Sunday, 27 November 2011

Have I changed?

I have not posted anything here for a while.  rather busy with other things, and contented myself with contributing (hopefully constructive) comments on others' blogs.  But I find I again need an outlet for my thoughts, in a place where I will not cause offence as a 'guest' on someone else's blog.
It's interesting, and sometimes embarrasing, to look back ver all my old posts.  But it's also encouraging.  I think I have learned something over the past couple of years, and that's pleasing...

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Why I have stopped participating in religous blog discussions

To those of you who have been used in the past to my comments on various blogs for which religious belief is at the heart, I have decided that it serves so little purpose as to be a waste of time.  Most of the mainstream blogs are close knit communities of likeminded belevers, who use these blogs to reassure themselves of their faith.  They usually only welcome 'civilised' non-believers as guests in order to reinforce their own sense of belonging - It's harder to remain cohesive unless there are 'outsiders' to fend off. 

Too many times when atheists have commented and produced strong arguments against what they see as illogical or unsustainable views, the faithful band together and become ever more illogical and fervent in defending the undefendable.

However, my participation has resulted in some helpful  (to me) outcomes;
  • I am even better informed about religious belief in general, and the various forms of Christianity in particular.
  • I think I have a clearer understanding of what it is that makes many people more prone to belief in supernatural cause/influence/purpose
  • I have gained a greater understanding and acceptance of what it is to be a Humanist
  • I am convinced that there is no higher purpose to life.  This is all there is. And it no longer troubles me

Belief in Conspiracies - and God...

"To have a strong belief that the Bilderberg Group is a band of secret conspirators set on World domination means believing in a fantasy," says Aaronovich. "It suggests that there are people - like God - acting as a higher power. And it replaces the intolerable thought that there's nothing at work at all, that the world is chaotic. It may be a form of therapy but it has people believing in an anti-scientific message."
Just so...

Monday, 7 March 2011

Time flies...

Now I'm back at work almost full time I find I just don't have the time or energy to blog. Maybe a new resolution to find time each day is required - but I don't feel the same need.  Do many of us blog because we have time to fill; and because we need more intellectual stimulus in the absence of that generated by work?

Friday, 25 February 2011

The New Morality: Kill the Woman, Save the Fetus

I've been following a lot of the anti-abortion threads on Catholic blogs recently.  Here's a contrasting view that I found interesting:

The New Morality: Kill the Woman, Save the Fetus


February 24, 2011 - 6:30pm

The new morality astounds me. In order to protect a fetus no act is too dire. Speaking from new “pulpits” in Congress and State legislatures, proponents of the "culture of life" are proposing new methods to circumvent federal law, Constitutional rights and human decency. While claiming to want smaller, less expansive, less intrusive government, these new bills encroach on families’ lives in here-to-fore unimaginable ways. They are twisting the screws so that pro choice advocates will agree to untenable compromises in the hope of saving cherished programs.

This happened during the health care debate with the Stupak Amendment. In order to derail health care, very restrictive abortion measures were proposed. To save health care, compromise was made on these and now it appears that in many states (too numerous to mention - SC is the latest) it will be impossible for women to have insurance, even privately paid from their own wallets, that will cover abortion. Is the real agenda with the Pence Amendment to Defund Planned Parenthood to make Senate Democrats compromise even more on women’s health? Make no mistake when Planned Parenthood loses funding many women and men will lose their access to health care. These funds covered preventative health screenings and visits. The costs to health care both on a state and federal fund will drive up the deficit that Republicans claim that they want to lower. Babies will be born with health issues that will be with them their whole lives as their parents did not receive prenatal care. Is this caring for the born? If one truly believes in life and the sanctity of life, then providing for these unborn is a priority. Oh, also once they are born, they have to be given health care. How can you defund health care and provide it for the culture of life?

The latest measure in Nebraska, the home of the hostile-to-women-land, is the justifiable homicide one. While this was tabled in South Dakota, Nebraska's legislature has decided it is a good idea. In this one, it is legal to kill anyone who might harm a fetus. So a person who sees a pregnant woman go into a clinic may kill her if he thinks that harm might occur to her fetus. While it might not be the same as stoning a married woman who was accused of adultery, it strongly invokes a feeling of the same mindset.

In the same vein in Georgia, there is proposed legislation to create "uterus police," who would be in charge of investigating any miscarriages, which would be renamed "prenatal murders." A woman undergoing the trauma of a miscarriage would now be subject to an investigation to see if she caused the miscarriage, and possibly be charged with murder. Another violation of the HIPAA Act which protects patient rights and privacy, and another intrusion into women's personal lives.

In South Dakota, there is a frightening proposal that seems to be crossing the line of separation of religion and state (Constitutional issue), the line of privacy between a doctor and patient (government intrusion into a private relationship between a woman and her doctor), and the line between government and the individual. This law boggles the mind. A volunteer or staff person (not a trained professional) would determine a woman’s state of mind when she has decided to have a legal abortion. This same untrained person would have access to a woman’s private medical history. This same untrained person may use a religious argument and try to impose her religious thoughts on the patient. Church-based control of a woman’s right make her own reproductive choices are set forth in this law.

We are confronting a new world where the right to choose for women is under constant assault. We are confronting a new world where it may be legal to kill the woman to save the fetus and once that is done there will be no one to take care of the fetus, if the fetus survives. We are confronting a new world where a woman has no right to medical privacy and where doctors no longer make medical decisions about a woman’s health. We are confronting a world, where established law is being chipped away and where soon abortions will no longer be legal for rich or for poor. We are confronting a new world that screams for all of us to stop the lunacy. Women are not the enemy - these new laws are. These proposed laws take away every one's freedoms. Will yours be next?

