"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

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

No women Bishops (yet) is really a victory for equality

So this was to be the General Synod that finally approved the ordination of women as Bishops in the Anglican Church, which as we now know, it narrowly failed to do despite majorities in favour among the Bishops and the Clergy. The vote failed to reach the required majority in the Laity where a compromise provision for parishes that wanted to opt out of the authority of a female Bishop was considered insufficient by some.
To me, looking at this divided and deluded organisation from the outside, this seems like a good result for women who truly value equality, even in such an inherently misogynistic environment as the church.
There is no equality in being a female Bishop when the authority it is supposed to confer can be flouted on purely sexist grounds by conservatives and evangelicals who choose not to be bound by it. By pandering to the reactionary and, lets face it, more doctrinally correct faction of the church the Synod was actually in danger of creating second class Bishoprics notionally led by women but in reality likely to be subordinated to ‘real’ Bishops (A.K.A men).
It’s almost impossible to imagine any other modern institution where this kind of situation would occur. What company for example would appoint a female CEO but then tell its employees that if they didn’t like being led by a woman they could report to a male alternative instead? It’s a bizarre concept that only in the La-La land of religion would have any kind of intellectual traction and I can’t understand why women in the church would seek ordination under those circumstances.
Frankly I don’t give a damn if the Church of England ties itself in theological knots and pulls itself to pieces trying to unravel them, but if I was to offer them some advice it would be to accept that ordaining women is the right thing to do in the interest of natural justice, to tell the evangelicals to like it or lump it and move forward without the encumbrance of a reactionary rump who will condemn them even more quickly to social irrelevance.
Also, while they are at it, the Bishops must realise that they can’t expound gender equality with respect to women and at the same time oppose marriage equality. They are not entirely separate issues, as a church that claims to be for social justice in one sphere cannot discriminate in another and be intellectually honest
One way this situation could be resolved is for parliament to remove the churches’ exemption to equality legislation, which considering the C of E is an arm of the establishment it really should not enjoy in the first place. This would force the Anglican Church to normalise itself in respect to other British institutions or disestablish and forego its privileged position in government and public life. Either option would be preferable to the current anachronism.

Thursday, 8 November 2012

What the Devil...!

Remaining in a theological state of mind after the previous post and as we are not long past Halloween let’s talk of the Devil.
You will be aware of course of the well known biblical story of how Lucifer, the most beautiful of all of the angels, got a bit above himself and led a factional revolt to put himself in charge, causing God to cast him and his followers down from heaven into the fiery pit of hell from whence, transformed into a priapic scarlet satyr he exacts his revenge by corrupting mankind and leading them from the true path of salvation. However, if this précis is giving you a warm glow of familiarity, it really shouldn’t: no such narrative exists in the Bible.
Rather like the popular concept that saved people go straight to heaven when they die this too is erroneous and even finding evidence for it in the Bible requires more than a little post hoc selective reading.
Starting with Lucifer, this is never used as a proper name in the bible. The Hebrew from which it is translated actually means morning star or possibly shining one and in the context in which it appears (Isaiah 14:12) is now thought to refer to one of the kings of Babylon, (perhaps Nebuchadnezzar II). In the KJV version this was rendered as Lucifer and is capitalised.
How art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning! How art thou cut down to the ground, which didst weaken the nations!
However in Isaiah 14:16 it continues…
They that see thee shall narrowly look upon thee, and consider thee, saying, Is this the man that made the earth to tremble, that did shake kingdoms;
which is clearly not describing an angel. Most other translations of the Bible have since dropped the KJV version and reverted to the morning star translation.
Then there is Satan, who first makes a cameo appearance in 1 Chronicles where he incites King David to perform a census of Israel, which for some reason God wasn’t keen on. However he gets a starring role in Job, which although a later book of the bible was probably actually written earlier, and here Satan is fulfilling his proper role as "The Satan", meaning "the adversary". Like Lucifer above Satan is not really a proper name in this context but the title of an angel who’s mission is to observe human sin and act as their accuser.
The idea that Satan is a fallen angel and synonymous with Lucifer and indeed the serpent in the garden of Eden is a later Christian interpretation that goes with their concept of Hell as a place of torture and damnation (a concept that Judaism does not have as Sheol was where everyone went regardless of conduct).
Satan does not become Biblically associated with the Serpent that tempted Eve until The Book of Revelation authored sometime in the first century AD which also names him as the devil for the first time
The great dragon was hurled down—that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray. He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him.(Revelation 12:9)
It is from this that later portrayals (from the 4th Century onwards) have Satan as a devilish figure with horns and hooves, and the erroneous link with Isaiah’s ‘Lucifer’ begins to be made.
So, even if there was any reason to accept the Bible as a reliable guide to reality it is clear that as far as Old Nick is concerned it really says very little to confirm the popular notion of Satan as most people conceive him to be and as the Church would have us believe.

Wednesday, 31 October 2012

The Father the Son and Holy Ghost walk into a (chocolate) bar

My ex-wife, for her sins, has recently entered the teaching profession and as an aside to her main subject is teaching classes in religious education. Recently she has been discussing the concept of The Trinity, the doctrine confirmed at the councils of Nicaea and Chalcedon which states that God the Father, God the Son and The Holy Spirit are one entity, individually coexistent, omniscient, omnipresent and omnipotent. It’s a bizarre and illogical concept that even theologians have difficulty explaining, even if they think they understand it.
As an exercise in illustrating the idea her class are asked to come up with an example of “three things in one” that go to make up a whole which, as I have contemplated the task, is a lot harder than it sounds. Coming up with a gestalt of three things is relatively easy and my best effort is a song; which comprises rhythm, melody and lyric as distinct elements that combine to make for one coherent auditory experience yet can also be experienced and understood separately. I am told the example often given to the pupils is a Mars bar (chocolate, nougat and caramel in one), but neither really addresses the concept of the Trinity satisfactorily, because for that each individual element must also be complete in its own right and not only represent, but be the whole.
The point is that God is God, Jesus is God, The Holy Spirit is God while all simultaneously being seperate individuals equal in all respects. In particular Jesus does not come ‘after’ God the Father as in the normal parent child scheme of things.
The reason why finding a meaningful metaphor for the Trinity is so hard is because it is, in reality, meaningless; an idea invented because the early church struggled to reconcile the necessary divinity of Christ with his status as a human being. Some of the earliest schisms in Christianity were over this exact issue with differing sects such as the Monophysites and the Arians which had Jesus as a fusion of mortal and divine in the first case and as subordinate to God in the second. The Nicene and Chalcedonian Councils were intended to put a stamp of orthodoxy on the nature of the relationship between God and Christ and this is the theological fix they came up with.
There is in fact very little biblical support for the idea of the Trinity. Genesis has references to God in the plural (Elohim), which some theologians claim as a Trinitarian reference but more likely reflects the polytheist nature of early Judaism. Later writings such as Isaiah portray God in firmly singular terms and the New Testament is similarly lacking in clear references.
What the early Church appears to have done is create a deity with multiple personality disorder purely for the expedient of avoiding accusations of polytheism (a charge which even so is laid by Muslims on Christianity) while allowing the simultaneous worship of Jesus and Yahweh.
Ultimately believers present the irrationality of the Trinity as a divine mystery that defies human understanding so we shouldn’t be surprised that explanations are hard to come by, but this of course is the hallmark of all religious apologetics; if it doesn’t appear to make sense it is just good old ineffable God and his funky mysterious ways bless him.
If a chocolate sweet can really represent the Trinity, it’s probably a Fudge.

Thursday, 25 October 2012

Democracy and the prisoner dilemma

David Cameron has put his foot down over the European Court of Human Rights ruling that the U.K’s blanket ban on prisoners voting in elections should be revoked, stating in the House of Commons:
“No one should be under any doubt — prisoners are not getting the vote under this government,”
He has said before that the thought of prisoners voting makes him “physically sick” and there is no doubt that many on the right of the Conservative party have particularly strong views in this direction.
It is also true that the idea of ignoring the European Court is of itself attractive to the euro-sceptics and large sections of the public so his rhetoric may well be designed to strike a populist chord as well as being a genuine reflection of his views.
However, and this may be a contentious view to some, I think the antipathy to prisoners voting is fundamentally misguided and a misreading of the balance of rights and responsibilities in a democratic nation
To express disgust at the idea of convicted offenders voting is to ascribe the electoral franchise the status of a privilege, something that completely goes against the principle of universal suffrage. Voting was a privilege when only the landed gentry could participate, it was still a privilege when only men were allowed to do it. In a modern democracy the ability to have a say in who governs the society you live in is a universal right, which should not lightly be denied any adult citizen.
Obviously we do deny prisoners many rights, not least the right to liberty, but more than a right, exercising your franchise is a responsibility and in my opinion should be a moral obligation. Participating in the democratic process is a duty of citizenship and those people who do take the time and trouble to become informed, have opinions of whatever hue and then demonstrate that at the ballot box are engaging constructively with the future of the nation
It seems to me that the worst signal we can send to a felon, someone who by definition is either not engaged with society or is destructively opposed to it, is to tell them that they cannot be a part of the process that defines it.
Rather than deny these people the vote, many of whom have probably never bothered anyway, we should in fact insist that they do. Teach them civics, engage them in political debates, educate them in the democratic process and then put a ballot box in every prison and require them to use it.

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

“I disapprove of what you say, but..."

The breakout of riots, violence and murder throughout the Middle East in response to the anti Islamic film “innocence of Muslims” has shone a spotlight once again on the rights and responsibilities of free speech in democratic countries and the extent to which the reactionary nature of Islam should be allowed to impose its own boundaries upon those who do not share its beliefs and taboos.
I would say from the outset that I have not seen the film at the heart of the current controversy and on the basis of reports feel no inclination to do so. There seems to be a general consensus that as well as being amateurish, made with actors co-opted under false pretences and subsequently overdubbed it is also inaccurate and deliberately designed to enflame and enrage members of the Islamic faith. However it is also clear that however egregious and lacking in merit the film may be, the engendered response is far in excess of anything that should or will be tolerated by western democracies.
It is an unfortunate fact of history that religions, when allowed to impose their orthodoxy on a population will resort to the most violent of punishments for any criticism of its gods, prophets or articles of faith. This was true of Christianity during the middle ages and it is certainly true of a large part of the Islamic world today. It is easy in the west to forget that Islam is in effect still stuck in the mindset of its own cultural middle ages where it has festered in a bubble of theocratic protection and isolation from the reforms of the enlightenment and progress in human thought and human rights.
For many Muslims the idea that a country like the U.S.A could have unfettered freedom of expression built into its constitution, allowing almost anything including racist hate speech to be expressed in the public sphere is a massive culture shock. It is, to them, insufficient reason for the legal protection of a person who would be at best prosecuted and at worst executed for defaming Mohammed and their religion in such a way in an Islamic society. U.K law has caveats and restrictions on the extent of free speech that would probably have allowed the film’s producer to be prosecuted here. But the fact that this film is so insulting and that freedom of speech is so protected in America is not the whole story. For one thing Islam (that is some Muslims) has shown an ability to become outraged over criticisms that in the west we would not even have to tax our brains to defend. Salman Rushdie’s ‘Satanic Verses’ for example, which presents a fictional alternative history of Mohammed’s “revelation” in the context of magical realism, or the Dutch cartoons, or Theo Van Gogh’s film ‘Submission’ about women in Islam. Even a recent Channel 4 documentary questioning the accuracy of the accepted history of Islam attracted sufficient criticism to alert Ofcom.
We must not let ourselves get distracted by the idea that a particularly mean minded bit of film on the Internet seems to be the present cause of events. Partly because there are other political and historical tensions at play here, but mainly because Islamists want the west to feel the need to treat their religion with kid gloves, they want us to be afraid to make the slightest criticism however valid or pertinent. They want, in short, to be able to protect their faith from rational enquiry lest it be found wanting and the hegemony broken.

Thursday, 13 September 2012

Eric Pickles reminds us we are all Christians in Britain

Eric Pickles has a piece in the Telegraph this week about how we are a Christian nation and how it’s good for society and how it shapes our morals and blah blah blah! It’s a bunch of pious nonsense that relies on the old tropes of Christians as victims of “aggressive secularism” that completely ignores the unwarranted privilege we still award to this state sponsored superstition.

