Saturday, March 31, 2007

Christians and Slavery

The 200th anniversary of the abolition of slavery in the UK was celebrated this week. One of the recurring themes of the BBC's coverage was the church's complicity in the practice of slavery. I didn't watch or listen to much of the coverage, but I was treated to Rowan Williams' (Archbishop of Canterbury) shocked reaction to a bishop of the era writing of slaves as being less than human. I also saw coverage from a church seminary in Barbados - one of the oldest in the world, apparently - where hundreds of slaves were forced to work ("employed" is not the right term), and had a life expectancy of three years.

The slave trade was appalling. It should be unbelievable that one group of humans could treat another in the sorts of ways in which Black Africans were treated over these centuries. Unfortunately, there is much too strong a pattern running throughout history of power being abused for this to come as a surprise.

However, the BBC's implication that Christianity somehow was more complicit in this than other people seems something of a slur. Aside from the fact that William Wilberforce was an evangelical Christian, this poem by Joseph Samson traces a line of independent Christian opposition to slavery (or in some cases, at least to the worst practices of slavery) that goes back about 150 years from the time of abolition. For example:
In 1758, the People called Quakers, in Pennsylvania, came to a final resolution to deny the rights of membership in their religious Society, to all such of their Members as should persist in detaining their Fellow-Creatures in bondage, after Gospel admoniti­on against the unjust practice. Many strenuous Ad­vocates for the oppressed Negroes appeared about this time among the different Professors of Christianity, whose pious endeavours for their relief were at length blessed with considerable success: but of late the generous ardour for liberty, which charac­terizes the present age, has spread with unexampled rapidity. Where solitary Individuals lately wept over the suffering Negroes, numerous Societies are now established to befriend the Enslaved, and to protect the Free. They have solemnly represented the horrors of the Slave Trade to the Legislatures of Great Britain, France, and the United States of America; and unless the clamours of Self-interest and mistaken Policy can stifle the groans of Distress, and oblite­rate the dictates of Humanity, decisive measures will soon be adopted for the abolition of a trade that has deeply stained the annals of the eighteenth cen­tury with robbery and murder....

Richard Baxter, an eminent dissenting minister of the last century [that is, the 1600's!], some of whose Discourses are now extant. His Direc­tions to Slave-Holders contain a great deal of christian admoni­tion respecting their treatment of the Negroes, and were first published at London in 1673. "They are reasonable creatures as well as you," says he, "and born to as much natural liberty; they have immortal souls, and are equally capable of salvation with yourselves; equally under the government and laws "of God;" exhorting them to consider "how cursed a crime it is to equal Men to beasts."
John Locke was also a Christian, but is now regarded as a leading light of humanistic tolerance. He, however, despite his enlightened views, was "an investor in the Royal Africa Company, along with most of the English court and the political elite" (Robert Lacey, Great Tales from English History vol 3 p.20). People at the time argued that the Bible endorsed the practice of slavery. People will still say that the Bible must be discarded because this is the case. Actually, it makes no such endorsement, and even from the start of the practice of the slave trade, thinking Christians could see that it was incompatible with biblical Christianity.

Friday, March 30, 2007

An old review

"Sokal and Bricmont: Is this the beginning of the end of the dark ages in the humanities?"

Maybe, maybe not. But Tallis' review of Sokal and Bricmont's (S&B's) book is nonetheless encouraging reading for those of us still wrestling with the phantom of postmodernism. It is an enjoyable and startling read, especially if like me you have never come across feminist readings of science.

At the end he writes:
... Recognising that 'interdisciplinarity is the order of the day', and acknowledging the advantages that might come from the incorporation of science into the humanities, they list some of the lessons that might be drawn from their investigation. They should be pinned on the wall of every humanities department where postmodern Theory is taught and there are resident worshippers of individuals like [Julia] Kristeva:

1. It's a good idea to know what one is talking about.

2. Not all that is obscure is necessarily profound.

3. Science is not a `text'.

4. Don't ape the natural sciences.

5. Be wary of argument from authority.

6. Specific scepticism should not be confused with radical scepticism.

7. Ambiguity may be a subterfuge.

To this one might add: do not lie to yourself or to anyone else; or -- do not betray the trust of your students, your peers, your readers and the intellectual community at large. Precisely because it is so easy to mislead your students and even your peers in the field of cultural criticism and the humanities and even easier in the field of interdisciplinary studies, one should be aware of it as a permanent temptation to be guarded against.

