Thursday, 20 December 2012

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Christianity in Decline?

Census 2011 – Christianity in Decline?

Tucked away under a headline on The Rise of Foreign Born Residents, you might have noticed that the 2011 census statistics on religion have been published today, and they appear to show a marked decline in the Christian population of England and Wales.
Christianity remains the largest religion, with 33.2 million people (59.3 per cent of the population), but this represents a marked drop compared to the previous census, in which 71.7% of the population of England and Wales self-identified as Christian.

A quarter of the population (25.1%) now self-identify as having no religion, compared to 14.8% of the population in 2001.  
Non-Christian religious groups have grown, most likely due to a rise in immigration since the last census. Islam remains the largest non-Christian religious group, the 2.7 million Muslims now making up 4.8% of the population, compared to 3% in 2001

No doubt the findings will be taken up by proponents of secularism and secularisation as evidence that religion is of declining importance in the UK, while I daresay some Daily Mail columnist or other will be wringing their hands about the growth of Islam in tomorrow's paper.
As with all statistics on religion, the findings need to be interpreted with some caution. The census is measuring religious self-identification, not belief in God, active religious participation in religion, or any other measure that might give us a clearer understanding of the changing place of religion in modern Britain.

For example, I wonder whether the decline in the Christian population reflects a substantive change in the past decade, or whether there is more going on behind the figures. In a post 9/11 world, where religion is frequently portrayed as a cause of war or terrorism, perhaps some people are reluctant to self-identify as religion, or at least no longer feel a moral obligation to declare an affiliation with a religion they do not practice?
The British Humanist Association also ran a series of adverts calling for people to tick "No Religion" in the census, so the rise in the non-religious population may reflect the success of that campaign.
Interestingly, Norwich turns out to be a hotbed of godlessness with 42.5 % of the city’s population reporting that they have no religion – the highest proportion in the country.

More on the census results here and here.

Friday, 7 December 2012

Thought Experiment #1: The Runaway Trolley Car


Thought experiments are used in philosophy and ethics, philosophy, and even science as a way of clarifying and testing concepts and theories. For example, ethicists can use thought experiments to present a hypothetical dilemma, and examine the most “intuitive” response, drawing out implications for ethical issues in the real-world.

I thought (no pun intended) it might be fun to blog some well-known thought experiments, hopefully as part of an occasional series. As well as examining your own ethical reasoning processes, thought experiments are also useful as a revision exercise: you use them to test out and evaluate the ethical theories you are studying in your A level.

 One of the most famous thought experiments is The Runaway Trolley Car. It works like this:

A runaway trolley car is hurtling down a track. In its path are five people who will definitely be killed unless you, a bystander, flip a switch which will divert it on to another track, where it will kill one person. Should you flip the switch?
So have a think – what would you do?

Our second thought experiment develops this scenario a little. It’s called The Fat Man and the Trolley Car.

The runaway trolley car is hurtling down a track where it will kill five people. You are standing on a bridge above the track and, aware of the imminent disaster, you decide to jump on the track to block the trolley car. Although you will die, the five people will be saved.

Just before your leap, you realise that you are too light to stop the trolley. Next to you, a fat man is standing on the very edge of the bridge. He would certainly block the trolley, although he would undoubtedly die from the impact. A small nudge and he would fall right onto the track below. No one would ever know. Should you push him?
Again - have a think – what would you do?

Were your answers to the two scenarios different? If so, you’re not alone. In a survey conducted by the BBC, roughly 75% of respondents said they would flip the switch in the first scenario, versus 25% who said they would not. However, in the second scenario, these proportions were pretty much reversed: 27% said that they would push the fat man, while 73% said they would not.

Given that the moral dilemma is, at least on one level, exactly the same (either one person dies or 5 people die), comparing these two thought experiments raises some interesting questions about how we make moral choices and how (in)consistent our ethical decision-making processes are.

Questions to consider:

1) Most people understand that the issue in both thought experiments is the same (1 person dies or 5 people die), so why do you think that the response to the two scenarios varies so much?

2) Think about two of the ethical theories you’ve studied. If you apply the principles of these theories, which is the “correct” ethical response in each scenario? What might that tell you about your ethical theories and how useful they are in making ethical decisions?

3) When I’ve tried these thought experiments with GCSE and A level students, I find it’s very common for students to try to justify their decision by allocating some sort of blame which is not an explicit feature of the scenario (e.g. “it’s the people’s fault for being on the track”, “it’s the man’s fault for being fat”, “if the man was on the edge of the bridge, he was probably suicidal anyway”). What might these justifications tell us about the way we make ethical decisions?   

