Friday, December 14, 2007

Pat Condell for prime minister

Here is a video by a comedian called Pat Condell; I think he's great, nice mix of intelligent banter, wit and sarcasm. Anyway check him out on YouTube or at his own website if you like this kind of thing.

This example of his work is one of my favourites, particularly the line about Islam having a better logo than Christianity, i.e. the crescent moon is better than the cross, mainly because it doesn't have someone nailed to it... keep up the good work Pat!

Not in my living room please!

A while back I blogged about a particularly obnoxious Catholic Priest called “Father Jonathan”; he is a regular on the ultra-right wing Fox network in the USA and IMO so full of it you can see the brown tide mark in his pretty blue eyes. You can imagine my horror when this ludicrously deluded wind-bag popped up on the BBC, hyperventilating and spouting his anti-rational nonsense right there in my living room!; I nearly fell off my chair!

The program was a discussion (You can see it here) featuring Richard Dawkins about the existence or otherwise of God (the “personal” type as opposed to the Deistic type); the usual bland and long ago refuted arguments were being enthusiastically dragged up by various faith heads and pitched in the normal wide-eyed ignorant manner and although he was being the ever courteous gent, you could visibly see Dawkins shoulders sinking lower and lower in response to the sedate banality of it all, then all of a sudden there was FJ, immaculately groomed and media ready blasting out this rapid fire wah, wah, wah, rather like a fire alarm going off in a monastery; unfortunately he didn’t provide the content to match his forceful presentation. Actually it was slightly embarrassing, old FJ took the conversation off in a completely tangential direction, echoing the statements made by the Pope in a recent “encyclical” (whatever that is?) apparently some kind of document.

In this paper the Pope confidently claimed that Atheism is obviously bad because just look at all those 20th century regimes that slaughtered millions of people; Stalin, Mao and Hitler were all the usual names trotted out as examples of people killing others “in the name of Atheism” or in the cause of eliminating religion. The incredibly annoying yeah but, yeah but, no but, Vicky pollard’esc diatribe being delivered by FJ was aimed at suggesting that all these deaths should be weighed against the paltry 10,000 or so eliminated by the inquisition, like some kind of bizarre pissing contest, nah, nah your body count is bigger than ours, Atheist poster boy!.

I was appalled, the combination of arrogance and ignorance on display was breathtaking; interestingly FJ backed off this line of attack when he realised the sheer stunned reaction that he got, hopefully he felt as welcome as a fart in a spacesuit; I don’t think the presenters even knew where to begin with this utter toilet. The discourse ended in a whimper with Dawkins somewhat open mouthed, sporting a treasured “what the fuck was that all about” look on his face, they quickly moved on to the next caller.

Clearly not being able to “let things go”, FJ has stuck faithfully to his dogmatic nature and subsequently presented an “open letter” to Dawkins on his blog; he attempts to summarise his points and taunts Dawkins to repudiate all the “slaughter” in the name of Atheism, the same way that some previous Pope had apparently “apologised” for all the “slaughter” in the name of Christianity. As I said previously there are so many errors and logical fallacies propped up by straw-men here that it’s difficult to know where to start, let me jot down a couple of points that spring to mind.

First let’s look at the assertion that Nazis were an “Atheistic” regime,
  • Hitler seems to have had the tacit support of the Catholic Church in many things via the Concordat established in 1933 (ref. “The Catholic Church and Nazi Germany” by Guenter Lewy)
  • The current Pope actually belonged to the Hitler youth at age 14 (bit close to home don't you think Mr Ratzinger, put up much resistance to these godless ideas did you?)
  • German soldiers’ belt buckles had “Gott Mit Uns” (God with us) written on them
  • Hitler said he believed in creation (various speeches)
  • Hitler said he detested Atheism (Mein Kampf)
  • The Nazi party closed down the Atheist-Freethinkers HQ converting it to a Christian religious advisory establishment. (Berlin)
  • Hitler was bought up a Roman Catholic (historical record)
  • The SS head of Auschwitz, history’s greatest mass murderer, Rudolf Hoess was a strict Catholic. (historical record)
  • And so on and so on…

Even if all of this is lies; what did the Vatican Secretary of State (later to become Pope Pius XII) say against the Nazi party at the time, here is a quote from him,

"The Nazis are in reality only miserable plagiarists who dress up old errors with new tinsel. It does not make any difference whether they flock to the banners of social revolution, whether they are guided by a false concept of the world and of life, or whether they are possessed by the superstition of a race and blood cult."

This is interesting, no mention of Atheism, but superstition, race and blood cult are clearly marked out; doesn’t sound much like the Atheism I know.

So, what about Stalin,

Interestingly Stalin was educated in an Orthodox seminary; his mother wanted him to become a priest. As FJ says clearly in his blog “action follows ideas”, wonder where Joe Stalin got his “ideas” from in that case?

Most historians seem to agree that Stalin established a cult of personality; his cult had everything that Christian religions had, miracles, inquisitions, special dispensations etc. etc. His regime certainly persecuted religious people, along with just about everyone else that stood against him, not a conclusive argument that he did it in the “name of atheism” that I can see – perhaps FJ can furnish us with some documentary evidence that this was the case?

History is history, clearly many interpretations are possible, so what about today?

What evidence do we have that societies mainly consisting of Atheists are bad?

Which countries have the best healthcare, lowest crime, best education, best standard of living, longest life expectancy and most freedom in the world today? Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Japan, France, Finland – all these countries are statistically best when it comes to measures of standards of living but unfortunately for the Pope they are all, majority irreligious, isn’t it interesting that the most irreligious nations on Earth which are not communist also have the highest standards of living, could the Pope be getting communism and atheism mixed up here I wonder?

How about those countries that have the worst standard of living indices, oh dear, what do we find, unfortunately for the Pope and his little imp (FJ) it turns out that they are almost exclusively theocracies governed by religions.

Here is a (recent) chart which shows my point quite nicely... (notice the freaky outlier..)

It is clear to me that this evidence makes both sets of comments seem absurd and so wrong that a child could debunk them.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Is belief harder than non-belief?

I sense a tidal backlash forming; it’s a war of words emanating from people and organisations of faith of all colours and hues, it is aimed firmly and squarely at the feet of a group of people I'm going to label "rational atheists". Clearly, it is not accurate to "lump" atheists into any kind of group really, the only certain thing that is common between them is a lack of belief in a God or Gods, and this is rather like grouping people together who don't collect stamps, but for the purposes of this article please bear with me.

Broadly, I’m thinking of a set of people who, spurred on by the likes of Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris and religiously inspired stupidity (like 9/11) have found the courage and motivation to speak out and express their viewpoint via books (the God delusion, God is not Great etc.), in blogs Pharangula, RRS and through television and films, Root of all evil, Golden Compass etc. the viewpoint that is being discussed is strongly rational at it's core and typically an atheistic one.

The backlash that I’m seeing is so wide and varied that its difficult to know where to start, we seem to have the full spectrum of possible “backlashes” going on all at once, we have, hatred, threat, ridicule, argument, disagreement, dismissal and I’m sure many more, the range is quite impressive, unfortunately the vast majority of the content isn’t, clearly a nerve has been “struck”.

I suppose if you have been indoctrinated from childhood and have lived your entire life blurring the distinction between “realities” and “thoughts” it becomes difficult to really grasp a rational debate, most of the debaters from the faith side seem to fall into this basic trap, i.e. they “assert” their belief as “fact”, they do not seem to use the age-old mechanism that can distinguish between the two, i.e. evidence. There are many examples of this in fact most anti-atheist articles feature it somewhere, however for purposes of example, here is a blog posting that seems to encapsulate this phenomena nicely, notice the obvious assertions of “belief” as “fact”,

His crucifixion is a matter of history (so is his resurrection)” – If this chap has “historical” evidence for Jesus, like a contemporary “independent” account, not one written hundreds of years after his supposed death, like most of the Bible was and most definitely not one supposedly written by the “disciples”, after all, the disciples are part of the story! It’s a bit like trying to argue that Giants exist because otherwise why would Jack have climbed the beanstalk? If such an account existed it would be the most venerated document in the whole world and certainly widely known about, clearly, no such thing exists!

