"Religion is a hypothesis about the world: the hypothesis that things are the way they are, at least in part, because of supernatural entities or forces acting on the natural world. And there's no good reason to treat it any differently from any other hypothesis. Which includes pointing out its flaws and inconsistencies, asking its adherents to back it up with solid evidence, making jokes about it when it's just being silly, offering arguments and evidence for our own competing hypotheses...and trying to persuade people out of it if we think it's mistaken. It's persuasion. It's the marketplace of ideas. Why should religion get a free ride"

Greta Christina

Thursday, 30 December 2010

Atheism is so fucking boring

Well no it isn't, at least not as a world view. A naturalist understanding of this amazing universe we find ourselves inhabiting is probably the most fascinating and liberating perspective any individual can take, beating superstition and religious dogma hands down.
However, the atheosphere turns out to be a very small pond where every story gets repeated and regurgitated on every blog I read. Take a look at the side bar here, I can pretty much guarantee that at least three of the blogroll links will be carrying the same story and the the same POV on any religious misdemeanour that hits the web. No surprise sure but exactly who are we talking to?
If PZ at Pharingula is anyone to go by he's reaching a whole bunch of people from creationist wingnuts to rational atheists, which is great; spread the word, absolutely. But if you're reading Greta Christina and Hemant at Friendly Atheist and Adam Lee at Daylight Atheism (brilliant bloggers all),you very quickly find that that the level of intellectual mutual masturbation is disturbingly high.
More disturbingly, I got pulled into a discussion over Christmas about the “reason for the season”, displayed my atheist credentials and the comment emerged “Oh xxxx is such an evangelist, pushes atheism every opportunity”. I am not xxxx but I know who she is.
I think we have a problem. Either we are are talking to ourselves and pretending we are advertising a message or we are are becoming predictable and risible (which is the theist's job).
I wish I was offering a solution but in reality I'm just raising a flag. Truth and evidence is on our side and so, hopefully, is history. But we cannot rely on both to come through the expediency of short term politics. Atheism needs a strategy, victory is not inevitable but it is worth the prize.

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

The awesome power of a lunchtime "prayer"

As an atheist I obviously don’t pray. However like most people I do indulge in a certain amount of wishful thinking. I hope for beneficial outcomes in most of my activities and I may even articulate them to myself at the time…
“Let there be no jams on the M25 today”
“I hope the weather’s good at the weekend”
“Please, can I have a stress free day at work”
You get the picture? I’m only talking to myself and voicing a wish for my present or future circumstances, not appealing to an all powerful deity to intervene on my behalf and I would bet that it’s something most people do more often than they realise.
A case in point: This lunchtime at the supermarket, I took my sandwich to the automatic checkout. I had a pocketful of loose change and I didn’t want to change a £10.00 note and acquire any more. Trivial I know, but I specifically said to myself,
“It would be great if I had exactly £3.28 in my pocket so I can lose all this shrapnel”
So I pulled out all my change and started feeding coppers into the machine, hoping I wouldn’t fall short and have to feed in a note. So guess what? I had exactly £3.28 in coppers and silver in my pocket. Not a penny more or a penny less. I’m not even sure if the odds against a pocketful of small change exactly matching the price of a random purchase are calculable, but I wouldn’t mind betting they are pretty long.
So what’s my point? I probably make these random appeals to providence on a regular basis. Most of them are immediately forgotten and many of them never manifest. But even when they do turn up an immediate improbable result I don’t ascribe it to articulating the desire, I put it down to dumb luck and coincidence.
If however I was of a superstitious disposition I might have read more into the event and convinced myself that stating my desire actually brought about the outcome I wanted.
This is very close to what happens when people pray. They have a desire for the world to be a certain way and they externalise a normal internal dialogue by directing it at whichever deity. Mostly, if things turn out different they’ll ignore or forget the prayer. But if things turn out how they want they chalk it up as a prayer answered. One person praying for things with a high probability of happening anyway may even see a pattern of success in prayer. Every once in a while someone, somewhere will pray for something with very low odds of actually happening; spontaneous remission of a cancer for example. But improbable does not equal impossible and if they appear to get a result, it really confirms the power of prayer for them and they claim a miracle.
To complicate matters slightly, desiring outcomes that you yourself have a reasonable chance of effecting can also add to the appearance of voodoo. Positive thinking, affirmations or prayer may motivate us to put more energy and thought into making the world conform to our desires, making the apparent cause and effect even stronger.
So, if you want to believe in the power of prayer, it is not a hard delusion to fall into.

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Tim Minchin and his Orchestra: A review

Thought I’d write a quick review of Tim Minchin’s new live show. I saw it at the Brighton Centre 13th December, part of an Arena tour of the U.K. He says at the top of the show
”Nothing ruins comedy like arenas… But your enjoyment isn't as important as my self-esteem. ...”
and then goes on to give the lie to that statement by delivering a stonking mix of new and familiar material.
Ironically for the man who opened his last tour with the words “who needs a band?” this show sees him travelling with a 55-piece orchestra delivering sublime arrangements that both complement his piano playing and punctuate the comedy.
Atheists around the world know Tim as a master of sceptical wit and an outrageous anti-religionist. This show does not disappoint with the inclusion of The Pope Song and a hilarious new number, satirising belief in the power of prayer, about Sam’s Mum’s Cataracts.
A non-musical bit about Qur’an burning pastor, Terry Jones who Tim rightly calls an “idiot” involved the somewhat uncomfortable production of a copy of the book on stage. I won’t give the punch line away but it is the best dismantling of the concept of “sacred” I have ever seen.
If I had one disappointment it was that he did not deliver on my hope that the new animated version of “Storm” would be in the mix, but that will be a future pleasure well worth waiting for.

Saturday, 11 December 2010

Wikileaks had to have one for atheists...

…and here it is. Ratzinger attempted (and succeeded in) kyboshing the Murphy Commission of Enquiry into the sexual abuse of children by Catholic Priests in The Republic of Ireland.
This is proof, if more proof were needed that if not complicit in acts of child abuse the pope was explicitly protecting his church’s reputation rather than the rights of innocent children. There is no interpretation of these revelations that could exonerate this man. He is culpable and his church is rotten to the core. Any pretence at moral authority by the Catholic Church is an obvious sham and it is time to close this sorry chapter and have Ratzinger indicted by the International Court of Human Rights.

Monday, 6 December 2010

Government to neuter drugs body

Just so this story doesn’t sneak by. The coalition government is planning to
remove the legal requirement for scientists to be included on its drugs advisory body.
This follows the sacking of Professor David Nutt from The advisory council on the misue of drugs after he criticised the government for ignoring evidence and politicising U.K drug classification.
It is difficult to see how any body not well versed in the scientific evidence could give meaningful advice to the government on this issue and this move seems to be proving Prof. Nutt’s point.

Governments have an appalling track record when it comes to a rational and objective recreational drugs policy. The failed strategy of blanket prohibition and baseless classifications needs a rethink informed by scientific evidence and staffing your “independent” advisory body with yes men won’t achieve that.

Saturday, 4 December 2010

You see? They can get it right sometimes.

Sometimes it is only fair that institutions that get criticised for the bad that they do should also get some credit when they get things right. When that institution is the Catholic Church I'm afraid that credit will come with some qualifications but credit it will be nevertheless.
The first thing that the Catholic Church has done right follows a statement from the Pope that condom use is permitted for Catholics “in exceptional circumstances” by which he means to protect against HIV transmission. Coming from the man who denied that condoms were a solution for aids this is a welcome U-turn.
As you might expect this was not an unqualified endorsement and there was some amusing confusion over exactly what the Pope was endorsing given that initially he appeared to be referring to male prostitutes exclusively, which on the face of it seems to also endorse gay sex as that is by far their primary market. Subsequent clarifications from the Vatican seem to suggest that condom use is now acceptable (if not preferable) in all circumstances where HIV transmission is a possibility.
The second thing is that the Pontifical Academy of Science (why does that seem like an oxymoron to me?) has come to the rational conclusion that GM technology is a valid contributor to alleviating food poverty in the third world.

GE technology, used appropriately and responsibly, can in many circumstances make 
essential contributions to agricultural productivity by crop improvement, including 
enhancing crop yields and nutritional quality, and increasing resistance to pests, as well as 
improving tolerance to drought and other forms of environmental stress. These 
improvements are needed around the world to help improve the sustainability and 
productivity of agriculture. 

