Primary school principals shut down religious education classes

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With a headline like that, how could I resist?

I believe the appropriate response is woo-hoo!

After some years of fairly negative news on the  RI in schools front, and the apparent stagnation of any efforts to expose the idiocy of spending public money on proselytising to primary school children, we have this welcome development, as reported here.

Some primary school principals are actually taking a stand, based on their own assessment of the SRI curriculum. This curriculum is being provided by Access Ministries, of which I’ve written plenty, for example, here, here and here. And it’s not just one or two – it’s hundreds apparently. The figures are that in 2011, 940 schools delivered SRI, while in 2013 it was 666 (yes, I know, the number of the beast – a coincidence? I think not). This is 40,000 fewer kids protected from wasting time on mindless drivel, and more importantly, protected from attempts to disable their clear-thinking circuitry.

Joe Kelly, principal of Cranbourne South Primary School, said:

“It is not education. It has no value whatsoever. It is rubbish – hollow and empty rhetoric … My school teachers are committed to teaching children, not indoctrinating them.”

Wow. Beautifully said Joe. I’m going to put that on a t-shirt. And nominate you for a Nobel prize of some sort.

He also went on to reveal that a lot of his colleagues feel the same way, but were not comfortable being as public about it.

Dr David Zyngier, a senior lecturer in curriculum and pedagogy at Monash University, backed up Kelly’s view of the curriculum, saying:

“I have reviewed all six booklets produced by Access Ministries, and it’s basically low order, unintelligent, busy work and rote learning. It horrified me. There’s nothing educational about it. It’s all about becoming a disciple of Jesus.”

Somewhat surprisingly, at this stage there does not seem to have been a backlash of any sort. Parents certainly aren’t in revolt. The Education Minister was quoted as having full confidence in the principals, and even the CEO of Access Ministries seems unperturbed. Those are the public positions – I’ll bet there is some heavy-duty lobbying happening behind the scenes however.

Nope, no backlash at all – although it could be a good explanation for some of the extreme weather events around the planet, as god extracts his special brand of biblical retribution. After all, what other explanation could there be?

On Gravity and Religious Symbolism

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I want to set the tone of this piece. Aaargghh. There, that should do it. Now you know where I’m coming from.

As background, I sometimes find myself listening to Sunday Nights with John Cleary on ABC radio. Yes, it’s a religious program, but I generally enjoy it because the host, although clearly strongly religious, present issues of the day with a strong secular brand of analysis, and is not afraid to confront the contradictions of religion, and also to question apologists accordingly. It is on that program I first learned of Bishop John Shelby Spong, and his progressive call for ‘a fundamental rethinking of Christian belief away from theism and traditional doctrines’.  A casual glance of the titles of his publications on the Wikipedia page illustrates his struggle to find any consistency between his spiritual life and reality.

In stark contrast, however, a couple of weeks ago we had one Richard Leonard as a film reviewer, and who is also a Jesuit priest. Hilarity ensued.

In conversation with John Cleary, he proceeds to review Gravity, but in a manner somewhat differently to my approach, here.

To cut to the chase, apparently the film was choc-full of religious references. And apparently (I’m going use that word a lot – so strap in) it’s not really a story of survival in space, with a sub-theme of Bullock’s grief at the loss of a child. No, it’s more a gospel highlights piece, set in space.

To be fair, it sounded like John Cleary wasn’t buying it all that much. He wanted to talk about how the visual style drove the film, and the allusions to Kubrick’s 2001. He was impressed by the minimalist story line, and the use of CGI to make aesthetic points, like the tear drifting off in zero G, describing it as a deeply emotional moment. Good points John.

But Leonard. Oh my. All I can say is, pareidolia anyone? This is definitely a ‘face on Mars’ moment.

To begin with, he obviously liked the movie, but sets up his forthcoming analysis by identifying the major theme of survival in terms of ‘choosing life’. Well, yes, that’s what happens when people try not to die. They choose life. But then he starts in on ‘inter-textuality’, harking back to his film appreciation classes in priest school, claiming that religion is a sub-plot.

