"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.