We are here by random chance” – I assume the author is referring to the random mutation element of evolution here, the critical omission is the “selection” part that acts on the mutations that most certainly isn’t random, saying that evolution is a “random” process simply highlights a total ignorance of that branch of science and looses all credibility into the bargain, again he is asserting his “belief” about evolution as “fact”.

Atheists seem to suggest that they are more enlightened than x, y, z”; interestingly the list of people consists entirely of religious people with a huge vested interest in maintaining the status-quo of religion or politicians who would not have been elected if they hadn’t declared “faith” in something, the notable exception is “Isaac Newton”, presumably this entry is there as the token “scientist” doesn’t this author understand that for someone in the 17th century like Newton to declare disbelief in God was as best guaranteeing banishment and at worst a horrible death, this argument is pure desperation, we might as well say, “lot’s of people believe something so it must be true”. Can’t the author see the logic trap that he’s plunging into here, for this point to hold true he *must* then accept that Islam is “true”, Hinduism is “true”, Judaism is “true” and last but not least “Atheism” is true, they all have millions of adherents and they can’t all be true!

The Author of this article is clearly a devout believer, but practically everything he says are misrepresentations of reality, if I were a cynic I would say he is simply “lying for Jesus”, but I’d rather give him the benefit of the doubt, he is clearly ignorant of some parts of science but that isn’t a crime, he probably believes the things he says are true and he probably is a “good” person (although I have no evidence for that) I think there is something deeper going on here. Ask yourself this, which is easier, belief or non-belief? I’m not talking about actions, clearly good people do good things and sometimes they are motivated by belief, I’m talking about the actual process of belief itself and the social repercussions of it, is it easier to run with the crowd or to stand against it and say no, I believe certain things are wrong and they should change. I can imagine at some point in historical time even early Christians were labelled “Atheists” by their Roman oppressors who believed in different gods. Holding a different view to the majority is always harder than not, however I for one, sincerely hope that the mood (particularly in the USA) is changing, people are beginning to speak out for rationality and change, I think what we are witnessing here are the protestations of the “establishment” and apologists leaping to its defence.

What I would say to all those believers out there who feel scared or perhaps “insulted” by those pesky Atheists who want to change everything, is that it isn’t change that prevents you having a meaningful life, it is fear of change, throughout history we can see that change is the only constant; you’d think our species would have learnt that by now.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Catholic = Hypocrite?

I recently watched a humorous video clip of a Fox News (US new network) report about the upcoming film Golden Compass (it’s up on YouTube here). Apparently Philip Pullman the author of the trilogy of books behind this film is an Atheist and the Catholic League (whatever that is?) is boycotting the film because they say it “promotes atheism to children”. I haven’t seen the film (neither has the Catholic league because it isn’t released yet!) so I can’t say if it promotes Atheism or not, but apparently the books are about good vs. evil where evil is played by an overbearing, dogmatic, powerful and secretive sect called the "magisteria" (not like the Catholic Church at all then…)

There were two speakers on the clip, one a Catholic priest called “Father Jonathan” and Annie Gaylor who is the head of something called the “Freedom from Religion Foundation”. I have to say the interview was totally uninspiring, both contributors seemed not to want to cover the actual topic at hand, and the moderator was so plainly biased in favour of the Priest that it was embarrassing; but then Fox News is a legend in its own trousers for being pro-Religious and "kick-ass" right-wing conservative. As you’d expect the priest and the moderator planted and harvested more straw-men that you can shake a stick at, all the usual crap was trotted out, i.e.

  • Some religious people are good - therefore god exists
  • Millions of people have faith – therefore God exists
  • Science can’t explain everything – therefore God exists
  • Atheism is just another faith – therefore God exists

This “media friendly” father was only referring to the Catholic "God" of course, not Allah, Buddha, Thor or the flying spaghetti monster, no because those ones aren't true are they, silly.

My main beef with the report is not the report itself, which was really just comedy, it is the blog entry that relates to it by good old “FJ”, and you can read it here. Now here is a gold-plated lesson in pious hypocritical slimebaggyness married to stunning, planet sized arrogance, let me see if I can précis the article and extract the points I think he is trying to make,

  • Beware, of the “militant atheists”, they are not “traditional atheists” because they don’t believe in the supernatural – huh, sounds pretty traditional to me?
  • Beware of the “militant atheists” because if you’re not a scientist then they want to “silence” you – huh, science is a universal, how can you not believe in science, is there such a thing as "Catholic physics" or "Hindu calculus", do Jewish aeroplanes work differently to “new atheist” ones?
  • Militant Atheists” love straw-man attacks and substitute rational discourse with personal attacks – I think poor old Father Johnny is confusing “personal” with “religion”, Atheists attack religion, FJ then takes it personally. As for straw men, you really shouldn't criticise someone for using a straw man argument by using a straw man argument, it just insults everyone's intelligence.
  • "FJ" implies that “Militant Atheists” are “Angry” and “Mean”, he gives no examples, but I assume he thinks we’re angry because we say things like “telling people with HIV not to use condoms because the baby Jesus cries when you do is evil". Well, actually yes, I suppose he’s right, I could get pretty angry about the unnecessary death and misery of millions of people and the utter waste of human capital because of bronze age myths. As for “mean”, well, I guess if you have the mental perspective of a pre-pubescent child then it would be “mean” to point out all the inconsistencies and errors (like “limbo”) in your supernatural fantasy world that cause pain and suffering to many innocent people, how childish!

Do Catholics really want such blatant hypocrisy by Catholics on behalf of Catholics to be pointed out to the world like this, or can they just not see it, maybe not, let me spell it out.

  • Saying that exposing children to Atheism is wrong, but indoctrinating them in the Catholic church from birth is OK, is hypocrisy.
  • Criticising Atheists for being "mean" because they point out facts regarding the absurdity of your religious dogma, but then saying "believe our myths or burn in hell for eternity", is hypocrisy
  • Criticising Atheists for being "angry", whilst supporting policies (like condom use) which cause or prolong suffering in millions of people, is hypocrisy
  • Saying that your religion supports evolution and then saying that Atheists are wrong to believe that evolved animals such as ourselves don't have supernatural components, is hypocrisy
  • Saying that science is in opposition to "faith" and then living and prospering in the modern world, benefiting from (secular, scientific advances) like, medicine, transport, media, technology and ethics, is hypocrisy
  • Criticising science for not being able to explain "everything", then offering no explanation yourselves other than "god did it", is hypocrisy
  • Saying that its wrong to have a film "suggesting" Atheism is wrong for children to see, but a film showcasing Christianity (like Narnia) is right, is hypocrisy
I could go on, but, would there be any point?

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Worse than Bush?

I read today that American presidential candidate Mike Huckabee is on record as saying the following in an interview given recently,

"Oh, I believe in science. I certainly do. In fact, what I believe in is, I believe in God. I don't think there's a conflict between the two. But if there's going to be a conflict, science changes with every generation and with new discoveries and God doesn't. So I'll stick with God if the two are in conflict."

WTF! - This is idiocy (or lies) layered on top of stupidity wrapped up in arrogance with a bow on top!; lets look at this statement more closely. Firstly, what he's saying is that God doesn't change, i.e. 21st century Christians are no different from 1st century Christians, well, perhaps round his neck of the woods they still stone women to death for being suspected of adultery but not here old boy! Secondly he seems to be suggesting that because science is constantly making new discoveries and better explaining reality that somehow that is not as good as something conceived in a primative Bronze age desert society, all I can suggest is that all the hard working scientists in the USA remind Mr Huckabee when (in his twilight years) he pitches up for his hip replacement or some new drug therapy that the "science" he will need will almost certainly be "new" science" and that perhaps he'd be better off asking his "God" for a prescription instead.

Hypocrite just doesn't seem to cover it; please Americans, for all the world's sake, don't vote for this buffoon.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Islamic fundamentalism - It's all Dawkins' fault

I was amazed to hear on the Radio 4 program "Start of the Week" this week, published author and theologian Karen Armstrong accuse Richard Dawkins (et al) of causing previously reasonable and rational Islamic fundamentalists to suddenly start believing in a "literal" account of creation. Apparently no one believed all that nonsense until Dawkins pointed out what it "actually" says in these holy books is scientifically absurd, for instance that the entire universe was created just slightly after the domestication of the dog.