Eric Pickles

Christianity in all its forms has shaped the heritage, morality and public life of Britain; and Christian belief continues to influence our society for the better.
“Christianity in all its forms” Really? are we including the Puritan witch hunts here, or the Catholic inquisitions? Are we including Irish sectarianism? I will grant that certain liberal interpretations of Christianity are very much on a par with the moral sentiments of the British people at large, but the influence is in the other direction. Christianity’s putative tolerance and inclusiveness (confined to a particular strain of Anglo-catholicism incidentally and not a feature of Christianity otherwise) is derived from the civilising and moderating influence of the enlightenment and secular morality, without which it would be imposing its intolerance and excercising its control unchecked.
Christians continue to be positively involved in public life, from the role of Anglican bishops in scrutinising legislation in the House of Lords
Yes they do: why is that? What is it that gives twenty-six purveyors of sophisticated fairy tales the right to pronounce on the laws and policies of a democratic nation. Let’s stop them doing that shall we?
Religion is the foundation of the modern British nation: the Reformation is entwined with British political liberty and freedoms, the King James Bible is embedded in our language and literature, and the popular celebrations of the Royal Wedding and Diamond Jubilee placed the Church side by side with our constitutional monarchy.
For a start the Reformation in Britain (more properly in England) had a lot more to do with Henry V111’s sexual and financial ambitions than it did to political liberty and freedoms. In fact when the Church of England did emerge other reformist groups were penalised and the Catholic Church was made illegal. Again it is secularism that protects political and religious freedoms, not religion.
As the for the King James Bible, sure some of the more florid and poetic passages have entered and enriched the English lexicon, so has Shakespeare and Chaucer, the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, the sayings of Confucius. So what? Just because this particular translation of the bible, which in any event was more a political and literary exercise than a divine one, has spawned a million clichés doesn’t make it a foundational document or morally relevant.
Pointing out that royal events are associated with the monarchy is circular reasoning par excellence . We have a constitutional monarchy and a constitutional religion, of course they coincide, the rules are set up that way.
To suggest that Christians in our country are literally persecuted would be to demean the suffering of those around the world facing repression, imprisonment and death. We should, however, recognise that long-standing British liberties of freedom of religion have been undermined in recent years by aggressive secularism, especially in the more politically correct parts of the public sector.
Well I’m glad that Eric Pickles understands the difference between persecution and legitimate criticism but it’s a shame he doesn’t make the distinction between freedoms and privileges. Once again secularists are “aggressive” for trying to maintain religious neutrality in government and public life. But, what are these freedoms we are so aggressively denying Christians?
We are committed to the right of Christians and people of other beliefs to follow their faith openly, including by praying in public and promoting their beliefs – as well as wearing religious symbols. Employers, especially in the public sector, should not stop employees wearing visible religious symbols except where there is a common-sense reason, such as a genuine safety risk. Banning discreet religious symbols for reasons of political correctness is not acceptable. We should challenge the nonsense that religious displays could “cause offence” and therefore should be hidden from view.
Ah! This again, because of course Christians all over the country are being prevented from praying and wearing crosses and crucifixes for no reason other than it might "cause offense". As pointed out before, none of the recent stories involving religious attire have been anything other than about resricting jewellery for practical or corporate policy reasons, and as far as I know people can pray in public wherever they like on their own time and this “aggressive” secularist has no desire to stop them. However…
 We have resisted a legal challenge by the intolerant National Secular Society to ban town hall prayers. We have changed the law to safeguard and entrench the right of councillors to pray at the start of council meetings should they wish, as has been the British tradition for centuries.
…this I do object to. Praying to Jesus at council meetings is not the freedom to pray in public, it is privileging one religious worldview over others on taxpayers' time and money, it excludes the many people in all communities who have either no interest in the Christian God or who actively appeal to other deities. Christian councillors who want to make public affirmations of their Christian belief are free to do so on their own time and out of their own pockets, but not on my dime thank-you very much. It may have been a “British tradition for centuries” but that was in the days when being religious and Christian was a default position (largely because we didn’t know any better) and before significant portions of our society were Muslims, Sikhs, atheists, agnostics, Wiccans, Druids, Jews,Jedis, Jains, Buddhists, Hindus etc.
Talking of which
The interpretation of human rights laws cuts both ways: just as we have resisted gold-plating made in the name of religion, so we must resist spurious legal challenges against religion. Nor should we allow equality laws to open the door to moral relativism and reduce established religion to the equivalent status of any other belief. We should not be bashful about asserting that the Church of England or the Roman Catholic Church have a greater role to play in the public life of our nation than the Church of Elvis or the Church of Scientology.
And why not? It sounds a reasonable argument when you frame it in terms of Elvis and Scientology, both obviously made up religions, but where do you draw the line.? Mormonism is a made up fringe religion, but claims to be Christian, do LDS groups not get a say? There are many pagan groups out there following made up versions of older religions, what about them? Or the Calvinist protestant traditions that made up their theology of presuppositionalism when it split from Roman Catholicism, do they count? What about the Muslims and the Jews and and the Hindus, many from the regions of former British Empire, why should we not value their viewpoints?
I know this is a reductio absurdum but the point is all religions are made up, some of them were just made up longer ago than others and the fact that we have traditionally followed (or enforced) one religion over another is no reason to continue to do so.
We live in a society that contrary to the rhetoric of conservatives, is more inclusive, more tolerant, more peaceful and more equal than ever. It has not got this way because of Christianity: the last bastions of state approved bigotry are only still there because the Church is fighting reform tooth and nail, as it did against abolition of the slave trade and universal sufferage. We are not the nation we are because we are a Christian nation, but in spite of it.

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Pro-choice and pro-abortion

Largely ignored by the U.K media, American Republican Todd Akin’s comments about “legitimate rapes” and his poorly informed opinion that women rarely get pregnant from them have once again put abortion centre stage in the culture wars of the U.S.A.
All of this is part of the wider debate about contraception and abortion provision under ‘Obamacare’ and the bleating of the Christian right and Catholic Bishops about maintaining religious freedom privilege. But actually there is a danger of the pro-choice side of the abortion debate being backed into an ideological corner if they allow the concept of “legitimate” reasons, rape or otherwise, to become part of the argument.
If asked where I stand on this issue, my response is usually “pro–abortion” rather than pro-choice as not only does the former imply the latter it is a stronger statement about the right of a woman to choose. To be pro-abortion is to imply not only that a woman who wants a termination should be able to have one, but also that having one is the correct and moral thing to do if she wants one.
The problem with arguing with the incongruously named pro-life lobby about whether abortion is warranted on the grounds of rape is to miss the point entirely. A woman, if she is to enjoy autonomy over her own body and reproduction should be able to abort a pregnancy, certainly an early term one, for whatever reason she likes. Whether she was raped, had a one-night stand or a contraceptive failure with her long time partner is irrelevant. If she finds herself to be pregnant and she doesn’t want to be, she should be able to terminate that pregnancy without having to justify that decision to anyone else
To insist that a conceptus, blastocyst or early foetus has rights that trump the rights of a conscious adult to her own body is not only ludicrous it is deeply immoral if human rights and gender equality are to have any meaning whatsoever. The science is clear that such abortions are not the murder of sentient human beings and stripped of unwarranted religious assertions of ‘ensoulment’ and similar unverifiable nonsense need carry no stigma or shame whatsoever. It would, in fact, be more reasonable to question the ethicality of bringing an unwanted pregnancy to term
I am in sympathy with the principle that the longer a pregnancy is allowed to progress the more justification is required for termination. But at the point where a woman becomes aware that she is pregnant no other justification than her own desire need count and it seems to me that the less stigma there is attached to that decision, the earlier a woman is likely to make it. Late term abortions are usually only performed on medical grounds as it is, but even here the principle that the woman’s right to health supersedes the foetus’ right to be born should not be sacrificed to some deontological presumption that abortion is an intrinsic evil that should only ever happen in extremis.
Pandering to the politically correct labels of pro-life and pro-choice is an unnecessary confusion. By being pro-abortion you can affirm that it is not only a choice, but a morally neutral choice that will not allow the anti-abortion lobby to hide behind obnoxious concepts like “legitimate rape”.

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Not just culture: It's religion!

It is a fact of the world that there exists a diversity in cultural practices surrounding all sorts of human behaviour; from how food is prepared and shared, to dress styles and rites of passage and one of the pleasures of travelling, either in reality or vicariously via television documentaries is being exposed to this diversity. It is also true that, in the main, such diversity adds colour and richness to the world and for that reason alone is worth preserving, at least as long as the people practicing it want things that way.
However, not all cultural practices are so benign that they can be experienced or enjoyed with total equanimity.
I’ve been following Chinese chef Ken Hom’s Exploring China: A Culinary Adventure the latest episode of which saw him in Yunnan province, Southwest China sampling the food of the ”minorities”. In particular Ken and his co-traveller Ching-He Huang were attending a celebratory meal with the local Hui Muslims. This Chinese minority group follow the same dietary laws as Muslims the world over and appear to share their misogyny and patriarchal pretensions too.
Ching’s reaction to be being shuffled off to a separate party with the rest of the women was at first one of mild but obvious surprise and offence, but then in the voice over, she excuses it as “their culture”, and no further reference to the implied status of the women is made, either within the context of the meal, or in the direct to camera portions of the program.
Immediately prior to this Ken and Ching were witness to the Halal slaughter of a goat, to be roasted for the meal. In this ritual preparation of food the animal is blessed in the name of Allah, its jugular slit and so bled to death. Now, I am aware that the jury is still out on whether this is a more or less humane way to slaughter meat animals than the western preference for stunning first with a captive bolt. The scientific evidence is conflicted at best. However the program managed to gloss over the controversial aspects, mainly by making the process appear much quicker than it is and not showing the reflexive struggle that the dying animal always displays when killed this way.
When Ching comments to their host that in her culture the blood (which is Haraam according to Islam) would be soaked up with rice and eaten, she was responded to with a terse “No!”
Of course people can choose what they are prepared to eat, but the finality of their hosts reaction brooked of no further conversation on even the possibility that other culinary options existed.
The reason the program doesn’t question these cultural attitudes is because, well, it’s not just cultural: Its religious. Almost any other quirk of indigenous or local behaviour could be politely commented on and compared and contrasted with what obtained elsewhere in the world. One could even imagine having a civilised debate about which if any of such practices were ‘better’ however that was defined. But once culture and religion become conflated conversation stops and even comment is seen as inappropriate.
It’s bad enough when this stops us criticising sexual segregation, or debating the merits of animal rights. But religion provides cover for the most egregious of cultural practices and discrimination from denying women’s rights to education or franchise, to genital mutilation, forced marriage, violent exorcism of ‘possessed children’ and stonings.
In twenty-first century Britain we should not let program makers get away with portraying discrimination as quaint and culturally relative without at least passing comment on whether this should be appropriate to any culture anywhere today. And we should not be shy of exposing the role religion plays in perpetuating such violations of basic human rights.

