Friday, 13 September 2013

La Rentrée à l'Ecole: Back To School - French Style

France shows us how it should be done

France is secular, which means total separation of Church and State. On September 9, the French Government launched its Secular School Charter to reaffirm secular values in the context of education.

I’ve translated the fifteen articles – it’s been a while since I did any translation so there may be a few inelegant phrasings, but it’s accurate in sense. Clarity is not always the main objective of official French syntax. The term laïque is not identical with secular but it’s the closest we have in English.

As the new school year starts, the Charter shows how very far the UK is from any kind of secularism in a system where one in three state-funded schools are religious schools. These schools are paid for by all of us through our tax. In many schools, teachers can teach/preach according to the ‘ethos’ of the school and employers can legally discriminate against teachers whose lifestyles do not conform to that ethos, either in who they employ or who they promote. They can also select which pupils they accept; this is allegedly to give parents choice but effectively discriminates against parents who are not of the ‘right’ religion, or not religious enough, and who may have to send their children to schools far away. In many of these schools, there is compulsory worship. Schools of other religions exist and are allowed to impose their own ethos.

Homophobia, creationism and inadequate, moralistic sex education are permitted.

Former Archbishop Rowan Williams said ‘A church school is a church’. Even though they claim to welcome everyone, these publicly-funded schools are the churches’ main way of recruiting the next generation – something they desperately need to do as church attendance falls year on year and as poll after poll shows that an increasing number of us are indifferent to religion.

All young people should be free to make up their own minds what they do or don’t believe and should be fully equipped to live in society, not just within their religion. They should be given full access to unbiased facts and taught that any idea can be – and should be – questioned.


Articles 3, 6, 11, 12 and 13 are the most relevant for comparison with UK schools. All bold is mine.

1 France is an indivisible, secular, democratic and social Republic. It assures equality for all citizens before the law throughout the whole of its territories. It respects all beliefs.

2. The secular Republic institutes the separation of religions from the State. The State is neutral with regard to religious or spiritual convictions. There is no State religion.

3. Secularism guarantees freedom of conscience for all. Everyone is free to believe or not believe. It permits free expression of convictions within the limits of respect for others and public order.

4. Secularism permits the exercise of citizenship, reconciling individual liberty with the equality and fraternity of everyone in the public interest.

5. The Republic ensures respect for all of its principles in its educational institutions.

6. Secularism in schools offers all students the conditions to develop their personalities, exercise their free will and learn how to be citizens. It protects them from all proselytizing and all pressure that would prevent them from making their own choices.

7. Secularism ensures students have access to a common and shared culture.

8. Secularism permits students freedom of expression within the operational limits of the school, and the limits of respecting republican values and pluralism of belief.

9. Secularism implies the rejection of all violence and discrimination, guarantees equality between girls and boys and is based on a culture of respect and understanding for others.

10. All staff must teach pupils the meaning and value of secularism along with the other fundamental principles of the Republic. They will monitor their application in the educational framework. They must tell parents about this charter.

11. Staff have a strict duty to be neutral: they must not reveal their political or religious beliefs while doing their jobs.

12. Learning is secular. In principle, no subject is excluded from scientific and academic questioning. This is to ensure that students are exposed objectively to the diversity of world views, and to the full scope of fact-based knowledge. No pupil may invoke a religious or political belief to challenge a teacher’s right to deal with a subject on the curriculum.

13. No one may use their religion as an excuse for refusing to obey the rules of schools in the Republic.

14 Internal rules of public educational institutions about ways of living in different spaces defer to secularism. Pupils are forbidden from wearing symbols or clothes that show they belong to a particular religion.

15. Pupils contribute through their thoughts and actions to making secularism live in the heart of their academic institution.

The UK government is keen to open more religious schools. The French model will not be adopted here any time soon. For many children in this country, back to school means back to discrimination, propaganda and publicly-funded God.

Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Too Smart For God?

A new meta-analysis has found that intelligent people are less likely to be religious – if you believe the media coverage.

What often happens when research is published is that journalists read the press release or, at best, the abstract (summary) of the research paper. This is partly because of tight deadlines and partly because many journals charge for access to the full paper ($25 in this case). Then people who have a particular axe to grind jump on the results and get either outraged or smug, depending on the findings.

A meta-analysis is a study of studies. It looks at all the research done on a particular subject to collate and analyse the results. In this case, it covers studies done between 1928 and 2012.

The abstract begins: ‘A meta-analysis of 63 studies showed a significant negative association between intelligence and religiosity’. However, the abstract is not the whole story. The discussion at the end of a paper is where the caveats are found and give the full picture.

The paper is long and complex. These are just some of the caveats that need to be taken into consideration before any intelligent atheists start patting themselves on the back.

The percentage of males taking part in any survey or study had a significant effect on the findings. The more men there were, the stronger the finding that intelligence makes people less religious but the less representative it is of the population as a whole.

Education levels were not found to correlate with belief levels although college students were more likely to be or become non-believers.

