"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, 28 June 2011

Move over Palin...Make way for Michelle Bachmann

I don’t usually mention U.S politics, except perhaps in passing as many of the well-known atheist blogs carry enough of that already. However I have to mention Michelle Bachmann’s bid to become the Republican candidate for the 2012 presidential election.
The thing is, I’m not sure whether I’m pleased, on the basis that no sane person would ever vote this bible thumping, homophobic tea bagger conservative wingnut into the White House. Or terrified because there just might be enough insane Republican voters to put her there.
Make no mistake about this; “President” Bachmann would make George Bush look like a ultra liberal “pinko”. If she were leader of the free world, not only would civil rights, free speech and rational government become a thing of the past in America, the de-facto theocracy she would attempt to impose would become one of the most destabilising influences in world politics imaginable.
If you were ever disturbed by Bush’s anti-intellectualism, try some of Bachmann’s quotes for size:
"I find it interesting that it was back in the 1970s that the swine flu broke out under another, then under another Democrat president, Jimmy Carter. I'm not blaming this on President Obama, I just think it's an interesting coincidence." -Rep. Michele Bachmann, on the 1976 Swine Flu outbreak that happened when Gerald Ford, a Republican, was president, April 28, 2009

"There are hundreds and hundreds of scientists, many of them holding Nobel Prizes, who believe in intelligent design." -Rep. Michele Bachmann, Oct. 2006

"Carbon dioxide is portrayed as harmful. But there isn't even one study that can be produced that shows that carbon dioxide is a harmful gas." -Rep. Michelle Bachmann, April, 2009

"Does that mean that someone's 13-year-old daughter could walk into a sex clinic, have a pregnancy test done, be taken away to the local Planned Parenthood abortion clinic, have their abortion, be back and go home on the school bus? That night, mom and dad are never the wiser." -Rep. Michele Bachmann, on health care reform's potential to dupe parents, October 2009

If you trust the American people to find this rhetoric as absurd and abhorrent as I do, we have nothing to worry about and we can at least get another four years of Obama style centre politics (I won’t call him a liberal, all U.S politicians lean much further to the right than their equivalents in the U.K) and an administration that knows where the rest of the world is on a map. If on the other hand the Democrats over there don’t come out in force and vote, Bachmann’s God bothering, Christian nation brand of popularist conservatism could get her and the Tea Party Rethuglicans the power they crave. Then watch out!

Monday, 27 June 2011

This is sweet

This is a cute little story.Five Norfolk parishes are to install beehives in their churchyards in order to help the environment in response to the decline in honeybees.
Naturally they are also using this as a way to “…bring the local community together”, for which read create an opportunity to evangelise. Well O.K, you can’t blame them for that and the project is of itself a worthwhile one, however I couldn’t resist a wry smile at this…
"If we can get people together to look after bees... barriers can be brought down and people might feel that it's safe to come into church as well."
I wonder in what sense people feel it is not safe to go to church, other than maybe they’ll get suckered into believing a lot of mystical nonsense and end up crooning hymns to a long dead Palestinian every Sunday. Sort of the same reason people don’t feel safe attending timeshare presentations, they know there is a danger they might end up buying something they neither want nor need.
Whatever, I wish the church well with the bees and hope the locals will still get involved while avoiding the obvious sting.

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

BHA calls out chair of EHRC

It's difficult to improve on the statements in the BHA newsletter which run as follows (Wiki link mine)
Humanists call for EHRC Chair Trevor Phillips to apologise, following ‘sectarian and divisive’ statements

The Chair of Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) Trevor Phillips has been called on to apologise by the British Humanist Association (BHA), after he made heavily biased remarks in favour of religious people and against the non-religious in an interview. The BHA has described Mr Phillips’ comments as ‘divisive and sectarian’.

With no reference whatever to the EHRC’s duties, which legally apply equally to the non-religious, Trevor Phillips stated: ‘Our business is defending the believer. The law we're here to implement recognises that religious identity is an essential part of this society. It's an essential element of being a fulfilled human being.’

He also made a number of acerbic comments about those who are critical of religious beliefs – an important right of free speech, which it is also the purpose of his commission to defend – and suggested that they wanted ‘to drive religion underground’, with no supporting evidence.

Trevor Phillips has something of an ambiguous position on free speech in relation to religion. For example he did say in response to the Dutch cartoons of Muhammed
"One point of Britishness is that people can say what they like about the way we should live, however absurd, however unpopular it is."
He has also spoken on the need for free speech to 'allow people to offend each other.'Which is definitely at odds with his current pronouncements.
I see no evidence that any secular body wants to drive religion underground. Personally I am passionate about exactly the opposite; religion should be visible, exposed and made to justify its claims. It is religion that hides in the shadows of obfuscation, theodicy and equivocation, not humanism and rational thought.