Friday, 17 August 2012

Pussy Riot:Theocracy:Putin:America

I'm going to assume, in the interests of my sanity and some brevity, that I do not need to give a detailed backstory on the events that lead the russian punk band, Pussy Riot, into court on charges of hooliganism for a protest staged in Moscow's main cathedral against the Orthodox Church's support for Vladimir Putin.
Today Maria Alyokhina, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, and Yekaterina Samutsevich were sentenced to two years in prison.
Now anyone with an ounce of sense knows the real reason why this totally inappropriate sentence for an act of mild disrespect of “sacred space” was handed down; it is entirely political and intended to show that criticism of Putin's new autocracy will not be tolerated. So far, so much real politique. But the true injustice here is the abuse of religious indignation for state purposes.
Pussy Riot have been sentenced (ostensibly) for offending the religious sensibilities of Russia's orthodox believers, which is absolutely not the role of any credible democratic government. But it highlights, vividly, why those countries that still manage to maintain a reasonably healthy distance between church and state should be vigorously encouraged to keep it that way.
As soon as a government has the ability to exploit the ultra – sensitive nerves of the religious community to suppress criticism of its own regime what you have is full blown theocracy. This is the lesson for those who would accept that “religious freedom” includes the ability to define what is or is not a suitable forum for dissent. Allow the government to support the “rights” of churches, and particularly established ones, to demand penal retribution for acts of “sacrilege” and you open the door to suppression of free speech.
This is the power catholicism craves in America and the Pope must be creaming his vestments at the thought of this verdict. This is the assumption of privilege that the Anglican Church whines endlessly about losing, and desperately longs to regain. This; this travesty of justice in the name of baseless offences against religious sentiment is what government endorsement of religion leads to. It makes a mockery of any idea of religious tolerance and provides a smokescreen for state suppression of freedom of speech and human rights.
O.K, this is Putin's Russia and why should we expect any better, but it could be here tomorrow and the weak link in our defences is religious privilege and undue respect for the trappings that accompany it; don't grant either if you value free speech.

Monday, 30 July 2012

The DofE responds on creationist academy

In this post on the approval of more faith based free schools I said
"The groups applying for Free School status are noticeably more evangelical in nature and are unlikely to confine their religious content to the appropriate places in the syllabus. This is especially true in the case of the proposed Exemplar Academy, a rehash of a bid originally made by the Everyday Champions Church that was, quite correctly, rejected by the DoE. So, why Michael Gove should think that a change of name and the removal of the explicit link with the chuch should have actually changed this group’s creationist agenda is beyond my comprehension"
Well it was obviously beyond the comprehension of the BHA too as they launched a letter writing campaign to Michael Gove, in which I happily participated.
Here is the reply received from his office (emphasis mine):
Thank you for your correspondence, addressed to the Secretary of State, expressing disagreement with his decision to support the Exemplar New Business Academy Free School project with its links to the Everyday Champions Church. I hope you will appreciate the Secretary of State for Education receives a vast amount of correspondence and is unable to reply to each one personally. It is for this reason I have been asked to reply.No Free School is allowed to teach creationism. The Free School application guidance published by the Department now specifically says creationism, intelligent design and similar ideas cannot be taught as valid scientific theories.
Furthermore, the funding agreements for all Free Schools state that divine creation should not be taught as an 'evidence-based view or theory' (a scientific theory) in any lesson: so if a school did do this they would be putting their funding at risk. We are confident that the Free School project you mention will follow the rules, having explored these questions robustly with them at interview.
Prior to entering into a funding agreement, the Academy Trust is required to carry out a consultation about their plans to open a Free School. Consultations can be run in a number of ways including surveys, the launch of a simple website, meetings of key individuals and open public meetings. Academy Trusts also need to demonstrate that they have considered the views of their stakeholders. Most do this by publishing a report setting out the key findings of their consultation.
Every application approved has had to demonstrate that the new school will provide a broad and balanced curriculum. Free Schools are subject to Ofsted inspections in the same way as all other state schools, and the government has powers to intervene in a school where there is significant cause for concern.
Please be assured that the Department will be working with the project mentioned over the coming months to ensure that the assurances they have provided us with are honoured.
The rhetoric is encouraging (it is at least a relief to know that the Department of Education understand what a scientific theory is) but they are being very naïve if they think the Exemplar Academy won’t make it very clear to students what they are expected to believe about the theory of evolution. It is very easy to discuss evolution in a biology class in a “this is what scientists think happened” sort of way and even turn out children who correctly answer questions like “What is the scientific explanation for the diversity of life?” But it is equally easy to have the topic discussed in R.E or during assembly in definitive biblical terms, without claiming divine creation to be an evidenced theory.
What Michael Gove and the DofE need to realise is that fundamentalist Christians are intrinsically dishonest; they may well keep to the letter of the law, but they will not honour its spirit. He is expecting this academy’s staff to teach scientific theories, with which they profoundly disagree, in an independent minded and dispassionate way: Not - a - chance.

Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Tony Blair and his futile ecumenicalism

