skepticism

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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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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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The recent suspension of the James Randi Educational Foundation’s YouTube account has apparently been reversed.  There doesn’t seem to be an announcement on the JREF website, nor has an official explanation of the reason for the suspension been revealed.  However, it was only a brief hiatus, and it’s good that normal service will be restored.

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I guess one shouldn’t be surprised by this doublethink, but Catholic bishops in the US have rejected the bonkers alternative “therapy” reiki – because it’s superstition.  As The Guardian (Catholic bishops in US ban Japanese reiki) reports (and I’m always cautious when reading news on April 1st, but the article is dated 31st March!), the bishops say:

“A Catholic who puts his or her trust in reiki would be operating in the realm of superstition, the no man’s land that is neither faith nor science. Superstition corrupts one’s worship of God by turning one’s religious feeling and practice in a false direction.”

Apparently the group of US bishops say that reiki is incompatible with Christian teaching and scientific evidence.  Since when has scientific evidence been important to religion?  And isn’t belief in an Invisible Magic Friend rather superstitious in itself?  A christian Reiki master (actually mistress, I suppose) is quoted as saying:

“There is so much bad information about reiki, anti-Christian information, on the internet,” she said. “It says we channel spirits and that’s not true. Reiki balances energy in the same way as acupuncture or reflexology. I know of two nuns in the Philadelphia area, one who runs a retreat centre, who have done wonderful work. The bishops weren’t talking to women like that.”

Of course, reiki is in the same frame as other quack therapies such as acupuncture and reflexology.  And it’s not that different to religion in at least one sense – it requires a complete suspension of rational thinking to take it seriously.

Update: A few bloggers beat me to it on this story – The New Humanist blog has some additional information worth looking at.

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James Randi with some expensive art
Image via Wikipedia

It appears that the James Randi Educational Foundation have had their YouTube account suspended – no reason is known.

The JREF are an outstanding bulwark against the rise of paranormal and supernatural ideas in society, internationally.  I cannot for the life of me see why this decision can have be made.  The JREF’s mission, as quoted from their website:

The James Randi Educational Foundation is a not-for-profit organization founded in 1996. Its aim is to promote critical thinking by reaching out to the public and media with reliable information about paranormal and supernatural ideas so widespread in our society today.

Seems eminently reasonable to me.  You can write letters in protest, though I guess it would help if we knew why the JREF’s account had been suspended.

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