4) Do the issues raised by the two thought experiments have any implications for any real-life ethical issues?


Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Jumping on the Bandwagon

The Pope now is Tweeting. I don't know, you set up one little Religous Studies Facebook Group and suddenly everybody's doing the social media thing...

Sunday, 2 December 2012

First Sikh Guards Buckingham Palace in Turban

A solider who is the first Sikh to join the Grenadier Guards features in today’s Mail on Sunday after wearing his turban rather than the Guards’ famous bearskin. According to the Mail, Jatinderpal Singh Bhullar has been given permission to wear a turban while on guard duty outside Buckingham palace.

The British army allows the 25 or so Sikhs currently serving to keep their turbans, except where a hard helmet is required for safety reasons. You can read a little more about Sikh and Muslim soldiers in the British army here.

In a religiously diverse modern Britain, should the Army make allowances for the different faiths of its soldiers? Or should those who volunteer to join up put Queen and country before their religion?

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Life After a Face Transplant

The BBC World Service’s Witness programme features an interview today with Isabelle Dinoire, recipient of the world’s first face transplant.
You can read about her experiences here, or listen the podcast here.

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Round Up - Ethics in the News

Things have been a bit quiet on the blog front over the last few weeks, partly due to half term break, mostly due to my school getting the dreaded call from OFSTED two days into the new term. I’m still recovering from the stress…

Anyway, in this post I’ll be flagging up a couple of stories that have been in the news over the last couple of weeks that should interest students studying Ethics and Philosophy.

Last Monday, there was an interesting news story about doctors using MRI scans to communicate with patients in a persistent vegetative state. The degree to which patients in PVS possess any type of awareness has been a matter of some controversy: one of the symptoms of PVS is an apparent lack of cognitive function. However, during this research, doctors were able to communicate with some patients in PVS by asking them to imagine certain situations (for example, playing tennis) while scanning their brain activity and comparing the results of these scans with those of healthy volunteers. In the most dramatic example one patient, Scott Routley, was able to tell his carers that he is not in any pain.   

In the past, patients in a PVS such as Terri Schiavo and Tony Bland have had the feeding treatment that they depend upon to survive withdrawn at the request of their families. The results of the experiment may change the way we think about and care for patients with PVS, and perhaps even enable them to have a say in their own treatment.

You can watch a Panorama episode about the research here.

Also in the news last week was the tragic death of Savita Halappanavar, an Indian dentist who died at a hospital in Ireland after being refused an abortion. Ireland’s abortion laws are stricter than those of the UK, and while abortion is allowed in cases where the mother’s life is in danger (it is illegal in other circumstances) it seems that an abortion may have been refused because Savita’s unborn child still had a detectable heartbeat.

In the news this week is the imminent result of the Church of England’s vote on whether to allow women bishops

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Religious Language Revision Games

I've uploaded a couple of word games you can use to revise your vocabulary for the Religious Language topic. If you find you have a few minutes in your busy half-term schedule of revising, writing essays, and in-depth background reading, why not give them a try?

The games are Key Word Pairs and Key Word Articulate. You can download them here, or if you have a TES account, from here.

You might also want to take a look at this post on the Via Negativa.

Enjoy your break!

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Taliban Shoot 14-year-old Campaigner for Girls' Right to Education

The Taliban have shot and wounded a 14-year-old girl who campaigned for girls’ right to education in Pakistan.

Malala Yousafzai earned respect in her home country for standing up for her right to an education. Malala resisted the Taliban’s orders banning girls from attending school in the Swat Valley where she lives. Malala also kept a blog detailing her experiences under Taliban rule.
According to the BBC:
Malala Yousafzai was travelling with at least one other girl when she was shot, but there are differing accounts of how events unfolded.
One report, citing local sources, says a bearded gunman stopped a car full of schoolgirls, andasked for Malala Yousafzai by name, before opening fire.
But a police official also told BBC Urdu that unidentified gunmen opened fire on the schoolgirls as they were about to board a van or bus.

She was hit in the head and, some reports say, in the neck area by a second bullet. Another girl who was with her at the time was also injured.
Doctors who treated her in Mingora initially said she was out of danger. She has now been taken by helicopter to Peshawar for further treatment, officials say.
The next time you find yourself staring mindlessly out of the window in class, or whinging about that essay on Wittgenstein, remember that the education you enjoy is a privilege that other people risk their lives to secure.