The Telegraph has an interesting interview with former Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair. Since leaving political office he has converted to Catholicism, the religion of his wife Cherie, and set up his Faith Foundation which “aims to promote respect and understanding about the world's major religions and show how faith is a powerful force for good in the modern world.”
His personal approach is unrelentingly ecumenical and he seems to me to have an almost naïve expectation that dialogues between moderate representatives of different faiths can achieve a rapprochement that will stifle religious extremism.
Under the benign influence at Oxford of the Anglican priest Peter Thompson, young Tony came to believe that faith and reason could be reconciled. From this he concluded that different faiths, especially the ''Abrahamic’’ religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, could build on what they have in common. Now he reads the scriptures of other faiths, and finds his own enriched. In particular, he reads the Koran. ''I see the Koran very much as an outsider. It stands in the great prophetic tradition of trying to return people to the basic principles of spirituality. Taken for its time, it was an extraordinarily progressive declaration of principle. It is also extraordinary for a Christian to read: for example, there are more references to Mary than in the Gospels. The tragedy is that it has been so warped and misapplied.’’
The problem with this is that the people who don’t share his particular view of the Qu’ran presumeably won’t think their understanding is “warped and misapplied”, any more than Christian fundamentalists believe that their literal interpretations are incorrect.
The fault lines in religion are immense; the only thing they have in common is the belief that a supernatural entity is in ultimate control of the world and that they alone have the key to understanding the rules it wants us to live by. Unfortunately they don’t agree on the rules which is where the problem lies.
Blair has experienced this himself:
Mr Blair cites a meeting at the Davos Economic Forum a few years ago. There were representatives of four different faiths on the platform, each with what he calls ''an exclusive truth claim’’ for their religion. He asked them if they thought that only their faith led to salvation. ''It was interesting to see them reacting as politicians react. I spotted all the techniques of walking round it.’’
The fatal flaw with ecumenicalism is exacty this. No religion will give up its exclusive claim to the truth and none of these truth claims can be empirically verified to anybody’s satisfaction. It is impossible to settle the dispute and there is no middle ground, even for the most moderate of faith leaders.
This is not to say that individuals cannot concede that many paths to salvation may exist and indeed liberal interpretations are lived within many faiths. Blair himself is avowedly one of these:
As a Catholic convert, he ''accepts the doctrine of the Catholic Church’’, but ''I’m not a doctrinal ideologue’’. He feels ''no great revulsion, quite the opposite’’ for the Church of England, which he left. He became a Catholic because of his Catholic wife, Cherie, and their family: ''I didn’t really analyse a great deal. I just felt more at home there.’’
But he has thrown in his lot with an organisation that under Ratzinger has become, if anything, more doctrinal, more entrenched and more out of tune with liberal religious sentiment than ever. His personal support for gay marriage for example will not find favour in the Vatican any more than it has with the Anglican Church.
Faith leaders know that paying lip service to ecumenicalism is a requisite for keeping their positions of influence in civil and political society, but they must also be mindful that accepting too much liberal theology weakens the unique selling points of their individual faiths. The C of E is constantly wrestling with this very problem as its creeping concessions to liberalism lead it dangerously close to schism time and again.
Tony Blair has, correctly, identified religious fundamentalism as one of the biggest threats to global society and to give him credit he is using his skill and reputation to try to effect a change. But he is seeing religion through the eyes of a liberal believer and what he sees is not the picture I get looking from the outside. Religions may have some beliefs in common but they posses no truths, merely claims they cannot substantiate and high minded and high level discussions only serve to lend unwarranted credibility to those claims. Secularism, the only possible solution that values individual belief while protecting society from sectarian oppression would be a better goal for him to apply his energy and experience towards, but unfortunately he has fallen victim to the “straw Dawkins” argument:
he also believes that the anti-religion, Richard Dawkins crowd make everything worse. The extreme atheists ''require religious fundamentalists’’ to make their argument for them, so ''We must push back against aggressive secularism’’.
None of the new atheists to my knowledge argue entirely from the narrative of religious fundamentalism; secularism is not dependent on the actions of terrorists, as though they were a ‘necessary evil’ for the movement to exist. Secularists, Dawkins among them, see reason and verifiable data as the route to a fair and decent society. This is not calling for state imposed atheism, people of religious conviction can still argue for the kind of society they want, but religion itself cannot be the raison d’etre because Tony Blair’s ecumenical vision is unattainable, an ineffable carrot offered by religion to match their claims of salvation.

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

GLBTQ, Christian and in holy orders, why?

One of the things that never fail to amaze me is that some GLBTQ individuals not only subscribe to Christianity (and Islam), they also want to be ministers in the Church. But in order to do this they must adopt such an extremely liberal interpretation of Biblical teaching as to make their beliefs completely at odds with the institution they belong to.
Dr Jeffrey John, the Dean of St Albans is a case in point. An openly gay clergyman living in a celibate same sex relationship, who has been twice denied ordination as a Bishop due to his sexuality, believes that the Anglican Church is mistaken in its opposition to gay marriage and has even considered suing them for discrimination, he still obviously wants to represent an institution that cannot, doctrinally, represent him. Dr John says on the Out4Marriage website…
"If you are gay, please don’t judge God by the Church. “The official Church doesn’t speak with integrity on this issue and so, frankly, doesn’t deserve to be listened to […]. If you are gay, then please understand that God made you as you are, and loves you as you are, and if you invite him into your relationship, then of course he will bless you and sustain your love just as much as he blesses and sustains any other marriage.
This of course is the reasonable position; the attitude of the loving God liberal Christians would like to believe exists. It is not however the God of Abraham’s position either in the Old or New Testaments as is easily demonstrated. Liberal Christians will point to the new covenant as established by St Paul who says that Christians have no need to follow the old laws, although Jesus himself is supposed to have had other ideas. Even so, Paul himself condemns homosexual acts specifically in his letters to the Romans.
Of course I am not pointing this out to suggest that the bible is morally correct in this: quite the opposite. Dr John is morally streets ahead of the Bible and the Church he represents, but he is deluded if he thinks that the Christian God is on his side. Personally if I found myself working for an institution so fundamentally at odds with my worldview and lifestyle I would leave it. Setting aside that there is no rational reason to believe in deities of any description, why endorse a church that worships one as bigoted as Yahweh?

Friday, 20 July 2012

On polygraphs and paedophiles

I was interested to hear this snippet of news on the radio today. The government have apparently been conducting a trial in the Midlands involving subjecting convicted sex offenders out on licence to lie detector tests as a way of monitoring their ability to adhere to their licence conditions. The trial, independently assessed by the University of Kent, has been hailed a success because offenders subjected to the test admitted to twice the number of breaches than did controls given standard interviews only.
There are obviously a few ethical issues here, one being that when this scheme is rolled out nationwide and adopted as policy, what will happen to offenders who are deemed by the machine to be lying as polygraph tests are notoriously unreliable. Although claims by the manufactures say that they can be correct up to 95% of the time, independent studies suggest 65% (not a lot more than chance) is a more likely figure.
Part of this is due to the fact that the physiological traits measured by polygraphs (blood pressure, pulse, respiration, and skin conductivity) are only partially indicative of the assumed stress brought on by lying. They can be indicative of stress for other reasons (not least being falsely accused of lying) and they can be absent if the subject is a practiced liar, which sex offenders notoriously are.
Regardless, the results of the trial convincing as they are still require some explanation and I suspect that ignorance of the true efficacy of lie detection is at the root of it. Those subjects who were interviewed under the polygraph probably believed that they could be caught out in a lie and therefore were more forthcoming with the truth, whereas, the controls were almost certainly behaving as they normally would. Which is, from a law enforcement and risk control point of view, still a good argument for using the technique. I just wonder how long its efficacy will last if offenders ever realise that the risk of being caught out is minimal.
Assuming the government and the probation service are aware of the dangers of relying on polygraph evidence and reaonable checks and balances are in place to protect offenders who are genuinely reforming and adhering to their licence, I see no harm in this policy. But the rational that is being presented to the general public for its utility is I think spurious and probably intentionally so.