Apparently this simple pointing out of some basic scientific facts has contributed to Muslims all over the world suddenly seeing the light and fleeing back to the perfectly reasonable position that a mythical superhuman created everything in 6 days a few thousand years ago. I don't know which Islamic countries Ms Armstrong has visited to research this theory but I'd wager that most Muslims in most Islamic states I have ever been to would never have heard of Richard Dawkins, let alone explain why genes are selfish.

What on earth is this idiot spouting on about, are the theologians running scared, what next, new antibiotic causes millions of Christians to reach for the leach jar?

It is interesting to note that Dawkins has just launched a fresh assault on "Theology" as a subject, his opinion is that it is not fit to be taught at Oxford (and presumably any university) because it has yet to prove that it has any real "content". If this woman is a product of that learning process then I can fully see his point!

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

More political ignorance

More blood boiling (well for me anyway) triggered by a comment from a (stupid) Labour politician today at the party conference.

David Miliband was waxing lyrical about how our (UK) foreign policy would be different under Gordon Brown (great, it couldn't get much worse!) and uttered the following piece of crap, "Europe can't be a closed Christian club". He was of course referring to the current debate about Turkey (a predominantly Islamic country) becoming a full member of the EEC.

Firstly, Europe is not a "Christian club", at the last count only 52% of people in Europe claimed to be "religious" and the second largest religious group is Muslim, so Christianity is almost certainly in a minority. Secondly, I'd prefer to see a politician say "Europe can't become an intolerant, backward, superstitious, woman-hating, anti-scientific, theocratic, education and innovation wasteland, like most of the Middle East seems to be", that sounds like a much more worthwhile aspiration to me.

Friday, September 21, 2007

What does "spiritual" mean?

"Spiritual" is a term that I hear frequently, it's one of those "throw away" terms that seems to be used most frequently to avoid the need to be specific about what you do or don't believe religion-wise. I hear this term most from people who seem to be "too rational" to believe conventional (big 3) dogma but can't seem to let go of religion completely, kind of a "religiosity lite". When pressed such people often equate "spirituality" with a feeling of awe, reverence or mystery, I really, really don't get this, perhaps I'm just someone who is not wired this way but I find it hard to accept because I experience those emotions frequently myself, but I find no need to equate them to anything "supernatural".

So what things inspire me (a cold godless atheist) to feel awe and reverence, well that's easy, what registers with me is walking into the Duomo in Florence, listening to a powerful piece of music, contemplating geological time, drinking 1961 Latour, standing on top of a mountain, jumping off the mountain with a paraglider strapped to my back, watching my children play, and a million other obvious, thrilling or even mundane human experiences, but which of these requires a supernatural explanation, frankly none that I can see?

Wouldn't it be interesting to do a brain scan of an atheist and a believer both experiencing the same "spiritual" thing; I'd bet a lot of money that they'd be identical, if they were then that would suggest the only difference is the "interpretation" of the feeling, not the feeling itself, removing the "spirit" from the spiritual, now wouldn't that be awe inspiring!

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Atheists Rock!

Hands up those of you who remember (fondly) the throbbing "prog rock" bands of the 70s like Hawkwind, Yes, Rush, Genesis and Floyd etc. I didn't realise this but some of these (now) old gits are still hammering away at their stratocasters like the immortal rock gods we all hoped they would be; For fans who are of an Atheist calling it doesn't get much better than Rush's latest album called "Snakes and Arrows" (2007), I must say I find it a most excellent earful, clean, crisp guitar rock of the highest calibre on tracks like "Malignant Narcissism" and (I know we don't do this much these days) just listen to those lyrics, particularly tracks like "Faithless", this is Atheist poetry, I'm in heaven (oops!).

PS If you want to listen to other Atheist friendly music, check out Motorhead, specifically "Don't need Religion" on "Iron Fist" (2001); also the excellent "God was never on your side" on "Kiss of Death" (2006), of course there are also the odd gems from Dylan (With God on our side), Eagles (The Last Resort), and Genesis (Jesus he knows me); Nine Inch Nails have an excellent album out at the moment called "Year Zero" which has a couple of superb tracks, and there is always REM, Roger Walters, Slayer, John Lennon, RHCP, Metalica, Pearl Jam and many more - we rock!

Friday, August 24, 2007

Does "faith" trump justice?

Listening to the news last night two stories caused me to lapse into a fit of Tourette's and swear out loud at the TV, it wasn't dignified. Who knows, perhaps its my age, perhaps I should drink less caffeine or maybe I should just stop giving a damn and switch over to big brother and let rigor mortis of the brain set in and be done with it.

Let me share what outraged me so much, first there was the Jehovah's Witness paedophile who was convicted of 13 offences against children over a period of several years the youngest of whom was only 18 months old, this is bad enough right, but not what triggered my outburst. In a "surprising" turn of events this man walked free from the court with only a 3 year community sentence, again pretty outrageous, but not what sparked my rage. No, the thing that triggered me off were the reasons that the judge gave for being so lenient, there were three reasons given, I only remember the first 2 as the second one insulted my intelligence so severely that I stopped listening. So, first reason, he pleaded guilty, oh, ok, so that’s nice (apparently he gave himself up only when one of his victims threatened to turn him in), second reason, he is a man of FAITH.

At this point I need to scream, so this criminal doesn’t go to jail because he “believes things without evidence” and has an invisible friend in the sky. This totally stinks, I wonder if the Judge is a Christian of some flavour, and I bet no one will dare to call him out on it, because we just don’t criticize faith do we. This man should go to jail, for a long, long time, his so called “church” should be prosecuted for public safety offences and be ordered to fully and generously compensate all the victims from their no doubt ample funds, and this Judge should be fired without a second thought.

Then, as if to rub salt into my intellectual wounds, we had the story concerning the shooting of an 11 year old boy in Liverpool, again, pretty bad, but who should the ITV news team decide to talk too in a filmed “walk about” through the streets where he lived? Perhaps the police chief, maybe a social worker, criminologist, witnesses, no, the FUCKING Bishop of Liverpool that’s who, just what the hell would this man have to professionally contribute to this debate I thought? When asked what he thought should happen, his first comment was that we should all “get on our knees and pray for the victim”.

I had to retire to bed at that point, before I threw something and regretted it, as Christopher Hitchens so succinctly and simply states in his recent book (a great read BTW)

…religion poisons everything.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

American companies and religion

A new behavioural hypothesis has been forming in my mind recently, something I hadn’t thought about much before I started to research Atheism and Religion more seriously, it goes like this. Having personally worked for several different American corporations over the years and recently reading about the (real) religious landscape in a lot of the USA, something struck me, that is, how one is so strongly a cultural reflection of the other.

There seem to be a number of principals that are engrained in the zeitgeist of the American corporation (at least the ones I've worked for) and are similarly important attributes of most religions (especially in the USA), Dilbert author Scott Adams has already covered most of these in spades here, but IMO the key ones are

1. You can't criticize anything
2. The truth isn't important
3. They are not meritocracies
4. They are dogmatic
5. They don't evolve (in fact they don't believe in it!)
6. Faith is more important than quality or ability

Of course, I'm not saying that all corporations have all of these properties; but I bet most people can recognise some of the elements where they work. The few UK corporations I have experience of certainly seem to have some of these traits but to a lesser degree; scepticism and it's darker cousin cynicism seems much more evident here, in fact is almost valued in some places, although having said that, we seem to have much bigger social issues with evolution (in a business sense) and social etiquette/class than over the pond.

Another interesting facet of this is where the company is located; this seems to correlate very strongly with my perception of the religiousness of the state, i.e. less around the edges and more in the middle; what you would expect I suppose.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Atheists Unite!

I am very pleased to note that we seem to be entering a new phase in the embryonic Atheist renaissance going on currently. There has been talk for some time within Atheist circles about how we can raise public consciousness for our themes and ideas, until now this has been quite a challenge for those wishing to steer down a more political and influential path.

Atheism is not an alternative “religion” (much as the religious would like people to think it is) and it has no dogmas or rituals, it is simply a lack of belief in God (also usually anything supernatural), because of this there is very little cohesion in the broader Atheist movement because there is nothing to coalesce around other than the absence of faith. There is strong evidence for this lack of cohesion, for example, it is interesting to realise that Atheist numbers in the USA far exceed that of the Jews for instance, but everyone knows how powerful the Jewish political lobby is in that country; Richard Dawkins likens organising Atheists to “herding cats”.

Hopefully we have seen the beginnings of a change in that situation, as of Monday “The Out Campaign” was officially launched at Dawkins WEB site see here although the campaign is currently small scale and a little amateurish I’m sure with the level of interest and momentum that Dawkins, Hitchens and Harris (among others) have built up it will catch on quickly and gain constituents. The scarlet "A" symbol has been chosen to represent the campaign (I hope they checked that no one needs this font to be licensed)

Currently the campaign is mainly oriented around getting Atheists to “come out”, rather in the style of the gay rights campaign of a similar ilk back in the 80s; the general gut feel of the movers and shakers is that there are a lot more Atheists out there than our establishment bodies would have us believe. I also think that we will encounter a lot of “fence sitters” who are either too afraid or too apathetic to emerge from the closet as well. Why bother?, I hear people ask, well I think it’s a simple fact of life, unless politicians, businesses, communities and governments realise how numerous we are (i.e. what power our influence potentially wields) our views will continue to be marginalised and iron age religious bigotry will continue to rule unchallenged over many parts of this little globe of ours, question is, are we happy with that?

My personal hope is that this campaign will expand and encompass many more goals over its life, for example,

  • How we acquire political clout
  • Establish our manifesto, i.e. church-state separation
  • Raise funds
  • Handle the media
  • Influence the zeitgeist
  • Develop institutions
  • Reach out to people under the cosh of oppressive theocracies
  • Build community

Exciting times.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Species of Parent

I recently stayed at a “family friendly” hotel in Fowey in Cornwall (UK), see here for a review of it. Whilst we were there it was interesting to do a bit of people watching and being a geek one of the little games I played was to try and categorise the parents I saw and their interactions with their children into groups, the groups I came up with were as follows.

Psychotic – Parents who seem determined to commit infanticide by pushing the perceived interests of their children above and beyond all reasonableness, you can especially easily identify them when sport is involved, they are the over animated ones jumping up and down on the touch line bellowing at their 3 year old to “crush the opposition” and “get in there, break his legs” and so on. Adrenal glands way too big, frontal lobes way to small…

Deer in the headlights – This group is clearly identified by the daft grin that seems permanently welded to their faces, soppy dopes who seem to walk around with their heads tilted at a 45 degree angle inanely smiling, then saying “ah”, as young Tommy projectile vomits semi-digested stringy cheese all over your new suit.

Pistol Whipped – It’s hard not to feel utter contempt for this group, sad bastards with dark rings around their eyes and nervous twitches; their little angel rules their very existence, every ridiculous fantasy, whim and desire of their spoilt brat of a child is fully catered for, every sweet, ice cream, toy or game is procured immediately or else an infeasibly loud screaming fit ensues. Strangely they all speak using an odd squeaky “baby” language, sometimes amusingly forgetting to flip back to normal when talking to adults, spooky.

Hippy – The hippy group are the ones that just don’t give a shit, to all intents and purposes they don’t actually have children, they merely have small unpleasant associates that they occasionally negotiate unsuccessfully with. These are the kids that take a dump in the middle of a crowded restaurant whilst the parents continue chatting and looking on over their cups of herbal tea; these are the group whose offspring seem never to sleep or wash and who seem oblivious to the rest of humanity until they are beaten to a pulp by the Psychotic kids, these parents do “indignant” best of all.

Paranoid – When placing myself in a group this would be it; these are the conflicted buffoons who follow their kids around eternally picking up their detritus and constantly warning or chastising them for nearly breaking their own neck (or some other kids’ neck). This group is just paranoid that their kids are going to do something anti-social or embarrassing, of course, that’s exactly what always happens. Clearly this pitiless existence is very stressful, secretly this group wants to be in the hippy group but just can’t bring themselves to be that inconsiderate.

Clearly hybrid configurations are possible, i.e. Paranoid mothers and Psychotic fathers; amusingly though this simple classification seemed to cover it.

Fowey Hall Hotel

Our main family holiday this year was to spend a week at Fowey Hall in Fowey, Cornwall; the Hotel is now part of the Luxury Family hotels group, see here this is a small group of select hotels in the UK that specialise in child friendly “luxury” holidays that cater for families that have young children who want 4/5 star accommodation, food and service but also need childcare, children’s facilities and organised child oriented activities. A couple of years ago we spend a long weekend at the Moonfleet Manor hotel which is also part of this group so it was interesting to compare and contrast these two establishments.

The main building of the hotel was originally built in 1899 by Sir Charles Augustin Hanson, 1st Baronet of Fowey and Lord Mayor of London (1917-18) he was also an MP for Bodmin in Cornwall (1916-22); apparently it was the inspiration for “Toad Hall” of “Wind in the Willows” fame, a children’s book by Kenneth Grahame. The high vantage point is superb, probably the best in the whole of Fowey, great views of the river estuary and Fowey town; it also serves up views of the medieval blockhouses guarding the entrance to the harbour and on out to cliffs and the open sea.

The décor and atmosphere of the communal areas of the hotel are great; the character of a stately home has been well preserved. There are dinning rooms, libraries, drawing rooms as well as games and meeting rooms, a splendid terrace soaking up the great views along with small but mature gardens concealing a conservatory style pool, several trampolines, play area and a kids club with full day-care/nursery facilities and a play room housing table football, pool and table tennis etc. Overall the quality of the facilities was good; their condition was satisfactory rather than pristine with some (i.e. the pool) in need of a refresh or updating baring in mind the price and marketing positioning of the hotel.

Our room was probably one of the biggest in the hotel; actually it was two adjoining rooms each with its own bathroom and a little hall area between them. Availability was scarce when we booked and all that was available was half-board and the “Charles Hanson” room; it was nice enough i.e. great views and clean, but the state of decoration was generally poor for the money. Creaky old wardrobes, rattley sash windows, cheap curtains and badly faded tapestries, I guess some people like this authentic “moth-eaten” feel, but personally I thought it badly needed modernisation and redecoration. The room had a cheap LCD TV and bargain basement DVD player (which worked most of the time); the kid’s room just had a cheap CRT TV which frankly was rubbish, the equipment was decidedly 2 star and we hardly used it. Apparently (according to other guests) there were other rooms in the hotel (in a new extension wing) that were very well equipped, i.e. modern stylish bathrooms, up to date AV equipment and contemporary furnishings etc. but sadly we didn’t get a chance to look at them during our stay.

Generally the pattern of activity flowed pretty much the same for us on most days; a hearty breakfast was followed by putting the kids into the club for a couple of hours at around 10am; this was nice as it allowed us adults to chill out over a cup of tea and a good read of the papers etc. (although the last Harry Potter book came out this week so that featured high on the “to-do” list of most people). After picking up the kids at midday we usually headed out for the day, things like beaches, attractions, parks and organised outings were in order along with a spot of lunch. Typically we got back at around 5pm when kid’s dinner was served. The hotel offers the concept of a separate children’s dinner from the main “adult” dinner, this was an extra charge, but at £7.50 per child offered reasonable value and certainly a convenient way to maintain “home like” eating schedules, we took advantage of it every night.

In-between kid’s dinner and adult’s dinner several activities were on offer, games (i.e. Xbox, Playstation, Monopoly etc.) and (weather permitting) outdoor sports like football, cricket, badminton etc. although this is one area where the facilities were particularly poor, cricket was 4 stumps, one adult size bat and a tennis ball (hardly suitable for 5 year olds); football was a ball and the same 4 cricket stumps for goals. The “sports” were supervised by hotel staff (usually a solitary young member of staff) mostly they seemed pretty disinterested in the whole thing, which often degenerated into chaos as the older kids pummelled (figuratively) the younger ones, inevitably it ended in tears.

After bathing and settling the kid’s down to sleep we prepared ourselves for dinner; each room has a listening device connected to a central console in the reception, the idea is that if your child cries out or makes a noise then the staff come and get you. This seemed to work ok, luckily neither of ours gave us any trouble (must be all that sea air!); human baby sitters were available but at extra cost, since we ate in the hotel every night we didn’t really need them.

The overall dining experience was good; the main dining room was reserved for adults only; however children could still eat with their parents in an adjoining room (I am amazed by how many 2-3 year olds were still running around after 9-10pm). This was a very good scheme as with so many children in the hotel, the noise and general mayhem of the day did wear you down after a while and having dedicated “Adult time”, i.e. peace and quiet was great. Three courses were on offer every night, a fixed, unchanging menu of 5-6 starters, 8-9 mains and 5-6 desserts with a single varying “menu of the day”, the selection was fair, plenty of fish and shellfish, surprisingly no beef (although steak appeared once as a daily menu item), one lamb, one chicken and one pork dish the rest seafood of varying kinds. On Sunday the chef obviously took the day off and we were all treated to a BBQ; I wasn't that keen on this idea, the food was fine, but the restrictions on kids in the main dinning room were lifted and boy was that unpleasant, over tired brats endlessly tearing around your table, simply not conducive to an enjoyable dining experience, we were in bed by 9pm that day.

The presentation of the food was very good; the quality was generally good although some dishes were a little bland (i.e. the tian of crab starter), the desserts were the highlight for me, generally they were excellent. The wine list was limited to around 50 bins and hardly any well known producers; I think they had tried to “represent” every conceivable country and grape so that people could at least find one thing they recognised; however in doing this it was a kind of “jack of all trades” but master of none. I found it very difficult to select wines from this list, the mark-ups seemed inconsistent and I suspected that the wines were chosen for their “margin potential” rather than their quality. This is not a hotel for wine geeks; they even committed the cardinal sin of advertising one vintage and serving another. One night I ordered a 2000 Stags Leap Petit Syrah (£59), this is a £20-25 pound wine (retail) but 2000 was an excellent year in Napa so I thought I would splash out; when the bottle arrived it turned out to be a 2004, when I mentioned this to the waiter he looked at me as if to say “so what it's the right wine isn't it?”, for a wine geek this is about as bad as it gets. The Bordeaux and Burgundy selections were poor, fringe/unknown producers, poor vintages and 5X+ mark-ups, Italy seemed reasonably represented but again, no one I’d heard of, South Africa & Spain seemed the best value with the rest a real mixed bag of odds and sods.

Overall this was a good, not great, holiday, the kid’s really enjoyed it and we genuinely had time to relax and recharge. The location (i.e. Fowey) was lovely, the views were great and there was plenty to do and see in the surrounding area. In terms of the hotel itself I’d say the following,

Excellent things

  • Kid’s club
  • Location, buildings, atmosphere and gardens

Good things

  • Dining experience, food
  • Indoor facilities, games, library & communal areas
  • Attentiveness of service, general efficiency

Poor things

  • State of décor & equipment in our room (Charles Hanson)
  • “Sports” in the evenings, lack of proper equipment & supervision
  • BBQ on Sunday (at least the lifting of child restrictions in the main dining room)
  • Overall value for money

Unacceptable things
  • Wine issues
  • Loud music from the kitchen (just below our room) at 5:30am!
  • Rattling windows (a couple of nights it got windy)
If I had to compare Fowey with Moonfleet Manor I'd say that Fowey was definitely better for (adult) food and dining, childcare and general location/atmosphere however I think Moonfleet scored better on facilities for sports and games, having a large indoor sports centre all of its own.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Chastity ring case- update

I read a news item yesterday that reported the outcome of the "chastity ring" case bought before the high court last month and which I wrote about recently here .

It's good news, Christians 0 - Rationality 1 i.e. they lost and ended up having to contribute to the schools costs - thank god for that!

Friday, July 13, 2007

La Tupina, Bordeaux

It’s a well known phenomenon that when a restaurant is able to claim “the best” of something and that claim is replicated in a few trusted places in the media it really doesn’t matter how many Michelin stars it has or indeed where it is, it will always get a regular stream of customers eager to “try” whatever the superlative item is and thereby judge the claim for themselves, La Tupina is such a place. The item in question at this particular establishment is the ubiquitous “chip” (or French fry). It seemed strange to me that a restaurant in a back street of Bordeaux, France would claim to offer the best chips; surely that honour would fall to a suitably endowed Belgian or English café, mais non!, and I during my recent visit to this fair city I couldn’t miss the opportunity to try them.

How to describe La Tupina, well, imagine a Provençal kitchen complete with roaring fire, chequered table cloths, suitably rural paintings and decorated plates nailed to rustic stone walls (a little worse for wear). Then picture every nook and cranny of those old walls filled with dusty old bottles of exotic looking fluids and shelves lined with Armagnac stretching back to before the First World War and you are just about there.

I’d say the atmosphere was “casual”, no fussy waiters or intimidating doormen, it seems almost like a bistro, however it’s quickly evident that this is a “serious” establishment, good quality stem-ware, crisp service and my goodness the odours coming from the kitchen and the open fire, just heavenly. It was clear from the menu that this is the kind of place that knows what it does well and sticks to it; mainly traditional dishes not too many choices and a simple wine list with the usual token 1st growth at a ridiculous mark-up. We opted for a set menu as it seemed to cover the highlights well, I chose a foie gras terrine to start followed by “7 hour lamb” and my wife went for a hot goats cheese salad with roast duck as a main course (we carefully noted that the duck came with the celebrated “chips” that I was so anxious to try). For the wine geeks, I chose a Lafon-Rochet 2001 at 60 Euros; I had never tried this vintage before but had enjoyed a few bottles of the 2000 and 1997 previously, I hoped that the lighter style and smoky-plumy character of this 4th growth St. Estephe wine would provide a reasonable backdrop to the various roast dishes we had ordered.

Quickly and efficiently an appetiser of bread, charcuterie, raw vegetables and what can only be described as an assortment of “pork scratchings” appeared with this we started to understand what this place was about. The deep fried meat wasn’t actually pork; it was duck fat or skin deep fried until crispy and coated something nice, yum, but not for the feint hearted! After finishing our starters (not that memorable) and an appropriate break the mains arrived, the lamb looked wonderful, almost black in colour still on the bone with some kind of wine based sauce which it had obviously been basted in; had it really been roasting for 7 hours, well a single touch of my fork practically melted it, I have never tasted such tender and flavoursome lamb superb. I didn’t actually try the duck, it looked good however my wife thought it was just OK, nothing special. Now for the main event, the chips, these weren’t your average MacDonald’s fries or even premium M&S oven chips, oh no, hand cut, irregular shaped fantastically crispy "door stops"; deep fried in duck fat over the open fire in tiny iron skillets, boy oh boy, these were chips with secondary flavours; crispy, ducky, creamy in the middle, salty with a finish of pure wood-smoke, I could have eaten many times my own body weight of these. Were they “the best”, well, I’ve had some great chip experiences in Belgium and Holland double fried, with mayonnaise etc.; it would be a close run thing, but just maybe! After the main courses we had some cheese and finished off with chocolate cake (oh my!) with custard and I had cooked pears & ice cream.

In summary this is a great little place, simple and rustic but of very high quality, if you have any concerns about cholesterol, fat, offal and blood or don’t like duck then don’t bother, but if you are looking for an authentic south-western French style of cooking then La Tupina is not only Robert Parker's favourite Bordeaux eatery but definitely one for your list too!

Thursday, July 05, 2007

What exactly does Jack Straw stand for?

In a recent TV interview Jack Straw the ex UK foreign secretary and current MP for Blackburn was discussing the recent attack on Glasgow airport; he proposed that we [the public] should not associate this atrocity with any particular religion, HUH?, run that by me again, so the fact that a flaming lunatic jumps out of his crashed jeep was shouting "Allah, Allah" doesn't some how give the game away? does Jack think that the public are so stupid that they haven't already made that obvious and unequivocal link already?

He went on to say that Islam is a "wonderful" religion; hold on a minute, is this the same Jack Straw that just last year declared that Muslim women shouldn't wear the veil because it is "culturally divisive". Lets get this straight, when a religion inspires you to run through a crowded airport "on fire" its "wonderful", but when it inspires you to throw a sheet over your head it's divisive... sorry Jack I don't follow your logic there.

