Thursday, December 31, 2009

I thought I was old...

This little story in the Independent tweaked my interest today, it's about a Jurupa Oak tree in California that is estimated to be at least 13,000 years old (perhaps older) that's a mind boggling number. This tree was alive at the end of the last ice age and is at least 10,000 years older than the oldest redwood making it probably the oldest living organism on the planet.

People lucky enough to have visited the Natural History museum in London will no doubt have seen the cross section of a 1,400 year old giant sequoia tree (see image above) in the main gallery with its various growth rings labelled with historical events (like the invention of Islam) this exhibit remains one of my favourites as it's a great way of making the time dimension tangible. I love the idea that this little oak tree experienced a world free from Abrahamic religions, in fact it was already thousands of years old when the human hunter gatherers of the fertile crescent of the Middle-East started to adopt farming along with building static communities, towns and cities. As we know, those early farmers went on to develop the now pervasive faith based memes to explain the universe as they saw it and the seeds of the mechanisms to control people using them. I find it thought provoking and somewhat humorous that the seed of this unassuming little plant first germinated some 7,000 years before millions of followers of these three main desert dogma's still insist that their "God" actually created the universe!

...And I thought I was old!

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Watch out for that shifty guy in tech support...

I found an interesting article in Slate today about terrorism, it posed the question "why are so many terrorists engineers"? Apparently, according to a study engineers are three to four times more likely to become terrorists than their peers in finance, medicine or the sciences. The next most radicalizing graduate degree, in a distant second, was Islamic Studies. After correcting for national differences in enrolment numbers it seems that roughly 60% of Islamic terrorists born or raised in the West have engineering backgrounds.

So why would engineers be more likely to become terrorists than say chemists or sociologists? it's an interesting point but perhaps not so mysterious when you consider common traits of engineers, namely,

- Engineers are handy with mechanical/electrical devices, attractive targets for the religious puppet masters.
- Engineers are on average more conservative and more religious than their pure science counterparts
- They disdain ambiguity and compromise
- They tend to be more nerdy and less socially able (easier to recruit?)

A leaked dossier from MI5 back in 2005 suggested that Al-Qaeda had a network of “extremist recruiters” that were circulating on campuses targeting people with “technical and professional qualifications”, particularly engineering and IT degrees. I studied both engineering and computer science degrees, gulp I'm feeling vulnerable all of a sudden, maybe I should quit criticising religion on this blog and get out more? :)

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

A couple of myths busted.... again

Myth 1: Modern security checks keep us safe in the air.
Myth 2: It's only disaffected, illiterate and poor people that fall for radical religion.

I read with horror the details of the latest terrorist attempt to kill people in the skies over the Atlantic ocean. Another wealthy, intelligent and educated young man is indoctrinated into a process of brain washing that culminates in him strapping high explosives to his body and boarding a US bound jet intent on murder. As usual the idea of the veracity of "faith" is front and centre in this story, a young impressionable mind is corrupted by the false promises and warped logic of this concept by unscrupulous puppet masters. In an interview with one of his teachers the attributes become visible,

Mr Rimmer told The Daily Telegraph: "In 2001 we discussed the Taliban in class. All the other Muslim kids thought they were a bunch of nutters with beards, and could not understand why they did such things as banning kite flying. But Umar seemed to think that was reasonable." He said fellow pupils gave him the nickname ‘The Pope’ because of his "pious" and "high-minded” attitudes and later dubbed him 'Alfa' a local term meaning Islamic teacher.

It's a shame the expensive schools he attended didn't teach him that believing anything from bad science via talking snakes through flying horses to an endless orgasmic spasm with 72 virgins after you are dead without good evidence is a bad idea, not a virtuous one. I don't need faith to foresee some winged angels of (Hellfire laser guided) death featuring large in the future of some Yemeni residents quite soon.

Be careful what you wish for

If your family is anything like mine then you are lethargically shuffling around today regretting eating all those quality street and mince pies; fortunately I'm back at work and can feel the normal calorie burning stress permeating my system nicely just in time to deal with all that excess. Anyway to ease back into things I thought I would re-blog this little video from RD.NET. It's for all those apologists out there who think they've found something new in "new atheists" to direct the wrath of their particular "God" at; here is Bertrand Russell in 1959 dealing with the same old "wish thinking" that we hear ad nausea today ("ah but it might be true", bla, bla) , and as can be seen from his responses the answers are still the same, it's not what we WANT that's important it's what the evidence shows us that matters.

On this theme I watched a program on channel 4 the other night about the boxing day tsunami of 2004 called Tsunami: Where was God; from the title it sounded interesting, a genuine challenge to believers in a personal, benevolent deity to explain that day, it wasn't. Pathetic would be more accurate, basically it was some religious bloke wandering around Thailand interviewing a string of ignorant priests, monks and assorted religious parasites who mostly blamed the victims themselves for "sinning". No challenge or rebuttal was offered to this ludicrous point of view, for example the actual scientific explanation and subsequent photographic evidence of the trench on the ocean bed off the coast of Indonesia. Some of the Buddhists monks interviewed put it down to the victims being the reincarnated souls of sinners rather than the actual victims being the sinners themselves, which is obviously a great way of explaining how babies could have been "sinners", ah the theological mind at work. As the program progressed through a sad procession of religious frauds from evangelical Christians exploiting the homeless, Buddhists making a little on the side from burning corpses through to the Westborough Baptists condemning the Swedish nation it became ever more bat shit crazy and depressing.

In the end the religious narrator bloke ended up reaffirming his belief in Christ, surprise, surprise, although it was clear to me that everything in the program pointed in the opposite direction, he just wanted it to be true. I wonder what Bertrand Russell would have said about his logic, actually, I can probably guess.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

A very merry Christmas

To all my regular comment contributors and passing Russian pornographers, here is a little card that for me captures the spirit of the season..

Have a nice break (or in the case of dmk & G don't work too hard!) and may your god go with you :)

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Epic fail

I love this picture, it sums up everything about the reality of the promise of supernatural stuff... and maybe a good one for the Christmas card too!

Isn't "Petit Mort" a French metaphor for an orgasm..? sex and the supernatural, a guaranteed crowd pleaser.

The lesser of two evils?

I found this little story on the BBC interesting, its about a priest oop North (The Reverend Tim Jones) who told his "flock" that if they can't make ends meet then the least evil thing to do is to steal from large corporations, i.e. shop lift from Morrison's and Tesco rather than from local shops or individuals. The sermon he gave has caused a certain amount of angst among the Church hierarchy and local police, who said,

"shoplifting or committing other crimes should never be the solution. To do this would make the downward spiral even more rapid, both on an individual basis and on society as a whole"

This is progress in my book, here is a priest who realises that morality is relative not absolute, but more importantly is manufactured by PEOPLE in shades of grey, not Gods in black or white. The other important "lesson" here is that our morality changes over time as our societies change. Mr Jones has created a nice little ethical dilemma for us to ponder, I can see both points of view but from the perspective of society I think it would be better if people resisted the urge to nick things from apparently faceless corporations since in reality those corporations are owned by individuals, shareholders and pension funds, eventually the buck stops with the millions of people underpinning those things, i.e. you and me.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Ouch, this one's hot!

Now I thought that religion and faith were the king of the pile when it came to polarising people's opinion and exposing a lack of critical thought but no, recent conversations and observations regarding another topic have trumped it. That topic is Climate Change, and wow does it spark a good debate whenever it's raised; the full spectrum of fundamentalist deniers, apologists and agnostics seem to exist and a range of ill-informed and well informed opinions that underpin them.

For me it seems like two quite simple (conceptually) problems which need to be addressed and it makes sense to address them at the same time, first we have the issue of climate change itself, the average temperature does correlate with the level of CO2 in the atmosphere and since humans have been pumping billions of tons of the stuff out continuously since the dawn of the industrial revolution then it seems entirely likely that we have trouble ahead so we need to have a plan for that. Secondly, carbon fuels are a finite resource there is a tipping point whereby we have used more than there is left, many believe this point has already been reached but regardless, at some point soon the only way the price can go is up; like fine wine with a limited production restricted by a particular terroir, as demand increases through population growth, market forces mean that eventually the resource becomes only available to a smaller and smaller elite so either most of us need to become teetotal or we need to find alternatives.

Addressing climate change and energy independence will require a new way of thinking about the world, i.e. as a single entity with a single population of humans living on it; it will require collaboration and cooperation between those primates on an unprecedented scale and the cracks in our existing cosy nationalistic, religious and cultural silo's are really starting to show. The proof will be in the pudding and as we saw in Copenhagen last week, the jury on our ability, as a population of slightly different coloured apes, to grasp the big picture here is still well and truly "out".

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Is There Something I Should Know?

That wild boy Simon le Bon (singer of those 80s standards, hungry like a wolf and girls on film) has come out publically as an Atheist, he saves his prayers for planet Earth rather than any old or new religion. As can be heard from this short audio piece his gradual loss of faith was no reflex act, and whilst he is serious regarding his own non faith positions on life after death he doesn't begrudge believers their views, he simply says that religion is for someone else not me. On the subject of ethics he thinks that religion has had a positive impact on our ordinary world, and as long as it stays within the white lines of personal belief it's fine, although the more notorious and fundamentalist faiths continue to behave like they are out of their minds. As far as Jesus is concerned he doesn't want his love, what happens tomorrow will happen and this life is the only skin trade there is.

So, how many Duran Duran track titles can you spot in this post :)

Literally funny?

I couldn't overlook this little piece in the news today, its about a billboard that went up outside a church in Auckland New Zealand, within hours of its unveiling it was defaced with brown paint. Apparently the image was chosen in order to provoke "thought", well it's certainly done that, with some saying they love it and some that it is incredibly offensive. I think it's quite funny, a human perspective, I might even nick it for a Christmas card :)

Clearly the image pokes fun at a literal interpretation of the Bible stories, and so it should, although parthenogenesis is theoretically possible in humans (it already occurs in some other animal species) it can only lead to female offspring. Strangely we don't hear much about the "female" attributes of Jesus from his more literal fans, perhaps I'm not looking hard enough...

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Beware Christians bearing gifts...

That wonderful pseudo-scientific religious think tank the Discovery Institute (Seattle) have been up to their usual tricks, this time they have teamed up with a UK based organisation (along similar lines) called "Truth in science". Together they have cooked up a scheme to introduce "Intelligent Design" (aka Creationism) into UK schools via a pointless (but glossy & free) book titled "Explore Evolution". Of course the book does not live up to its title, it's simply a vehicle for introducing their warped, incomplete and ignorant view of evolution, i.e. a pathetic attempt to introduce the Christian "God" into the Biology curriculum.

Of course all this cods-wallop is "hidden" under a false appeal to equality, i.e. the old "teach both sides of the argument" line, when, a) there is no argument and b) the only contra view presented is the Christian one. Why not teach the controversy between the Soux Indian creation myth and the Neo-Darwin synthesis, it amounts to the same thing, i.e. pick the (ever decreasing) gaps in our comprehensive understanding of descent with modification and insert "Takushkanshkan" and his daughter "Wohpe" rather than Yahweh and Jesus.

There are several serious scientific reviews of this book (done by real scientists with relevant qualifications from prestigious Universities) they all point at the same story, here is one from Dr. Brian Metscher of the University of Vienna, he writes,

"All the old favorites are here — fossils saying no, all the Icons, flightless Ubx flies, irreducible flagella, even that irritating homology-is-circular thing. There are no new arguments, no improved understanding of evolution, just a remastered scrapbook of the old ideas patched together in a high-gloss package pre-adapted to survive the post-Dover legal environment. The whole effort would be merely pathetic if it did not actually represent a serious and insidious threat to education."

I will be writing to my kid's schools and letting them know that I strongly disapprove of such books being used (free or not), if one lands on your doorstep then my recommendation would be to "re-cycle" it with extreme prejudice. The British Centre for Science Education is requesting that teachers in schools receiving this book inform them so that they can keep track of the activities of these anti-science organisations, currently they think that the books have been sent to all secondary schools in the country, you can let them know at this WEB site.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Bishop oversteps the relativist mark

THE Church of England’s Bishop to the Forces (Stephen Venner) has been forced to apologise for “incredibly insensitive” remarks he made in an interview with the Daily Telegraph. The particular comment that lead to this reaction was as follows, he said to the paper,

There’s a large number of things that the Taliban say and stand for which none of us in the West could approve, but simply to say therefore that everything they do is bad is not helping the situation. The Taliban can perhaps be admired for their conviction to their faith and their sense of loyalty to each other.

I can see why people are upset about these comments, it's like praising a heroin addict for "sticking to his habit until the bitter end" or like chiselling on the tombstone of the Yorkshire ripper the epitaph "at least he was consistent". Mr Venner clearly lives in that twilight zone of reality where he's never had to perform any kind of critical thinking in order to make a living, he thinks that blind faith to bronze age magic is to be "admired".

It is interesting and perhaps not unrelated that the Arch Bishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams also said in the papers recently that he thought that Government ministers felt religion (presumably his religion?) was no longer relevant to society, he went on to say to the Telegraph that,

"The trouble with a lot of government initiatives about faith is that they assume it is a problem, it's an eccentricity, it's practised by oddities, foreigners and minorities."

And so spake the peculiar bearded Welshman from the magic palace, in his long cape and pointy hat.

In a equally logically baffling apology today Mr Venner said that what he really meant to say was that we shouldn't "demonise" the Taliban, kill them absolutely no problem, but equating them to invisible evil spirits no that would be ungodly. What happens when "love thy enemy" meets "martyrdom is holy", any thinking person can see that introducing "faith" into this war is unlikely to make it a) simpler politically or b) reduce suffering.

Faith is a problem, it's certainly a huge problem in Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Israel, Palestine, and it's a problem in America and Europe albeit in less "fatal" ways, in fact it's hard to stick a pin in the globe and not find that "faith" is a problem there. Faith may well provide motivation and an emotional sedative to the individual human brain, that much is evident from everyone's experience of the ups and downs of life; however when uncritically followed at the community or national level it is often divisive, dangerous and very easy to exploit. Faith stultifies the most powerful and useful tool that 4 billion years of evolution has given us, our ability to reason, and as in Goya's famous painting, "the sleep of reason brings forth monsters".

Monday, December 14, 2009

Drinking white wine in the sun

I saw Tim Minchin earlier this year, and a damn fine show it was too. Here's a song he used that night, it's a solid godless ditty that points out a few obvious inconsistencies in our religious brothers and sisters stances on some things, but in the end its really about him expressing his feelings at Christmas time and family stuff, its nice.

Many years ago I spent Christmas in South Africa and for a Northern Hemisphere centric person it's quite weird to experience turkey & roast potatoes in 30 degree heat. Lounging around in the pool after traditional Christmas pudding and brandy butter felt rather odd too!

Its that time of year again...

I have a love-hate relationship with Christmas and New Year, although its probably not what most readers of this blog would think. I love the tradition, the mince pies, the candles, the carols, the films, frosty mornings, open fires, days off with the kids and time for quiet relaxation, I have all my best ideas (creativity-wise) at Christmas time. What I hate is the franticness of it all, the commercial frenzy and the exploitation going on around every little corner, it makes me just want to draw the curtains, lock the doors and hunker down for a week or two. Christmas is great so long as you can avoid public places and needing to get anything actually done for a while.

Anyway, one of the things that I do enjoy is picking out Christmas cards for people that know me, not one to miss a chance to provoke thought I usually go for something with a little godless twist, anyway I'm on the look out for good ones right now and as I find them I will try to post them here.

For now here are a couple I'm thinking about.

Ahh, who doesn't love a kitten...

I like this one but most people probably wouldn't get it.

This one seems too obvious a choice perhaps, anyway the search continues, now where did I leave that bloody sellotape...

Moore on Wellington

Charles Moore ex editor of the Telegraph (who I listened debating at Wellington college a couple of weeks ago) has published his perspective on the evenings talk in a recent Spectator article.

Here is the relevant part of the article (the rest of his piece there is on other topics)

On Sunday night, I went to Wellington College to defend God. The Almighty does not need human help, of course, but I was asked to oppose Professors Richard Dawkins and A.C. Grayling, and — with Lord Harries, the former Bishop of Oxford — propose the motion that ‘Atheism is the new fundamentalism’. I had hoped that the audience would consist largely of the stalwart pupils and parents of Wellington, which would have had our side in with a chance. But in fact the event was run by the brilliant, Notting-Hilly debating organisation Intelligence Squared. This meant that 1,500 people turned up, cramming the vast sports hall. It also meant that the Wellington clientele was swamped by a very different crowd. I could see at a glance that the atheist fundamentalists were present in force. The side of the angels got a paltry 363 votes and that of the apes got 1,070. It was good-humoured and well-chaired, so I have no complaints. But more than I had realised, it is indeed the case that there is a movement of militant, fundamentalist atheists — well-organised, self-righteous and derisive, rather like Gay Pride marchers. Indeed, just as homosexual activists co-opted the word ‘gay’ for their cause 40 years ago, so the grooviest atheist gang call themselves, self-regardingly, Brights. They campaign for, among other things, ‘full and equitable civic participation’ for those with their ‘naturalistic world-view’. My impression is that they have got a lot further than most people realise. For example, they are now making it very hard for faith schools to teach faith, or select the children of the faithful or, ultimately, to exist at all. They want religion to be tolerated only as what they call a ‘private’ opinion, by which they mean that it should have no space in the public sphere, rather like Roman Catholicism in 18th-century Britain, or Judaism in most Arab countries today. I think a big battle is beginning and, at the moment, religion is losing.

Professors Dawkins and Grayling seem to be the Moody and Sankey of this movement. They play, as it were, the favourite hymns, and they do it very well. Professor Dawkins, in particular, has rock-star status. Fans hail his sallies rather as black congregations in the Deep South shout ‘Ay-men!’ when they like what the preacher is saying. But, with his mellifluous voice, distinguished grey hair, slightly old-fashioned forms of expression and high opinion of his own abilities, Professor Dawkins reminds me of nothing so much as an old-school Anglican bishop. Winding up, he gave a little picture of himself lying down, staring at the Milky Way, and feeling a sense of ‘gratitude’ for the great mystery of the universe. It was very stirring, but to whom, in the absence of a God, was he grateful?

Its a pretty dismissive snide swipe in my view, straw man central and a dismissal of enlightenment values from the comfort of enlightenment institutions. It's interesting that he paints a picture of the audience as some kind of left wing "Islington" crowd and had only the "stalwart pupils and parents (presumably right wing Christians?) of Wellington itself been there the result would have been different. Almost every single one of the people I know that went were either Wellington parents or prospective Wellington parents who were there to support the school as well as listen to some public intellectuals speak on an interesting topic. Judging from the age and attire of the crowd and how they dispersed to various houses nestled in the trees surrounding the venue after the event, there were undoubtedly many Wellington pupils there too.

I love the way he labels his side "angels" and the opposition "apes", I'm sure this is a little attempt at "evolution" humour, it's accurate I suppose we are all apes including Mr Moore whether he likes the idea or not. But like David Cameron trying to "get down" with the kids on that infamous radio interview, it back fires horribly, I feel embarrassed for the man. Then we have the usual "militant" accusation, why militant, what convenient redefinition of the word is this? Is it perhaps that everyone who doesn't share Mr Moore's world view is "militant" and self-righteous or just atheists? It's hard to tell if he really thinks this or is just aping the numerous apologists who have so thoroughly run out of arguments that hold water they resort to ad hominem attacks almost as a matter of course.

In his penultimate paragraph before the inevitable and now expected ad hominem round up, as reasoned arguments evade him, Moore gets to the real meat of what's on his mind. Traditional faith-heads like him are clearly concerned about current trends he perceives that his side is losing. Their cosy little boxed-up world of indoctrination centres for their children and assumed privilege is being challenged, if not by action and legislation at least by words. I read this and think we're doing something right or at least the message is slowly getting through. His misrepresentation's of the aims of this so called "movement" are blatant scaremongering though, there is reasonable and strong evidence and opinion that faith schools are divisive and discriminatory perhaps Mr Moore should have addressed this point rather than making up a false position for atheists in order that he can sneer at it.

For those versed in this debate you will notice the delightful Paley'esc fallacy at the very end of his piece, a nod to nostalgia perhaps? The strategic use of the word "whom" in order to align the possible answers to the question he poses directly with his own personal beliefs i.e. an entirely human perspective. Yes, much as these people argue until they are blue in the face that all this stuff of scripture is just allegory and their religions are so much more nuanced and "sophisticated" than that, when the chips are down here he is anthropomorphising for all he is worth. With such an arrogant and hopelessly simplistic view of the universe its no wonder he was surprised at the rather diminutive size of his constituency that rainy Sunday night three weeks ago, I'm not.

Friday, December 11, 2009

News Flash, end of the world is nigh

Sorry to interrupt your Friday morning but this is an emergency, apparently the world is going to end by Monday, according to this authoritative source.

So you'd better get your partying done before then! Personally I am just so relieved, my company Christmas do is tonight so now we can all get absolutely hammered and behave in the most outrageous manner possible. Then by the time we wake up on Monday all the Christians will have disappeared. Imagine that, all those Bible belt Americans and their gas guzzling 4X4's suddenly out of the picture, global warming will be averted and I might be able to afford petrol again, Christmas is looking up!

Hang on though, haven't we seen this prophet's handiwork before? here and here... (unfortunately it looks like his prophecy skills are on a par with his WEB design skills :)

Oh well, if you see a small mushroom cloud rise up over Ascot tonight you'll know what's happened.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

XBOX eat your heart out

I love the idea of this, imagine having one of these in your lounge!! (hum, now I just need to sell it to the missus..)

Its a new kind of simulator for fighter pilots that actually throws you around just like real thing (well almost) It is being developed at Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics and you can read more about it here.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

My invisible dad's bigger than your invisible dad

For once a victory for good sense, the judge in this case has thrown it out hopefully with a flea in the ear of both parties. Benjamin and Sharon Vogelenzang (evangelical Christians, pictured below) were accused by Ericka Tazi (a Muslim) of threatening, abusive or insulting words which were religiously aggravated.

This was always a case that smacked of a domestic spat or an argument between sibling children, he said, she said etc. but there is an important underlying freedom at stake and I am glad that the case has turned out the way it has.

In recent years religious interests (particularly Islamic ones) have been trying to sneak legislation into various institutions regarding "hate speech", most notably Muslims at the United Nations and Catholics in Ireland, all of these initiatives seem to me to be thinly veiled attempts by religion to censor criticism of itself. This is something religion has been doing for centuries (usually at the point of a sword) of course, censorship it seems is a vital component in maintaining the spell. Fortunately some of us see nothing wrong with arguing about the ideas contained within religions and robustly presenting evidence or opinion that religion is not true or wrong in its assertions about the universe. As for arguments among different religions over what is right and wrong they are just amusing, like arguing over how many angels can fit on the head of a needle, utterly academic and as shown in this case, nothing to get upset about.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Pun Art

Just discovered the "Turnip Prize", a subversion of the famous "Turner Prize" but supposed to be more puerile daftness than modern art (right up my street then!)

Here are a few entries for you to get the idea,

"Croc of Gold"... anyone... ok how about this,

"Swinging six teas"

It's good to see people not taking themselves and their culture too seriously.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Shame on Uganda

I read with horror that an African country that calls itself democratic and civilised is contemplating passing legislation that sends homosexuals to jail for 7 years, prosecutes people who don't inform on homosexuals and is even considering executing people who are HIV positive. Here is an MSNBC video recently aired in the USA regarding this story, it exposes a whole host of dubious "meddling" from well known (evangelical) Christian senators who belong to a shadowy Washington DC based group known as "the family" and discusses what Democrats in the USA should do about this scandal. Thankfully our own government have already aired concerns about this issue along with several other European countries such as Sweden who have threatened to withdraw aid payments. Hopefully the UK will go further, it's already embarrassing that we have so many countries in the Commonwealth (over 40) who have some form of anti-gay law, many of which actively criminalise it.

Clearly this viewpoint doesn't represent the attitude of most mainstream Christians, although Christianity is where these people are drawing inspiration from and the basis of their ignorance, the author of the bill is a man called David Bahati, a member of "the family". (Unfortunately for the planet, this viewpoint does seem to be mainstream when it comes to Islam though)

I suppose that the issue of homosexuality causes theists of the main desert dogma's much angst because it questions the perfection of their God, there are clear warrants for prohibiting homosexuality in the Bible (Kings 14:24, Genesis 13:13, Leviticus 18:22 and so on) as well as the Quran, I wonder what a Christian or Muslim must contemplate when they think about gay people, there are only three ways of looking at it that I can think of, these are:

1) Being gay is natural, in which case God does not conform to their own prejudice and the prohibitions in the bible etc. are incorrect and therefore man-made and not the word of God; or maybe its one of those weird "tests of faith" so killing gay people is actually like challenge Anneka...

2) Being gay is not natural, in which case God is not perfect because he created everything, again doesn't fit the accepted dogma, this must be like having to gnaw off your arm to free yourself from a bear trap.

3) God does not exist and homosexuality is simply a manifestation of genetic variation in many animal populations; no way! (too rational) that one probably doesn't get much air time but is the one that all the evidence points to.

I guess you get yourself into an intellectual pickle like this when you disregard the evidence of the real world in favour of an imaginary one, it must be a real dilemma for them, however I can see the clear logical pathway from this kind of faith based thinking to where Uganda is headed. Let's hope international pressure is enough to avert atrocity visited by Africans on other Africans yet again in the name of their historical oppressor's invisible friends.

Jesus in 2009

In the spirit of all those "that was the year that was" articles that are starting to spring up as we edge towards 2010 I thought I would take a light-hearted look at all the places Jesus has surfaced this year. For most of these (especially the Mars one) you need to squint and suspend disbelief, but hey I suppose it shows us exactly why we are pattern seeking primates, we would rather have a fake explanation than no explanation at all. See what you think, which one gets your Jesus appearance of the year vote.

First up we have "maple leaf Jesus", not bad, slightly spoiled by hole in the leaf but no doubt Canadian Christians and pancake lovers will vote for this one.

Then we have "Iron man Jesus", pretty poor this one, looks more like Mick Fleetwood than Jesus IMO.

This one is good, "Ikea toilet seat Jesus", rather abstract but nicely in proportion a keeper for any aficionado of Jesus manifestations.

This next one is a personal favourite of mine "Marmite Jesus", you either love him or you hate him..

Next up "Kitkat Jesus", this one really takes the biscuit, watch out for those nails.

This one is a real challenge, I think you have to squint, look sideways and try not to pull focus, then apparently you see a Jesus face and accompanying robes, nope, still can't see it.

Next, "Ukrainian factory wall Jesus", I thought all those commies were atheists?, oh well apparently Jesus says it with flowers in the Ukraine.

Here we have "burger fat Jesus", nice layout but not one for the diet concious among us, definitely a high cholesterol deity.

Last but by no means least we have "Cheeto Jesus", if you ever wanted inspiration from a cheesy snack then look no further, bit of a stretch for me but then again I'm no connoisseur.

There we have it the contenders for the 2009 Jesus manifestation of the year, lets hope 2010 will provide equally rich pickings, somehow, I suspect it will.

Friday, December 04, 2009

The fundie mind..

For rational people it is often difficult to grasp what must be going on in the minds of religious fundamentalists; it's definitely non-linear, probably recursive and gives equal weight to reality, tradition, myth and arguments from ignorance. Anyway I came across this little diagram the other day which helps to capture this process, the subject is same sex marriage.

Rational people need only a few moments to think about this subject, the number of inputs are much less for them, for example,

Anyone harmed - no
Anyone disadvantaged - no
Will it reduce suffering - yes
Any animals hurt in the making of this film - no

Job done.

Now as you can see from this diagram (click on it to see a bigger version), the religious fundamentalist on the other hand has a much more complicated set of issues to contemplate, no wonder they make such a mess of it - kinda makes you feel sorry for them....

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Atheists should show some respect..

AC Grayling referred to a cartoon in the recent Wellington debate regarding atheists and respect for religion, it's a funny cartoon and quite true in my experience, here it is:

What ACG neglected to mention was that in reality the first frame of this cartoon has lasted for over 2000 years, and the second frame is only really just getting going now.

Atheism is the new fundamentalism?

Apparently it isn't, well at least according to the audience of this debate at Wellington college which I went to the other night and reported on here.

I particularly liked AC Grayling's response when confronted by that oh so tedious assertion by theists of "what's the point of living if there isn't a God", as all rational people know some questions are just stupid questions but rather than point that out he said, our purpose is "to create meaning, and take care of one another".

Aggressive, moi?

More rabble rousing from Pat Condell; love him or hate him you can't deny the man has passion.

My 2p, aggressive atheism is really just defensive atheism aimed at fending off political religion; nice line about Christian black people sending gay people to the back of the bus in California, surprising there was nothing about Ireland in there this time, maybe he's saving that for a Christmas "holiday special" rant.

Why aren't Christians bothered about this?