No studies from outside the English-speaking world were included in the meta-analysis. The authors conclude that ‘Clearly the present results are limited to Western societies’ and that any negative correlation between intelligence and religiosity ‘may also be limited to the American Protestant population’ (my bold).

Without comprehensive and culture-appropriate studies of countries where the main religion is Hinduism, Judaism, Islam and so on, no definite global conclusion can be drawn. In some of these countries, cultural factors may affect the results. It may be socially difficult to be a non-believer in some parts of the West (particularly if you want to be a Head of State) but it's not life-threatening. In some countries, the intelligent position may well be to at least profess belief, even in a survey.

The researchers also acknowledge that measures of intelligence used in the West are not appropriate for all other cultures, particularly in the Third World. There's another reason to be cautious in evaluating any findings. While the ability to increase IQ test scores can be learnt, intelligence is an innate characteristic - but not a value-neutral one. There is almost always a value-judgement implicit (or sometimes explicit) when intelligence levels are identified. As with height in many cultures, more intelligent often means superior, better, more worthy.

Some of the papers analysed had flawed methodology when it came to measures of global intelligence. For example, one included this graph which appears to show that the average IQ in some countries is under 65. There are also some outliers that appear to indicate fewer atheists in 'more intelligent' countries.

The meta-analysis also proposes various reasons why more intelligent people are less religious but admits that these are speculative and may well not apply in, for example, Scandinavian countries where there are higher percentages of non-believers.

Some of the reasons it proposes are that intelligent people are non-conformist, better able to resist cognitive bias and are more analytical. However, a poll in the Guardian (currently) shows that 74% of people agree with the finding but unless they’ve all read the research, this reaction is more likely to be based on wishful thinking and self-affirmation than on reason and analysis. The result may also show that Guardian readers are highly conformist with each other.

I’m not an apologist for religion, I’m an atheist and a secularist. It’s really important that those of us who claim to stand for reason don’t fall into lazy thinking, that we don’t let the media lead us by the nose into knee-jerk reactions that make us look as eager to believe anything that confirms our personal biases as any religious fundamentalist.

It's also important to remember that correlations don't apply to everyone. There will always be outliers - highly intelligent people who do believe and less intelligent ones who don't. A correlation is not one-size-fits-all. And it is not necessarily an indicator of causation.

Even if there turns out to be a global correlation between intelligence and belief – what then?

There’s the obvious point-and-laugh satisfaction for certain atheists but what do the rest of us do with this information? If belief is tied to intelligence then it could be harder to overcome or modify its negative effects on societies and individuals, to ensure equal rights than if it were closely linked to culture or education. The idea of religion as a virus that can be cured through debate or education fails. And, significantly, the people (men) in charge of religions are not stupid.

The last line of the paper is ‘Obviously, these conclusions are a topic for future research’. In other words, don't put out the bunting just yet.

The main problem here is that ‘It looks like there's a correlation between intelligence and religious belief among American Christians but we’re not sure about the rest of the world’ doesn’t make a very good headline.

Monday, 8 July 2013

The End of Civilization As We Know It: 3

Martin Robbins is fed up with Susan Greenfield telling us that the Internet is destroying our brains, society and everything her generation holds dear. But you don’t need to be under 30 to be sick of her carping. Susan Greenfield is 62. I’m not. I’m quite some way off from 62 but I am old enough to remember the world before the interweb. It was not better.

A while ago I wrote about the scare stories of Greenfield and her ilk and about how they are nothing new – here and here. Now Greenfield has written a novel based on her doom and gloom scenario.

Martin has reviewed her sci-fi novel here and outlined everything that’s wrong with her very unscientific theories, as regularly expounded in the Daily Mail where, as he says, ‘she routinely accuses technology of turning the latest generation of teens and twenty-somethings into feeble mouth-breathers who'd sacrifice their physical, mental and sexual health for a hearty broadband connection’.

He also says: ‘I’m sick and tired of watching middle-aged, middle-class reactionaries direct torrents of thoughtless abuse at my generation. Her book is little more than a catalogue of absurd prejudices directed by a 62-year-old at a generation she seems pig-headedly uninterested in engaging with, refusing to read blogs or look at Facebook’.

Susan Greenfield characterizes all young people as a doomed generation which, by implication, means the generation and society she grew up in were better.

What follows is anecdotal evidence, but then her ideas are no more scientific.

I’m on Twitter and Facebook. I’ve been an active member of forums and chat rooms discussing everything from science to Sephardic Jews to Buffy with people I’ve never met, forming the evil transient relationships instead of being outdoors playing with a stick and a hoop. Most of the people who read my blog are total strangers to me (and in some cases, I hope we never meet). Does that make me a traitor to my generation? Am I rotting my brain, betraying my upbringing and destroying society?

I grew up in a small village in the West Country. The 60s didn’t arrive there until about 1972 so it was a world Greenfield would easily recognise. The only way to learn anything outside of school was to go to the nearest town when my dad felt like driving there, and go to the library (once they finally got around to building one). I’d wander around, hoping to happen on a book that might teach me something about the world.

