Evidence for the existence of Santa

i-love-santaInexplicably, one of the more popular search terms connected with this blog is ‘santa science’. Given the current season, perhaps this should be cleared up once and for all (look away now if you are under the age of 18):

There is no scientific evidence for the existence of Santa. However, this is not taught in schools, and teachers who do cast doubt in children’s minds are suitably punished (i.e. removed).

It may be true that every year the white bearded one is detected in North American airspace delivering presents by sleigh and given a welcome by fighter interceptor planes, but Youtube footage is unconvincing. Richard Dawkins, for one, has never received presents from Santa. He maintains this has nothing to do with his inability to be a good boy for a whole year, and it is difficult to argue that it might.

Here’s a nice piece of research on the issue of what children learn and unlearn about Santa.

Ironically, those who see something strange in society’s insistence on Santa’s literal truth are in the company of extreme Christian groups such as Jehovah’s Witnesses. These people hold that if children grow up disillusioned about what their parents told them regarding Santa, they’ll be less inclined to accept what they’re told about God. It’s hard to know whether this is correct because there is remarkably  little scientific research on the effects of Santa-belief, although ‘current research in developmental psychology suggests that even very young children competently draw boundaries between reality and its alternatives’ (Rosengren and Hickling, in Rosengren, Johnson and Harris, 2000: 76)

smoking-santaPerhaps it’s all a bit of harmless fun…

What do you think?

Please note: I made up the bit about Richard Dawkins.

Three questions about religious art for the Archbishop of Westminster


Should religious art be repatriated to churches and other places of worship?

According to Ruth Gledhill in the Times,

‘The Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, says that The Baptism of Christ, painted in the 1450s by Piero della Francesca, should be displayed in a religious setting such as Westminster Cathedral. In a lecture as part of the Royal Fine Art Commission Trust’s Roots of Faith lecture series supported by Sky Arts, at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, the Cardinal said: “I would like to see this painting taken down from the walls of the National Gallery and placed in a Catholic church in London because it is a mistake to treat it as a work of art: it is a work of faith and piety, an expression of the Church’s life and a way into prayer.”’

This is an interesting idea, but the choice of this particular painting to focus on begs a number of questions… Continue reading “Three questions about religious art for the Archbishop of Westminster”

Climate Change: is it a new religion?

Sydney Walk Against Warming 2008
Sydney Walk Against Warming 2008

The Murdoch rearguard action against climate change science just won’t die, although these days it tends to be confined to the opinion section of the newspapers, rather than counting as ‘news’. In today’s Sydney Telegraph, columnist Piers Ackerman gives another outing to his argument that climate change is natural (and, since you ask, probably isn’t happening anyway). He blames the state-run ABC media and the Fairfax press for perpetuating the myth. Which is slightly ironic, since in today’s Sydney Morning Herald (Fairfax owned) columnist Miranda Devine writes almost the same article excoriating the ‘church’ of climate change ‘fundamentalists’ and promoting the same climate sceptic, who happens to have a new book out this month, Adelaide University professor Ian Plimer.

Paralleling Devine’s use of religious metaphor, Ackerman sees climate change as a kind of ‘religion’, which is not to be questioned, and has its own orthodoxy and its own high priest in Al Gore.

This is hardly a new line of argument, and it still doesn’t look like dying away any time soon, so what’s going on here?

Continue reading “Climate Change: is it a new religion?”

Should we get out of the habit of worshiping anything?

“I want just to offer a few opinions, on the basis of no expertise whatever, for those who have already lost their religious beliefs, or who may be losing them, or fear that they will lose their beliefs, about how it is possible to live without God.

First, a warning: we had better beware of substitutes. It has often been noted that the greatest horrors of the twentieth century were perpetrated by regimes—Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s Russia, Mao’s China—that while rejecting some or all of the teachings of religion, copied characteristics of religion at its worst: infallible leaders, sacred writings, mass rituals, the execution of apostates, and a sense of community that justified exterminating those outside the community.

When I was an undergraduate I knew a rabbi, Will Herberg, who worried about my lack of religious faith. He warned me that we must worship God, because otherwise we would start worshiping each other. He was right about the danger, but I would suggest a different cure: we should get out of the habit of worshiping anything.”