Gail Yamner
President, JACPAC

Friday, 18 February 2011

Freedom: secularism's gift to the world

Interesting article by Tom Flynn over at The Washington Post which provides food for thought:

Freedom: secularism's gift to the world

In light of the continuing political uprising throughout the Middle East, American leaders are reported to be recalculating their approach to the Muslim world.

Politico's Ben Smith wrote this week that the Obama administration "clearly sees an opportunity," signaling "that they're hoping the changes in Tunisia and Egypt spread, and that they're going to align themselves far more clearly with the young, relatively secular masses" in countries like Iran, Algeria and Lebanon.

Is this a new moment for American relations with Muslim countries? Is freedom a religious or secular idea?

Much as I may be setting myself up for later disappointment (I felt euphoric after Obama said he'd close Guantanamo too), I feel hugely encouraged by the popular revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, and [insert the name of your favorite Arab country here]. For decades there seemed to be only two live possibilities in the Arab world: secular authoritarianism or some flavor of Islamic radicalism. Or in the case of Turkey, a prolonged slide from possibility number one to possibility number two. Of course America has repeatedly found itself siding with authoritarian despots because they were secular. Tunisia and Egypt mark the emergence of a third way that for too long seemed out of reach in that corner of the world: an impulse toward reform that's secular and free.

That combination should surprise no one. Secularism has its roots at least in part in the Western Enlightenment, which is where most of our concepts about freedom got their start. Almost without exception, these evolved in opposition to the dominant religion of their day, which was Christianity.

Of course, Christianity shares with the other Abrahamic religions its concept of a god patterned on ancient kings and of a spiritual realm organized on the plan of royal courts. Human beings stand to Yahweh, God, or Allah as peasants before a king. Everyone knows that in Arabic Islam means "submission," but traditional Christianity and Judaism are little different in their picture of a deity before whom men and women have no rights save those the occupant of the throne of heaven condescends to grant them. (Actually, that's a pretty fair summary of the Christian concept of grace.)

The simple fact is that across the Christian and Muslim worlds, almost every concept we associate with freedom arose in reaction to Abrahamic religion, beginning with the once-radical notion that kings might, just might, not rule by the will of God. Ever since, the ideas that fueled the development of freedom have come from what we would now identify as the secularist camp. That's not to deny the possibility of back-fertilization; sometimes religions can genuinely absorb secular ideals of freedom (witness liberation theology in the Catholic Church in the 1960s and 1970s). But secularism, not faith, has been the historic crucible of freedom.

Of course that doesn't mean that every secularist is a freedom fighter. Mubarak is only the latest counter-example. But while not every secularist fights for freedom, I would argue that if you find a freedom fighter, scratch deep enough and you're almost bound to find a secularist.

Freedom may be the biggest idea secularism ever gave the world.

By Tom Flynn
February 15, 2011; 1:43 PM ET

Is Therapy the New Religion?

I am embarking on a course in psychotherapeutic counselling, which will take me through the next 3 years part time, while I continue with with my present occupation.  I've been reading some of the set books in preparation, and I was struck by a rhetorical question posed by one of the authors in his introduction: "Is Therapy the New Religion?"

He does not answer the question, but leaves us to make up our own minds.  During the first year our focus will be on hypnotherapy.  I have to admit to starting out as a sceptic, but, having read some of the materials and had a few misconceptions dispelled,  I think I could be persuaded that it is indeed a valid vehicle by which to dispense treatment.  I have become aware that even I, the eternal scpetic, has been subject to mental states that could merit the description of hypnosis.  Being able to bypass the self censoring nature of our normal conscious selves is indeed extraordinary, and I can understand why it should be so effective.  I wonder why it continues to receive such a negative press?  Does it offend the religious, or the conservative scientists, or whoever?

Ah well.  More on this as I learn more...

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Justice: Lectures by Harvard's Prof. Michael Sandel on BBC4

Wow!  Just watched the 3rd in this series of 8 programmes on UK BBC4 on Prof Sandel's harvard lectures on Justice.  This one was on "A Lesson in Lying", with particular reference to Kant's absolute view that lying is always wrong.  Do watch it if you can - and I intend to watch all the others.  So far we've had Murder, Cannibalism and Measuring Pleasure.  Four more to come.  Can't wait!...

This and other programmes in the series can be seen at:

I do hope those outside the UK can also see them.  Great food for the mind!

Monday, 14 February 2011

What is Love?

Well, it's February 14th, and that commercial feeding frenzy that is St. Valentine's Day, is in full swing, with men scurrying to petrol stations to buy absurdly expensive red roses, and stores trying to shift the last of their Valentine's Cards and tacky gifts.  I find it all very sad.  Such over hyped expectations; such inevitable disappointment.  I would wish for a return to a simple re-affirmation of one's love for those by whom one is loved in return.  It's so easy to take those nearest and dearest for granted.  And to realise it too late to prevent the catastrophe which often follows.  I speak from bitter experience.

But what is 'Love' anyway?  It's a much overused word, and can mean so many different things.  I remember as a boy my favourite sermon was the one about "...There remain Faith, Hope and Love, but the greatest of these is Love" The word Love has been changed to "Charity" in more recent versions, but it does not have the same cadence and depth of meaning.  But 'Love' can mean just about anything to anybody.  Maybe we should try harder to find different words to express different emotions and desires.

