Book Review: The Demon-Haunted World: Science As A Candle In The Dark

Published in 1996 – the year of his all-too-early death due to cancer – The Demon-Haunted World: Science As A Candle In The Dark, will inevitably be seen as Carl Sagan’s departing words urging the world to challenge superstition and irrational modes of thinking. A celebrated populariser of science, Sagan outlines his motivation right at the beginning of the book.

“When you’re in love, you want to tell the world. This book is a personal statement, reflecting my lifelong love affair with science.” (p25)

Sagan rightly laments the harm that has been caused through unquestioning attitudes towards ‘Holy Books’. The Bible’s injunction “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live” led to the loss of countless lives in Europe where witch-burning continued to be a popular pastime right up until the rise of the scientific revolution.

And what about today? Do we still see short-sighted religious superstition at work? Of course we do and sadly it is not limited to extremist groups like ISIS. Just over a decade back, I recall being shocked when even the revered Muslim scholar, Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who has spent a lifetime challenging extremism and has a huge following in the Middle East and beyond, responded thus to the awful 2004 Indian ocean earthquake that resulted in over 280,000 fatalities, including in the overwhelmingly Muslim state of Aceh, Indonesia:

“People must ask themselves why this earthquake occurred in this area and not in others….These areas were notorious because of this type of modern tourism, which has become known as “sex tourism”….Don’t they deserve punishment from Allah?!”

Instead, science and scientists like Carl Sagan, would rather that we examine the reason why earthquakes occur more frequently in particular regions of the world and study plate tectonics and their relationship to earthquakes with a view to putting some thought into what can be done to limit the damage they can cause. It is a rational and sensible way to deal with a tragic natural phenomenon.

There does not need to be a conflict between science and religion, according to Sagan, but it requires vigilance and action to ensure that the bigots do not triumph.

“On one level, they share similar and consonant roles, and each needs the other. Open and vigorous debate, even the consecration of doubt, is a Christian tradition going back to John Milton’s Areopagitica (1644). Some of mainstream Christianity and Judaism embraces and even anticipated at least a portion of the humility, self-criticism, reasoned debate, and questioning of received wisdom that the best of science offers. But other sects, sometimes called conservative or fundamentalist – and today they seem to be in the ascendant, with the mainstream religions almost inaudible and invisible – have chosen to make a stand on matters subject to disproof, and thus have something to fear from science.” (p277)

One particularly compelling chapter of the book is devoted to what Sagan calls his Baloney Detection Kit, to help equip us with the tools to facilitate critical thinking and help prevent us falling prey to those would try and restrict our freedom to subject all ideas to criticism by declaring some topics off-limits as sacred or taboo.

The Demon-Haunted World is a passionate appeal to question and challenge all forms of irrational thought. Over twenty years after its original publication, its message remains as relevant as it was in 1996 and perhaps even more so.

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Did The Evening Standard Libel MEND Today?

There are a number of articles in today’s papers condemning the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn for refusing to attend a dinner tonight with the right-wing Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. The dinner is to celebrate (!) the 100th anniversary of the tragic Balfour Declaration (which led directly to the displacement and disenfranchisement of millions of native Palestinians, but let’s whitewash that). Corbyn is weirdly being condemned for having the guts  to stand up and refuse to endorse such a colonial disaster, and is also condemned for agreeing to speak at an event marking the launch of Islamophobia Awareness Month, hosted by the organisation MEND.

Such mendacity on the part of the anti-left media should come as no surprise. They, of course, do not criticise the Prime Minister Theresa May for attending a dinner with Netanyahu to celebrate the racist Balfour Declaration and the calamity it has caused ever since for the Palestinians.

What caught my eyes earlier today was one particular allegation made against MEND by the Evening Standard claiming that it had been allegedly condemned by the large umbrella body the Muslim Council of Britain for “organising boycotts of Holocaust Memorial Day.”

I was a spokesperson at the MCB for a number of years and am well aware of the controversy surrounding HMD, but I don’t ever recall the MCB making such a nonsensical and almost certainly libellous claim. So, why would the Evening Standard print such a thing?

Well, as it happens, later editions of the same Evening Standard story appeared without the offending paragraph. Could it be that the Evening Standard had belatedly realised that this was perhaps one lie too many?

In any case, I had already captured the original article which bore a time stamp of 07:43 AM.

I very much hope that MEND will seek immediate legal advice regarding the publication of what appears to be a very serious libel indeed.

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Review: The Voyage of Charles Darwin

When it comes to furthering our understanding of the world around us, the scientific revolution has given us a stellar list of heroes: Galileo, Newton, Einstein amongst many, many others. The subject of the BBC’s 1978 seven-part drama was another great hero of science: Charles Darwin, and specifically, his five-year voyage around South America on board the HMS Beagle from 1831 – 1836.

Darwin was an amateur naturalist with a keenly inquiring mind. During his voyage around South America he noticed how the fauna on islands off the coast of South America would often resemble but not be exactly the same as the fauna on the mainland. Why would this be and what could account for the differences? The Captain of the Beagle was Robert Fitzroy – a devout Christian – and he was sure of the answer: it was because God had willed it that way. This, unsurprisingly, did not satisfy Darwin who looked for more specific reasons.

Darwin gathered specimens from South America and sent them back to England for more detailed examination. He gathered data from his own observations and that from his correspondents all over the world: Darwin was a prodigious letter-writer and eagerly kept abreast of the latest findings. By 1844, Darwin had enough data to compile an initial draft of his theory of evolution by natural selection. He instructed his wife, Emma, that if anything were to happen to him that she was to use £400 of his money to publish this work.

Still, Darwin did not publish his work for another fifteen years in 1859. Why was this so? Historians say it is because Darwin was well aware of the great unease his theory would cause amongst religious believers. Anyway, Darwin’s hand was forced when, in 1858, another amateur naturalist and a correspondent of Darwin, Alfred Russel Wallace, sent to Darwin his own theory of how species had come into being – a theory that was identical to that of Darwin’s own.

In the years since 1859, despite the abuse and misinformation directed towards him and his theory, Darwin has been thoroughly vindicated by science. And religious scholars (well, all except the most blinkered) have had to adapt their worldview to incorporate Darwin’s theory.

To this day, however, there is a great deal of confusion about evolution and its status. “It’s only a theory” is a common refrain amongst the opponents of Darwin. In my experience, this is usually amongst those who have not read books about evolution by mainstream scientists and they miss the point about Darwin’s great contribution. Evolution is a fact – there is simply no question that life has continuously evolved on earth over a fantastically long period of time. Go back far enough in the fossil record and the most advanced life-forms on earth will not be mammals or reptiles: they will be fish. Darwin’s singular and lasting contribution was to identify a mechanism by which this change had occurred: natural selection.

There are many reasons why Darwin is regarded as a hero amongst scientists, but let me take one of my own favourite examples. Back in 1862 a British orchid grower sent Darwin some orchids from Madagascar including:

the beautiful and star-shaped flower of Angraecum sesquipedale. This has an exceptionally long nectary (getting on for 30 cm) and in a book on orchid pollination, Darwin suggested that this extreme feature may have evolved alongside a moth with an exceptionally long tongue to pollinate it.

Darwin had used his understanding of evolution and how species co-evolve to predict that there must be a creature with a proboscis long enough to pollinate that flower – even if such a creature was not known at the time.

In 1907, more than 20 years after Darwin’s death, a subspecies of the gigantic Congo moth from Madagascar was identified and named as X. morganii praedicta apparently fulfilling Darwin’s prediction (the name indicating that it was predicted, though actually in the paper naming the moth Darwin wasn’t mentioned). The moth is large at around 16cm in wingspan, but the proboscis is truly colossal and can be more than 20cm in length forming a huge coil in front of the head when not in use. However, while there was now an orchid with a long nectary and a moth with a huge tongue, the question remained: did X. morganii praedicta really feed on A. sesquipedale?

