Entries from August 2008 ↓

News: Afghan women jailed for being raped

The Independent news report (Monday, 18 August 2008):

In Lashkar Gah, the majority of female prisoners are serving 20-year sentences for being forced to have sex. Terri Judd visited them and heard their extraordinary stories

Monday, 18 August 2008

Beneath the anonymity of the sky-blue burqa, Saliha’s slender frame and voice betray her young age.Asked why she was serving seven years in jail alongside hardened insurgents and criminals, the 15-year-old giggled and buried her head in her friend’s shoulder. (more)

News: Richard Holloway – religious leader and humanist

Richard Holloway, former Bishop of Edinburgh, has always supported a human approach to morality and rejected religious dogma. I found Godless Morality a wonderful book by a religious leader who promotes a human-centred approach to morality and not simply applying religious beliefs as moral laws.

AC Grayling now reviews Holloway’s latest book, Between the Monster and the Saint: Reflections on the Human Condition for The Times. AC Grayling says…

A sincere book by a good man is always a welcome thing, and Richard Holloway’s essay on the human condition, and how we might endeavour to be our best despite its contradictions and tensions, is one such book. It is interesting for reasons that fall largely outside its just-described main topic, for it is also an account of Holloway’s own view of religion – this former Bishop of Edinburgh and Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church is known to have lost anything recognisable as a traditional religious faith – and it also has flashes of personal memoir, revealed in relation to the main themes. (more)”

Alex McCullie

Links: Morality – a strictly worldly affair

As soon as you jetison the supernatural, you as a naturalist are forced to see human morality as strictly human affair without divine fear or favour. If unlike most, you want to think about morality and moral decision-making, here are naturalised resources that may help. You’ll need to think about the type of decisions that qualify as moral ones and, as Steven Pinker points out below, the boundaries of moral and non-moral issues shift and change. Also you should look at how how we currently make these decisions and typically they are make at a subconscious level. And, finally, what methods or tools can be used to reflect on moral decisions. Don’t forget that ethics and morality is a big part of philosophy and can provide useful ideas for reflection.

Neuroscience is doing a lot of research today on how we make moral decisions – links below. I’ve also provided links for some interesting research areas about humans in a physical world – (1) Marc Hauser and moral grammar; (2) Lakoff and Johnson “Embodied realism” and (3) evolutionary psychology.

A good place to start is with Steven Picker’s article The Moral Instinct (NYT, 13 Jan 2008).

Alex McCullie


Scientific American – Mind Matters (see feed on this site) regularly covers recent research. Like the rest of science, neuroscience is about describing how we make moral choices and not the best ones for a good life. Here is some recent research to whet your appetite – Between a Rock and a Hard Place: Thinking about Morality.

Joshua Green, Harvard University, conducts neuroscience research into moral decision-making using iMRI scanning techniques. You can download his PhD thesis and other papers.

Patricia Churchland, Philosophy University of California. To quote her website “I explore the impact of scientific developments on our understanding of consciousness, the self, free will, decision making, ethics, learning, and religion and issues concerning the neurobiological basis of consciousness, the self, and free will, as well as on more technical questions concerning to what degree the nervous system is hierarchically organized, how the difficult issue of co-ordination and timing is managed by nervous systems, and what are the mechanisms for the perceptual phenomenon of filling-in. Also check my links sections for links to YouTube videos.

Moral Minds – Marc Hauser

Marc Hauser, Psychology & Biology Harvard University proposes that we evolved a common moral grammar enabling rapid moral decision-making at a subconscious level.

Radio broadcast              Interview with Discover magazine

Complete an online moral sense test (hosted by Harvard)

Book reviews – (NYT by Richard Rorty) (The Guardian)

Embodied realism – George Lakoff and Mark Johnson

George Lakoff Linguistics, Berkeley and Mark Johnson Philosophy Oregan University with others have developed a theory from neuroscience, linguistics and philosophy that sees the brain, correctly, as an embodied within our bodies and, therefore, brain processing should be seen as a natural consequence of our interactions with our environments. Furthermore our cognitive processing is seen as metaphoric with the higher-level concepts being processed metaphorically by the same responses used by lower level perceptions.


Lakoff, G and Johnson, M 1980, Metaphors We Live By, University of Chicago

Lakoff, G and Johnson, M 1999, Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought, Basic Books

Johnson, M 2007, The Meaning of the Body: Aesthetics of Human Understanding, University of Chicago

Book reviews: (NYT)  (Steen)

Edge interview with George Lakoff

Evolutionary Psychology/Biology

This applies the implications of evolution on our behaviour including moral decision-making. Even though a controversial area the area of study contributes to our understanding of human moral behaviour.

