Friday, 31 December 2010

"...A God who is but a reflection of human frailty"

An interesting quote I came across, attributed to Albert Einstein, in a column for the New York Times Nov 9, 1930:: “I cannot imagine a God who rewards and punishes the objects of his creation, whose purposes are modeled after our own—a God, in short, who is but a reflection of human frailty.”

I've always found the worship of God a strange thing to do.  I did not choose to be created, and I have only very limited control over my destiny.  Why would God expect my praise for His creation? Why would he want it?

Thursday, 30 December 2010

Nietsche was right. There is no God.

OK, so it's an attention grabbing headline.  But having just re-read some of Nietsche's writings I am even more impressed by his ideas, which were truly innovative when he wrote them. 
For many this is a bleak conclusion, and they find it very hard to believe that there really is fundamentally nothing more to life than to reproduce and die.
But this need not be such a bleak conclusion if one accepts life for what it is, and models one's way of life on that premise.  It is possible to lead a full and satisfying life under this truth. 
Religion is so deeply ingrained into our culture that it is not something which it is either necessary nor desirable to try to oust immediately.  There will always be some who need the security of religious belief, and who will never be convinced of the alternative, which is arguably intellectually more challenging. 
However, religious extremism remains one of the major problems facing humankind.  And supplanting one  religion with another religion does not solve the problem.  There will always be those who seek violence, and whilst there are religions there will always be those who use it as the irrational justification for their acts.  Humanism does not breed suicide bombers...
I seem to be going though a phase when I feel particularly negatively towards religion.  I think it has outlived its usefulness, and I'm frustrated that people are so deeply indoctrinated that any amount of contrary evidence is dismissed, at the same time that any amount of supportive heresay and unreliable witness reports are unquestioningly accepted.  Far too frequently believers put up their own 'straw men' to discredit a non-religious view - often 'staw men' that fundamentaly misunderstand or misinterpret what Atheists actually believe.  I admit that many non-believers make no real effort to understand religion in any great depth, but it's my experience that the more conscientious atheists frequently tend to understand the religion of those with whom they argue to a greater depth than those who defend their religion.
What to do about all this though?  Hmm...

Wednesday, 29 December 2010

What is 'Eternal Life'?

In the Christian Bible it is written: "For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life. (John 3:16)

But what is this 'eternal life'?  And why is it that there are so many differing answers to this question within the various sects and branches that make up Christianity?

One thing that most seem to agree is that the physical constraints, pain and suffering of this World are absent. But happiness requires sadness to it to be experienced, joy requires sorrow, lack of pain requires pain.  Take away one side of these equations and one is not left with something wonderful.  One is left with nothing.  If there is no contrast then there is no way to comprehend one's existence, at least not to a mind that bears sufficient resemblance to my current mind to be called me.  I cannot both be an individual and lack the constraints that this world includes.

I'm still puzzled.

Tuesday, 28 December 2010

Heaven and Hell - Helpful Illusions?

Have you noticed how no two people have exactly the same idea of what Heaven is like.  With Hell there's even more variance, including those who believe in heaven but not in Hell at all.  After all, Hell only features large in one sect of one particular religion, and one can't help thinking that it's used in the same way as parents might have coerced their children to behave by threatening that the bogeyman would take them away if they did not do this, or did do that.  No logic - just do as I say, or else...

I really struggle to see the point of Heaven. If it is an existence free from physical constraints, then there can be no individual physical sensation, no contrast, and therefore no appreciation of bliss.  Would we become passive, incapable of doing anything that we had done whilst alive on Earth?  Or would we experience virtual pleasure and pain as if it were real . (Could this apparent present physical body be a part of that experience - not real, but giving every impression of being real, in order to achieve its purpose?)  If so why?  How does make any difference to anything?  We just go on existing because we exist.  We achieve nothing, in eternity.  Personally I find the idea of 'not being' after death a far preferable outcome.  It has the benefit of certainty and if one does not exist one will not miss what it is to exist anyway.

I can understand from a psychological point of view why Heaven would originally have been such a comforting concept, when lives were generally short and brutal, and there was no chance to change one's lot.  Heaven would give one hope, provide a purpose for our misery, provide comfort in our distress, give meaning to our otherwise apparently pointless lives.

But wishing that something were true does not mean that it must be true.  Parsimony would suggest that there is no need for Heaven; and that therefore it does not exist.

I just wish I could understand how it is that so many humans are prepared to suspend logic and indulge in this untenable wishful thinking?  Is it brainwashing?  Is it the Ego refusing to countenance non-existence?  It must be something very compelling - though most likely ultimately false.

Monday, 27 December 2010

Belief in a benificent God is surely an exercise in human wish fulfilment?

Although we feel that the most truthful things are our feelings, in actual fact these feelings are very manipulable. The mind's scepticism is willingly disarmed so that skillful rhetoric stops people being able to think clearly and be critical of what’s being offered. People willingly put themselves in a position to be hypnotized and to lose their powers of reason.

The more bodies you put together the less individual minds remain independent. Intense feeling gets under people’s skin. It’s like joining in a communal purge. They start to speak in tongues. Freudians would say it’s free association - They will speak the truth of their desire. They think that if they speak in this way then it bypasses self censoring, and they start to believe that they can commune truth direct with God.

Welcome to Pentecostalism - a religion for the 21st Century?  It's like a political movement without a central core (unlike Catholicism). Anybody can start a Pentecostalist Church. There is no central doctrine or control. In South America Pentecostalism threatens to supplant Catholicism as predominant Church. And it is also strong in China and in Korea, and even underground in N Korea.
It's been said to be‘In love with the poor’ - it speaks to their needs, and gives their lives purpose.

Of course, it's all fantasy, but if it makes people happy and encourages civilised behaviour amongst many who need something they feel is external to them to tap their innate sense of morality then maybe it is not so bad.  Hmm...

Sunday, 26 December 2010

Christmas and the rebirth of 'peasant Christianity'

Quite by chance I came across this article penned on Christmas Day by Simon Barrow of Ekklesia.  I think he brings to our minds a prescient vision of what it should be to be a Christian, without the unwarranted and unnecessary trappings of bureaucratic religious sects.

Christmas and the rebirth of 'peasant Christianity'
By Simon Barrow
25 Dec 2010

Soothing 'Christmas messages' have become practically unavoidable. I am thinking not just of the personal and circular ones that get sent to family and friends, but of the worthy treatises on goodwill and benevolence that pour forth with a great sense of duty from church leaders, politicians, dignitaries, shops and even - heaven forfend - PR agencies. Over the past few days these have been arriving in my mailbox by the dozen.

This year, British church leaders have enjoined upon us generosity ("embargoed until 00.01 hours on 23 December"), 'Big Society'-style sharing (after your bonus has been paid or your welfare payments slashed, so we're "all in it together"), "a more simple form of lifestyle" (from someone living in a palace), and "light in the darkness of each day" (the alternative presumably having been carefully considered and rejected).

However, seasonal blandness is not restricted to the religious, even if it is their speciality. "I've always seen Christmas as an opportunity for everyone to just be happy and be nice to each other", suggests one reviewer of The Atheist's Guide to Christmas, a collection of anecdotes and essays which has proved popular with a few of the 51 per cent of people who, according to the 2010 British Social Attitudes survey, say they have "no religion". (This, it should be noted, is the first year when the BSA has recorded that a majority of the people in the UK have no religious affiliation or commitment).

For those schooled in the texts and traditions that scholars like John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg call (in a knowing way) The First Christmas, such blandness ought to be deemed a rather remarkable achievement. Here are stories full of difficulty and challenge which we Christians have mostly managed to render sentimentally vacuous.

There are only two canonical infancy narratives for Jesus in the New Testament, one developed in a Jewish and one in a Roman setting. Both of them recapitulate in symbol-laden miniature form a dramatic confrontation between two conflicting kingdoms, that of God and of Caesar. They speak on the one hand of the giver of life who comes to us in disarming vulnerability (confounding our 'religious' and metaphysical assumptions about godlikeness), and on the other of salvation through violence, using the currency of power and control.

In these terms, Christmas is not a time for making do with any old presents (the shinier the better), but for choosing between two rival claims to ultimate worth and allegiance. Both promise peace, but one is achieved by way of the ideology of 'victory' (and hence violent death) and the other through shalom (peace that works for justice).

In Matthew's Gospel, Jesus' birth is told within the framework of understanding him to be the New Moses, the one who delivers to the people God's liberating intent, and who is spared the wrath of the imperial delegate (Herod's slaughter of the innocent) in order to be able to deliver them from tyranny - though not, as it turns out, in the expected vengeful way.

Luke's account, on the other hand, portrays Jesus as the antithesis of Caesar Augustus, who also is acclaimed as 'son of God' (Apollo) and saviour. To learn to see the man from Nazareth as 'Lord' is to learn to see God at work in a way that confounds the powerful and disavows all earthly claims to domination. These Christians, observe those living under the heavy yolk of the Emperor, "are all acting against the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, Jesus" (Acts 17.7).

This Jesus, however, does not exercise his authority from a conventional throne, by entering an alliance with the court, by establishing a religion of power (that comes later), by enriching himself through taxing the poor, or by setting up a standing army to defend and extend his interests. Quite the opposite. He sides with the those who have been excluded and marginalised by the prevailing religious-political order. He shares food with the hungry and with sinners (those deemed 'unclean' by the authorities). He brings healing to the sick and hope to the broken. He announces forgiveness and restoration. He dubs Herod an 'old fox'. He turns the tables on the money-changers in the temple. He calls on his followers to become peacemakers, and in his last recorded instruction to them, in the face of execution, declares, "Put away your sword" (Matthew 26.52).