The Vatican itself has stepped back a little from this position but signs of a rational and progressive view from such a dogma bound Church should be encouraged.
Why this matters is that like it or not the Catholic Church has a significant influence on the opinions of millions of followers. Insofar  as the Pope can change false and damaging beliefs amongst his faithful, whenever his Church makes the right call it does no harm to tell it so.

Friday, 3 December 2010

Catholics get Scottish Ref sacked

This story has been circulating for a few days courtesy of the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science.
It concernes Hugh Dallas, head of referee development for the Scottish Football Association who has been sacked for distributing by email this image of a doctored road sign.

I won’t add too much comment to this. Except to say that in the circumstances relating to the Catholic Church’s child abuse scandal, the Pope’s basic inability to accept responsibility and his recent unwelcome presence on our shores, anything that holds this sick institution up to ridicule is fine by me.
The SFA was cowardly to dismiss Mr Dallas in response to protests by the Director of the Scottish Catholic Media Office, Peter Kearney, who is yet another individual who needs to learn the lesson that just because he finds something offensive doesn’t mean it isn’t true or valid free speech.

Monday, 29 November 2010

Teenage girl in Qur'an burning

A 15 year old girl has been arrested on suspicion of inciting religious hatred for burning a copy of the Qur’an. Allegedly this was done to an English language version of the book at the girl's school and a video of the event posted on Facebook.
Now if this actually happened as described it was a stupid and pointless thing to do as it could only have been done with intent to insult Muslims. However, if the girl should be charged with anything it should be starting a fire on school property or vandalism, not “inciting religious hatred”. She is doing no such thing and to suggest otherwise is a violation of her right to free speech.
Non Muslims are not obliged to respect the Qur’an anymore than they are required to respect ...oh! Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter. To everyone else it is just a book. If she bought it she can burn it if she wants to.
Catherine Heseltine, chief executive officer of the Muslim public affairs committee, said
burning the Qur'an was one of the most offensive acts to Muslims she could imagine.
Which shows a paucity of imagination in my opinion as I would rate say ethnic cleansing in Bosnia as far more offensive. However as I keep saying: No one has the right not to be offended. We cannot legislate for that, particularly as many special interest groups exist that could claim offense to almost anything.
So give the girl lines or a month of lunchtime detentions by all means, but don’t criminalise someone for expressing an opinion.

Friday, 26 November 2010

Well said Brenda! ...er Ma'am

Well I never! It’s almost enough to turn me into a royalist (I said almost). Seems The Queen believes that atheists are just as moral as believers
"In our more diverse and secular society, the place of religion has come to be a matter of lively discussion. It is rightly acknowledged that people of faith have no monopoly of virtue and that the wellbeing and prosperity of the nation depend on the contribution of individuals and groups of all faiths and none."
Not that atheists need telling that, it should be self evident to anyone. As “defender of the faith” and head of the Anglican Church I hope her Archbishop and clergy take note that that is the official line and stop equating good exclusively with faith.

Thursday, 25 November 2010

Christians claim they are not "ashamed"

Here’s a strange thing. Christian Concern is launching a “Not Ashamed” campaign for Christmas along with a leaflet from former Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey.
The idea is that these people are not ashamed to follow Jesus and speak out about their belief. George Carey puts it this way
”I’m proud of the sense of fairness and fair play that runs throughout our nation. I am proud of our tradition of tolerance and our historic commitment to welcoming the stranger.
Yet what many people don’t realise is that it is the Christian Faith that underpins these great strengths and that has enriched our nation in so many other ways”
Well of course I would take issue with the “underpinning” part. I think we are all perfectly capable of fair play and tolerance without religion and probably more so. But let’s give him the benefit of the doubt and agree that the Anglican Church has some things it can be proud of.
However the thing I find bizarre about this campaign is the implicit assumption that somewhere in their theist subconscious they suspect that there is something to be ashamed of. Let’s face it; I would never feel the need to say I’m not ashamed to be an atheist. Why would I? I’m the one with a rational evidenced based worldview. But obviously, for Christian Concern the cognitive dissonance is beginning to bite. Perhaps it’s dawned on them that believing in magic sky fairies is something that a grown adult should feel ashamed of.

Monday, 22 November 2010

Why doesn't this surprise me?

The BBC investigative programme Panorama has discovered that Muslim run weekend schools are teaching anti-Semitic and homophobic material from a Saudi text book. The schools teach the Saudi National Curriculum and are run under the name of “Saudi Students Clubs and Schools” in the UK. Due to a technicality they are exempt from full Ofsted oversight.
The material, which is being taught to 15 year olds, includes Sharia punishments for acts of sodomy for which children are told that the penalty is death and it states a difference of opinion whether this should be done by stoning, or burning with fire, or throwing over a cliff.
The books also teaches about the ”Protocols of the Elders of Zion” a demonstrably fraudulent text purporting to show a Jewish conspiracy to control the world.
Coalition education secretary Micheal Gove told the programme
“I have no desire or wish to intervene in the decisions that the Saudi government makes in its own education system. But I’m clear that we cannot have anti-Semitic material of any kind being used in English schools. Ofsted are doing some work in this area. They’ll be reporting to me shortly about how we can ensure that part-time provision is better registered and better inspected in the future.”
It is a shame that Mr Gove should equivocate with the Saudi government so blatantly but at least he recognises it is inappropriate for anyone to teach this material here.
We should be clear that we will not allow Islamic intolerance and paranoia to be imported into our society under cover of faith schools. Any institution that purports to teach children in this country, regardless of ethnic origin should have to undergo full scrutiny of Ofsted and be made to adopt a balanced approach. It may be fair enough to teach that the Qu’ran demands the death penalty in respect of homosexual acts, because it does: It is a regrettable and reprehensible fact. It is not acceptable to teach that it is morally correct in the context of a modern liberal democracy however.
It behoves us to be suspicious of the motives of any faith school, whether Muslim, Christian, Hindu or whatever. The temptation for them to teach repressive dogma and intolerance will be overwhelming and in many with a fundamentalist bent it will be inevitable.
Hopefully the government will learn the lesson from this and make sure that any of the recently proposed free schools that are set up with a religious “ethos” are not allowed to promulgate similar ideas amongst our youth.

Thursday, 11 November 2010

UK Libel reform

Reposting this from Pharyngula. A message from Simon Singh
This week is the first anniversary of the report Free Speech is Not for Sale, which highlighted the oppressive nature of English libel law. In short, the law is extremely hostile to writers, while being unreasonably friendly towards powerful corporations and individuals who want to silence critics.

The English libel law is particular dangerous for bloggers, who are generally not backed by publishers, and who can end up being sued in London regardless of where the blog was posted. The internet allows bloggers to reach a global audience, but it also allows the High Court in London to have a global reach.

You can read more about the peculiar and grossly unfair nature of English libel law at the website of the Libel Reform Campaign. You will see that the campaign is not calling for the removal of libel law, but for a libel law that is fair and which would allow writers a reasonable opportunity to express their opinion and then defend it.

The good news is that the British Government has made a commitment to draft a bill that will reform libel, but it is essential that bloggers and their readers send a strong signal to politicians so that they follow through on this promise. You can do this by joining me and over 50,000 others who have signed the libel reform petition at http://www.libelreform.org/sign

Remember, you can sign the petition whatever your nationality and wherever you live. Indeed, signatories from overseas remind British politicians that the English libel law is out of step with the rest of the free world.

If you have already signed the petition, then please encourage friends, family and colleagues to sign up. Moreover, if you have your own blog, you can join hundreds of other bloggers by posting this blog on your own site. There is a real chance that bloggers could help change the most censorious libel law in the democratic world.

We must speak out to defend free speech. Please sign the petition for libel reform at http://www.libelreform.org/sign

Monday, 8 November 2010

The grass is greener. Really?

It seems that some conservative Anglican Bishops are defecting to Rome. Not that I care particularly, it’s still an over blown sinecure telling fairy tales whoever the boss is. However I do find it telling that these people are leaving a Church because it wants to ordain women and gays, for a Church that protects paedophiles.
There really is no explaining where some people’s priorities lie.

