Sunday, September 30, 2012

Blasphemy R Us

Today is International Blasphemy Rights day, a day when people who value freedom of thought and expression can show solidarity by challenging reigning religious beliefs hopefully without fear of murder, litigation, or reprisal. Unfortunately for most people outside of the liberal countries such as the UK and the USA (excluding parts of Mississippi, Alabama and South Carolina) this is something that would be unthinkable. In Bangladesh for example a mob of Muslims decided that a Buddhist man was out of order putting an image of a burning book on his Facebook page by visiting the Buddhist temples around their area and setting fire to them.

This kind of excessive religious response to non-violent protest, criticism, satire or even simple disbelief is increasingly common as the march of progress and enlightenment moves through populations of people stultified by years of oppressive theocracy and tradition. It seems like a non-issue here in the UK but if you notice these things there are many places in the world where people actually get locked up, harmed or even killed for simply being public about having intellectual doubts over the blatant hogwash that most incumbent religions peddle. What is even more noticeable is the nature of the reaction of those outraged religions, particularly Islam, the outrageousness of the claims seem to directly correlate to the excessiveness of the response. Even in moderate supposedly secular countries there is an alarming tendency for authorities to capitulate over harmless fun making or even spiteful fun making, take Greece for example where the Orthodox Church has a highly privileged position in society; recently a 27 year old man was arrested and charged for blasphemy, his crime, to make fun of a clergyman, he now faces a possible 2 years in prison for this act, which in most civilised places would be dealt with by a quick roll of the eyes and a rapid resumption of normal business. In places like Indonesia, Egypt and Pakistan it's not hard to find stories about people being abused, injured and jailed for thought crime gift wrapped as "blasphemy". Even Anglican Bishops seem in favour of international laws that protect their club from criticism, recently 4 of them wrote to the head of the UN asking for..

"We hereby suggest that an international declaration be negotiated that outlaws the intentional and deliberate insulting or defamation of persons (such as prophets), symbols, texts and constructs of belief deemed holy by people of faith.”

Of course what they don't say or perhaps don't realise that this means EVERY two bit prophet and quack will be protected, unless someone draws up a list of course, just imagine the bloodshed that would initiate! How much hate crime would be unleashed on countless minorities and unfortunates around the world if such an abomination were made law, it would be shameful and in my view simply harden resolve and deepen the divide between faith and reason everywhere.

So, watch out, if the people of "God" get their way not only will we all have to suck up to mythical folks like Mohamed and Jesus but also real hucksters people like Joseph Smith, David Koresh and, God forbid, David Icke.. they'll have to pry the keyboard from my cold dead hands...

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Humbling Hubble

There are many things in life that are humbling, watching the paralympics, listening to a great piece of music, climbing an Egyptian pyramid etc. but when I think about some of the big questions nothing could be more humbling than to better understand our place and significance in the universe we live in.

The latest deep field picture from the Hubble telescope illustrates this position very well. Actually it's not one picture it's 2000 pictures (all stitched together) of a minute patch of space (the little square next to the Moon) taken with a really long exposure in order to capture as much of the light as possible emanating from unimaginably distant objects. As you can see the little patch of space that, to the naked eye, looks utterly black and empty is crammed full of entire galaxies. Now, a galaxy is a collection of a billion or more stars, we live in a spiral galaxy called the milky way which itself has over a billion stars (like our Sun) in it and is so big that it takes light 100,000 years to get from one side to the other and light is no slouch! The number of stars visible in this one little square of space is simply mind boggling and each star is likely to have planets orbiting around it, so the number of possible places where life could possibly have evolved is boggling times 10.

I always think about this image when I hear about fellow primates getting over excited about who "owns" some little patch of land for an insignificant sliver of time somewhere on our insignificant planet. A small strip of semi-arid scrub at the Eastern end of the Mediterranean or some tiny Island in the middle of the East China Sea to name but two of many examples, in the words of a wise man, “The fundamental cause of trouble in the world is that the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.”

