Tuesday, 30 April 2013

If You Think Schools Have Money to Burn...

...I've just realised that my predecessor managed to make this box of elastic bands last for a whopping 35 years - how's that for economical?!

Tuesday, 23 April 2013

So Shakespeare Scholars Also Have Weird Theories To Deal With..

Nice article here on the BBC about claims that William Shakespeare did not write the plays attributed to him, and attempts by mainstream scholars to debunk such views.
[W]hat has stirred Prof Wells, who has edited the Oxford Shakespeare for 35 years, is his worry that this question about Shakespeare's authentic authorship seems to be entering the mainstream.
"What's annoying is that it's spreading," he says.
A Declaration of Reasonable Doubt About the Identity of William Shakespeare has gathered prominent signatories, with the claim that there is insufficient unambiguous evidence to link the man from Stratford and the plays attributed to his name.
And a movie, Anonymous, fanned the embers of the idea that the Earl of Oxford was the true author.
Prof Wells, like one of Shakespeare's own grey-haired faithful retainers, has gone into battle once again.
"It's quite true that we don't know as much as we would like to know about Shakespeare. However, we do know more about him than most writers of his period."
Demolishing rival claims is much more straightforward than standing up Shakespeare's.
Sound familiar?

Monday, 22 April 2013

Student Revision Videos and Blog

So the revision season is upon us. The Easter holidays seem months ago already, and for A level students, the few weeks until exams start will go by in a dizzying whirl of revision cards, double bubble maps, and last minute crammer sessions.

I thought I'd share these useful revision videos made by student Komilla Chadha. From the topics cover, I think Komilla must have studied the OCR RS syllabus, but the videos are also useful for other exam boards too, and over a wide range of topics in Philosophy and Ethics. There are also videos relevant to Law and Economics, if you're taking these subjects. 

Komilla also has this blog. It hasn't been updated recently (by the dates, I'd guess she took her A levels a couple of years ago), but some of the materials are well worth a look.

Thursday, 11 April 2013

Dead Men Tell No Tales (But They Might Send The Occasional Email)

I've been putting together a few resources for a GCSE unit of work I'm teaching next term immortality and the afterlife, and I remembered an interesting story the BBC ran a year or so ago

A few months after the death of Pennsylvania man Jack Fröse, some of his friends began to receive emails from the dead man's account that referred to private conversations, as well as events after Jack's death. You can watch a video about the story here.

OK, as evidence for life after death, it's not exactly compelling. Even a non-techie like me can work out a few more rational explanations for Jack's posthumous emails (e.g. giving his email password to another friend before his death).

Even so, the story shows some of the ways that the possibility of an afterlife can help people deal with the grieving process. It's also an interesting illustration of how ancient beliefs about immortality can be adapted and reinvented for the modern world.

Tuesday, 9 April 2013

TalkHistoricity Draft - What is Mythicism?

Some time ago, James McGrath of the Exploring our Matrix blog set up TalkHistoricity, a wiki intended to set out mainstream scholarly views on the historical Jesus and rebut mythicist claims about Jesus. 

Not much has happened with the wiki since it was set up, so I've decided to add a few entries myself in the hope that it will stimulate others too add their own contributions. 

To get started, I've written a draft "introduction to mythicism" type entry, adapted from an earlier post I wrote on the subject. If you have any suggestions for corrections, additions, or stylistic improvements please make them below. Otherwise, I'll upload the entry to the wiki in a few days. Once I've done that, I hope to follow up with an entry on mythicists' (mis)use of the argument from silence.


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

There is a group of people who say that it is. These people are most commonly known as mythicists. Mythicists claim that there is no single historical person who lies behind the New Testament figure of Jesus. For mythicists, the figure of Jesus is nothing more than a religious or literary invention of early Christians. 

The arguments that mythicists make and the conclusions that mythicists reach are rejected by the overwhelming majority of scholars. That is, virtually all scholars of antiquity or the Bible agree that Jesus existed. Figures such as James McGrath, R. Joseph Hoffmann, Bart Ehrman, Maurice Casey, Stephanie Louise Fisher, and Larry Hurtado and have written extensive criticisms of mythicism. However, despite a lack of scholarly support, mythicist views have gained a certain degree of popularity,  particularly on the internet and among atheist activists. 

As evidence for their views, mythicists put forward a range of arguments, including unreliability of the Christian New Testament as a historical source, the relative lack of ancient references to Jesus from non-Christian sources, similarities between the figure of Jesus and characters of Pagan and Jewish mythology, and to perceived bias or incompetence among New Testament scholars.