Stephen Weinberg, Without God The New York Review of Books
Volume 55, Number 14 · September 25, 2008

How to do Belief-free Science

Harry Kroto produced a remarkable defence of the sacking of Michael Reiss from his post with the Royal Society. Remarkable in what it assumes about the scientific method. (And thanks to Benjamin Carnys for pointing it out).

Kroto writes:

Science is based solely on doubt-based, disinterested examination of the natural and physical world. It is entirely independent of personal belief. There is a very important, fundamental concomitant – that is to accept absolutely nothing whatsoever, for which there is no evidence, as having any fundamental validity.

A little later he writes that Reiss and all religious people

fall at the first hurdle of the main requirement for honest scientific discussion because they accept unfound dogma as having fundamental significance.

Taking Kroto seriously I offer a couple of suggestions for conducting belief-free science.

First, all conceivable research projects must be available for investigation and must be chosen purely at random. Since personal beliefs are to be independent of science, there can be no a priori assessment of which phenomena are deserving of study, nor any assessment of which viable projects should be chosen over other viable projects.  For instance, becoming a chemist rather than a physicist (or vice versa) would be unreasonable. The task of documenting all possible research projects is clearly enormous and will probably last eternally, but this labour must be completed before a random decision is made about which projects to pursue.

There are a couple of alternatives to this approach which are clearly, on Kroto’s reasoning, unacceptable. One alternative is to do the research that is actually funded by somebody. However, this would involve the forbidden act of taking account of the funders’ personal beliefs about valuable research activity. Another alternative is to commit to promising research, even where it is not yet funded, and seek funds to facilitate the research. However, this would involve the researcher’s own beliefs about what counts as promising.

In short, to make a disinterested examination of the natural and physical world, independent of personal belief, is to examine everything, always, simultaneously, without discrimination, for any discrimination would have to involve some form of a priori belief. The moment we decide what to study we have ceased to be disinterested, and have taken a leap of faith. Pragmatically, one could operate on the basis that any research project might yield results, so the choice is entirely arbitrary – but this is itself an act of faith.

Secondly, scientific research must not be conducted with the involvement of humans. The trouble with humans is that they insist on having a point of view. They have a perspective, formed by the possibilities and limitations of their senses, and this feature clouds their ability to observe and record impartially in a disinterested manner. Having a point of view amounts to the belief (forbidden by Kroto) that one point of view is valid over and against other possible or actual points of view. Self-organising robots would be much better suited to the scientific task, were it not for the fact that they would also have a point of view (or a composite point of view).

It seems humans are fundamentally unqualified to practice Kroto’s scientific method. The ideal scientist, on Kroto’s terms, would, to avoid discriminating between research projects, possess an eternity in which to work and would, to avoid perspectivalism, be everywhere at once. In other words, Kroto’s ideal scientist would have the characteristics of God himself.

If you have read this far you will have noticed I am arguing for a view of science in which science is a social practice as much as any other human activity. We don’t have to be gods to participate – just humans (although the discoverers of C60 may well qualify as gods in some pantheon or other). As such we should not be worried about our human characteristics, including what Kroto calls ‘personal belief’. Positivists (is Kroto one?) seem to hate that kind of claim.  Kroto’s own science video project, Vega, is an excellent example of the embeddedness of science in social, human, belief-laden practices. At base, the belief that science education of this sort is a good idea is a type of ‘unfounded dogma’ in the sense that it can only really be argued for, not finally demonstrated.

Religion after atheism

After atheism can religion be rebuilt?

For philosopher Paul Ricoeur, religion after atheism must be built on the hermeneutics of suspicion, that is to say, it is concerned with the suspicion that enables ‘doing away with idols’ but also the hope that comes from  ‘paying attention to symbols’.

Of Marx, Nietzsche and Freud, whom he regarded as the ‘masters of suspicion’, Ricoeur said:

“All three clear the horizon for a more authentic word, for a new reign of Truth, not only by means of a ‘destructive’ critique, but by the invention of an art of interpreting.” (Ricoeur 1970:33)

Suspicion is not cynicism. Neither is it scepticism, because it operates in he hope that there is some truth to be found beyond demystification. Suspicion is not an end in itself. It is a method of approaching truth in ‘critical openness’.