It wasn’t until 1992, nearly a century later, that observations were made of the moth feeding on the flower and transferring pollen from plant to plant with both videos and stills being taken. This was observed in the wild and confirmed further with studies in captivity. Thus more than 130 years after Darwin first suggested that a large moth pollinated an African orchid, his hypothesis was confirmed. It took quite some time, but quite clearly Darwin’s prediction, based on extremely limited evidence but bolstered by his understanding of his own new theory of natural selection, was correct.

Was Darwin a believer in God? Historians are divided on this issue. While Darwin himself makes clear that when he first climbed aboard the Beagle, he held orthodox Christian views, there is no question that over time Darwin became less and less convinced by some of the main tenets of Christianity and indeed was appalled by some of them.

…disbelief crept over me at a very slow rate, but was at last complete. The rate was so slow that I felt no distress, and have never since doubted even for a single second that my conclusion was correct. I can indeed hardly see how anyone ought to wish Christianity to be true; for if so the plain language of the text seems to show that the men who do not believe, and this would include my Father, Brother and almost all of my friends, will be everlastingly punished. And this is a damnable doctrine.

Darwin could not bring himself to believe that a merciful God would condemn to everlasting torment those who did not believe in Him. When pressed, he would say that he preferred to regard himself as an agnostic on the question of whether there is a Creator.

The BBC’s The Voyage of Charles Darwin is utterly compelling viewing. It is gripping to watch Darwin as he begins to question long-held assumptions and begins to feel his way towards a more convincing theory about the origin of species or the “mystery of mysteries” as he also termed it. The series was filmed on location in South America and this adds immeasurably to the power of the drama as we witness the genesis of Darwin’s insights at the very same locations that he visited almost two centuries ago.  This is must-see television at its very best.

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Halal/Schechita Slaughter Needs to Adapt To End Cruelty To Animals

The decision today by Lancashire County Council to only supply halal meat to schools if it has been pre-stunned is a difficult but necessary step if we are to see progress made in the area of Halal/Schechita slaughter.

It is surely an anachronism that the official UK government guidelines continue to state that you must stun all animals prior to slaughter “unless an animal is being religiously slaughtered for halal or kosher meat.” Why should the religious sensibilities of some Jews and Muslims be allowed to triumph when it comes to subjecting animals to unnecessary cruelty. We should call on our government to stand up for moral and ethical progress in the area of animal rights and end this cowardly exemption.

The Telegraph today quotes Abdul Hameed Qureshi – the Chair of the Lancashire Council of Mosques as saying: “[The RSPCA’s guidance] is most of the time based on feelings, it’s not scientifically conclusive.”

A spokesperson for the RSPCA told the Telegraph that they rejected this categorisation of their position, saying: “I utterly, completely refuse to cede that’s where our views come from. Ourselves, the British Veterinary Association and the Humane Slaughter Association signed a joint statement saying the only humane way to kill an animal is to stun it. There is countless scientific evidence showing that when an animal has its neck cut it feels quite considerable pain. The farm animal welfare council is of the opinion that the only humane way to kill an animal to stun it. You take New Zealand – everything is pre-stunned there, and it’s all Halal, it’s exported to countries in the Middle East and they all accept that it is Halal. We, for animal welfare reasons, would be quite happy if unstunned meat was banned across the UK.”

You can read more about the RSPCA’s position on stunning before slaughter on their website here.

It is understood that the National Secular Society has written to the Environment Secretary Michael Gove urging him to remove the religious exemption for Muslims and Jews from animal welfare legislation. It is highly doubtful that the idiot Gove – who is a hero to many in the Jewish community for his openly Zionist sympathies – will take any action.

Islam teaches that animals should not be mistreated when they are alive. Why do some blinkered Muslim and Jewish religious leaders continue therefore to insist on slaughtering animals while they are conscious without pre-stunning?

Several European governments including Denmark, Switzerland, Sweden, Norway and Iceland, no longer allow religious exemptions on the grounds that “animal rights come before religion.”

We quite rightly no longer allow dogmatic religious views to prevail over human rights when it comes to gay marriages or freedom of speech. Why should they be allowed to ride roughshod over animal rights? Jewish and Islamic law needs to adapt to incorporate our advance in scientific knowledge about animal pain and the use of stunning to alleviate unnecessary cruelty to animals.