Academics intending to continue as postmodern theorists in the interdisciplinary humanities after S&B should first read Intellectual Impostures and ask themselves whether adding to the quantity of confusion and untruth in the world is a good use of the gift of life or an ethical way to earn a living. After S&B, they may feel less comfortable with the glamorous life that can be forged in the wake of the founding charlatans of postmodern Theory. Alternatively, they might follow my friend Roger into estate agency -- though they should check out in advance that they are up to the moral rigours of such a profession. At any rate, being an estate agent might be a little more comfortable than being a postmodernist for the next few years. For, after S&B, a spectre will be haunting the exponents of Theory: the Truth. Poor old Truth that the giants of postmodern Theory have so thoroughly rogered. It's set to make a comeback. So watch out.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Global warming: "Everything you know is wrong"

I haven't watched The Great Global Warming Swindle yet, though it's only a matter of time, I guess. But even without watching it, I am aware of certain presumptions that are made in the debate that seem rather shaky.

I spoke below about the fact that low-energy lightbulbs aren't as unequivocally good as people suggest (particularly those who are making them) - because at some times of year, the heat generated by lightbulbs means that the heating system doesn't need to be on so much.

The March 10 New Scientist had an article (abstract only - payment needed for the full article) pointing out that carbon offsetting is not being properly regulated, opening the door to "Enron-style accounting" (as Amsterdam-based lobby group Transnational Institute put it - though if ever there was a tag for a libertarian, globalising, free-market lobby group, that would be it). Also, in the case of forestation, offsetting merely delays the arrival of CO2 in the atmosphere - the assumption being that in a hundred years or so when these trees come down again, we will have managed to sort the problem out. Given that India and China seem to show little inclination to do anything that would hamper their economic growth, and the focus in some parts of the developed world seems to be on buying our right to continue generating CO2 from other countries, it seems likely that we are simply handing the problem to our grandchildren after all.

Incidentally, for those Westerners who think that this is all the fault of India and China, the New Scientist article has a reality check, in the form of a table of emissions per capita. CO2 emissions per capita per year in India are about 1 tonne. In China, about 2.4 tonnes. In the UK, 11.2 tonnes. In the US, 20 tonnes. I've had Americans commenting on here getting huffy about the air quality in Beijing. But can they really insist on the right to generate as much CO2 as eight people from China?!

On a slightly more positive note, could somebody tell me what exactly would be the problem with doing what is supposedly unthinkable - burying thousands of tonnes of plastic underground? It doesn't decompose for ages, we are told, and yet by weight it is predominantly carbon. Surely this must be one of the securest ways of getting significant amounts of carbon out of circulation?

From my point of view, as I believe I have written before, I think that as a steward of God's creation, it is right for me to do what I can to use it in a sustainable and careful way. So I will continue to do what I can to try and reduce my environmental impact. One side effect of my recent change in job is that I should be driving several thousand miles less this year, though my career is hardly renowned for its overall environmental benefit ....

Sunday, March 25, 2007

So who invented paediatrics, then?

Well, nobody, one would have thought. The idea of medical care for children is no more unusual than that of care for adults, is it?

Actually, until as recently as several decades into the 20th Century, this was not the case. Children got sick and died; they were considered "replaceable". Radio 4's Last Word this week talks about Dr Beryl Corner. She fought against a patriarchal system and the belief of obstetricians that there was no need for paediatricians, to establish one of the first special care baby units in the UK in 1942. It gained an international reputation.

These days, we parents take for granted that appropriate facilities will be available for poorly infants. But it was partly her influence that led to this.

Oh, by the way, it doesn't mention it in the synopsis, but it does in the programme. Her motivation for doing this was her Christian belief. She believed that Christ had died for all children, no matter what their illness or disability.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Made in China

We have long struggled with the fact that it's very difficult to find toys that aren't made in China - virtually impossible from many reputable, child-friendly retailers. The basis for our frustration was the historically bad record the Chinese government had in family welfare.

In this book, more reasons for struggling with the ethical acceptability of buying toys from China can be found - and other concerns are raised.
The truth is that toys represent a $21 billion a year industry, and with so much money at stake, the toy business is anything but child's play. In "The Real Toy Story", investigative journalist Eric Clark exposes the startling truths behind Britain's favourite toys. Drawing on interviews with over 200 industry insiders, Clark names and shames the corporations spending millions on research into the best way to manipulate their target audience while manufacturing products in China under virtual slave labour conditions. In a world of cut-throat competition and cold-blooded marketing, toy companies are increasingly willing to sacrifice our children in the rush for profits. And as more children forsake cuddly play things for Ipods and cell phones, companies are using even more extreme tactics- unashamedly using sex and violence to sell dolls and action men to children as young as three - to make sure that their toy is the one that children want to have.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

"You can't buck the market!"

Buying property in the UK is an expensive business.

As far as I can tell, house prices rise as high as the market can bear. In February, according to the BBC, the average house price in the UK was about £185,000. That is something like seven times average household income (estimating from the National Statistics Online figures for 2004/5).

When I first started being aware of such values, I think the ratio was probably nearer three times - but at that stage, household income was much more likely to be based upon one person's salary than today. Today, two people need to work in most houses for them to afford property - with the consequent impact that this has on family life.

Again, for as long as I can remember, house prices have been rising seemingly inexorably, with just two 1-2 year periods of "correction". People have been saying for most of this time that this isn't sustainable, and there has to be a crash in prices at some stage - but it doesn't happen. Mortgages keep increasing in size - not only do we have 95-100% mortgages, but we have "interest only" mortgages now, where the precise arrangements for repayment are simply kicked into touch for a future date, and we are heading in the direction of possibly having lifetime interest only mortgages, where the term of the mortgage is not defined. All this is because the prices of the houses themselves have got steadily further out of reach.

Various things have been done by the government in an attempt to halt the rise of house prices. One of these was increasing stamp duty. When you buy a house, you pay the government 3% if the price of the house is over a certain threshold. Let's say you are in a house worth £300,000, moving to another with the same value (perhaps you are moving job, or something like that). The cost of moving would be:
- £9000 in stamp duty
- typically £4500 in estate agent fees
- typically £1000 in legal fees
- typically £600 for a Home Information Pack
- typically £1500 in other costs

That's over £16000. If you want to gain a bedroom (say around where we live), you are talking about adding around £80000 to the house price. So to move to a house with one more bedroom will typically cost you about £100000.

So if moving is so expensive, surely that should bring down the price of houses? No. Don't forget that you can't buck the market.

Given how much it costs to move, and that if you have room then for £40-£60000 you can add a bedroom and a reception room to your house, what has happened is that the supply of properties has plummeted. But there are still people looking for houses, who can't extend and who need more room. So the market is even more a seller's market than before, and property prices have continued to rise.

Friday, March 16, 2007

"The God Delusion"

Another substantive interaction with Dawkins' book can be found on the Bethinking website.
When I settled down to read Richard Dawkins’ latest book, The God Delusion, I was surprised at just how much of his book I agreed with. And yet my view of the world is very different to that of Richard Dawkins. Something very strange seems to be going on here!! It seems to me that Dawkins has been very clever in the design of his book. It is written very powerfully – the stories and illustrations he uses tend to persuade the reader to agree with him and by doing so it is easy to get drawn into believing that he is providing supporting evidence for his main thesis, that God is nothing more than a delusion. But rhetorical power does not equate to rational proof, and on the latter I am afraid the book is rather lacking.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

More on Schaeffer...

... if you are interested, can be found on Mike Godfrey's blog - he has a series of posts on "He is There and He is Not Silent", which comes bundled in a trilogy with "The God who is There" and "Escape from Reason".

Included in this is part of the justification for Schaeffer's assertion that there are only a limited number of possible fundamental worldviews - regarding the origin of the universe, either:
- The universe has always existed; or
- The universe had an impersonal origin; or
- The universe had a personal origin.

Isn't this an exclusive set? And if it is, isn't it reasonable to think that these are in principle statements which may have scientific implications that could be tested?

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Is that it?

Dawkins says yes. Hofstadter says no. The Scientific American review sides with Hofstadter, apparently. I know whose writing captivates me more - "Eternal Golden Braid" is one of the books that changed my life.

