lighter Note…

On a lighter note…

Here’s some great music that I have just discovered that makes a perfect start to the day: