Dissenters wanted?

Les Reid of the Belfast Humanist Group wonders what ever happened to all the Dissenters and makes a pitch for humanists to occupy at least some of that space. He also points us in the direction of the Humanist Summer School later this month in Carlingford.From Les Reid

We read and hear references to ‘Protestants, Catholics and Dissenters’ but the last group never seem to hold any meetings. Who are these Dissenters and where do they hang out? Many of us have either outgrown or got fed up with the old sectarian dichotomy of Catholic or Protestant and would like to find a Third Way out of the sectarian rut. But how do you become a Dissenter?

The Humanists must have a good claim to the Dissenter mantle. Humanists reject all religious tales of the supernatural, including gods, goddesses, angels, demons, miracles and the hereafter. They are atheists and agnostics, but they do not merely reject religion, they work together to advance the cause of a secular, liberal society. Famous Humanists include Richard Dawkins, Conor Cruise O’Brien, Noam Chomsky and Jonathan Miller, to name but few.

Humanist organisations can be found North and South of the border, in Belfast, Dublin and Coleraine. The Belfast Humanist Group website (www.humanists.net/belfast) has links to groups throughout Ireland and Britain.

The Humanist Summer School which will be held in Carlingford 25 – 27 August is a joint venture by groups from NI and RoI. The theme this year is “Freethinking and Diversity” and the main speakers will be Justin Keating, former RoI Government Minister; Robin Wilson of Democratic Dialogue; Jeff Dudgeon from NI Gay Rights Association and Paul Rowe, Director of Educate Together. Details of the full range of activities and discussions can be found on the website. It is hoped that there will be a good turn-out of Dissenters of all shades of opinion and that there will be lively debate and friendly contact among all those searching for a Third Way.


  • German-American

    The monkeys thing … is not a comment on evolution or a slight on Shakepear, just the enevitiable consequences that over infinity, every possible combination of key strokes will have happened. Or has someone highjacked the origonal example.

    I think the latter. I think Harry was using the “million monkeys” idea as a specific example of the general argument that evolution is inherently improbable: That if evolution proceeded like the monkeys typing then even billions of years would not suffice to produce the diversity of organisms we see today. (A billion years is of course a long long way from infinity, and I doubt very much would see the monkeys writing Hamlet.) It’s a comparable argument to the argument that a tornado sweeping through a junkyard of airplane parts has an infinitesimal probability of producing a 747.

    As I hoped I made clear, such arguments don’t actually capture the key features of evolutionary theory, and hence are irrelevant to proving it wrong.

  • bertie

    I don’t see its relevance to evolution and it has to be infinity for us to be sure not just one million years.

  • German-American

    bertie, you’re correct, the “million monkeys” argument is not relevant to evolution. As it happens, it’s not relevant to the problem of the origin of life either, as explained in depth in this article.

    Some other comments:

    Regarding Richard Dawkins, while I’m sympathetic to his views I agree he often goes well over the top in his opposition to religion and those who hold religious beliefs. As michael noted earlier, Dawkins and others of similar views seem to regard religious belief as a purely optional choice, easily dropped if adherents “would only catch a grip of themselves”. However there are plausible reasons for believing that belief in supernatural entities has evolutionary origins, not necessarily as an adaptive mechanism but rather as a byproduct of other things that were adaptive. Thus trying to argue people out of religious beliefs through an appeal to reason is likely to prove as unproductive as trying eradicate other aspects of (evolved) human nature.

    For those interested in evolutionary explanations of religions, see for example the work of Pascal Boyer, as outlined in this article and expanded upon in his book Religion Explained, and Scott Atran, including his book In Gods We Trust. (Atran also has published a number of articles on suicide terrorism, which may be of interest to some Sluggerites.) See also Steven Pinker’s lecture “The Evolutionary Pyschology of Religion”.

    If religion is indeed an inherent part of human nature as it has evolved then it will be with us for the foreseeable future. Given that, I think the “humanist project” should not be to try to eradicate religious belief or argue people out of it, but rather find ways to accomodate belief (or its absence) within the framework of liberal democracy–in other words, the classical argument for separation of church and state, toleration of other faiths (which is not equivalent to approving of them), and so on.

  • IJP

    I would be very much against casting Humanists in the role of ‘dissenter’ politically.

    The task is not to create a ‘third community’, but rather to recognize that we are a single community, albeit one with varying religious beliefs and national affiliations.

  • abucs

    i think the million monkeys thing is to do with Abiogenesis. Scientists and mathematicians have argued both ways. Some as above have argued that life would be somehow much simpler, other have argued that there must be an incredible amount of complexity in order to be classified as alive in the first place. And so it goes. I guess the thing to note is that even with ‘intelligent design’ that is, us, (scientists) we still haven’t reproduced life yet.

