July 2009

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So here’s an interesting story (Creationist exams comparable to international A-levels, says Naric).  I’ve never heard of Naric before – it’s the National Recognition Information Centre, and is tasked with advising universities and employers on the rigour of lesser-known qualifications. Unfortunately it’s pronounced on the International Certificate of Christian Education (ICCE). One might have had alarm bells ringing at the mere title of that “qualification”, and really those alarm bells would be justified.

Naric has ruled that the ICCE is comparable to courses such as international A-levels. Unfortunately, one of the ICCE textbooks says:

“Have you heard of the ‘Loch Ness Monster’ in Scotland? ‘Nessie,’ for short has been recorded on sonar from a small submarine, described by eyewitnesses, and photographed by others. Nessie appears to be a plesiosaur.

“Could a fish have developed into a dinosaur? As astonishing as it may seem, many evolutionists theorize that fish evolved into amphibians and amphibians into reptiles. This gradual change from fish to reptiles has no scientific basis. No transitional fossils have been or ever will be discovered because God created each type of fish, amphibian, and reptile as separate, unique animals. Any similarities that exist among them are due to the fact that one Master Craftsmen fashioned them all.”

To anyone with a modicum of understanding, this is just appalling, and the fact that in 2009 we have schools teaching this rubbish to children is nothing short of scandalous. Oh, and did you know that apartheid was helpful to communities in South Africa because it “made it possible for each group to maintain and pass on their culture and heritage to their children”?

Appalling. And to think that there are 50 christian schools peddling this stuff.

Naric is funded by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (Mandelson’s empire, and the Department that oversees Universities) – but a Naric spokesman is quoted in the Guardian as saying that its remit did not cover the curriculum’s content. Which makes me wonder what sort of advice regarding the rigour of qualifications they are capable of providing.

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There’s a nice article at the BBC News site (Camp offers ‘godless alternative’) about the Camp Quest being held in the UK. Of course summer camps here in the UK are somewhat less established than is the case in the USA, where it would seem from news reports that they often have a broadly christian attitude.

You can find out more about Camp Quest at their website. I’ve been seeing quite a lot of negative comment about Camp Quest in the UK press, much of it rather viciously and inaccurately labelling it as some devious brainchild of Richard Dawkins and aimed at indoctrinating children away from christianity. In reality, Dawkins’ involvement was limited to a donation of less than £500 from the Richard Dawkins Foundation.

The BBC News report makes rather refreshing reading – the kids don’t seem to be suffering indoctrination and appear to be enjoying the experience, despite the poor weather. Indeed several families aren’t particularly opposed to attendance at more christian camps!

The whole focus seems to be on a rational approach to evidence. For example, the camp’s director is quoted:

“If the children were to come up with a question about creationism for example, we would discuss the evidence. We wouldn’t say, ‘Creationism is rubbish’… if they weigh the evidence and think there’s a good case for it.”

One neat touch is the “unicorn task” – the children are told that in the camp lives a pair of unicorns. Unfortunately, these beasts are invisible, can’t be heard, tasted, smelt or touched – furthermore the only evidence to support the assertion of their existence is an ancient dusty tome. The task is to devise a way to disprove their existence.

It’s this amusing task that’s aroused the ire of a churchman, who’s the lone protestor waving placards at the gates, who clearly understands the implications of the task…

I’m not particularly convinced that I’d have enjoyed going to a camp as a child – I’ve never been one for being organised, but perhaps this might have been the one…

Update:  I see a commentator at The Independent also labels Camp Quest as “Richard Dawkins’ five-day atheist summer camp” (Ellie Levenson: An atheist camp is a terrible idea)

Update 2: Note the blinkered nonsense in many of the comments here.  The comments get progressively more stupid, it seems to me (hat-tip – PZ Myers)

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As a frequent cycle tourist in the Outer Hebrides, a news item on the BBC News website (Sunday ferry makes first sailing) caught my eye.  The lack of Ferries operating on Sundays between the Island of Lewis and Harris and the mainland can be a major hassle for the cycle tourist – in the past this has occasioned  a mad dash by loaded tandem to the ferry to get off the island before Sunday, as not only are their no ferries on a Sunday, but pretty much everything else is apparently closed for the day.

The news is that Caledonian MacBrayne (popularly known as CalMac – see one of their ferries leaving Uig on Skye, below), the ferry company that services the Hebrides (and in fact is pretty much the economic lifeline to the islands) has begun operating Sunday sailings between Stornoway on Lewis and Ullapool on the mainland.

CalMac ferry leaving Uig, on the Isle of Skye

CalMac ferry leaving Uig, on the Isle of Skye

It’s not clear to me from reading the article whether this ferry sailing is part of a regular sailing, or merely an additional sailing to transport passengers stranded by mechanical problems with their scheduled ferry. In any event, there was a peaceful protest from some of the locals.

I’m in two minds about all this.  On the one hand as an atheist, the enforced observance of the sabbath grates, particularly when partnered with the rather dour Free Church of Scotland, which seems to be the predominat sect up there.  But on the other hand this is part of Hebridean culture, and it’s one of the things that makes the Isles different, and worth visiting.  Reading between the lines, and of course over-interpreting, I wonder whether the pro-sabbath-sailing camp are incomers, versus the anti-sabbath-sailing locals.  And of course, there’s this dreadful tendency for cultural homogenisation I see around us, where I visit places that are less and less different to the place I live.  I want diversity in the world, and if that includes a ban on Sunday sailings, well that’s OK by me.  Perhaps they will go for a popular vote on it…

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The BBC’s Radio 4 morning broadcast includes a daily slot entitled Thought for the Day, in which religious figures are allowed to pontificate away to their hearts’ content for a few minutes.  In classic religious style, they generally begin with reference to some current news story or topic, then gradually veer off to indulge themselves in a bit of religious posturing.