It is this Jesus, iconic bearer of God's indelible image on humanity, who is born for us at Christmas, and who is affirmed not by overwhelming force or by the triumph of the Christian tribe over others, but by the power of humble life defying the culture of death.

Steven Shakespeare expresses the Gospel dynamic with admirable simplicity and directness when he writes: "The paradox of God's 'Yes' spoken to [us] in Jesus Christ is that it throws the world into a crisis of judgement. It is spoken, not from the lofty heights of Christendom's power, but from the depths of dereliction, a cry of protest against all Empire. Absolute and vulnerable, God proclaims life as a free gift. No market can buy it, no state can enlist it, no church can own it. It is common wealth."

This is the real message of the crib. Hope is born again and again in the shape of Christ, inviting us to a way, a life and truth that confronts everything within and around us that suffocates, kills, denies and denudes us of God-given dignity, whether it wears the language of 'religion' or some other form of verbal aggression.

In a world of poverty and inequality, environmental degradation, mass violence, deadening consumption, and crippling fear of 'the other', the litmus test of Christian belief in the West is therefore not to be found in desperate acts of self-assertion, attempts to defend the club, wave the cross like a flag, or cry 'persecution' every time we are challenged. Instead it resides in open-handed living, in the cultivation of the way of the Prince of Peace, in hospitality for the stranger, in solidarity with the weak, and in a refusal to submit to the powers-that-be.

Along with Steven Shakespeare's aphorism, my other 'quotation of the year' is from the ever-irascible US theological gadfly Stanley Hauerwas (whose moving and insightful memoir Hannah's Child I thoroughly recommend, by the way).

On a BBC radio discussion of religion, Hauerwas declared: "I represent a form of Christianity which is non-Constantinian. Most of Christianity in recent times - well, since Constantine - thought it needed to rule. I represent what I like to call the peasant view of Christianity. I just want to know who's ruling me and how I can survive them! In the process, I hope to make a contribution [addressed] to those who rule..."

It may not tout guns or demand legal privilege, but such a contribution should not be underestimated. It means business. For, as the state of the world testifies, generalized 'goodwill' is not enough to confront the ill-will and pathology that infects too much of the human heart and of the human enterprise. It is the peasant understanding of Christianity, its peaceful threat of metanoia (a turnaround in our lives and politics), and its capacity to address tough challenges to a complacent church and a broken world alike, that needs to be re-born and rediscovered at Christmastide and in the coming year.


(c) Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia

Saturday, 25 December 2010

Are you a StarTrek fan? Then maybe you're also a Humanist at heart...

If you're a fan of the various Star Trek series, then there's a good chance that you're a humanist at heart. The creator, Gene Roddenberry, made no secret of his personal humanist philosophy, and liberally sprinkled his out of this world Star Trek stories with the fundamentals of humanism.

Many of its episodes may be viewed as morality plays set against the backdrop of space. Star Trek, like humanism, promotes rational social justice and reason, and rejects religious dogma and the supernatural. Roddenberry strived in his Star Trek adventures to affirm the dignity of all beings. He was so resolute about not including religion that he refused suggestions to add a chaplain to the crew of the Starship Enterprise. Instead, Star Trek was imbued with a philosophy of ‘infinite natural diversity, in infinite combination’.

‘The Return of the Archons’, from the original series, is an example of how Roddenberry employed elements of humanism - A planet's population follows in an unquestioning way a mysterious cult-like leader, who allows no divergent viewpoints. The society absorbs individuals into its collective body and the world is free of hate, conflict and crime; but all creativity, freedom and individualism is completely stifled. ‘Archons’, like other Star Trek storylines, warns how easily people can be controlled by religion - and the viewer subsequently discovers that the cult leader is in reality just a n advanced computer.

Rodenberry saw himself as Capt. Picard, the cool-headed commander in the “Next Generation” series, and the Kirk character was modelled on Horatio Hornblower, C.S. Forester’s protagonist. After his death, some of the Star Trek vehicles, particularly the television spin-off series “Deep Space Nine,” were permeated with religious themes, something the franchise creator would certainly not have appreciated.

The series was also sprinkled with Rodenberry’s view on some of the things that he felt were wrong with US Government policies. The Star Trek series' principled “prime directive,” that humans should not influence or interfere with other races and peoples, was actually a snipe at American involvement in Vietnam, something that would not have been allowed if the television network censors had realised it.

Both humanism and Star Trek espouse a rational philosophy that champions compassion and creativity, and they both advocate open societies and participatory democracy. If this analysis is new to you, then next time you watch a Startrek episode consider the Humanist themes. You’ll see it in a whole new light...

Christmas Day - and religion is everywhere!

For those of us who do not believe in God, Christmas is still a time to spend with family, to give and receive presents, and to eat, drink and be merry.
Am I imagining it, or is there more religion than usual around this Christmas, especially on the BBC, whether it be the broadast of numerous religious celebrations or the screening of that well known apologist C. S. Lewis's Narnia tales.
I'm not a conspiracy theorist but I do wonder if this has anything to do with the Director of the BBC's deep Roman Catholicism?  Would this also explain the unprecedented slot for the Pope on Radio 4's Thought for the Day on Christmas Eve?  Again, nothing wrong with the Pope having a slot, except that Humanists are not allowed a slot at all, and this is a bit of sore point.
Oh well...

Sunday, 19 December 2010

Definitions Revisited - How the Non-Religious describe themselves

Having been involved in a number of discussions lately about what it is to be a Humanist I thought I'd remind myself, and any others who read this, of some useful definitions, as defined by the British Humanist Association (BHA).

"Agnostic" in normal usage today means "don't know" or having an open mind about religious belief, especially the existence of God. It can also mean something much firmer: that nothing is known, or can possibly be known, about God or supernatural phenomena, and that it is wrong to claim otherwise. That is the original meaning of the word, and 19th century "agnostics" lived their lives atheistically in practice - that is, without any reference to any concepts of gods or the supernatural.

"Atheist" includes those who reject a belief in the existence of God or gods and those who simply choose to live without God or gods. Along with this will usually go disbelief in the soul, an afterlife, and all other religious beliefs.

"Freethinker" is used of those who reject authority and tradition in matters of all belief, including religious belief, preferring to think for themselves. It was a very popular term in the 19th century and is still used in some European countries by non-religious organisations to describe himself.

"Humanist" is used today to mean those who seek to live good lives without religious or superstitious beliefs. A humanist may embrace all or most of the other approaches introduced here, and in addition humanists believe that moral values follow on from human nature and experience in some way. Humanists base their moral principles on reason (which leads them to reject the idea of any supernatural agency), on shared human values and respect for others. They believe that people should work together to improve the quality of life for all and make it more equitable. Humanism is a full philosophy, "life stance" or worldview, rather than being about one aspect of religion, knowledge, or politics.

"Non-religious" – as well as those who are uninterested in religion or who reject it, this category may include the vague or unaffiliated, those who are only nominally or culturally affiliated to a religious tradition, and the superstitious.

"Rationalist" in this context, describing a non-religious belief, means someone who prioritises the use of reason and considers reason crucial in investigating and understanding the world. Rationalists usually reject religion on the grounds that it is unreasonable. (Rationalism is in contradistinction to fideism – positions which rely on or advocate "faith" in some degree).

"Skeptic" today usually means someone who doubts the truth of religious and other supernatural or "paranormal" beliefs, typically on rationalist grounds. ('Skeptic' also has a special philosophical meaning: someone who rejects or is skeptical with regard to all claims to knowledge).

"Secularists" believe that laws and public institutions (for example, the education system) should be neutral as between alternative religions and beliefs. Almost all humanists are secularists, but religious believers may also take a secularist position which calls for freedom of belief, including the right to change belief and not to believe. Secularists seek to ensure that persons and organisations are neither privileged nor disadvantaged by virtue of their religion or lack of it. They believe secular laws – those that apply to all citizens – should be the product of a democratic process, and should not be determined, or unduly influenced, by religious leaders or religious texts. The word "secularism" was once used to describe a non-religious worldview generally but this meaning is now very old fashioned.

Thursday, 9 December 2010

Is Persecution a necessary part of Christian Mythology?

Is it just me or are there increasing numbers of stories about persecution of Christians in countries not known for this activity, such as the UK?  Most of the cases I've read do not appear to me to be anything like persecution.  The most that could be said about them was that there was unfair discrimination.  But is this narrative necessary to vindicate Christian perspectives in a secular environment?  Is having an imagined enemy being used to strengthen internal cohesion within Christian circles?  Often I've read Christian bloggers express the idea that opposition to their unusual views has provoked an adverse reaction and that therefore they must be doing something right.  It's a weird logic, but seems to crop up rather frequently.
When one tries to reason with these people, and show them what real full blown persecution looks like, one stock response is something like "Well if we don't do something to stop what is currently going on here then that is how we will end up too."  The thin end of the wedge argument.  But it makes no sense.  The environment and the circumstances are not related.  There is no proof that low level discrimination inexorably leads to religious persecution.
I remain puzzled.

Sunday, 28 November 2010

Some interesting quotes from a recent NSS newsletter...

