Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Religious Darwinism

The consensus of opinion among the latest crop of 'scientific' books about religion (by Dawkins, Dennett and Wolpert. More are in the pipeline) is that religion is a by-product of some useful evolutionary adaptation. Recently, I argued that this seems unlikely. From an evolutionary point of view, our religious behavior is distinctive enough to be selected for and this can only happen if they give us a reproductive advantage. So, do they? Empathically, yes!

It turns out that today, in Europe and America, religion gives its adherents an enormous evolutionary advantage over non-believers. The facts are laid out in this article from Prospect Magazine. It turns out that religious people are 40% more fertile than their non-religious countrymen. Non-believers don't even reproduce enough to maintain their population. In other words, atheism is a recipe for rapid extinction. The article also explained that you don't even have to go to church or be a regular member of a congregation to outbreed non-believers. These so-called "believing but not belonging" folk do not have as many children as the devout, but rather more than out and out non-believers.

It seems to me that non-belief must be the "virus of the mind" postulated by Dawkins, if anything is. Non-believers have to convert believers to keep their numbers up because they don't have enough children themselves. Once converted to non-belief, they die out in a couple of generations unless they happen to turn religious again. The article suggests that some sort of equalibrium will result where religious people have the children and the non-religous convert enough of them to maintain their population. It will be interesting to find out. One thing seems to be certain. The high watermark of secularism in Europe is already past. No wonder the new atheists are in such a panic.

Comments or questions? Post them at Bede's dedicated yahoo group.

Monday, October 30, 2006

The Closing of the Western Mind

Charles Freeman and I have had a productive exchange on my review of his book The Closing of the Western Mind which I reviewed here. You can read the full text of our exchange here. I think our replies make clear the nature of our disagreement and also highlight our different approaches to the business of history. Obviously, neither Charles or I are about to retreat from our positions so I expect that this debate will continue to run.

A quick update. In my last post, I mentioned that Terry Eagleton was an atheist. Apparently, this is not the case. Although he is a Marxist, he is also associated with some radical Christian groups. I think he demonstrates that Christianity is broader than Dawkins can possibly conceive. More criticism of Dawkins and Sam Harris from the position of a non-believer (no doubt about this one) can be found here. This article, in Wired Magazine, is well worth reading because it explains why so many secularists are concerned about the polemics of the 'new atheists' and shows how widespread such disquiet is. Thanks to a correspondent for pointing this one out.

Comments or questions? Post them at Bede's dedicated yahoo group.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

A fine review of Dawkins

I've got to say that while he's selling a good few books, Dawkins isn't making many friends. We saw Andrew Brown's opinion a while back in the Guardian and Prospect. Now Terry Eagleton has shredded the God Delusion in the London Review of Books. My thanks to Elliot of Claw of the Conciliator for pointing this out. The first paragraph is a classic:

Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology. Card-carrying rationalists like Dawkins, who is the nearest thing to a professional atheist we have had since Bertrand Russell, are in one sense the least well-equipped to understand what they castigate, since they donÂ?t believe there is anything there to be understood, or at least anything worth understanding. This is why they invariably come up with vulgar caricatures of religious faith that would make a first-year theology student wince.

Eagleton is an atheist and a Marxist, but most famous for being one of the primary vents through which literary theory has oozed into the UK. As such, despite being something of a post-modernist historian (a conservative post-modernist who likes to turn its insights on its creators), I find little to agree with in Eagleton's thought. What's remarkable about The God Delusion is that almost everyone, except Dawkins's precise clones, hates the book. I suppose that means that he is critic-proof, but if I was a professor and all my colleagues accused me of writing drivel, I won't be too happy.

Comments or questions? Post them at Bede's dedicated yahoo group.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Trying to Get Published Part Four

I had an agent. The next step was to go and meet him. Andrew's office is in Pimlico, central London, just around the corner from where I used to live. We had a good meeting. He was very bullish about the chances of finding a publisher for my book. Unfortunately, things turned out not to be so simple.