I read a lot of books but had no way of knowing if what was in them was right or even up to date. I did my homework and studied hard because I knew the only way out of the village was to go to university. I chose one pretty much at random because I had no way of doing any research. When I got there, I was very unprepared for city life. I was a yokel with strict religious parents who knew nothing about anything to do with adult life. If that kind of isolation wasn’t infantilizing, I don’t know what is.

Adults in the village did go out of their houses to meet other people in the real world. They went to church or to the pub. There was fuck-all for teenagers to do apart from drinking cider (illegally) or getting pregnant. For some years, the nearest town was said to have the highest birth rate in Europe. The local cider would turn you into a drooling moron faster than any social network.

I’d like to have interacted more with real people in real time. My dad taught at the nearest comprehensive so a lot of the local boys avoided me.

My secondary school was a long way from the village so most of my friends were inaccessible outside of school as the bus service was rudimentary. One of them didn’t have a phone. If we wanted to communicate or meet up in the holidays, we had to write a letter. I enjoyed writing but it made for slow, slow conversations.

We didn’t go on holiday abroad and everyone in the village was white, Church of England or Methodist so the only way to experience other cultures or other people’s lives was to get a pen-pal. More letters and even slower communication.

In the 60s, my mum’s sister lived in America; she had to book a trunk call to talk to her, which we could only afford to do a couple of times a year – once we got a phone.

We watched the BBC news but my parents never discussed what was happening in the world apart from tutting and telling me to think of the starving children in Biafra if I didn’t eat everything on my plate. I didn’t know where Biafra was. I didn’t know what an aubergine was until I left home.

Everyone in the village knew everyone else’s business. Gossip and tutting were the main social interactions. I was mocked for having short hair, so you can imagine what it was like if you were gay or otherwise non-conventional. You had no way of finding other people like you or even knowing they existed, let alone communicating with them. It was bloody miserable. If I’d had the Internet, I’d have been a lot happier, better informed and better connected. It would have been a lifeline, as it is now for many young people. I’d have known I wasn’t a freak – or at least not alone. And I could have posted pictures of my cat eating my dad’s hair.

Yes, you can spend too long online. You can spend too long doing lots of things that aren’t good for you. If younger people are doomed because of social networks and the rest, then who is to blame? Susan Greenfield’s generation. If your kids are zombies, it’s your fault. You are crap parents and role models.

Unlike Susan Greenfield, I do interact with the young people. I like them. They help me do stuff on the internet and don't laugh at me. We even have conversations and sometimes we touch each other.

As for the end of all things civilized, I’d say that the Tory government is doing its best to destroy everything that was good about the society I grew up in. You don’t speak for me, Susan Greenfield, or any of the people I know over thirty. Or over fifty. Or sixty. Don’t make young people hate us all. I’d like to tell you to shove your classist, patronizing and unscientific ideas where the sun don’t shine – which probably means I have no empathy because the internet ate it.

Wednesday, 3 July 2013

The ASA Versus Homeopathy

The Advertising Standards Authority has produced a tough and comprehensive ruling about adverts for homeopathy, largely due to the number of complaints it has received about them.

It’s a long document, which you can read in full here. The gist of it is this: ‘We told the Society of Homeopaths not to discourage essential treatment for conditions for which medical supervision should be sought, including offering specific advice on or treatment for such conditions. We also told them not to make health claims for homeopathy unless they held sufficiently robust evidence of efficacy.’

One of its main concerns is that vulnerable people are being targeted; the web site for the Society of Homeopaths talks about conditions for which conventional medicine doesn’t help, for example. It’s not targeting people who are well but those who are already suffering and sometimes desperate, offering them hope, claiming that homeopathy ‘can be considered in almost any ill health’.

These may seem like weasel words – ‘can be considered’ seems vague enough to be a get out of jail free card – but more detailed claims are made.

The ASA was also concerned that there was no evidence that ‘treatment would be conducted under the supervision of a suitably qualified health professional’. In other words, homeopaths are not ‘qualified health professionals’.

The website claims that ‘There is a growing body of research evidence suggesting that treatment by a homeopath is clinically effective, cost effective and safe. … Currently, there is sufficient research evidence to support the use of homeopathic treatment for the following medical conditions: Allergies and upper respiratory tract infections, Ankle sprain, Bronchitis, Childhood diarrhoea, Chronic fatigue, Ear infections, Fibromyalgia, Hay fever, Influenza, Osteoarthritis, Premenstrual syndrome, Rheumatic diseases, Sinusitis, Vertigo’.

The ASA’s third main concern was about this evidence, that it does not in fact prove that homeopathy works any better than a placebo. The body of the ruling focuses on this aspect and looks at claims made for evidence in treating specific illnesses.

The ASA also looked at the Society's Twitter page, specifically: 'Antidepressant prescriptions up by 43 per cent. For more holistic healthcare which doesn’t rely on drugs try #homeopathy' and linked to the Society's website.

The ASA’s challenge was that
1. ad (a) could discourage essential treatment for depression, a medical condition for which medical supervision should be sought, and misleadingly implied that homeopathic remedies could alleviate symptoms of depression;
2. ad (b) could discourage essential treatment for conditions for which medical supervision should be sought; and
3. the claims in ad (b) that homeopathy could treat the following medical conditions were misleading and could not be substantiated. (my bold)

Regarding the claim about depression, the ASA ruled that
‘We considered that the reference to antidepressant prescriptions and the invitation to “try” homeopathy meant the ad was targeted at consumers with a pre-existing diagnosis of depression, particularly those who had been prescribed antidepressants. We considered the average consumer targeted by the ad was therefore particularly vulnerable.’ (my bold)

This is not a case of caveat emptor. Vulnerable people do not generally have the time, resources or sometimes the ability to do thorough research for themselves. If people read the small print then very many companies would lose their customers - beauty products and financial products in particular rely on people not looking at the small print. But buying a moisturizer that claims to prevent ageing is not in the same league as buying an alleged treatment for a serious medical condition. There has to be solid evidence.

The ASA underlines that ‘the CAP Code required health claims to be backed by evidence, which would be assessed on the basis of the available scientific knowledge. … We considered that listing medical conditions in this way meant consumers would expect the advertisers to hold robust scientific evidence to support the use of homeopathy for the listed conditions.’ (my bold)

The ASA then looks at the evidence. It cites the House of Commons’ Science and Technology Committee investigation of 2009–10 into the government’s policies on the provision of homeopathy through the NHS and the licensing of homeopathic products by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Authority.

The Committee concluded that homeopathic products ‘were not efficacious because they produced effects no better than those of a placebo treatment. They went on to state that they did not believe further research into homeopathy was warranted because sufficient testing had already taken place and evidence showed that it was not efficacious’.

This is pretty clear – it doesn’t work and it will never work no matter how many trials are done.

The ASA then went further and got their own expert to look at research provided by the Society of Homeopaths to ‘prove’ their claims for the various conditions listed on the web site. Homeopaths often claim that testing by non-homeopaths is unfair, biased or fails to take into account the way homeopathy works. But this was evidence they provided themselves.

The ASA found that their expert's ‘overall opinion of the evidence presented by the Society of Homeopaths, and the general body of published scientific and clinical data, was that it was not convincing in terms of efficacy and it was unlikely to be generally accepted by the scientific community.’

In every case, the ‘evidence’ was either flawed, insufficient or unscientific.

Again – it doesn’t work.

For every treatment for a specific condition listed on the web site, the ASA ruled that ‘We therefore concluded the claim was misleading and had not been substantiated’.

This restrained language means the evidence is no evidence at all, homeopaths must not make claims they can’t back up and they must stop targeting vulnerable people.

This is not the end of homeopathy. The web site will no doubt change its wording, making it vaguer, more shifty. Homeopathy is big business and businesses never go under without a fight. There is always a loophole and there are always vulnerable people to make money out of.

The ASA is doing its best to close the loopholes but it can’t tackle claims without complaints. This is why it’s important to keep reporting dodgy adverts and web sites to them. The Nightingale Collaboration has a good guide on how to complain.

The ruling is a victory but the battle continues.

Friday, 14 June 2013

Fun With Diatoms

I’ve been enjoying diatoms this week so I thought I’d share.

As a non-scientist, sometimes my attention is caught by something because it looks interesting or strange. In this case, the many many varied forms of the diatoms caught my eye. I admit, my first reaction was aesthetic – which is a fancy way of saying they look great. My second thought was – I wonder if I could crochet some. Then I started looking into them. Sometimes scientific enquiry can be led by a superficial attraction or a childlike curiosity. That’s my excuse, anyway.

This is what I have learnt:

Diatoms have been around since the early Jurassic period, around two hundred million years. There are more than 200 genera of them and an estimated 100,000 extant species. They’re not in the big league of beetles (around four times as many) but that’s still pretty impressive.

They are single-celled plants, a form of algae that lives in both fresh and salt water, and they exist in fossil form too. Most of them are microscopic but some can reach a mighty two millimeters.

The name comes from the fact that the cell is in two halves, from the Ancient Greek διά (dia: through) and τέμνειν (temnein: to cut) - cut in half.

Their single cell wall is made of silica (hydrated silicon dioxide) and is called a frustule, a word which I am enjoying saying to myself when no one is around. Most are non-motile (they don’t move by their own power). Some float around on their own and some form colonies.

You might think that something that old, small and basic would be some sort of blob, of interest to only the most niche of scientists.

Next time you swim in the sea, a river or a lake, think about the fact that you're surrounded by them.

They don't just look great, diatoms are one of the most important components of marine phytoplankton and therefore form the basis of the whole marine food chain. They fulfil both of William Morris's criteria: beautiful and useful.

They’re also immensely useful to us for monitoring environmental conditions and water quality.

But, most of all, their variety and their shape is amazing. I’m glad I took the time to look them up and learn something but, for me, it will always be their appearance that is the most attractive thing about them. Does that make me forever a hopeless non-scientist? Maybe it doesn't matter if my route to knowledge is along a path strewn with pretty or weird things.

Here are a few more. Enjoy. And no, I haven't crocheted any. Yet.

Friday, 26 April 2013

Behaving Like Animals

Is human nature a beast that needs to be tamed? Should we ‘throw out Darwinism in our social and political lives’? Or are we naturally altruistic, empathetic and moral?

In Frans De Waal’s new book, The Bonobo and the Atheist, he takes on the thinkers who believe that morality has to be imposed on our brutish natures and catalogues the growing evidence that disproves them. I interviewed him about the book for the Pod Delusion podcast; you can listen to us here.

There is a long history of thought that the natural world is a merciless struggle for survival and that humans decided to live together ‘by covenant only, which is artificial’ (Hobbes), that natural selection is ‘a Hobbesian war of each against all’ and ethics are humanity’s cultural victory over the evolutionary process (Huxley), that civilization is achieved through the renunciation of instinct and the action of the superego – which men are more capable of than women (Freud), that children have to be trained to be sociable through fear of punishment and desire for praise (Freud, Skinner, Piaget), that moral behaviour is achieved through reason alone (Kant).

These ideas have their origins in Judaeo-Christian teaching that morals have to be imposed from above, that in our ‘natural state’ we are unfit for society (or heaven) because of original sin.

What they all have in common is a kind of dualism between our ‘better angels’ and the beast within, our Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

The idea persists even now, albeit stripped of its religious origins. A lack of understanding of the difference between predation (of other species) and aggression (towards our own species) has led to the popular and persistent image of humans as ‘killer apes’. Matt Ridley has written that we are potentially but not naturally moral.

Richard Dawkins has said that ‘we, alone on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators’ (The Selfish Gene) and that ‘in our political and social life we are entitled to throw out Darwinism, to say we don’t want to live in a Darwinian world’.

Some disagree. Darwin is one of them. He wrote that ‘any animal whatever, endowed with well-marked social instincts (…) would inevitably acquire a moral sense or conscience, as soon as its intellectual powers had become as well developed, or nearly as well developed, as in man’ (Descent of Man). Stephen Jay Gould wrote in 1980 ‘Why should our nastiness be the baggage of an apish past and our kindness uniquely human?’ Philosopher David Hume believed that moral sentiments come from ‘a tender sympathy with others’.

De Waal agrees with them. He does not believe in any inner dualism, in the need to choose to be moral or to accept moral instruction from above (gods, philosophers or authority figures) because altruism, empathy and morality are innate in us. What’s more, they also exist in other social animals. They are part of an evolved package of behaviours that make it possible for us to be social animals.

He calls the idea that civilization and morality are imposed on a violent, immoral, selfish nature Veneer Theory and concludes ‘Everything science has learned in the last few decades argues against the pessimistic view that morality is a thin veneer over a nasty human nature’.

Human morality is ‘firmly anchored in the social emotions, with empathy at its core’ (De Waal, Our Inner Ape). The desire to treat others well comes from altruism which, in turn, comes from empathy.

He is not idealizing humans or other animals. Conflict is inevitable. It is how and why we resolve it or avoid it that matters. He also underlines the difference between humans and some other social animals, writing: “What is so interesting about human prosociality is precisely that it is not of the "eusocial" kind, which promotes sacrifices for the greater genetic good. We, humans, maintain all sorts of selfish interests and individual conflicts that need to be resolved to achieve a cooperative society. This is why we have morality and ants and bees don’t. They don’t need it.”

For many years, De Waal’s claim that other animals display altruism and empathy was ignored or rejected. What his latest book achieves is to put onto a firm evidential basis the fact that the roots of our social behaviour can be seen in other animals. The question is no longer whether animals have empathy but how it works.

Research has shown that moral decisions light up areas of the brain in humans and other animals that deal with emotions and – significantly - the evaluation of others’ emotions. When VEN cells in humans are damaged there is a loss of self-awareness and empathy; these cells exist in apes, cetaceans and elephants – but not monkeys.

A recent study ‘highlights the fact that, similar to humans, sensitivity to the emotional states of others actually emerges very young in bonobos and may not require so much complex cognitive processing as has previously been assumed’. Small children comfort other distressed children, even before they have developed the language skills to be instructed to do it.

There is strong evidence in other animals of reconciliation and consolation after conflict - kissing, embracing and grooming for example, to restore social bonds. They are aware of unfairness – what economists call inequity aversion – which makes good sense in the avoidance of conflict. This has been seen in animals as diverse as capuchins, elephants, canids and corvids. They co-operate and form social ties, both of which improve survival chances – female baboons with the best social ties have the most surviving offspring, for example.

Co-operation is strongest in meat-eating animals as hunting requires co-ordination and meat-sharing to provide a reward. Vegetarian animals are much less co-operative because they don’t need to be.