Monday, September 24, 2012

Kids (toys) in SPACE!

Here's a nice little story, it's about a guy who attached his kid's favourite toy to a weather balloon and let it rise to the edge of space, then he made this little video of events. We've been able to do this for quite a while now helium has been around for a few years, what's new is cheap (light) hardware to film the voyage and GPS so that the film can be located once it plummets back to Earth. I'm tempted to have a go at this, although I suspect you're not allowed to gaffer tape the actual boy to the balloon much as he's up for it, bloody health and safety...

Wednesday, September 19, 2012


I came across this little story today, it struck me as an incredibly dumb and pointless way for someone to die. I can't imagine what its going to say on his tombstone but it probably won't be this...

Abdullah Ismail extinguished his fleeting and precious existence in this universe, giving up the potentially wonderful and luminous experience that Human life on this planet can be because he...

Believed a story about a super human man and a flying horse and was convinced by other men who believe the same story to be offended by other men who Abdul had never met. These other men don't believe the flying horse story and believe a super human zombie man story instead, they live on the other side of the planet from dear Abdul. The offence was caused because the zombie following men made a set of flickering images making fun of the flying horse man, which Abdullah never actually saw because he was too poor to own a computer with a connection to the internet. So, the best way that Abdullah and his friends could think of to protest about their offence was to set fire to a number of pieces of polyester 2 ply cloth. These pieces of cloth were coloured red, white and blue in the form of an abstract symbol representing a loose collection of land areas called "America", these areas of land contain millions of different people, some of whom believe the flying horse story and others the zombie story among other magical stories too numerous to mention. The cloth wasn't actually made in America by the zombie men but was made in yet another patch of land by people who believe a story about a fat man who said wise things about transforming yourself into an ant when you die. Abdullah died because he inhaled too many of the combustion products from the burning of all those pieces of cloth, the smoke that poisoned him would have included chemicals such as Benzene, Carbon Dioxide, Carbon monoxide and acetic acid, unfortunately for Abdullah science wasn't his strong suit, he preferred stories about flying horses, now he's dead and this is sad because no one, apart from the people who loved him, really gives a shit.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Sometimes I ask myself

David Cameron recently moved Baroness Warsi from being Conservative Party Chairman to a new role, that of "Minister for Faith and Communities", my question is, do we really need a "Ministry of Faith"?

I guess many people would claim that millions of UK citizens are religious and therefore some kind of reflection of this is needed in Government, but why? Do religious people require different services and laws from non-religious people, do they not use the same Health services, public transport and education system as the rest of us? Unlike properly secular countries, in the UK we already have 26 unelected Bishops in the upper house of our Government, does faith need any more special representation than this..

I fear this new appointment introduces unnecessary dangers of division and inequality among people in that it may further institutionalise the notion of a "faith community" as a demographic grouping defined by a particular religious belief. This idea is inherently troubling and problematic. It assumes that people have common political interests just because they share a religious label: indeed, it encourages these groups to adopt a religious identity for political rather than spiritual reasons, and that is bad both for politics and for religion. And it potentially privileges people who assert a religious identity over those who don't. Even though polls show clearly that half of people in this country aren't religious, there's not going to be a minister for secularism.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Morality distortion field

The expression on my fellow primate's face sums up my feelings about this. I'm talking about the fact that in the name of Muslim solidarity a religion and it's leaders are able to warp peoples innate morality to the extent that they feel it's their duty to destroy property and kill non-Muslims over a pathetic piece of trash film on the internet that nominally hurts their feelings whereas those same people remain silent as a Muslim government drops fire and death on it's own children.

This isn't moral, wise or even sane, Hitchens was right, it poisons everything.

Friday, September 14, 2012

ta, da, dada ... can't touch this..

Jesus and Mo, on the money as usual....

Brains, words and reality...