Friday, 5 November 2010

California: Proposition 19 on marijuana falls

Lost in amongst the disappointing but predictable U.S midterm election results, was the similarly predictable and disappointing defeat of proposition19 in California. This bold attempt at reform of the marijuana laws in the state would have seen the drug legalised and regulated, recognising that prohibition of recreational substances not only fails to restrict consumption but fuels violent and organised crime both within the state and across the border in Mexico.
Had this proposition passed and been successfully implemented it would certainly have paved the way for adoption by other U.S states and possibly even other western democracies.
The No On Proposition 19 campaign was little more than scare-mongering and failed to address the issues, but obviously appealed to older conservative Californians sufficiently to deny the measure a majority.

All is not lost however. For one thing, the fact that this proposition was put before the states electorate at all means that the call for a rational, evidence based drug policy that recognises the failure of the prohibition approach is now part of mainstream discourse. It will re-emerge in California and should no longer be seen as a radical and irresponsible concept. For another, the 18 – 35 demographic voted largely in favour with 64% voting yes [source] which bodes well for future attempts.
One word of caution though, because this measure is limited to marijuana, even if it passed there is a danger that the full benefits in crime reduction would not be seen. Drug runners rarely deal in one substance and would doubtless continue to operate in harder drugs. Also much of the collateral damage caused by drug use is due to poor formulation or deliberate “cutting” of synthetic drugs with cheaper (often toxic) substances to improve margins. So whilst I would support any movement towards drug legalisation and regulation, I would not make too many claims for the benefit of legalising marijuana alone. What it could prove however is that there are few if any negative social consequences to the legalisation of recreational drugs and if it could work in just one state in the U.S it could work anywhere.

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Gnu atheist / cultural Christian

One thing about self-identifying as an atheist is that it can become very easy to invent moral dilemmas when it comes to celebrating religious festivals.
Like most people in this country I celebrate Christmas, buy Easter eggs for my kids and will cook and eat pancakes on Shrove Tuesday (despite ignoring Lent). Even Halloween, that most secularised (and Americanised) of high days has religious connections with All Hallows and I guess it is that imminent festival that has made me think about this.
The first obvious thing to say is that as an atheist I celebrate these holidays in name only, and the reason that I keep Christmas and not Hanukah is that I have been born into a notionally Christian country to C of E parents. Culturally, these days are significant to me and my family and friends as holidays, and an excuse to party. But I do also find myself drawn into religious settings at these times; school carol services in Church for example where not only my atheism but my antipathy to religion in general can make me feel hypocritical and uncomfortable. By supporting my daughter and the school’s social events I also end up supporting an institution and a belief system I disapprove of.
Of course sometimes you get the satisfaction of pointing out that these festivals are not Christian per se but were originally pagan and were either exapted by the Church for its own purposes or possibly stem from the pagan origins of Christianity itself. But surprisingly these facts are not always as welcome or interesting to everyone else as they are to me: Go figure!
Anyway pagan roots don’t really cut it, as those festivals were merely celebrations of earlier gods whose non-existence is on the same footing as the Christian one.
The more salient point about the timing of religious festivals is that they also tend to coincide with equinoxes and solstices, points in the year upon which the seasons turn and would have had real significance to our hunter-gatherer and agriculturalist ancestors. In fact this very significance would have given these times the religious significance they acquired, oblivious as our ancestors were of the physical reasons why they occurred.
In the west, even the most rural of communities is largely insulated from the vagaries of the seasons, but the cultural imperative to mark them lives on and gives a rhythm to the year and a reason to associate with friends and family.
So as Halloween approaches, whether you think of it as All Hallows Eve, or Samhain or the Autumnal Equinox it has been a time to notice for millennia as has Easter, Oestre or the Vernal Equinox and the Winter Solstice (A.K.A Christmas , Yule et al). I see no reason not to mark these times today, while taking every opportunity to strip them of any religious or occult meaning. High days and holidays have a purpose in their own right that affirms our humanity, which needn’t be sacrificed to spurious deities. So I’ll still keep Christmas as a culturally Christian atheist, but forgive me if I keep boring you with the secular details.

Thursday, 14 October 2010

I.D Institute opens in Scotland

The Institute for Intelligent Design has opened up shop in the U.K. Based in Scotland it is already peddling its pseudo scientific claptrap on line with its predictable “Oh my God! the universe is soooo complicated, it must be designed” argument from incredulity.
The worrying thing about this is that its director Dr Alastair Noble is a former HM Inspector of Schools and therefore may carry enough credibility (especially in Scotland where there is quite a strong fundamental Christian presence) to gain access to schoolchildren.
We can only hope that there are enough rational thinkers in the Scottish school system to see through this patent attempt to disguise creationism as science and that if they are allowed into classes at all it will not be junior science classes.
However letting them put material like this to a group of older students might be instructive, as I’m sure they would get laughed out of the classroom with such “persuasive “ arguments as
Recent advances in understanding cellular structure have revealed a highly sophisticated world of nano-technology on a breathtaking scale. These interlocking machines show all the hallmarks of engineering design and suggest a designing intelligence. When examined more closely, they show both specified and irreducible complexity, meaning that they conform to a previously specified plan (embedded in the DNA's information) and require all parts to be present to operate. That such systems could self-assemble through blind and purposeless forces flies in the face of all human engineering experience and is not a credible explanation.
Yep! By all means let a group of scientifically literate sixteen year olds loose on that drivel and I’m sure they would tear in to shreds, and not particularly politely.

Monday, 11 October 2010

The problem with moderate belief

Many atheists will tell you that what people believe privately is their own business and that as long as religious ideas are not enshrined in law, a constitution or taught in schools as “science” there is no harm in it.
I agree with this stance up to a point and will not proselytise atheism to individuals who don’t otherwise expose themselves to the argument.
However I cannot help feeling slightly disappointed when someone who is in all other respects rational and intelligent turns out to be a theist. While I respect their right to believe, I can’t respect the belief itself and in some small way my respect for the individual is diminished.
The fact is that most theists (usually Christians in the U.K) are extremely moderate in their take on religion, even those who regularly attend churches. They apply religion to their lives gently, are usually ecumenical and are quietly tolerant of non-believers. Quite reasonably then they don’t understand why atheists like myself should care that these beliefs are prevalent in society.
My issue with such apparently benign religion though is the more sinister edifice it supports.
Unfortunately as we know, religion is not universally moderate and tolerant. In the U.S in particular the Christian right has a transparent political agenda. It wants to redefine America as a Christian nation, with fundamental Christian ideology at its social centre and seeks to influence the legislature accordingly.
This is not quite so evident in the U.K as yet, but the recent visit from Pope Benedict XVI gave cause for a variety of political sources to claim a greater role for faith in British society. For example Conservative party chair Lady Warsi said
the Labour government appeared to have viewed religion as essentially a rather quaint relic of our pre-industrial history. They were also too suspicious of faith's potential for contributing to society - behind every faith-based charity, they sensed the whiff of conversion and exclusivity and because of these prejudices they didn't create policies to unleash the positive power of faith in our society.
Warsi, a Muslim so moderate as to have been branded “not a true Muslim” by some exemplifies the problem. All the time enough people accept that religion is unassailably a force for good in society the greater acceptance there is for less moderate religious views. When politicians reinforce the idea it becomes more dangerous still.
There is a sliding scale of religious ideology that goes from “live and let live” to rabid intolerance of anything that does not conform to the dogma.
Not all Muslims are suicide bombers and not all Christians are homophobic creationist wingnuts. But those that are float on a buoyant sea of moderate belief that supports by degrees a more extreme agenda.
As an atheist and a humanist, I know that those of moderate faith can and would be just as tolerant, civically minded, loving and caring without religion as with it. By persuading such people to abandon irrational belief we can pull the rug from under the feet those who use the faux respectability of religion to justify bigotry, mayhem and violence.

