"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

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.