Friday, November 28, 2008

Thursday, November 27, 2008

The Brick Testament

The Bible, done in Lego. I particularly like the Book of Job. And advice on stoning. This is officially the work of a Reverend, but is clearly a clever spoof. It certainly gets you to look at the Bible in a new way. Some bits are very funny.

This reminds me of Outrageous Tales From the Old Testament, as it's just the original, unvarnished text illustrated (with, I grant you, some rather tongue in cheek speech bubbles). The illustrations, being in an incongruous style, bring home just outrageous the tales really are.

Some nice stuff in the shop. Ships to U.K.

The page for the book of the Ten Commandments contains this review:

This book, and the corresponding website, is written by an atheist, and the website contains disturbing Lego "creations" by the author that young children should not be exposed to. How irresponsible for this author to use children to advance his agenda regarding his lack of belief in God.

Ironic. Possibly this is itself a spoof comment? As I say, the book presents the original text, and illustrates it using Lego. How could showing illustrated passages of the Bible to a child be a problem? Because this really is the unvarnished text, revealed in all its gory horror and moral perniciousness - not the highly selective, Disney-fied version kids usually get in their "Bible Stories For Children."

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Toby Keith, and hating America

Toby Keith - country and western superstar. I have just been trawling through this guy's back catalogue after discovering him on the Stephen Colbert Christmas Album. At first I thought he was a spoof, but no...

Check out this stirring video: "We'll put a boot in your ass, it's the American way."

On the Colbert Christmas album (see UK itunes) Keith sings a song about Americans taking Christmas back and decapitating those who call for the separation of church and state.

For some reason we Brits - especially the left-leaning Liberal ones - are constantly being told we are anti-American. We hate America.

I really don't think I do. I'm a big fan, I'd say. The problem is the U.S. has for some time now been run by the elected representatives of those who buy Toby Keith albums. Criticisms of "America", in this context, were criticisms of American policy, especially foreign policy, and the dickheads running it. Those days are over, we hope. Like many Americans we Brits also got all teary-eyed when Obama won. All's forgiven. We don't hate America anymore.

Unless, of course, Palin is right and it's Toby Keith and those who love him that are the "real America". Then, hey, I still hate America!

Anyway, this is just for the benefit of Brits who have never come across Toby Keith, who is unintentionally funny (and intentionally scary) and almost beyond belief.

Review of his recent album here (that's the cover, btw):

Amazingly, it's already been six years since Toby Keith ignited Americans' patriotism with his post-9/11 anthem "Courtesy Of The Red, White & Blue (The Angry American)". However, it doesn't appear that time has healed all wounds. In Keith's latest release You're Next Iran!, the singer takes the opportunity to renew his disdain for terrorism, and most of the Middle East in general. In the album's title track, Keith hurls verbal barbs at the aforementioned country (and most of its neighbors), threatening "some serious pain" if its leaders try "any funny stuff." On other songs, the honky-tonk hero sends a warning to Saudi Arabia about oil prices ("Fuel The Fire") and cautions Syria about harboring terrorists ("Keep Your Nose Clean"). Unfortunately, much of the passion of "Courtesy of..." is missing from this album, and some of the aggression seems rather forced. This is perhaps best evidenced on the track "Wrong Place, Wrong Time" where Keith takes some un-provoked pot shots at largely-peaceful Qatar, stating "You're just like the rest, so don't mess with the best." Die-hard Toby Keith fans should feel right at home with this album, but most others will probably want to steer clear.

POSTSCRIPT - I didn't notice at first that this review was wholly satirical. There's really no such album. Thanks to Paul C.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Centre for Inquiry CARL SAGAN T-shirts now available

You can go to an on-line store here. We are not making any profit on these - but if you want to donate a couple of quid, go to and hit the "Support CFI UK" button.

The Sagan picture shirts are on white or light colour only. Otherwise choose any colour you want. Hit the shirt to get the colour options.

I might pull the picture shirts shortly, depending on copyright issues, so if you want one get in right now!

These T-shirts are all Carl Sagan themed. Later, if I feel inspired, I may do e.g. a twee "Russell's Teapot" and an all-action "Bullshit Force!" (perhaps based on the A-Team, only with Russell, Sagan, Dawkins, and Randi as Mr T) version.