Social animals show gratitude and revenge – remembering the behaviour of others and paying them back. They target their helping, which requires being able to see a situation from another’s point of view. They are able to delay gratification, which shows self-control – a characteristic thought to be only human.

He acknowledges that humans have more complex and developed social skills; we alone analyse, discuss and codify our behaviour. He says ‘I am reluctant to call a chimpanzee a “moral being.” This is because sentiments do not suffice. We strive for a logically coherent system’.

Human morality and laws show ‘a move towards universal standards combined with an elaborate system of justification, monitoring and punishment’ – for example the Geneva Convention and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In animals there is what is called motivational autonomy – they don’t think about why they do something – for example, they don’t make the link between sex and reproduction or between sharing and surviving.

The fact that it is social animals alone who display similar behaviour to ours is the key. It has been suggested by Dawkins that ‘humans are nicer than is good for our selfish genes’. But we give help roughly at the same level as we need it; tigers are solitary animals who neither need nor give help, for example. Behaving pro-socially makes society work and affords the benefits of social living to the individual.

Being altruistic makes us feel good and helps us survive but is it then selfish to behave socially? Are we all really hypocrites? Is it selfish to care for our young, treat others well and to push to the front of the queue?

The big difference is that queue-jumping is a consciously chosen act whereas instinctive behaviour doesn’t involve thought so the term ‘selfish’ doesn’t work as a measure. As De Waal has written, ‘Imagine the cognitive burden if every decision we took needed to be vetted against handed-down principles.’ We may think about our impulses and choose whether or not to act on them but we do not need to learn or be forced to behave well all the time. We often rationalize our moral decisions post hoc.

Part of the problem of resistance against altruism and empathy in other animals is human exceptionalism, the idea that humans are in some way special, set apart. This too has its roots in religion, with humans as God’s special creation, the only creature possessed of a soul.

De Waal notes that religions developed in countries where there were no other primates have the strongest tendency to set humans outside nature – they have no animal gods or animal-headed human gods.

The idea has persisted for a surprisingly long time in a secular form both in science and the humanities but is slowly being eroded. De Waal has written: ‘Humanity never runs out of claims of what sets it apart, but it is a rare uniqueness claim that holds up for over a decade. This is why we don’t hear anymore that only humans make tools, imitate, think ahead, have culture, are self-aware, or adopt another’s point of view’.

We are not unique and we are not Jekyll and Hyde. We are complicated animals.

One section of the book which looks at atheism has been strongly criticized by some atheists, including AC Grayling, who accuse De Waal of being an apologist for religion. My analysis of Grayling’s highly flawed argument is here.

Friday, 29 March 2013

Are you atheist enough?

One section of Frans De Waal’s latest book The Bonobo and the Atheist has unleashed criticism from certain prominent atheists, including PZ Myers and AC Grayling.

De Waal is a world expert on primate behaviour, CH Chandler Professor of Psychology and Director of the Living Links Centre at Yerkes Primate Research Centre at Emory University.

He is accused of being an apologist for religion and of not taking its malign effects seriously enough. What is worrying is that it appears there may now be only one correct form of atheism.

I interviewed De Waal about the book for the Pod Delusion podcast. The UK publisher has embargoed the interview and a detailed review of the book until late April when it’s released in the UK although it’s already out in the US and parts of Europe. So I can’t go into too much detail, although the section that has caused so much offence is available online.

In Prospect magazine, AC Grayling writes:

‘But he does not like the "new atheists," and takes the view that religion, though false, has a role, and should be left alone.’

This is not what De Waal believes. For example, he has written:

‘While I do consider religious institutions and their representatives — popes, bishops, mega-preachers, ayatollahs, and rabbis — fair game for criticism, what good could come from insulting individuals who find value in religion?’

In The Bonobo and the Atheist he writes ‘I am all for a reduced role for religion with less emphasis on the almighty God and more on human potentials.’ He also recognizes the major problems any atheist American politician would have in getting elected and that ‘this explains why atheists have become so vocal in demanding their place at the table’.

This may not be a strong enough form of atheism or strident commitment to secularism to please everyone. He points out that there are cultural differences, that his Dutch upbringing gives him a different perspective on religion as the Dutch are generally much more indifferent to it than the British and Americans where the most vocal atheists come from.

It’s true that De Waal doesn’t like what he calls militant atheists or personal attacks on individuals who find comfort in their faith. He doesn’t think that all religious people are somehow defective, or ignorant or inferior thinkers. As a scientist, he is more interested in ‘what good it does for us. Are we born to believe and, if so, why?’ and ‘For me, understanding the need for religion is a far superior goal to bashing it’.

Faith is the proximate, not the ultimate, cause of behaviour. It’s a symptom, not a disease. Remove faith and the behaviours would remain with some other justification. It’s this ultimate cause that interests De Waal and which he is better placed than most to investigate.