"In our more diverse and secular society, the place of religion has come to be a matter of lively discussion. It is rightly acknowledged that people of faith have no monopoly of virtue and that the wellbeing and prosperity of the nation depend on the contribution of individuals and groups of all faiths and none."
(Queen Elizabeth II, opening the Church of England synod)

Hear, hear!

"Religious leaders should concentrate on the big things: social and personal morality, spirituality, charity, kindness, condemning what is dishonest or cruel. Their remit should not include interfering between good, loving couples in their bedrooms."
(Libby Purves, The Times)

And so say most of us...

Mike Behe and Michael Reiss debate ID

This link is to the audio recording on Premier Christian Radio. I was curious to know if Mike Behe would say anything new on his recent UK tour. 
In this respect I found the debate beyween Mike Behe and Michael Reiss in Scotland this week particularly enlightening.  I have to say that after hearing it I was even less impressed by the argument for I.D. than I was beforehand.  Ironically this was in large part because he was debating not with a secularist, but with a very sincere Christian.  Thus the 'well he would say that wouldn't he' type defence would not work. 

In fact Michael Reiss makes a very good case for there being no need to even go down the I.D. road, for belief in God as the creator does not require this kind of limited view.  To me the whole I.D. idea seems to be counter-productive - particularly as many 'prrofs' have been proven over and over to be fundamentally flawed.  Conversely the supposed arguments against Evolution can so easily be refuted.

I do hope for the future health of the Christian religion that this gimmicky I.D. idea gets consigned to history sooner rather than later.  It's a silly notion that may sell books and make some people feel good about themselves, but ultimately just takes many gullible people down a dead end.

Saturday, 27 November 2010

Ok, so God did it - but which God?

So often one seems to come across debates between a non believer on one side, and a believer in the dominant God of that particular culture, on the other side.  The alternatives frequently appear to be 'No God' or 'This God'.

But isn't that missing out a vital step?  If I'm to believe that the the natural Universe was indeed created by a deity, how can I be sure that it was, for example, the Christian deity rather than the God of a number of other competing religions?

To be honest, the fact that there are many so many people who equally fervently believe that 'their' God is the true God, leaves me wondering how many people of the hghest integrity must, by definition, be utterly deluded.  Pity those poor wretches who may devote their whole life to their chosen religion, and maybe even die for it, when their belief is nothing but a delusion.

How can one tell who is deluded?  There are no proofs or logical explanations for any of these competing deities, and much of the 'evidence' would not last 5 minutes if subjected to impartial scientific scrutiny...

I remain perplexed by people's wholly illogical behaviour.

Thursday, 18 November 2010

Hatch, Match and Despatch

Yesterday evening I attended a meeting of the Central London Humanists.  The event was a talk by a long serving Humanist 'Celebrant'.  It was particularly appropriate timing for me, in the light of a recent discussion on a Christian blog.  The author of the blog wrote about Remembrance Sunday, and how uplifting he found the whole thing.  He ended his post with the following:-

"All of sudden I felt pity for those who would desire the removal of Christianity from such occasions and who would exclude themselves from this type of collective worship.  I cannot conceive how a community could even begin to mark such an occasion without the Church, and of course God Himself.  For me, it was the revelation that humanists, secularists, and atheists might never understand or appreciate the essentiality of Christianity and the wonderful meaning this brings to such occasions."

I'm sure it was not intended, but several commenters found this hugely patronising to Humanists, and betrayed a complete lack of understanding.  It's been my experience that most religious people think they know exactly what a Humanist is and is not, and depressingly often they are wrong.  Such complaints as "without God anything is permissible" are not only misguided, but frankly insulting.

I will try to get a copy of the transcript of the speakers notes from yesterday evening.  It was abundantly clear from the anecdotes he revealed, that Humanist ceremonies are at least as emotive and meaningful as their religious equivalents.  Indeed I would suggest they are almost invariably more so, as those most directly affected get to discuss with the celebrant exactly how they would like the ceremony to be conducted.  This results in a very personal and ultimately deeply satisfying experience.

One of the problems we have is terminology.  For instance 'Celebrant' is a rather awkward title, as is 'Officiant' which it replaced.  One can't use the term 'Minister', or 'Chaplain'.  Maybe we need another new word for this and many other terms?

Humanist ceremonies are not legally binding in England, though they are other parts of the UK, particularly in Scotland.  Hence there is still a reliance on Registrars for the appropriate legal documentation. There is a campaign under way now to bring England into line with the rest of the UK, and have the same legal status as the Church regarding these ceremonies.  Watch this space!

Saturday, 13 November 2010

Science vs. Religion - 'Kay's view

I came across this comment on a fundamentalist religious apologist's site.  It's quite succinct and to the point so I thought I'd quote it for future reference

"For milennia, religion provided many of the answers to life's mysteries, like what caused disease, why there were disasters, why there is suffering, and even the age of the planet. It was accepted that suffering meant punishment by the gods, natural disasters were the products of their anger, and within the Judeo-christian domain, the planet was less than 10,000 years old. Before writing was developed, legends were recounted by word-of-mouth down the ages in every civilization, providing dramatic explanations for the many mysteries of life, and also solace in the face of the most worrisome mystery of all: death.
Throughout his development, man has feared nature, because he had no control over it. Storms came and took lives. Earthquakes came, mountain peaks blew their top and vomited liquid fire down its sides and belched ash several hundred feet in the sky. It seemed like somebody was angry, because people kept dying in these disasters, so much blood was shed. Man noticed that the invisible powers, or whoever it was that caused the earth to open. the winds to throw giant trees to the ground and the sea to become a wall of water that took wives, husbands, children, mothers and fathers away, those invisible powers had to be respected, or else you could die in the next disaster. "Look how much blood it took, look how many dead were buried after that last volcano." "Perhaps the invisible powers need blood every now and then", thought man, so in order to avert another disaster, man took the initiative of shedding the blood himself and delivering it to the powers.

Thus the notion of blood sacrifice was born:

"Invisible powers, if we bring you blood, will you spare us another disaster?"

Of course because some volcanoes erupted only once in a lifetime, some communities may have believed the blood sacrifices were effective when they saw no recurrence of the eruption or the trembling of the ground. Superstition then gave way to orgaized religions in communities everywhere, hence the plurality of faiths.

Primitive man did not know about microbes and what caused disease. It was a mystery when one of his clan vomited and died, or just didn't wake up from sleep. When a woman died in childbirth or gave birth to a stillborn. He didn't know that his teeth were so close to his brain that the bacteria from their decay could quickly travel to his bloodstream into his brain and his heart. Medical science has now linked dental caries to heart disease.

Man was baffled about death for it was the common fate shared by all, and when we have no facts or suitable explanations, you know what we do: we develop a conspiracy theory.

Legends were handed down in many civilizations, that fires raged beneath the earth that would sometimes open and swallow many, so the legend of hell began, for man had to link that to his notion of appeasing the powers, hence a system of punishment and reward...and if everything evil was beneath the earth, to find a place from whence blessings came was easy. The sky. From the sky came the sun which provided warmth and light. From the sky came the rain that brought precious water, which man found he could not live without. So man looked to the sky or the benevolence of the invisible powers and to the earth beneath for their fury. The powers could also light up the skies at midnight, when it seemed they were angry, because the rumbling sounded like the roars of a thousand lions. Man thought he could hear the voice of the gods in the thunder. Soon he began to think he could interpret the voices

So guess what? Man named a god for each aspect or item of nature, just so he wouldn't have to offend any o the powers. And he worked out a system to appease those gods, bow to them, pray to them, bring flowers, the best animals, virgins, babies -- the gods could have anything they wanted. Just spare us the horrific disaster. Just spare us the final death.
But after so many years of giving the gods blood, people still died, and man could not accept a reality of not seeing his loved ones again, so ideas of the afterlife came to the fore. What happens after we die, he thought.

Science now provides many answers for microbes and disease; we now understand about bacteria, viruses and the mutation of singular-celled organisms; we know exactly what causes thunder and lightning, and we know that we live on a planet that is constantly trying to cool itself, shifting its outer crust to relieve built-up pressure in the core. We know that the closer you get to the center of the earth the hotter the furnace burns, and we know why a mountain ejects ash into the air and liquid rock chases people and animals down the mountainsides and swallows up whole villages below.

We know now that the natural disasters are not the result of some angry god; we know that a female's monthly emissions are not the result of a curse, and that there was no reason for her to bring sacrifices to any priest as was necessary under Mosaic law. We know virgins do not all respond the same at their first sexual experience, so stoning a young bride to death if there was no evidence she was a virgin on her wedding night, was sheer ignorance.

Science now knows about continental drift, the continents moving apart over the ages, even more so with the many tectonic shifts occuring every hour. Science has also worked out the passage of time by studying geological deposits, layers of rock of varying types, and by carbon dating.

We know the world is not 6,000 years old and woman was not made from a man's rib. Few of us now read the creation story and take it literally as mankind drifts into the Age of Skepticism. In 2025 the US military, it is said, will control the weather, and we expect breakthroughs in science regarding the human genome and our DNA -- controlling what is passed down in our genes from our forebears, thus genetically engineering the species. Whether you wish to believe it or not, these are the current trends. Science has demystified nature.

The only mystery that science has no answers for is "what happens when we die?" -- a mystery that religion claims to answer, based on faith, of course. But what is faith based on?

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

The Handmaid's Tale

Could I suggest that anyone who longs for a utopian Christian State inspired by the Bible should read Margaret Atwood’s: “The Handmaid’s Tale”, or at least look up its Wikipedia entry at:‘s_Tale

I came across it some years ago and was reminded of it on the radio today.  The story tells of a dystopian society of the future, based on rigorous adherence to the Bible, as told in the diaries of a woman who can remember the time before the new regime.  As so often happens when power is vested in a certain part of society, who are able to enforce their supremacy, the good intentions degenerate into a repressive and unequal society.  Quite chilling.  When it was written in 1985 I suspect people would not have believed just how parts of society had developed by the early 21st century. It's perhaps a salutary warning of what could happen without healthy dissent.  Echoes of current fundametnalist sects of many varieties, both in the developed and developing World.

A BBC World "Book Club" discussion with the author can be found at:
(scan down to Margaret Atwood).  Well worth a listen for more insight into the author's inspiration and intentions with this book.

Read the book if you can!

Monday, 8 November 2010

Religion and Conquest

Why are large parts of South America Catholic?  Why are large parts of the Mddle East Muslim?  Answer:  Conquest.  It seems that in many parts of the World, your religion is most likely to be that of the last conqueror of your country.  How arbitrary!!

Thursday, 4 November 2010

"John Hirst defends votes for murderers, rapists, paedophiles... "

Over at:
Cranmer bemoans the fact that prisoners are to be allowed to vote.  The commenters universally share his views and the righteous indignation is palpable.  I suppose we should expect nothing less of an avowedly right wing blog, but it saddens me that people should be so narrow minded.  I added a comment in support of the proposal to give prisoners the vote.  I won't hold my breath for a response!

Text of my comment::
Perhaps I am a lone voice amongst your acolites, but I have to say that I agree with extending the right to vote to those in jail. This surely continues the trend of removing restrictions on universal suffrage. It was not so long ago that women did not have the right to vote. Who are we to declare someone unfit to vote because they have committed a crime? Where to next? No votes for those who are unemployed for over 6 months? No votes for those who cannot read or write? All these are part of our society and surely entitled to have a say in how things are run.

Furthermore, prison is not just about punishment. It is about rehabilitation, and trying to change the habits of recalcitrant offenders. By excluding them from the democratic process we encourage them to think that society is "someone else's problem". If we want criminals to have a social conscience we need to encourage them to feel a part of society.

Give them the vote say I!

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Always Hope: NSS gets in a tizzy again

Always Hope: NSS gets in a tizzy again

Saw this post and kicked myself for not realising it before.  Charlie has nailed why the NSS struggles to build its membership.  Any organisation that is so focussed on the negative is going to struggle!
Ironic that it took a Christian to produce this emperor's new clothes moment!

Catholics and Natural Law

What is "Natural Law"?  Look it up in Wikipedia and you would be forgiven for believing that it can mean almost whatever the user wants it to mean. 

Catholics appear to define natural law as the rule of conduct which is prescribed to mankind by the Creator in the constitution of the nature with which He has endowed mankind.  Recently I've come across the expression several times in discussion with Catholics, who declare it as a kind of self-evident trump card.  As in "homosexuality is wrong - It's against natural law".  When looking natural law up at a website calling itself "Catholic Encyclopedia" I was surprised to be given as an example of natural law that in certain circumstances Polygamy can be lawful but that polyandry can never be lawful, presumably because of something written by a misogynist in the Old Testament.

I find myself wondering how laws which to a modern reader often appear bizarre, and are prescribed by a supernatural being, can possibly warrant the title of "natural".  Moreover, not even Catholic scholars through the ages can agree on the detail. Is it perhaps time to drop this rather unhelpful expression?

Saturday, 30 October 2010

Natural Family Planning (NFP)?

When I visited the Pro-life "prayer vigil" outside Central London Marie Stope clinic I was handed a glossy leaflet aimed at persuading people not to go ahead with an abortion, and suggesting that awful things were likely to happen to those that did go ahead. I looked up one of the website referred to in the brochure ( Family Life International (FLI) describes itself as a "Catholic Pro-Life/Pro-Family non-profit making, world-wide organisation".

I was struck by the piece on "Natural Family Planning" (NFP).  It seems that any form of artificial contraception is wrong, but "natural" contraception is ok, and advice is given on how the husband and wife can help each other to confirm when the wife is and is not fertile.  The piece ends with the sentence: "SAFE's design encourages the involvement and participation of a husband in the charting of his wife's menstrual cycle, thereby allowing him to be aware of his wife's fertility."

I just can't get my head around the double standard here.  It seems to be saying that it's ok after all to have sex just because you enjoy it, as long as you use the 'natural' method.  Surely if contraception is viewed as wrong it really should not make any difference what method is used.  Am I missing something?

Friday, 22 October 2010

What happens when a nation becomes secular?

I could not resist reproducing the following snippet from the today's NSS newsletter:

According to polls, Norwegians define themselves (depending on how you interpret their definition) as up to 71% non-believers.

What has secularism done to Norway? The Global Peace Index rates Norway the most peaceful country in the world. The Human Development Index, a comparative measure of life expectancy, literacy, education and standard of living, has ranked Norway No. 1 every year for the last five years. Norway has the second highest GDP per capita in the world, an unemployment rate below 2 percent, and average hourly wages among the world's highest.


Sunday, 10 October 2010

Are religious people more altruistic, or altruistic people more religious?

It appears to be perceived wisdom that religious people tend to give more to charity, they get more involved in helping those less able, and they have more of a sense of serving the community.

Let's assume that this is all true - (and I have no reason to doubt it).  Is it their religion that makes them more altruistic, or is the fact that they are inherently predisposed towards altruism that means that they find a natural home in religion?  Are we confusing which is cause and which is effect? 

If it is true that altruistic people are naturally drawn to a group where they can express this, then there is a future for humanity without religion.  As religion continues to wane, perhaps we need to find a way to replace religious groups with equivalent secular groups.

If, however, it is belief in a supernatural God is what drives people to be altruistic, then perhaps we need to continue to accept that religion is a necessary civilising influence, even if most of us are no longer believers..

Friday, 1 October 2010

An eye for an eye?

I'm always perplexed when I read about religious people advocating the death penalty for murder, on the basis of Biblical or other Holy book justice.  I saw an article recently which addressed this in a rather interesting way - Would those same people who advocated death for murder feel the same way about the State blackmailing those who blackmail, or raping those who rape?  I sincerely hope not.

Who gives? Do women make the best Humanists?

I find myself more interested in reading other people's blogs than writing my own, but this blog still provides me with a useful tool to track the progression of my thoughts and attitudes.  It really doesn't matter if nobody reads my posts, or if I repeat myself.  This is mostly so that I can capture some of my thoughts before they evaporate.  Anyway, I digress. To the subject in mind:

Last weekend I spent hours standing outside a supermarket collecting for the local Air Ambulance.  The supermarket serves a mostly affluent local population who predominantly vote Conservative or Liberal.  The thing that struck me was that probably 95% of those giving donations were female, and of those the vast majority were certainly over 50 years old.  By contrast, most men, of all ages, went out of their way to avoid me, and slunk by into the store.  This is also in line with previous experiences.

Why is this?  I can't empirically prove the answer, but perhaps these women are better able to empathise with those in need, and to feel their need, even though they have no direct relationship or benefit from helping these unknown people.

Perhaps I should come back to this having thought some more on it.

Thursday, 23 September 2010

Young Earth Creationism - The lengths to which supporters go...

An article by a Young Earth Creationist caught my eye today.  It was about the "problem of distant stars".  In it he considers the probem that if the Earth is indeed only about 6,000 years old and was a part of the 6 day creation of Life the Universe and Everything by God, then why is it that we can see the light from any of the myriad of stars which are clearly at distances significantly greater that 6,000 light years...

The author tries hard to convince us that this is possible because Newton's and Einstein's laws do not apply, but the logic he uses, and the pseudoscientific ideas he postulates are laughable to anyone with a broad education and even a moderate scientific knowledge.  It seems though that the author is utterly convinced of his logic, and one presumes that so are those who already believe as he does, against all the actual reputable natural evidence that already exists.

My puzzlement is why they seek so hard to explain what is to them a supernatural event by recourse to natural laws.  Why do they think this is necessary? 

There are also those among the more moderate believers who believe in miracles, and believe in supernatural intervention, but who under scrutiny simply say that these are in fact natural events, but ones which are outside our understanding, and known only to God.  Hmmm...  That's a cop out if ever I heard one.

I can understand why people might possess faith in a higher being.  What I fail to understand is why they try to rationalise or to "prove" this by pseudoscience. Not only is it counterproductive, but also uneccessary.

Sunday, 22 August 2010

Spurious correlations

I heard the following snippet on UK Radio 4's pick of the week, by Chris McManus of University College London.  I may not have recorded exactly correctly but I hope this gives the gist of it:

"People are extremely good at making explanations of things they find in the World, but those explanations may not be true. People are also very good at spotting differences such as red hair, left-handedness etc but then they often make spurious correlations such as "she's a writer, she's left handed; She must be a writer because she is left handed. -  And then we boring scientists come along, sort it out and then find there is no correlation at all."

Perhaps this human propensity to make any connection rather than none (no matter how bizarre) and avoid having to admit that the real answer is not yet within human capability to understand;  is part of what is behind enduring religious belief.

Thursday, 19 August 2010

Saw this great definition again today...