And is the passion between two people who share their lives together 'contra mundum' really love at all in any sense other than in that very personal specific singular relationship?  It certainly seems to me to be unique in causing so much mental pain and suffering.  Again, I speak from experience, both recent and in the past.  As I write this the heartbreak I feel is real.  Its like a physical pain in my chest, combined with a feeling of emptiness and despair.  And like depression, I cannot convince myself that one day I will no longer feel it, even though I know this logically to be almost a certainty.  How can she now transfer all her love to someone else when I still love her so passionately and totally.  Unrequited love is the most painful experience of all.  And the greatest irony is that when I was unreliable and let her down she was more keen on me than when I changed my ways and became a model partner.  Humans seem destined to crave that which they cannot have, but if and when they attain it they no longer want it. 
All around me where I sit writing this I see happy couples laughing and feeling love, and loved in return.  I miss it all the more.
Life's such a painful, frustrating and absurd experience.  I shall not miss life.

Later:  Just saw the following post by Alain de Botton on the BBC website.  I guess one could say that what he writes is not new, but it's helpful to be reminded, particularly what he writes about 'unrequited love':

Sunday, 13 February 2011

"The Definition of Sin in One Sentence"?

Over at 'Mad Priest's blog I was looking through some of the sermons he has written.  One in particular caught my eye.  It's called: "The Definition of Sin in One Sentence"  After a broad examination of what constitues 'Sin' the sermon concludes as follows:

My definition of sin in one sentence: “Any action, or inaction, by a human being that causes harm to a living creature."
That includes harm to another person or to ourselves. It includes abuse of the animal kingdom and even the environment because when we damage God’s creation we cause harm to ourselves and the animals we share this planet with. We know that.
This is my moral code and when I am faced with a moral problem I apply this code. For example, promiscuity causes mental and physical harm in so many cases that to engage in it must be regarded as a sin. Two people, of any persuasion, living together in love, caring for the other and being faithful to each other, causes no harm to anybody, and nothing, not even holy scripture is going to make me think otherwise.
If this definition of sin was my idea, then I could be accused of merely coming up with an arbitary set of rules to suit myself. The very thing that I accuse so many other people of. However, I cannot claim ownership. I got it from that bloke. You know the one. He kept going on about loving God and loving your neighbour as yourself. How they were the only commandments that we needed in life. My pithy little definition of sin is based so obviously on those commandments that I really ought to be paying him royalties.

Take out belief in God and isn't this exactly what Humanists believe.  Well, yes it is.  God is not necessary for this conclusion.  I cannot think of any really material difference in the outlook of mainstream Christians and mainstream Humanists except for the Christian attribution of 'everything' to God, and their adherence to some frankly odd behaviour demanded by those who wrote their Holy book.
My thanks to Mad Priest. The original sermon is at:

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Why I am not a Christian - Bertrand Russell

Half way though this book and it is AWSOME! I had read quotes by Russell and knew of his reputation but had never read anything by him.  This is a collection of diverse pieces by Russell about religion, written at various stages of his life.  Even though the earliest pieces were written nearly 100 years ago, it still seems very fresh, and he clearly anticipated much that has since come to pass.

Recently there has been much talk of defending Christianity against the onslaught of atheists such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens.  The idea is that overt and uncompromising expressions of atheism are a new development.  I think these people should read what Russell wrote in the 1930's.  It's a clinical and intellectual demolition of belief in God and organised religion, such as Dawkins (though not perhaps Hitchens or Grayling) could not hope to match.

I recommend you read it, whether you are confirmed Christian or Atheist.  It's surely beneficial to be well informed, whatever your personal views...

There's a synopsis on Wikipedia at:

Sunday, 6 February 2011

More truth about liying

Following on from my previous post on lying....
I've been reading the comments on Leila's a Stacy's Catholic posts on the topic of lying.  It all seems so simple, if one just says "Lying is sinful".  But the reality is surely not so simple.  Consider a World where humans never lied - were incapable of lying - about anything at all.  Society would simply not function.  It is as un-natural as not breathing. Sometimes we really want to be lied to, to make our lives more bearable. Some of us just don't even want to know how perilously close to death we sometimes come. So, assuming some lying is essential to family/tribal/national survival, then what we are left with is to decide which lies are justified and which are not.  This is something that each person decides for themselves, whether or not they are religious.  Some people face huge obstacles to not lying to survive.  Others have no need to lie.  Others still lie because they can get away with it, and it gives them what to them is a material advantage over those who do not lie. 
Asa Humanist my view would be that it is is wrong to lie in order to harm others.  And in order to be trusted and to be able to trust those with whom one lives, it is important not to make a habit of lying.  When it comes to nations, I think it's a different kettle of fish.  Arguably the whole purpose of diplomats is to lie on behalf of ones country!  If thereby we avoid war, its hard to argue that this is to the benefit of mankind.

Sunday, 30 January 2011

Is the primary role for humans to act as hosts for microbes?

Extraordinary statistic I came across today:
"Of the trillions of cells in a typical human body only about one in ten is human. The rest are microbial."
New York Times Magazine 13th August 1996

And then there is this longer extract from a description of human flora in Wikipedia:

Populations of microbes (such as bacteria and yeasts) inhabit the skin and mucosa. Their role forms part of normal, healthy human physiology, however if microbe numbers grow beyond their typical ranges (often due to a compromised immune system) or if microbes populate atypical areas of the body (such as through poor hygiene or injury), disease can result.