Steven Pinker Evolutionary psychology, Harvard – many articles available

Other articles

Jon Haidt, Psychology Virginia - Moral Psychology article (The Edge)

CAE: Topics for final night

I’d like to discuss one or two topics as part of the final session. Here is a suggestion:

  • Are the “new atheists” just like other religious fundamentalists?
  • Are we naturally religious and, if so, are atheists really evolutionary mutations?

Feel free to email other suggestions.

Alex McCullie

News: Apostasy – another test for Malaysia’s religious freedom

Apostasy continues to test religious freedom and tolerance. A Malaysian court rejected a woman’s attempt to convert back to Christianity from Islam. The court rejected an application made under her Chinese name arguing that since her conversion to Islam it no longer exists.

Malaysian court rejects woman’s bid to leave Islam
The Associated Press , Kuala Lumpur | Wed, 08/06/2008 5:01 PM | World

“A Malaysian court on Wednesday rejected a Muslim woman’s appeal to convert back to Christianity, the latest case to test the limits of religious freedom in the country.

The Court of Appeal threw out Noorashikin Lim Abdullah’s bid to renounce Islam on technical grounds – that she used her original Chinese name in her suit, her lawyer Edmond Bon said.

The court said the appellant was not legally recognized because her Chinese name – Lim Yoke Khoon – no longer existed following her conversion to Islam in 1994, Bon told The Associated Press.

A Chinese judge on the three-man panel dissented, he said.

‘The court rejected the appeal on technical grounds, not on merit. We believe they are afraid to hear the case’ because of the sensitivity of the issue, Bon said…” (full story Jakarta Post (12 Aug 2008))

The Star online newspaper article on the same trial

Alex McCullie

News: ABC TV (Australia) – shows & videos

God of Broken Hearts (Four Corners report)

End of the World Cult (currently screening)

“The End Of The World Cult: Inside a Christian sect which believes its leader is the Messiah and that the end of the world is imminent.
Also showing on ABC2
The End Of The World Cult – 8:00am Tuesday, August 12
- 8:00am Tuesday, August 19
- 8:00am Tuesday, August 26
Also showing on ABC
The End Of The World Cult – 11:30pm Tuesday, August 12
- 8:30pm Monday, August 18
- 11:30pm Tuesday, August 19
- 8:30pm Monday, August 25
- 11:30pm Tuesday, August 26
” (ABC website)

Andrew Denton (Enough Rope) interviews Waleed Aly (of SBS’s Salam Cafe) about growing up Muslim in Australia.

Alex McCullie

Profile: Robert G Ingersoll – soldier, politician, orator and agnostic

Robert Green Ingersoll was a very popular orator of the late 19th Century in the US. He spoke regularly promoting free thought and agnosticism as well as criticising religious belief. Ingersoll used his speeches – often long and fully memorised – to advocate radical social views on religion, slavery and woman’s suffrage.

After serving in the American Civil War, Ingersoll became the State Attorney General in Illinois. Ultimately he was unable to pursue a federal political career while still holding his agnostic beliefs and speaking on the need for major social reforms.

Robert Ingersoll was born in 1833 to an abolitionist Presbyterian preacher. He established a law practice with his brother after being admitted to the bar. Ingersoll formed the Illinois Cavalry Regiment and served as a Colonel in the Civil war. After following a state political career and being a famous and popular orator, he died in 1899 of heart failure.

…”What is greatness ?”

A great man adds to the sum of knowledge, extends the horizon of thought, releases souls from the Bastile of fear, crosses unknown and mysterious seas, gives new islands and new continents to the domain of thought, new constellations to the firmament of mind. A great man does not seek applause or place; he seeks for truth ; he seeks the road to happiness, and what he ascertains he gives to others. A great man throws pearls before swine, and the swine are sometimes changed to men. If the great had always kept their pearls, vast multitudes would be barbarians now.

A great man is a torch in the darkness, a beacon in superstition’s night, an inspiration and a prophecy. Greatness is not the gift of majorities ; it cannot be thrust upon any man ; men cannot give it to another; they can give place and power, but not greatness.

The place does not make the man, nor the sceptre the king. Greatness is from within.

Voltaire! a name that excites the admiration of men, the malignity of priests. Pronounce that name in the presence of a clergyman, and you will find that you have made a declaration of war. Pronounce that name, and from the face of the priest the mask of meekness will fall, and from the mouth of forgiveness will pour a Niagara of vituperation and calumny. And yet Voltaire was the greatest man of his Century, and did more to free the human race than any other of the sons of men.

(Voltaire – A Lecture by Robert G Ingersoll 1895)

Nearly, every people have created a god and the god has always resembled his creators. He hated and loved what they hated and loved, and he was invariably found on the side of those in power. Each god was intensely patriotic, and detested all nations but his own. All these gods demanded praise and flatter, and worship. Most of them were pleased with sacrifice, and the smell of innocent blood has ever been considered a divine perfume. All these gods have insisted upon having a vast number of priests, and the priests have always insisted upon being supported by the people, and the principal business of these priests has been to boast about their god and to insist that he could easily vanquish all the other gods put together.