Nescafé Partners' Blend

What Nescafé say:
When you drink Nescafé Partners' Blend Fairtrade certified coffee, you enjoy an exceptionally smooth, rich coffee. And, better still, you help the people who grow your coffee, their families and their communities with every cup. Learn more at

Nescafe - it's all about you
This is one brand from Nescafé's range (which include Gold Blend, Blend 37 and Nescafé). To me, the logical inference from this advertisement is that if you drink these other brands, then you are not helping the people who grow the coffee, their families and their communities. Surely if a coffee seller were genuinely concerned about the ethics of Fairtrade, they would make sure all brands were Fairtrade, not just one. This really gives the impression that Nestlé are more concerned about image rather than substance.

People object to Fairtrade because it distorts the market place, subsidising supposedly inefficient practices. The problem is that the marketplace is already massively distorted, and has never been "fair". Multinational corporations have such immense buying power that they can offer a "take it or leave it" price - forcing suppliers to sell at a price below the cost of production - driven by consumers whose highest priority for the last thirty years has been cheaper prices in supermarkets. That's not capitalism at work, at least as it was originally conceived of - or not for the benefit of all parties, anyway.

The same thing is happening in all sorts of different markets. In the UK, supermarkets who dominate the retail sector force suppliers to cut prices, making it virtually impossible to make a living from farming, whilst the supermarket profits soar. Subsisting farmers in West Africa are unable to sell their milk at the local market, because milk from the Netherlands, surplus to European requirements and produced with a EU subsidy, is being dumped there.

We did a taste test of various different Fairtrade instant coffees, from suppliers that seem to have more ethical credentials than Nestlé and Kenco. Our preferred option? This one.

Monday, March 12, 2007

"Through a Glass, Darkly" by Jostein Gaarder

The Blurb

The questioning of universal ideas that so many readers loved in Sophie's World continues in this beautiful, moving and wonderfully original novel.

As Cecilia lies ill in bed, and her family prepare for Christmas knowing she will not recover, an angel steps through her window. But Ariel is no ordinary angel - at least, he does not conform to conventional ideas of what an angel looks like and says. He likes nothing better than to sit around and chat about life, death and the universe. Through a Glass, Darkly is a springboard for a spirited and thoroughly engaging series of conversations between Cecilia and her angel. As the weeks pass and winter turns to spring, subtle changes take place in the relationship between Cecilia and her family, as she swings from feelings of anger and denial, hope and despair, to a calm acceptance of her lot. She is preparing to leave ...

A Quote
She had been given a bell for the bedside table. She rang it when she wanted to go to the loo or needed something. Usually it was Lars who answered it first. Sometimes Cecilia had rung the bell just so he could tell her what they had been baking or decorating.

Father had promised to carry Cecilia downstairs to the living room when it was time to open the presents. She wanted new skis. The old ones barely reached up to her chin. Mother had suggested that she should wait until she was well again, but Cecilia had protested. She wanted skis for Christmas, and that was that!

'You may not be able to go skiing this winter, Cecilia.'

She had thrown a vase of flowers on to the floor.

'Of course I can't go skiing if I haven't any skis.'

Mother had just brought a dustpan and brush without saying a word. That was almost the worst thing about it. As she swept up the flowers and the fragments of glass she said, 'I thought you'd prefer something exciting that you could have with you while you're in bed.'

There was suddenly a tight feeling in her head. 'Have with me while I'm in bed!' So then she had pushed a plate and a glass of juice on to the floor as well. Mother didn't get cross then, either. She had merely swept and brushed, brushed and swept.
Sorry, I guess that's a bit sentimental. But it's so much harder to write about dying than it is to write about sex.

All of Gaarder's books are worth the read - I'd particularly also recommend Vita Brevis, in which (IMO) Gaarder (through Flora Aemilia) demonstrates a better Christian understanding of love and relationships than Augustine apparently had ....

Sunday, March 11, 2007

How do you read?

From Miss Mellifluous

Hardback or trade paperback or mass market paperback?
The format isn't a determining factor, and I rarely have a choice!

Online purchase or brick and mortar?
I love bookshops, but the proportion of my books that are bought in them is low. Amazon is just too easy and cheap, and life is too busy.