Free Speech and Fatwa event

I am on the panel for the following event.

Institute of Ideas and Bishopsgate Institute present:


12 February: 19.00 - 21.00

Bishopsgate Institute, 230 Bishopsgate, London EC2M 4QH

In February 1989, five months after the publication of The Satanic Verses, Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa against its author Salman Rushdie. It is often seen as a pivital moment in shaping the landscape of contemporary Western society. So, twenty years on, what is the legacy of the most famous free speech controversy of modern times?

Kenan Malik, whose book From Fatwa to Jihad: the Salman Rushdie affair and its legacy will be published in February 2009, will explore the impact of the Rushdie affair on our perceptions of free speech, multiculturalism and Islam.

Claire Fox will chair a panel debating the issues and the audience will also have their say in what promises to be a lively discussion.

Tickets: £7/£5
Call Bishopsgate Institute on 020 7932 9220

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Oxford University Secular Soc talk - change of venue

The talk tomorrow night will now be in the Latner Room,
St Peter's college Oxford at 7.30.


Would anyone be interested in Centre for Inquiry London T Shirts if I have them made up? Cost depends on numbers...

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

USA TODAY article on atheism

(thanks to Josh Kutchinsky for this)

Things are definitely changing over the pond....(source here)


It’s not easy not believing in God in the USA. That’s why a group of non-believers is trying to shed the strident image of past atheists by promoting a better side of those sitting on religion’s sidelines.

By Tom Krattenmaker

Being an atheist is not easy in this age of great public religiosity in America. Not when the overwhelming majority of Americans profess some form of belief in God. Not when many believers equate non-belief with immorality. Not when more people would automatically disqualify an atheist for the presidency (53%, according to a USA TODAY/Gallup Poll) than a gay candidate (43%), for example, or a Mormon (24%).
(Alejandro Gonzalez / USA TODAY)

Anti-atheism might have found its ugliest public expression during an episode in the Illinois Legislature this spring. As atheist activist Rob Sherman attempted to testify against a $1 million state grant to a church, Rep. Monique Davis railed, "This is the Land of Lincoln where people believe in God, where people believe in protecting their children. … It's dangerous for our children to even know that your philosophy exists! … You have no right to be here! We believe in something. You believe in destroying!"

Lest we dismiss the legislator's harangue as an anomaly, consider the organizations that bar atheists from membership — the Boy Scouts of America and American Legion, to name two, as well as some local posts of the Veterans of Foreign Wars — and the conspicuous absence of openly atheist politicians on the national stage.

Mindful of atheism's reviled reputation, a new current in non-belief is intent on showing the public what atheists are for. You might be surprised by what's on their short list. Because, save for the belief-in-a-deity part, it sounds a lot like what most Americans value. Care for one's community and fellow human beings, love of country and cherished American principles, the pursuit and expansion of knowledge — these are the elements of the new "positive atheism."

A new face

The reputation of atheists has not been well-served by the surly attacks on religion by some of atheism's highest-profile torch carriers. From the best-selling atheist manifestos of recent years to Bill Maher's new Religulous movie, the loudest voices of non-belief have exhibited much of the same stridency and flair for polemics as the religious fundamentalists they excoriate.

But if Margaret Downey keeps making progress with her campaign to show a different face of atheism, it's possible to imagine the day when avowing one's non-belief will not be political suicide. (It seems to be just that today, given that only one member of Congress, Rep. Pete Stark of California, has revealed that he does not believe in a deity; in view of polling data suggesting that some 5% to 15% of Americans are atheists and agnostics, it seems certain there are at least a few more non-believing senators and representatives in the halls — and closets — of Congress.)

Downey, having recently finished a stint as president of the Atheist Alliance International, is now organizing a non-believers' unity convention to take place in 2011. She is the poster person for positive atheism, a term she uses for a new face of atheism that emphasizes the good things in which non-believers do believe.

Downey does not move in the ways of the late atheist spokesperson Madalyn Murray O'Hair, who was known for her caustic mockery of religion and its followers. And despite Downey's friendship with the outspoken atheist author Richard Dawkins, of The God Delusion fame (who likens the religious indoctrination of kids to child abuse), Downey is more interested in building bridges than walls.