    Occasional Commentator, i thought you were enquiring on my sources rather than fuller explanation. My apologies.

    The way i see evolution working from scratch, that is, a smaller set of complexity arising to a greater level of complexity, i don’t know if it can be answered by saying simply that some DNA can be accidently repeated and there you go, it has more material to work with.

    DNA of course has checks and balaces to try and stop that happenning, but you are right it can happen. From my understanding it has to be an identifiable coherant instruction that does not ‘stuff the whole thing up’. And it must be affecting the organism straight away in some sort of a form that opens it to selection.

    If it has no affect on the organism, and is placed in the genome of what is called ‘junk DNA’ then it is like the million monkeys in that it can say whatever it wants to because it will not affect the organism and so is not open to the natural selection process.

    But if it does satisfy all that it is simply a copy of instructions that was there in the original organism. What we want are new instructions. And every mutation must be affecting the organism and be more selective than the non-corrupted version. How do we get totally new instructions that every step of the way are beneficial, affect the organism directly and make sense in a grammatical and also a practical sense ?

    My theory is that it is written into the operating instructions of the genes themselves. I was watching a show recently on DNA and the scientists were playing around with the genetic make-up of mice and caused a defect in all of the mice but then bred them and the defect dissapeared from the next generation. In affect, the gene was repaired as non functional.
    When the scientists looked to see how this could happen they came up with the idea that a ‘ghost copy’ of the original DNA was kept in the RNA and that if the ‘change’ was not beneficial, it reverted back to the original DNA. This is very interesting because in this way then it allows a certain amount of experimentation while keeping a full set of workable DNA in its ‘memory bank’

    Of course this adds another set of complexity to the operating system of DNA but it starts to show how increased complexity might arise. But it needs an increased complexity in the operating system to begin with. The million monkeys (abiogenesis) have another layer to perform before natural selection can kick in. I think as we discover the workings of the DNA and continue to find out how it functions that the million monkeys will be found to have been increasingly more extremely lucky from the start. This is my understanding though and i am open to other interpretations and knowledge that you have. From what i have seen of the field i believe it is only at the very start of investigating the complexity.

    Also, from a strictly ‘survival of the fittest’ viewpoint, because humans are vastly outnumbered by simple bacteria, they would have course have to be classified as more successful and suited to the environment than us. In this way we are actually failures in the ‘race to life’ and our long journey from bacteria was really just a waste of time as we have ended up less successful then when we started from a strictly selective process viewpoint.

    So we are not the best case for the natural selection process i guess ?

  • abucs

    okay, this idea about fairy tales. I think the question as to why we are here has probably only 1 of 2 answers. Either we were created or it all happened out of nothing. I take both assertions seriously. I wouldn’t categorise either as a fairy tale. If you dismiss the creation assertion (in every form) as a fairy tale then lets be honest and characterise the other as also a fairy tale (not my language).

    What is the idea of something being created from nothing with a full set of laws in place which luckily transforms itself into living environments ? Could this not also be described as a fairy tale ? Do we somehow call this the modern scientific view of the world and then are blinded to actually what we are asserting ? Where is the arguement of ‘if you are postulating a positive you have to come up with proof’ ? Where did that arguement go to ?

    Less than 100 years ago the scientific worldview was that the universe had always existed. When we got the results back of an expanding universe this upset many scientists because they had to eat humble pie and go back to a ‘start of creation’ hypothesis before which science could not go. And many scientists resisted this at the start. Nothing wrong with eating humble pie of course. We have all had to go back and change our minds whether it is science, religions or our football picking systems. If we are wrong, and the facts demand it, so be it. And i don’t accept the arguement that one group can change their mind whenever they want to and another has to stick forever and a day with their earlier thoughts. Only my girlfriend gets away with that.

  • abucs

    The problem i have with being an atheist is explained in the following question i ask myself :

    Will man, at some stage, create a self sustaining environment (universe) in that life and consciousness can develop ?


    If i answer no he won’t, then i think it is bordering on the irrational to suggest that man who is intelligent, has materials to work with, and a working system to copy from, won’t, but that it could all develop out of nothing by chance.

    If i answer yes he will be able to, then it makes no sense to be dismissive of the idea that it hasn’t already happened. You can ponder and not know (agnostic) but to strongly assert that something you believe we will build ourselves hasn’t already been built by someone else is irrational.
    To not even be open to the possibility is irrational, if you believe we will be able to create a self sustaining environment in which life emerges.