Here is a selection of Mr. Leonard’s ‘faces on Mars’ views (and the odd bit of counter-apologetics):

  • Apparently Deuteronomy 30:19 is ‘there loud and clear’: choose life. Again, if you don’t want to die, yes, you are choosing life. Do we really need a bible reference to explain this? In fact, without getting too deep here, Mr. Leonard should go back to bible school on this. From my reading as a layman, this was not the intention of the quote (see here). Apparently in Deuteronomy 11:26, of the Israelites it is taught that “God did not administer justice to them according t the strict letter of the law, but allowed them mercy so that they might ‘choose life'”. So far, so good. But an interpretation by latter scholars deduced from the the words ‘choose life‘ that ‘one can learn a trade to earn a livelihood‘. Somehow I don’t think this is a key theme of the film. Just sayin’.
  • In one of the longest bows he draws, Clooney’s obsession with Mardi Gras stories is significant apparently because “it’s the night where you have your last big blowout before the sacrifice of Lent. The sacrifice of Lent can be in contrast to Fat Tuesday. The contrast was stark.” WTF?
  • On returning to Earth, the capsule plunging into the sea is a baptismal move. Yeah, right. Here are two more interpretations: It could be a child returning to the mother’s womb, or, it could be a safe way to retrieve a metal box from orbit. Take your pick.
  • When Bullock clambers onto shore, she ‘literally comes out of the mud’, which apparently is a reference to Adam who comes out of mud. Wow.
  • He gets a free-kick  because of the St.Christopher medallion in the Russian craft, and the Buddha in the Chinese one. The latter is meant to indicate that Bullock is embracing pain and not running from it.
  • When Bullock tries to raise the Russians on the radio but can’t communicate, she asks them to pray for her because ‘no one taught her to’. This he takes to mean a deathbed conversion. I hate that. People take comfort in all sorts of fantasies – religion is just another.
  • And finally, Clooney’s return to the capsule means he’s an ‘angel of life’ (and to emphasise his scholarly reading, Leonard refers to him as ‘angelos’. Yes this means angel in Greek. Impressive.) Apparently (last one, I promise) he comes back as the angel of life to help her remember the instructions because she’s given up on life. Or it could be a hallucination brought on by the depleted oxygen environment. Maybe he’s not an angel, but an inspiration. Mystifyingly, Leonard also thinks that Clooney coming back into her subconscious is also ‘deeply Freudian’. Really? Don’t see it myself.

Well, that’s it.You see what you want to see I guess.

Leonard has found extensive religious symbology in what is essential a story of survival in a hostile environment, with the focus on human ingenuity and drive to survive, which is a strong evolutionary trait.

I don’t mind Leonard being reminded of his religious symbols by the movie – that’s fine. But to subordinate human values of courage, ingenuity, mutual support, not to mention science and technology, to religious clap-trap, it’s just intellectually dishonest.

This is just a mis-guided, or desperate attempt to leverage the achievements of man to prop up an area which has in essence had no achievements for 2000 years, unless you count creative writing, cathedrals and genocide.

When the shoe was on the other foot – when Erik Von Daniken in Chariots of Fire ascribed the events in the Book of Ezekiel to alien technology, the religiati squealed like stuck pigs, refusing to have a bar of it.

Well, that’s just how I feel about this movie review.

Book Review – Religion for Atheists

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Following closely on ‘Letter to a Christian Nation’ which I reviewed recently, I have just read ‘Religion for Atheists’ by Alain de Botton. An interesting juxtaposition really, with Sam Harris thumbing his nose at claims that religion has somehow enriched us, while de Botton in effect says ‘oh yeah?’.

Religion for Atheists took me by surprise. I’d heard a bit about how the author was a bit of an apologist and so on, but I wasn’t prepared for what I was about to read – a load of condescending hogwash.

And though the author maintains he is an atheist, the degree to which he bends over backwards to accommodate religion is worthy of a circus contortionist.