In an episode earlier this year in the Philadelphia area, where Downey lives, the stage appeared set for an atheist-vs.-Christian billboards shouting match: Downey and colleagues had posted a billboard on Interstate 95 saying, "Don't believe in God? You're not alone," prompting a local Christian congregation to erect signs with a counter-message promoting God. Instead of escalating the billboard battle, Downey and company asked those who put up the pro-belief sign to join forces and volunteer with them for a Philadelphia charity. The people from the Light Houses of Oxford Valley congregation accepted the offer and teamed up with the atheists to spend a half-day sorting and packaging food for the needy.

"My goal is to teach by example that we believe in the importance of helping improve the human condition," Downey says. "We atheists simply add one more 'o' to our belief system — we believe in good."

The spirit of positive atheism infused this fall's convention of the Atheist Alliance, which comprises nearly 60 U.S. atheist groups with combined membership of about 5,000. Attendees gave blood and had their hair shorn for use in cancer patients' wigs. At last year's convention, Downey presided over a baby-naming ceremony, where parents and their supporters exalted wisdom, love, honesty and the beauty of nature, and the newborns were given not godparents, but "guideparents."

The leader of positive atheism certainly is not above going to court to protect the rights of non-believers. But in a holiday-season episode last year, Downey and her free-thinking allies responded to a crèche and menorah in front of the Chester County Courthouse outside Philadelphia not with a lawsuit, but a display of their own — a "Tree of Knowledge."The 22-foot-high evergreen was decorated with color copies of book covers, the titles included the Bible, the Quran and numerous other works on religion, atheism and evolution.

When it comes down to it, the positive atheists aren't inventing something new so much as highlighting something that has long been true about atheists. Namely, that non-believers have always stood shoulder to shoulder with fellow citizens doing the things Americans generally do: working hard, obeying the laws, helping the needy and doing what they can to improve their communities.

Let's recall that invective from the Illinois legislator who could not tolerate the malevolent presence of — gasp! — an atheist in "the Land of Lincoln." Monique Davis' reference to the revered 16th president is instructive, although not in the way she intended. Lincoln's own story teaches a cautionary lesson to those who would exclude and condemn some Americans on the basis of their religion, or lack thereof.

Honest Abe's example

Davis might be surprised to learn that Lincoln himself was frequently attacked by politically active pastors in his time. As the author Susan Jacoby documents in Freethinkers, her 2004 book on the history of American secularism, presidential candidate Lincoln rued the opposition he faced from 20 of the 23 Protestant ministers in his hometown of Springfield, Ill. Earlier in his career, Lincoln complained about opposition from religious figures who warned Christian voters against him on the grounds, Lincoln wrote, that "I belonged to no church (and) was suspected of being a deist."

Lincoln — the man accused of insufficient piety in his time — is appropriately lionized today for his unswerving courage and moral clarity. Honest Abe's example strongly suggests that we all think twice before asserting that our religious camp has a monopoly on truth and virtue. And that we acknowledge that non-believers — who can be found all across the landscape engaging in acts of decency and battles for justice — are worthy citizens in a country whose Constitution imposes no religious test and whose tradition cherishes freedom of choice in all matters religious.

Yes, there is a place for atheists in the Land of Lincoln. Especially in the Land of Lincoln.

Tom Krattenmaker, who lives in Portland, Ore., specializes in religion in public life and is a member of USA TODAY's board of contributors. His book on Christianity in professional sports will be published in the spring.

Monday, November 17, 2008

God: Knowing without evidence

In discussion about the existence of God, atheists often demand to see the evidence for God, and, in response, some theists (with some familiarity with the "reformed epistemology" of theists like Alston, Plantinga, etc.) will ask why evidence is needed in order for the belief to be rational/reasonable.

Exactly this has been going on in the comments on my final installment of the God Delusion book club.

If you are scratching your head over this (and some of you clearly are) here is a very brief explanation.

One popular sort of theory of knowledge (knowledge = justified true belief) says that:

a knows that P if and only if:
(i) a believes P
(ii) P is true
(iii) a is justified in believing P

What does "justified" mean? Well, good evidence would provide justification - you infer the belief from this evidence. But a regress threatens. To know A, I infer it from B, but to know B I must infer it from C, ad infinitum. But then no belief will be justified. Global scepticism looms.