Monday, 8 October 2012

Changes to UK Abortion Law? A Look at the Maths

Abortion law has been in the news over the last few days, with Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt saying that he would personally support a significant reduction in the time limit for terminating pregnancies, from the current limit of 24 weeks to 12 weeks.

Other government figures have also set out their own views, with Prime Minister David Cameron saying that he supports a “modest reduction” from the current 24 week limit, and equalities minister Maria Miller drawing some criticism by calling for a cut to 20 weeks.
I didn’t think initially that there was any reason to think that these comments made a change in the law particularly likely. The MPs were talking about their personal beliefs, not matters of party policy, and David Cameron has stressed that the government has no plans to change to current laws. Any vote in parliament, which would be required to change the law, would be a “free vote”: one in one in which MPs are not told how to vote by their party, but instead vote according to their conscience. In the last such free vote, in 2008, MPs voted against any reduction in the current limit, by 304 votes to 233.
However, although MPs vote according to their conscience, what their conscience tells them about an issue does seem to vary markedly according to which party they belong to.
So in the 2008 vote, approximately 69% of Conservative MPs voted for a reduction to 22 weeks, while only 12% voted to keep the current 24 week limit. Amongst Labour MP these proportions were almost reversed, with 67% of Labour MPs opposing any reduction and only 17% in favour. Liberal Democrat MPs were more evenly split, with 53% for and 35% against any reduction.
Following the 2010 election, there are now more Conservatives in parliament, and fewer Labour and Lib Dem MPs. So if there were another free vote on a reduction to current abortion limit, and if the MPs within each party voted for and against a reduction in the same proportions as they did in 2008, the outcome of any vote could be quite different. If my maths are right, the numbers of MPs in the three main parties voting for and against could look something like this:
For a reduction:

Con                        211
Lab                         45
Lib Dem                20
Total                     276
Against a reduction:

Con                        37
Lab                         173
Lib Dem                30
Total                     240
So among the 3 main parties there would be a majority in favour of a reduction, which might well increase when the votes of MPs from smaller parties are considered, as they tended to support a reduction in 2008.

Incidentally, in the 2008 vote, David Cameron voted for a reduction to 22 weeks. Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg and Labour Leader Ed Miliband both voted against a reduction.

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Melyn Bragg vs. The Ontological Argument

Exciting news! This Thursday’s episode of In Our Time, Radio 4’s show on the history of ideas, will be covering the ontological argument. If, like me, you have a soft spot for Anselm’s attempt to prove God’s existence through a priori reasoning and for hearing clever people talking about stuff, then no doubt you’ll be drooling with anticipation already.

The link for the episode is here. It’s broadcast at 9.00 am and repeated at 9.30 pm, but every episode is archived, so you can listen (and re-listen) at your leisure.

Monday, 17 September 2012

Socratic Thinking Resources

Apologies for the slightly longer than expected period of dormancy over the summer: I've been busy with house moves and getting my brain around being head of my very own RS department. I should hopefully be able to blog a bit more regularly from now on.

I've recenly uploaded a couple of resources to the TES website, based around the idea of Socratic questioning. If you teach RS or Philosophy, you might find these useful as a way of extending the thinking of your students. If you're a student,you could use them as a prompt to help you start an internal dialogue to help you improve your answers to essay style questions.

Links to the resources are below, you'll need a TES account to view them:

Socratic Question Cards

Socratic Question Matrix

Monday, 6 August 2012

Summer Holidays

I hope everybody is enjoying their summer holidays and that you’ve all been getting behind Team GB. I’m off to London tomorrow to cheer on the Brownlees.

I’ve just got back from a very relaxing week in the West Country, and on a trip to Bath’s Roman Baths Museum I found this rather nice carving of a Celtic Triple Goddess:

I say Celtic Triple Goddess, but on second thoughts it does look a bit like more evidence for those ancient aliens...

Monday, 23 July 2012

Notes on Hume and Kant

For any AS Philosophers out there, here is a link to a useful PowerPoint file that recaps some key vocabulary for the AQA unit on Reason and Experience, plus the views of Hume and Kant. Remember that any of these keywords could come up in AS exam questions, so make sure you know them inside out.