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

More religious Free Schools approved

My fears about  Michael Gove’s Free Schools initiative are proving to have been justified. In the recent round of approvals for 2013, thirty-three new ‘faith’ schools, one of which is openly creationist’, and a Steiner school have been included.
It was inevitable that given the opportunity to have access to young people and to appropriate state funding to proselytise, religions of all stripes would take advantage of the system. The breakdown according to the BHA is as follows:
Church of England (8) Greek Orthodox (1): Christian (12): Including one creationist. Sikh (5): Jewish (3): Muslim (3): Multi-faith/spiritual (1):
This constitutes a full third of the schools approved in this round and can only serve to increase divisiveness in a generation that will need more than ever to be free of religious and racial intolerance. As a trend I find it extremely worrying especially as there seems to be no clarity on the extent to which such schools can discriminate on religious grounds in respect of admissions or recruitment.
It is extremely unlikely that these schools will be as religiously benign as existing faith schools that have been under the auspices of the state and OFSTED can appear to be. The groups applying for Free School status are noticeably more evangelical in nature and are unlikely to confine their religious content to the appropriate places in the syllabus. This is especially true in the case of the proposed Exemplar Academy, a rehash of a bid originally made by the Everyday Champions Church that was, quite correctly, rejected by the DoE. So, why Michael Gove should think that a change of name and the removal of the explicit link with the chuch should have actually changed this group’s creationist agenda is beyond my comprehension.
I suspect that a certain blind respect for faith is a work here and the government is not seeing the potential for damaging worldviews to be inflicted on the pupils at these schools. It should be sufficient that the parents and faith communities of our country’s children are able to bring them up in whatever tradition they feel is appropriate, without the state reinforcing those beliefs via an education system that should be secular and inclusive.
Children have a right to be exposed to ideas that contradict and conflict with those they hear at home and school is exactly the environment where that should happen. Faith schools cannot be relied upon to deliver impartial information, particularly in respect of evolution and, perhaps more seriously, gender equality issues and even with OFSTED oversight we will never be sure what bigotry they are being fed.

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Legalise the highs, Ken

It’s almost painful to see Justice Secretary Ken Clarke admitting to the Commons home affairs select committee inquiry into drugs, that the tired approach of criminalising their use is failing miserably while at the same time refusing to change track.
"We are all disappointed by the fact that, far from making progress, it could be argued we are going backwards at times. But my own personal view is that I would be worried about losing the deterrent effect of criminalisation of youngsters who start experimenting … One thing that does put them off is that they would get into trouble with the police."
So, getting into trouble with the police deters would be drug users, yet there are more drug users than ever. Yeah right, that makes lots of sense. I know, first hand , that the decision to experiment with recreational drugs has very little to do with their illegality or otherwise. Usually, depending on circumstances, it’s a combination of curiosity, peer pressure and availability as the chances of getting caught in possession of a prohibited substance is actually quite small unless you bring yourself to the attention of the police for other reasons.
The casual use of marijuana, amphetamines and MDMA derivatives such as ecstasy is ubiquitous, not only among the young but also within ‘mainstream’ society. The generations that grew up through the seventies and eighties are more than familiar with the jargon, paraphernalia and effects of recreational drugs and in my personal experience do not suffer from the paranoia about their use and abuse in society to the extent that the government seems to believe they should. In this respect the general public are probably more in tune with reality than the authorities. Ken Clarke puts his position this way:
"I have not reached the stage of that blinding insight about exactly how we are going to improve our record, is the honest truth […] We have been engaged in a war on drugs for more than 30 years. We are plainly losing it. We have not achieved very much progress. The same problems come round and round. But I do not despair – we keep trying every method we can to get on top of what's one of the worst social problems for the country and the biggest single cause of crime."
Well one of the reasons drug use is a social problem, and definitely why it’s a cause of crime is precicely because it’s illegal. Illegality drives up the price of drugs on ‘the street’ (the actual base cost of many of them in their country of origin being very low), attracting already criminal elements into the supply chain so requiring users to associate with dangerous people to obtain them. Illegality also means that production is covert and with no quality control, so that many drugs are contaminated with other more dangerous toxins exacerbating the risk of use. Illegality criminalises otherwise law abiding people for making personal choices about what they consume and their preferred mental state. Illegality makes it difficult for people to seek help if their drug use becomes a problem. Illegality maintains the impression that all drug use is intrinsically a bad thing.
Nobody, well not me at any rate, is arguing that recreational drugs are risk free. They undoubtedly have detrimental effects on some aspects of health, and some are more harmful than others. But society is able to tolerate and control many risky lifestyle choices without making criminals of those that adopt them. Alcohol, nicotine and sugary snacks are all obvious and legal indulgences that can result in poor health outcomes. But so are skiing, rock climbing, sky-diving and a whole host of adrenaline fuelled pursuits that society positively endorses. The fact that a behaviour is a risk to someone’s personal health is not a reason to criminalise it.
But these socially sanctioned behaviours are all regulated to an extent. Alcohol and tobacco are sold under licence and the potential burden to the state of poor health is mitigated by taxation, while some countries are considering treating sugar in the same way. Extreme sports are usually only permitted in appropriate places, where the risk to non participants is minimalised.
This is exactly the way we should treat recreational drugs; legalise them, sell them from suitably licensed premises which in turn source them from legitimatised producers, then tax them but at a price that is not worth smugglers undercutting. You can also make the penalties for illegally importing and supplying drugs as draconian as you like.
The result would be; revenue for the state, controlled dosage and quality control for the users, the marginalisation of criminal networks, opportunities for addiction education, medical supervision and social inclusion for those currently marginalised by the law. The idea that droves of teens would start jacking up in back alleys just because it was legal is ludicrous, drugs are readily available now as Ken Clarke seems to agree.
The real harm is in the prohibition which filters profits into racketeering, people trafficking and terrorism, saddles users with a criminal record and becomes a self fulfilling prophecy creating a vicious cycle of social ills.
It really is time to ‘legalise those highs’ Ken.

Monday, 2 July 2012

Daylight Atheism: Buy this book

If I think back and ask myself how long I have been an atheist, the answer, probably, is most of my life. I can certainly remember declaring a disbelief in the Christian God at my cub scout meeting at the age of maybe nine or so when I was trying to avoid participating in the closing prayer. I left scouting soon afterwards.
However, my serious engagement with atheism as a philosophy and as a social movement is actually only a decade or so old, the first stirrings of which, like so many other “new” atheists originated with the events at the world trade centre on the seventh September 2001. I read Sam Harris’ “The End of Faith” soon after it’s publication in 2004 and already a fan of Richard Dawkins’ evolutionary writing lapped up "The God Delusion” a couple of years later followed swiftly by Dan Dennett’s .’Breaking the Spell’
But following this rush to print of atheist themed books and looking further for thoughts and analysis of the fundamentalist religion phenomenon and the secular response to it I turned to the Internet and the various atheist themed blogs to be found there. It was not long before my attention was caught by a prolific and erudite commenter going by the handle of Ebonmuse and I followed him back to his own websites, the popular blog Daylight Atheism and his collection of essays at Ebonmusings
Daylight Atheism: Adam Lee
The mind behind both of these excellent resources is Adam Lee and his first book also called Daylight Atheism has just been published for the Kindle. The book, particularly in the first half draws heavily on the essays found in Ebonmusings, but sewn together in a sequence of arguments that plainly and cogently make the case for atheism and explain the problems with the religious worldview. Lee tackles key theological and philosophical topics such as the problem of evil and succinctly rebuts the apologetics of theologians such as Alvin Plantinga’s Free Will Defense. He also firmly defends atheism as a positive philosophy and gives the lie to the oft-heard religious assertion that we are all nihilistic, hedonistic, amoral communists. In this respect the opening chapters are a perfect atheism 101 both for newly minted atheists and the interested faithful alike.
What really sets this book apart from other atheist polemics is Lee’s suggestion for a post religion system of ethics. Following on from ideas developed on his blog, he calls it Universal Utilitarianism which he précis as
Always minimize both actual and potential suffering; always maximize both actual and potential happiness.
He argues succinctly that he considers morality to be objective if from natural rather than Platonic origins and that his system both avoids the pitfalls of other forms of Utilitarianism while steering a clear path between Moral Relativism and Divine Command. Although more competent moral philosophers than me (most of them) may raise eyebrows at the casual assumption of objective morality, there is no doubt that his ideas offer a practical and pragmatic way for society to reach moral conclusions that are independent of culture and religion.
The book concludes with some powerful and, in places, quite poetic guidance for those people of faith contemplating doubt and the possibility that they are atheists for the first time. For mainstream readers in the U.K this section of the book may seem a little overwrought living as we do in a society where the usual response to saying you’re an atheist is “so what?” but in Lee’s America atheists are among the most vilified of minorities in the country and leaving religion can also mean alienation from community, family and lost opportunities for work. It is also worth remembering that in multicultural Britain we have ethnic communities where atheists are almost certainly struggling with the same issues and I would hope that his words would be just as comforting and useful to them as to his compatriots.
This book has been a long time coming. It was back in 2008 that I was privileged to see an early draft and along with several others allowed to offer my opinion. Finally published by Big Think, Lee’s blogging home since 2011, the finished product deserves a place alongside the now near canonical output of the original four horsemen.