One way out of the regress is to either (i) understand "justified" as including non-inferential forms of justification, or (ii) just drop the justification condition and replace it with something else.

Here is an example of the second strategy:

a knows that P iff:
(i) a believes that P
(ii) P is true
(iii) a's belief that P is produced by the state of affairs P via a reliable mechanism

This is a simple RELIABILIST theory of knowledge.

Suppose your senses are reliable mechanisms for producing true beliefs. If there's an orange on the table in front of you, your eyes etc. will cause you to believe there's an orange there. Remove the orange, and that will cause you to stop believing there's an orange there. Because your senses are fairly reliable belief-producing mechanisms, your beliefs "track the truth" in a fairly reliable way.

If that is the case, then you can be a knower. You can know there's an orange on the table in front of you. You can know this, despite not inferring that the orange is there from evidence. You simply, directly, know. Non-inferentially. And, indeed, without justification (unless you want to redefine justification so that being in this situation counts as "being justified").

Moreover, add some philosophers, it is pretty reasonable for you to believe there is an orange there if that is how it directly seems to you.

So you can have a belief, unsupported by any inference, unjustified, yet nevertheless qualifying as both reasonable and (if the reliable mechanism is doing its stuff) knowledge.

Of course, this theory of knowledge is manna from heaven to a theist. They can now suggest they may have a special sense - a God-sensing mechanism ("sensus divinitatis") that is functioning reliably - which accounts for why it just seems to them that God exists. If there is such a mechanism, and it is producing their belief, then (i) it's reasonable for them to believe God exists, and (ii) they know God exists, despite not possessing any evidence or justification.

This is where Kyle is coming from, I take it. Ask a theist what their evidence for God is, and they can say - "I have no evidence. I just know he does". And, if reliabilism is correct, it could be true: they do "just know". In the same way that you can "just know" there's an orange on the table.

Personally, I quite like reliabilism and such "externalist" theories of knowledge ("externalist" means you don't need to know that the conditions for your knowing obtain - you can know without knowing you know).

However, I am, predictably, entirely unconvinced by theistic attempts to use reliabilism to show that their belief in God is reasonable, and, if it's acquired by a reliable sensus divinitatis, knowledge. There are some pretty obvious problems with it (obvious even to many theists, in fact: they certainly don't all go for this stuff).

We did spend quite a lot of time on this stuff a while ago. See here and here.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Talk at Oxford University Secular Society

I will speak on "Could it be pretty obvious there's no God?" at the Oxford University Secular Society next Friday 21st November. £1 non-members.

Venue: Saskatchewan Room, Exeter College, Oxford. 7.30pm.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Simon Singh sued by the British Chiropractic Association

Alternative medicine calls in the lawyers

Science author Simon Singh (who is speaking at the CFI London Science and Religion event in April) is being sued by the British Chiropractic Association (BCA).

The action is being taken over a passage in an article Singh wrote for the Guardian about the BCA.

The case was reported here by the Telegraph.

The excellent Jack of Kent sets out the alleged libel here.

This case is important because if the BCA wins there is a host of other alternative medical practitioners (homeopaths, etc.) who will probably also sue if it's suggested there's no evidence their treatment works.

If the case goes ahead, we'll see the evidence for and against the efficacy of chiropractice as a treatment for various ailments set out in court - which will be interesting!

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

BOOK CLUB: The God Delusion, chpt 10

The one thing I'll pull from this last chapter is Dawkins suggestion that few religious people seem really to believe. Or, if they do, it's hard to understand why their reaction to death is as it is.

"I can't help wondering how many moderate religious people who claim such belief really hold it, in their hearts. If they were truly sincere, shouldn't they behave like the Abbot of Ampleforth? When Cardinal Basil Hume told him he was dying, the abbot was delighted for him: "Congratulations! That's brilliant news. I wish I was coming with you." The abbot, it seems, really was a sincere believer. But it is precisely because it is so rare and unexpected that this story catches our attention, almost provokes our amusement...Why don't all Christians and Muslims say something like the abbot when they hear that a friend is dying?"

pp. 398-399

There are two main criteria for what someone believes - what they do, and what they say.