The purpose of this wiki is to show how and why mythicist claims about Jesus, Christian origins, and New Testament scholarship are wrong. Rebutting mythicist claims is not the same as arguing for particular Christian beliefs about Jesus, such as that he was the Messiah or the pre-existent second person of the Trinity. Thus the purpose of this wiki is not Christian apologetics but instead to show why mainstream Biblical scholars reject mythicist claims about Jesus. Many Biblical scholars are of course Christians, but many others are Jewish, agnostic, or atheist.
A seperate wiki has been set up to set out the "positive" case for the existence of Jesus.

Monday, 8 April 2013

A Plea for Agnostic Marriage Equality

As some blog readers might be aware, Mr Regnier is soon to acquire a Mrs Regnier.

Most of the wedding arrangements have been made, and we have a reception venue, band, and honeymoon all nicely organised. But planning an agnostic wedding ceremony is proving to be trickier than you might expect.

If you're Christian of course, you have things easy and can have your choice of church. On the other hand, if you're an atheist, you can have a civil service with no hint of religion. You can walk down the aisle to the haunting strains of Deicide and take your reading from The God Delusion if it makes you happy. If you're Muslim you can get married in a mosque, or a gurdwara if you're Sikh. If football is your religion, then you can get married at Anfield or Old Trafford.

But neither me nor the soon-to-be Mrs Regnier are especially religious. Neither are we particularly anti-religious. We live in the wishy-washy fence-sitting world of the agnostic. Most of the time we do this quite happily, but when it comes to weddings, agnostics are a seriously disadvantaged group, and there are no places that really cater for what we want. 

We could have gone for a church wedding of course; the Church of England will marry almost anybody. We could have crossed our fingers during the more religious bits, and struggled not to wince as the assembled Regniers mumbled and mangled their way through Bread of Heaven, but in the end, we decided that a church wedding wasn't quite us, and so we went with the option of a civil ceremony. 

Now even though I'm not religious, as someone who has spent a reasonable chunk of his adult life studying and teaching religion, there is plenty of religious music, scripture, and language that is meaningful to me and that I would have loved to have had at my wedding. Unfortunately, as we've discovered, in England you're not allowed to have any religious content in a civil wedding. No hymns, no Bible readings, nothing copied from a church service. Don't ask me why, but it's the law.

Now this is quite blatant discrimination if you ask me. If other shades of religious and non-religious beliefs can have services that matches their religious tastes, why on earth can't us agnostics? Is British society really going to collapse if the future Mr and Mrs Regnier don't do the whole hand-shaking, peace be upon you Christian thing at their wedding but (gasp) do play an instrumental version of Ave Maria? 

This leaves us with a few problems, to say the least, in planning our day. I would have been happy with a prayer in our service as there are some religious people in both our families, and frankly anybody brave enough to sign up for a lifetime with me is in serious need of whatever divine help might be available. We're not allowed one. We both want to the have the Corinthian love hymn as one of our readings, but of course it's off-limits because it's religious. And yes, I know it's a cliché, but it's also a beautiful summary of what it means to love that transcends the confines of religion and if you don't feel just a little bit moved on hearing it it then you're an emotionless husk of a person. So there. 

The choice of vows and promises we were offered each had three options: 1) nauseatingly mawkish 2) romantic as the instructions on the back of a tub of Germolene, and 3) sort of okay. Luckily we're allowed to adapt these, so we've managed to wangle in a bit of the traditional churchy stuff and a smidgin of a Presbyterian vow we found online. 

We're not too fussed about religious music, so that doesn't present too many problems. Mrs Regnier-to-be has picked something classical for her bridal entry, but hasinexplicably, vetoed my suggestion that the groom should enter to Star Wars' Imperial March.

We're at a loss for a reading at the moment. With nothing religious allowed, the most appropriate choice would be a love poem of some sort. But being a miserable old sod, I obviously hate all love poems. Apart from this one 

Any suggestions gladly received.

Wednesday, 3 April 2013

The Human Zoo

Driving back to Dover yesterday I stumbled across a really interesting Radio 4 programme: The Human Zoo. The show is about human behaviour and decision making so is worth a listen if you're interested in the problem of free will and the factors that might determine the choices we make.
Yesterday's episode looked at the ways that governments and business try to influence our decisions. You can listen to it on iPlayer here. Previous episodes are available here.