The American Humanist Association's Definition of Humanism:

"Humanism is a rational philosophy informed by science, inspired by art, and motivated by compassion. Affirming the dignity of each human being, it supports the maximization of individual liberty and opportunity consonant with social and planetary responsibility. It advocates the extension of participatory democracty and the expansion of open society, standing for human rights and social justice. Free of supernaturalism, it recognizes human beings as a part of nature and holds that values -- be they religious, ethical, social or political -- have their source in human nature, experience and culture. Humanism thus derives the goals of life from human need and interest rather than from theological or ideological abstractions, and asserts that humanity must take responsibility for its own destiny."

Monday, 9 August 2010

Dark humour

I've been struggling to keep it together recently.  The following has little to do with anything on this blog except humans sometimes find comfort in black humour to which they can relate. For me it works where religion does not.  The following cheered me up no end.  Still chuckling about it.  I have a terrible memory.  One of the few upsides is that I refind jokes I had forgotten and they make me smile all over again:

"Welcome to the Psychiatric Hotline.

If you are obsessive-compulsive, please press 1 repeatedly.
If you are co-dependent, please ask someone to press 2.
If you have multiple personalities, please press 3, 4, 5, and 6.
If you are paranoid-delusional, we know who you are and what you want. Just stay on the line so we can trace the call.
If you are schizophrenic, listen carefully and a little voice will tell you which number to press.
If you are depressed, it doesn't matter which number you press. No one will answer.
If you are delusional and occasionally hallucinate, please be aware that the thing you are holding on the side of your head is alive and about to bite off your ear."

I've been there, and I've met all these people....

Friday, 25 June 2010

Frustration, Incredulity, Anger

It's been a while since my last post.  Too many pressing tasks got in the way. 
It's now several months since I started taking a more in depth look at religious motivation.  I had hoped to discover something that went some way to explaining why people still cling to religion in advanced democracies.  I have to admit to still being none the wiser.  It still seems to me that people embrace religion as a coping strategy, and as a way to feel a sense of community and purpose.  In this respect it is useful and helpful, but surely the cost in human misery as a result of the misuse of religious belief to oppress people is not worth it.
I hope that one day humans advance to the point that they can live without religion, and instead understand the World in which they live for what it is, not for what legends imply it could be.
I remain amazed that intelligent humans can be so wilfully blind to physical reality.

Wednesday, 2 June 2010

The Golden Rule

Many religions include an exhortation to "do unto others as you would have done unto you" or some similar form of words.  This exhortation is also a fundamental part of being a Humanist.  This common theme from so many different cultures and religions must surely imply that it is essentially an idea created by humans, and not something passed down by "God"?

Examples of the ‘Golden Rule’ from around the world (Courtesy of BHA)

"He should treat all beings as he himself should be treated. The essence of right conduct is not to injure anyone." (JAINISM -from The Suta-Kritanga, about 550 BCE*)

"Do not do to others what you would not like for yourself."
(CONFUCIANISM - from The Analects of Confucius, about 500 BCE)

"I will act towards others exactly as I would act towards myself."
(BUDDHISM - from The Siglo-Vada Sutta, about 500 BCE)

"This is the sum of duty: Do nothing to others Which, if done to you, could cause you pain." (HINDUISM - from The Mahabharata, about 150 BCE)

"What you would avoid suffering yourself, seek not to impose on others." (ANCIENT GREECE - Epictetus, the Greek philosopher, about 90CE*)

"Love your neighbour as yourself." (JUDAISM / CHRISTIANITY - Leviticus 19, in The Torah, about 400 BCE, quoted by Jesus in Matthew 22 and Mark 12, 1st Century CE)

"What is harmful to yourself do not do to your fellow men. That is the whole of the law…" (JUDAISM - from Hillel: The Talmud, about 100 CE)

"None of you truly believes, until he wishes for his brothers what he wishes for himself." (ISLAM - a saying of The Prophet Muhammad, 7th Century CE)

"As you think of yourself, so think of others." (SIKHISM - from Guru Granth Sahib, 1604 CE)

One should be "contented with so much liberty against other men, as he would allow against himself." (GREAT BRITAIN - Thomas Hobbes, English philosopher, 1588-1679 CE)

Is there a point to any of this?

I thought I had come to terms with their being no point to all of this - That there was no higher purpose, no need to have more than that which we experience in the here and now.  Sometimes one could wish for something more.  But there is an unbridgeable gulf between wishing there to be more, and believing, knowing that there is.  Since thinking more deeply about what I believe and what I know, I have become ever more aware of how little of which I can be sure.
And yet one thing continues by turns to fascinate and annoy me - Why do apparently rational, intelligent and well educated people still believe in the Abrahamic God.  There is now so much evidence that explains why humans created this supernatural being, and the anthropological origins of the stories; and so many far more extraordinary tangible things we have now discovered about our existence that make this God look feeble by comparison.  And yet belief continues.  Is it the comfort, the tribal togetherness, the social status, or something else, or have have many humans really discovered something real that I cannot ever comprehend?  The apparent rough correlation between atheism and higher education would tend to make one think not.
And yet it still continues.
Puzzling to be sure....

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

Quantum Weirdness

An article in the current edition of New Scientist (08May2010 - "Weirdest of the weird"), reminded me of the extraordinarily brain stretching concepts involved with quantum physics - Concepts that turn so many of our cherished views on the how and the what of our existence on their heads.  Almost whatever physical law you take, quantum physics runs a steamroller right through it. 

When I was a boy I used to make my brain hurt by trying to imagine infinite space and time.  Now my headache is quantum physics.  Sadly I don't think I have the mental capacity to understand significant parts of the science, no matter how hard I try, but it's immensely satisfying when I find I have finally understood another element.

Another thing that strikes me is how much more utterly amazing and weird this is compared to any concept encompassed by the main World religions, which seem so very mundane by comparison - products of people who fashioned their Gods within the limited constraints of their understanding.  Quantum physics just does not fit into any model which includes God as currently described. It is all together more extraordinary.  That's not to say there is no God.  Maybe we just have not yet discovered or understood the "reality" that this God might be.  The God described by Christians, Muslims and others is just too "human".

Friday, 23 April 2010

Remembering the dead

Recently I was driving the support vehicle for a charity cycle ride in France. It was a sunny day, I had time to spare, and I saw a sign to a nearby British Commonwealth War Grave site. I decided to pay it a visit. It was a small site, with maybe 50 or so graves in an immaculately tended grassy dip between two nondescript fields. Amongst the 50 graves were those of South Africans, Indians, Canadians and individuals from all parts of the UK. There were Christian, Jewish and Hindu symbols. The plaque explained that this was the site of a Field Dressing Station (a temporary military hospital set up on the battlefield). The dates of death closely correlated with some of the largest battles in the area in 1915 and 1916.

Clearly I did not know any of these people, and their relatives will all be long dead, and yet here in this little cemetery their graves are still tended with great dedication, and in the record book kept at the site the details of the date and cause of death are recorded, for all to see for many years to come.

A little further along the road was a civilian peacetime graveyard. Each memorial seemed designed to try to outdo the others, and many were like small houses. Many of those remembered by these impressive tombs would probably now have no living descendents, and yet their tombs continue to stand across the centuries to mark a life otherwise forgotten.

Contrast this with the remebrance of my mother's father. He was a senior and decorated Army officer in the First World War who survived, and died in 1935 when my mother was 12. They had survived largely on a small Army pension since the War, and there was no money for a memorial. I know the graveyard where he is buried, but there is no trace of his grave, or even a record. Since my mother died, his memory lives on only in my mind. Mychidren wiill remember only the small fragments of information I can pass on, and within a few generations it will be as if he never existed. Whether a human's life is physically commemorated for future generations remains arbitrary.

I can understand the sadness people might feel at death as the end of everything, with the knowledge that with few exceptions memories of them will fade to nothing within a few generations.

Is it this that has prompted humans to create a supreme being, and an afterlife where their minds continue to exist, and to know that they exist? The thought of nothingness is too awful for many people, and this belief in an "afterlife" is comforting.  It would perhaps explain the fervour of many people's belief.

Saturday, 17 April 2010

Let's stop fighting religion with religion!

In so many conflicts, religion is used as the pretext for conflict, and tribes are divided along religious lines.  All too often those in other parts of the World rally to the side of those who appear to share the same religion. Frankly this is muddleheaded.  What on earth does a Catholic in Boston have in common with a Catholic in Belfast, or a Jew in Kansas have with a Jew in Tel Aviv.  The simple response might be that they share a fundamental belief.  But so often, were these people to meet, they would realise just how far apart they really are, both culturally, and in their political and religious views. 

In the UK at the moment there is a frequently articulated fear of Islam taking over from Christianity as the dominant religion.  Often the reaction by Christians is to re-double their efforts to strengthen the hold that Christianity enjoys in this country, and to discourgae multi-culturalism. The thinking is presumably that by opposing it in this way, the spread of Islam can be halted.

Surely fighting the spread of Islam in this way is like fighting fire with fire.  Wouldn't it be wiser to break the cycle of defending one religion aganst another by instead promoting a fully secular society, where religion itself is marginalised and removed from mainstream decision-making?
Its time we stopped pitching one skygod against another skygod, and instead encouraged human beings to behave towards other human beings just as fellow humans, and not as alien creatures under the influence of a fictitious supernatural being in conflict with our currently resident supernatural being.

Tuesday, 13 April 2010

The S Word...

I see that Suicide is becoming a hot topic again on a few of the blogs I follow.  It's another of those emotive issues that is almost guaranteed to polarise opinions.  Having been around suicide and those who have attempted it, some successfully, it is odd to find people with no personal experience writing as if they fully understood the motives that people have for taking their own life.  Further these "experts" all to easily jump to an assumption that the perpetrator has full control of their faculties, is rational, and is fully aware of the implications of what they are doing. 
As I recently wrote on another blog, suicide was deemed a sin at a time in history when almost nothing was understood about mental illness, and it was commonly viewed as possession by demons/devils/evil spirits.  It seems that some people have not moved on. 
I find it shocking that these self appointed arbiters of right and wrong can burden the surviving members of the family and loved ones with such guilt and shame that one of their relatives/loved ones has ended his/her life in this way.  Again, where is the compassion, understanding, sensitivity and plain common decency!

Friday, 2 April 2010

Christians and Homosexuality

It's sad to see the Christian Church so torn by the homosexual issue.  There's recently been an interesting exchange between a liberal and conservative Christian at the 'eChurch' website; which I follow, and to which I contribute.  I was particularly taken by the following extract from a post by the liberal, in response to my question as to why homosexuality was singled out with such venom:

"...Your question as to why homosexuality tends to be ’singled out’ makes me stop and think. I’m a Mennonite and not an Anglican but from a distance what is happening in the Anglican Communion grieves me. Effectively Anglicanism is in schism over the issue. I certainly don’t envy Rowan Williams’ position. A sentence including ‘rock’ and ‘hard place’ springs to mind. I suspect homosexuality raises such ire because it appears to strike at the heart of social and religious stability. It’s natural for heterosexuals to react with revulsion to an orientation that runs against our grain. Further, at a time when culture is in a state of flux and the Christian Churches are wrestling with their own marginality in a Post-Christendom setting the acceptance of homosexuality seems to be a sign of just how much has changed. I believe one reason why the churches are having such a hard time with the issue is that we have spent so much time focusing on ‘family values’ that we have forgotten to value singleness. As a divorced and currently single man I feel this acutely. In the end I see sexuality as a test of the Christian Church’s hospitality, generosity and vision. I believe that centuries from now, if Christ hasn’t returned by then, the ‘homosexuality issue’ will be regarded as something like the abolition of slavery. Nearly everyone will say, ‘how did people not see that’. Right now it’s deeply uncomfortable for people like me, who refuse either to let go of Christian authenticity or a passionate commitment to social and sexual justice. Deeply hurtful comments in this thread questioning my Christian commitment and eternal salvation are an illustration. Of course it’s even worse for Gay Christians who are often treated as if the remainder of the Christian Church would like to have them ’surgically removed’. ..."

Sunday, 28 March 2010

Things I know and things I believe

It's harder than I thought to try to distill down to absolute fundamentals those things that I can say that I know and those things that I think but cannot know.  This is an attempt to express them.  I will undoubtedly add to and modify them as I think further on this, but here's a first stab at it:

Things I know:

1. I exist.
2. My knowledge is imperfect.
3. There are things I can never know.
4. I do not know myself as others know me.
5. My existence will affect the future but not the past.
6. I experience time in a one-way linear fashion.
7. I need only food, water, and a means to control my temperature to live.
8. I will die.

Things I think but cannot know:

1. There is no supernatural God.  Our natural environment is all there is.
2. My behaviour is rational.
3. The environment is exactly as I perceive it.
4. Humans perceive their physical environment in the exactly the same way.

But here's an interesting quote from the Wikipedia discussion of epistemology, (the branch of philosophy concerned with the nature and scope and limitations of knowledge),  which causes one to wonder if it is really possible to "know" anything:

Suppose we make a point of asking for a justification for every belief. Any given justification will itself depend on another belief for its justification, so one can also reasonably ask for this to be justified, and so forth. This appears to lead to an infinite regress, with each belief justified by some further belief. The apparent impossibility of completing an infinite chain of reasoning is thought by some to support scepticism. The sceptic will argue that since no one can complete such a chain, ultimately no beliefs are justified and, therefore, no one knows anything.

"The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing ." (Plato)

Saturday, 27 March 2010

Through the needle's eye...

Extraordinary micro-sculpture by Willard Wigan shown on BBC.
One of my Grandfather's favourite quotes was the one about it being easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdon of Heaven.
Willard's sculpture has shown wittily that it is indeed possible for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle after all (in fact several camels at the same time!)
Wish I'd been able to show him this!  :-)


Click on the title for a wonderful slideshow of gazillions of treehouses! Why treehouses? Well, I guess we all have an escapist within us, and I just love the idea of a tree house. Always have! I challenge you not to get transported away to another World if you just sit back and watch the slideshow.... :) It starts out with quite tame ones but gradually gets more weird and wonderful...)

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Back to Reality

It's hard sometimes to readjust to normal daily life after a great holiday. I think I'm going through that phase at the moment. I feel very displaced and not quite here!
Anyway, it's been intersting to get back to the real world. I'm also surprised at how much I looked forward to getting back to contributing to the "eChurch" blog (at )
It's fascinating to witness the huge range of views held within the Christian Church, and the contributors range from incredibly intelligent and well read thinkers to those who can barely construct a sentence. It has reminded me that the latter type is a far more challenging person with whom to debate, but it's all good fun, and hopefully we are all thereby encouraged to become more tolerant of difference.

Sunday, 28 February 2010

The truth about scientific theories...

Religious evolution deniers are often fond of stressing that Evolution is only a theory.

Interesting quote from paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould:

Evolution is a theory. It is also a fact. And facts and theories are different things, not rungs in a hierarchy of increasing certainty. Facts are the world's data. Theories are structures of ideas that explain and interpret facts. Facts do not go away when scientists debate rival theories to explain them. Einstein's theory of gravitation replaced Newton's, but apples did not suspend themselves in mid-air, pending the outcome. And humans evolved from ape-like ancestors whether they did so by Darwin's proposed mechanism or by some other yet to be discovered.

Saturday, 27 February 2010

People who live in Glasshouses... (again)

A mildly amusing post by someone responding to George Pitcher's (who he calls church mouse) Telegraph column, in which Mr Pitcher dismisses the National Secular Society (NSS)as being very small, but with a loud voice.

The churchmouse confuses a pressure group with voluntary membership (the NSS) and a movement which has had two thousand years to expand its control, although in that last 300 years its control has slipped as science has blown away much of the ignorance that bred its silly religious superstitions.

Tell you what, churchmouse, cut me a deal. Let the NSS have just the next 50 years to develop its membership but with these provisos:

1) The NSS gets to ban books, films, web sites or plays that challenge its position.

2) The NSS gets to hold an Inquisition in which it seeks out, with impunity, those heretics who disagree with it, and tortures and burns them at the stake, and confiscates their estates to add to its funds.

3) The NSS gets loads of taxpayer funds to run secular schools and discriminate against religious parents and teachers – and pupils, since the NSS will be allowed to select the brightest ones

4) The NSS gets 26 free seats in the House of Lords with which it can veto any legislation that it finds objectionable to its cause.

5) NSS officers get to have their buildings subsidised by the taxpayer, and get an exemption from personal Council Tax.

There you go, churchmouse, I’ve given you some 1950 years’ advantage but I’ll bet the NSS membership will grow significantly in the other 50.  What do you say?

The Bible and Submissive Women

Two ministers in the Church of England are refusing to backpedal from their reiteration of the biblical teaching that wives should “submit” to their husbands. The Rev. Angus MacLeay, and his assistant, Mark Oden, have come under fire in the media after they recently issued a pamphlet and sermon, that quoted Paul’s letter to the Ephesians (5:22-33) and said that old fashioned values would save marriage.
The quote from Ephesians states: “Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Saviour. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.”
I've been participating in a blog discussing the submissive role of women in the Christian church.  I find it revealing that without exception the proponents of female submission appear to be grey haired middle class and/or extreme right wing men.  I just cannot understand, try as I might, why anyone in 2010 should cling to the dubious theological figleaf that is Peter's mysogynist preaching - apparently because he was the vessel for God's infallible wisdom.
Count me out of this ridiculous religion!

Monday, 22 February 2010

Old Arguments in New Clothes

I have been reading a long philosophical article by Professor Ernan McMullin, titled catchily: "Cosmic Purpose and the Contingency of Human Evolution".   Over 37 closely argued pages he expounds his thesis, and backs it up with 11 pages of references.  It is basically an examination of the argument for and against God as the creator.

His conclusion?  If you strip away all the esoteric language he basically says:  "I cannot prove whether God exists, but I assume that he does, and I present here my admittedly unproveable reasons for thinking this.  Some people think that they can prove he does not exist, but they are wrong, and here's why."

In other words we cannot prove either that God exists, or that he does not. 
Haven't we heard that before?  Oh, no more than many thousand times... 
Crikey!  Does this man get paid to do this?

Police and the Power of Prayer?