I’m sorry, it’s one long gush about how religion has enriched mankind, how impoverished atheist lives are, and how we would do well to borrow from the traditions of religion; though on those great religious traditions such as genocide, slavery and the inquisition he is mysteriously silent! Cherry-picking anyone? Oh well, you can only squeeze so much into a book, and there was all that gushing to fit in.

The author does accept that neither the religious nor the atheist communities will be happy with the book – the latter feeling outraged at the treatment of religion as though “it deserves to be a continuing touchstone for our yearnings”. No, that wouldn’t outrage me. What outraged me was that this book offered up religion as much more than a touchstone – a much more immodest answer to life, the universe and everything, with apologies to the real Messiah, Douglas Adams, who at least was able to prove his divinity by creating the first ever trilogy consisting of 4 books, and thereby proving his mastery of the fundamental physical principles of the universe.

The author (de Botton, not Adams) divides the book neatly for us into the lessons religion can give, namely, community, kindness, education, tenderness, pessimism, perspective, art, architecture and institutions. I’d like to write a piece on each section, but the book doesn’t deserve the wear and tear on my laptop keyboard that would entail, so I’ll resist the temptation, and focus on some highlights and themes.

Now, a philosopher I’m not, but de Botton seems to obsess about the ego throughout the book, as if it is some evil attribute of mankind which must be squashed at every opportunity.  By extension, he feels that we should know our place in the universe and be humble, yada yada yada. He uses these devices liberally to underline the great gifts religion can bestow upon us.

The discussion about community goes along the lines you would expect – that religion has a lot to teach us about getting together in communities – never mind that people manage to do that just fine without religion. Surprisingly however, he does seem to advocate that breaking out of the norms of social expectations in some sort of (religiously inspired) 15th century Feast of Fools could provide a useful antidote to “the two greatest pressures of secular adult life: having to be rational and having to be faithful”. So, act like an idiot, and shag the neighbours once per year, and job done: pressures dealt with. Back to the office for more rationality and faithfulness. His suggestion has good empirical support in the world of AFL football in Australia, in which we have a tradition of Mad Monday at season’s end. That always ends well. If that’s his understanding of the pressures of modern life, then I’m afraid the whole book is based on a faulty premise.

The section on education is very wide-ranging, but the basic premise is that the content and delivery of secular education is directed at the brain and not the soul. (I do realise that he means ‘soul’ not in the religious sense, but rather that collection of ghostly and ill-defined attributes such as faith, charity, hope and love). He therefore proposes ‘sermons’ instead of ‘lectures’, to answer the key questions of life and getting on with each-other. All laudable – and in a sense I agree, which is why in previous discussions on this blog you’ll see a lot of stuff about the teaching of ethics in primary school. But to be clear, I don’t consider this position to be religious – rather, it’s a humanist one.

His discussion of tenderness is somewhat baffling I must say. The premise is illustrated by a little story of some guy down on his luck, stumbling into a church and gaining comfort from gazing at a picture of the Madonna. He feels that we should learn from religion, and perhaps create secular ‘temples of tenderness’, or other architectural spaces, in which our souls can get a great big hug to make everything ok. Really? We need buildings for that? I always thought that’s what people were for. Perhaps I’m just being naïve.

Now for pessimism. His basic premise here is that religion has always been great at insisting that we, and our relationships, are inherently flawed, and not to expect lasting happiness as a right. Perhaps I missed the aphorism “if you’re pessimistic, you’re never disappointed” in the bible. Well there are probably words to that effect in there, which demonstrates that it’s a secular concept. Written by humans, it’s a mental trick we play on ourselves as protection from disappointment – a bit like me when I started out reading this book.

I’m going to finish on perspective, because I’ve written about art and architecture briefly before here, and this book hasn’t really changed my view on it. And the last section, institutions, frankly bored me.

The section on perspective really annoyed me – it’s all about how religion helps us realise how insignificant we are, and how we should be humble (again, let’s beat that ego into submission, right?). As the author puts it:

Religion is above all a symbol of what exceeds us and an education in the advantages of recognizing our paltriness.