Having an agent means that editors at publishing houses will look at your work. It doesn't mean that they will buy it. Some of them provided varying degrees of feedback. One loved it, but couldn't get it through his marketing committee. Another said it was too high brow. Yet another (admittedly the trade arm of a university press), thought it was too low brow. Almost everyone agreed it was a great idea but not for them. After a few months of this we decided that it was time to have a rethink. Andrew sent the proposal and sample chapters off to another reader who was enjoined to be as critical as possible in his report.

Then, we had another meeting and decided that the problem was my book was falling between two stools. It read like an academic work that was trying to be accessible, not like a work actually written for laypeople. Like many authors, I was guilty of writing a book I would want to read rather than one with mass appeal. The new reader's report was very helpful in this regard and I was sent off to transform my idea into a truly commercial proposition. To do this I had to add colour, vignettes of everyday life and more anecdotes. The challenge was to do it without compromising my historical integrity. However, I was also told to be as controversial as I could manage. As I had toned down some aspects of my thinking in my first draft, I felt I had a licence to re-introduce them. Thus, I continued my war against judgmental terms for historical periods like 'Dark Ages', 'Renaissance' and 'Enlightenment'.

Finally, I took out almost all references to Christianity, especially my own beliefs. That's the world we live in, folks.

Comments or questions? Post them at Bede's dedicated yahoo group.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Feedback from Authors

Charles Freeman, the author of The Closing of the Western Mind, which I gave a very critical review to here, has responded. It is a great honour that the author of the book has taken the time to email me. You can read his email by logging onto my Yahoo group. I hope to publish it on my website as well if Mr Freeman gives his permission. I'll reply to his important points in the next few days but I need to visit the library first.

On another matter, Charles Mann, author of 1491 (published as Ancient Americans in the UK), was in touch a while back about whether or not the Church tried to ban zero, as he said in the first edition of the book. He promised to amend the relevant passage in the next edition and this has just come out. Chris Price, over at the CADRE blog, spotted that 1491's paperback edition has indeed changed to a more accurate note that Arabic numerals were banned by some secular authorities due to worries about fraud. Even better, Chris and I are thanked in the Afterward for helping sort this out. So thank you too, Mr Mann.

Comments or questions? Post them at Bede's dedicated yahoo group.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Science in the 21st Century

School children in England and Wales will soon be learning a new kind of science. A GCSE (an exam taken at 16) called Science in the 21st Century has been launched with the first candidates sitting the exam in 2008.

Scientists are up in arms because the new course is light on maths, test tubes and bad smells. They are afraid it is not rigorous enough to prepare students to study science at university. This is probably very true, but general education should be about educating everyone and not just the boffins with an affinity to lab coats. I had a look at the syllabus for the new exam and think that it is fantastic. We desperately need people to be able to make informed decisions about science and not be taken in either by the latest health scares or scientists telling them what to believe. Big questions like nuclear power, global warming, superbugs and obesity are not going to be solved by trigonometry or resolving forces. Children have to understand these issues to be useful citizens in 21st century democracies. It is not enough to expect them to pick the issues up from the TV or newspapers. So a round of applause for this new course. Ignore the naysaying scientists - they are just afraid of us having a population who knows what they are talking about.

I was surprised to find Simon Jenkins in the Guardian agreeing with me on this one. The last time I found myself nodding while reading one of his articles was in about 1997.

Comments or questions? Post them at Bede's dedicated yahoo group.

Friday, October 13, 2006

The Nobel Committee Gets It Right

I was pleased by the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to the Grameen Bank. The bank is a successful illustration that capitalism is a force for good and it is economic development that has the best chance of promoting peace in the world. The Nobel committee, which suffers from the mentality of a university social science department, has shown unexpected and welcome imagination here. Some previous winners of this prize have been laughable (Kofi Annan!?!).

Last year's literature prize went to a deserving recipient, Harold Pinter, but probably for the wrong reasons (his silly politics). This year the literature prize was also politically motivated when it was awarded to Orhan Pamuk. He has been persecuted by the Turkish authorities for his criticism of the official silence over the Armenian controversy and Kurdish policy. I have more sympathy for him than I do for Pinter, but I can't help wondering if a literature prize should be awarded for good writing.