In his article, Grayling (rightly) lists some of the many ‘divisions, conflicts, falsehoods, coercions, disruptions, miseries and harm done by religion’. He continues: ‘He might respond with the usual points: on one side the charity, art and solace inspired by religion, and on the other side Hitler and Stalin as examples of the crimes of atheism.’

The problem is that De Waal doesn’t. It’s a very weak argument to attack what someone might have said – but didn’t. There’s no point saying that Hitler was not an atheist when someone isn’t arguing that he is.

Grayling writes: ‘Why, he asks, are the "new atheists" evangelical about their cause? "Why would atheists turn messianic?" He cannot see why Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, the late Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett and others attack religion and believers, and why they robustly and even aggressively argue the case for atheism’.

He continues: ‘In any case he has the nature of the debate wrong. Atheists (…) are mostly not interested in pursuing the metaphysical debate about whether the universe contains or has outside it supernatural entities or agencies of some kind - gods and goddesses, fairies and so forth. (…) Their militancy - for such indeed it sometimes is, (…) is about secularism, not metaphysics.‘

He’s being disingenuous here and this second paragraph contradicts the first. ‘why they robustly and even aggressively argue the case for atheism’ which inevitably involves engaging with the supernatural elements of faith.

Atheism is not the same as secularism although Grayling seems to be using them interchangeably here (and he really should know better). All the arguments he makes for constraining religion are secular arguments, very different from attacking believers or aggressively arguing the case for atheism. Secularism defends the rights of believers to believe without persecution; trying to convert them to atheism or attacking them for their beliefs is, in some respects, anti-secular.

He is being disingenuous because, along with Dawkins, Hitchens et al there are groups and individuals in the UK and US who promote atheism for its own sake – for example, Atheism UK – that Grayling is surely aware of. There are plenty of atheists who do point and laugh at religious beliefs, analyse at length scriptural inconsistencies and attack believers as inferior (for example, even the name of the Brights suggests superiority). There are frequent debates advertised on the existence of god(s) in which non-believers take part. Scientists take on creationists, for example. Grayling is mischaracterizing both atheists and De Waal.

Finally, Grayling writes: 'But one would not want the evolutionary history of all aspects of our psychology to entail that, merely in virtue of that fact, they should all be left as they are. A large part of moral reflection is devoted to overcoming or tempering the evolved capacities for aggression, greed, concupiscence and partiality that disrupt rather than enhance community living'.

De Waal is not saying that anti-social tendencies should be left alone. He is more interested in finding out where they come from. The book is against dualism, against the idea that morals and all pro-social behaviour need to be imposed from above or outside on our anti-social natures. He believes – and proves with considerable evidence - that pro-social behaviour (including altruism, empathy and morality) are evolved and are just as strong in us as less attractive characteristics. We have evolved certain instinctive behaviours that make social living possible and part of that is how we deal with anti-social actions.

De Waal’s position is that while philosophy (and religion) may investigate, codify and universalize morals, they do not invent them. He challenges in detail Dawkins’ argument that we need to ‘throw out Darwinism’ in our social and political life. Perhaps this is why he is attracting so much flak. (I’ll be writing considerably more about this aspect when the embargo on the book is lifted.)

There are elements of the book I would take issue with – for example, De Waal’s speculation that atheism is the result of trauma. This may be the case for some people but others reach atheism through a mental process that leads them to reject belief. Some people never have a belief system in the first place. De Waal’s memories of the religion he grew up with contain no apparent trauma to explain his atheism and support this theory.

De Waal’s laid-back atheism may not be the ‘right’ kind: is there now only one atheism that is acceptable in public figures? He writes that the enemy of thought and science is dogmatism, whether political, religious or otherwise, because it shuts down discussion and sets up prophets who cannot be questioned. Does every scientist need to sing from the same hymn sheet as the arbiters of atheism (all white, middle class, old men)? Do they all need to be Dawkinses to be acceptable?

More to the point, do we all need to hate religion, despise or patronize all believers and ‘aggressively’ promote atheism to be part of the club? Are you atheist enough?

31 March update: De Waal has now responded to his critics here.

Monday, 14 January 2013

I promise that I will do my best...

The Guides and Brownies are now consulting on whether to change their Promise. The usual objections will be raised in certain quarters by people who are too quick to think that their faith is being persecuted, that our great traditions are under attack, that everyone should adore the Queen (gawd bless her) or by people who just don't like change. These are the facts.

I was an Imp in the Brownies and a Scarlet Pimpernel in the Guides. I still have all the badges. Growing up in a village, they were an important part of learning social skills and a good way to escape my parents' control for a few hours a week. It's because I enjoyed them that I'd like every girl or young woman to be able to join fully, not because I want to tear down the very fabric of society.

What do Guides and Brownies do?

According to the web site, the ethos of Guiding is that

All girls are welcome
We put girls in the lead
We encourage girls to speak out
We let girls have their own space.

A change in the promise would mean that all girls are equally welcome, which is not the case at the moment.

Guiding is not just about doing good deeds locally. They've joined with five UK charities to help members learn about issues that seriously affect the lives of girls and women around the world, and to 'empower them to advocate, volunteer and raise awareness to make the world a better place for girls'. Basically, at its best it's Girl Power in uniform.