Friday, 20 July 2012

Thank you and goodbye

Just a short note to say how much I’ve enjoyed my time at RGS and that I'm really going to miss my fellow teachers and all my amazing students. Thank you for being patient with me when I occasionally lose an essay or two, for your dazzling knowledge of seminal 90s rock bands (even when the exam question wasn’t really about that Nirvana), and for generally being such a pleasure to teach.  Thank you also for the goodbyes, cards, chocolate, games making kits, music bucket lists, books, and death metal CDs. They were much appreciated.

Years 12 and 13: I’ll be keeping my fingers crossed for you come results day, and I’ll try to pop into school to congratulate you on your results (which I’m sure will be stunning). Year 9 Philosophers: you’re a brilliant class and I’m sure you’ll do really well in your AS. I’ll be keeping in touch with Mr G to check you’re not slacking off!

I’ve got a few things I want to blog about over the Summer following on from my VU sessions, and then when I start at my new school in September, I’m planning to blog regularly about the topics I’ll be teaching. They won’t be exactly the same as the things you’ll be studying at RGS, but there should still be plenty of overlap, so I hope you’ll still drop in on the blog from time to time.

Thank you and goodbye.

Mr R

Saturday, 14 July 2012

Questions on Mythicism and Denial Movements

A big thank you to those of you who participated in my Virtually University sessions on Mythicism and the question of Jesus’ existence. From talking to other teachers, I wonder if my class was more a chat about some stuff I find interesting than a proper university style lecture, but hey - it was more fun than teaching the ontological argument.

I was really impressed by the quality of some of the thinking and the questions you raised, and pleasantly surprised that many of you could anticipate some key Mythicist arguments and the counter-arguments to these. I was also pleased that a couple of you had even heard of exciting things like Q and the apocryphal gospels... though on reflection, perhaps you’ve just been watching The Da Vinci Code?

I did say that I would post some follow up work for you, so here it is. Below are a few questions that I think were raised in the course of our sessions:

  • How strong is the historical evidence for the existence of Jesus?
  • How convincing is the mythicist case against the existence of Jesus?
  • Why makes some people reject the consensus view of experts in particular field?
  • What is the role of ideology in shaping way denial movements use evidence and the conclusions they draw?
  • Is mythicism a denial movement?
  •  Is rejection of human-caused global warming a form of denial?
  • Is denying scientific consensus (such as evolution or HIV as a cause of AIDS) different to denying historical consensus (such as the existence of Jesus)?

Please could you pick one of these questions, research the issues raised, and write me a response.  I won’t ask for it to be done by Monday – I’d rather you took your time doing some reading and thinking and came back to me later, even if it’s in the holidays. I’m also planning to post my own thoughts on a few of these questions over the next week or two, so you may wish to read those posts too.

You can either email me your work to my school account or post them as a comment below, though please remember the house rules.

Monday, 9 July 2012

Reading around Philosophy and Religion

If you’re planning to take A level Religious Studies, then you’ll benefit from doing a little background reading to understand some of the issues and questions you’ll be thinking about. So below is a short list of some books that I think A level RS students should try reading, and that should be easy to find in the library or on Amazon.

(Actually, if you were in my A level taster session last week, then it’s your summer work, so you don’t have much say in the matter – pick a book and dive in!)

Books on Religion and Philosophy
Gods, Demons and Others – R.K. Narayan
The God Delusion – Richard Dawkins
The Puzzle of God – Peter Vardy
The Pig That Wants to be Eaten – Julian Baggini

Religion and Philosophy in Fiction
The Guide – R.K. Narayan
The Screwtape Letters – C.S. Lewis
Life of Pi – Yann Martel
Sophie’s World – Jostein Gaarder

Of these books, Sophie’s World might be the most obvious choice for a future A level student: the story revolves around a teenage girl (Sophie) and an unusual Philosophy course she studies, so it gives a good introduction to key philosophers and their ideas: I think it’s even used as an introductory text book in some US colleges. On the other hand, some people (myself included) have found it quite hard to get into, as the plot is a little confusing at times.

These books certainly aren’t the only books you could find that deal with philosophical questions. For me, most great literature explores themes and issues that philosophers have also been interested in investigating - touching on these deeper issues is part of what makes them great. Equally, good books on other subjects such as science, history or psychology could raise philosophical questions, so if you’re doing some background reading for another subject, you can still keep your philosophy hat on.

You’ll find a few more suggestions here and here. And, while we’re on the topic, next time you’re planning an evening that involves DVDs and popcorn, why not try a philosophical film?

Happy reading. 

Monday, 2 July 2012

On Gods and Aliens

One of my students shared a link on our class Facebook group that shows some examples of religious art that might represent ancient encounters with alien astronauts.