Comments or questions? Post them at Bede's dedicated yahoo group.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Evolution's Biggest Problem

A few years back I read lots of books about evolution and intelligent design in an effort to get to the bottom of the controversy. I came to the conclusion that neo-Darwinism is almost certainly correct and intelligent design almost certainly inapplicable to evolution. However, I also saw how difficult it can be to take on board all the facts that are necessary to prove the case for evolution. The basic idea of mutation and natural selection is quite simple, although not quite as simple as 'survival of the fittest'. However, to accept that this idea can account for the variety of life requires a great deal more information and comprehension.

I've got no doubt that many of those who think that they understand evolution actually don't. Reading one of Professor Dawkins's books will not provide enough information or convince anyone who doesn't want to be convinced. Dawkins's genius, like that of many popular science writers, is to make his readers feel they understand more than they do. But a reader who comes to his work with a critical eye is unlikely to be convinced by it because they won't fall into the trap of letting Dawkins flatter their intellect. Rather, his polemic and anti-religious bigotry are likely to dissuade just those people who he has to try hardest to convince.

The main problem for evolution is, I think, that to do the legwork needed for an inquiring mind to accept the theory in full requires some goodwill towards it. The evidence is wideranging and disparate. There is no magic-bullet argument and no killer experiment. Rather there is a huge range of material from different disciplines (such as paleontology, molecular biology, statistics, zoology etc.) that mould together into a single matrix that can, taken together, bear the theoretical load placed upon it. But comprehending the matrix as a whole is only something you'll do if you are willing to look. Many of the aggressive advocates for evolution discourage critics from even wanting to see the whole. Instead, critics try to pick at individual threads that alone cannot convince.

Many Christians have learnt to look at the Bible as a whole. They don't feel they have to provide a cast iron defence of every verse against sceptics who are determined to find mistakes. Christians tend to exercise some goodwill towards the Bible and give individual troublesome verses the benefit of the doubt. We reach truth by distinguishing the wood from the trees. The same principles are necessary, I believe, to accept evolution as a whole. By destroying goodwill towards the theory, Dawkins and company do it no favours.

Comments or questions? Post them at Bede's dedicated yahoo group.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Trying to Get Published - Part Three

The US agent wrote to whom I had sent my book proposal wrote back:

I'm afraid this material is not for me. I'm very anti-religion and all the references to Christianity made me uncomfortable. I realize you can't do a history of any aspect of the Middle Ages without dealing with Christianity, but for a book to be right for me, it has to deal with Christianity as a purely anthropological phenomenon. I certainly wouldn't say your book is any kind of pro-Christian propaganda but it definitely had a feeling of warm sympathy for the Church, a gentle bias, which does not fit with my own interests or prejudices.
I had been prepared for the agent telling me my idea was not commercial or that I couldn't write well enough, but this was a big surprise. Most annoyingly, he didn't actually say if he thought the book was any good. Back to the drawing board.

Next, I decided to send my proposal to the UK agents who had initially responded. However, before I had sent anything off I happened upon a useful website. It belonged to a literary agent in London called Andrew Lownie. He gave some useful submission suggestions and also said he welcomed initial contact by email. I dropped him a line and he quickly replied asking for me to email the proposal to him. I reworked my material according to the format that his submissions page asked for and emailed it off. You can read the book proposal here. Again a week passed and then Andrew wrote back to say that he had received an excellent report from his reader and would be happy to take me on. Before long, I had both an author page and a summary of my book on his website.

Finding an agent had been a good deal easier than I expected, but getting published has so far proved much harder...

Comments or questions? Post them at Bede's dedicated yahoo group.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Wrong but in a Nice Way

An good article in the Guardian today by Roy Hattersley. He is a Labour politician whose policies, IMHO, are decidedly wrongheaded in many ways. But he knows the history of the labour movement and social democracy is a history of Christianity. He has even thrown off much
of the prejudice of his 'rationalist' upbringing.

If only all atheists were as open to reason.

Comments or questions? Post them at Bede's dedicated yahoo group.