"Religion is a hypothesis about the world: the hypothesis that things are the way they are, at least in part, because of supernatural entities or forces acting on the natural world. And there's no good reason to treat it any differently from any other hypothesis. Which includes pointing out its flaws and inconsistencies, asking its adherents to back it up with solid evidence, making jokes about it when it's just being silly, offering arguments and evidence for our own competing hypotheses...and trying to persuade people out of it if we think it's mistaken. It's persuasion. It's the marketplace of ideas. Why should religion get a free ride"

Greta Christina

Tuesday, 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.