Of Freud, Ricoeur says:

‘One should not be in a hurry to correct this reductive hermeneutics bur rather should stay with it, for it will not be suppressed but retained in a more comprehensive hermeneutics’  (1970: 447)

In this new art of interpreting, this ‘more comprehensive hermeneutics’,  Ricoeur is looking for a ‘metaphor-faith beyond demythologization’, ‘a second naivete beyond iconoclasm’ (Ricoeur 1977, quoted in White 1995: 91)

He says ‘An idol must die so a symbol of being may begin to speak’ (Ricoeur 1974: 467).

Applying the hermeneutics of suspicion to Ricoeur

The question begged by Ricoeur’s approach is: if we stop interpreting literally (the idols) and start interpreting symbolically (the symbols), what is the symbolism symbolic of? What are the metaphors of his ‘metaphor-faith’ metaphors of? Symbolic and metaphorical interpretation imply that meaning is perpetually deferred. And yet Ricoeur writes of a symbol of being, as though the meaning of the symbolism can in fact be pinned down.  So which is it to be? Here it can be seen how it is possible, perhaps necessary, to go beyond Ricoeur, as did Derrida, his sometime assistant, and see the metaphorical as going all the way down.


Hans-Georg Gadamer, 1984 “The Hermeneutics of Suspicion,” in Hermeneutics: Questions and Prospects eds. G. Shapiro and A. Sica. Amhurst: University of Massachusetts Press.

Roy J. Howard, 1982 Three Faces of Hermeneutics Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Kearney, Richard, 2004. On Paul Ricœur: The Owl of Minerva. London: Ashgate.

Grant R. Osborne, 1991The Hermeneutical Spiral Downers Grove: IVP.

Paul Ricoeur, 1973 “The Hermeneutical Function of Distanciation” Philosophy Today 17.

Paul Ricoeur, 1967 The Symbol of Evil, trans. E. Buchanan, New York: Harper & Row.

Paul Ricoeur, 1977 The Rule of Metaphor: Multi-Disciplinary Studies in the Creation of Meaning trans. R. Czerny. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Paul Ricoeur, 1975 “Biblical Hermeneutics” Semeia 4 (1975): 33.

Paul Ricoeur, 1978 “Explanation and Understanding: On Some Remarkable Connections Among the Theory of the Text, Theory of Action, and Theory of History” in The Philosophy of Paul Ricoeur: An Anthology of His Work, eds. C. Reagen and D. Stewart. Boston: Beacon Press, 149-166.

Paul Ricoeur, 1970 Freud and Philosophy: An Essay on Interpretation. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Paul Ricoeur, 1973 “Ethics and Culture: Habermas and Gadamer in Dialogue,” Philosophy Today 17 : 153-165.

Paul Ricoeur, 1974 [1969] The Conflict of Interpretations: Essays in Hermeneutics ed. D. Ihde Evanston: Northwestern University Press.

Paul Ricoeur, 1995 “Philosophy and Religious Language,” in Figuring the Sacred, Mark I. Wallace ed. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press.

David Stewart, 1989 “The Hermeneutics of Suspicion,” Journal of Literature and Theology 3: 296-307.

Anthony Thisleton, 1992 New Horizons in Hermeneutics Grand Rapids: Zondervan.

Erin White, 1991 “Between Suspicion and Hope: Paul Ricoeur’s Vital Hermeneutic,” Journal of Literature and Theology 5: 311-321.

White, Erin, 1995 Religion and the Hermeneutics of Gender: An Examination of the Work of Paul Ricoeur. Chapter 3 of Ursula King, ed, Religion and Gender, Oxford: Blackwell, 77-99.

Rowan Williams, 1988 “The Suspicion of Suspicion: Wittgenstein and Bonhoeffer” in The Grammar of the Heart: New Essays in Moral Philosophy and Theology, ed. R. H. Bell, San Francisco: Harper & Row.