Traditionally, bacteria have been described by how they grow - what they grow on, color of the colony, and so forth. More recently, bacteria have been described on the basis of DNA sequencing. One common finding is that the number of bacteria - both in terms of diversity (number of different types) and in terms of mass (total number of cells) - is very different when a surface is sampled for culturable bacteria or sampled for DNA. DNA evidence suggests that well-described species - in essence, species that can be cultured - constitute <10% of the total bacterial population seen with DNA-based techniques; that is, most of the bacteria present on the human skin or in the gut are species known only by their DNA, and are species that until very recently were completely unknown to science.

It is estimated that 500 to 1000 species of bacteria live in the human gut[3] and a roughly similar number on the skin.[4][5] Bacterial cells are much smaller than human cells, and there are at least ten times as many bacteria as human cells in the body (approximately 1014 versus 1013).[6][7] Though members of the flora are found on all surfaces exposed to the environment (on the skin and eyes, in the mouth, nose, small intestine), the vast majority of bacteria live in the large intestine.

Many of the bacteria in the digestive tract, collectively referred to as the gut flora, are able to break down certain nutrients such as carbohydrates that humans otherwise could not digest. The majority of these commensal bacteria are anaerobes, meaning they survive in an environment with no oxygen. Normal flora bacteria can act as opportunistic pathogens at times of lowered immunity.[1]

Escherichia coli (a.k.a. E. coli) is a bacterium that lives in the colon; it is an extensively studied model organism and probably the best-understood bacterium of all.[8] Certain mutated strains of these gut bacteria do cause disease; an example is E. coli O157:H7.

A number of types of bacteria, such as Actinomyces viscosus and A. naeslundii, live in the mouth, where they are part of a sticky substance called plaque. If this is not removed by brushing, it hardens into calculus (also called tartar). The same bacteria also secrete acids that dissolve tooth enamel, causing tooth decay.
We talk of reproducing in order to ensure the survival of our genes, but microbes that existed millions of years before 'higher' life forms which they inhabit. Are we just a creation by mutation for the benefit of the microbes that make up 90% of the cells in our bodies? 

Hmmm... Turns a lot of ideas on their heads, and is not I believe foreseen or acknowledged in the Holy books of Christianity or Islam.

The truth about lying

I have a very close friend who frequently reminds me (and others) that the one thing she cannot abide is being lied to; and that she herself never lies.  But isn't lying an essential part of what it is to be a sentient being.  When a moth unfolds its wings to reveal two very large roundels that look just like predator's eyes, isn't that moth lying, by pretending to be what it is not and thereby avoiding being eaten?  The plant and animal kingdoms are also full of examples of far more intricate and deadly intentional falsehoods, such as the Angler fish that appears to dangle a tasty morsel on a spine in front of its mouth, so that it catches and eats any smaller fish tempted by the lure, or the Venus fly trap that lures insects with an irresistible scent, only to snap its leaves shut on the hapless insect, which it then digests.
Humans are also animals - very sophisticated animals, but animals nonetheless.  So it is no surprise to learn from a study written in August 2007 that
"In any conversation lasting ten minutes or longer, 20% of adults will lie"
In fact, we become so used to doing it that often we do not even notice that we are doing it. 
And yet as a child I was taught that lying was always wrong, and I would be punished either in this world or the next if I told a lie.
I guess there are lies, and then then are lies.  If I steal something and then deny that I have done so, that sort of behaviour is harmful to society and is not tolerated.  Whereas if my girlfriend asks that proverbial trap for the unwary: "Does my bum look big in this?", it is perhaps more understandable that I should not want to be pointlessly cruel by agreeing that it is.  So instead I tell her that she looks just great the way she is, and of course her bum does not look big in that dress.  Is that really such a bad lie?
Must go to bed.  To be continued.....

Thursday, 27 January 2011

The disability of poor recall

If I could change just one thing about myself it would be my lack of ability to remember, particularly with regard to short term memory. 

I just had a "Eureka" moment whilst getting something I needed, and when I got back to my desk only a few minutes later the idea was completely gone.  I tried retracing my thoughts, and associating with other things I had done or thought, but it is gone completely, as if it never existed.  It is like a curse.  One that has dogged my whole life, and I feel has prevented me from achieving my potential. 

When I am stressed sometimes I cannot even complete a sentence, because I have completely lost my train of thought in a few seconds, which is one of the reasons I write.   It becomes my memory.

I have devised many ways to hide this disability at work when speaking, but the complexity in carrying this off successfully is so much more complicated than just recalling the original idea, and I sometimes get myself into absurd situations, which they find incomprehensible.  I rather think it is at the core of losing the love of the three people who have meant most to me in my life.  Often they have mistaken my sometimes complete lack of memory as evidence of going back on my word, or of lying, when the truth is that I have not remembered.  Parts of my recent past are sometimes totally blank.
So take an arm, or a leg, or an eye, but can I please have my memory back?

Epicurus - Much misunderstood, but maybe an admirable example?

What does the term 'Epicurean' imply to you?  To many it implies unbridled hedonism, excess and lack of moral compass. 