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Blaming the Jews for ISIS

A couple of months ago I blogged about the need to speak out against anti-Muslim cartoons that were being circulated on social media in the wake of the terror attacks in London earlier this year and said:

We as British Muslims also should be conscientious in discharging our responsibilities to our country. Bigotry in all its forms should be repudiated. Whether directed at us or directed at others by parts of our own community.

I had become very concerned that the terror attacks had emboldened racists into becoming more open about their bigotry against Muslims. Less than two weeks after I wrote those words there was a terror attack outside Finsbury Park Mosque which resulted in the death of a Muslim man.

So, after receiving the above rather nasty and evidently racist cartoon via social media earlier today I thought I had better follow my own advice and speak up.

The willingness amongst many Muslims to believe in outlandish conspiracy theories (ISIS are financed by the US/Israelis, 9/11 was an inside/MOSSAD job etc.) is reflective of a mindset that has not grasped that the cause of the success of the West and the long decline of the Muslim world lies in the former having given primacy to the role of reason over religion. In short, the embrace of the Enlightenment and the values it entailed propelled the West to develop a culture that continually seeks progress and scientific advancement unshackled by ancient religious books.

ISIS are manifestly not an Israeli or US-funded group. It is truer to say that they are the Muslim version of the Nazis. They have supremacist beliefs that dehumanise those who do not subscribe to their world view. They represent a serious danger to Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

It is entirely right to criticise specific unjust US or Israeli policies. It cannot ever be right to propagate racist myths about them.

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The Catholic Church’s Persecution of Galileo and the Modern Muslim Inquisition

One of my most treasured books is Jacob Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man – based on his magnificent and authoritative BBC series from 1973. The book is about the development of humankind and particularly our scientific culture. I do my best to try and re-read the book and re-watch the series on DVD each year. Each time that I do, I come away utterly awed and inspired at Bronowski’s achievement.

A couple of weeks ago when I had a day off work I went down to Highgate cemetery in London to visit the grave of Jacob Bronowski – he died in 1974, just a year after the series aired on television: he had apparently been unwell during the making of the programmes. I arrived at the cemetery only to discover that it is split into two parts East and West. The Western part is open to visitors during the week, the Eastern part can only be visited with official guides at restricted times due to the precarious state of parts of the cemetery. And as you have probably guessed, Bronowski is buried in the Eastern part so I didn’t get to pay my respects at his grave that day.

Chapter six of The Ascent of Man (episode six in the TV series) is titled “The Starry Messenger” and is about the trial and tribulations of the Italian scientist Galileo Galilei who was persecuted by the Catholic Church for supporting the Copernican view that it is the earth which revolves around the sun and not vice versa as the Catholic Church insisted. The old view that the sun and the planets revolved around the Earth had first been promulgated by Ptolemy in the second century C.E. and had later been adopted by the Catholic Church as part of its doctrine.

The Catholic Church had some decades earlier – in response to the rise of Protestantism in Northern Europe – established the Inquisition to deal with heretics and uphold Catholic doctrine. Following the 1632 publication of Galileo’s Dialogue on the Great World Systems in which different speakers discussed the various merits of the Ptolemaic and Copernican world views, with Galileo making rather clear which side of the debate he was on, the Pope himself ordered Galileo to appear before the Inquisition. Galileo – who was by then almost seventy years old – was forced to recant his views, shown the instruments of torture, including the rack, and placed under house arrest for the rest of his life.

The result, says Bronowski, was silence amongst Catholic scientists everywhere from then on. The Church’s authoritarian ways had brought a halt to the development of science in the Mediterranean. Meanwhile, Galileo, who had helped to develop the telescope which had so enlarged our view of the heavens was now confined to his house and soon went totally blind. He wrote of himself:

Alas…Galileo, your devoted friend and servant, has been for a month totally and incurably blind; so that this heaven, this earth, this universe, which by my remarkable observations and clear demonstrations I have enlarged a hundred, nay, a thousand fold beyond the limits universally accepted by the learned men of all previous ages, are now shrivelled up for me into such a narrow compass as is filled by my own bodily sensations.

Galileo died in 1642 still a prisoner in his own house and the Scientific Revolution moved to northern Europe, Protestant Europe. On Christmas Day of the same year, in England, Isaac Newton was born.

I find the story of Galileo so full of resonance – particularly as a Muslim. I grew up on books about the ‘Golden Age of Islam’, about the heights that Muslim civilisation reached while Europe lapsed in the Dark Ages.

Regrettably, we Muslims have our own form of the Inquisition in the shape of religious figures who take it upon themselves to pronounce on matters of what is lawful and what is not. Their foolishness would not be such a problem if they did not seek to also coerce others into following their pronouncements.

When Muslim scientists were hounded into silence by religious figures in the name of orthodoxy, science did not stop, it just moved elsewhere as it did when Galileo was also silenced.

It was an ominous sign a couple of months ago when Turkey – one of very few Muslim countries to have made some notable progress in the sphere of freedom and human rights in recent decades – announced that it would stop the teaching of evolution in secondary schools.

Change is inherent in the human condition and we have to adapt to it.


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Book Review: On Tyranny by Timothy Snyder

“History does not repeat, but it does instruct,” says Timothy Snyder, at the very beginning of his latest book “On Tyranny”.

Snyder, a Professor of History at Yale University, wrote a Facebook post back in November 2016 following the election of Donald Trump – a post that went viral. The FB post listed twenty short lessons to be learned from the twentieth century and in particular how “democracy yielded to fascism.”

That Facebook post has now been expanded into a small (128 pages) book in which there are plenty of references to how fascism took root step by step in a modern industrial Germany.

Taken together, the twenty lessons in this book are an urgent and passionate call for all of us to train ourselves to recognise, challenge and fight back against the signs of encroaching tyranny.

Until recently, Snyder points out, it was fashionable to believe in the “politics of inevitability”. The Cold War had ended with the Soviet Union imploding and the future was surely marching towards an era of ever more liberal democracies and fewer and fewer fascist or autocratic states. We were near “The End of History” as a certain best-selling book informed us. This may have instilled in many of us a somewhat relaxed attitude towards our freedoms.

Interestingly though, Snyder does not mention Trump by name in this book, though there is a reference to “our President” and this only serves to increase the book’s power. It encourages the reader to take the abstract lessons and apply them using his/her own critical faculties to the real world.

Autocratic rulers despise the dissemination of truth. Hence, the restrictions on free speech and the press and now the internet in many parts of the world. And in the USA, we have a President who routinely denounces what he describes as “Fake news” and encourages his supporters to treat the media with contempt and engaged in a gigantic conspiracy against his administration which is, of course, doing “just great.” “Post-truth”, says Snyder, is “Pre-fascism.”

“It is your ability to discern facts that makes you an individual…the individual who investigates is also the citizen who builds. The leader who dislikes the investigators is a potential tyrant…To abandon facts is to abandon freedom.” (p73)

Here in the UK, the PREVENT programme has engaged in some very secretive funding of Muslim groups to allegedly “rebut extremism”. When Freedom of Information requests have been sent to the Home Office to find out the details of this funding and to whom this taxpayers money was given, the Home Office has been very obstructive.

Many publications such as the Huffington Post and The Conversation have now taken the laudable step of asking their writers to disclose any financial ties or links they may have to the subjects they are writing about. In parliament, MPs are required to make a full disclosure of their financial interests. This is  “… to provide information on any financial or non-financial benefit received by a MP or Member of the Lords which might reasonably be thought by others to influence their actions, speeches or votes in Parliament.”

Yet, in the UK we have the bizarre and hugely corrupt phenomenon of individuals and groups which are funded by PREVENT being called upon to comment on the effectiveness of the PREVENT agenda without any disclosure being required about the financial interests they have in that programme. I think you can guess the names…

On Tyranny’s lessons will prove essential far beyond the borders of the United States because the temptation to hide truths and trample upon the rights of others is sadly a universal characteristic. On Tyranny deserves to be carried around with us, referred to regularly in light of current events and its lessons shared with our friends.

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