Ancient astronaut theory – the view that aliens visited the Earth long ago and made contact with our ancestors, and may have been responsible for the development of human technology, religion, or even human life itself – is certainly intriguing. It’s easy to understand why an encounter with a highly advanced alien race would have a profound impact on an ancient civilisation, and how such beings or their technologies could be seen as magical or even divine. Actually, we know that something similar has happened in the case of cargo cults in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Hey if, you can mistake Prince Phillip for a divine being, anything’s possible...

On the other hand, it’s safe to say that the ancient astronaut theory is currently very much on the fringe: I can’t see it appearing on your A level RS syllabus any time soon to compete with the views of Freud and Marx on the origins of religion.

I’m a bit of a sci-fi geek, so I have a certain soft spot for daft theories involving aliens and outer space. The connections between religion and science fiction are interesting, but I think a much simpler explanation is that religious art has influenced the depiction of aliens rather than vice versa – certainly, it would be easier to show how science fiction has drawn upon religious themes and imagery than that religion originated with a bunch of pre-historic E.T.s visiting planet Earth.

I won’t spend too long talking about the evidence or the problems with ancient alien theory, though if you want to check out some of the problems with it, this site seems fairly comprehensive. Ancient astronaut theory has been the subject of a recent History Channel series, which has inspired somebody to make a whole film dedicated to debunking it. 

Tuesday, 26 June 2012

End of Year Plenary

One of the nice things about moving jobs (apart from the promise of free tea at break time) is it gives me a natural break to think a bit more about my subject – about what I teach and why, and whether at some point I should change what I teach at my new school.

If you’re one of my students, you’ll know that we teach Philosophy of Religion and Ethics at AS and A2 to make up our Religious Studies course. These two options are by far the most popular choices for British schools teaching A level Religious Studies. Both of these are interesting topics in their own right, and they are popular with students: from my distant memories of my own younger days, I’d say your teenage years are the time when you start to work out your own answers to some of the big philosophical and ethical questions in life – does God exist, or is the death penalty right or wrong?

However, Philosophy and Ethics aren’t the be all and end all of Religious Studies: actually, to me they are both more like branches of Philosophy than Religious Studies. If you go on to study Religious Studies at degree level, you’ll learn to study religion from a variety of perspectives, and the topics that got me most interested at University – the New Testament, Church history, the sociology of religion – weren’t philosophical or ethical, so unfortunately I don’t get a chance to teach them at school.

It would be nice at some point to play around with what I teach and experiment with something new, but on the other hand, there’s no point in planning a whole course on the secularisation theory or the New Testament if that’s just not what appeals to 16 year olds and nobody ends up taking RS.

So this is your chance to give me a bit of feedback – what have you enjoyed studying, and what haven’t you found so interesting? Would you have been more or less likely to have signed up for an RS A level if we had done something other than Philosophy and Ethics? It’s not easy, but try to think in terms of whether a particular topic raised an interesting set of issues or questions for you rather than whether you think it was or wasn’t taught well: that’s what being bitchy on facebook is for!

And if you’re reading this and teach Religious Studies at University, what would you like to see in your first year undergraduates? Do they need to have a grounding in particular topics, do they need a particular set of skills, or is it more just a case of producing students who have an interest in the field of Religious Studies?

Monday, 25 June 2012

Respect my Authoritah!

Well the good news is that there was enough interest in the Virtually University course I was planning on running on the existence of Jesus for it to go ahead (and so are the other two classes in RS, which is great).

If you’ve already read my introductory post on mythicism, you’ll know that mythicist view of Jesus (that he did not exist historically), is rejected by an overwhelming majority of experts within the field of Biblical Studies.

One of the interesting questions raised by mythicism is how far we should accept the authority of experts, and how far we should consider challenges to their views? An argument frequently made by mythicists is that those who accept the historical existence of Jesus of Nazareth do so because they accept the authority of experts without question, and do not consider the evidence fairly or rationally.

And perhaps they have a point: Experts said that the Beatles wouldn’t make it, that Muhammad Ali could not beat George Foremanthat Sadam Hussein had a whole bunch of nasty WMDs. If you’re one of my students, you’ll know that we have a house named after Jane Tomlinson, who ignored the prognosis of her very well qualified doctors that she only had six months to live, and not only lived for another seven years, but also went on to compete in a number of marathons, triathlons, and long distance bike rides.

