"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

Monday, 24 May 2010

Marie Stopes to advertise on T.V

Marie Stopes, a non-profit organisation offering sexual health counselling to women is today to screen an advertisement for its services on British T.V (Channel 4). Because the organisation is known for its unbiased and non-judgmental attitude toward abortion, predictably religious groups and the anti-abortion lobby are crying foul.
The advertisement itself does not mention abortion specifically, but asks the question “are you late” and offers the telephone number of the 24-hour helpline.
This to me seems a reasonable and innocuous advance in getting information to women, who may fear an unwanted pregnancy, in a timely manner. It will offer them pragmatic options and choices free from the guilt-laden rhetoric they may receive from family and friends and would definitely get from a religious organisation.
Some of the arguments coming out of the anti-abortion camp are bordering on ludicrous. In particular this one from Anthony Ozimic of the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children
"[Marie Stopes'] huge multi-national revenue means it can afford TV advertising, which is hugely expensive. This creates an unfair playing field, as pro-life groups simply cannot afford any such advertising". source
This isn’t about relative airtime. His organisation does not give unbiased advice to young women in trouble. They are not a “competing service”, they are an ideological lobby and whether they can afford to advertise on T.V or not is irrelevant. It is not as though there is any lack of “pro-life” propaganda and misinformation spewing out of the churches, creating moral dilemmas where none need exist.
Let’s make no mistake. The choice to abort is not a trivial one and the psychological impact on women who have abortions is real. But, we live in a society that recognises a woman’s right to choose what happens to her body and they have the right to information that will help them make that choice in as rational a way as possible.

Friday, 21 May 2010

Craig Venter: Neither God nor Frankenstein

Dr Craig Venter (he of the human genome fame) has today announced that his institute has made a breakthrough in the creation of synthetic life
I won’t go into the science in detail as it is available elsewhere, but essentially what has been achieved is the insertion of an artificially synthesised bacterial chromosome into the cell of a different bacterium whose own chromosome had been removed.
In this instance the artificial chromosome was designed as a computer sequence mimicking that of Mycoplasma mycoides synthesised in vitro as short strands and “stitched” together by insertion into a yeast.
When the fully compiled chromosome was inserted into M. capricolum the resulting bacterium functioned and expressed the proteins of mycoides.
This is a brilliant result and proof of principle but it is not the creation of “synthetic life” in the way most of us would describe it.
Synthesising a DNA sequence is one thing, the chemistry is relatively straightforward, even if the techniques to achieve it are complex. However to function as life that DNA needs access to the complex array of organelles, ribosomes, transcription RNA and infrastructure of an already living cell. In practice this technique is doing little more than a naturally occuring bacteriophage does when it hijacks the machinary of a host cell.
This is important why? Because already the doomsayers are predicting runaway pathogens, the woo merchants are trotting out the “playing God” cliches and the press are making comparisons to Frankenstein.
Now, it’s not that this sort of technology is risk free. But the essence of what can be done with it is not new. We can already manipulate bacterial genomes to make unique species that will, for example, produce vaccines as a product of their metabolism. Which is exactly the sort of thing Dr Venter hopes to achieve with his technique. But we already have the controls and the precautionary principles in place for this. The source of the variation in the genome is largely irrelevant for the purpose of risk assessment.
The promise of the Venter’s achievement is that gene sequences will be able to be more specifically modified to allow bacterial metabolisms to be harnessed for hydrocarbon production, drugs or chemicals. But the idea that totally novel “Frankenstein” microbes will swamp the earth anytime soon is fantasy.
This whole project failed at the previous attempt purely because one gene was coded incorrectly, and the organism that has been produced is a replication of one already selected by evolution to function.
This is not therefore “synthetic life”, it is just another tool in the armoury of genetic engineering for us to employ, carefully, for our future benefit.