In a somewhat surreal story today I learn that the Witchfinder-General of Nigeria, the odious head of the Liberty Gospel Church Helen Ukpabio is suing Humanist Leo Igwe for interfering with her "Christian" right to "deliver people from witchcraft" which translated means abuse the crap out of poor defenceless people (mostly children) and to fleece the gullible for as much cash as possible by flogging them your magic books, spells, charms and trinkets. The horrific details of what is happening there were exposed recently in a Channel 4 documentary called "Return to Africa's witch children" in which Christian Pastors were found to be denouncing children as witches and wizards and the children ended up being tortured and killed by their own families and communities.

Now I am no expert on the clearly complex [sic] mixed-up world of evangelical Christianity in Nigeria, far be it for a simpleton Atheist like me to comment on the deep theological underpinnings of "wizardry" but 2 questions spring into my mind about this,

1) Why does it take a humanist to stand up to these people, why isn't the money and influence of say the Roman Catholic or Anglican organisations being brought to bear down on these hucksters and murderers operating in the name of Christianity; or at least why aren't the mainstream Christian denominations moving in to stamp out harmful supernatural nonsense like this? Whilst I can see it's a bit tricky to convince someone that one kind of faith based thinking is better than another kind of faith based thinking, surely there are copyright issues at stake here at least?

2) When in the history of mankind, ever, has a supernatural con job (religiously inspired or not) like this turned out to be true? When have the swat teams ever dropped into a compound and ended up saying, actually, we did find 10 invisible golden plates instructing everyone to give all their money to a cross-dressing accountant called Dave. Why is it that supernatural events were so common in the past when people were mostly remote, uneducated, illiterate and poor and now, since the dawning of the age of recording devices like cameras, film and magnetic tape, no supernatural event has ever been shown to be anything other than a deliberate con or a mistake; and no, I'm not talking about that dream you had about your dead aunty Mildred the other night or that flutter of adrenalin you felt the last time you got a dose of confirmation bias at your local mosque.

What is it about camera shy gods, prophets, witches, angels and devils? It's almost like they don't really exist.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

A musical tagging

Sometimes tagging is like receiving one of those childish chain letters or emails, utterly yawn central, however occasionally a tagging causes you to stop and think, I like thinking, it's like a drug. Maybe I should stop and go watch the X-factor or I'm a celebrity, but hell no, they can prise my blog from my dead, cold fingers.

Frequent commenter "G", tagged me from here, placing a curse upon me and all male descendants for ever unless I document my top 8 musical moments (ever!), so in reverse order,

8. Royksopp, Eple - this simple but catchy techno-pop tune isn't much of a classic as far as music goes but we used to play it over and over on the office jukebox in the early days of my first software company, it just seemed to fit in an addictive kind of way, it reminds me of those heady days of optimism and creative energy.

7. Dire Straights, Money for nothing - This is the only song I can ever remember hearing at random on the radio and being captivated by it immediately, it matched my mood, the times and I knew it was going to be a hit straight away, I bought the record the same day I heard it.

6. Peter Gabriel, Solsbury Hill - I love Peter Gabriel, such a talent, this track is apparently about a "spiritual" experience he had on a hill in Somerset shortly after breaking away from Genesis, the reason it was a musical moment for me was that it was the first song I heard after finding out that my Grandfather had died, I was close to him and at the time was living miles away, I always think of him when I hear this song.

5. Genesis, The cinema show (Selling England by the Pound) - A Summer concert, favourite group (at the time) and a super track, new girlfriend, all was good with the world, what more can one ask for.

4. Coldplay, Talk - Again, not a classic track musically but addictive thanks to a neat little riff from Kraftwerk, the reason this was a moment for me is that this was the first track I was properly able to enjoy with my Son, he'd just got to the age where music (other than nursery rhymes) was becoming memorable, I played this CD in our hire car on holiday and we both instantly liked this particular track, it was such a happy moment.

3. Tchaikovsky, Violin Concerto - Memorable because of my emotional state when I first heard it. I had just finished a relationship and was feeling sorry for myself, I put this piece of music on and it seemed to speak to me, at first empathising in soft mournful way building to a triumphal crescendo and slap around the face, stop feeling sorry for yourself and get back out there it said, I did, and I always remember that moment when I hear it.

2. Rush, Faithless - Helped seal my transition to Atheism, having previously been raised a Christian and throughout my early adult years not really thought about religion much, I arrived at parenthood and 9/11; later this track and the album it's on became a kind of anthem as I sorted out what I thought about the world from a new perspective and realised that a lot of people out there already thought about things the same way as me. "I still cling to hope and I believe in Love, that's faith enough for me".

1. Pink Floyd, Comfortably numb - For me one of the greatest guitar tracks of all time, memorable because of a hot day in London, good company and legal stimulants, right track, right time, Dave Gilmour's Strat seemed to be talking to me, unforgettable.

A diamond in a cresent shaped haystack

As a topic for a blog religion and atheism seem destined to be at loggerheads for ever, however contrary to popular myth most Atheists (or at least the ones I know) aren't anti-religion in the sense that they would wish to ban it or outlaw it, don't get me wrong, if it died a natural death I wouldn't be out there campaigning to keep the churches open, at least not for the superstitious faith based elements of what happens there; for most Atheists I suspect that religion would be just fine if only it could keep itself to itself.