There was a rather bizarre and disturbing article in the UK Daily Express today.  Extract:

A SENIOR police officer claims he has slashed the crime rate in his home town – by praying. Inspector Roger Bartlett says the power of prayer has helped catch criminals, boosted crime detection rates and even reduced the number of ­people killed on the roads.  Insp Bartlett, who has 23 years’ experience, is ­“convinced” that faith work has had a positive impact on policing in Barnstaple, Devon.
The 44-year-old Christian arranges prayer meetings where locals are encouraged to pray in a bid to cut crime. He claims his prayers have been answered “on a number of occasions”.
The officer, who is part of the ­leadership team of the local Christian Policing Association, said: “For the past six years or so, I have reported to quarterly meetings of Christians from different churches in Barnstaple who want to pray for local policing issues."
“I have seen a number of specific answers to their prayers like the unprecedented Halloween night in the town when the police did not have to attend a single incident of disorder."
“Also, a prolific serial dwelling ­burglar who, after a significant series of offences, was apprehended in very unusual circumstances within three days of that group praying that he would trip up and be caught.”
This is not just another quirky story.  It is rather disturbing.  Firstly, what possessed the Police to allow this officer to appear in a national newspaper with a story about using supernatural assistance to solve crime?  Second, it is disturbing to know that there are police officers out there who engage in this kind of activity. 

I would be seriously worried if I knew that my local police force were trying to use the power of prayer to catch criminals.  Moreover, what does this say for the impartiality of the Police?  If I were a devout Hindu or Muslim, I would at best be suspicious that this officer would treat me with impartiality, and at worst I would be deeply offended by his behaviour.

If policemen practice their faith in private that is entirely their own business, but this should not be allowed to to become an apparent influence in the discharge of their professional duties.

Sunday, 21 February 2010

"Against all Gods"

You may recall the recent poster campaign on London busses, which read:
"There's probably no God.  Now stop worrying and enjoy your life."
I saw an interesting suggested variant on a blog today:
"There's probably no God.  Now stop killing each other and enjoy your life."
I was reminded of another passage by A.C. Grayling at the conclusion of one of his thoughtful essays in his book "Against All Gods":
"For over a centrury after Luther nailed his theses to Wittenburg's church door, Europe was engulfed in ferocious religious strife, because the church was losing its hitherto hegemonic grip and had no intention of doing so without a fight.  Milions died, and Catholicism won some battles even as it lost the war.  We are witnessing a repeat today, this time with Islamism resisting the encroachment of a way of life that threatens it, and as other religious groups join them in a strictly temporary (given the exclusivity of faith) alliance for the cause of religion in general.

As before, the grinding of historical tectonic plates will be painful and protracted. But the outcome is not in doubt.  As private observance, religion will of course survive among minorities; as a factor in public and international affairs it is having what might be its last - characteristically bloody - fling."
I do not share Grayling's optimism that we are witnessing in militant Islamism what might be religions' last fling, but it is certainly bloody.

Friday, 19 February 2010

London For a Secular Europe 2010

Following quote is from the BHA wbsite. I was there. I think I'm just visible in the photo. It was an interesting Rally. Very good natured and civilised. There was a sprinkling of more outlandishly dressed attendees, and a few slightly oddball remarks, but most were distinguished only by their very straightforward views and unremarkable dress.

Around 250 demonstrators met Sunday outside Westminster Cathedral and marched to the Italian Embassy, as part of the second annual London for a Secular Europe demonstration.

Addressing the rally, the organiser from the Central London Humanist Group, Marco Tranchino, said:

'The Vatican is not an immutable fact of life. It is relatively young, and in fact it is younger than the current pope. The Vatican was created by the dictator Mussolini on the 11th of February 1929 with the Lateran Treaty and since then it has gained more and more financial privileges and power on the global political scene interfering insidiously in debates in the United Nations, especially against women's rights and gay rights.

‘11th of February 1929; and that's why on the anniversary of the Lateran Treaty, every year in Rome, thousands of Italians demonstrate against the Vatican and its undemocratic power. We are here to support the Italian demonstration "NO VAT" [“No Vatican”] and demand a secular Europe. We don't ask this of the Vatican. We ask it of the democratic institutions, and that's why we are here at the Italian embassy.

‘Last year, the British Humanist Association, together with the Central London Humanist Group, was the first to support this event in solidarity with the Italian march.’

Representatives from several organisations spoke at the rally, including Bob Churchill, Head of Membership at the British Humanist Association. Afterwards he said:

‘The speakers addressed many issues of anti-secularism, including state-funded ‘faith’ schools in the UK, increasing EU collusion with religious institutions, ‘blasphemy’ laws such as the new law in Ireland, and the impact that is felt around the world when European states compromise on the basic principles of secularism.'

Thursday, 18 February 2010

Atheists can't think for themselves

This guy has done a series of videos on Atheism vs. Christianity. Interestingly it's not immediately obvious where he's coming from. Judge for yourself. Actually this is one of the more obvious ones. Have a look at his other videos.  Actually, now I come to think of it, he looks uncannily like one of my previous bosses...

Irish Child Abuse Scandal - Bishops Chastised

Crikey! I guess this is progress. Pity it took so long coming! Extract from Ecumenical News International 17Feb10:

Twenty-four Irish Roman Catholic bishops received a tongue-lashing on 15 February 2010 from a top Vatican official as they began two days of unprecedented meetings with Pope Benedict XVI and his officials - writes Ray McMenamin.

The bishops are in Rome following the publication, on 26 November 2009, of an Irish government-commissioned report, led by Judge Yvonne Murphy, into how the Roman Catholic Church in Dublin dealt with allegations against priests of sexual abuse.

The day began with a Mass for the 24 Irish bishops before their encounter at the Vatican.

Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican's Secretary of State, a right-hand man of the Pope, described the abuse scandal as "humiliating" and "abominable". "Yes, storms spark fear, even those that rock the boat of the church because of the sins of its members," said Bertone.

The Irish report had concluded that church authorities had covered up abuse from 1975 to 2004 and that bishops in the archdiocese were more concerned with the reputation of the church than the welfare of children.

The bishops are in Rome to discuss the implications of the report with the Pope Benedict, who is due to write a pastoral letter to Irish Catholics in the near future. The Primate of All-Ireland, Cardinal Sean Brady, is among those in attendance. He spoke to journalists at St Patrick's church in Rome on 14 February.

Our genome is an unmitigated mess

Interesting book review in New Scientist of which the following is an extract. Read this and tell me you still believe in an omnipotent creator...
Lesch-Nyhan syndrome causes compulsive self-mutilation. Children eat their lips or fingers, and stab their faces with sharp objects. They feel the pain, but they cannot stop themselves. Why would a loving, all-powerful creator allow anyone to be born with such an awful disease?

Lesch-Nyhan is just one of the tens of thousands of genetic disorders discovered so far. At least a tenth of people have some kind of debilitating genetic disease, and most of us will become sick at some point during our lifetime as a result of mutations that cause diseases such as cancer.

The reason? Our genome is an unmitigated mess. The replication and repair mechanisms are inadequate, making mutations commonplace. The genome is infested with parasitic DNA that often wreaks havoc. The convoluted control mechanisms are prone to error. The huge amount of junk, not just between genes but within them, wastes resources. And some crucial bits of DNA are kept in the power factories - mitochondria - where they are exposed to mutagenic byproducts. "It is downright ludicrous!" declares John Avise, an evolutionary geneticist at the University of California, Irvine.

The human genome, Avise concludes, offers no shred of comfort for those seeking evidence of a loving, all-powerful creator who had a direct hand in designing us, as not just creationists but many believers who accept evolution think was the case. If some entity did meddle with life on Earth, it either did not know what it was doing or did not care, or both.

Religion no more comfort than atheism in old age...

A study, published in Society and Ageing from the Cambridge University Press, looks at whether religion helps people cope better with ageing and was carried out by Peter J. Wilkinson and Peter G. Coleman.

Although a variety of research projects have been conducted on the benefits of religious coping in older adults, no direct comparison between atheism and religious faith has been published. The study reported in this paper tackled this issue by interviewing two matched groups of people aged over 60 years living in southern England, one of 11 informants with strong atheistic beliefs, and the other of eight informants with strong religious beliefs. Five paired comparisons were undertaken to examine the role of the content of the belief system itself in coping with different negative stresses and losses commonly associated with ageing and old age. The pairs were matched for the nature of the loss or stress that the two people had experienced, but the two individuals had opposed atheistic and religious beliefs.

The analyses showed that all the study participants — regardless of their beliefs — were coping well, and suggested that a strong atheistic belief system can fulfil the same role as a strong religious belief system in providing support, explanation, consolation and inspiration. It is postulated that the strength of people’s beliefs and how those beliefs are used might have more influence on the efficacy of coping than the specific nature of the beliefs.

The authors say further research into the strength of belief systems, “including atheism”, is required to test and elaborate this hypothesis.

Wednesday, 17 February 2010

Reading the Bible - Who'd have thought it!

I guess one of the few positive outcomes of being severely ill is the time to think and study whilst convalescing. Something for which my work would not normally allow me time.

I have become intrigued by religious motivation. It is simply beyond my understanding that intelligent well educated humans can regard wilful dimissal of reality or just plain refusal to develop as a virtue. For how else can those who call themselves true believers reconcile their belief with reality?

Something I've noticed particularly is that when some ardent believers are threatened, it is a common recourse to hide behind a Bible quote, rather than argue the point from simple reason. I cannot argue with them unless I familiarise myself with the context of the verses they quote, so I have found myself reading large parts of the Bible, and I've become quite familar again with many parts of it. (But before anyone reading this gets ideas - no, it has not converted me - in fact quite the reverse. It seems so very much less impressive than when I first read it all those years ago.