Friday, 8 October 2010

IVF Nobel annoys the Vatican

I suppose the Catholic Church’s response to awarding the Nobel Prize for Medicine to British IVF pioneer Robert Edwards was predictable. Predictable and depressing, because yet again the medieval institution is tainting a genuine human achievement giving hope to thousands of infertile couples, with its misguided moralising.
Ignacio Carrasco de Paula, head of the Pontifical Academy for Life, while claiming to have spoken in a personal capacity still reflects the Vatican’s official view that IVF procedures create excess embryo’s which are either stored in freezers or destroyed.
In the best of cases they are transferred into a uterus but most probably they will end up abandoned or dead, which is a problem for which the new Nobel prize winner is responsible
He also claims the Nobel Committee “ignored the ethical questions” raised by fertility treatments.
It would be too much to ask I suppose that the Church will ever accept the obvious evidence that embryos are potential humans, not persons. Persons require consciousness, unless of course you believe in the existence of immaterial souls…Oh wait! That’ll be it then.
However the idea that IVF is wasteful of eggs and embryos totally ignores the fact that nature is, if anything, more wasteful. Estimates of the attrition rate for newly fertilised eggs range anywhere from 25 to 70% in normally fertile couples. When you bear in mind that the couples going through IVF are diagnosed as infertile, we can assume that left to their own devices something approaching 100% of their embryos would die. So even in religious fairy-tale land IVF is saving more souls than it destroys.
The Church should really just learn to shut up and let Robert Edwards enjoy his well deserved Nobel.

Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Atheists at the top

So Ed Milliband has beaten his older brother to the top spot in the Labour Party.He's slightly to the left of his brother politically but what I find worth cheering is that both the Milliband brothers are atheists; culturally Jewish, but atheists all the same. So with Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg also an atheist we might finally end up with a government that really "doesn't do God", rather than just saying it doesn't.

Monday, 27 September 2010

More on that ice cream advert

I wrote about this ice cream advertisement a while ago, protesting that the ASA had been wrong to ban it as offensive to Catholics.
I wrote a short email to the ASA and they have responded...

Thank you for your e-mail. I appreciate that you disagree with the ASA’s decision to uphold complaints which were made against the Antonio Federici magazine advertisement.

Complaints made on the grounds of taste and decency are often challenging given their subjective nature, a fact reflected by a number of communications we have received from individuals both opposed to and supportive of our decision. Although you disagree with our ruling I would like to reassure you that the ASA made its ruling only after very careful consideration.

The advertising rules were created and are maintained by the Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP), a body representing all parts of the ad industry. The rules state that no ads should contain content that is likely to cause serious or widespread offence on the grounds of race, religion, sex or disability.

It is the ASA’s role to administer these rules and, in this case, we felt that the ad by Antonio Federici was likely to cause serious offence to some readers.

If you have not already done so, I would encourage you to read how the ASA Council reached its decision. Please access the ASA ruling in full,here.
If you read the full adjuducation as they suggest you will see that they got eight complaints from the readership of a particular magazine following which they concluded that...
the use of a nun pregnant through immaculate conception was likely to be seen as a distortion and mockery of the beliefs of Roman Catholics.
So what? why must anyone be protected from criticism or mockery of their beliefs? If they are going to go around claiming a god man was born of a virgin 2000 years ago, they should expect to be mocked in my opinion unless they can provide some evidence.
No-one has to take these ideas seriously in a free society, including advertisers and I still say the ASA was acting beyond its remit and with bad judgment.

Go easy on science budget cuts

The coalition government is on a mission to reduce the budget deficit and is looking for spending cuts wherever it can find them. One of the casualties looks like being British science funding, which could lose anything between 10% and 25% of the 3.5 Billion pounds currently invested.
Leaving aside the debate about whether now is really the time to be cutting the deficit, given that economic recovery is not yet assured, there are some things that cannot go on the back burner if we want to stay at the forefront of technological development.
I am aware that everyone affected by the cuts; from welfare to health services, public sector redundancies to cancelled building projects, will plead special circumstances. But fundamental science is worthy of this consideration precisely because it impinges on so many aspects of this country’s success.
If our children are to be inspired to study sciences at school they need to see breakthroughs being made in this country, not abroad. If we want to sell new technology to the world, blue-sky research needs to happen now. The U.S, which in similar financial straights, is actually funding science as part of its stimulus package as Obama seems to understand the value of research to the economy.
There is a danger that Government will try to sell an application driven science to the general public, where funding is preserved for “practical” research. However historically this is not where the big breakthroughs come from. Cutting edge science is what generates the big ideas, even if the attrition rate is high. Cutting fundamental research is cutting opportunities, handing the ball to emergent economies and leaving U.K innovation in the doldrums for decades.
There is no doubt that we need to get better at commercialising the ideas we do have, but we need to foster an environment for those ideas to flourish.
If we must have cuts then science will surely share the pain, but it must not be seen as an easy target for government, nor should it bear an unfair portion of the burden.

Monday, 20 September 2010

Pope's visit a success? Meh!

Pope Benedict XVI left British soil yesterday with the Vatican hailing his visit as a “spiritual success.
Well, maybe. On the face of it he was well protected from the “aggressive secularism” he perceives as being inherent in British society and he even had the Prime Minister defending our faith credentials.
"Faith is part of the fabric of our country. It always has been and it always will be,"
he said.
But the fact is that Benedict did not attract anything like the interest or crowds expected and I doubt that any minds have been changed by his speeches on Catholic Social Teaching, or more inclusion for religion in British society.
History is against him I believe. The Church is more and more on the wrong side of the moral debate on issues such as gender equality, AIDS and contraception, and this along with its appalling response to the child abuse scandal is the reason why the visit was so lacklustre.
On Sunday’s Andrew Marr Show, ex Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy suggested that Benedict XVI position on Church doctrine and morality was not significantly different from Pope John Paul II who visited twenty-eight years ago to wider acclaim. This he suggested was due to John Paul’s greater charisma, but I’m not so sure. If their positions are the same is it not more likely that the rest of us have moved on? Grown up even?
The Pope fears secularisation, not because it really does lead to a “pick and mix morality” (no more so than religion anyway) but because a secular society can do what the Church cannot. It can move with the times and free itself from outdated dogma. It can have the debate free from preconceptions and arrive at rational approaches to civil liberty and individual human rights. It can make religion irrelevant, or at best just one voice in the marketplace of ideas with no special privileges. Which of course is exactly how it should be.

Thursday, 16 September 2010

Religion in "Big Society"

With the Pope’s arrival for a four day state visit to the U.K comes a heightened debate about the role of religion in British society.
One of the reasons for Joseph Ratzinger choosing Britain for such a visit is his dismay at the application of equality laws preventing Catholic (or any religion's) discrimination against Homosexuals, which he sees as a secular imposition on the freedom of religion.
The Pope hopes to extend the influence of Catholic Social Teaching in the day to day political and social debate and sees this as a valid contribution to David Cameron’s “Big Society” program which seeks to engage the public and volunteer groups in wider engagement with their communities.
It worries me somewhat that voices within the coalition government, and I suspect Cameron as well, see the greater influence of religious groups in society as an intrinsically good thing. There are several reasons why it isn’t.
In the first instance Religion’s involvement in society rarely comes without strings. Organisations like The Salvation Army work with and feed the homeless, but expect their subjects to listen to Christian messages. Catholic adoption agencies want to exclude same sex couples from their pool of adoptive parents and evangelical groups working with Aids in the third world promote abstinence only policies and deny contraceptives save lives.
While religious groups working for social welfare are well intentioned they cannot help but carry the dogmas of their faith with them and as a result often confound the good they would otherwise do. In many cases they will deny evidence that contradicts their worldview.
This latter point is what makes their usefulness in wider social and ethical debates so moot. The opinions they offer are rooted in scripture and the mores of tribal cultures long past. They are not informed by science unless it happens to confirm their bias and even when they do make concessions to the secular view they want their own exemptions and demand dispensations and respect for their beliefs.
The Pope is already on this visit trying to warn Britain against “aggressive secularism”. During his meeting with the Queen he said…
"Today, the United Kingdom strives to be a modern and multicultural society. In this challenging enterprise, may it always maintain its respect for those traditional values and cultural expressions that more aggressive forms of secularism no longer value or even tolerate."
…by which he means the adoption of societal norms that do not conform to his religious dogma.
There is no reason why religious groups should not have a voice in any debate, but in this they are no different from any special interest group. What we must not do is give them the credibility, degree of deference and public space that enables them to punch above their weight.