Today I read a little story that I felt compelled to share, it's a good news story, its about Islam and it's about sex education and good sense based on science, not words you often find on the same page! Mohamed Bashir of the North Brixton mosque in London says,

"Imams need to acknowledge "that not everyone practices their religion to the letter, there are Muslims who go to the mosque, who pray. They do everything similarly nicely and they suffer moments of lapse in judgement, they have extra-marital relations that they will not speak about, and engage in risky behaviour. Some imams might not want to admit that."

Mr Bashir's comments are in relation to HIV and the use of condoms. With such irrationally harsh prohibitions against homosexuality and sex outside of marriage within strict Islamic populations it can be understandably difficult if not perilous for people with HIV/AIDS to get help, obtain condoms, advice and medical treatment etc. it can also be impossible for them to even consult with their own families about such a culturally sensitive issue. Clearly from a scientific viewpoint such religiously inspired prohibitions and widespread ignorance of medical science simply drive sufferers underground, spread the virus more effectively and lead to much more suffering and pain than is necessary, when we are talking about matters of public health, ignorance and superstition is the enemy of everyone regardless of the cut of their cloth.

This looks like a step in the right direction, Mr Bashir could find himself in a position to help countless people and become a bit of a hero, hopefully his fellow clergy see things the same way as he does and get out of his way. Oh and Catholics take note, Bashir accepts that in the face of HIV, condoms may be the lesser of two evils, sounds like a winning strategy to me!

Fake pills and fake hope

I've been following with interest the recent revelations about homoeopathic medicine (I'm loathed to call it medicine) and whether or not the government has used scientific evidence properly in granting licenses for such "alternative" remedies. A spokesman from Boots the chemists said at the house of commons science and technology committee that homoeopathy didn't work, in his view there is no evidence for efficacy whatsoever, however since these pills have a license then Boots is happy to sell them. I don't quite understand why this isn't a "Ratners" moment for Boots, but when you read the rest of his statement and also if you watch the committee hearing you start to understand why.

As the minister himself points out the underlying rationale for the decision to grant these licenses is not that the medicine is effective, safe or even beneficial, its that these pills (or more accurately the idea of them) are popular. The minister (Ian Stewart) actually says that it is of no consequence that there is no positive evidence for homoeopathy, the fact that there are "some" doctors (i.e. the ones that sell the pills) who "believe" it works is sufficient to continue to waste public money on research (trying desperately to find something good to say about it) and to license the pills for sale to the public. If the promise is large, the sales pitch is compelling (delivered by so called "experts") and pills are licensed by the Government then obviously they become popular, if they become popular then the government supports them, and round and round we go. With such financial and emotional investment no one ever seems to stop to ask "does it work?" or if they do they are dismissed as spoil sports and told to shut up (Atheists know all about this phenomenon!). This cycle of stupidity may sound baffling to right minded rational folk, but then we don't really need to look too far to find similar embedded thinking.

Many people I'm sure would argue where's the harm? why not just live and let live (or die), if someone wants to believe that sugar water is curing their cancer then let them. This kind of attitude may be fine in the leafy suburbs of Reading or London where "real" medicine is also on hand to pick up the pieces, however if we transplant "faith" based thinking to a different setting then the reason why this is a cynical and dangerous philosophy pulls into sharper focus.

I read an interesting story that supports this idea yesterday, it's a piece about a PHD student who filled some spare time in his academic career by doing some research work at an HIV clinic in Haiti; what he found there tells a similar tale of "faith" based thinking and where it leads. Here is a fragment from his story,

"One particular day in the STD clinic proved particularly eye opening. When asked if they had more than one partner, women would usually reply “no.” But then when asked about their husband, many calmly replied that he had many partners.

If asked about their husband’s condom usage, the answer was often “never.” After we explained the risks inherent in this behavior, one response from a woman was “God will protect me, I am a Christian.” Another said, “My husband is a Christian and says the Bible says not to use condoms.” Or better yet, I also heard, “If I get sick, it is God’s will.”

These were some of the most devout women I had ever met. Most of them had never been to school. Illiterate, yet they persisted with an unshakable faith. This surprised me because I had heard religious U.S. citizens describe Haiti as dark, unreligious and even God-less.

This issue of faith overriding evidence/science came to light later in the year, when in a meeting with some of the clinicians an argument broke out as to whether mission work was harmful. Several physicians were claiming that with missionaries came more patients claiming that prayer would heal any malady they might face, and thus HIV prevention and/or treatment mattered little"

Of course what these women don't know, because most of them can't read, is that the the success rate of HIV cures through praying alone is zero percent. Faith may well provide these women with comfort in their undoubtedly hard and unenviable lives no one can dispute that, however this faith also has a dark side, less well publicised by the missionaries, priests and ministers, it also kills them.