History is full of examples people who have successfully defied expert opinion, and it has even been argued that science progresses as one accepted theory is gradually challenged and ultimately overturned by a new one. So not only are experts and authority figures sometimes wrong, but those who prove them wrong are often – rightly – the very people we admire most.

However, just because the experts are sometimes wrong, it can’t be the case that everybody who disagrees with the experts is always right. From your AS level RS, you’ll know that there is group we call creationists who disagree with evolution, and if you study A level History, you should have heard of Holocaust deniers, who claim that the systematic murder of the Jews during World War Two never took place. If you study English, you might even have about a theories that William Shakespeare did not write the plays attributed to him. Each of views of these views is rejected by qualified experts in the fields of, respectively, Science, History and English Literature, and (in my view) rightly so.

The problem is then, how do we distinguish between the next great theory that’s going to revolutionise our understanding and theories which are simply nonsense or worse, racist nonsense?

An obvious answer would seem to that if we just examine the evidence ourselves we can tell the good theories from the bad. But it’s not quite as simple as this: very often the evidence is complex or its value is disputed. So unless we are experts ourselves, at some point we have to rely on the authority of experts to interpret or assess the evidence for us.

If you don’t believe me, have a crack at reading Einstein’s original paper on the special theory of relativity.

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

Mythicism for Dummies

I’ll take a leaf out of many an RS essay here – in talking about mythicism, I’m going to start with Wikipedia.

If you look at the Wikipedia entry for Jesus, and compare it to the entries for other figures such as Julius Caesar, Socrates, or Pythagoras, you might, if you read carefully, notice something interesting: there is a section devoted to the question of Jesus’ existence, and to the “mythical view”, that Jesus did not exist. In fact, there is a separate, and fairly extensive, wiki page devoted to the topic. But there is nothing similar for Caesar, Socrates, or Pythagoras: their existence does not appear to be in doubt. So is the existence of Jesus less certain than that of these historical figures?

There is a group of people who say that it is. These people are most commonly known as mythicists, and the Virtually University course I am hoping to run (if enough people sign up for it – subtle hint) is going to be about the mythicism and the question of Jesus’ existence.

One important thing to understand is that when we discuss Jesus’ existence, we mean the historical existence of a person called Jesus of Nazareth. Saying that Jesus existed historically is not necessarily the same as saying that every story found in the New Testament or every Christian belief about Jesus is true, just as saying that Muhammad lived is not necessarily the same as saying that every Muslim belief about him is correct. Since the 18th century, Biblical scholars have attempted to use historical methods to detach the “real”, historical Jesus from the Christian portrayal of him, with varying degrees of success – or perhaps more accurately, with varying degrees of failure.

Mythicists, however, claim that there is no historical person to detach: they deny that Jesus of Nazareth ever lived. For mythicists, the person of Jesus is nothing more than a religious or literary invention of the Christian church. As evidence for their views, mythicists point to the unreliability of the Christian New Testament as a historical source, the relative lack of ancient references to Jesus from non-Christian sources, and to similarities between the figure of Jesus and characters of Pagan and Jewish mythology.

It needs to be stressed here that mythicism is rejected by the overwhelming majority of Biblical scholars: by this I mean people who have advanced qualifications in and/or teach Biblical Studies at University level. In turn, Mythicists are usually critical of these scholars, arguing that the academic discipline of “Biblical Studies” is compromised, because the methods used by Biblical scholars are flawed, and because Bible scholarship reflects an implicit pro-Christian bias. In fact, one prominent mythicist, Richard Carrier, has rather charming described the whole discipline of New Testament studies as “f****d”. Please note: his words, not mine.

I’ll be open here and say that I’m not a fan of mythicism as a theory or the way that mythicists go about their work. I even have a few problems with the name “mythicism”, and think that other terms should be used instead.

Nonetheless, mythicism raises an interesting set of questions: about the Bible, about how we study Jesus from a Historical perspective, and about how and why certain groups of people deny the consensus position of the academic community. For me, this last question is perhaps the most interesting one, and for A level students, I think it touches on the important problem of how to tell the difference between legitimate academic views and fringe or conspiracy theories.

So... that’s it for my shameless plus for my Virtually University offering. I’ll post some more about my views on mythicism before or during Virtually University. If you’d like to find out a bit more about the mythicist case, you can check out the website of Earl Doherty, a well-known mythicist writer. If you want to understand how New Testament scholars feel about mythicism, you might wish to look here or here

Monday, 18 June 2012

Do Babies Know Maths?