But is this really to see him through a lens distorted by political and religious opponents, who saw him as a threat to the fabric of their society?  I am grateful to Alain De Botton for his book 'The Consolations of Philosophy' from which much of the following enlightening material is taken:

Epicurus was born in 341BC on the island of Samos near the coast of Western Asia Minor.  Athens was then the hub to which he gravitated. He took to philosophy from his early teens and read widely.  He was unsatisfied by the conclusions of previous philosophers, so decided that he would come up with his own philosophy of life.  He is said to have written a huge number of books, though sadly almost all have since been lost. 

The 'sound bite' that people tend to latch onto was his view on the fundamental importance of sensual pleasure.  ("Pleasure is the beginning and the goal of a happy life").  This was profoundly shocking to the society in which he lived, for which the great virtues were deemed to be the acquisition of wealth, and courage in battle.  His decision to spend his wealth on setting up a kind of commune to study philosophy, and in particular the pursuit of pleasure, was considered a threat to the fabric of 'civilised' society.  And superficially one can see their point.

But actually Epicurus was teaching a much simpler and arguably purer way of life.  His guiding principles were:
  • Friendship We don't exist unless someone can see us existing; what we say has no meaning until someone can understand; while to be surrounded by friends is to constantly have our identity confirmed.  True friends do not evaluate us by worldly criteria.  It is the core self in which they are interested; like ideal parents, their love for us remains unaffected by our appearance or position in the social hierarchy, and so we have no qualms in dressing in old clothes and revealing that we have made little money this year.
  • Freedom  In order not to have to work for people they did not like, Epicurus and his companions removed themselves from commercial Athenian society and accepted  the simpler life of an isolated commune, in exchange for independence.  This did not affect their sense of status because they had ceased to judge themselves on a material basis.  Among a group of friends living outside the political and economic confines of the City, there was nothing - in the financial sense - to prove.
  • Thought  "There are few better remedies for anxiety than thought.  In writing down a problem, or airing it in conversation, we let its essential aspects emerge.  And by knowing its character, we remove, if not the problem itself, then its secondary, aggravating characteristics: confusion, displacement, surprise.  About death Epicurus would say that it is senseless to alarm oneself in advance about a state which one could never experience (he was convinced there was no afterlife) He said: "There is nothing dreadful in life for a man who has truly comprehended that there is nothing terrible in not living."
Epicurus summed up what he believed was, and was not, essential for happiness as follows:
  • Natural and necessary:  Friends, freedom, thought, food, shelter and clothes
  • Natural but unnecessary:  Grand house, Banquets, Private baths, Servants, Fish, Meat
  • Neither natural nor necessary: Fame, Power
With only minor modification this could equally be true today.

Epicurus also found that conspicuous wealth, or wealth over a relatively modest size, did not increase happiness.  Indeed he was adamant that without the 'natural and necessary' prerequisites, wealth could not bring happiness.  We can do without most of the material things that we erroneously think that we do need, and still be happy, if we only have the necessary requirements for happiness.

This is a very brief and hence superficial summary of his philosophy, but I hope it offers a flavour of the true Epicurus.  I find him rather endearing!

Monday, 24 January 2011

If I had one, would I press a button that would instantly end my life?

I find it curious that the people I know who believe in an afterlife tend to be the most horrified by death.  Surely they should look forward to the afterlife?  It is the people who are left behind, in whose emotional lives there appears a great hole, who deserve our grief. Yet many articles that cover violent death by suicide bombers and others focus exclusively on the victim(s) and the perpetrator(s), all of whom are no longer with us to hear.

As an atheist I am as convinced as I can be that when we die there is nothing.  We cease to exist.  I know that thought terrifies a lot of people.  But I don't feel that terror.  I find the prospect of ceasing to exist quite comforting.  Nothing to regret, no 'if-only's, no knowledge of deeply troubling things of which one was mercifully unaware as a human being.

All one becomes is a memory in the minds of those we leave behind, and within about 3 generations even that fades to no more than a couple of anecdotes.  And so our footprint in the sand is finally erased.  Even famous people are only remembered for what other people say and write about them.  Do we really know what Elizabeth Ist was like to be with,or how she spoke to those with whom she was intimate?  We know a great deal about her, but only as observed, imperfectly, by others; and by what she chose herself to let us know about her.

Does it worry me that my life could end in a few seconds, and all the knowledge that I have amassed over many years, the friendships and loves I have found, the relationships I have had; all immediately ceases except as an imperfect memory in other people's minds; with the things that only I can know, or things that I choose not to reveal about myself ,all dying with me, never to be known. In a word: 'No'.

And so, would I press that button right now?  Hmm...  I have to say 'that depends'...  If I could do so without causing distress and hardship to those close to me who I leave behind, then the answer would be 'Yes'.  But life just ain't that simple.  I find it curious that what most keeps me resigned to staying alive is the horror of what ending my life would do to people left behind, even though, by not existing, I would never experience their pain.

Strange thing, empathy....

Saturday, 22 January 2011

"We are all made of stellar nuclear waste.."

Watching "Journey to the edge of the Unverse" on UK channel 'More4'.  It describes in words and pictures a virtual dash from the Earth to the outer edge of the known Universe.  Huge over-simplifcations, and visual effects that bear no possible resemblance to the reality of Space, but hugely entertaining nonetheless.
- And the quote in the title to this post.  Something I've heard many times before, but still something that I find awe inspiring.  In terms of the Universe we all exist in the unbelievably short time between the formation of our sun and its death.  We are insignificant.  I find that strangely comforting.  Nothing any of us do or don't do makes any ultimate difference.  Maybe that is my equivalent of the Christian forgiveness of sins.

Mistakes were made (but not by me)

I've just started reading a rather interesting book with the above title (by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson).  If the introduction is anything to go by this will be most enlightening. 

A quote from the introduction:

None of us can live without making blunders.  But we do have the ability to say: "This is not working out here. This is not making sense."  To err is human, but humans then have a choice between covering up or fessing up. The choice we make is crucial to what we do next.  We are forever being told that we should learn from our mistakes, but how can we learn unless at first we admit that we made any?  To do that, we have to recognise the siren song of self-justification. 
We each invest hugely in our core beliefs.  If our core belief includes religious doctrine we surely must find it even tougher to admit we are wrong, for we risk the whole edifice tumbling around us as a result.  I guess I feel grateful that I don't have that pressure to constantly self-justify.  If something I have believed for a long time proves to be wrong it is much easier for me to change my belief.

Is that why many of those who are members of one or other organised religion spend so much time validating and justifying their beliefs, and condemning those who do not share their (unprovable) faith?

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

YEC / ID / Fundamentalist use of the 'Gish Gallop' and other underhand tactics...

I was alerted by Cabal, a fellow blogger, to some wonderful descriptions of the tactics used by fundamentalists such as those championing YEC and ID.  Here are a few of them with definitions.  Further detail is either in Rationalwiki or Wikipedia:

The Gish Gallop is an informal name for a rhetorical technique in debates that involves drowning the opponent in half-truths, lies, straw men, and bullshit to such a degree that the opponent cannot possibly answer every falsehood that has been raised, usually resulting in many involuntary twitches in frustration as the opponent struggles to decide where to start. It is named after creationism activist and professional debater Duane Gish.

It is often used as an indirect argument from authority, as it often appears to paint the "galloper" as an expert in a broad range of subjects and the opponent as an incompetent bumbler who didn't do their homework before the debate. (Such emphasis on style over substance is why many scientists disdain public debates as a forum for disseminating opinions.

Since they have no scientific model of their own to present, they will spend all of their time in what is known affectionately as the "Gish Gallop", in which they skip around from topic to topic spewing out an unceasing blizzard of baloney and unsupported assertions about evolutionary theory, leaving the poor evolutionist to attempt to catch up and correct them all.

A variant of the Gish Gallop is employed by bloggers who post an endless series of dubious assertions - each of which can be countered, but to no effect, as it will be buried under the cascade of dubious posts.

Proof by intimidation is a jocular term used mainly in mathematics to refer to a style of presenting a purported mathematical proof by giving an argument loaded with jargon, and to appeal to obscure results; so that the audience is simply obliged to accept it lest they have to admit their ignorance and lack of understanding.

More generally, 'proof by intimidation' has also been used by critics of junk science to describe cases in which scientific evidence is thrown aside in favour of a litany of tragic individual cases presented to the public by articulate advocates who pose as experts in their field.

The Ham Hightail is a term invented by P.Z. Myers to describe the arguments presented at Ken Ham's Creation Museum. In contrast to the Gish Gallop, the Ham Hightail consists of hurtling from point to point, ignoring all contrary evidence, and quoting the Bible whenever proof is required.

The objective of the Ham Hightail is not to convince the sceptics, but to reinforce the believers. The science does not have to support creationism, so long as people believe it does. To this end Ham's Answers in Genesis has run a long campaign of presuppositionalism in creation science: You assume the bible is correct and then find the evidence that fits, everything else you just ignore. Minor annoying details, such as radiometric dating and common descent, are brushed aside with comments about them being based on assumptions that are only true depending on your "worldview". If you want to take the Ham Hightail to the lengths the originator has, you can start your own pretend science journal and fill it full of speculative essays, all the while deluding yourself that you are sponsoring real research.

A point refuted a thousand times, commonly abbreviated as PRATT, is a common phrase on Internet forums where debates have a tendency to go in circles. Once people have refuted a point the first thousand times, it's hard for them to muster the motivation to do it again. Once someone has labelled an argument a PRATT, that usually means they have no interest in discussing it. This could itself be a diversionary tactic.

The website acts as a repository of PRATTs commonly used by creationists, and presents (usually in great detail) their refutations and science behind them. The site is a good starting point when facing a PRATT.

I'm sure I'll find more of these gems.  All praise to Cabal for bringing this rich seam of information to our attention. ;-)  His original memtion is in the comments section at:

Sunday, 16 January 2011

Why am I fascinated by Religion?

Why do I bother?  I don't believe a word of it, and yet I am fascinated by it.  I witness apparently rational and intelligent humans willingly suspend reality and chose to find truth and meaning in comforting myths.  Tolkien's 'Lord of the Rings' is more consistent and plausible than most of the Holy books, and yet it does not have the pedigree.  Seems age and 'otherworldliness' is more compelling, even though there is so little worthwhile in those Holy books other than restatements of Humanist truths and ways to lead one's life, dressed up in a supernatural cloak - I guess that offers a stronger reason for some to obey the ethical imperatives outlined therein.

More than that: they acquire faith that these myths are real, and that there is an unknowable creator and overseer who must be worshipped, even though worshipping appears to be a placebo that offers no tangible benefits except to reserve a place in a mythical yet comforting state of eternal bliss. 