(The God, Their Lectures by Robert G Ingersoll 1876 – Oration on the Gods)

© 2008 Alex McCullie

DVD: Evolution – excellent introduction

Evolution (DVD) is an excellent introduction to Charles Darwin and the Theory of Evolution (in 7 parts for 8 hours). The topics include Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, The Evolutionary Arms Race, Why Sex?, The Mind’s Big Bang and What About God?

Mostly the DVD is classic documentary style even though the first part includes a drama recreating Darwin’s life.

I found the last episode about the conflict between beliefs in God and theory of evolution the most interesting episode. The documentary follows US teenage students from strong Christian backgrounds attempting to reconcile first introductions to biological science including evolution. Most of these young people had been told since birth the Genesis explanation from the people that mattered – parents, immediate and extended families, faith school teachers and church elders. Not surprisingly they accepted without questions, especially as their parents and friends described evolution as the work of Satan.

The DVD is available in Australia encoded as region 4. It’s also available from Amazon (region 1).

Corresponding website with video extracts: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/evolution/

Alex McCullie

Links: Sam Harris (YouTube videos)

Debate with Reza Aslan: part1 part2 part3 part4 part5

Religious faith: part1 part2 part3 part4 part5 part6

Holy Scriptures vs Modernism

Secular fundamentalism

Conversational intolerance

Misconceptions of atheism (full video)

Alex McCullie

Comment: Faith-based secularism – US style

pdf: Pew Forum comment (right-click to save)

Pew Forum Transcript

At a 2007 Pew Forum Faith Angle Conference, Wilfred (Bill) McClay, a professor of intellectual history, argues that US-style secularism is a highly successful mixture of minimal church-state separation and the active participation of religions in society and politics to provide the necessary moral compass. US secularism values individuality through free expression and free association over secular public policy. He calls this Political Secularism. By contrast McClay characterises and almost demonises the European alternative, Philosophical Secularism, as creating social environment essentially hostile to public expression of faith. Throughout his presentation McClay equates this type of secularism with ‘religions are poisonous’-type comments attributed to the so-called new atheists. McClay continues his anti-secular stance with his suggestion that the “higher reaches of securalism…[has]…begun to exhaust itself intellectually”.

According to The Watkins Dictionary of Religions and Secular Faith by Gerald Benedict, a religious studies lecturer, “a truly secular culture is not anti-religious, but creates the free space in which religions of every kind can benefit from the free choice people make, uninfluenced by established and official policy. A truly secular society is an ‘open’ and pluralistic society.” This is how most Australians and Western Europeans see secularism. However many conservative religionists see institutionalising non-faith governments and public education as an anathema. Instead of offering freedom to make private religious or non-religious choices, they take a “for or agin” attitude expecting their faith to take precedence over the lives of others. In Australia and Europe they represent only a small but unfortunately vocal and very well organised minority.

Compared to Australian and European perspectives McClay advocates a minimalist version of secularism – one that we may not even call secular. With just enough separation between church and the US federal government required by the constitution, US offers an open competitive market of religions, typically Protestant, vying for social and political influence and control. McClay doubts whether Islam would support the individualistic approach required to fit within such as system. Religions are also seen as the major contributors to the moral values of the US society. Much to the amusement and concern around the world, a US president has even declare publicly a personal communication with his god supporting a foreign war.

I agree with McClay that a US style secularism isn’t transportable to another culture even though he hints that Turkey may benefit. I question, though, whether or not it is superior to the secularism as implemented in Western Europe. His presentation suggests he holds that belief.

So, does the US style active participation of religions in society lead to a more humane society? Put simply none of the happiness surveys and crime statistics support this claim. It appears that the greater support offered by the more secular governments of Europe, Australia and New Zealand, for example, leads to happier and more contented lives than those experienced in the US. Australia has a national health insurance scheme that provides protection of all citizens regardless of financial circumstances. Similarly our government provides social services benefits for the most vulnerable of our society including the unemployed, single parents and permanently disabled. Many argue that it is not enough support, but it provides good security for all citizens. Interestingly, other surveys throughout the world suggest that there is a broad correlation between higher levels of discretionary non-belief and greater personal security (Zuckerman 2007).

The presentation is explicitly supporting high levels of religious involvement in society and politics while acknowledging there should a minimal level of state-church separation. I’d questioned the way McKay has presented the US approach and his implied degradation of the European alternative. Presented to a faith conference so I’m not totally surprised by the uncritical questioning and responses to McKay’s propositions.

© 2008 Alex McCullie


Benedict, G. 2008, The Watkins Dictionary of Religions and Secular Faiths, Watkins Publishing, London

Zuckerman, P. 2007, ‘Atheism Contemporary Numbers and Patterns’, in Martin, M. (ed), The Cambridge Companion to Atheism, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge