"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

Friday, 20 December 2013

HuffPo mangles moral philosophy to argue against atheism

The Huffington Post has an article by Pastor Rick Henderson titled Why There Is No Such Thing as a Good Atheist in which he makes a superficially coherent argument that given naturalism, the default assumption of atheism, it is impossible for atheists to have objective morals and stay consistent to their world view
"Every expression of atheism necessitates at least three additional affirmations: 1. The universe is purely material. It is strictly natural, and there is no such thing as the supernatural (e.g., gods or spiritual forces). 2. The universe is scientific. It is observable, knowable and governed strictly by the laws of physics. 3. The universe is impersonal. It does not a have consciousness or a will, nor is it guided by a consciousness or a will. Denial of any one of those three affirmations will strike a mortal blow to atheism. Anything and everything that happens in such a universe is meaningless. A tree falls. A young girl is rescued from sexual slavery. A dog barks. A man is killed for not espousing the national religion. These are all actions that can be known and explained but never given any meaning or value. "
This is all true as far as it goes but is also question begging. Henderson is assuming that only an external conscious agent can give meaning to events and also that meaning requires objectivity, neither of which is self-evident.
"A good atheist -- that is, a consistent atheist -- recognizes this dilemma. His only reasonable conclusion is to reject objective meaning and morality. Thus, calling him "good" in the moral sense is nonsensical."
Again the conclusion is already in the premise that to be morally good requires moral objectivity and moral realism. He’s also equivocating as he is allowing “good” to serve as “consistent” and also “moral” which is how he arrives at his contention that there are no good atheists, either an atheist is moral (by objective standards) and therefor is not really an atheist or is consistent in which case not objectively moral.
O.K! In the first place it is true that many atheists live as if morality is objective, even if we know philosophically that it isn’t. Henderson correctly points out that one argument for the existence of our moral sense is evolutionary but denies this confers moral objectivity, which of course it doesn’t, but it doesn’t have to. Most atheists also behave as if they have free will despite there being good philosophical reasons and increasing neurophysiological evidence to suggest we don’t. But evolution doesn’t work that way; our sense of agency and our sense of moral objectivity are probably innate as stopping to philosophise about either would have no survival advantage in the environments where they evolved. It is not being a bad atheist to appear to hold objective moral values.
Secondly, “meaning” is a human construct. It is incoherent to talk about the meaning of events without a conscious meaning making observer but there is no reason why that observer has to be an omnipotent creator god. The benchmark for moral objectivity is as true for gods as it is for us as the Euthyphro dilemma points out. If gods are responsible for morality the subjectivism is theirs not ours but still says nothing about moral realism. We are perfectly entitled to be the arbiters of meaning since, as far as we know, we are the only entity that finds things meaningful. If we ever meet another meaning making sentient species no doubt we will have to negotiate
Thirdly, moral subjectivity does not entail moral relativism as Henderson contends.
[assuming]"…morality was developed to ensure the success of societies, which are necessary for human survival and thriving. Like the rules of a board game, morality is contrived to bring us together for productivity and happiness. If this were true, there is nothing to which we can appeal when we find the behavior of other societies repugnant and reprehensible. Because morality is the construct of a social group, it cannot extend further than a society's borders or endure longer than a society's existence."
“Society’s borders” are porous and flexible. Just as we would have to negotiate with an alien species, should we encounter one, we must also negotiate with neighboring cultures. Even if the moral basis of a behavior is subjective outcomes aren’t, which is why utilitarianism is the go to meta-ethic of choice for resolving these conflicts. In fact the only situation where ethical dilemmas cannot be approached this way is when the contentious behavior is religiously motivated.
Lastly, at least for the purposes of this post, the other bit of question begging in Henderson’s argument implies theism fares better than atheism in this respect. But the religious are just as subjective as they have to explain why the moral examples in their scriptures are correct, especially in circumstances where they patently aren’t. The Bible for instance condones rape, genocide, stoning, slavery, polygamy, and infanticide to name a few which would not pass most people's moral intuition. In fact a holy scripture that was morally consistent for all people at all times and under all circumstances would be the strongest physical evidence that such a religion was true, which is probably why there isn’t one.

Monday, 16 December 2013

The political obfuscation of Islam

I’ve always assumed that most people are able to make a clear distinction between the actions and beliefs of the majority of Muslims and the radical agenda of Islamists but having spent some time online looking at responses to the gender segregation debacle prompted by UUK it seems that many people from all over the political spectrum are confused on this point. This is unfortunate because it allows both the far right and the liberal left to be ensnared by extremist rhetoric and duped into playing into Islamist hands.
Islamism is not the practice of Islam but a political and ideological movement that seeks to establish as extensive a Muslim Caliphate as it can achieve. Its theocratic aims are to enforce a particular narrow interpretation of Islam upon all Muslims and to make certain aspects of dress and misogynistic culture normative wherever Muslims live. It should not have to be said but not all or even a majority of Muslims are Islamists. What may be less obvious is that not all Islamists are Muslims but more on that later.
The far right as represented by organisations such as the EDL are prone to type 1 errors falsely and indiscriminately seeing Islamists behind every Mosque wall and attacking any visible sign of Islam on British soil as “creeping sharia”. This attitude filters down into main stream conservative politics via UKIP and the right rump of the Tory party and can produce a genuine and legitimate sense of persecution in the moderate Muslim community which easily spills over into cries of racism as much of that community consists of Asian immigrants and other people of colour.
The conflation of race with Islam is of course exactly what the Islamists want. They know full well that this is one of the quickest ways to shut down criticism not only of Islam in general but of their extreme interpretation of it making it hard for mainstream political discourse to tackle the real problems that do arise.
This brings me to the other end of the political spectrum where the left are prone to type 2 errors, failing to identify Islamism where in fact it does exist. The recent advice from UUK supporting gender segregation was an example of exactly this. Despite having a wealth of experience in equality law and equal rights Nicola Dandridge naively fell for a culturally relative narrative spun by pro –Islamism groups such as The Islamic Education and Research Academy that freedom of religion for Muslims requires them to be able to sit apart in public meetings. This is not a universal Muslim view and many would argue that it is not a requirement of Islam at all and in attempting to be accommodating and politically correct Dandridge is being as duped as the EDL into advancing the Islamist’s agenda.
The same is true of those who refuse to contemplate restrictions on wearing the Burqa or Niqab in public spaces. It is Islamists who are trying to normalise worldwide a style of dress originally confined to Saudi Arabia that would have rarely been found in Asian Muslim countries and it should not be treading on anyone’s cultural or religious toes to restrict its appearance here. Many Muslims are of the opinion that Islam only requires ‘Hijab’ which refers to any modest dress and is also a name for the headscarf, varieties of which are ubiquitous in the Islamic world, so we should not aid and abet Islamism in defining what it is socially acceptable for diverse Muslim women to wear in public: Purdah is not a religious duty and this is why I say that not everyone promoting Islamism in the U.K is a Muslim because liberals buying into this myth are unwitting Islamists.
So it is that both the cultural relativists of the political left and the xenophobes of the right are doing the Islamist work for them by providing cover for extremism in the first case and the appearance of persecution in the second and this helps nobody’s cause but the Islamist and helps least of all the majority of moderate British Muslims who are content to keep their religion at home and in the Mosque.

Thursday, 12 December 2013

Scientology is officially a religion in the U.K

The Supreme Court in the U.K has made a landmark ruling in a legal case brought by Louisa Hodkin, a scientologist seeking the right to get married at the Church of Scientology chapel in central London. The ruling means that Scientology, the belief that human bodies are occupied by the immortal spirit aliens called Thetans, is now officially recognised as a religion in the U.K.
The cult was founded by the science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard in the early nineteen-fifties following his promotion of a flawed but financially lucrative pseudo-psychological self-help program called Dianetics and has acquired, over the years, some very high profile celebrities as adherents. The ‘religion,’ as I suppose we must now call it, does not mandate a belief in a god or any higher power, which prior to this ruling was the touchstone for recognition as such in this country.
The situation raises a few interesting issues not least because several other European nations are explicit about the cult status of Scientology and Germany even monitors their activities as potentially subversive. However, in the U.S Scientology has long held religious status making it eligible for significant tax breaks on its buildings, operations and staff, a situation that to some extent may now obtain here.
One common objection to the religious status of Scientology is the obvious absurdity of the beliefs it espouses but actually I do not see this as a legitimate concern. For one thing Scientology is not really any more absurd than the mainstream religions, it’s just that ideas such as transubstantiation, resurrection and virgin birth are so culturally engrained that we are somewhat immune to them. Nor is it a particularly strong argument to say that Scientology is too recent an invention. Mormonism has only a slightly longer history (at least in comparison with Islam and Christianity) and an equally shady and disreputable founder but is accepted as a proper faith.
Personally I see no problem with Scientology being defined as a religion and confidently expect that since god belief is no longer a criterion for that status we can expect a flood of applications from Wiccans, Satanists, Pastafarians and others for similar recognition: they should get it. Hopefully the more the mainstream religions become associated with all the other unsupportable belief systems clamoring for attention the more they will be seen for the charlatans they are
Also I have a solution to the tax exemption problem. At the moment in the U.K buildings registered for public worship are eligible for Business Rate Relief which should every cult become a recognised church may impose an unsupportable burden on the taxpayer. So I propose that we withdraw this exemption entirely from all religions, including the Church of England, as it was never fair that these institutions should be supported by anyone other than their congregations in the first place.

Nicola Dandridge attempts to justify gender apartheid

Nicola Dandridge is the chief executive of Universities UK the organisation that has issued the appalling advice to colleges hosting religious speakers who require their audiences to be segregated by gender, and she appeared on this morning’s BBC Radio 4 Today Program where she attempted to defend, to presenter Justin Webb, the assertion that gender segregation was justified under certain circumstances.
Nicola Dandridge
Her argument was framed as a human rights and freedom of speech issue limited to occasions when the audience or participants of a particular meeting or lecture had agreed that gender segregated seating was appropriate or desirable. She was adamant that this was entirely different to segregation by race (which in any event would be “illegal”) and that UUK were prepared to publish legal advice that stated that refusing such a gender segregated meeting would be a violation of free speech. Interestingly, the only politician prepared to comment on the issue was former Home Secretary Jack Straw who very much doubted that a challenge in the high court to such a refusal would have a chance of succeeding. He also confessed to being “shocked and appalled by the decision of Universities UK”.
The first thing to say is that the original case study does not make any reference to the wishes of the participants in a meeting but only supposes that the visiting speaker is insisting on a segregated audience. That Nicola Dandridge reframed the advice in this way suggests that UUK are less sure of their ground but are not prepared to backtrack. But whatever, the argument still does not fly. There is no universal human right to non-association and nor should there be. If you are the kind of person who does not want the company of a certain gender, creed or race, your only right is to avoid places where those individuals go. Universities are open publicly funded spaces and whether or not the speaker is a Muslim or Haredi Jew, or even if most of the audience are, the fundamental principle should be one of equal and open access to all parts of the auditorium.
Dandridge also insisted that universities were not being advised to “enforce” gender segregation, but this is disingenuous. Social norms will always compel people to follow the stated protocols and if you happen to be, for example, a Muslim woman in that situation there is zero chance that you will risk the disapprobation of your peers by bucking the system. The very act of offering segregated seating, even if mixed areas are also available, will mean that at least a proportion of the audience will be compelled to segregate whether they really want to or not.
In no other secular public space would this be considered an option. Try and imagine a cinema, a cafĂ©, a train or a waiting room where the sexes were banished to opposite sides and you’ll get the point. It is not enough to claim that no-one is being disadvantaged. O.K women are not being sent to the back of the bus here but in the week when we are honouring the life and achievements of Nelson Mandela it is apposite to recall that “separate but equal” was the apologetics of apartheid and should have no place in 21st century society.

Friday, 29 November 2013

Gender Segregation is never O.K

You would think that in a modern democratic country in the 21st century the idea that an institution of higher learning might consider segregating men from women at a public event would be laughable: Not so… Universities UK has just published a 40 page guidance document to universities hosting visiting speakers which contains the following advice on speakers requesting that their audience should be segregated by gender. Firstly it is presented as a case study
A representative of an ultra-orthodox religious group has been invited to speak at an event to discuss faith in the modern world. The event is part of four different speeches taking place over the course of a month exploring different approaches to religion. The initial speaker request has been approved but the speaker has since made clear that he wishes for the event to be segregated according to gender[…]The segregation request is not yet in the public domain but the students’ union has an active feminist society which is likely to protest against the segregation request.
Maybe I’m missing something here, but are they suggesting that this would be completely uncontroversial if the student’s union did not have an active feminist society? Do we really have to shake a bunch of feminists out of abject apathy before we consider the ethics of gender apartheid? Anyway, just in case the feminists are awake…
Segregation in the context of the facts outlined above would only be discriminatory on the grounds of sex if it amounts to ‘less favourable treatment’ of either female or male attendees[…]For example, if the segregation is to be ‘front to back’, then that may well make it harder for the participants at the back to ask questions or participate in debate, and therefore is potentially discriminatory against those attendees.
Yes because there is an absolutely equal chance that our speaker would insist on males sitting at the back. Not.
This issue could be overcome assuming the room can be segregated left and right, rather than front and back (and also ensuring that appropriate arrangements are made for those with disabilities)[...] On the face of the case study, assuming the side-by-side segregated seating arrangement is adopted, there does not appear to be any discrimination on gender grounds merely by imposing segregated seating. Both men and women are being treated equally, as they are both being segregated in the same way.
There are some people, including unfortunately the NUS, who appear to think this is a reasonable compromise. But it is nonsense to suppose that in any enforced segregation people are being treated in anyway equally. Just because the women are not sent to the back does not mean they are not the object of discrimination or that their views and participation will not be stifled. It is a way of saying this group of people are not fit to be seated with this other group of people. Let’s see how this works if we insist that people of colour sit on the left and whites sit on the right, or let’s put Jews on the right and Christians on the left. In what way is this not discriminatory?
However, one cannot rule out the possibility that discrimination claims will be made on other grounds. For example, it is arguable that ‘feminism’ (bearing in mind the views of the feminist society referred to in the case study), or some forms of belief in freedom of choice or freedom of association could fall within the definition of ‘belief’ under the Equality Act.
I’m not sure why feminism is in scare quotes here, but it seems to me that whether or not it falls within the definition of belief according to legislation it is as valid a belief system as religion and religion should not be privileged above any other world view.
This would in turn mean that applying a segregated seating policy without offering alternatives (eg a nonsegregated seating area, again on a ‘side by side’ basis with the gender segregated areas) might be discriminatory against those (men or women) who hold such beliefs. However, the question of whether such beliefs are protected under the Act is unclear without a court ruling.
O.K, let’s be clear what is being proposed here. In order to accommodate the sexist and misogynistic views of a religious speaker universities are being advised to acquiesce to demands that conflict with fundamental rights of freedom of association and movement. Even if non segregated seating is also available (which the advice does not insist upon) there will be the inevitable coercion of some women from whichever culture to use only the segregated section. The mere possibility of the provision of such a seating arrangement should be resisted by any secular institution and especially by universities which are supposed to be repositories of free thought and enlightenment. If speakers want to argue for gender or racial segregation at an event they can do so, that is freedom of speech. But they cannot insist on imposing those views as a condition of exercising that freedom.
A petition to Universities UK has been started by Mariam Namazie and the Council of Ex Muslims is staging a demonstration on 10 December 2013, International Human Rights Day, to oppose sex segregation.

Monday, 21 October 2013

Christian to BHA: “When are you going to campaign for polyamorous marriages to be legal?”

This Sunday I was at the monthly meeting of the East Kent Humanists in Canterbury to hear a presentation from Pavan Dhaliwal who is the Head of Public Affairs at the BHA. The subject matter was recent BHA campaigns including humanist marriages, school fair admissions policy and assisted dying all of which would have made for an interesting afternoon on their own. However also at the meeting was a first time attendee who quickly identified himself as a Christian, nice enough chap but with an obvious agenda…
His first contribution came during the discussion on the successful campaign to allow humanist celebrants to perform legal marriages in the UK. Pavan had explained that for technical reasons our best chance of success in the campaign was to present amendments to some suitable primary legislation which in this case was the Marriage Equality Bill which has finally legalised gay marriage. Although humanists support gay marriage on principle, the subject under discussion was humanist weddings but our Christian guest’s question to Pavan was “when are you going to campaign for polyamorous marriages to be legal?” Although phrased politely enough it was obviously his assumption that humanists would like to embark on a slippery slope of increasing marriage liberalisation as a matter of policy. Well maybe, but it is clear that somewhere he has lost the point about equality and as many Christians do focussed only on the immorality of sex outside of the conventional.
So let’s be clear… The point about marriage equality is that there exists a civil institution that for historical (and yes, religious) reasons confers upon a couple who are traditionally a man and a woman, legal, financial and fiscal rights and obligations. The structures are in place to automatically infer parental rights, property in common and, at some times under certain governments, tax benefits. There are also well worn legal mechanisms for dissolving this partnership and ensuring that property and parental obligations are separated appropriately. Marriage equality recognises that access to these rights and benefits need not be constrained by the sex or gender of the partners involved as gay and lesbian couples can be just as easily accommodated as heterosexuals. However people in polyamorous relationships do not have a pre-existing legal structure from which they are unfairly excluded. It’s not as though they are being discriminated against (at least not in this respect) as there is no institution from which to discriminate.
This is not to say that there is anything intrinsically morally wrong with polyamory. Assuming all partners within the relationship are informed and consenting it is as valid as any other personal arrangement between adults, but as a lifestyle it is not that straightforward to define. Relationships can be between two or more otherwise monogamous couples or open marriages where one or both partners separately form bonds outside the core relationship to true cohabiting ‘communes’ of individuals in a mutually sustaining relationship. The permutations are almost endless and It is difficult to imagine what any one-size-fits-all legal institution comparable to marriage would have to look like to accommodate them all. Neither does there seem to be an overwhelming clamour from the polyamorous for marriage although I am sure that should such an option be available there would be some at least who would participate in it.
In any event it is not for the BHA, or any humanist organisation, to spearhead a campaign for such a change. If it is to come then as with same sex marriage it needs to be from the people directly affected by it. The polyamorous community would need to define what constitutes such a relationship and make a claim for the rights and obligations a marriage would confer, at which point we would all have the opportunity to consider it on its merits. Now, I can see myself personally supporting such a move and could see humanists generally as fellow travellers on a well-defined campaign for recognition of polyamory but we’re not there yet and it is not an obvious next step for humanists in particular.
But going back to our Christian friend, I suspect what he was really trying to do was confirm his assumption that as atheists and humanists we were all out to destroy the moral fabric of his supposed Christian society by twisting his sacred definition of marriage even further out of shape and in that he may have been successful. Not one other person in the room suggested that polyamorous marriage would be undesirable:  merely difficult and, for the moment, not our fight.

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

It was only a matter of time

 
Ever since Michael Gove announced the establishment and expansion of the Free School system in the U.K, along with many others, I have been pointing out that they are a perfect vehicle for religious ideologues to advance their agendas to the detriment of young children. Attempts have been made by Christians to establish a creationist school for example and over 30% of applications to open free schools are faith based in some respect.
Consequently I should be happy about the welcome news that an Islamic free school in Derby has been shut down following investigation by OFSTED due to a series of complaints.
…unnamed former staff members of Al-Madinah, which opened as a free school in September last year, had alleged that girls were forced to sit at the back of the classroom. Unnamed female staff members have also claimed they were forced to conform to a strict dress code including wearing a head scarf or hijab - whether or not they were Muslim.
There are also reports that during Ramadan lessons were cancelled to make time for prayer and that Arabic and Islamic studies were taught at the expense of the national curriculum
One anonymous staff member told the paper: "They have three prayers every day, an hour of Koranic studies and an hour of Islamic studies as well as Arabic. They are not following the national curriculum, there isn't enough time."
Well, yes I’m happy the school has been closed and this abominable excuse for an education exposed, but it should never have got this far in the first place. In what La-La world of cultural relativism do Gove and the DoE live if they didn’t see this coming at the application stage? There was never a chance that such a school would be capable of abandoning Islam’s innate misogyny and treating its female pupils with equality and respect and I dread to think what these poor kids were being taught in science class… if anything.
If this misguided free school project really must continue there needs to be a prohibition against any faith based groups being involved as they cannot be trusted to teach objectively to national standards and the state has no business funding the propagation of superstition and intolerance. If Muslims want to give their children instruction in Islam, that’s fine, but not at the tax payer’s expense: they can do it at home or pay for them to attend after school madrassas. What this country owes all its children of whatever cultural descent is access to a broad secular education in an atmosphere of equality and free enquiry not confinement to narrow and divisive ideologies during their most formative years.

Friday, 20 September 2013

Time to ban face veiling: Equality first.

Back in 2010 I wrote about France’s intention to impose a Burqa ban in all public places and at the time I was equivocal about the merits of such an action vs. the imposition on the human rights of those who see veiling as an expression of their cultural or religious identity. However as the subject has now come up in the U.K, at least in the limited contexts of court appearances and Muslim health workers, I have been re-evaluating my position.
I am rapidly coming around to the view that arguments about identity, public safety and cultural cohesion, valid though they are, are not the primary problem with face veiling. The issue is the prima facia one of sexual equality. In a progressive and egalitarian society we should not allow a particular subsection of it to impose restrictive dress obligations on its women just because they adhere to a particularly patriarchal cultural or religious ideology. The Burqa and Niqab are symbols of repression and the male ownership of female sexuality and as such should not be condoned or encouraged. As Maryam Namazie said recently
”…whilst the niqab or burka are often framed within the context of “a woman’s right to choose”, it has to do with much more than mere religious identity and religious beliefs. Apart from the fact that it is a symbol of women’s subordination, it is also a tool of Islamism. The increase in the burka and niqab are a direct result of the rise of the far-Right political Islamic movement and part of that movement’s broader agenda to segregate society and impose sex apartheid. To ban or not to ban the burka? Ban it, of course. And not merely because of security matters or for purposes of identification and communication as is often stated but in order to protect and promote the rights of women and girls – all of them – and not just the few who wear the burka and niqab…”
The “right to choose” argument is appealing but slippery. While it is quite possible that a number of Muslim women do freely choose to wear the Niqab, as claimed recently by a 14 year old student on BBC Radio’s World-at-One program, by protecting their right to veil we are failing those who are coerced. The un-named girl in the interview linked above said
…it was her own choice to wear the veil and neither of her parents had encouraged her to do so [..] it meant she avoided the pressures to keep up with the latest trends and look a certain way.
which is fine for her and I have some sympathy with the problems faced by young women in what is still a very sexist and over sexualised world especially if they come from a culture that idealises female purity and modesty. But a better and more admirable response would be to join the fight for women’s equality rather than hide behind a veil and perpetuate the problem.
In fact even the idea that face covering is about modesty is disingenuous. There is no requirement for anybody, male or female, to flaunt or emphasise their sexuality in public and nobody is arguing for restrictions on traditional Arabic or Asian clothing or even the Hijab as a hair covering, but veiling is dehumanizing to an unacceptable extent.
I am more than conscious of the fact that I am not from an Islamic background and, along with most people in this country, have no idea of the extent to which Muslim women are compelled to wear the Burqa or Niqab by their parents or husbands. But coercion does not have to be explicit or accompanied by threats of violence, it can simply be the result of living up to other people’s expectations or not wanting to offend or distress those you love. Banning the Burqa would provide an escape into greater equality for those women, possibly the majority, who would prefer to integrate with wider society with their faces exposed.

Tuesday, 20 August 2013

Penn Jillette: God, what?

 
It took me a while to get round to buying Penn Jillette’s God, No!: Signs You May Already Be an Atheist and Other Magical Tales and it hung around on my Kindle for some time before I got to reading it. The reason for this prevarication was my suspicion that it would provoke the sort of reaction in me that, as a matter of fact, it subsequently did.
For anyone not familiar with Penn JIllette he is the larger and more verbose helping of magical duo Penn and Teller, (in)famous for revealing the working behind their and other’s illusions (almost) and less famously, at least in the U.K, for a sceptical T.V show called Penn and Teller: Bullshit! aimed mostly at debunking pseudoscience and conspiracy theories. Jillette is an outspoken atheist and sceptic as well as a political Libertarian and it is his libertarianism that gave me pause before diving into his book.
The first thing I should say is that God, No! is liberally (libertarianally?) peppered with profanities ranging from the pretty strong to the “can you actually print that?” which was to be expected and doesn’t bother me at all, although it might offend some people. However in some contexts the language paints an unpleasant side to Jillette when he uses it while referencing people with whom he disagrees politically or has a personal grudge against. Referring to one woman in particular as a “cunt” betrays a deeply misogynistic streak as in the U.S the word is frequently deployed in a sexist or gender disparaging way which even if he doesn’t like the woman (he doesn’t) seems unnecessary and distasteful.
His sexism also shines through when he discusses women that he likes or has been in relationships with. He is quick enough to describe them as “smart”, “witty” or “intelligent” before going for the inevitable “sexy”, but it is clear which of the adjectives is most pertinent. Now of course it may be the case that he finds smart, witty and intelligent women sexy, who doesn’t? But it seems as though every female referred to in the book is in the context of what Jillette finds attractive about them and when he doesn’t find them attractive they’re just cunts, or In one notable anecdote “scary”: but she was a lesbian…
His sexism is probably more disturbing than his libertarianism but the latter begins to grate after a while too. Anyone who doesn’t subscribe to his extreme brand of macho individualism is a socialist in his less than nuanced world view and even where my own liberalism intersects with his libertarianism I find myself wanting to disagree with his reasoning. For example we agree that the vast majority of people in the world are good people and that in the main they can be trusted to do the right thing like support their immediate family and return your lost wallet if they find it in the street. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have a welfare policy or a police force. He may have made his own living touring America with Teller, relying on no one else, but he did it using a highway infrastructure that could only exist through collective taxation. Libertarianism always struck me as a juvenile political philosophy but Jillette’s is blatantly so
You may be getting the impression that I am not enjoying God,No! which is not strictly true. Jillette is extremely funny when he is not making you cringe and the insights and anecdotes into his life and his relationship with Teller are fascinating. His atheism isn’t particularly philosophical or insightful and to be honest doesn’t really occupy that much of the narrative despite the book’s title, but his blunt and outrageous style is engaging and something of a guilty pleasure from my perspective.
I suspect that if I was to meet him in person Penn Jillette would be someone whose company I would enjoy whilst not approving of him, but then I have had several friends like that. Also I’m pretty sure that Penn Jillette doesn’t give a fuck about my approval, which is just as it should be.

Monday, 19 August 2013

Fracking? I don't know and neither do you

Like GMO’s fracking seems to be one of those things that people are either for or against and their attitudes, similarly, come with a passion totally out of proportion to their understanding of the pros and cons of the issue. Either they are convinced this method of extracting gas is going to produce environmental devastation, water contamination and Richter 9 level earthquakes or they see it as a benign technology able to deliver energy security and relief from the economic crisis. The fact is that it could result in all of the above, none, or maybe some of it, we really just don’t know.
Protests like the one at Balcombe in West Sussex have captured the public imagination and attracted demonstrators from all over the country many of whom seem to have an agenda over and above that of the local people who were initially concerned about the immediate impact of a test drilling site in their area and I can see this being a recurrent theme. Rural communities will not want any heavy industry spoiling their commuter belt idylls and so start a local campaign, this in turn will attract environmentalist ideologues who will swell the campaigner’s ranks and prevent any exploration or geological appraisal. But whilst I have sympathy with those who do not want such things on their doorstep if we are to ever know whether hydraulic fracturing is a safe and environmentally acceptable technique to use someone will have to accept that the preliminary research needs to be done somewhere near them.

Of course there is the other elephant in the room that is climate change and the assumption that any technology resulting in extracting more fossil fuels is necessarily a bad thing. Again, depending on the choices we make this could be a valid concern, but there are options such as substituting shale gas for coal, or using it to kick-start a hydrogen economy or even taking a short term carbon hit but direct the economic benefit towards greater investment in renewables rather than cheaper fuel bills. But unless we prove the technology and are willing to have an informed debate all routes to possible benefits, both environmental and economic, will be blocked by the NIMBYs and the professional activists determined to kill fracking at birth.
I’m not advocating for a headlong rush to shale gas extraction as the doom-mongers may well be correct in their beliefs. Even if they’re not it is perfectly proper that they give us pause for thought and insist we proceed with caution. But to not proceed at all based only on local self-interest, fear, ideology and precious little data is irrational and some controlled risk must be acceptable in order to understand what we’re really arguing about. In the meantime we should all be fracking agnostics.

Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Colin Still: a vicar all at sea

Rev. Colin Still
It is difficult not to like Reverend Colin Still, the central focus of BBC 2 documentary The Cruise: A Life at Sea. He is an affable almost caricature of an Anglican vicar who sees his “parish at sea” comprising of ”believers and non-believers alike” and had he in fact not been a real person would have been a casting directors dream for the role. This retired chaplain is also studiously and sometimes painfully ecumenical, which given the variety of faith needs he has to fulfil is probably a good thing, but induces him to make vapid statements such as last night’s “I have a lot of respect for the Buddhist religion, it has much to commend it” which apart from the theologically contentious assertion that Buddhism is a religion contains the unspoken regret that it would be so much better with Jesus in it.
Reverend Still is the kind of professional Christian with whom you could go down the pub to indulge in a bit of light theological banter without him taking visible offense and knowing that nothing you said would shake his confidence in a benign deity. Which, is precisely the problem I have with him and Christians like him.
What annoys me about this brand of Christianity is the inanity and intellectual dishonesty that surrounds it. At least with a Bible thumping Southern Baptist you know where you stand as they mean what they say and believe what they are saying. Those heathen Buddhists are going to hell regardless of whatever else there is to commend so none of this mealy mouthed pretence at respect for them. The fundamentalist Christian position may be obnoxious and more obviously crazy than Middle England Anglicanism but at least it’s honest and they can point to plain speaking scripture to back up their assertions whereas the Colin Stills of this world cannot really defend their tolerance except by invoking some vague notion that Jesus wants us to be nice to everyone.
Whenever I talk about the real harm religion causes in the world this passive Christianity is frequently cited in defence as though the existence of tolerant religion justifies the existence of all of it. In reality though what it does is exacerbate the problem because disingenuous respect masks real disagreements and perpetuates the myth that all religions are the same underneath and if it wasn’t for those pesky extremists the bombing and acid throwing and abortionist assassinations would cease and we could all sing kumbaya in harmony, whereas, a world where the fault lines between beliefs were apparent would be easier to navigate and arguably safer as a result. I also suspect that such transparency would result in less religion generally as it would encourage more people to apply the Outsider Test for Faith probably one of the best tools for highlighting the absurdities in one’s own religion.
The fact is, you can’t have a good intellectual scrap with someone who won’t admit the extent to which they disagree with you. Real respect is acknowledging different points of view and assuming others have the ability to follow your arguments one way or the other and there should always be the possibility that one party could change the other’s mind. It would not occur to me to enter into a discussion about religion without being explicit that I consider 99% of it to be nonsense on stilts and if I said I respected someone’s religious beliefs I would be lying. I may be doing Reverend Still a disservice but I think he is lying about Buddhism. “It has much to commend it” is really damning it with faint praise and recognising only that it is vaguely spiritual and somehow better than nothing. He may like to think that people of other faiths and philosophies do not go to hell, he may even genuinely believe that, but if so he is not a Christian, either he is denying the theology of the faith he purports to represent or he is misrepresenting his own position, both are dishonest and inimical to proper discourse. Regardless, in this documentary we never see his religion seriously challenged as the closest anyone has got to admitting to atheism is “I’m not very religious” while joining in with the Easter service. So this cosy view of beneficent tolerant nurturing religiosity persists, free riding on undue respect for beliefs that if properly examined would be revealed as toxic to a truly caring, peaceful and equal society.

Tuesday, 16 July 2013

Synchronicity, coincidence and the myth of fate

Back in 2010 I wrote a post called The awesome power of a lunchtime prayer, about how a trivial bit of wishful thinking actually ‘came true’ at an automated checkout. It points out that the occasional random congruence of actual events with our desires is explanatory enough to account for the belief in intercessory prayer, as long as you only count the hits. However this unequal point scoring for coincidence is also the reason why some people are prone to reading meaning and significance into other experiences that in fact share no causal relationship whatsoever.
Random coincidences happen all the time. If one is not happening to you this minute there will almost certainly be one being noticed by one of earth’s other seven billion inhabitants. Or maybe you’re just not aware that the person sitting next to you on the train as you read this is a classicist who knows the answer to that tricky 39 down on the crossword you abandoned in favour of my blog (wishful thinking, see?). But whoever and wherever you are lots of these potential little miracles are happening more often than people think and it only takes a bit of context to fool ourselves into believing the fates are at work.
Imagine you are at a party when someone you’ve started talking to says their sister is a computer technician who does house calls in her spare time. This would be a bit of superfluous chat except that your Mac has just crashed and is out of warranty so you think “that’s handy” and take note of her number. Next day you call and arrange for her to fix your computer. She arrives bringing with her a friend who it transpires is a recruitment agent for a field in which you are experienced. Another minor coincidence but as it happens you are dissatisfied with your current job and mention you’d be interested in any opportunities. A week or so later as you work on your newly fixed Mac you receive an email from the agent inviting you to an interview for an interesting position which, when you attend, turns out to be for a company run by an old college friend with whom you’d lost contact. Some months later, now working successfully in your new job, you meet the romantic partner of your dreams by the water cooler. Now that’s fate surely, after all if you had never got talking at that party…
The fiction above is typical of anecdotes you will hear told by friends and acquaintances and while none of the events are by themselves particularly remarkable , seen as a retrospective narrative they acquire significance in the context of a story about how you met your partner. But as Tim Minchin puts it in If I didn’t have you
I mean I reckon it's pretty likely that if, for example My first girlfriend, Jackie, hadn't dumped me After I kissed Winston's ex-girlfriend Neah at Steph's party back in 1993 Enough variables would probably have been altered by the absence of that event To have meant the advent of a tangential narrative in which we don't meet Which is to say there exists a theoretical hypothetical parallel life Where what is is not as it is and I am not your husband and you are not my wife
In other words any string of events can be put together in portentous retrospect if the desire for meaning is important enough to ignore all of the other possible events that could have led to an equally auspicious though different conclusion.
We are by nature a pattern seeking story-telling species prone to apophenia and sensitive to, what Carl Jung dubbed, synchronicity, added to which is the cultural suppositions for the existence of fate, Karma and theistic gods guiding aspects of our lives. So, perhaps we are uncomfortable with the fact that most events are chaotic and stochastic to such an extent that we cannot predict outcomes reliably. However, we can and frequently do confabulate post hoc explanations to satisfy our desire for reasons and meaning.

Tuesday, 25 June 2013

A-theism can ignore the deists

At the risk of retreating into sterile dictionary definitions, strictly speaking, atheism does not deny the possible existence of a supreme creative intelligence of the “unmoved mover” variety postulated by Anselm or even the “ground of being” beloved of modern sophisticated theologians like Tillich or Plantinga. What atheism denies is the existence of describable gods that actively intervene in the world, can be influenced by prayer or who actually give a shit about the human condition.
This is not to say that there aren’t good philosophical reasons to doubt the existence of the first concept, but it is one that most atheists are agnostic about to the extent that we either can’t know or at least don’t know yet whether such an entity is necessary . The second variety of god however is a different matter. Not only can we falsify all the claims made for such deities and so pretty much write them out of existence it actually matters that we do so and try to explain why.
Deistic concepts of god are abstract and philosophical: interesting mainly as potential explanations for why there is “something rather than nothing,” or “the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics in science”. But, suspect as these explanations might be it does not matter on a daily basis whether they are correct or not as science will proceed to its conclusions whatever and nobody makes moral judgments or enacts legislation on the basis of this ontology.
According to their adherents theistic gods, existential or no, actually do things; they have opinions, dictate dress codes, define marriage, circumscribe sexuality, restrict diets, grant wishes, deny wishes, exact retribution, show mercy, send disasters, save us from disasters, require genital mutilation, demand worship, have sacred spaces, promise lands, sanction war and bless nations. Although which of these they do and for or to whom depends on which deity we are discussing. Yahweh has a thing about shellfish for example, Allah not so much.
Once you postulate a god that gets its hands dirty in the business of humanity a cabal of the righteous will soon be telling you exactly what that god requires of you and regardless of what your own sense of morality or personal thriving may say you had better listen and comply. Even if your god is of the more benign variety and its putative demands seem reasonable if not rational there is always the risk that someone with more power than you will decide it has taken a vindictive attitude towards something you cherish.
Luckily, we do not have to bend to the whims of these theistic tyrants or their apologists. Atheism, that’s a-theism, is justified by science, observation and rational inference to be the reasonable default assumption. Those “evidences” of such gods as are to be found in scripture are dispelled and proved to be false. Pace Rabbi Sacks, showing “that the first chapters of Genesis are not literally true, that the universe is more than 6,000 years old and there might be other explanations for rainbows than as a sign of God’s covenant after the flood” is an important first step in dismissing the reality of Allah, Yahweh and God in the same way that a lack of activity on Mount Olympus disposes of the Greek pantheon. Similarly the problem of evil is a strong philosophical counterpoint to the assertion that an omniscient omnibenevolent god has our best interests at heart and ridiculing prayer as an effective prophylactic against disaster is amply justified by its track record.
The existence of theistic gods is an absurd and easily refuted fiction which is why many religious apologists fall back on cosmological and ontological justifications that really only speak for the deistic gods of distant creation and divine apathy, but nobody cares about them. Christian theologians attempt to argue from ‘anthropic principle’ to ’ergo Jesus’ but there is no logical connection. You cannot get from an “unmoved mover” to any of the gods peddled by religion and a good thing too. A-theism allows us all to build our society on a strong secular ethic, free from moralising but not from morality, by accepting the undeniable truth that there are no gods to guide, beguile or coerce us into error.

Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Thoughts on GMO

I’m a science guy; I have a degree in genetics, follow technology trends, watch documentaries, read popular science books and magazines and am generally an all-round geek/nerd whenever it comes to new ideas and advances in any field. As a consequence of which I exhibit a tendency to scorn and scepticism when the popular media or lobby groups stand in the way of progress with cries of “frankenfood” or other scaremongering portmanteau and look on with despair when environmentalists attempt to sabotage field trials of GM crops designed to gather data on the very things they claim to be concerned about.
In general, I trust scientists. I trust them to be acting in good faith and with good intentions. I trust their knowledge, their expertise and in particular their ability to assess risk and be aware of the consequences of their actions. This is because scientists are people like me, the people I associate with and once studied alongside and under. Scientists are rarely ideologues since experimentation has a nasty habit of proving cherished notions false and, outside of B-Movies, they are only occasionally mad.
The media however always have an agenda, which is to make a science story ‘interesting’ to a lay public steeped in popular cultural tropes about science but barely literate about the science itself. This makes them seek out the conflicts, giving small but vocal protest groups equal time and weight in debates that elevate opinion over knowledge and ideology over data, none of which serves the public well.
The truth is that there are legitimate public interest questions about genetic modification that need addressing. From a strictly scientific point of view the message needs getting across that moving genes between organisms is not Frankenstein science. Genes have been jumping around and between organisms by natural vectors ever since the first Adenine molecule said hi to a Thymine, coding for whatever proteins natural selection saw fit. That scientists can now do the job with more precision than a random phage can is not an abomination to get spooked about but an achievement to be celebrated.
From a societal point of view we absolutely need to have the debate about how these advances are applied and in particular how the products are commercialised. For example should companies like Monsanto be able to own patents on both herbicide resistant grain and the specific herbicide it is resistant to? Is there a bio-safety reason to make GM crops sterile or is it only to stop farmers harvesting seed for the following year? Do we really need to label foods as GM once they are deemed to be safe for human consumption by government food standards agencies?
I don’t propose to offer answers to these questions but as a general principle I do believe that the research and development of GM technologies should not be entirely, or even mainly in commercial hands. Whilst I trust the good intentions of scientists I am less sanguine about the motives of corporations and separating the development of GM technologies from the marketing of them would take away a lot of the opportunities for exploitation (for the same reason I also think that medical research should not be done by pharmaceutical companies). Ideally, given the potential of GMO’s to increase crop yields and nutritional value I would rather see development centrally funded and overseen by the World Health Organisation or the U.N and the products released to manufacturers to sell under a (revocable) licence.
One of the issues that should be understood about GM crops is that once in use natural selection will continue to operate on the weeds and pests around them. Weeds exposed to high levels of Glyphosate will evolve their own resistance (more likely actually than acquiring it from their GM neighbours) and bugs confined only to pest resistant crops will evolve the ability to infest them. This is not a reason to vilify GM but a reason to modify farming practices to acknowledge the reality. This is nothing new: the transition from hunter-gathering to agrarianism and more recently to monoculture and the green revolution all required a shift in methods and practice. The provision of non-modified crops as refuges for insects among the pest resistant strains maintains biodiversity and lessens the selection pressure on the bugs to adapt, but farmers in several third world countries are failing to do this, partly for economic reasons and partly from lack of understanding, but this could be rectified under the right auspices.
I don’t deny the environmentalist's right to raise questions about the safety and wisdom of GM technology and I have sympathy with those who protest the way Monsanto and others appear to profiteer from it. But these are separate issues that should be addressed separately and without hysteria and disinformation. We may soon have 9 Billion mouths to feed and whilst I am not suggesting GM is the only solution to world hunger, it is a powerful tool to have available.

Friday, 14 June 2013

Jonathan Sacks thinks atheism is doing it wrong

Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi, has a piece in the Spectator entitled atheism has failed. Only religion can defeat the new barbarians headed by this observation...
Jonathan Sacks
“I love the remark made by one Oxford don about another: ‘On the surface, he’s profound, but deep down, he’s superficial.’ That sentence has more than once come to mind when reading the new atheists.”
Which ironically also sums up his own argument pretty well.
"Future intellectual historians will look back with wonder at the strange phenomenon of seemingly intelligent secularists in the 21st century believing that if they could show that the first chapters of Genesis are not literally true, that the universe is more than 6,000 years old and there might be other explanations for rainbows than as a sign of God’s covenant after the flood, the whole of humanity’s religious beliefs would come tumbling down like a house of cards and we would be left with a serene world of rational non-believers getting on famously with one another."
Well if that were really all intelligent secularists were doing, historians may well wonder. But, debunking the obvious idiocies of scripture is only a part of the new atheism, a necessary part too because the corollary assumption the good Rabbi is making is that all theists are of his sophistication whereas many of the powerful members of the Christian right, Hassidic Jewry and Islamist don’t share his nuanced views. There are still children in advanced countries being taught that Genesis is history, and someone has to keep the scientific truth in the public eye.
"Where is there the remotest sense that they have grappled with the real issues, which have nothing to do with science and the literal meaning of scripture and everything to do with the meaningfulness or otherwise of human life, the existence or non-existence of an objective moral order, the truth or falsity of the idea of human freedom, and the ability or inability of society to survive without the rituals, narratives and shared practices that create and sustain the social bond?"
Can Sacks really be unaware of the existence of Humanists, ethical societies, The Sunday Assembly,and the moral explorations of atheism by authors such as Sam Harris and Adam Lee or philosophers like Alain De Botton? It’s almost as if the Chief Rabbi was erecting some kind of strawman atheism to denigrate but surely a man of his depth who claims familiarity with “serious atheists” like Nietzsche and Hobbes would not stoop to such a tactic. Or would he…?
"A significant area of intellectual discourse — the human condition sub specie aeternitatis — has been dumbed down to the level of a school debating society"
Yes he would apparently. Just because the ‘eternity’ of the human condition is not a given within atheist discourse does not mean that the practicalities of human thriving and social justice are not. And then there’s this canard…
"Nietzsche and Heine were making the same point. Lose the Judeo-Christian sanctity of life and there will be nothing to contain the evil men do when given the chance and the provocation."
This always has and always will be complete nonsense. The fact that Sacks precedes this with a reference to Nazi Germany is also intellectually dishonest as none of that philosophy had anything to do with atheism. He then goes on to recruit, of all people , Richard Dawkins to his cause.
"Richard Dawkins, whom I respect, partly understands this. He has said often that Darwinism is a science, not an ethic. Turn natural selection into a code of conduct and you get disaster. But if asked where we get our morality from, if not from science or religion, the new atheists start to stammer. They tend to argue that ethics is obvious, which it isn’t, or natural, which it manifestly isn’t either, and end up vaguely hinting that this isn’t their problem."
Well let’s see if this atheist can explain it to him without stammering: Darwinism is not an ethic and Dawkins is correct to say that treating it as one (at least the simplistic version of Darwinism many people carry around with them) would not make for a fair or pleasant world. However, Darwinism properly understood explains morality perfectly well as a natural (yes Rabbi “natural”) consequence of our evolution as a social species living in small close knit tribes under extremely harsh selection pressure over the past few hundred thousand years. We even have evidence of caring and compassion in our Neanderthal cousins who presumably managed it without the Judeo-Christian narrative to influence them. The obsession theists have with seeing humanity as fundamentally flawed or evil without the watchful eye of a vengeful deity to restrain it is one of religion's most egregious legacies and those modern states that have largely abandoned religion, such as the Scandinavian countries, give the lie to the idea that society falls apart without it. Even so Sacks concludes with this..
"I have no desire to convert others to my religious beliefs. Jews don’t do that sort of thing. Nor do I believe that you have to be religious to be moral. But Durant’s point is the challenge of our time. I have not yet found a secular ethic capable of sustaining in the long run a society of strong communities and families on the one hand, altruism, virtue, self-restraint, honour, obligation and trust on the other. A century after a civilisation loses its soul it loses its freedom also."
Well, fair enough, but that he is unable to conceive of a sufficiently robust secular ethic is a failure only of his religiously constrained imagination, not a failure of secularism or the ability of humanity to apply reason and enlightened self-interest to the task of surviving whatever the coming ages demand of us to prosper. That such a societal view is only now beginning to emerge is to some extent due to religion’s previously unfettered ability to suppress it, retreating only when faced with similarly monolithic ideologies such as Communism or Nazism which it then tries to lay at atheism's door. Freedom from religion is not freedom from culture or obligation, it is however freedom from the fetters of dogma and from the institutions that perpetuate misogyny and social inequality in the name of traditions that are the real epitome of the faux profundity he accuses atheist of.

Thursday, 6 June 2013

C of E drops opposition to same sex marriage

Well! Here’s something to be pleased about. The Church of England has decided that its chances of blocking the legalisation of same sex marriages are so remote, it will no longer oppose them. In fact, it now claims it is intending to seek to amend the new law in ways with which I heartily agree.
'under the current bill people in a same-sex marriages who discover that their spouse is unfaithful to them would not be able to divorce for adultery after Government legal experts failed to agree what constitutes “sex” between gay or lesbian couples. The bishops are also seeking to change a provision which says that when a lesbian woman in a same-sex marriage has a baby her spouse is not also classed as the baby’s parent. The result is that in some cases children would be classed as having only one parent.'
Assuming the church is not just attempting a cynical passive aggressive approach to elicit greater antagonism to the bill, strengthening the institution of same sex marriage to cover adultery and shared parental responsibility will in my opinion add to the justice of this long awaited social advance.
So far the government has taken the line that it cannot adequately define adultery in a same sex relationship, which strikes me as bizarre and vaguely insulting. After all when homosexuality was completely illegal they had no problem defining what constituted sex between gay men and something about the idea suggests they have bought the stereotype that all same sex relationships are based in promiscuity and infidelity by definition.
I can accept that there may be ethical dilemmas over parental rights of a lesbian spouse, but they are by no means insurmountable. There are plenty of mixed sex couples where the legal father of a child is not the biological one and we seem to negotiate competing financial and emotional interests in the child quite adequately under those circumstances.
So I await with interest the detail and substance of the Lords Spiritual’s actions towards the bill’s passage from here on. I would not be surprised to hear demands for greater protection of Christians who want to discriminate against same sex couples but the government must resist weakening equality legislation in one area merely to facilitate implementation in another. Nor do I think we have heard the last of the church’s concerns over challenges to the ban on same sex marriages happening in church, for the good reasons I outlined in an earlier post.
Finally, for now I am going to resist making too much of the moral and theological volt face this change of position implies, content as I am to welcome the fact of it. Suffice to say the Anglican church has a history of catching up with enlightened thought... eventually... and before long will be telling us that this whole gay marriage thing was its idea in the first place.

Wednesday, 1 May 2013

Christianity's shallow morality

I recently finished reading A.C.Grayling’s latest book The God Argument: The Case Against Religion and for Humanism which is a pretty good read and an excellent primer on the standard apologetics of religion and the Humanist alternatives. However it is one, almost throw away, observation that he makes about the New Testament that I want to focus on here. He points out that because early Christianity was actually an apocalyptic and eschatological movement there is very little practical depth to the morality espoused within it.
Even I raised an eyebrow at this, because I’ve read a fair bit of the Bible (The cover to cover project is still a work in progress, finished the O.T and into the new as far as Paul’s Epistles) and I’m as likely as anyone to admit there is some real moral content. But actually, giving it some thought, I suspected I may have become a victim of the cultural hype surrounding Christianity and seeing something that isn’t there. So I did a little Bible dipping to refresh my memory and now I see his point.
Although the Gospels are strong on narrative, the specific exhortations to living a good life are sparse and in reality impractical for most people to follow. In effect they boil down to; give all your possessions to the poor, abandon your family to follow Jesus and love everybody. Paul in various epistles, but mainly to the Romans, adds “stoppit with the gay already” (that might not be a direct quotation) as like modern evangelicals it seems to be the only bit of Leviticus he still cared about post conversion. But he offered very little extra in the way of moral guidance.
The Pauline epistles are clear in the expectation that Christ is expected to return imminently, and it’s worth bearing in mind that all of Paul’s writing was done without the benefit of the synoptic gospels which all postdate him by various degrees, and say the same. Consequently his advice to his churches that members should only marry if they really really couldn’t keep it in their togas makes sense if you think that celibacy is going to be fairly short term and a brownie point come doomsday.
However, in the event that your messiah is going to be at least two millennia late (like that would happen?) celibacy seems less attractive and likely to supress the number of new Christians in the future. Similarly the thought of all Christians giving away their possessions and leaving their loved ones for a life of sandal shod evangelising today seems ridiculous, which is why they don’t do it for the most part.
Given that Paul also said that obeying the O.T laws was not a requisite for salvation (except the ‘don’t be gay’ one of course, what is it with that?) as it was all down to grace and faith in Jesus he seemed to rely on the same assumptions that some do today, that to be a Christian was to be intrinsically good, without any other moral input. This means that, as any Humanist would point out, Christians have to get their true morals from somewhere external to the Bible, in fact the same place we all do; from our common humanity and evolved pro-sociality. But if the early Church and indeed Jesus had really intended Christianity to be around for two thousand years we would expect the Bible to be much richer in moral guidance and be more relevant to the complex lives that we live today.

Tuesday, 16 April 2013

Beware of blasphemy laws

Over the past week or so there has been a rash of stories from diverse countries involving the non-crime of blasphemy.
Some of these are extremely worrying and serious, if to be expected, like the arrest of four atheist bloggers in Bangladesh, putatively at the behest of a mob of Islamic fundamentalists. Others like the conviction of Turkish pianist Fazil Say for tweeting against Islam, and the backing by Russia of a harsher anti-blasphemy law following the Pussy Riot protest may have political rather than religious motivations behind them.
But regardless, this trend towards using the law to defend religious sensibilities is one that needs monitoring and combating wherever it manifests itself. Blasphemy is an insidious concept that seeks to protect ideas from criticism under the cloak of protecting the feelings of the believers that cherish them. Sometimes this is overt as the law may actually be worded as “offending religious sensibilities” rather than blasphemy per se so framing it as a crime against persons rather than a deity or a religion, but is really a way to prevent the claims and consequences of those religions from being scrutinised.
The idea that religion is a special case, and therefore should be respected whatever, is of course not new. Even when blasphemy isn’t actually illegal in a society it is often socially unacceptable to criticise or ridicule religious beliefs or practices and those who break the taboo are often defamed as shrill, strident or divisive for doing so. You only have to see the invective that people like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and the late Christopher Hitchens can attract to realise how precious some aspects of society can be about religious conviction.
The problem with this is that although a polite toleration of religious, and indeed political, thought may be fair enough around the dinner table to preserve an equitable atmosphere, once out in the wider marketplace of ideas the inability to criticise religion’s assumptions about what is the right way to order a society can quickly stifle debate and give religion’s more egregious consequences a free pass. It can also be used as a cover for supressing political dissent, which I suspect is the real reason Vladimir Putin is so in favour of such laws.
It is a fact that many of the world’s pressing political and social justice issues are framed in a religious context; from gender equality to planned parenthood, education for middle eastern girls to FGM and Burqas, cast discrimination in India, stem cell research, science education, even climate change and the environment, the religious of all stripes have a stake in the agenda. Regardless of where one stands personally on these issues it cannot be healthy if one side of the debate is stifled by laws that prevent the religious basis of argument to be challenged. If a politician or other opinion maker is motivated by her opinion that the world should be so because Allah or Yahweh decrees it, we should all be free to challenge the premise. If not we are living in a theocracy despite what our countries’ constitutions may suggest
I’ve said it before but it bears repeating that respecting an individual’s right to a belief does not entail respecting the belief itself. However people can often be offended (or at any rate claim offence) when their beliefs are even mildly criticised, which is what makes blasphemy laws dangerous as religion is particularly sensitive in this respect. This is not to say that religion should be excluded from social debate but it should not occupy a privileged position supported by laws (or conventions) that protect it.

In response to the arrest of the atheist bloggers in Bangladesh I have written to their High Commissioner in the UK as follows
Dear Sir, I am writing to protest the arrest of Asif Mohiuddin, Rasel Parvez, Mushiur Rahman Biplob, and Subrata Adhikhari Shuvo on charges of blasphemy against Islam. No civilised country can hold its head high in the international community while denying freedom of expression to its citizens and unreasonably protecting religious or political ideas from criticism or dissent. I urge you to put pressure within your government to ensure these atheist bloggers are not only released but assured safety from the ignorant baying mobs that will surely pursue them. Rest assured that the greater worldwide secular movements will continue to point at Bangladesh and shame your government if this vile blasphemy law continues to be used to supress the perfectly reasonable opinion that there are no gods. Not only does the existence of such a law demean your country, your government and your people, it also demeans the religion of Islam which is obviously so insecure in its own beliefs that it cannot stand dissent or critique. Suppression of free speech on the internet is in any event a futile exercise as there will always be people, like me, to take up the cause for secularism and the right to criticise religion from within those countries that are sufficiently mature to have abandoned such medieval notions as blasphemy. So once again I call on your country to release and protect Asif Mohiuddin, Rasel Parvez, Mushiur Rahman Biplob, and Subrata Adhikhari Shuvo. The world is watching.. Yours Sincerely
I have yet to receive a reply or an acknowledgment of this letter, which is disappointing, but allowing this sort of thing to go unremarked is to perpetuate the idea that blasphemy is a real crime that can merit a civil punishment. Secularists all over the world are also penning similar missives to their respective ambassadors so I can only hope some good will come from this
Although we have come to expect Islamic countries to incorporate blasphemy in their legal system it is worth remembering that it was only in 2008 that laws for this “offense” were repealed in the UK and we need to watch out for well-meaning but misguided people who would see them back.

Wednesday, 27 March 2013

How to lie with statistics the CofE way.

Well I suppose a charitable interpretation would be that the Church of England doesn’t know a loaded question when it sees one or that it has a poor grasp of statistics, but at least someone in that vast Oxbridge educated hierarchy must have learnt something vaguely scientific in their lifetime. Which leads me to conclude that this headline claiming that 4 out of 5 people in Britain believe in the power of prayer is intended to be wilfully misleading.
The question asked by an ICM online poll was
image credit atasteofgarlic.com
""Irrespective of whether you currently pray or not, if you were to pray for something at the moment, what would it be for?”
Now had I been involved in the survey I would probably have answered that I wouldn’t pray for anything as it’s an observable empirical fact that it achieves nothing. However most people would respond to this in the same way as if they were asked what they would buy if they had just won the lottery i.e. suspend disbelief for the fun of it and answer the question as though it were meaningful.
Consequently…
Asked what it would be for if they were to pray, 31 per cent of respondents cited peace in the world, followed by an end to poverty in the world (27 per cent), a family member (26 per cent) and healing for another (22 per cent). While 5 per cent said they did not know what they would pray for, 14 per cent said they would never pray.
…which is no surprise really but anyone grounded in reality would have to point out that these people do not necessarily expect those prayers to be granted. Furthermore, if 80% of the country really would pray for these things in these proportions, how come there is still war and poverty? surely we have just proved the futility of prayer right there.Such empirical grounding is not evident for the Bishop of St Albans, the Rt Revd Dr Alan Smith, however who said:
"Prayer is one of the most natural and instinctive of human responses, so I am not surprised to see these findings. I come across people on an almost daily basis who want to talk about prayer and how to do it.”
This is equally unsurprising as he’s an Anglican Bishop who mostly meets with people as delusional as he is. If he spent time with others like me he’d be coming across people on a daily basis who wanted to know why he was talking to himself.
And speaking of self-selecting groups, who answers a poll like this anyway, or even knows of its existence? Christians, that’s who, but Christians are not representative of the nation at large.
I understand that the CofE is trying to prove its relevance to an increasingly secular country, but  relying on the general population’s ignorance of maths and stats to lie so egregiously is a poor way of doing it especially since the very people who would call them out on it publically are the very ones who do know enough statistics to notice. Richard Dawkins has already tweeted
“If I gave you a magic wand, what would you do?” I’d get rid of disease. “Aha!! Gotcha! You believe in magic wands.” — Richard Dawkins (@RichardDawkins) March 26, 2013
For those interested the full results of the survery are here

Monday, 18 March 2013

Catholic Archbishop says abusing Priests are not criminally responsible

The Catholic Archbishop of Durban, Wilfrid Fox Napier, has said in an interview that paedophilia is a psychological illness and not "a criminal condition". The claim was made on BBC Radio 5 Live where he went on to say…
"Don't tell me that those people are criminally responsible like somebody who chooses to do something like that. I don't think you can really take the position and say that person deserves to be punished when he was himself damaged."
…referring to Priests he was aware of that had themselves been abused as children.
Now, I’m going to choose my words carefully as any defense of paedophilia can be seen as abhorrent by some people but in a limited sense I agree with him. Paedophilia is a paraphilia which may have its roots in early childhood abuse or it may simply be part of a range of human sexuality that includes all sorts of deviation (not meant pejoratively) from the heterosexual, age appropriate norms of modern society. However paedophiles have, in common with compulsive rapists, an insurmountable problem when it comes to satisfying their sexuality in that they have no potential consensual partners.
Our society, for good reason, does not consider minors to be emotionally capable of consenting to sex, even with each other let alone with an adult so any paedophile who acts on their desires immediately becomes an abuser. This must be so and must carry the full weight of the law, because there is no way to know how many paedophiles are actually in the general population who need to be deterred from abusing.
Risking making an argument from personal incredulity, I cannot believe there are any paedophiles who do not understand the profound wrongness of grooming and enticing children into sex. Our culture is explicit about this and transgressors get high profile coverage and stiff sentences not to mention the disgust of the population at large. So whilst Cardinal Napier maybe correct that abusers need counseling and therapy or whatever, he is totally off the mark when he suggests it is inappropriate to punish as well.
On one hand the Cardinal is actually espousing a progressive and liberal view of a subset of people many of whom are undoubtedly living their lives in emotional turmoil. On the other hand he appears to be doing so in an effort to exculpate abusive Priests from their moral responsibility for their actions and excuse the Church for aiding and abetting them. This cannot be allowable, and in some respects is precisely the attitude that got the Church into this position in the first place. A celibate priesthood must seem like a godsend (pun intended) to someone whose sexuality will never be socially acceptable, but then he finds himself not only with unfettered access to young children but in an institution that will shield him from the worst consequences of his actions. To suggest that these priests are not morally and criminally responsible on the basis that they couldn’t help it is wrong and dangerous in the extreme.

Thursday, 14 March 2013

Pssst! Frank, a word in your ear..

On the off chance that the new pontiff is in the habit of reading obscure atheist blogs I thought I’d take this opportunity early in his career as head of one of the worlds most damaged and damaging institutions to offer him a few words of considered godless opinion on the best way for him to fulfil his brief while doing as little as possible to exacerbate the social evils his Church is currently responsible for.
We already know that former Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio is a theologically conservative Catholic with all the inherent homophobia, misogyny and irrational opposition to reproductive rights that entails. Quotes already abound on the internet about his claims that adoption by homosexuals is a form of “discrimination against children” and that gay marriage is “an attempt to destroy God's plan”. So far, so conventionally Popish. But of course he doesn’t have to make those things a big issue. His views are known and if he has any sense whatsoever he will leave it at that.
Anecdotally the new Pope is a man with the common touch, a concern for the poor and a track record of working for economic equality. He even has a science education having studied chemistry before abandoning rationality and joining the priesthood. His best strategy therefore should be to confine his social advocacy to the things most of us can agree to (Ultra-right-wing sociopaths can stop reading at this point) such as alleviating poverty, providing medical services to the third world etc. He can still go on believing that condoms are the invention of the Devil or that abortion makes baby Jesus cry, he just doesn’t need to make a song and dance about it. If he really is in tune with his flock he will already know that most of them do not agree with the doctrine, so best let them get on with their lives their way.
In consequence he could then use the time he saves by not talking crap about other people’s sex lives to quietly root out the child molesters and their apologists that Ratzinger so singularly failed to do. He could work behind the scenes to clear the Vatican of its self-serving, money hoarding cabal of mafia priests and get the Church to behave as though it really believed half the cherry picked love thy neighbour religiosity it espouses.
As an atheist I don’t really care who the Pope is, or what he believes. But, I do care when a powerful institution tries to impose its twisted morality on people who do not suffer the same delusions. So if Bergoglio lays low and does no evil, that’s fine by me and we can happily ignore each other. The alternative is that we get more of the same crap Ratzinger dished out, in which case I predict the Catholic Church will continue to fade into irrelevance (at least in the west) as the inherent hypocrisy it entails drives what is left of the faithful away.