In my opinion the only sane thing that anyone can hope for is that (religion or no religion) rationality will prevail and that in the end the Human "prejudice gene" that seems to precipitate all cults and religions will be consigned to the "junk DNA" of our descendants. Come on natural selection, do your thing (hold on, maybe it already is...)

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Wine tasting in Bordeaux

I recently had a long weekend in Bordeaux, the main purpose of which was to relax and spend some quality time with my wife away from the kids (thanks Nanna & Grandad!), of course Bordeaux wasn't selected at random, that location facilitates two of my most favourite past-times namely, eating good food and tasting fine wine! We arrived Friday evening and departed the following Monday afternoon, a short but very enjoyable trip during which we visited a number of Châteaux in the Medoc and St. Emilion.

Here are the tasting notes for all the wines I tried (some at the château and some over dinner/lunch) - scoring using a "Parker" 50-100 point score.

Ch. Lafon Rochet 2001, St. Estephe

I have tried a couple of vintages Lafon Rochet and always found it to be a reliable and interesting wine. The quality of this estate seems to be steadily increasing, the 97 was above average, the 2000 is really good and this 2001 is also excellent VFM at around £22/bottle. Dark, complex and full bodied. Black fruits and earth on the nose, good mouth feel, reasonable finish, soft tannins with a slightly "dusky" feel to it, drinking OK now but plenty of life left in it yet 5+ years [89+]

Ch. Haut Bages Averous 2001, Pauillac

Pleasant nose of red berries, some “greenness”, lively in the mouth, fresh good finish; would appear to be good VFM at £20/bottle, 5+ years left probably with some improvement [87]

Ch. Lynch-Bages 2001, Pauillac

This was my fourth outing for the grand vin of this Pauillac 5th growth, although that classification is a bit of a joke, it should be more like 2nd these days, I've previously tried the 98 which I thought was good, and the 2000 which was great, this was somewhere in between. Cassis and red fruits on the nose, medium depth, not as lively as the 2nd wine of the same vintage and perhaps a little closed at present? Probably wise to wait 5 years or so for this one although I doubt it will ever become a blockbuster like some of their better years i.e. 1989, 1996, 2000 etc. but I'd be happy to own some never the less 10+ years [88]

Blanc de Lynch-Bages 2004, Pauillac

A wonderful discovery for me, unfortunately they only make 1500 cases a year. So refreshing, citrus fruits, well integrated oak, some sweetness (apparently there is some Muscadelle in the blend) Medium bodied, aromatic and went superbly with the langoustines in a rich sauce that I had with it. I imagine that this has some legs too; it seems to have plenty of body to last and improve over time 5+ years [91+]

Ch. Bernadotte 2001, Pauillac

Quite similar to the second wine of Lynch-Bages from the same vintage; fresh, up-front nose and taste, also quite tannic with a reasonable finish so I would imagine there is no rush to drink this. Value wise, at around £11 this seems ok but certainly not at the same QPR level as a lot of new-world Bordeaux look-a-likes, 5+ years [88]

Ch. Pichon-Longueville Comtesse de Lalande 2004, Pauillac

Bright red colour, fairly dull nose but there is fruit there, cherries, cassis and cocoa. Big disappointment in the mouth, chewy, slightly bland with strong dry tannins, clearly very young and potentially closed down at the moment? I’d give this plenty of time to come around, only because of the good name of the estate rather than any special tasting insight on my part, but at £55/bottle I won't be stocking up on this any time soon. 10+ years [88+]

Alter Ego du Palmer 2000, Margaux

Nice nose & deep colour, red fruits, tobacco, earth. Smooth accessible, drinking well now but will certainly improve. Around £35/bottle which I suppose is about right for a 2000 2nd wine from a top estate, went very well with the beef fillet I had with it, got better over the course of the meal (2+ hours) in the decanter. 10+ years [90+]

Ch. Houchat la Rose 2002, Fronsac

Tight upfront fruit on the nose, wood, resin, red berries, bright red in colour. I would imagine that this would be a splendid food wine for “lunching ladies”, not too heavy (12.5%), accessible but more serious than most roses. I’ve not tried too many wines from Fronsac, but this is a good one IMO, around 10 euros 5+ years [88]

Ch. Rozier 2004, St. Emilion

Blackcurrant and red fruits on the nose, wood & vanilla evident, good rich colour but a lighter style of Saint Emilion, well balanced for such a young wine, overall not too shabby for an average year. 5+ years [88+]

Ch. St. Andre Corbin 2004, St. Emilion (St. Georges)

Typical St. Emilion nose, dark colour, blueberries and vanilla with some more complex notes of chocolate and tobacco hiding underneath its youthful surface. Smooth and well balanced but surprisingly complex for this price point (£12), a very good wine. 5+ years [89+]

Ch. St. Andre Corbin 2005, St. Emilion (St. Georges)

Very nice nose, blueberry/vanilla, yum! Perhaps a little unbalanced at this stage but nothing unexpected, tannic but definitely good fruit under that, should improve and last for a good few years, great value at around 20 euros, but might be hard to find in the UK 5+ years [90+]

Les Cedres de Franc-Mayne 2004, St. Emilion

Tight, slightly green, nice fruit but difficult to get past the initial attack which is a bit harsh. It will probably settle down a bit with time 5+ years but not something I’d rush out to buy [86]

Ch. Franc Mayne 2001, St. Emilion Grand Cru Classe

“Dull” is my overriding impression of this wine, small nose and weak in the mouth, finish not bad but very tannic; at over £20/bottle I’m really not impressed [84]

Ch. Franc Mayne 1997, St. Emilion Grand Cru Classe

Tried this one 5 years ago and I thought it was very poor, perhaps this wine needs a long time to come around? This showing proved much better than the previous one, but still only an average wine in my view [82]

Ch. Le Bon Pasteur 1997, Pomerol

I was talked into buying this by our waiter at a restaurant in St. Emilion after my first choice wasn’t available, I wasn’t keen since it cost 90 Euro, I’d never tried it before and my impression of 97 right bank wines is not great, anyway, I caved and I’m glad I did, this was really nice. Good nose, smoky, cherry, black current, smooth, balanced and very well integrated oak. Full bodied and showing well, interestingly it improved over the course of the meal as well, suggesting it has legs left yet. 5+ years [91]

Fugue de Nenin 2006, Pomerol

Second wine of Chateau Nenin, first time I’d tried this in fact I hadn’t realized Nenin even had a 2nd label. Barrel sample, so pretty full on, bubble gum nose, plenty of fruit, strong tannin fabulous colour, I think this will be a very good wine, early drinking but complex enough, 10+ years [88]

Ch. de Nenin 2004, Pomerol

First sampling for me of Nenin, I like it. The 2004 is still very tannic, pretty much what you would imagine the owners of LLC would produce from Pomerol. Good dark colour, black fruits, plumy, fleshy, long finish. 10+ years [89+]

Chapelle de Pontensac 2004, Medoc

Second wine of Chateau Pontensac, my first sampling of this wine, superficially simple in colour and nose but actually some structure here, a “classic” claret style as you would expect from the LLC stable 5+ years [88]

Ch. Pontensac 2006, Medoc

Subtle nose (more so than the second wine), great colour, still very tannic as expected and very classic in style, quite austere but I like that; Opened out noticeably over the course of 10 minutes in the glass revealing cassis, earthy notes and some dark fruits, I suspect this will be a very nice wine in 5-10 years time [89+]

Clos du Marquis 2006, St. Julien

One of my favorites and certainly one of the best 2nd wines of the Medoc IMO, quite restrained on the nose at this stage but you get the impression that there is stuff going on with this wine. The 2006 CDM contains a high percentage of Cabernet Franc (13.2%) this year for the 1st time which came from a parcel in the Grand Vin vineyard, apparently it didn’t ripen fast enough for inclusion in the grand vin. The head of the chais at the château thought that this inclusion has revolutionized the CDM this year, he believes that it will add complexity and flavour to the wine which previously has not been there. I think its hard to tell at this early stage but it looks promising, I shall certainly be investing in a few cases. Still great value at around £25/bottle easily of 3rd or 4th growth quality, 15+ years [92]