The Guide Law is a pretty good set of values for anyone:
A Guide is honest, reliable and can be trusted.
A Guide is helpful and uses her time and abilities wisely.
A Guide faces challenges and learns from her experiences.
A Guide is a good friend and a sister to all Guides.
A Guide is polite and considerate.
A Guide respects all living things and takes care of the world around her

Why change the promise?

At the moment, the Promise is:
I promise that I will do my best:
to love my God,
to serve the Queen and my country,
to help other people
and to keep the (Brownie) Guide law

They say they are consulting because 'Over the past few years we have heard from more and more girls and Leaders who struggle with the wording of the Promise, particularly in interpreting what it really means to girls today'.

Guiding is not about camping, church parade and learning how to fold bandages. It's not a training ground for some 1950s type memory of the Women's Institute.

Why attack a great tradition?

A change to the Promise would not undermine the values of Guiding or deny its history. As they point out themselves, since they were founded in 1909 (Brownies in 1914), the Promise has already changed 11 times 'to reflect changes in society and to make it more meaningful to girls and women'.

People who oppose change and cite tradition as a defence often mean they want things to stay as they were when they were young, not as they have been for all time. It's a form of parochial nostalgia.

The Guides are a Christian organisation in a Christian society

No they're not. The web site states: 'Girlguiding UK has always been open to girls of all faiths and none – we have never been a Christian organisation'. You don't currently have to make the Promise but this means that there is effectively a two-tier membership. Some Guides are more equal than others.

The proposal is to change or remove the line in the Promise about loving God. At the moment, if you're a non-believer, then either you can't be a full member or you have to lie when you make the Promise, which is hardly in the spirit of the Guide Law. Girl Guides Australia removed the reference to God from their Promise in 2012.

I did make the Promise and, at the time, I meant it. I had a very religious upbringing that I hadn't turned away from at that point. But as society changes, an increasing number of girls and young women have decided they don't have a faith and shouldn't be excluded or downgraded.

This isn't about excluding or marginalising religion, it's an equalities issue, about making Guiding open to everyone, equally. A change would also open up the organisation to adults who want to volunteer, the Brown Owls and all the others.

Changing the Promise would also change people's perception of Guiding. Saying they welcome everyone but having a religious component to the Promise sends a mixed message.

God save the Queen, you evil commie Republicans

There's also a proposal to change the part about the Queen - not because Guides have gone all republican but because serving Queen and country is a rather nebulous, archaic and even militaristic concept that has little or no meaning to many people today.

Why does this matter?

This may seem like a minor issue, but it's an area of inequality that could be easily fixed, to the benefit of women. And, in a society where there are so many pockets (or gaping holes) where women's lives need improving, it's a change that could affect a lot of people. Not all changes need to be huge.

Girlguiding UK has around half a million members including about 100,000 trained volunteer adult Leaders and supporters.

There has been a lot more in the media about changes to the Scout Promise and campaigners have paid them more attention, sometimes getting pretty heated. The Guides have largely been ignored until now. They seem much more open to change than the Scouts, who have long refused even to consider dropping the God part of the Promise, although they too are now consulting.

What can I do?

Anyone can respond to the consultation. Adult non-members can fill out the questionnaire (and leave comments) here. It takes about ten minutes.

UPDATE 22 JUNE 2013:
The Guides have now decided to change their Promise. The new version will be:
I promise that I will do my best: to be true to myself and develop my beliefs, to serve the Queen and my community, to help other people and to keep the Guide law.

And of course there has been the predictable howl of protest from certain religious groups, equally predictably quoted in the Mail, Express and Telegraph.

There is also the predictable protest that Guides and Brownies will now promise to serve their community rather than their country, although the Queen has kept her place. Words like lefty and liberal salt these articles.

Chief Guide Gill Slocombe has responded:
“All the essence of what we do is still in the Promise. It has just been reworded to make it more easily understood by the girls of today.

“We were getting feedback that people were struggling with the Promise, they were uncomfortable with it. I have used the word 'off-putting’. I think people were gritting their teeth and saying it.

“This was never a faith organisation. It was always a spiritual organisation. I don’t see how Guiding could have grown to 145 countries with 10 million girls worldwide if everybody had been expected to go along to their local Anglican church and sign up.

“Nothing is changing except the Promise. We have been wilfully misunderstood. Let’s hope we can set the record straight.”

Wilful misunderstanding is something that people keen to get on their high horse about the destruction of everything they hold dear are very good at.

Being true to yourself is a bit nebulous and needs to be clearly framed within the context of the Guiding ethos as a whole to give it any meaning but it's not the wooly fudge that some critics are making out.

The Scouts are said to be planning a change to their Promise later this year. It shouldn't matter that the girls got there first, but it does to me. Come on boys, keep up.

Well done, Guides and Brownies, you have done your best. My ten year old Brownie self gives you the three-finger salute.