Sometimes, these criteria come apart. Bert says, in all sincerity, that he believes black people are as able as white, but whenever he has to choose between black and white candidates for a job, he chooses the white. What does Bert really believe?

If you want to know what he really believes - look at his behaviour. The truth is Bert doesn't believe what he sincerely believes he believes!

Could the same be true of many religious folk? They say they believe. They even sincerely believe they believe. But their behaviour tells a different story, perhaps?

The moral is: even if you in, all sincerity, believe you believe, that doesn't mean you believe. Have a look at how you actually behave, and ask yourself - do I really believe what I think I believe about eternal life, about doing God's will, and so on?


Thanks for the comments. Here's a further quick thought - we might try to put the failure of Christians' behaviour to match their professed beliefs down to (i) weakness of the will (they succumb to temptation to be selfish, lazy, sin, etc. rather than do as God bids) (ii) the fact that they will miss loved ones who have died (so are still concerned about them dying).

But notice:

(i) does not apply to their response to death. You can't explain why Christians appear to fear death as much as atheists by saying they are giving in to a temptation or sin of some sort (except of course, the sin of not believing!)

(ii) does not apply to your own death, particularly when your loved ones have already passed away. Do Christians in this situation face death (even a painless death) in a relaxed way - even looking forward to it (thinking they will actually soon be meeting their lost loved ones)? I think not (very rarely, I'd guess)! This strongly indicates they don't really believe what they believe they believe.

So it seems to me these two replies aren't really up to the job of explaining why so many Christians respond to the threat of their own death as they do [I might add that (ii) also accounts for the wrong emotion - it would explain why people are upset at prospect of dying soon (they will miss their loved ones) but not why they fear it. Moreover, if a divine, heavenly existence is atemporal, as many Christians believe, they won't get to miss their relatives at all, for they won't have to "wait" a period of time for their relatives's arrival.]


John Pieret suggests (in comments below):

(iii) the fear of death is a perfectly reasonable instinct (evolved, for theistic evolutionists, or installed by a loving God, for others) to keep humans from accidentally or thoughtlessly throwing away their lives. That faith survives in the face of that instinct is evidence of its strength and value.

Hi John

I think that's the most promising answer to what does otherwise look very puzzling. But perhaps it concedes too much?

This case might be a good analogy - people can have a phobia of snakes despite saying they believe this snake we are showing them won't harm them. They physically recoil anyway - they can't help themselves.

The Christian's fear of death is like that, you may say. At one level, they believe that while death might be the end for birds, bees and bears, say, human animals get to continue on. It is not to be feared. But their instinctive dread remains.

Problem for you (or this suggestion) is - what does the snake-phobic person "really" believe about this harmless snake we show them?

At one level they believe the snake is harmless (they say they accept it is), but then at another, more gut, level they strongly believe it's harmful. Their behaviour manifests this "gut" belief.

So then presumably we must say that, despite denying it, at a more gut level, Christians do believe death is the end.

So you seem (or this move seems) to be conceding the point that at a gut level Christians do indeed believe death is the end.

The Christian will say, perhaps, that, like the snake-phobic person, they have good grounds for supposing their gut belief is wrong.

But they don't (or, if you think they do, provide them).


Actually, now I think about it, there's a more obvious rejoinder to Psiomniac's point (that a Christians negative emotional response to death can't be called a "belief"), which is that the belief that death is dreadful is actually articulated by Christians.

That's really Dawkins's point. Christians have a sort of schizo attitude to death. One the one hand they say death is defeated, Christ is risen, no more pain or fear - just eternal life! On the other hand, when they hear of a young life cut short they say: how appalling, how tragic, what a waste. And notice they say this even if it was an unwanted orphan who died painlessly whom no one will miss and who will miss no one.

My point is: what people say and do can come apart and what they do is often a better indicator of what they really believe (or believe in their "gut"). Christians say death is defeated etc. but their behaviour doesn't really reflect that at all. It manifests fear, dread, etc.