Clos du Marquis 2004, St. Julien

Classic CDM, still way too young to drink, this needs at least 8 years to come around and gain the complexity that is evident in the raw materials now. Dark ruby in colour, red berries, earthy, tobacco on the nose, very fine for this price point but still a little “tough” and tannic for all but the most devoted of fans. 10+ years [90]

Ch. Leoville-Las Cases 2006, St. Julien

It was a real privilege for me to taste a barrel sample of the grand vin, particularly from such a good year, my absolute favorite Bordeaux wine (so far!). Very deep colour, not a huge nose at this stage but boy is it classy, the people at LLC are such professionals; Classic, powerful, amazingly tannic leaving my mouth feeling like it had been inverted, brooding fruit lurking under the surface, huge finish measured in days rather than seconds, is this better than the 2005, it may well be close. 20+ years [96]

Chevalier de Lascombes 2002, Margaux

The second wine of Chateau Lascombes, I was interested to try this since I visited this estate just after the take over and the 2000 vintage heralded a step change in quality at this 2nd growth Margaux. I liked it, not huge, fairly “international” in style but pleasant with a pork fillet for lunch. Light ruby in colour, red fruits and slightly spirity on the nose, smooth in the mouth, medium finish, altogether not too shabby. 5+ years [87+]

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Bishop solves mystery of climate change...

Its official, the “right reverend” Graham Dow (aka the Bishop of Carlisle) knows the actual mind of God.

This extraordinary revelation means that Dow now knows how God wants us all to behave, what we should do in our bedrooms and with whom, what constitutes “good” behaviour, what constitutes “bad” behaviour and how God would like us to treat Planet Earth. Dow has also been informed by God what the punishments for indiscretions to these rules are and to whom those punishments are currently being administered, in fact he is so sure about all of this that he is willing to spill the beans in a national newspaper. Of course, the precise details of how this "revelation" process actually works are scarce, but clearly any man that dresses in a frock and walks around with a bent stick has a certain gravitas that demands ultimate respect, so who are we to question him?

Now then, this good ol’boy of the Anglican Church calmly and confidently brushes aside the combined life time’s work of hundreds of climatologists, meteorologists, environmentalists and countless scientists from dozens of disciplines to pronounce that the reason for the recent flooding in northern parts of the UK is that (wait for it) his "God" is displeased with us for being nasty to the planet and tolerating gay people. (Thank goodness I don't live in Brighton, so much water and so much "life-style" in close proximity, that's just got to be asking for trouble!)

Well I'm glad that's all clear for everyone now, so it's, bollocks to the weak Atlantic jet stream, bugger the increasing carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere; screw the gulf stream, the man with the bent stick and the frock has the answer, "God did it", wow, how compelling, this is all the evidence anyone could ever need. Clearly, we should just form a militia, round up a few queers (or maybe just men that wear frocks?), pass a few discriminatory laws and then all of our SUV, holiday home, BBQ fantasies will be realised.

Genuinely ignorant people find stupid reasons for phenomenon that they don't understand or can't explain, this basic human behaviour is common to us all, we crave explanation and would rather make something up than have none. In atheist circles this kind of reasoning is generally known as the "argument from incredulity", i.e. I have no clue how this works so therefore "God did it"; but this is worse, this is institutionalised ignorance. In Dow's case, he has the privilege of a first class education and a public platform provided to him by two millennia of persecution, extortion and tyranny by various Christian religions, more worryingly he is supposed to be a "leader" to quite a few C of E faithful, and yet clearly the man doesn't even know what he doesn't know!

Great job Graham, really insightful, but next time, before you try and explain an act of nature, try reading a few books first (preferably ones that are less than 2000 years old) then you might actually start to discover why climatic or natural events like floods, hurricanes, tsunami, tornadoes and the like really happen. Guess what, your "God" turns out not to be involved at all.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Does "faith" trump democracy?

There is a case in the high court (UK) at the moment playing out in the media involving a Christian girl who claims that she has been discriminated against because her school does not allow her to wear a “chastity ring” (on her finger) as jewellery breaks school uniform rules. Her argument is that this ring is somehow part of her faith and that since the school allows children of other faiths (i.e. Muslims, Sikhs etc.) to wear specific articles then she is the victim of discrimination. I can only fantasize about how much this case is costing; apparently she is being “funded” by private sources (her father is some kind of minister so I’m sure the congregation has been dipping into their pockets), but I’m pretty sure the school will need to be defended from public funds.

Putting aside for a moment the “playground logic” transparently on display here, i.e. those nasty Sikhs can wear their trinkets but us good Christians can’t wear ours; It seems entirely possible to me that this case is some kind of pre-meditated religious stunt as the "offence" claimed by the defendant seems so utterly trivial; the father of the girl more or less admits as much by saying “there are bigger issues at stake” also, somewhat surprisingly, the father happens to be the UK distributor of these (US supplied) rings in the UK. However, before the cynic in me takes over I think it would be interesting to try and explore what these “bigger issues” might be and so I thought I would try and outline my perspective on what I have seen in the media so far in order to attempt to make some sense of this.

Firstly, let me give this family the benefit of the doubt; i.e. that this is not some cheap marketing stunt to promote the sales of this particular line of jewellery, that said, what other reasons could they have for wanting to take this case to court?

They are clearly religious people, in fact their whole livelihood seems to depend upon the Christian religion since the father is a minister/preacher and apparently has at least one side line business of selling these Christian “chastity” rings (not sure what particular flavour of Christians they are, but that’s not relevant to my argument)

Since their livelihood depends on religious faith then clearly they have a vested interest in ensuring the survival and one would assume expansion of their particular religion. The girl claims to follow this same religion also, she claims to have “always been” a Christian. I can only conclude that since it is unlikely that her religious beliefs were planted in her as a zygote then I must assume that her family indoctrinated her in it from birth onwards and that they probably all feel as if they are showing solidarity for "their team". I would certainly not find it credible to think that her religiosity is identically aligned to that of her parents (and presumably her family & peer group) through pure chance?

So far I have not heard any “evidence” (i.e. the substance of legal argument) for any physical necessity for wearing this ring, for example she is not saying it is essential for her blood circulation or that it alleviates her arthritis or perhaps if she removes it her finger will fall off, the argument is clearly that she wants to (or must?) wear this adornment because of her “faith”. Therefore, the crux of her argument seems to be that all faiths should be treated equally, i.e. if Sikhs can wear bangles, then Christians should be able to wear rings. Superficially this seems to be an argument about “fairness”; could it be that simple? Unfortunately, I think not.

I think there is enough evidence in the press and the literary world currently to assert that Religion (certainly in the UK & USA) feels under attack from secularism and atheism; there seems to be a real shift in the zeitgeist going on at the moment (see previous post) the publication of half a dozen books (Dawkins, Hitchens, Dennett, Harris et al) criticising religious concepts are topping best seller lists around the world, and the media has subsequently grasped the topic in true Pavlovian style. The bottom line is that there are many intelligent, coherent and thoughtful people bashing the whole notion of religion right now and I think this case is partly a knee-jerk response to that movement. As an aside, it seems incredible to me that a few books can shake something so supposedly “true” and so engrained, but clearly their cages have been rattled, perhaps their sensitivity belies a fundamental weakness in their position (as an atheist I sincerely hope so) or perhaps it is only the fringe elements of religion that feel exposed, who knows, but I’m not naïve enough to realise that the old adage of “any publicity is good publicity” applies also.

Beneath all the rhetoric, it seems clear to me that what these people are arguing for is the notion that “faith” trumps democratic rules, of course in this I am assuming that the school rules were arrived at democratically, and certainly no one so far is arguing that they weren’t. Because of this we also have to assume that they believe that all “faith” (as opposed to religions) must be treated equally; otherwise presumably they would be advocating elitism for their own faith which I’m sure good Christians would not do. This raises another question in my mind, exactly what is this “faith” concept that these people seem to fling around so liberally, well, since they cannot provide any concrete reasoning that wearing these adornments is physically needed then I have to assume that what they mean by faith is a belief in something with no “worldly” evidence or justification for it, i.e. “I believe this, well, because I do and I don’t have to provide any justification for it other than I consider it to be true”, seems unavoidably childish to me, but OK let’s run with it.