God after atheism – what the word ‘God’ fails to mean

‘The word “God” does not function as a philosophical concept….
Even if one is tempted to say…that “God” is the religious name for being, still the word “God” says more: it presupposes the total context constituted by the whole space of gravitation of stories, prophecies, laws, hymns, and so forth.
To understand the word “God” is to follow the direction of the meaning of the word. By the direction of the meaning I mean its double power to gather all the significations that issue from the partial discourses and to open up a horizon that escapes from the closure of discourse….
The God-referent is at once the coordinator of these various discourses and the index of their incompleteness, the point at which something escapes them.’
Paul Ricoeur, 1995:45-6.

I’d be interested to know what people reading this think it means. It’s a quotation from French philosopher Paul Ricoeur. Leave a comment below. Thanks!

Post-Secular Artist? Nine Reflections on the Art of Patrick Heron

The last few years have seen a deep questioning of the central tenets of the theory of secularisation. Far from growing less religious, as the prophets of the post-war period supposed to be our destiny, the world has become more infused with religious attitudes than ever. It is now intellectually respectable, if not yet fully intelligible,  to talk and write about a ‘post-secular’ age. At the same time it is possible to re-examine the high points of the supposedly nonreligious era we have now passed beyond, and see it anew as the site and source of an intense and distinctive spirituality.  It is strange for an art collection like the Methodist Church’s Collection of Modern Christian Art to have almost no abstract works in the collection, as though properly religious art could only ever be representational. Yet until recently abstract art was regarded by many religious people as at the vanguard of a world without form, without meaning, and  – ultimately – without God. If non-representational art was somehow non-traditional then it was also, so it was feared, non-religious. It is possible now, however to reappraise this view.

In the late 1960’s and early 1970’s Patrick Heron produced a large number of canvases and silkscreen prints on paper, based on bright, interlocking abstract shapes. As though to forestall the possibility of overlooking the artist’s obsession with colour, they had titles such as ‘Blue and deep violet with orange brown and green’.
The following reflections were inspired by a screenprint of Patrick Heron’s at the Tate, which is typical of his work at that time. Perhaps to emphasise its abstract qualities it is titled January 1973:14.

Patrick Heron, ‘January 1973: 14’ 1973

Continue reading “Post-Secular Artist? Nine Reflections on the Art of Patrick Heron”

Michael Reiss – a witch hunt for the 21st Century

I find it amazing that the words of Prof Michael Reiss, taken out of context and wilfully misunderstood by people who ought to know better (Richard Roberts and Harry Kroto) have resulted in his resignation as Director of Education at the Royal Society.

It seems he resigned in spite of the fact he was doing no more than stating Royal Society and Government policy.

The letter sent by Roberts and Kroto is substantively little more than an accusation that Reiss is a member of the clergy.

This amounts to a witch hunt of the utmost intolerance. It is not reasonable or helpful for people to behave as though the best way to teach science is to avoid talking about certain issues. This approach will clearly only lend fuel to creationists who will no doubt say “see, their arguments don’t stack up so they just won’t talk about it!”

Much better is the approach supported by the Royal Society itself and restated by Michael Reiss, which is, as I understand it, to use student questions about creationism as an oportunity to discuss the science underlying current views of the origins of the universe.

“If a young person raises creationism in a science class, teachers should be in a position to explain why evolution is a sound scientific theory and why creationism is not.”

I agree wholeheartedly with Lord Winston, who said:

“This is not a good day for the reputation of science or scientists. This individual was arguing that we should engage with and address public misconceptions about science – something that the Royal Society should applaud.”

Continue reading “Michael Reiss – a witch hunt for the 21st Century”

How to teach science and religion in schools

Michael Reiss, clergyman and director of education at the Royal Society, a leading science organisation, has been misquoted as saying creationism should be taught in schools. This is what he actually said .

Audio of Prof Michael Reiss

His main point seems to be that creationism is not really a simple error that can be corrected in a 50 minute science lesson. Rather, it’s part of a bigger worldview that can only really be challenged by being engaged with.

The closest Reiss comes to suggesting creationism should be taught is the following:
‘If questions or issues about creationism and intelligent design arise during science lessons they can be used to illustrate a number of aspects of how science works.’

In other words, he’s really not advocating the teaching of creationism, but discussing it rather than ignoring it.
Continue reading “How to teach science and religion in schools”