Thursday, 20 May 2010

Draw Mohammed Day

Today is Draw Mohammed Day, in honour of which I’ve knocked up this image in MS Paint in order to prove I have no artistic skills whatsoever. It is also my Facebook profile picture for today only.
It is also to point out that regardless of what the followers of Islam believe, those of us who do not adhere to their particular brand of religious tomfoolery are not obliged to obey its rules.
I eat pork, beef and shrimp. I work on Saturdays and Sundays, all of which are against the rules of some stupid religion or another and I don’t expect to get death threats for doing so. So today along with hopefully thousands of others I am drawing Mohammed. They can’t get us all.

Wednesday, 19 May 2010

Why be an English atheist?

There is something a little frustrating about being an atheist in England. No one really cares! Not even the religious.
We have developed in this country a delightfully wishy-washy religious infrastructure centred mainly around established Anglicanism (more tea vicar?) and to a lesser extent a neutered Catholicism (“Do you believe in God, then Ted?”) that means you can pretty much insult religion anywhere within our borders without seriously offending anyone English.
This was brought home to me by a comment made on my last post, simultaneously published on my Facebook, where Adam Lee of Daylight Atheism said
Very cool indeed. But you Brits have always been much more level-headed when it comes to religion than us, so this only counts for half!
Indeed from his U.S perspective where religion permeates every aspect of culture we must seem a haven of rationality second only to Scandinavia, and for sure no self declared American atheist is going to be President anytime soon.
So why bother to be a vocal, and active atheist in Britain at all?
Firstly, (in case anyone has noticed) religious apathy is not a British condition it is an English one. Take the concept of atheism to parts of Scotland or Ireland and you will get as much approbation as you would in the Bible obsessed Mid West of America. Secondly we are a country with a large and recent influx of Muslims and Islam is a religion with dubious credentials for tolerance (note this is not an anti immigration pitch nor a racist one, I’m cool with people of any ethnicity as my neighbour and I dislike Christianity just as much as I dislike Islam, Judaism, Hinduism and peanut butter, {and I hate peanut butter}). Thirdly, we are suckers for Americanism and quick to adopt U.S cultural norms no matter how facile. All of which makes expressing a U.K –centric atheist perspective worthwhile, regardless of how small or unconcerned my audience might be.
We might not have high profile religious wingnuts on T.V every night, we don’t suffer our politicians appealing to God to preserve our nation at every opportunity, we don’t have our neighbours commenting that we “weren’t in Church this Sabbath” and no-one bats an eyelid if we casually mention we don’t believe in God. But, we do have an increasing number of faith-based schools, we do have a creeping cultural relativism that excuses actions on religious grounds and we do have the spectre of fundamentalist Islam threatening our freedom of speech. So the time to point out that secularism, science and rationality has served our society well, that humanist values, fairness and inclusiveness are better than religious tribalism and prejudice and that pandering to irrational superstitious beliefs is a poor substitute for either of the above, is now.

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

Atheism the winner in U.K election

So the dust is beginning to settle on a tumultuous week of post election politics and we wake up this morning to a Conservative led coalition government incorporating the Liberal Democrats.
Actually I don’t want to say too much about the details of this as the media is already saturated with coverage, opinion and speculation. Except that I think this coalition is the most pragmatic response to a hung parliament given the current financial situation and the ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Afganistan.
Although the alternative, a broad left “progressive” coalition of Liberals, Labour and a ragtag of nationalists and independents may have more accurately reflected the social and political mood of the electorate it would have been too much a hostage to fortune and the minority parties to be a stable government.
I am much more interested in the new face and indeed the new faces of British politics set to emerge as a result of this election and Gordon Brown’s departure as Labour leader.
I have already mentioned that Nick Clegg is an openly atheist politician and I think his rational, pragmatic and refreshingly non-dogmatic approach to politics is a reflection of this. That a self declared atheist is now Deputy Prime Minister is a positive sign that secularism, rationality and critical thinking are getting the upper hand in Britain.
I’m not too bothered that since getting so much media attention Clegg has started referring to himself as “agnostic” rather than atheist, since all atheists are agnostic to some degree and now is not the time to totally alienate the theistic elements of the electorate.
David Cameron is a C of E Christian and has declared a belief in God. However his politics is not grounded in his religious beliefs and he is reported as saying,
"I am a Christian, I go to church, I believe in God, but I do not have a direct line”
which is frankly not a statement that suggests Christian ideology is at the top of his agenda. It gives me some hope that Clegg can talk him out of his plans to expand church affiliated schools, or at least remind him that such schools need a tight control on how they teach the curriculum.
So far so good then, but it could get better. The front runner in the contest to replace Gordon Brown as leader of the Labour Party is David Milliband who is also a self declared atheist. If he wins we will have a Deputy Prime Minister and a Leader of the Opposition firmly in the non-religious camp. Just what we need for clear thinking, rational and pragmatic governance with the hope that our pressing social issues will be addressed without the encumbrance of religious dogma and prejudice.