See what I mean about patronising? He accepts that science can also help us to feel paltry – activities such as understanding the size of the cosmos and so on. But his main point is that this feeling is somehow therapeutic, and refers as evidence to Spinoza’s view of the stars that: “It is through their contemplation that the secular are afforded the best chance of experiencing redemptive feelings of awe”. How exactly it is therapeutic or redemptive is not really addressed to my satisfaction.

He also pushes the travails of our biblical friend Job – and how instead of an explanation for his misery, he is offered a reminder that he can never understand some things, some mysteries. On this, De Botton opines:

God’s whirlwind, and the sonorous, sublime words he speaks, excite a pleasing terror in his audience, a sense of how petty are man’s disasters in comparison with the ways of eternity, leaving Job – and the rest of us, perhaps – a little readier to bow to the incomprehensible and morally obscure tragedies that every life entails”.

To use the literary term, what a load of bollocks. His message is to simply accept that you won’t be able to understand some things, and you’ll feel better. Have a cup of tea and lie down. Things will look better in the morning. He goes on to suggest that:

Science should matter to us not only because it helps us to control parts of the world, but also because it shows us things that we will never master.

No. I simply don’t accept such a defeatist and puerile position. So, at what point should we stop trying to master things? He goes further:

Thus we would do well to meditate daily, rather as the religious do on their God, on the 9.5 trillion kilometres which comprise a single light year, or perhaps the luminosity of the largest known start in our galaxy, Eta Carinae, 7,500 light years distant…… {insert more gee-whiz numbers in here…}

OMG. He seems a bit freaked by big numbers, doesn’t he? Does he really think that meditating on the fact that light travels 9.5 x 1012 km in year will bring about some change in our psyche? And surely if he’d heeded his own advice in the previous quote, we would never have understood the implications of the speed of light in the first place.

No, the gee-whiz knowledge he cites is just mundane, but nonetheless a significant accomplishment of mankind, without the necessity to be humble in the process. And rather than consoling us, or somehow encouraging us to be happy with our current state, knowledge serves to make mankind thirst for even more knowledge. And so it should.

I’ll be very interested to see how other people feel about this book, but it’s a thumbs-down from me.

Book Review – Letter to a Christian Nation, Sam Harris

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lettertoachristiannationYou know how much I love a good chat about religion, right?

Well, this book really hit the sweet spot for me. Although I’ve heard quite a bit about Sam Harris, I haven’t actually read many of his publications. But now I’m hooked.

This is a small book, written in the style of a letter from Harris to a Christian reader, which makes for an engaging style.

The thing I enjoyed most about Harris’ approach to this was his no-nonsense, reality-based challenge to all things religious. By this I mean that he didn’t sugar-coat his points – there was no accommodationist nonsense; no sparing the feelings of those who may be challenged by the discussion. It very much reads as if Harris has just come down from Mars, surveyed the landscape, and given a critique of human beings and their approach to life.

From the outset, he addresses the morality question, and here Christianity comes in for some ridicule on the basis of comparison to other religions. He uses as an example the Indian religion of Jainism, whose central message is “Do not injure, abuse, oppress, enslave, insult, torment, torture or kill any creature or living being”. Harris says:

Imagine how different our world might be if the Bible contained this as its central precept. Christians have abused, oppressed, enslaved, insulted, tormented, tortured, and killed people in the name of God for centuries, on the basis of a theologically defensible reading of the Bible…..How then can you argue that the Bible provides the clearest statement of morality the world has ever seen?.

He also points out the circular reasoning employed by the religious, who use their own moral intuitions to ‘authenticate the wisdom of the Bible”, while then going on to claim that human beings “cannot possibly rely upon our own moral intuitions to rightly guide us in the world; rather, we must depend on the prescriptions of the Bible“.

From morality in general, Harris then moves into specific examples – such as the Catholic stance on abortion and stem cell research. Harris’ approach to this and other issues is perhaps best illustrated by a selection of quotes, which nicely sum up his approach and position.