    My answer is yes we will.

    It is interesting to follow this thought further. What is intelligent life ? The atheist will say that it is simply a brain, and a memory wired in such a way that learns from its environment.

    Maybe he is right.

    I am a computer programmer and am involved in creating virtual worlds in the computer. We can create self sustaining coherant worlds for computer games. We can write in gravitation, collisions and cause and effect.

    We can have multiple internet players talking amd interacting with eachother on a real time basis even if they are sitting in China, Australia, Kenya and Northern Ireland. They can run, jump, drive, swim, converse, die, get born or whatever we choose to allow.

    All this in about 30 years. Where will we be in 30 more ? Or 300, or 3 billion more years ?

    When along the line will we build the athiests idea of life and discover the programming between brain and memory to do this ?

    When we do build it, what should we do with it ? Should we build a perfect world where our lifeform never has to worry or exert itself. Would that be good ? Would that be beneficial or would it create fat lazy ungrateful, spoilt rebellious life with no concept of being responsible for its own action ?

    How should we interact with it ? Should we stand back and let it develop its own history and background. Should we gently get involved and try to point it towards a better future ?

    Should we save the lifeforms and bring it into our world ? If so, which ones do we choose ? What are we impressed with ? Do we want someone who has spent their whole life cheating and destroying others to be with our own children ?

    Are morals important ? Will we be impressed that they have discovered the laws that we wrote in the first place ?

    Will we try to tell them that being good is the main thing ? That their deaths need not be the end ?

    Would we want them to decide for themselves for good or arrive in a fanfare of trumpets and have people pretend to be good because they see the writing on the wall ?

    When you look at it like this, and we should get to a stage where this is possible, then religions idea of morality does not seem so irrational. It is perhaps looked at from a different angle, but it is basic Christian religion.

    It may not be true, but it is no less rational than everything appearing out of nothing with no purpose and being extremely lucky in arranging itself into a coherant living system that creates consciousness.

    OK. i leave the field. For anyone who is interested i recommend looking into quantum mechanics.

  • DK

    On the eye being an example of creationism. The eye is a crap design. All the little nerves come out of the front of the retina and then have to all go back through it en-masse at a point where there is then no room for any retina – hence the “blind spot”.

    On Scientists not being able to recreate life. That is because they are usually socially awkward and, if successful, far too sensible about precautions. Religious types, on the other hand, ensure that all their members are married and have children. Except for those religions that deny sex as being sinful – they go extinct within a generation. Hmmm, is this an example of evolution of ideas?

  • Occasional Commentator

    It’s quite easy for natural selection to work even if most of the mutations are bad. With asexual reproduction (i.e. a ‘parent’ bacteria or virus splitting into ‘children’ bacteria without any other parent involved) it is OK as long as the rate of mutation is slow. If a mutation only appears once every 5 generations, then 5 generations could be enough time for a mutation to be killed off if it’s bad. Also, because bacteria multiply exponentially at first (up until a threshold which would have been very high at the dawn of life because of little other competition) we would really only need 1 of the 32 descendants to be in better shape than it’s great-great-great-grandparent. As long as there is one that is as healthy or healthier then the species will continue to live, even if the mutation rate is moderately fast.

    With sexual selection though, species can survive an even higher mutation rate. Once the females decide who is the best male out of perhaps dozens to choose from, then the next generation will only contain his genes. The ‘bad’ mutations can be wiped out very quickly. I’m slightly exagerrating it here, but basically a ‘good’ mutation can spread very wide very quickly because males can so easily impregnate loads of females.

    Also, even the mutation rate itself is open to selection pressures. The mechanisms for copying DNA will be ‘designed’ by natural selection too, and it may be the case that sloppy copying is an advantage in some situations. In the evolutionary arms race where viruses and animals are constantly trying to keep ahead of each other, a high mutation rate might have an advantage. The mechanisms for copying DNA might even be selective over which portions of the genome it will be more careful with.

    In summary, selection and mutation have a lot more to play with than you might think and lots of ‘bad’ mutations are necessarily a bad thing.

  • Occasional Commentator

    “religions that deny sex as being sinful – they go extinct within a generation. Hmmm, is this an example of evolution of ideas? ”

    Yes. See memetics

  • Occasional Commentator

    everything appearing out of nothing with no purpose

    Yes. This is the really tough question. It’s important to realise that even the existence of lifeless rocks hurtling through space is a profound mystery. But once we have the existence of lots of matter, life is pretty straightforward – see below. The existence of matter is (probably) a separate question from how said matter leads to life.

    “and being extremely lucky in arranging itself into a coherant living system that creates consciousness.”