I've always wondered what people are talking about when they say "spiritual". Moderately religious people say it all the time, the classic apologist line of "I'm not religious but I am a spiritual person" springs to mind. I've always pigeon-holed people who say this to me as really meaning that they can't be bothered to invest in the ritual and paraphernalia of organised religion but can't let go of the wishful thought that they might have a  benevolent father in the sky that looks out for them. It always seems like a cop out to me, trying to benefit from in-group membership without putting the effort in, anyway, I've never had anyone adequately describe what it means or why this feeling isn't entirely natural and human.

When I think about this feeling my conclusion is that "spiritual" simply means a feeling of wonder or awe, quite natural and totally expected when you possess a powerful reasoning simulation engine like a human brain (some more powerful than others of course!) This feeling is usually invoked by observing something surprising or inspiring and seems to be because my reasoning brain calculates the effort involved and the achievement accrued or perhaps the improbability of the event. I suppose if I exclude thinking about non-existent (low probability) entities then most people must experience this at some point, and I suspect depending on their environment and conditioning different things will be agents for spiritual feelings. The photograph above was taken by wildlife photographer Bobby Haas in Mexico and shows the fleeting instant a flock of flamingos formed into the shape of, well, a flamingo! I don't know if Mr Haas is a religious person or not but in his interview he talks about the "holy grail" of wildlife photography and the moment he snapped this picture as a "spiritual" moment, his meaning is not clear but this is obviously a very low probability event.

Brain chemistry is a truly complex thing and in a rather tenuous and weak segue to other chemistry news I noticed on the BBC site today that the IBM laboratory in  Zurich has published some more pictures of atoms (see below)

The scale of this picture is mind boggling, what you're looking at are individual carbon atoms and the colours represent higher or lower densities of electrons, the shape of the molecule can clearly be seen. Now I don't know about you but when I contemplate the skill, intellect and resourcefulness (never mind financial investment!) required to produce a picture like this it's about as close to a spiritual thought as I think I'll ever get; my religious brothers and sisters are welcome to their allegories and their wishful thoughts but this stuff is ground breaking, highly inspirational and most importantly for me, real.

Friday, September 07, 2012

Friday smirk

About sums us up really...

Thursday, September 06, 2012

Blood sucking science

Now this is cool, a flying micro-robot that looks eerily like a real mosquito, apparently it can also take DNA samples with a little needle and syringe which you can just see at the front below its head. All that needs to be done now is to program it to spend all its time transferring bacteria from stagnant water into my blood stream and the natural versions of this animal will be completely replicated.

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Out of the frying pan...

I was pleased to read today that Baroness Warsi has been fired from her position as Conservative party chairman. From a pro-secular point of view this is a good thing; the fewer people we have in government who believe that religion deserves a privileged position in our society (i.e. are anti-secular) the better. Sadly though what David gives with one hand he takes away with another, the new health secretary, Jeremy Hunt, believes in quackery, at least Cameron no longer thinks Warsi works!

Monday, September 03, 2012

Do you want fries with that?

Jesus found in onion ring... !!

...or is it David Bellamy, it's so hard to tell ;)

Eclipse of the moon

Sun Myung Moon kicked the bucket over the weekend, a colourful character who scaled the heights of cultism and plumbed the depths of tax evasion.

The debate continues of course, was he a great "spiritual" leader or a huckster on a global scale, I never really understood what "spiritual" means in such contexts so I'll lean towards the latter, and like most religious leaders its difficult to pin point the secret sauce of his success, but like all of them whatever he had his overarching skill was indisputably an ability to convince large numbers of people that he knew something they didn't.

Notionally "Christian" his Unification Church was created by him after some alleged conversations with "Jesus" back in the 50s although like most of these kinds of organisations its difficult to see beyond the flashy suits and the money grabbing media empire that it nurtured to any particularly useful non-recycled philosophy. No doubt most mainstream Christians saw him as the leader of a slightly sinister cult with dubious motives and he certainly fell out with the Catholic hierarchy over the years, however what most mainstream believers wouldn't accept is that from certain perspectives (like mine) the pattern of predation and exploitation of fellow social primates is probably explainable and certainly predictable, in fact, from this distance all religions look mostly the same.