Thursday, 28 June 2012

So, secularists opposing circumcision are what now?

Mmmm'Kaaay! I  wasn’t sure whether to write about this or not, but then I went and read the drivel spewing out of Brendan O’Neill in The Telegraph about the recent ruling regarding circumcisions from the Cologne regional court in Germany. The case in question was brought following the circumcision of a child of Muslim parents that resulted in complications requiring emergency hospitalisation. The original Doctor involved was charged, though subsequently cleared of wrongdoing but the court wanted to provide clear guidelines for the future and declared on Tuesday that child circumcision constituted 'illegal bodily harm,' even with parental consent. In its verdict, the court said that the 'fundamental right of the child to bodily integrity outweighed the fundamental rights of the parents.'
Predictably Jewish and Muslim leaders are condemning the prohibition, snarling about “freedom of religion” . For example Ali Demir, the Chairman of the Islamic Religious Community in Germany said:
'This is a harmless procedure with thousands of years of tradition behind it and high symbolic value.’ 'The decision of the Cologne State Court that the religious circumcision of boys is illegal and punishable by law is a wholly inappropriate interference with freedom of religion. I feel the ruling is hostile to integration and discriminatory for those affected.'
Which is the worst argument for continuing to perform unnecessary surgery on an unconsenting minor that I can think of.
For one thing male circumcision is not always harmless. There are sufficient examples of complications, both immediately following the procedure and in later life to make the practice unwarranted in the 21st Century. Secondly, you could make the same argument from tradition for Female Genital Mutilation , corporal punishment and child slave labour, but I don’t hear anyone trying it (yet). But here is the Telegraph trying to claim that secularists praising the ruling are engaging in “medieval anti-Semetism”.
Many secularist campaigners are cock-a-hoop about the ruling. They believe their description of circumcision as “child abuse”, as a cruel operation that ignores the UN-guaranteed “rights of the child”, is radical and caring. But in truth it echoes centuries’ worth of nasty anti-circumcision posturing by people who hate certain religious faiths.

Now I’m sure that anti-Semites do and have for centuries used the circumcised penis as a way to degrade and belittle the Jewish faith, but that is not what is happening here. Even in Germany (that’s Germany, FFS!) the Jewish community is not phrasing this as an anti-Semitic ruling specifically, (although they are obviously not happy about it) so where does the Telegraph get off accusing secularists of prejudice just because a barbaric tradition is finally getting the scrutiny it deserves?
This pathetic appeal to cultural relativism ignores the fact that physical alteration (and yes ‘mutilation’) of a child for reasons of religious or cultural inclusion is inflicting an identity and possible lifelong disfigurement on them that in adulthood they may not wish to subscribe to. It is, surely, possible to bring up a child in a tradition without abusing them in this way (I’ll ignore the concept that all religious instruction is child abuse, although I agree it can be if it is willful indoctrination that protects children from differing world views) while leaving the big decisions about symbols and ritual displays until they’re old enough to consent.
For sure, I’m in favour of this ruling, if not actually “cock-a-hoop” (which is a poor choice of epithet considering,) but mainly because it is a blow for sanity and individual human rights against blind tradition and the imposition of communitarian mores: not merely because it restricts the continued privilege of religion to insist that everyone born into the culture has to suffer for it.

Tuesday, 26 June 2012

There is no 'quantum' in alternative therapies

One of the unfortunate consequences of recent advances in theoretical physics is the abuse to which concepts like Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, Quantum Entanglement and Coherence are subjected by purveyors of alternative therapy.
It is certainly true that aspects of quantum physics can seem bizarre and counterintuitive, with objects being simultaneously particulate and a wave, capable of having their quantum states entangled and ‘communicating’ instantly with each other over vast distances, yet none of this actually defies known laws of physics, rather, it appears to define them. However, this does not stop homoeopathists, reiki practitioners and others from claiming it as justification for the supposed efficacy of their treatments.
For example from a site that calls itself Quantum Homeopathy:
Quantum physics is a branch of science that deals with miniscule units of energy called quanta as described by the Quantum Theory. It states that matter can exist as solid particles or invisible energy, the two being interchangeable at any given time, or even at the same time. It also states that energy is fluid and flexible, things that appear to be solid and immutable are really collections of bubbling mounds of fizzing energy bound together to form a dense mass.
Which goes on to imply that this “fluid and flexible” energy can interact with the “life-force” for health benefits to the greater material body. The problem with this is that it all sounds very ‘sciencey’ and plausible to anyone who hasn’t some grounding in modern quantum physics, which let’s face it is most of us.
Now I am not going to pretend to be an expert or even have a bachelor’s degree level understanding of the subtleties of quantum mechanics, but I do have enough of a science background and an autodidactic compulsion to read about stuff to know that quantum phenomena do not scale up. Yes, it is possible to ‘entangle’ particles such as photons and electrons so that their quantum states, such as spin are presumed to be in the same yet indeterminate state, and yes it is true that measuring the state of one of these particles ‘causes’ the other to be in the same state, regardless of how far apart these two particles subsequently become. But you can’t get from there to suggesting that you can “entangle” molecules of water with minute quantities of homeopathic remedy, feed that to someone and effect the quantum state of molecules within their body (as for interacting with their ‘life-force’ there is no such form of energy, ‘energy’ being a word that is also frequently abused by woo merchants). Entanglement is extremely fragile for one thing; it is difficult even for physicists to create an entangled pair that survives for more than milliseconds, and impossible to produce a stable state that could be sustained through multiples dilutions with water and ingestion by a living organism. Besides which, entangled particles only share states: one particle does not ‘become’ like the other. Even if a molecule of water could become entangled with say a molecule of Arnica the water would not become Arnica, it would merely share a random, unknown, indeterminate state with that molecule, which it would immediately lose on contact with, well, anything including the other water molecules around it. If, as homoeopathists claim, water has memory, quantum mechanics isn’t the justification for it.
The lesson here is that for all its weirdness and ”spooky action at a distance” as Einstein called it, quantum theory does not justify magic. If you see or hear anyone using the word “quantum” outside of the realm of actual physics, be wary; they almost certainly don’t know what they are talking about and probably want to sell you something.