These are complimentary points, of course. Fact is Dawkins is right - there is a weird schizo attitude actually verbally expressed by Christians. Acknowledgement of the fear and terror and tragedy is verbalized. But then so is an entirely opposite set of attitudes and beliefs.

If we look at their behaviour, it suggests that the deeper - if you like, more "real" - belief is actually the pessimistic one.

I guess what this all brings out, at the very least, is what an extraordinarily inconsistent and emotionally confused set of attitudes and beliefs many Christians have about death.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

'Child-witches' of Nigeria seek refuge

This is a very disturbing story...

"Any Christian would look at the situation that is going on here and just be absolutely outraged that they were using the teachings of Jesus Christ to exploit and abuse innocent children," says Mr Foxcroft whose expose of what he describes as "an absolute scandal" will be screened in a Channel 4 documentary on Wednesday.

Post Script 10/11/08 - as this article says, a Government-funded report in 2006 found 38 cases of this kind of abuse in the UK. If there were 38 known cases, imagine how many were unknown to authorities.

Many. Two charities are donating £450,000 to help African children in the UK who are accused of witchcraft and abused.

Anticant (see comment below) is right - the Victoria Climbie case was one of them (a little girl tortured to death in the UK by her relatives - 128 separate injuries on her body on the day she died). For some reason, the religious aspect of the Climbie case was not widely reported in the media. The relatives who killed Victoria were consulting the pastor of the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God (based in Finsbury Park - regular congregations of 500+) for advice, even just days before she died.

The pastor was certainly a great help (as BBC reports):

The youngster was taken to a "deliverance from witchcraft" service before seeing the pastor the next day.

The trio returned to the church five days later - the day before Victoria's death.

On this visit the pastor admitted to the inquiry he had suspicions the young girl was being neglected.

He described how Victoria's eyes were opening and closing as though she was fainting, and she was cold and wet [...]

Asked what the demons were making her do, he said: "Wetting herself, soiling the whole house, prostituting herself (in the Ivory Coast), putting faeces in food and cockroaches on everything she could find."

He said at the time he believed the little girl was possessed.

"Possession is something we learn from the Bible. I generally do not question the Bible," he said.

Post post script 10th Nov.08

One moral I think we can again draw here is, whatever the merits of religion - and it has some! - it does have this extraordinary ability to get educated, "civilized" people to believe and do very stupid - and indeed cruel - things. What other kind of belief system could get modern British citizens to torture children - even torture them to death - while thinking they were doing the right thing? There's certainly something "special" about religion - something that ought to make us treat it with very great care (like nuclear power, I suggest)

Climbie's murders were presented by the press as inhuman monsters. The truth is they were probably just very frightened and confused people (imagine how scared you would feel if you genuinely believed there was a demon living in your house - in the body of your niece) whose religious convictions took them down into a spiral of faith-driven cruelty - the more they abused Victoria, the more disturbed and "possessed" she seemed, requiring still more desperate measures of abuse to help her, until finally Victoria was dead. The fact that they were clearly desperately seeking help from their Church right to the end has my tears welling up in pity, not just for Victoria, but for them.

Post post post script 11th Nov - ok the Aunt and Manning were sadistic arseholes. Maybe they don't deserve any pity at all. The "possession" element does seem to have been a factor, nevertheless (as it certainly is in many cases of abuse even in the UK).

Correction: the report from the DFES available here makes it clear the 38 cases officially identified were from Jan 2000 to 2006, not just 2006. These were weeded out from an original 74 cases.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008


Centre For Inquiry London
and South Place Ethical Society present


Organized by CFI London Provost: Stephen Law

Saturday, 21st March, 10.30am-4pm.

A day with leading scientific researchers into faith - looking at hearing voices, possession, the effect of faith on pain perception, etc. What goes on the brain of someone hearing voices? Come and see the fMRI scans. Is a disposition to religious belief hard-wired into us? Yes, says one of our speakers, and provides empirical evidence.

Venue: Conway Hall, 25 Red Lion Square
London WC1R 4RL

£10 (£5 for students)
BOOK NOW: send a cheque payable to "Centre for Inquiry London” to: Executive Director Suresh Lalvani, Centre for Inquiry London, at the above address (include names of all those coming). Alternatively pay by PAYPAL. Use the “Support CFI UK” link at and follow the instructions.