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Ice cream ad offensive to Catholics

This seems a trivial story but it isn’t. The Advertising Standards Agency has banned an advert for a brand of Ice Cream because it
"was likely to cause serious offence to readers, particularly those who practised the Roman Catholic faith"
The image is of a pregnant nun, eating ice cream with the strap line “Immaculately Conceived”.
The company, Antonio Frederici is trying to make a point with this advert, saying they want to
"comment on and question, using satire and gentle humour, the relevance and hypocrisy of religion and the attitudes of the church to social issues"
and they have plans to post follow up adverts on a similar theme close to Westminster Cathedral.
How many times does it have to be said? People have no right in our society not to be offended. Religion is fair game for mockery and satire and to do so has long been a tradition in this country. Where would British comedy have been without Dave Allen, Father Ted or Monty Python? All of these shows attracted criticism but quite rightly were never banned. You would after all think that an almighty God could defend himself without the help of the ASA, but the point is they should not be making this kind of judgment.
If an advert is promoting prejudice or anti-social behaviour or glamorising violence, or if an advert is making false claims for a product then that is the point at which the ASA should get a say. It should not be using its powers in the suppression of free speech.

Friday, 10 September 2010

Burning the Qu'ran

The Pastor of a small Florida church has been hitting the headlines over the past few days over his plan to burn copies of the Qu’ran on the 11th of September in protest against the proposed Islamic centre to be built close to Ground Zero in New York.
Terry Jones has received direct appeals from President Obama, castigation from Hilary Clinton and direct condemnation from the leaders of several Islamic states over the plan. This if nothing else has ensured maximum publicity for his opposition to the Islamic Centre, plus I am sure he is relishing the attention.
It is of course a tawdry protest for a measly cause. There is no purpose other than blatant prejudice served by opposing the building and burning Qu’rans and to my mind this and only this is the reason to condemn the protest.

What is not a good reason to condemn the protest is the fear that it will incite Muslims to violence. There is a free speech issue here, which says that the right to express an opinion, no matter how misguided should not be stifled by the fear of violent retribution, and religious extremists in particular should not be given the message that threats of terrorism will silence criticism of their actions.
Unfortunately this is exactly the message that the U.S administration is sending, with Barack Obama saying it would be a "recruitment bonanza" for al-Qaeda and David Petraeus, the US and Nato commander in Afghanistan, warned of retaliatory action against US troops after protests took place in the capital Kabul at which effigies of Jones were burned alongside the American flag.

Now there is no doubt that it is particularly easy to offend Muslims in this way, but that is no reason not to do it when appropriate. For example Everybody Draw Mohammed Day was a particularly apposite protest against censorship of the television show, South Park, an episode of which attracted death threats for portraying the prophet.
The reason the Qu’ran burning is not appropriate is that, although the Pastor is attempting to frame this as free speech, the action has nothing to do with his right to protest against something he doesn’t like. Terry Jones is perfectly entitled to argue against the siting of the Islamic Centre through any forum he likes; burning the Qu’ran is a stunt and an irrelevence with deliberate intent to offend and incite hatred.

To any rational person the burning of any number of mass-produced “holy” texts, be the Bible, Qu’ran or Gita is a trivial act, more damned by the waste of resources than anything else. To the religious mind it’s a sacrilege so you might think a Christian Pastor would think twice before engaging in this kind of idiocy. After all wouldn’t he be offended if Bibles started to be burnt all over the Middle East?

As of today the burning is in his words “on hold”. If he backs down I hope that it will be because he realises what a mean minded protest it is and not because of threats of reprisal.

Monday, 6 September 2010

Handsome is as handsome does

The ”Thought for the Day” today was given by Clifford Longley. His premise was that Pope Benedict is being criticised for what people “think” he thinks, rather than his actual position.
He compared this with the problem allegedly faced by the Tory party.
People often said they liked a particular policy - until they found out it was Tory policy. The problem facing the Catholic Church is somewhat similar - how to detoxify the brand,
However, the one example he quoted of a socially acceptable opinion…
"The economy needs ethics in order to function correctly," he declared. "We must prioritise the goal of access to steady employment for everyone" and "Food and access to water are universal rights of all human beings... Investment always has moral, as well as economic significance."
is so appallingly weak as to be next to useless. In fact the statement is practically a truism that almost anyone would agree with in principle, no matter how free market or profit driven they were. What it fails to say is what ethical policies should we follow to achieve that.
Well here’s a few suggestions for the Pope.
1 Encourage free access to contraception
2 Allow Women into the priesthood so as not to set a bad example to private industry
3 End opposition to abortion so that women can choose when to have families
4 Stop discriminating against Homosexuals thereby encouraging others to do so
5 Promote science and reason instead of faith and superstition so we can maximise the benefit of our intelligence

The Pope like the Church he represents and religion in general is full of worthy words, but his actions speak louder.

Tuesday, 31 August 2010

Blair against "those who scorn God"

Tony Blair the former British Prime Minister who famously “didn’t do God”when he was in office has called upon all faiths to rally together against secular attacks from “those who scorn God”.
Those who scorn God and those who do violence in God’s name, both represent views of religion. But both offer no hope for faith in the twenty first century.”
Well he’s right of course, neither religious fundamentalism nor atheism offer hope for faith in the 21st century. However secularism does offer hope for peace, humanity and civilisation in this century which religion in any guise cannot.
The myth that world ecumenicalism will prevent the spread of religious extremism is a recurring one but which history shows is very unlikely to translate into reality. Maybe Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Jews and Hindus will unite against a common enemy. But only for as long as their competing faiths can stand it. Then it will be back to the tribalism, the terror and the bombs.
I have no idea how such an obviously well travelled, sophisticated and intelligent man like Blair can be taken in by this nonsense. The very fact that he has converted to Catholicism at a time when that particular cult has fallen into such disrepute shows a distinct lack of critical thinking from the man who lead the country into war alongside G.W Bush, that other famously religion deluded leader.

Monday, 23 August 2010

On Naming Ceremonies

Frank Field Is a labour politician who has been appointed as an advisor on poverty to the new coalition government. One of the suggestions that he has come up with is the creation of secular naming ceremonies for newborns in response to the decline in Christenings and Baptisms.
This is a surprising suggestion coming as it does from a practicing Anglican, but in my view a welcome one.
His view is that ceremonies of this nature, being a secular rite of passage would help to highlight the responsibility of the parents, wider family and the local community towards the collective upbringing of our children and I think there is some merit in this.
Like the other significant milestones such as marriage and death, birth, or more accurately the welcoming of a newborn has for too long been in the province of religion. As a state we have recognised civil marriages for many years and they now take place outside of the sterile environment of the registry office. Crematoriums at any rate can host humanist funerals (although escaping Christian symbolism is still difficult). Non-religious naming ceremonies however when they happen are ad-hoc arrangements by parents who already feel motivated to introduce their child formally in this way.
Providing a structured secular ceremony accessible via registrars could well motivate other parents to do this
Many parents who are not religious, but who may not think deeply about these things will currently opt for a Christian ceremony anyway or more likely ignore the ritual altogether. It would not necessarily occur to them that organisations such as the British Humanist Association already have a great deal of experience in Naming Ceremonies hosted in hotels or other venues that can help cement a new child’s arrival into family and community.
Humanists and religious groups together could come up with a secular framework for all naming ceremonies that would become part of our society’s common ritual. Then, as with weddings, the participants would embellish the ceremony to conform to their own beliefs.

Wednesday, 11 August 2010

Mecca has a bigger one than London - so there!

I love this…
I was alerted to this silly story of the giant clock in Mecca by Pharyngula.
The Saudi government is challenging Greenwich Mean Time as the reference point for global time by building a clock that is over six times larger than Big Ben, the clock in the tower at the Palace of Westminster in London.
First of all Big Ben has absolutely nothing to do with the establishment of Greenwich observatory as the base line from which time is internationally agreed. This was done order for sailors to calculate longitude from the Greenwich meridian, which was by convention considered to have longitude zero degrees as internationally adopted at the International Meridian Conference of 1884. I don’t think anyone is going to relocate zero longitude at Mecca just because it’s got a big clock.
Secondly inhabitants of any particular part of the world don’t go around saying “It’s five O’Clock, so it must be two O’Clock in London” anymore than Arabic Standard Time is of interest to anyone else but an inhabitant of that time zone, or someone who wants to go or ‘phone there.
If the Saudis want to flaunt their oil wealth by building a gaudy clock to time their prayers by, that’s fine. But why turn it into a symbol of supposed Islamic supremacy by pitching it as a rival to Big Ben? Some kind of penis envy I guess. Whatever, Mecca isn’t the centre of the world anymore than London, Paris, New York or Chipping Sodbury is. We live on a (oblate) sphere whether the Saudis like it or not.
The other thing is, what are they going to set the clock by I wonder? Logically they will set it to AST which is defined as GMT+ 3 Hours. Duh!