I keep thinking that I must be missing some vital part of the picture.  I do not choose not to believe as if I had the option to believe.  I used to believe, but that was out of laziness and a desire (even a necessity) to conform.  Now, as every year passes, I become yet more certain that all organised religions promote a myth that satisfies people's desires to lead, or be led, for some purpose that cannot be disproved - for the very reason that is is irrational and outside all that we know within the natural Universe.

Is it more of a kind of club to give hope to the dispossessed or superstitious, and to allow religious leaders to earn a living away from the squalid reality of the shop floor or salesroom, whilst making a virtue out of frugality.

And as science increasingly removes mystery, there seems to be an ever growing desire by ultra-religious people to find scientific proofs for things that neither need nor warrant scientific proofs.  If you believe in a supernatural force able to defy the natural laws why is it important to find natural proofs for events?  At its most barmy are searches for the Ark and the creationist museums, but even the more sane and rational believers indulge in finding proofs for the existence of God. It staggers me that intelligent people still quote Aquinas or Descartes in support of God's existence, even though their proofs have since been conclusively destroyed by generations of philosophers.

I am trying to imagine a World without any religion at all - No beliefs by any human in anything but what is real, what is tangible and provable.  I'm reminded of that old aphorism, "If there was no God we would have to invent one"  Which is what I think we've done - or rather different groups have invented or adapted
different Gods, to better suit their environment or culture.  As an outsider to religion it seems so very obvious that religion is very much man-made, but will we ever convince those who rely on their faith to make their lives bearable and to give them meaning?  I doubt it. Whilst we do not teach humanist ethics and morality to children, and whilst we allow adults to keep indoctrinating their children in their own faith it will not go away.  So instead we have to accept that religion will always be with us, like rain - in turns a life giving and a destructive force.  I guess we are all somewhere on the scale of sanity/madness.  Seems to me

Friday, 14 January 2011

What is an 'Innocent'?

I've noticed that when Catholics want to appeal to the emotions with regard to abortion or similar topics they frequently use terms such as 'slaughter of the innocents' and other phrases including the word 'innocent'. 
I really don't get it.  If one's fundamental position is that all life is sacred, and it is only God who has the right to give and to take life, why should it matter whether the person is an 'innocent' or not?  Is it less bad to kill a person who has committed a sin?
It seems to me that so much of the Catholic way of thinking is based on emotion rather than reason, and yet many take great pride in stating that they embrace reason.  Conversely they accuse those who relinquish their faith of being guilty of pride.
This morning I was reading the blog of the Archdiocese of Washington.  To an outsider these people appear to be so wrapped up in their narrow view of life that they have lost touch with what it is to be truly human. In one thread they repeatedly assert that someone who has relinquished his faith must have done so out of ignorance, and they all say they will pray for him.  I guess that's a charitable thought, but do please keep your prayers for someone who appreciates them.

Thursday, 13 January 2011

Are those who accept religious teaching really insane?

I guess one should really define first what insanity is.  Maybe it really is just an alternative version of sanity.  After all, if the majority do something which I regard as insane, then maybe I'm the one who's insane.

So let's say insanity is an affliction possessed by those who do not appear to conform to norms that I and those like me agree are correct.  In that case, believers of religious doctrine are indeed insane.  Why would anyone turn logic on its head in order to comply with something written in an alien culture thousands of years ago by people who hadn't the first clue why things were the way they were, and so invented reasons that made a kind of sense if one had no better alternatives - producing stories that were so outlandish that people thought they must be correct, on the basis that no sane person could possibly have imagined them whilst temporarily delusional as a result of eating the wrong mushrooms.  (Pauses to take a breath...)

Surely to cling to ideas such as these which are so very far past their sell by date is a form of self delusion, by people who would prefer to believe comforting fiction than face uncomfortable fact.  Crazy!

Or is it just me that's crazy? And does it matter?  Ho hum....

Monday, 10 January 2011

Religious people read religious blogs. Atheists read atheist blogs. Why?

I've been reading a blog written by a devout Catholic.  She writes well and provides much fascinating food for thought.  But those submitting comments are almost exclusively her fans, telling her how wonderful she is.  Am I so unusual in wanting to get involved in blogs by people with whom I do not agree? --  not as a heckler or someone who writes very rude childish comments, but as someone who is genuinely interested in understanding a very different point of view, and politely putting forward an alternative one.
It's a little worrying that so many bloggers swim in their own cosy circle of admirers, who hang on their every word.  Surely it is only by being challenged that we are forced to confront our doubts, and we come out of the exchange either confirmed in our beliefs or able to modify them in the light of new information or arguments.

No Random Coincidence? Or Wishful Thinking?

A comment on a Catholic Blog about the apparent intervention of God in subtle ways:

I have experienced this in my life in so many ways! I can’t even begin to tell you. One story I’ll share—though my eyes are welling up with tears at this very moment. My first husband died in a hunting accident--during the deer hunt here in Utah, after we had been married 15 years. At his funeral my friend’s daughter played the music to the country western song, “The Dance”.

Anyway, many years later, I was at an outside Jazz concert being held at Deer Valley Resort, when the jazz band said they usually don’t play country western, but they wanted to play this song tonight and proceeded to play “The Dance”. As I looked up to the mountainside, a huge buck watched through the forest at all of us gathered there. I was at that concert with my new husband, we had just gotten married. Any guesses where...right there at that resort looking over that mountainside. To me that was a wonderful message from what is a very thin veil between here and the afterlife. We’ve gone on to have a son who was born on September 2nd, the same birthday as my 1st husband’s nephew—his namesake, Daniel. You’re right, no event, when lived in faith, is random or meaningless.