Do ghosts get itchy? Mind, body, and afterlife in cross-cultural perspective

Dr Emma Cohen is an anthropologist at the Institute of Cogntive and Evolutionary Anthropology, University of Oxford. She has researched and written on a range of widespread cultural phenomena, including spirit possession, witchcraft and sorcery, divination, mind-body dualism, afterlife beliefs, and Harry Potter. Her research addresses the question of why these phenomena are cross-culturally widespread, drawing from and developing our scientific understanding of how human minds work. In The Mind Possessed (OUP, 2007), Cohen develops a radical new approach to explaining the transmission of spirit possession ideas and practices, based on recent discoveries in the cognitive sciences and on long-term fieldwork with a group of Afro-Brazilian spirit mediums in Brazil. Her most recent work focuses on the regularities in the ways in which children and adults across different cultural contexts intuitively reason about the relationship between bodies and minds. This research further explores how the same sorts of intuitions that guide mind-body thinking also influence the form, appeal, and spread of a huge range of cultural phenomena, from Hollywood comedies about mind swaps to mind-over-matter magical displays to common ideas about illnesses and their treatments.


Mike Jackson will be presenting some interesting recent fMRI scan results on people hearing benign spiritual voices, and has a lot of relevant clinical case material and a general theory of these phenomena, and their relationship with psychopathology, which he’ll be sharing with us.


Born Believers: The Naturalness of Childhood Theism

“Recent best-selling books may give the impression that children only believe in gods because of a combination of possessing a tragically gullible mental tabula rasa and abusive indoctrination practices. Nonsense. Recent scientific study of children’s conceptual structures reveals that children’s minds are naturally receptive to god concepts... In this presentation, relevant scientific evidence is presented. Children are ‘born believers’ in the sense that under normal developmental conditions they almost inevitably entertain beliefs in gods.”

Justin Barrett is Senior Researcher, Acting Director, Centre for Anthropology & Mind and Lecturer, Institute of Cognitive & Evolutionary Anthropology, University of Oxford.


The Strength of Belief: Neuroimaging of religious-based analgesia

“Religious lore is full of stories of physical pain withstood and vanquished through the power of religious belief. However, until recently there was very little scientific evidence of religion helping in the alleviation of pain, and what could be the neural and psychological processes involved. In my talk, I will describe an experiment where we showed for the first time how religious belief may have an analgesic effect and help people deal better with pain.”

Miguel Farias is a researcher at the Ian Ramsey Centre and assistant director of the MSc in Psychological Research, at Oxford University. For his doctorate, he studied the psychological characteristics of people engaged in New Age spirituality. After that, he joined forces with neuroscientists and philosophers at the Oxford Centre for Science of the Mind to unravel what happens in the minds and brains of religious believers when they are subjected to pain.

Legal stuff: CFI reserves the right to change or cancel events without notice.

BOOK CLUB: The God Delusion, chpt 9

This chapter is to a large extent anecdote-driven. There are some real horror stories about what has been done to children in the name of religion. And of course these are not isolated incidents.

Nevertheless, this is to a large extent a series of anecdotes, and there is always a risk attached to that. Anecdotes are highly effective as rhetorical tool, irrespective of whether there's much truth to the claims they are being used to illustrate. People tend to respond best to narrative - to a story. The Daily Mail, for example, is chock full of anecdotes about foreigners, edicts from Brussels, crime, and so on, and that can, and does, often give a highly misleading impression of what the situation is really like.

In response, Dawkins's opponents will simply trot out endless anecdotes about the benefits of raising children in a religious belief system (take a look at e.g. the work of Melanie Phillips - Mail columnist and author of such anecdote-driven rhetoric as the dreadful All Must Have Prizes ). You can't really establish what's true just by looking at the anecdotes being offered by either side.

Still, Dawkins admits he is "consciousness raising", and if that is your aim then piling up the anecdotes is a very effective tool. I call it APPRA - the Awesome Persuasive Power of Ramified Anecdote.

So, I approach this chapter cautiously because of its heavy reliance on APPRA. Having said that, it's masterfully done, and it's not as if there isn't, in fact, a good case being built for not indoctrinating children with religion. There is.