Thursday, 6 May 2010

Christian preacher arrested

From The Telegraph today:
A Christian street preacher was arrested and locked in a cell for telling a passer-by that homosexuality is a sin in the eyes of God.

The story concerns Dale McAlpine a 42-year-old Baptist, who has preached Christianity in Workington, Cumbria for a number of years.
He was apparently overheard by a PCSO who after an exchange with the passerby informed McAlpine that a complaint had been made and he could be arrested.
He claims that the PCSO then said he was homosexual and identified himself as the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender liaison officer for Cumbria police. Mr McAlpine replied: “It’s still a sin.”
Following futher exchanges he was then arrested and charged under Sections 5 (1) and (6) of the Public Order Act and released on bail on the condition that he did not preach in public.

Now it’s true that all the facts of this case are yet to come to light. Did this preacher merely explain his interpretation of the scripture or was he actually being abusive, offensively homophobic or inciting others to violence?
If the former then this arrest seems to be an abuse of the law and a curtailment of free speech.
It should not be the case that someone can be arrested for stating their opinions about the LGBT community and certainly not for pointing out that the Bible is anti-homosexual as this is just an unfortunate statement of fact.
I say again, no one has the right not to be offended, including gay people. They do however have the right not to be intimidated, oppressed or discriminated against.
By the same token though, those of us who know the Bible is tosh and that Dale McAlpine is a gullible pratt should also be able to say so, without fear of arrest. If all this man is doing is peddling his particular superstition, let him do so as long as he is prepared for others to point out where he has got it wrong.

Tuesday, 4 May 2010

Wear "skinnies" to avoid being raped.

An Australian jury has acquitted an alleged rapist because his victim was wearing skinny jeans
I’m going to declare my interest up front here. I know the victim (although for obvious reasons I will not identify her) and that is the reason I am deviating from my usual blog topics.
This woman was raped, as is so often the case, by someone she knew and to whose house she had gone willingly. In her account of the event the defendant, Nicholas Gonzales, led her upstairs on a pretext, lay on top of her and removed her jeans, before forcing her to have sex.

The Sydney jury sent a note to the judge during the trial asking for more information about 'how exactly Nick took off her jeans'.
The note from a jury member added: 'I doubt those kind of jeans can be removed without any sort of collaboration.'

For some reason this jury believes it is not possible for skinny jeans to be removed without the consent of the wearer, a concept I find ludicrous.
For one thing a strong enough and determined enough assailant can remove pretty much any article of clothing by force, especially if his victim, like this one, has an exceptionally petite figure (she is barely 6,1/2 stone).
For another the act of pulling down a tight pair of jeans tends to bring any underwear down with them, making rape even easier (and yes this is from experience, albeit in play).
Knowing the victim personally I do not doubt her side of the story and that a jury can aquit on such a flimsy conjecture is in any event a serious miscarriage of justice. They just seem to assume with no empirical evidence that a pair of skinnies is an effective rape deterrent, a concept which, if it is remotely true, denim labels everywhere should use as a marketing ploy.
This woman has been waiting a long time for justice, what she got was a sick joke.

this video says it all.