"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, 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.

Friday, 8 June 2012

Ed Miliband's atheism and respect for the faithful

Driving home from work yesterday I caught the end of an interview with Labour leader Ed Miliband on the PM program. I tuned in just as interviewer Eddie Mair was questioning him on his religious beliefs, or rather lack of them. Ed Miliband has stated before that he’s a “culturally Jewish” atheist and he repeated the same comment on the PM program he made then:
''I don't believe in God personally, but I have great respect for those people who do.”
Which is exactly the sort of thing you would expect a politician to say, but if you think about it cannot possibly be the case.
If you are an intellectually honest atheist you will have come to the conclusion, presumeably by rational means, that the god hypothesis doesn’t hold water. Unless you are an atheist that ‘just doesn’t’ or ‘merely chooses not to' believe in God without examining why, which Miliband might be though it seems unlikely, it would seem nonsensical to “have great respect” for those who have reached an opposite conclusion.
If after wrestling with the Euthyphro dilemma and the problem of evil, then applying the outsider test for faith, maybe formally or autodidactically equipping yourself with some understanding of evolution, cosmology and partical physics, after reading Aquinas, the bible and (FSM save us) even Alvin Plantinga, then finally delving into philosophy and notions of free will and morality you have found no intellectually satisfying reason to believe in supernatural agencies of any kind, why on earth would you automatically have “great respect” for someone who did?
Look, I have great respect for many people who happen to believe in God, but I respect them for who and what they are and what they have achieved. I respect them for their character or their compassion or their skills, but I don’t respect them for their adherence to a religion.
Respecting other people's right to their beliefs is one thing, respecting the belief is another. The way Ed Miliband phrases his atheism almosts suggests that he is envious of people with faith as though they have something worth having that we atheists lack. But if he has really thought about his atheism, he cannot genuinly think that.
I’m sure this is a sound-bite, a sop to the faithful for purely political expediency. Although our atheist politicians experience nothing like the problems they might encounter in the U.S, being openly atheist still presents difficulties here. Polticians are expected to attend constituency and state functions with religious themes in religious settings where showing the ‘required’ respect is necessary (and generally good manners), but declaring that you respect religious believers devoid of any other criteria to warrant it is being disengenuous and, to some extent, not truly respecting them at all.