    That’s a straw man argument (although I may have misundertood this short description from yourself). No evolutionist ever claimed that we luckily got a DNA based lifeform with all the characteristics in place and with consciousness in place. It’s important to familiarize oneself with exactly what evolutionists are claiming before trying to attack it, otherwise you’ll miss the target – just as with the earlier confusion over the idea that evolution will have tried vast number of crazy experimental species with wholesale changes, the reality is small changes are tried one at a time in one lucky/unlucky member of a species.

    All we really need is for some sort of pattern of molecules that replicates itself. It probably didn’t have many of the characteristics listed above, but once some replication started then it became inevitable that evolution by natural selection would happen and would slowly but surely lead to very complex life.

    It’s important to understand the inevitability of evolution by natural selection. It isn’t some ‘extra’ law over and above the physical laws of gravity and so on. Just as when a farmer (even a creationist farmer) is choosy over which bulls get to mate with the cows, there is no doubt the quality of the herd will improve. The only outstanding issue is how to get mutations (obvious really, we’d be more surprised at perfect copying of billions of genes than at sloppy copying) and how to find the small number of good mutations from the bad ones (dealt with in my earlier comment this morning).

    In summary, I (we?) believe:
    1) The first replicating pattern (‘lifeform’ if you like) was probably a very flimsy and inefficient thing.
    2) Since then, right up to today, the copying process would have been quite sloppy, with more bad mutations than good ones. Notwithstanding any later selection in favour of good quality copying – but that’s getting ahead of myself.
    3) Even if the ratio of good to bad mutations is low, they will usually win out in the end.

    This is what I (we?) believe and if creationists don’t agree, then for their own sake they should attack our arguments, not the straw men put put out by the politically minded propagandists who’ve put themselves at the head of the creationist agenda.

  • Nathan

    Most people dissent in opinion and belief at some point or another. Therefore, anyone can aspire to be a dissenter when they get the urge, even the religious.

    Within the Church of Ireland, William Arlow, who died last week (feck all media coverage) was often described as a dissenter. He was one of those Humanists who participated in face to face discussions with the PIRA at Feakle in the 1970s, when others within the church shirked the challenge.

    All along these talks Canon Arlow maintained a rational belief i.e. faith in the power of our highest ideals to inspire people to better lives, a commitment to social progress, and belief that human beings will respond with kind-heartedness to kind-heartedness of our own. All these are all examples of faith, because the results of our actions are not guaranteed in advance. But faith can hardly be described as irrational, particularly when it is grounded on how we know human beings can behave given the requisite effort, devotion, and commitment. Therefore, Canon Arlow was a religious Humanist, a man who came from a long and proud tradition of Irish Protestant dissenters. Had it not been for those castle Catholic Special Branch officers in Dublin Castle who got wind of these talks, and therefore brought to a premature end his efforts to build bridges, Arlow would have been able to put his Humanism into practice to a greater extent. Of course, Arlow being a religious man will not be getting the recognition he deserves from pompously crude organisations such as HAI/Humani. They tend to edit out those humanists who retain strong religious convictions.

    As someone who had an episode of flirtation with secular Humanism, I believe its adherents to be flawed for other reasons also. Humani in particular tend to attack religion and tradition for their excesses in NI and across the world. But blaming the Church of Ireland or the Presbyterian Church for all of Northern Ireland’s excesses is like opening of a metallic umbrella when lightning strikes. The metallic umbrella may well keep the rain off, but the rain is the least of our worries.

    Its about time, then, that these dissenters realise that the cult of reason and its repercussions i.e. the rejection of time-proven restraints, have brought us just as much misery over the last two centuries than have cults of vengeful gods. The triumph of excess militant communism and excess militant republicanism in the 20C in particular, shows that the excesses of reason can be just as harmful to humanity as the excesses of religion.

  • Nathan,

    You seem to have a very narrow view of Humanists. You assume that we can find no value in anything religious believers do. But, as far as I know, my Humanist colleagues get on fine with their (mostly) Christian neighbours and workmates. As I do myself. I do not agree with religious belief and I object to any privileges being granted to religion in what should be a secular state, but I bear no personal ill-will towards believers.

    Probably my attitude to religious believers is the same as yours to Christians on the other side of the sectarian divide. You do not agree with their faith, but (I hope) that does not mean that you hate them personally.

    As for Canon Arlow being a “religious Humanist”, I do not see the point in muddling terms in that way. Why not just call the Canon a “Christian” or a “Protestant”? Is there something wrong with those terms which makes you want to lay claim to “Humanist” as well?