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Religion is just a conspiracy theory

When I say “religion is a conspiracy theory”, I do not mean this in the Dan Brown sense with cabals of black frocked priests and secret societies hiding some deep “truth” from the rest of the world. No, I mean that religion, all of it, is a conspiracy theory.
In the classic conspiracy theory the underlying assumption is that there is an agent or agents clandestinely manipulating events that on the face of it have otherwise perfectly logical and rational explanations. Hence when Princess Diana has a fatal car accident in a French tunnel, (a predictable outcome of being driven too fast by a drunk driver while not wearing a seat belt) it becomes a murder plot involving MI5, senior members of the royal family, the British government, the French police, several coroners and the British and French judiciary. Or, when a lone gunman with a history of assassination attempts on US senators kills President Kennedy, a decades long confabulation of CIA, Russian or Zionist plots are implied as the “real” reason.
The typical signature of conspiracy theories is that they fail the test of Occam’s razor in that the “official” explanation of events is usually much more parsimonious than the conspiracy theory. Assumption is piled on assumption, collaborator upon collaborator until an edifice of daunting complexity is built, all to point to the original premise that “something fishy” is going on.
Our natural tendency to assume intelligent agency behind the simplest of phenomena is one explanation for the appeal and tenaciousness of conspiracy theories. This may be an evolved survival mechanism, if a bush moves in the savannah it is better to assume the presence of a predator and be wrong than assume the opposite and be eaten. Similarly, if enough people shout “tiger!” just because you can’t see it is probably not a good idea to ignore the warning.
Religion got started this way; If it rained or failed to rain, if you survived an illness or not, if the volcano blew, if the lightening struck. All these things required an explanation for the evolving human brain and in the absence of scientific explanations, intentionality was assumed and the conspiracy of the gods was born.
Once the conspiracy was established the familiar tropes emerged. Assumptions piled on assumptions, collaborators upon collaborators, fables upon fables all forming a self serving self supporting edifice that in the absence of cold hard facts to the contrary just grew and grew. Enough people have been yelling “GOD!” for long enough that it takes a strong will to resist buying into the conspiracy. You might not get eaten, but you could wind up in hell.
However, we have now had the police investigation, the results of the judicial enquiry are in and the official records have been made public. Yes, hundreds of years of scientific enquiry and examination of the facts have now proved conclusively that the conspiracy of the gods is just another confabulation. There is no Machiavellian mind behind the volcano, the rainfall or the lightening and no reason to believe there is one hiding behind any of the natural phenomena we observe, no matter how the universe shakes and rustles.

Thursday, 9 June 2011

Bashing the (Arch)bishop

Dr Rowan Williams the current Archbishop of Canterbury has ruffled some political feathers by viciously criticising the current coalition government.
In an article for New Statesman magazine, he accuses the coalition of “committing Britain to radical, long-term policies for which no-one voted", and accusing them of creating “anxiety and anger” in the country by moving forward with swift reforms without sufficient public debate.
Now I suspect that Dr Williams is one of those people I would like in person. As churchmen go, he is a small “l” liberal, with something of a radical past and a nuanced theology, which actually makes me suspect that like a lot of intelligent people in church hierarchies his religious beliefs are far from literal.
I also have some sympathy with some, though not all of his concerns though perhaps for different reasons. He, for example is sceptical of Cameron’s “Big Society” as am I, but where he sees it as a cover for spending cuts, I see it as a cover for faith communities to gain undue influence (maybe he’s missing that opportunity). Also like me he is critical of “Free Schools” although I’m not sure of his motivation (mine is outlined elsewhere).
But all this aside and regardless whether I agree with the substance of his article, the attention it has drawn is yet another example of the ridiculous amount of weight we give to religious opinion. Dr Williams is a theologian (a dubious academic discipline at the best of times) and a poet; he is a member of the House of Lords purely by dint of being a Bishop, totally un-elected and representative of nobody’s views but his own. He cannot even be said to be representing the views of his flock, since Archbishop is not a position you reach democratically. What exactly is his constituency that makes his voice so powerful in the political arena?
The answer of course is the continuation of the established church, a situation that has so little relevance in our multicultural and largely secular society that it is surely time we divorced religion (and certainly a specific religion) from our government altogether. This in my view would be the best outcome of wholesale reform of the House of Lords.
It would not prevent high profile clergy from expressing their political and social opinions and nor should it, but it would put them in the appropriate position of being just another voice in the marketplace of ideas, rather than a privileged arm of government allowing us and our elected officials to treat those opinions accordingly.

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Troops from 16 Air Assault Brigade hold Afghan service

I’m going to do my best not to sound churlish about this, nor am I intending to trivialise the tremendous risks and sacrifices made by our troops abroad. But I could not help thinking that the thanksgiving service held today at St Edmundsbury Cathedral in Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk need not have been, and should not have been such an explicitly Anglican one.
It’s a fair bet that a significant number of the troops attending will be atheists or agnostics, of those that are religious as well as Anglicans there will be Catholics, other protestant sects, Hindus Sikhs and Muslims, so it seems unfortunate that the event was run by the state sponsored religion.
I understand the logic of course; the Queen is the head of the Church of England and Commander in Chief of the Army. These people fight on behalf of queen and country and the established religion gets the job helping them deal with the aftermath.
Lets leave aside for one moment the obvious snipe…
Soldiers from the Army's largest brigade have attended a service to give thanks for their return from Afghanistan and to remember the fallen.
i.e “Giving thanks” to some deity for safe return but conveniently ignoring the point that the same deity is presumably responsible for the deaths as well, in favour of considering why, in this enlightened age we cannot have secular ceremonies that would also have ecumenical religious aspects to allow soldiers of all faiths and none to find their own meaning and comfort.