In our AS Philosophy course on Reason and Experience, we've been looking at the empiricist conception of the mind as a tabula rasa at birth against the rationalist view that we are born with innate knowledge. 

This short video suggests that babies might be born with some kind of mathematical understanding – it seems that they just don’t like it when the Maths is wrong. As Professor Spelke, who is leading the research says, this could suggest that:

“The mind is not a blank slate... we are born with a host of cognitive capacities and the building blocks of the concepts that stand at the centre of the school curriculum are innate”.

Interesting stuff. You can find out more about Professor Spelke’s work here.

Friday, 1 June 2012

About the Blog

I've set this blog up primarily for my own A Level Philosophy and Religious Studies students, and for other students studying these courses. There are a couple of things I'm planning to use the blog for:

Firstly to give my own thoughts on some of the topics we study in A Level Philosophy and Religious Studies and to give you an idea of how to approach exam or essay questions on these. Secondly, to highlight other topics or issues in Philosophy and Religion that I find interesting, and that you might find interesting too, particularly if you're considering studying Religious Studies or Philosophy at university.

Comments are welcome (and might even be part of your homework if I'm feeling particularly mean), but please observe the following house rules:

1) Remember that this is a public space. If you are one of my students, or a student at another school, please make sure that your comments do not reveal your surname or any other personal details about you. If you use an online profile to post your comments (e.g. a blogger account), again make sure that this does not contain any personal details, photos, etc. If anybody tries to make to contact with you via the blog, you must flag this to me (or another teacher) immediately. They might seem nice, but they are very probably candidates for a stranger danger warning.

2) If you are not an AS/A level student, then you are still very welcome to post your comments, but please note that any comments that fall below the standards I would expect of my own students when debating an issue (in terms of courtesy, relevance, and academic content) will be deleted.

Thanks and happy reading. 

Monday, 28 May 2012

The Via Negativa

You are one.
You are everything.
You are no one.

You are not one.
You are not everything.
O, You who bear all names,
What shall I call You?
You Unique Unnameable,
You Surpassor of all.
Gregory of Nazianzus

In this post I’ll be outlining how the via negativa tries to solve the problem of religious language and explaining why, with a few caveats, I feel that the via negativa is a useful approach to religious language. I’ll also give a few pointers on how you might respond to an exam question on the via negativa or make use of it in assessing secular criticisms of religious language. The via negativa doesn’t seem to have come up in an exam since 2002, so we’re probably overdue a question on it.

The Problem of Religious Language
When religious people make statements such as “God is love” (1 John 4:8), are they really conveying knowledge about God? The sentence “God is love” looks very much like statements such as “the bachelor is unmarried” or “Mr Regnier is beardy”: like these it contains a subject (“the bachelor”, “Mr Regnier, or “God”) and a predicate – the part of a statement that tells us something about the subject (“is unmarried, “is beardy”, or “is love”). But is a statement like “God is love” really using language in the same way?

Religious language has been challenged by secular philosophers. For example, from your A2 course, you’ll know that according to the verification principle, a statement can only be considered meaningful if it is verifiable by sense experience, as with “Mr Regnier is beardy”, or is a tautology, as with “the bachelor is unmarried”. Since the statement “God is love”, is neither empirically verifiable nor tautological, we would have to reject it: it is a meaningless non-statement, and not the sort of thing responsible philosophers should concern themselves with.

But religious believers have also recognised that using language to convey knowledge about God is problematic, albeit coming at the problem from a different angle: How can human words, that sometimes struggle to deal with apparently mundane tasks such as accurately describing the taste of marmite or expressing just how awful the Twilight movies really are, adequately describe something as wholly other as God? Within Western theological tradition, philosophers have tried to communicate something positive about the nature of God either through developing (or adapting) a technical philosophical vocabulary, or at other times by using metaphors or analogies. We call this approach cataphatic theology.

The Via Negativa
An alternative approach, popular within Eastern Christianity is the via negativa, or apophatic theology, developed by theologians with cool names like Pseudo-Dionysus and Maximus the Confessor. Via negativa means “negative way”, while apophatic comes from a Greek word meaning “to deny”. The approach of apophatic theology is to communicate what God is not, rather than what God is. While in your religious language unit, we’ve mostly been looking at religious language within the Judaeo-Christian tradition, it’s worth remembering that a similar approach has also been employed by thinkers from other religions - we’ll come back to this point later.