    Humanism is now generally understood to mean an outlook which denies all supernatural entities, including gods, goddesses, angels, demons, the hereafter, etc. Humanism can be summed up as “One Life, One Earth, One Humanity”. Talking about “religious Humanism” is therefore only making a muddle of our terms and increasing the chances of confusion and misunderstanding.

  • Nathan

    Les Reid,

    Secularists should not be monopolising on the term humanism for their own ends.

    Ownership of the term belongs to both secularists and the religious.

  • Garibaldy
  • It has been suggested that human beings are programmed to hold religious beliefs and that therefore the Humanist project is doomed to little, if any, progress. I disagree (well, I would say that, wouldn’t I!).

    I do not think that humankind is programmed to hold religious beliefs. Granted, there may have been some evolutionary advantage for those tribes of our ancient ancestors which had the solidarity of sharing a religion, but that does not mean that we are left with a specifically religious inclination. Our evolutionary inheritance may be nothing more than the need to form social groups and a need to find shared explanations for phenomena. So our inheritance will encourage some of us to join a religion, true, but the same instinct will be satisfied by joining a Humanist group.

    The fact that there is a substantial minority who describe themselves as ‘non-religious’ and that minority is growing steadily from one census to the next, is clear evidence that any instinct we have to join social groups is not narrowly focused on religious groups. There is no evolutionary preference for supernatural explanations.

    Social inertia is what keeps religions in the positions of power that they hold. Humans are creatures of habit (another evolutionary inheritance, probably) and prefer to keep to familiar routines until they become irksome, unsatisfying, boring, etc. In that respect religions are like monarchies – they both belong to a bye-gone era and the rational alternatives are clearly in view, but social inertia keeps the old traditions going and the old institutions in place.

    However, the cultural environment is changing all the time. Travel, television, the web, etc are bringing people from different backgrounds together and those cross-cultural exchanges can have an unsettling effect. Social inertia works best when groups are isolated from each other, but the modern world is eroding all the barriers between different cultures.

    That is why I think that the Humanist project is far from doomed – unless, of course, the tribal conflicts that still plague us (often drawing on ancient religious identities)go nuclear and put an end to all projects.

  • Look at the essays that are at this link – Behe isn’t being frank when he makes his claims – at the very least he spins the facts heavily. At the worst he’s twisting them or lying.

  • Puzzled Jackeen

    Abucs, your claim about science emerging from a framework of Christianity – have you forgotten about some of the early mathematicians and other scientists – who *predated* Christianity and were, *gasp*, pagans?

  • Les Reid

    Religion is an archaic way of thinking which is now past its sell-by date. The origins and development of religion and science are different.

    Early humans probably created the forms and rituals of religion out of fear, because the world was full of threats and its processes were inexplicable. In the face of floods, storms, disease, lightning, etc, religion offered the comfort of group solidarity. Over time, traditions were laid down and religious leaders emerged. Religion became a form of social power, demanding conformity and obedience. Gradually the institutions that we see today, evolved.

    Science follows a different trajectory. Its origin lies in the desire to explain natural phenomena. Early humans discovered that they could exploit the regularities of nature. They became farmers and tracked the cycle of the seasons. Their implements and weapons were based on elements of mechanics. In time practitioners came to see that there were procedures to be followed and the scientific method was established. It is thanks to the collaborative efforts of thousands of scientists down the centuries that we have all the benefits of their discoveries that we enjoy today.

    The clash between religion and science, which we see today in the debate between Creationists and Evolutionists, for example, was bound to happen. Religion demands faith. It demands obedience and forbids questions. Science, by contrast, welcomes questions and rebels against imposed answers. It takes no-one’s word as gospel and instead requires evidence and repeatable results. The glory of science is all around us: electrical appliances, medicine, air travel, computers, etc

    Religion has laid claim to morality and so people fear that without religion society will collapse into anarchy. Not so. Morality is about humans sharing their social space and has nothing to do with the supernatural. Some of the most immoral practices, eg. female circumcision, the caste system, slavery and segregated schools, have found religious justification. True morality is based on what we know about human nature and the world that we inhabit. It gives us the concept of human rights and thus condemns the immoral practices mentioned.

    There is no reason to cling on to religious belief and good reason to adopt a Humanist outlook instead. Come to the Summer School and explore these issues further. See http://www.humanists.net/belfast

  • Rory

    I used to be a dissenter but I got thrown out for dissenting too much. But then I come from a long line of troublemakers, my grandfather was ejected from the Dustbinmens’ Convention for shouting “Rubbish!” and my uncle was expelled from the Shoemakers’ Union for shouting “Cobblers!” at the annual conference.