Friday, 25 November 2011

Event report: Interfaith panel discussion - 'Should Britain be a Secular State?'

Time: 17 November 2011, 18:30 - 21:00
Place: Ricardo LT, Drayton House, University College London

For our first panel discussion, UCLU ASHS invited the university's faith societies to explore the topic of secularism. The panel consisted of representatives from UCLU AMSA (Tahir Nasser) and UCLU Catholic Society (Kajtek Skowronski), as well Treasurer Kieran on our behalf, while President Robbie chaired the discussion.

Each of the panelists were first given 3 minutes to express their views on secularism in the UK. AMSA, highlighting citations from the Koran, advocated a view of 'You for your religion and me for my religion': the ruling religion in a non-secular state would impose restrictions on the minority religions. This would conflict with the Islamic principle of justice, as 'secularism is justice.' Hence, the role of religion in society should be to guide, but not dictate, legislature. Echoing this sentiment, CatholicSoc expressed that theocracy will not work in society - highlighting that Jesus believed the church and state were distinct -, but that religion should still maintain an active role of positive moral guidance in a system grounded by secular reason. A note was also made on how UCL's secular roots was the first university in England to admit Catholic students. Finally, ASHS brought up the issue that although the UK policy is to treat all religions as equal, this does not necessarily prevent the conflicts we would wish for secularism to prevent. Moreover, the Judeo-Christian foundations of the UK still has its influences in this society, as evidenced by e.g. the Queen being Head of State and Bishops in the House of Lords.

As each of the three societies represented were in favour of a secular Britain, then, the Q&A session of the discussion revolved around the more fine-grained differences in their approaches to a secular state. A question from the audience led to reflections from each of the panelists on their stance on government-funded faith schools in the UK. AMSA conceded that allowing for private faith schools will uphold the principle of free will, whereas public schools should teach morality common to all religions, rather than promote any one religion over others. Conflicts within religions are too many and too complex to avoid implicitly favouring one religious view. Contrastingly, CatholicSoc argued in favour of public faith schools by pointing out that the free choice of schools is still maintained, and that government funding is not significantly drained by maintaining faith schools. Moreover, it was stressed that faith schools do not necessarily limit diversity in the student population, as many Catholic schools are attended by a wide variety of non-Catholic ethnic minorities. Countering this, Kieran representing the ASHS reflected on his own experience in Catholic schools, noting that despite being in one of the most multicultural areas in the UK, the vast majority of his peers were Catholic. Nevertheless, faith schools should be upheld, he argued, as this would allow for 'atheist academies', i.e. 'you have to play along to get along.'

The topic of faith schools was further explored in detail between the panelists and the audience members: to what extent is admitting a child to a faith school an act of labelling or priming an individual without self-awareness? Here, CatholicSoc pointed out that regardless of admission to faith school, children cannot be brought up with blank slates, and that as long as faith schools teach the national curriculum, religious supplementary input is not a negative influence if this is what the parents wish for their child. Another issue raised by the audience, was that while public funding of faith schools may not necessarily be financially detrimental, it is also a question of morals, as individuals would not want their tax money to contribute towards values they do not support.

Following continued discussion of other less strictly relevant (but inevitable) issues including human versus religious morality and whether there is such a distinction, as well as abortion and ethics, each of the panelists summarised their views. CatholicSoc asserted that a secular state should not undermine the role of religion, but value well-reasoned religious beliefs; ASHS cast reflection on how religion will still inevitably influence a secular state, in particular discussions regarding abortion and LGBT - an influence which must be accepted for democratic reasons; while AMSA expressed surprise at the knowledge of Britain's non-secular influences during the discussion, and stressed that although a secular state free of any ruling religion would be the only just form of government, non-secular influences such as the monarchy should not be removed as this would demonstrate injustice to the country's heritage.

Saturday, 5 November 2011

Event report: Paolo Viscardi - "Myths, Memes, & Misidentifications"

Time: 03 November 2011, 19:00 - 20:30
Place: Ramsay LT, Christopher Ingold Building, University College London

UCLU ASHS gathered on this rainy Thursday night for a talk on mermaids, the Montauk Monster, and Japanese Monkeyfish, amongst other dubiously existing creatures introduced to us by Paolo Viscardi. As a natural history curator at the Horniman Museum in South London, co-founder of London Science in the Pub, and administrator of, Viscardi presented numerous examples from both history and his own experiences of the evolution of myths, memes, and misidentifications in society, demonstrating how "members of the public are freaks."

With an educational background in biology and geology, Viscardi applies his knowledge of fossils and bones in his work at the Horniman Museum. As such, he frequently receives inquiries from laymen finding ambigious-looking objects around the country requesting their identification (or confirmation of wacky suspicions, rather), of which he listed several examples: a concreted sea urchin believed to be a dinosaur egg; the all so familiar random toast burns believed to be the manifestation of Jesus and its Muslim equivalent; the Pope in a fire; and the 'polar bear' washed up on the beach in Cornwall. These are all examples of pareidolia, people's tendency to assume things are 'super freaky' because it looks different or has certain features, reflecting the intrinsic human ability to search for and attribute meaning to ambiguous stimuli. When taken to the extreme, pareidolia can also reflect human idiocy, as it were, exemplified by the case of the man who was so convinced the piece of rock he had found was a dinosaur egg containing an embryo, that he kept it for over 20 years and staked his entire retirement on it.

The Montauk Monster, in particular, is a case of mistaken identity which received widespread attention. A 'weird alien monster creature with a beak' washed up on the shore of Montauk, spawning a cult movement including Montauk Monster artwork, websites, origami and Montauk Monster on toast, before the truth was finally revealed as retold in this video. Instead of indulging in this the hysteria of pareidolia, Viscardi urged us to look at the Monster's teeth, as teeth are very good indicators of the species. Showing us images of the Montauk Monster's skull next to four comparable skulls of North American mammals, the audience unanimously correctly identified the Monster's skull as that belonging to a raccoon. Its carcass had been in water for such a long time that it had lost all its fur, thus giving it its otherwordly appearance.

Viscardi described further examples of such mistaken identities and manufactured monsters. Travellers, including Christopher Columbus, encountering the then unfamiliar species of manatees and dugongs, would often think they were mermaids. Stories of mermaids have been around for thousands of years, and there is a large body of folklore and myths surrounding these mythological creatures. Naturally, then, sailors knew much more about mermaids than manatees and dugongs. This, coupled with likely mental disturbances, such as hallucinations, caused by long travels, would lead the sailors to believe these squishy creatures were mermaids.

It goes without saying that the phenomenon of pareidolia can easily be exploited for personal gain. Mermen, or Japanese Monkeyfish, were believed to be manufactured by sewing the upper half of a monkey to the lower half of a fish. P.T. Barnum was a notable scam artist who in the mid-1800s misrepresented the so-called 'Fejee Mermaid' with a rich 'background story', 'verification' of authenticity by a 'Dr Griffith' and clever manipulation of newspaper journalists. This caused great uproar among the public, generating substantial sums of money for Barnum. Years later, a Japanese Monkeyfish arrived at the Horniman Museum. CAT scans, x-rays and other examinations revealed the 'part fish, part monkey' to be constructed by a piece of wire, some pieces of wood, a bundle of fiber, some fabric, clay, papiermaché and some fish bones.

In conclusion, then, 'always check your facts, otherwise you'll end up looking like an arse.' Also, there are lots of weirdos out there.

Check out Viscardi's blog for Friday mystery objects or visit the Horniman Museum (supposedly wonderful in the summer for picnic with mates!).