Barnes & Noble or Borders?
Any university-standard bookshop will do.

Bookmark or dog-ear?
Neither. What do you call those ribbon bookmarks that Bibles and books like that have? I'll use those, if they are there – Robert Lacey's Great Tales from English History has them, which are what I am currently working my way through (H/T Amanda and Jonathan). And a good reason for having a hardback is that you can mark the page with the dust cover.

Mark or not mark?
Rarely mark – though I might put a piece of paper inside with some jotted notes.

Alphabetise by author or alphabetize by title or random?
With shelves and books as varied as ours, they just fit in wherever they can.

Keep, throw away, or sell?
Keep and lend, or give away. Lending is good – it makes it look as though there aren't so many books kicking around.

Keep dustjacket or toss it?
Keep, to protect the book as long as possible ....

Read with dustjacket or remove it?
With jacket.

Short story or novel?
Either – but novel is more likely. And non-fiction substantially more likely.

Collection (short stories by same author) or anthology (short stories by different authors)?

Lord of the Rings or Narnia?
Lord of the Rings

Stop reading when tired or at chapter breaks?
Hmm. Normally stop reading when Liz is tired .... Ouch! Okay, when I'm tired.

“It was a dark and stormy night” or “Once upon a time”?
Yawn. Neither. “When we consider the subject matter addressed by the title, we must first bear in mind the following ....” Now, that's a promising start!

Buy or Borrow?
Buy, or receive.

New or used?
Normally new.

Buying choice: book reviews, recommendation or browse?
Recommendation is about the only one that works at all for me.

Tidy ending or cliffhanger?
Whatever fits the story.

Morning reading, afternoon reading or night time reading?
As the opportunity arises.

Standalone or series?

Favorite series?
Um, does The Lord of the Rings count?

Favorite book of which nobody else has heard?
Nobody else?
To the best of my knowledge, nobody I know has read Through a Glass Darkly, by Jostein Gaarder, which was probably the most moving book I have read as an adult.

Favorite books read last year?
Human Traces, by Sebastian Faulks. A Meaningful World, by Ben Wiker and Jonathan Witt.

Favorite book of all time?
Um, can I not count the Bible and Shakespeare, on Desert Island Discs rules?
Actually, that doesn't help much. A Francis Schaeffer Trilogy, perhaps.

Pass it on. And don’t forget to buy a beautiful custom made bookmark.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

"Seize the day..."

... the ethos of the Dead Poets' Society - "to suck out all the marrow of life." Is this a Christian attitude?

Romans 8:6 says (ESV):
To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.
Note that "flesh" here doesn't mean sex, but about things that are bound up with this world.

John Keating was right, in a sense - far too many people just drift through life, and we don't want to waste time - we have to be good stewards of our time as with everything else. But it's not for the reasons that he gives - that is, it's not because in 100 years' time we will be food for worms. From a Christian point of view, that's not how we see things. If our minds are set upon life and peace, then we are conscious of the fact that the day is coming when we will live for ever, and we will perhaps have the opportunity to do things that we can't even conceive of now!

So Keating's formulation of "seize the day" isn't the Christian perspective. Our minds aren't set on "death" - we don't seize the day because we will be dead tomorrow - because from a Christian point of view "to die is gain". Instead, our lives are set upon life and peace - our motivation is the fact that God has given us these things through his grace, and we are to use well what he has given us.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

A designer is not enough ...

... or, "The limitations of co-option" here. H/T the usual.

I'm starting a new job, so I won't have much time to blog for a while.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Christmas as metaphor for eschatology

Somebody hit my website from here - an old but useful guide to different Christian perspectives on the end times.

Friday, March 02, 2007

The Power of the Urban Myth

(H/T Telic Thoughts ... again!)

The Guardian proposes a new understanding of the polarisation of opinion in the UK today - three ways, between religious fundamentalists, atheistic fundamentalists, and the "enlightened, tolerant" crowd. This is, in my opinion, a healthy article, as it recognises the danger of atheistic intolerance to religious freedom. It reports on the current tensions between Christian unions and student unions in a fairly liberal way - certainly much more so than one might have expected given the newspaper's left-wing credentials. The article argues for reasoned debate to be conducted in a public arena, and concludes:
What should such a public square be like? It might not be Menckian, but it could be based on respectful understanding of others' most cherished beliefs, argues Spencer: "We should be more willing to treat other value systems as coherent, reasonable and even valuable rather than as primitive or grotesque mutations of liberal humanism to which every sane person adheres." It is, at least, a hope, albeit one, given our current climate, in which it would be foolish to place too much faith.
- a sentiment which I have a lot of time for - see also here.