If Internet accounts are representative, then so much of Christian witness seems to revolve around superstition; and finding meaning in the most tenuous connections.  Surely what this really illustrates is humans' amazing ability to find patterns in things around them, and their fondness to ascribe meaning where there is none.  I presume that this is comforting and that it gives people a sense of purpose, but that does not mean that their assumptions are correct.

But is this really just harmless nonsense?  Maybe it is.  And maybe if it provides people with comfort then who am I to disillusion them?  My concern is that this mindset leads on to other unsound connections and conclusions which may indeed be harmful.  Is it not better to base our decisions and our actions on reality rather than on wishful thinking?

Sunday, 9 January 2011

Theocracy is bad news!

An article caught my attention on the BBC website today:

Men and women have been banned from shaking hands in a district of Somalia controlled by the Islamist group al-Shabab.  Under the ban imposed in the southern town of Jowhar, men and women who are not related are also barred from walking together or chatting in public. It is the first time such social restrictions have been introduced.

The al-Shabab administration said those who disobeyed the new rules would be punished according to Sharia law. The BBC's Mohamed Moalimuu in Mogadishu says the penalty would probably be a public flogging.  The militant group has already banned music in areas that it controls, which include most of central and southern Somalia. Somalia has not had a stable government since 1991.  The UN-backed government only controls parts of Mogadishu and a few other areas.

This is appalling.  Christians may say that this is a consequence of Islamic teaching and would not apply to a Christian theocracy.  But in a Christian theocracy it's likely that such things as homosexulaity would be outlawed despite being something that is innate in some people, and people's right to choose in many aspects of their lives would be significantly curtailed.

Theocracy is bad news, however and wherever it may occur.

Saturday, 8 January 2011

“I stood in Venice, on the Bridge of Sighs; / A palace and a prison on each hand.”

I was reminded by an item on the radio of Byron's works. It reminded me of the alliteration Byron uses with Palace/Prison that so impressed me many years ago.  So many thoughts, dreams and ideas contained in just this one brief combination of ideas.   Sublime!

Is it possible to be a romantic and not to believe in anything outside the natural World?  I think our minds play tricks on us all the time, and we imagine that there are greater forces at work because we simply do not understand our own minds.  But is that such a surprise?  It would perhaps be even more strange if we could understand fully how our minds work.  Hmm...

Sunday, 2 January 2011

There is no God?

Recently I've been thinking again about ways that Humanists and Believers can accommodate each others' views, and live side by side, disagreeing but respecting their differing view on the fundamental reasons for our existence.

For a long time I've tried to accommodate the views of believers, based on that aphorism that I can no more disprove the existence of God than a believer can prove God's existence.  I thought I understood religion and chose to reject it on the probability of evidence, and because I found rational explanations so convincing.  But recently I've been trying to really understand religious motivation in a lot more depth, half hoping that I might find something there that would provide a better reason for intelligent believers to believe. 

I have to say that I have failed to find anything.  On the contrary, religion seems all the more ridiculous the more I study it. I presume religion is still ingrained into the human psyche as a by-product of the evolutionary need to find meaning in everything.  I suppose that if one makes that leap of faith and accepts religion as being valid and wants it to be a core part of ones life, then it is relatively easy to find 'truths' that reinforce and augment that desire.  One has only to read many of the blogs that deeply devout people write to witness how they convince themselves at every stage that they are doing the right thing, often relying on hugely partial 'evidence' and ignoring or explaining away that which does not fit their chosen narrative. 

Is that aphorism really valid at all though?  Is belief in a supernatural entity just an idea on a spectrum somewhere between belief in the celestial tea pot and belief in the laws of physics?  And isn't it really quite a long way towards the celestial tea pot?  If so, then am I acting morally in doing nothing to try to stop people leading their whole lives believing, and sometimes ruining them as a result?

To a believer this may sound extremely arrogant.  I would prefer to think that it was an honest statement of how I feel about this.  As ever, my thoughts are very much work in progress.  I record them for future reference.  I wonder how I will feel about this in 6 months time.

Saturday, 1 January 2011

Is Morality from God or Man

It's the first day of 2011, and like many other people I'm making New Year's Resolutions.  This year amongst other things I'm going to raise £1,000 for my local Air Ambulance.  This is the figure I chose because they calculated it costs £1,000 for each life saved by the Air Ambulance.

It's obvious from the fact that I'm an Atheist what I think about what informs our morality, but why would I want to do something altruistic like this that has no direct material benefit to me?

As a Humanist I feel a sense of empathy with my fellow humans, and I want to live in a society where we care for and look out for those who need help.  And one day I may need help myself.  If we lead by example while we have the power to do so, then there is perhaps a greater chance that when we need help someone will do the same for us.  I've noticed that as we get older we tend to get more altruistic and we tend to do more to help other people.  Is it because having dependent Children 'conditions' us to care for others, and having experienced our share of knocks in life we can understand how we all need to help each other to get through life?  I'm constantly amazed when I'm out collecting for the Air Ambulance how pensioners are so often the most generous, and how young men are invariably the least generous.  Perhaps it is only as we get older that we begin to realise our corporate responsibility for our fellow humans.
Altruism is a sign of civilisation and is an evolutionary social attribute to increase our future chances of survival.  Hooray for us humans! :-)