Sunday, 1 August 2010

NHS will still fund "nonsense on stilts"

Just when you think reason is about to prevail some idiot in Government decides that uneducated public opinion has more weight than science when it comes to NHS funding.
Despite a damning report by the Commons Science and Technology Committee that said homeopathy was no better than a sugar pill placebo and was "nonsense on stilts", Health minister Anne Milton has decided it will not be banned on the NHS.
This goes beyond the issue of the £4M or so that goes towards supporting a totally non-effective treatment. It is giving credibility to a whole industry of superstitious woo and mumbo jumbo that in some instances causes real harm. Faith healing, crystals, shamanism and homeopathy do not work and governments should not be endorsing them, either explicitly or by implication.

Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Morality: What’s culture got to do with it?

So I cross posted my last piece to my facebook notes, and a couple of days later, while sitting outside the pub, a friend of mine who read it said something like: “I agree with the sentiment, but if I was to critique it I’d want to know where moral relativism comes into it”.
It is of course an interesting question, because it is easy writing from a western perspective to define what is moral entirely in those terms. However as Brian pointed out we live in a multicultural society where issues such as Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) are emerging into our society’s consciousness.
I think FGM is an apposite subject to explore cultural and moral relativism. For example by defining what its practitioners call “female circumcision” as mutilation I am already making a moral judgment. Also it is a practice often defended on religious grounds despite it not being mandated in any scripture.
This is key in one respect. By calling this process “circumcision” it is equated with a practice that is religiously mandated in the Jewish and Islamic scriptures, although in reality circumcision is to FGM like cutting your fingernails is to amputating your hands.
In some African cultures the practice is part of puberty, a right of passage with the “surgery” being performed by an older woman, sometimes with a sharp stone with which she cuts the clitoris and often removes the labia minora. In other cultures the clitoris is cut at birth or during infancy.
You might think (from our western perspective) that women in these cultures would universally condemn the practice as they would remember the painful experience themselves. But this is to underestimate the power of tradition.
The reality is that not only men but many women in FGM societies defend the practice on religious or cultural grounds.

So, if even the victims of this practice support it, who am I to say it’s immoral?
The first part of my answer falls directly out of my previous post. Universally we agree on fundamental axioms of morality, acting selflessly to another’s benefit is moral; acting selfishly to another’s detriment is immoral. So the first thing to establish is to whose benefit is FGM?
Whether religiously inspired or not (but I bet it was) the prima facia reason for FGM is to control the sexuality of women. It desensitises the clitoris so discouraging masturbation, and leads to lack of lubrication making sexual intercourse uncomfortable. In the most extreme cases the labia majora are sewn together making sexual intercourse impossible until the procedure is reversed, usually when the girl is due to marry.
From this perspective it is clear that FGM is for the benefit of men and preservation of the culture, not for the woman.
This is not to say that FGM’s defenders do not make a case for benefit to the woman. One is hygiene. They argue that reducing the mucus producing area of the vagina promotes cleanliness, but while they may have thought this centuries ago, we now know that vaginal secretions are vital for the health and cleanliness of the organ, so if it was a valid argument once it isn’t now.
They also argue that because the practice is culturally endorsed it guarantees the girls’ acceptance into the culture. The circularity of this argument hardly needs pointing out.
So if the practice is not for the benefit of the girl it fails on that basic moral premise.
The other reason the practise is immoral is that it is always done to minors. The girls who have to go through this have no say in the decision, are usually not old enough to be moral agents themselves, yet they must live with the consequences throughout their lives.
In this scenario FGM is a violation of their human right to self-determination.

But, what about the right of the parents or elders to pass their cultural heritage onto their children? It is important, some say to defer consideration of the rights of the child to preserve cultural integrity.
To this I would say that cultures, ideas, ethnic groups do not have rights: Individuals do. It is not defensible to impose a cultural concept on an individual who may well in later life wish to adopt a totally different one. At least if a child is brought up in a belief system they can, if they choose abandon it for another at some time. However a victim of FGM can never reclaim her clitoris, or the fully functioning human sexuality she was deprived of.

FGM is an extreme example of a cultural practice that the west may see as immoral while the third world (or indeed some cultural relativists) may defend, so it throws the relativist argument sharply into relief. However I think that the basic reasoning presented here could be applied to any practice detrimental to individuals in another culture, done in the name of that culture. This would put male circumcision performed for anything other than medical reasons in that bracket. Again there are plenty of people including circumcised males who defend it, and barring some rare complications such as meatal stenosis it may to many seem a trivial mutilation. That doesn’t make it right and neither does the cultural context in which it is done.

Friday, 23 July 2010

Morality: What's God got to do with it?

This blog was never intended for weighty philosophical essays and in any case compared to some atheist bloggers I’m a philosophical lightweight. However I’m going to have a go at the question du jour that seems to be popping up all over the atheosphere at the moment. To wit, on what, in the absence of God, do atheists base their morality?
First of all it is not at all self evident that religious people are any more moral in an objective sense than atheists are. Theists of a fundamentalist stripe define morality by edicts found in the scriptures they favour, but even the most literal of these pick and choose which to follow. As has often been pointed out, Christians who decry homosexuality on the basis of Leviticus cheerfully ignore the prohibition against eating seafood from the same source. In fact the bible tends to be used as a pic-n-mix stand for whichever morality suits the moment and the prejudice of the moralist.
Atheists of course reject scripture entirely as an infallible source of morality. This is not to say that there are not good moral lessons in scripture, it is just that as a human document codified in the ethics of the time inevitably there is some pretty horrible stuff in there too. So despite some theists’ claim that atheists lack a moral compass, theists and atheist alike are really facing the same dilemma.
Scripture aside, theists will also claim that there must be an absolute standard of good and evil against which we all measure moral worth. God, they claim, defines the rules and arbitrates between right and wrong. The obvious problem with this is that God is not seen to intervene in even the most ecclesiastic moral dilemmas. Witness the Anglican Church’s wrangle over the ordination of women or gay clergy. One might expect a bit of hands on divine guidance, but no. The cosmic umpire is A.W.O.L and his church is heading for schism. Once again the moral question is back to a matter of all too human opinion informed by selective reading of the scriptures, prejudice and confirmation bias.
The other problem with God given absolute moral standards is the Euthyphro dilemma. I won’t rehearse this in depth because the argument is already familiar to most atheists, but in a nutshell it asks the question “is something good because God wills it, or does God will it because it is good?” If the former anything deemed to be the will of God is assumed to be O.K and since scripture is pretty big on genocide, stoning rape victims, slavery and blood sacrifice that doesn’t seem to work by modern standards. If the latter, what external standard is God referring to?
So, if theists are really only fooling themselves about the source of their morality and atheists reject the source anyway, whence comes human morality?

At the root of human moral behaviour is altruism. Universally we agree that an individual who acts for the benefit of others is acting morally, whereas someone who acts in their own interest to the detriment of others is behaving immorally. The source of this uncontroversial attitude is, I argue, deep within our evolutionary history. We, like many mammals, and like the species that were our ancestors are social animals. Societies have hierarchies and relationships and interdependencies that require individuals to subsume their own interests to that of the group. Reciprocity between individuals requires the trading of favours and delayed gratification; "you groom me today, I’ll share my food tomorrow".
Successful individuals within successful societies will propagate genes leading to a level of altruistic behaviour that maximises their survival.
After many millennia, our species with its enhanced intelligence has codified this innate behaviour as morality. We know socially desirable behaviour when we see it, whereas theft, infidelity, murder, and usury all raise our moral ire because we are wired to punish this sort of behaviour within our own tribe.
The “within our own tribe” is important, because historically and to some extent today, we do not necessarily extend this sense of morality to outsiders. It has been seen as O.K to steal land, mates and resources from the tribe in the next valley just not from your own. This application of morality specifically to the in-group is strong circumstantial evidence that it is an evolved behaviour.