However, what leads me to post is the fact that it presented again a kind of darwinist "urban myth" - or an "icon of darwinism", if you like.
In 1860, one year after the publication of Darwin's On the Origin of Species, the Bishop of Oxford, Samuel Wilberforce, and TH Huxley, the naturalist described as "Darwin's bulldog", went toe-to-toe at Oxford's Natural History Museum. According to a contemporary report in McMillan's magazine, "The bishop turned to his antagonist with smiling insolence. He begged to know, was it through his grandfather or his grandmother that he claimed his descent from a monkey? Huxley rose to reply ... He [said he] was not ashamed to have a monkey for his ancestor; but he would be ashamed to be connected with a man who used great gifts to obscure the truth ... One lady fainted and had to be carried out."
No case is really made from this, other than to suggest that the church was feeling threatened at the time. So from that point of view, I suppose you could argue that it doesn't really matter. But that's not how it was. Here is a more thoroughly researched account. To quote from it:
One of the most distinguished of the Darwinians was Joseph Hooker, Assistant Director of Kew gardens. But to read his account of the proceedings is to meet the view that Huxley had caused hardly a stir. He had not even had the strength of voice for his stinging reply to carry. According to Hooker the person who really won the day for the Darwinians was ... Hooker! In fact, the more closely we look at the legend the more suspect it becomes. The idea that Huxley won a famous victory was not even countenanced in Leonard Huxley's heroic Life. The result of the encounter, though a check to the anti-Darwinian sceptics, could not be represented as an "immediate and complete triumph for evolutionary doctrine". This was precluded by the "character and temper of the audience, most of whom were less capable of being convinced by the arguments than shocked by the boldness of the retort." One of Huxley's most recent and empathetic biographers, Adrian Desmond, agrees that talk of a victor is ridiculous. The Athenaeum put it rather well: the Bishop and Huxley "have each found foemen worthy of their steel, and made their charges and countercharges very much to their own satisfaction and the delight of their respective friends."

There is an additional, perhaps surprising, reason why we should not speak of victors. Instead of anti-Darwinians being converted by either Huxley or Hooker, we know that at least one Darwinian was de-converted in the debate.
The thing is, the more times an urban myth is repeated, especially in reputable places like the UK broadsheet newspapers, the harder it is (these days) to establish the truth - reliable accounts are swamped in search engines by the unreliable ones, more books are written presuming the unreliable accounts to be true, and so on.

There is no shortage of similar accounts where the truth ends up obscured by spin, of course - and perhaps hardly anywhere more so than in the religion/science debate. The "Inherit the Wind" version of the Scopes trial - which was actually used as a metaphor for McCarthyism - is far better known than the actual version, despite the actual version being a matter of public record. Compare the Brecht version of the trial of Galileo with the Dava Sobel version - again, it is the "religion versus science" one which is better known, and less factual. People will go on suggesting that Michael Behe thought that astrology was scientific - when that wasn't the point he was trying to get across in the Dover trial. People will make more of the fact that Judge Jones is "religious" and "a Republican" than the legal opinion that he did not have authority to define what science is. People will go on suggesting that Sternberg was wrong to do what he did in printing Meyer's article on the Cambrian Explosion, when as I understand it, due process has concluded that he acted properly. No doubt people on "the other side" will be as keen to point out occasions when people "on my side" have been guilty of spinning the truth as well.

There is such a thing as truth - true truth, that isn't just a case of "one person's story against another's". Both sides in any debate need to do what they can to present facts as accurately and openly as possible. The short-term expedient of winning a few people over to a distorted version of the truth can't be allowed to drive debates - people have to be presented with the most accurate available information, and allowed to make up their minds based on this. There is a part of me which fears, with the explosion of spin and distorted versions of events, that we are improbably on the verge of a new Dark Age, simply because nobody will really know anything any more.