From a believer's perspective am I a sinner if I simply cannot, try as I might, find faith? Am I worse than someone who goes to Church every Sunday, who knows orders of service by heart, who behaves in every way like a true believer, and yet who does not really believe in their heart? I wonder how many humans really, really believe? How many have been through the torture and sacrifice that real faith requires?

My search for truth continues.

The Animal Padre

It's tempting to brand someone who conducts religious burial services for pets as more than a little eccentric. But even as a sceptic I am touched by Pastor Thompson's thoughtful idea. Humans do become so very attached to their pets. When these pets die it feels every bit as awful as losing a human relation. He provides a service which clearly is very much appreciated. I hope there is always room for such warm gestures towards fellow humans, even if from a rational perspective they do appear quite bizarre. Thank you Pastor Thompson.

Pastor denies the existence of God

I saw an article on Ekklesia about a Dutch Pastor who has recently been allowed to continue in his ministry by his regional Church body despite making it clear that he did not believe the existence in God.

In 2007, Hendrikse hit the headlines with the publication of his book titled "Believing in a God that does not exist: the manifesto of an atheist pastor" (Geloven in een God die niet bestaat - manifest van een atheïstische dominee). In the book, Hendrikse distinguishes between believing in God, which he affirms, and believing in the existence of God, which he rejects. Instead, he refers to God as, "happening".

The article goes on to state:

Research published in 2006 by the ecumenical broadcaster Ikon and the Free University of Amsterdam found that one in six clergy of the Protestant Church were either not sure about or did not believe in the existence of God.

The survey also found that clergy aged 35 years or younger tended to be the most certain of God’s existence, while clergy aged between 55 and 65 years were the most unsure. "Overall, the survey indicated that the younger generation was more 'pious' than older generations," the research report said.
With acknowledgements to Ecumenical News International.

I've frequently wondered whether it is an urban myth that some priests come out of theological college as non-believers, and yet go on to successful ministries. Where's the integrity? There are plenty of ways to provide spiritual and emotional support to the community without living a lie.

Tuesday, 16 February 2010

Religion and Stoning - An unfortunate corollary?

I found this tragic story recently. It's interesting that the Koran does not condone stoning as a punishment, and yet Sharia law is used to condemn individuals to this barbaric death, without even the benefit of a fair trial.

It really worries me that whilst the practice of one of the World's largest religions may in its purest form be relatively harmless, it does not take much for self-important sadistic humans to subvert its teachings to their own twisted morality.

The 2009 film The Stoning of Soraya M. is about the harrowing true story of a woman sentenced to death by stoning because her husband accused her of infidelity. The film is based on a book by journalist Friedoune Sahebjam. He wrote this after hearing the story of 35-year-old Soraya Manutchehri (mother of seven) and her brutal stoning from her aunt while he was stranded in a rural village in Iran. According to the Washington Examiner, Soraya was innocent but the deadly mix of misogyny and extremist Islamic law, allowed that she was stoned to death because her husband wanted to marry another woman:

The victim was Soraya Manutchehri, a 35-year-old mother of seven who, in her own prophetic words, had become "an inconvenient wife." Bartered away in an arranged marriage at 13 to a petty criminal named Ghorban-Ali, who was 20 years old at the time, Soraya bore nine children over the next two decades, enduring two stillborn births and regular beatings from her husband, along with his insults, his consorting with prostitutes, and his campaign to turn her two oldest sons against her.

On August 15, 1986, with the complicity of a local mullah who had been imprisoned for child molesting under the Shah, Ghorban-Ali showed himself to be more than a garden variety sociopath and town bully; he was a sadistic monster, and Islamic fundamentalism was his enabler, his aider, his abettor.
In the anarchic days of the Iranian Revolution, Ghorban-Ali had found work as a prison guard in a neighboring town. There, he met a 14-year-old girl whom he wanted to marry. Polygamy was encouraged in Ayatollah Khomeini's Iran, but Ghorban-Ali didn't want to support two families, and did not desire to return his wife's dowry. How to rid himself of his "old" wife? That was the easy part. Accuse her of infidelity. No matter that her husband had not actually seen anything untoward, or that Soraya was completely innocent, or that her husband's cynical accusations were only backed up by his cousin, who as it turned out had been coerced into concurring with the vaguest of accusations: a smile here, a brushed hand there.
What court of law would find someone guilty on such flimsy evidence? A "sharia" court is the answer. And so Soraya was convicted. The sentence was death-death by stoning.

It is even more troubling to see how the religion of Islam is being subverted to justify utterly barbarous murders. I am informed that nowhere in the Koran is stoning mentioned as a punishment.

It is also quite appalling that the majority of cases of stoning sentences have been against women. 9 out of 10 of the people recently awaiting stoning in Iran were women. It is unacceptable for anyone to die by being stoned to death, but it is even more unacceptable that this punishment is being disproportionately meted out to women.

Furthermore, the underlying misogyny at play in extremist Islam must also be called into question. There is a maddening double standard at play here. Men are free in their sexual relationships yet women can be stoned to death for simply doing the same things as their husbands.

For instance, in the Iranian Penal Code, a married woman has no right to divorce, a privilege which is reserved for the husband. Women have no custody rights of their children after age seven. As a result, women who can obtain a divorce by proving their husbands are either abusive or an addict, choose not to do so for fear of losing their children. A man can marry up to four wives simultaneously, and may establish a sexual relationship with any other single woman through a temporary marriage, without the requirements of marriage registration, ceremony, or obligation to any possible child that may result. Furthermore, a woman is legally obliged to submit to her husband’s sexual demands and to do her best to satisfy him sexually. Hence if a man is sexually unsatisfied or in an unhappy relationship, he has many avenues open to him to dissolve the marriage and/or satisfy his sexual needs in a temporary “marriage”. Perhaps unsurprisingly, these legal options are denied to Iranian women, and any woman seeking alternative intimate relationships is, in the eyes of the law, “committing adultery”

The practice of stoning is more widespread. For example, on October 27, 2008, Aisha Ibrahim Duholow, a young Sudanese girl, was stoned to death in a stadium in front of 1,000 spectators. According to the government she had begged for the "Islamic punishment" after confessing to infidelity; but according to Amnesty International, she was just a 13-year old girl who had gone to the authorities to report a gang-rape. The gang rapists were never charged.

Laws condoning stoning are still on the books in Afghanistan, Iran, Sudan, Nigeria, Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates.

Does God exist - 2 - The Cosmological Argument

Why does anything exist? - why something rather than nothing? The argument is that unless God exists, the question is unanswerable. If the Universe had a beginning, who created the Universe if not God? Human experience informs us that something can't come out of nothing. What we need, it seems, is a cause which itself has no cause; and God fits the bill.

Claims and counterclaims have been made since the idea was first postulated. Bertrand Russell said something simple but profound:
"...the Universe is just there, and that's all".
Why cannot the Universe be infinite, regardless of whether we can comprehend that. We are after all just short lived carbon life forms living precariously on a small planet revolving around an unremarkable star.

We seem to be tantalisingly close to a scientific explanation for the origin of our Universe and the apparent "Big Bang" that started it all. But let's suppose that humankind is not able to fully understand the origin of the Universe, before our brief existence (In Cosmic terms) is snuffed out by our dying Sun. The fact that we do not understand something is not sufficient cause to say "God did it".

Let's imagine that every day my cat sees me taking food from the cupboard to feed him, but is never there when I replenish the cupboard. My cat has no idea why everything always comes from that cupboard or why it is there, but he knows that it does, he knows that it always has done, and has no reason to doubt that it always will. He has no facility to understand the process. But might it not seem reasonable to him that a God lives in the cupboard, a God which always provides, and apparently from nothing? There is a perfectly logical process, but he is mentally unequipped to understand it. As far as he is concerned I am the one who acts as an intercessor (I know how to open a can and he marvels at that!), and therefore perhaps I am the equivalent to his High Priest, if you like.

At a different scale and level of complexity, doesn't the God that humans assume exists fit the same mould? OK, so this is a gross oversimplification, but surely the basic prionciple is the same.

Saturday, 13 February 2010

Does God exist? - (1) The Ontological Argument

Christian apologists are fond of "proving" that God exists using logic or philosophical arguments. Are the proofs mere word games, or is there more to them? One of the oldest widely disseminated arguments is the so called "Ontological" argument. In the late 11th Century St Anselm argued that we can deduce the existence of God from the mere idea of God. Just by thinking about what God is we can deduce that He exists. St Anselm's argument was:

By definition God is greater than which none can be conceived.
God can be conceived of as just an idea, or as really existing.
It is greater to exist than not to exist.
Therefore, God must exist.

Over time various philosphers have exposed the flaws in this argument.
Initially Anselm's contemporary, the monk Gaunilo, objected that logically one could prove anything exists by this argument. St Anselm's response was that this argument could only be applied to God, because only He could be perfect and unique.

But it was not until Emmanual Kant in the late 18th Century that the Ontological argument appears to be have been conclusively rebutted. Kant showed that the argument wrongly assumes that existence is a property. According to St Anselm the concept "God" contains contains the idea of existence. So the statement "God does not exist is a contradiction in terms. Therefore he must exist. But Kant claimed that existence does not add anything to, or define, a concept. To say something exists merely means that some object corresponds to the concept. Existence is not the same as a concept. Therefore it is not true that "God exists" must be true.

However, this argument is still used today in various forms, and with further justifications and explanations.

In future posts I'll summarize further arguments. Next will be the "Cosmological Argument"