There are however more controversial types of morality. There are those who see moral issues with abortion, “deviant” sexual behaviour, intoxicants, modes of dress, promiscuity and blasphemy. All of these I would suggest are cultural and have more to do with command and control strategies adopted by those at the top of human societies. Historically, control has frequently been a function, either explicitly or implicitly, of religion, so various churches have espoused these deontological mores.
It is not surprising then that as the power of religion wanes, these command moralities have become the focus of much debate. Liberal Christians, atheists and agnostics in the main no longer see these things as inherently immoral. Socially conservative right wing types do, as does fundamental Islam and Christianity. These moral battle lines are of course approximations, there are liberals who disagree on abortion for example and conservatives who disagree on drug policy so one has to be wary of stereotyping. However, in general it is individuals who have a command mentality that still obsess about these things.
With the possible exception of abortion, many atheists I believe would see the above list as morally neutral, as long as these behaviours did not adversely impact on anyone else. Sexual behaviour either alone or between consenting adults is nobody else’s business, what intoxicants a person consumes is up to them, what they wear and how they express themselves is a free personal choice. However when sexual behaviour becomes rape, intoxication becomes abusive and free expression becomes violent they then enter the moral sphere. But it is these consequential behaviours that are immoral not the root behaviour.
To take one example, intoxication; if a person wants to drink alcohol that’s fine, but if that person knows that too much makes them violent getting that drunk becomes immoral, as is the act of violence. Now it might be pragmatic for that person to avoid drink altogether, but that doesn’t mean drinking is immoral for everyone all the time.
Atheists can take this rational approach to morality. The golden rules of “do as you would be done by” and “live and let live” are generally good enough as a guide, built as they are on our genetic predisposition for altruism.

Finally, I would argue it is not atheists who have a problem with finding a moral compass. It is in fact the religious, who are dragged backwards by scripture, written in primitive societies for the purpose of social control, that are not free to make rational and objective moral decisions. They are the people who obsess about what goes on behind their neighbours’ bedroom doors and somehow find it more moral to discriminate on gender and racial grounds than to “live and let live” for the greater happiness of all.

Saturday, 17 July 2010

UK Government responds to "Protest the Pope" petition

The Government had posted its reponse to the petition to protest the up coming visit by Ratzinger (AKA Pope Benedict XVI)to the U.K and in particular its funding by the taxpayer.
In full the Government says:
Pope Benedict XVI will visit the UK from 16 to 19 September at the invitation of Her Majesty The Queen. The visit is described as a Papal Visit with the status of a State Visit. The programme will include a number of pastoral events, which are the responsibility of the Catholic Church, as well as some significant official events, which will provide opportunities for issues of common interest to the UK Government and the Holy See to be discussed at the highest level.

The Holy See has a global reach and so is a valuable international partner for the UK Government. Our relationship with the Holy See enables us to address jointly a range of foreign policy and development issues. These include working towards delivery of the Millennium Development Goals, addressing the impacts of climate change, preventing and resolving conflict, and finding ways to encourage disarmament.

As with any bilateral diplomatic relationship, there are issues on which we disagree. The Holy See is clear on our positions on these issues. However, we believe that Pope Benedict’s visit will provide an opportunity to strengthen and build on our relationship with the Holy See in areas where we share interests and goals, and to discuss those issues on which our positions differ.

Since the visit has the status of a State Visit, and some parts of the programme are being organised by the British Government, a proportion of the costs of the Visit will fall to the Government. The costs can be divided into two categories: policing costs, which will be met by the State from existing policing budgets, and non-policing costs, which will be split between the Catholic Church and the Government. The total size of the costs at this stage is not confirmed but discussions are currently under way to decide the appropriate levels of contribution from the Government and the Catholic Bishops’ Conferences of England and Wales, and of Scotland. Other parts of the programme, such as the Masses and other pastoral events, are the responsibility of the Catholic Bishops’ Conferences. The direct costs of these events will therefore be borne by the Catholic Church.
Without rehearsing the issues again, my problem with this is that the "issues on which we disagree" also involve illegal acts committed by his Church on U.K soil. He and his organisation have conspired to conceal those acts and yet we are allowing him this publicity opportunity in our country and at our expense.
In any event the Pope's status as a head of state is contentious and it would be very easy for the Government to pass off all of the cost of this to the Catholic Church which can comfortably afford it.

Friday, 16 July 2010

Ordaining women is as bad as child abuse

To be honest I couldn’t care less whether the Catholic Church ever ordains women. It is a mystery to me why any woman would want to be associated with such a misogynistic organisation in the first place.
However if any further proof were needed of the depths of ethical hypocrisy the Vatican has sunk to, here is the pope’s response to the Anglican Church’s recent decision with the synod voting in favour of legislation to consecrate women bishops.
In this document, the attempted ordination of a woman is listed as a "grave crime" which would be referred to the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. This is the same body that deals with the child sex abuse scandal and by implication they are equating the two.
The Church claims otherwise saying:
including the two issues in the same document was not equating them, but was done to codify the most serious canonical crimes which the Roman Catholic Church handles.
but this is totally ingenuous.
They are implying that not adhering to Catholic dogma is as serious (if “different”) a crime as sexually abusing a child and that is about as immoral as any religion could get on the matter in my opinion.
Ratzinger continues to shoot himself squarely in the foot every time he comments on anything and his whole rotten Church is being exposed for the sick institution it is.

Monday, 12 July 2010

Religion is disabling for Muslim children

Stoke-on-Trent City Council has issued guidelines to schools on how to treat Muslim pupils during the month of Ramadan. Based on recommendations from the Muslim Council of Great Britain it suggests among other things, that swimming lessons should not be scheduled during Ramadan in case pupils swallow water when they are supposedly fasting.
Other suggestions include rescheduling of exams to avoid Muslims being disadvantaged as a result of disrupted sleep patterns (many get up early so they can eat before dawn, they will not eat again until after dusk).
Now actually, these things don’t strike me as too unreasonable, especially since Ramadan usually falls in August through early September when most schools are on summer break anyway. But what is interesting about this is that the Muslim Council are implicitly saying that holding to the Muslim faith is a handicap when living in a non-Muslim country. These religious observances, rather than enhancing the lives of their children are in fact imposing a burden that requires special measures by the community to compensate.
What they are doing in fact is disabling children in the name of religious observance. The viral meme passed from parent to child rendering them less fit to compete in a non-islamic culture.
I am not suggesting that we should not accommodate this particular disability, any more than I would suggest that any learning challenged child should not be supported. After all it is not the child’s fault they have been saddled with this handicap, it is entirely the fault of their parents.
It is of course my contention that all religious belief is ultimately disabling wherever it is found, but when it exists in the culture that spawned it the effects are less pronounced because the accommodations are already in place, but the Muslim Council has here highlighted the truth of this by their own recommendations.

Friday, 9 July 2010

Do criminals need religion to go straight?

Once again a comment on the Today Programme’s “Thought For the Day” spot has got me thinking.
The 1st July speaker was the Rev. Roy Jenkins on the subject of reforming offenders in prison. The context that of Justice Minister, Ken Clarke’s proposed changes to sentencing

The bit that got me thinking was this
But rehabilitation, reform, working on the assumption that even the most crooked or the most inadequate can become different - for me, that has to be the ultimate goal; and it requires a great deal more faith and courage than building higher walls.
I've been humbled to meet a number of men and women recently for whom prison has prompted exactly that response: with lengthy criminal records, often fuelled by their need for drugs or alcohol, they've come to a point where they've realised that unless they change, they'll soon be dead. Sometimes through the care of a particular warder, a teacher, or a regular visitor, they've begun the slow climb out of their pit.
For some it's been an encounter with Christian faith which has shown them for the first time that they're loved, valued, and that God has a purpose for them even when everyone else seems to have given up on them, and they've all but given up on themselves. They have trusted the promise that Christ can make people new, and they have literally changed.
So why, I wondered, do people on the point of desperation to change themselves become vulnerable to religion? Is it in fact that atheism is a luxury for those with healthy minds and successful lives?
I understand that for people grappling with addiction, joblessness, poverty and homelessness religion offers a simple panacea; be good for God and God will look after you, if not in this life at least in the next. But is this what we should be offering such people?
For one thing it’s a bum steer. Even if it motivates people to change it does so in a way that puts the responsibility for success on God not the individual and as God doesn’t actually exist there are many likely to be let down in their efforts. For another, a secular humanist approach to offenders would show them that it is people and society that cares about them, in the here and now, not in some vague hereafter. Teaching offenders that would make them more likely to care about the damage they are doing to society by their recidivism.
Perhaps atheism and humanism seem too abstract or intellectual a motivation for goodness and hell fire and brimstone is the necessary infinite stick they need. If so it is a failure of our approach to rehabilitation that we cannot educate our prison population without resorting to superstition of this kind.
Religion is a poor moral compass with which to equip individuals already challenged in this area. For one thing if they embrace their new faith too fully and descend into biblical literalism they will find plenty of moral justification for all sorts of behaviour which if not exactly criminal would be socially undesirable. The tools these people need are a sound education, social and practical skills, critical thinking and a secular ethical framework underpinning it all. These are the things that offer true stability, not the irrational foundations of religious faith.