The via negativa arose primarily from a spiritual / monastic background and draws upon mystical experience in its approach to describing God (think about the quality of ineffability that James identifies as a characteristic of mystical experience). The via negativa stresses that we are limited in how far we can use language to describe God, and that we cannot know God by reading or hearing a description of his qualities. Language can be useful in indicating what God is not – in the same way that a sculptor may chip away at a piece of marble to reveal the rough outline of a figure. However, at some point we must go beyond language, and come to know God through experience and union with him. By stressing direct acquaintance with God, the via negativa suggests that talk about God is only meaningful in terms of an encounter and relationship with God.

So is it any good?
Of course, it should be remembered that the kind of theological statements that are produced by apophatic theology are no more verifiable (or falsifiable) than the positive statements produced by cataphatic theology. Look at the quote from Gregory of Nazianzus at the top of this post: would any of these lines pass the scrutiny of Ayer or Flew? So if you wanted to criticise the via negativa in an exam question, approaching it from the perspective of the logical positivism could be a fruitful approach to take.

Another problem is that the via negativa is only a viable solution to the problem of religious language if we accept that God exists, so it can’t be entirely separated from wider questions about the existence of God. If God does not exist, or if we take a more agnostic position and argue that we can have no ultimate knowledge about the existence of God, then we would have to conclude that the via negativa is no more successful that other religious ways of talking about God: it is still saying nothing about nothing. More specifically, since apophatic theology often (though not always) stems from mystical thought and experience, a proper assessment of the via negativa as a way of communicating something about God would also need to consider the strengths and weaknesses of religious experience and whether such experiences can give us genuine knowledge of God. If you make this point in your exam, be sure you don’t go too far down the road of writing a “religious experience” essay.

Nonetheless, if you want to approach your essay from a more theistic perspective, or make a critical comparison between the via negativa and other religious approaches, such as the use of symbol or analogy to talk about God, then the via negativa has a number of strengths. Perhaps most obviously, the via negativa preserves the otherness of God: In describing what God is not, we avoid the risk of anthropomorphism – making God seem too much like us and so bringing God down to a worldly level.

I also wonder whether the approach taken by the via negativa – talking about God on the basis of experience – might neatly sidestep some of the criticisms of religious language made logical positivism. Since apothatic statements may derive from personal experiences of God, it might be possible to argue that these statements can be considered meaningful, since they are verified (at least subjectively) by experience. However, we would still have to question whether such experiences are indeed the result of an encounter with God or simply of some unusual mental state.

Another way to consider this point might be the distinction that exists between propositional knowledge and acquaintance knowledge. Propositional knowledge is “knowledge that”, while acquaintance knowledge is “knowledge of”. Think about the difference between the sentences “I know that Mr Regnier has a beard” (propositional) and “I know Mr Regnier” (acquaintance). Propositional knowledge is subject to error and propositional statements are subject to verification and falsification (you could look to check whether I do or do not have a beard), but it is hard to see how acquaintance knowledge could be verified or falsified – a statement like “I know Mr Regnier” is a description of the contents of your own mind, and in this respect would seem to verify itself.

For Russell, knowledge by acquaintance is indubitable – we cannot doubt our own experience or the contents of our own memory (which is not to say that our experiences or our memories cannot be mistaken. For example, when I perceive an elephant, it is possible that I am hallucinating, or when I remember my own A level exams, some of my memories may be inaccurate). In this respect, we could argue that by focusing upon acquaintance knowledge, or knowledge of God, from religious experience, and avoiding attempts to convey knowledge about God through propositional statements, the via negativa would seem to avoid some of the objections to religious language raised by the logical positivists. Interestingly, although atheists, both Ayer and Russell seem to have had some sympathy for mystical experience: Russell seems to have had a had a mystical experience of sorts in 1901, while Ayer had a near death experience that may him slightly more receptive to the idea of life after death.

In stressing the importance of experience, and avoiding statements about what God is, apophatic theology can also make it easier for philosophers from different religious traditions to talk to one another about God. The via negativa has similarities to streams of thought within non-Christian religions including Shia and Sufi Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism, and apophatic thinkers from these different traditions have been able to engage each other on theological issues in a way that would not be possible between theologians taking a more dogmatic, positive approach. From this perspective, you could use the via negativa as a way of criticising Wittgenstein’s language games theory, which would seem to rule out the possibility of meaningful dialogue between different religious traditions.

Given the history of violence and division that has resulted from quite small distinctions within the more positive theological approaches, it should be obvious why we might prefer a way of theologising that enables a more tolerant and inclusive approach to talking about God.