So, they seem to be advocating a principal which says, anyone can have a “faith” that something (anything?) is true, all faith is equal and that a faith is important to those that have it such that there needs to be outward & visible “signs” to everyone else that they have that faith. Consequently everyone else in society has to somehow recognise and respect faith, seemingly, just because it is called a “faith” and regardless of whether the actions or statements precipitated by it break democratically derived rules or not.

Hypothetically then, if I subscribed to the “Jedi” religion (as all good star wars fans should) then it clearly becomes my inalienable right to wear a cape, long boots and a light-sabre to school as an outward sign of my faith. Of course if anyone else objects to this then I don't need to provide any evidence or justification that Jedi religion is true or that these adornments are necessary I can just say "back off, it's my faith". Fantastic, now anything is now possible, if people disagree with me then I can say my faith (being divinely authorised by Yoda of course) necessitates me to lock them up and torture them until they take the Jedi oath, perhaps threaten their families or steal their money, invade their countries, enslave their people, oh, hold on, that's already been done before hasn't it.

Is this attitude really what the human race needs or wants at this point in the 21st century, isn’t this just divisive, infantile and irrational?

Obviously I am exaggerating to make a point here but it seems obvious to me that “faith” in this case is aligned with more mundane concepts such as status, wealth and politics, clearly these people want to protect and expand their livelihoods, clearly they want to promote their own religious “club” against competition with other clubs, clearly they feel that their community should have some special “status” in our population over and above normal democratic representation. None of these desires needs to invoke anything supernatural to be understood by everyone else, they are transparent and obvious, wrapping it all up and invoking “faith” to get your own way, seems to be totally contrived and dishonest to me.

However, what really keeps me awake at night are the more sinister (and conspiratorial) conclusions I could draw i.e. that the "faithful" (in all their wonderful diversity) are working some kind of political campaign against the secular and the godless, perhaps they have reached some kind of tipping point and are pushing back against democracy in the name of their "faith" based world-view. The minions of religion are heading the rallying call and rising up against the gains of democracy, science and the enlightenment of the last 400 years; perhaps they really do want to drag us all back to the theocratic dark ages? I think there is tangible evidence of this in the USA, gladly less here in Europe, however I don't think anyone would dispute that there are real problems ahead in the Arab/Iranian world.

If such trivial erosions of common sense, as superbly demonstrated by this case, somehow aggregate (planned or not) then I believe we are in danger of providing a slippery slope for the cult of "faith" to subvert our hard won secular system and wither our own "rational" brains. I feel it is time in this country (UK) that we had a clear separation of church and state, if we regress backwards at this point and cave in to the irrational demands of the faithful then all I can say is, (ironically) God help us.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Enlightenment 2.0

Anyone who follows the literary scene cannot have failed to notice the recent surge in books on Atheism, or tomes that criticise the notions of religion and god. Previously marginal Authors like Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens and Victor J Stenger among others have all contributed to a noticeable shift in the moral zeitgeist towards rational thinking and the principals of the enlightenment. The perspectives vary, Dawkins and Stenger hit the subject from a scientific promontory (although Dawkins is somewhat more poetic than most scientists I know); then from the intellectual stand we have Hitchens, a hard drinking, straight talking Oxford man; an ex-brit (now a US citizen) who woos American audiences with his plummy accent, photographic memory for pithy quotations and withering put downs.

The objections fall under a couple of main “themes”, although all the arguments are rich and deep and need to be given the benefit of some time to sink in; Here I attempt to summarise them (in no particular order)

  • Religion is empirically wrong because god doesn’t exist (or at least is highly unlikely); there is no evidence for a deity in nature that can be tested scientifically.
  • Science gives us all we need to know regarding how nature (actually) works; supernatural forces are not needed; Darwin, Einstein, Newton et al, science doesn't know everything yet but the “gaps” are getting smaller everyday.
  • Religion is clearly and obviously man made and represents (at best) wishful thinking or (at worst) hucksterism and evil, hundreds of years of inquisitions, war, ethnic cleansing, shams, discrimination and death provide illustrations of the effects of that these kinds of philosophies can precipitate.
  • Our morals don’t come from religion (or god); they clearly come from our collective zeitgeist, they are obviously not absolute because they change over the years, for example our changing views to slavery, woman’s rights, homosexuality, human rights etc.
  • It is in the best interests of humanity that religion and government should be utterly separate or tyranny almost always follows.
  • Faith is not a virtue; it is at best harmless delusion and at worse intellectual dishonesty and often represents laziness and discrimination against free thought and criticism.
  • Religion should not have a special dispensation from debate and criticism (as it seems to have in society); beliefs are not sacred and the onus of “proof” is on the believer to evidence what he believes and not the responsibility of the unbeliever to “prove” him wrong.
  • The destructive quasi-atheist regimes of the 20th century (Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot etc.) were primarily personality cults that aped the dogmatism of religion for the same goals i.e. domination and control of the masses.
  • Religion is a function of the entirely random location of your birth, i.e. if you are born in the USA chances are you will be a Christian, if you are born in Iraq you will be a Moslem, in India Hindu, in Japan Buddhist etc.; it has nothing to do with the “truth claims” of these religions.
  • You don’t need religion to be charitable, good, moral and socially acceptable; in fact the evidence shows that fewer crimes are committed (proportionally) by atheists than believers.
  • Just because lot’s of people believe in something (with no evidence) it doesn’t mean it is true, the top 3 religions have millions of followers, but, logically they can't all be right.

On the opposing team we have had a string of rebuttals from religious writers of various denominations and flavours attempting to disprove, dissuade and generally divert attention from these outpourings, without any noticeable success in my opinion.

Generally their arguments fall into predictable intellectual buckets, something like,

  • Religious people do good things (some times); therefore religion must be good and true.
  • The religious people who do bad things in its name aren’t really religious.
  • Mainstream religion is not represented by a small minority of fundamentalists causing trouble around the world.
  • God cannot be scientifically proven because he is outside the realm of science.
  • Atheists can’t have any purpose in their lives, only religion provides this.
  • My god is not who you (the Atheists) describe; I have a personal relationship
  • Atheists don’t understand faith; and can’t unless they believe themselves.
  • Billions of people believe it (religion) therefore it must be true
  • I have personally experienced (or believe in) miracles; surviving a plane crash or being cured of a disease, stopping drinking etc. therefore god must exist.
  • If God doesn’t exist where do we get our morals from?
  • The natural world (or aspects of it) is too complicated for me to understand therefore God must have made it
  • Society without religion is a bad thing; just look at Stalin & Hitler
  • Science doesn’t know everything; therefore God must exist to explain the things we don’t know.
  • I need faith; I get comfort from my faith; I have faith that I am special; God loves me; God looks after me; God will give me eternal life etc.

This covers the main points (that I can recall), of course there are plenty of more complex philosophical points of view that professors of divinity and followers of every hue trot out to refute the logic of the Atheist position, but frankly I don’t understand them, or more accurately, they make no sense to me.

I find this debate a fascinating one; not just because I am an Atheist, but simply because I am a human being trying to make sense of the world just like everyone else and I really care about the truth. I think this is an important debate, plenty of people I know have a dismissive approach to it, i.e. “who cares, people can believe whatever they like kind" of attitude. For years I adhered to this viewpoint however recently (and particularly since I have had children of my own) I see the faith based dogmas of the world encroaching everywhere, religious faith (of all kinds) seems to be resurging around the world and I think polarising societies wherever it surfaces, suicide bombers, civil war, persecution, anti-science, pseudo-science, hucksterism the list goes on and on. Of course bad people do bad things; I’m not saying that all religion is de-facto a bad thing but I am starting to think that the negative aspects outweigh the positive ones.

If I had to recommend a book from this list (or two) then I would have to steer the reader towards Dawkins and Hitchens, I believe that these two authors provide the largest spread of mainstream ideas from the scientific and humanist camps, the titles in question are “The God Delusion” (Dawkins) and “God is not great” (Hitchens); both well written, thought provoking and utterly compelling.