Tuesday, 6 July 2010

Popes' U.K visit approaches

At the risk of repeating myself I was reminded by an interview with John Patten that Pope Benedict XVI will visit England and Scotland on a four-day Papal visit from 16-19 September 2010.
The first thing to say about this visit is that the associated costs to the British tax payer are now estimated at 12 Million pounds which given our current dire financial straights seems a lot of money to be spending on a visit from a the head of an organisation as morally discredited as the Catholic Church. This is of course an estimate and given the level of protest that will rightfully surround this visit the security costs may well escalate beyond that. The Catholic Church itself is to raise a further 7 million which is fine if its congregation really want to stump up the money, but in my book they should be footing the entire bill.
Ratzinger is coming at the invitation of the Queen (formally at any rate) which seems to mean that the Government can distance itself from the issue of the child abuse scandal and the subsequent cover ups by the hierarchy including the Pope himself as a former Cardinal. But as Richard Dawkins said,
“This is a man whose first instinct when his priests are caught with their pants down is to cover up the scandal and damn the young victims to silence.”
and consequently should be called to account for himself and his organisation. Our government has a responsibility to confront him on this issue. Not that he’ll get any challenge from John Patten who referred to Dawkins’ purely factual remark above as “abusive”, failing to see the irony I suppose. This Jesuit educated apologist will no doubt be heard defending his spiritual master throughout the Papal visit.
There even seems to be some equivocation about meeting some of the U.K abuse victims. Bishop Nichols has come out with some particularly distasteful weasel words
It should be up to the Vatican to decide whether the Pope should meet some of those who had suffered abuse at the hands of Catholic clergy.
It's easy for people to call for some great public gesture, such as meeting victims, but that in itself is a difficult process for someone who has suffered abuse.
And we must not use those who have suffered abuse for some kind of public agenda.
So Ratzinger will avoid confronting this issue because he wants to spare the victims’ feelings? Come on! These people have self identified as abuse victims and I would guess are rightly very angry at the institution that has been supressing the truth for so long. They ought to be invited to a face to face meeting even if they refuse to accept that invitation, which would be damning enough for the Pope. But no, once again the Church is more interested in saving its own face than confronting its crimes.
The deadline on the Protest the Pope petition has expired and closed with over 12000 signatures. Currently the new administration has suspended the site which is a shame as I’m sure even more people would respond as the date for the visit approaches.
Remember, the child abuse issue is not the only reason to condemn this visit. As the Protest the Pope website explains
The Pope not only opposes the right of women to have an abortion but also their right to contraception to prevent the need for abortions.
He also opposes women’s access to IVF fertility treatment to give childless couples the chance of parenthood. He condemns potentially life-saving embryonic stem cell research.
Pope Benedict denounces the use of condoms, even to stop the spread of HIV, as well as claiming falsely that condom usage “increases” the rate of HIV infection. This puts millions of lives at risk.
He opposes legal equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, and their full protection in law against homophobic and transphobic discrimination
The Pope has authorised the Catholic Catechism, which condemns same-sex relationships as a “grave depravity” and “contrary to natural law.” In 1992, he criticised gay sexuality as a “tendency ordered towards an intrinsic moral evil.”
All of which makes his plan to speak on “civil society” something of a sick joke.
We won’t get this visit cancelled it seems, but we should all do our best to make him feel as unwelcome as possible and challenge this immoral doctrine as loudly as possible.

Monday, 28 June 2010

Surprise! More Papal Bull

So the P.O.P.E (Pontiff Opposed to Paedophile Exposure) is upset at the Belgian authority’s raids investigating the child abuse scandal there.
This he calls “deplorable” while still being mealy mouthed about the institutional cover up this child-molesting ring has perpetrated.
There’s little more to say on this obvious hypocrisy except to ask, after all this why would anyone want to be a Catholic?

Friday, 18 June 2010

Time for Obama to support BP

It’s time for Obama and the U.S administration in general to adopt a more levelheaded approach to BP and the Deepwater Horizon disaster.
It may well be the case that there were serious lapses in safety protocols on the rig, leading to the explosion that has released hundreds and thousands of barrels of crude into the gulf. However this is not known and is currently the subject of an internal enquiry by BP. It will no doubt eventually become the subject of independent scrutiny and, probably, criminal investigation when the inevitable litigation machine cranks into full swing.
Unfortunately the American public appears to have prejudged BP in this matter and the U.S administration is way too happy to pander to this prejudice.
Witness the appalling behaviour of the members of the House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Committee during their six hour interrogation of BP CEO Tony Hayward.
Barely a question was asked without snide and sarcastic rhetoric to accompany it and the congressmen present were clearly more interested in playing to the gallery than seeking clarification of BP’s position.
The media and Capitol Hill have bulldozed even the normally sanguine Barack Obama into using “butt kicking” language in reference to the company, and it seems every one is taking this dubious lead from him.
The brute fact is that a massive environmental disaster is still in progress in the gulf. It is not in anyone’s interest, let alone BP’s for this to continue and it is clear that BP is piling as much resource as it can into solving the problem. Shouting and screaming may make the ineffectual U.S politicians feel better, but it will not save one centimetre of coastline, a feat that only the technical expertise of the oil industry has any hope of achieving.
The White House may feel powerless in this situation, and on a practical nuts and bolts level it surely is. Obama has achieved what he could reasonably expect to achieve with the 20 Billion USD escrow fund for compensation from BP. But now is the time to work with the company to facilitate its efforts to solve the problem, and ensure that it is still a viable respected company going forward.
Americans love to make Brits the bad guy, a casual survey of U.S television drama will tell you that. It is probably part of the reason the Congress committee felt so comfortable blatantly insulting Tony Hayward the way they did. It is also possible that they mistook his natural British reserve for “stonewalling”, when in fact he was just honestly presenting the limits of the available information in a factual way. Whatever, they’re not helping the situation. At some point they will have to wake up to the fact that 40% of the company is in U.S shareholder’s hands and that a damaged BP will not play well with their financial situation any more than it will in Britain.
Obama must work now, not to undermine confidence in BP, but to encourage and support their effort in front of the American population. Also while he’s at it, when BP finally succeed in their efforts to stop the leak, make reparation and limit the damage he needs to give them the credit for it. Unfortunately at the moment it seems he is taking the populist line and giving the responsibility to God. If he is going to give some deity the credit for making it better, he should be giving it the blame for causing the disaster in the first place. He should know better than this.

Thursday, 10 June 2010

Royal wingnut strikes again

Oh dear! Royal woomeister Prince Charles has been airing is bizarre anti-scientific opinions in public again. Apparently all the world's environmental ills are due to a “deep, inner crisis of the soul”. and it’s Galileo’s fault apparently.
“This imbalance, where mechanistic thinking is so predominant, goes back at least to Galileo’s assertion that there is nothing in nature but quantity and motion.
“This is the view that continues to frame the general perception of the way the world works, and how we fit within the scheme of things."
So Charlie thinks that if we all re-engage with our souls and go in search of Gaia that we will magically reverse the effects of climate change and over exploitation of the planet.
All this rubbish was said at an Islamic centre so no doubt he had a ready audience, but really! Why does he persist in opening his mouth about things he only barely understands?
Fine, a little more respect for the delicate balance of our planet wouldn’t go amiss. But soul and especially religion has nothing to do with it. In fact in the general way of things, religionists in the west are all for exploitation, not stewardship of our resources. It is after all in the Republican camp that you’ll find most of the U.S politicians lobbying for oil drilling rights in Alaska and denying climate change. The oil rich Islamic states even make a national political position out of it.
Remember this is the same guy that thinks homeopathy is a real therapy and that nanotechnology will result in grey goo.
Sorry Charles, but please leave the science to the scientists, who have actual evidence on their side and not vague unfalsifyable beliefs in the soul. Oh, and stop embarrasing yourself in public, it does not do any favours for Britain's image as a scientific nation to have a potential future head of state peddling this sort of new age idiocy.