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

There's loads of room in heaven

“I’m not sure if there is an afterlife, but I hope there is” is a comment that mystifies me when talk turns to religion. For one thing, if death really is death and all consciousness ceases forever, what is there to worry about? It’s not as though we’ll be feeling eternally disappointed at the lack of pearly gates and the chance of tea and cakes with St Peter since ‘we’ won’t exist.
This is actually a thought that I find extremely comforting as being an atheist doesn’t rank high on the list of beliefs that are supposed to guarantee a celestial entry pass. To ‘hope for an afterlife’ is, therefore, also to hope such an existence will be eternally pleasant and doesn’t involve pitchfork-wielding devils and a faulty thermostat.
But, some may say, it’s nice to think of deceased loved ones as being in heaven, somehow still aware of us and in some way available to talk to. Well, maybe it is, but that assumption still falls foul of the same objection. Your little old granny might be watching benignly down on you from above, but she could also be leering up from below; a slightly less heart-warming thought.
However all of this is largely irrelevant because at least as far as Christian theology is concerned, no human, not even your sainted grandmother, is in heaven. The idea that good people (or more accurately people who believe in Jesus) go to heaven when they die is a misconception that many people, including many Christians, hold dear, but the bible is actually very clear that this is not the case.
The only inhabitants of the biblical heaven are God, Jesus, assorted angels and possibly the prophets Elisha and Elijah who are described as being taken directly to be with God in the O.T. Nobody else is expected to be there ever. Christian eschatology has it that when Jesus returns the righteous will be physically and bodily resurrected (so I hope you didn’t have granny cremated) as immortals to rule earth for a thousand years alongside Christ after which time creation will be remade perfect and God and the gang will live amongst us. Some might argue that will be a heavenly state, but it obviously hasn’t happened yet, and it’s not actual ‘heaven.’ The precise timing of events and ideas of who actually gets to be resurrected in this way are interpreted differently by different sects, but the core point is not in dispute, no one goes to heaven.
Even if the Christian religion is true, you could be long time dead, before you get to live again on earth. Jesus actually promised his disciples he would return in their lifetime, but he’s obviously got distracted or caught up with paperwork or something as two millennia later he’s still not arrived. So, given his poor timekeeping I would not be too sanguine that any resurrections are imminent.
The lack of an afterlife is not a thing that should dismay us. Being dead is not an inconvenience to the dead and the best place for grandma is in your thoughts and memories, where she’s available to chat any time you need.

Monday, 18 June 2012

Gay Marriage: I agree with the C of E

The Church of England has been on the offensive recently over the government’s proposals to extend the right to civil marriage to gay couples, suggesting that it is contrary to canon law and that such a change may cause a split between the state and the established church.
I think they are right. Not morally right of course, but on the substantive point that the Christian religion is at root; homophobic, exclusive, antithetical to equal rights on gender grounds and this is enshrined in canon law, they are spot on.
I also think they are probably correct when they say that exclusions protecting the church from being forced to conduct same sex marriage ceremonies will be vulnerable to legal challenges ultimately ending up in the European Court of Human Rights. In fact I would predict that someone will force such a challenge at the earliest opportunity and rightly so. The Anglican Church is an arm of the state with representation in the House of Lords and statutory rights and duties, one of which is to marry couples in the church of the diocese in which they reside, regardless of their religious affiliation. I do not see how this can be squared with an exception for gay partners once the married status of their union is recognised.
None of which is a reason for not doing it. The limits of marriage are not there to be defined by the Church, if that were the case different religions would be free to deny that status to anyone not married within their own tradition. Marriage is a legal contract defined by the state and while I do not blame the Church for arguing its corner, it should be just one of the voices in the mix and not a specifically privileged one.
I have heard several liberal Christians arguing that the Anglican Church is misguided and that Jesus’ message was about “love and inclusively” or that he never specifically spoke against homosexuality. But, unfortunately they are indulging in wishful thinking and wilful ignorance. The Gospels do not stand apart from the Leviticus laws: they are built upon them. Jesus was explicit in saying:
"Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill" (Matthew 5/17)
Insofar as Mosaic laws were subsequently overturned, St Paul did that as he tried to make the Christian religion more palatable to the Romans, but even he reiterated the prohibitions on homosexuality. That some people who think of themselves as Christian are in step with the rest of us on LGBTQ issues of equality and human rights is encouraging and welcome, but to claim such views are compatible with Christianity is false.
I think the Anglican Church will have to make a decision sooner or later on this issue. They must either admit that scripture is largely outdated and no longer a reliable guide to morality or take a stand and make the inevitable split with secular society.
Some may see this as a problem; I see an opportunity in the making.

Monday, 11 June 2012

To what do atheists appeal in adversity?

Following on from my last post, in his interview with Ed Miliband, Eddie Mair also asked him how, as an atheist, he coped with adversity. Miliband's response was that he relied on his friends and family, but that during particularly stressful times, during his father’s illness for example, he found himself thinking, “if there is a God …”
This is the kind of thing that leads cynical theists to argue that there are ‘no atheists in foxholes’ but I think Ed Miliband’s reaction is perfectly natural and doesn’t point to any ‘god shaped hole’ in his or any other atheist’s psyche.
We all find ourselves at the mercy of events over which we feel powerless, either because we genuinely cannot effect the outcome or we have not thought of a way that we could. As a species we have evolved to assume agency and see patterns in random events, as in our hunter-gatherer past assuming lack of agency (no lions in the rustling grass?) was likely to end messily. This tendency to apophenia may well be foundational to religion, but it is not a trait to which atheists are immune so it is no surprise that we make emotional appeals to fate when we feel at its mercy. If our thoughts do turn to gods it is culturally driven and for most ‘God’ is a shorthand abstraction for ‘I’m metaphorically keeping my fingers crossed that events over which I have no control turn out favourably.’
Like a gambler ineffectually blowing on the dice, or prayers from the faithful blowing in the wind, appeals to fate of any description are ultimately futile but we all seem hard-wired to make them anyway in one fashion or another. However, the realisation that we are largely at the mercy of random events can be strangely liberating. After all, if there really were a God to answer prayers and grant our wishes, we’d have a lot more to worry about when those prayers weren’t answered, as they often aren’t. We would have to worry that we were ‘out of favour’ or in some way unworthy of divine benefaction which would then make the unwanted outcome in some way our fault and we would have to add guilt to our already burdened lives (Catholics take note). I’m aware that the usual apologetic for the apparent fickleness of God’s response to prayer is that he “moves in mysterious ways”. However, his “mysterious way”, less than  mysteriously, looks a lot like the dumb luck it really represents.
There is I believe more comfort in the realisation that there are some things in life you cannot effect and that these are rarely anybody’s fault least of all our own. That the universe does not, in the final analysis, care one jot about us is, to me, more appealing than the idea of a ‘caring’ god that doesn’t actually behave as though it cares. This puts me in mind of The Serenity Prayer
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, Courage to change the things I can, And wisdom to know the difference.
Which even if God is not on hand to do the granting is at least a mindset worth cultivating if you are indeed an atheist in adversity.