As a habitually early riser, I catch this slot each morning as part of Radio 4′s flagship news show, Today.  You can see the usual contents of the slot, and indeed listen to some at the Thought for the Day web page.  However, I advise reading the excellent Platitude of the Day website, which offers an atheist’s transcript of each Thought for the Day broadcast.

For quite a long time now, there have been rumblings that Thought for the Day is somewhat outdated, and indeed my view is that excluding a secular voice is rather discriminatory, and suggests that atheists and agnostics don’t have a worthwhile opinion on ethical issues (though I believe Richard Dawkins was given a brief slot immediately following Thought for the Day a few years ago).  Now, according the The Times Online (BBC ponders Thought for the Day: should secularists be allowed?).  So, should the “God slot” be preserved as it is, or should secularists be given a voice?

The three-minute section of the Today programme on Radio 4, which has been derided by one former editor as a “reservoir of pointlessness and boredom”, would be opened up to humanists and secularists under plans being considered by the BBC Trust, the corporation’s governing body.

Amusingly, Mark Damazer (Controller of Radio 4) refers to the issue as a “finely balanced argument”.  Of course the mere suggestion that the various religious groups might have to give way upsets the respective groups, used to getting preferential treatment:

A Church of England spokesman said: “We would strongly resist moves to add non-religious voices to one of the few protected spots in the schedule where religious views on issues of the day can be expressed openly. Thought for the Day is highly valued by people of all faiths and none.”

I suppose that’s true in a way – I value it as a regular comedy slot, fuelled by my reading of Platitude of the Day.  Hanne Stinson of the British Humanist Association, said:

“If it’s right to have a slot within the programme for people to have an ethical perspective on issues, then it should be open to all kinds of people.”

Quite.  But on the other hand, I’d quite miss the daily idiocy offered by a multitude of mutually imcompatible faiths – I wonder whether a rational speaker could really match the absurdity that’s usually served up as a “spiritual view”!

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With many thanks to Pharyngula, I discover the excellent Far Left Side, with today’s cartoon satirising the new chair of the Texas State Board of Education:

Please do visit the excellent Far Left Side.

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The Times reports (Pope Benedict XVI clears way for Cardinal Newman to become a saint) that the Vatican is likely to create the first British saint since the 1970s.  The article says that Cardinal John Henry Newman is the “most important convert from the Church of England to Catholicism”.  That’s as may be, but it’s interesting to read what needs to happen to become a saint.

From the Cardinal John Henry Newman Wikipedia page, it appears that one needs a verified miracle to be beatified, and a further verified miracle to be canonised.  The Times’ article says

The Pope opened the way for the beatification in 2001 when he recognised claims that Jack Sullivan, a Catholic deacon in Boston in the US, had been miraculously healed of a “serious debility of the spine” at the intercession of Newman, who died in 1890.
In 2000 Mr Sullivan, who is married with three children, prayed for the Cardinal’s help after being warned by his doctor that his back problem could result in paralysis. Next morning, he awoke to find that his pain had gone and that he was able to walk properly for the first time in months.

Essentially some bloke prayed to get better via the intercession of a dead religious figure, then woke up better. One does wonder how a serious investigation could “prove” that Mr Sullivan’s recovery was anything to do with someone who’d been dead for over a century, or indeed to “prove” that Mr Sullivan prayed only to the one dead religious figure.  The Times’ article doesn’t explain further.

Apparently there’s now been a second miracle (as yet uninvestigated), though the article doesn’t go into details on that one.  But I predict the miracle will have affected a strong believer, much as Mr Sullivan is reported to be a “Catholic deacon”.  Newman’s Wikipedia page does offer the following:

A second miracle would need to be confirmed before Newman could be canonized as a saint. The Vatican’s Sacred Congregation for the Causes of Saints is expected to consider the case of a 17-year-old New Hampshire resident, who fully recovered from severe head injuries suffered in a car accident after invoking Cardinal Newman.

Essentially these cases represent unexpected recovery from serious medical conditions (events which can and do occur without the intercession of dead people).  Over at the Wikipedia page for Congregation for the Causes of Saints (the Catholic body that investigates claimed miracles), I found this:

The miracle may go beyond the possibilities of nature either in the substance of the fact or in the subject, or only in the way it occurs. So three degrees of miracle are to be distinguished. The first degree is represented by resurrection from the dead (quoad substantiam). The second concerns the subject (quoad subiectum): the sickness of a person is judged incurable, in its course it can even have destroyed bones or vital organs; in this case not only is complete recovery noticed, but even wholesale reconstitution of the organs (restitutio in integrum). There is then a third degree (quoad modum): recovery from an illness, that treatment could only have achieved after a long period, happens instantaneously.

It would be interesting to know how many claims are made for each of the three degrees of miraculous intervention, and the proportion of each that pass investigation.  Also from that article, here’s the progression from dead religious person to Saint:

Stages of Canonization in the Roman Catholic Church

Servant of God →   Venerable →   Blessed →   Saint

Apparently Cardinal Newman is at stage 2 – he’s referred to as being the Venerable – while getting to stage 3 requires the approval of a miracle (this is what’s about to happen), while advancing to full sainthood (stage 4) requires the investigation and approval of a second miracle.  Presumably this is still to happen, so maybe the Times’ headline is a little premature?  As a hardened atheist, the whole process looks rather mediaeval.  And Newman’s not very active – two cures in over a century since he died seems a very minor intercession to me.

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