On abortion:

Of course, the Church’s position on abortion takes no more notice of the details of biology than it does of the reality of human suffering. It has been estimated that 50% of all human conceptions end in spontaneous abortion, usually without a woman ever realising she was pregnant…There is an obvious truth here that cries out for acknowledgement: if God exists, He is the most prolific abortionist of all.

On being an atheist:

In fact, ‘atheism’ is a term that should not even exist. No on ever needs to identify himself as  a ‘non-astrologer’, or a ‘non-alchemist’. We do not have words for people who doubt that Elvis is still alive or that aliens have traversed the galaxy only to molest ranchers and their cattle. Atheism is nothing more than the noises reasonable people make in the presence of unjustified religious beliefs.

On the Church’s project to review doctrine regarding the fate of un-baptised babies in limbo:

Can we even conceive of a project more intellectually forlorn than this? Just imagine what these deliberations must be like. Is there the slightest possibility that someone will present evidence indicating the eternal fate of unbaptised children after death? How can any educated person thing this anything but a hilarious, terrifying and unconscionable waste of time? When one considers the fact that this is the very institution that has produced and sheltered and elite army of child-molesters, the whole enterprise beings to exude a truly diabolical aura of misspent human energy.

On faith itself:

While believing strongly, without evidence, is considered a mark of madness or stupidity in any other area of our lives, faith in God still holds immense prestige in our society. Religion is the one area of our discourse where it is considered noble to pretend to be certain about things no human being could possible be certain about.

And the arrogance implicit in that faith:

One of the monumental ironies of religious discourse can be appreciated in the frequency with which people of faith praise themselves for the humility, while condemning scientists and other non-believers for the intellectual arrogance. There is in fact no worldview more reprehensible in its arrogance that that of a religious believer: the creator of the universe takes an interest in me, approves of me, loves me, and will reward me after my death..everyone who disagrees with me will spend an eternity in hell.

On the stark contradictions presented by religious belief:

The truth, astonishingly enough, is this: in the year 2006, a person can have sufficient intellectual and material resources to build a nuclear bomb and still believe that he will get seventy-two virgins in Paradise.

On the authors of the Bible:

…where every debate about public policy was subverted to the whims of ancient authors who wrote well, but who didn’t know enough about the nature of reality to keep their excrement out of their food.

And finally, his exasperated closing remarks to the fictitious pen-pal:

Non-believers like myself stand beside you, dumbstruck by the Muslim hordes who chant death to whole nations of the living. But we stand dumbstruck by you as well – by your denial of tangible reality, but the suffering your create in service to your religious myths, and by your attachment to an imaginary God. This letter has been an expression of that amazement – and, perhaps, of a little hope.

Overall, I’d recommend this book for an honest, clear and easy to understand exposition of the major arguments against personal and institutional religion.

Intelligent Falling – a perfectly reasonable explanation for gravity

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I must have missed this.

It seems religious scholars (cue guffaw as per robot from Lost in Space), have been beavering away on answering some of the pressing questions in the universe, and came up with this most elegant theory of Intelligent Falling.

I know this article is parody, but it could well have come straight out of the mouths of those who brought you that other pathetic piece of bullshit,  Intelligent Design.

The same principles behind Intelligent Falling would I guess also explain this phenomenon…


Neil DeGrasse Tyson on creationism

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This from correspondent Dan Rea. Thought it was worth posting on its own, rather than having it buried in a comment thread. Dan’s comments follow the vid.

If you’d like to cut to the creationism-bashing you can skip to the 31:00 mark, but the whole video is interesting and (as always with deGrasse) very entertaining. The overriding point he is making is intriguing; he points out how many of the greatest minds throughout history subscribed to creationist ideas at the limits of their understanding, and how these limits shift over time. In the past I’ve heard him describe the concept of god as an ever shrinking archetype as humanity’s knowledge increases, but I never really thought about the processes going on in the minds of great people (far smarter than me) who came to creationist conclusions.

Speaking of intelligent design…

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As I said a couple of posts ago, given all the flaws in our ‘perfect’ universe, claiming that your god created it all is a massive own goal. This vid sums it up nicely.