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Archive for August, 2008

Carnival of the Godless #99 is up, over at OzAtheist‘s place. Lots of good stuff there from the heathen blogosphere, including one piece of my own – apparently the entry conditions were really pretty lax this time around, because I felt like an intellectual midget up against some of the other entries catalogued here. Go read.

Also, as of tomorrow, there’ll be a law in place in Britain “allowing faith schools… to discriminate on religious grounds when hiring headteachers and support staff”. Schools that receive funding from the state will be entitled to require that people working there must belong to a particular religion.

Wow. That sounds like a really bad idea. The main worry seems to be that children of different religions are going to end up being increasingly segregated, which, no kidding. “Parents should be able to choose the type of education and ethos they want for their children,” says someone whose official title is apparently “Children’s minister”. If you apply that sentence to any other factor than religion, doesn’t it sound like the most abhorrent idea imaginable? What if people want to make sure their kids aren’t learning anywhere run by fags or coloureds? Are we going to accommodate that, too?

The idea is for school staff to be in a position to offer “pastoral support” to children, but I don’t see how specifically religious support – beyond the kind of basic care and help and advice and positive reinforcement that we should expect all schools to give to all children in their charge – is something that’s anywhere within the government’s remit to be spending taxpayer money on.

I went to a couple of private religious schools, solely because they seemed like places I’d get a really good education, which I guess I did. The religion part of those times was fairly boring, even while I was more or less going along with the whole Jesus idea, but never particularly emphatic or zealous. My impression of religion in schools in England has always been that it’s fairly muted and half-hearted, much like religion in England generally, at least compared to the US. We learned about evolution in my biology classes, and discussed the book of Genesis as scientifically inaccurate and literally untrue metaphor in Religious Studies, in these private Christian schools. It’s only in retrospect that I’ve come to appreciate that as anything to be grateful for.

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I honestly don’t want this blog to get too predominantly political, and it’s clear that the wide reach of my ignorance on the subject will stop me from getting too carried away on that, but some of this is kinda pertinent at the moment.

Stuff about Sarah Palin is starting to turn up, for instance, like the claim she made in her acceptance speech that she “championed reform to end the abuses of earmark spending by Congress”, with particular reference to a bridge that was hoped to be built in her state of Alaska. What she actually said at the time indicates that federal funding for the bridge was only turned down when they couldn’t get enough money to get the job done. It’s getting more and more impractical to misrepresent, gloss over, or re-imagine your past actions and statements without getting called on it these days.

Melissa Rogers has a comprehensive list of quotes from Joe Biden‘s past about religion’s role in public life and church-state issues. He’s a Catholic, but seems to have a good idea of what separation of Church and State actually means. He’s opposed the teaching of intelligent design in science classes, and based on everything that’s here it seems like he could be trusted not to let religion play an inappropriately prominent role in government. (Hat-tip to Ed Brayton.) A similar list for Sarah Palin is still being updated, but so far she’s doing little to endear herself to me, at any rate.

And, quite excitingly, Barack Obama has answered the “top 14 science questions facing America”, as selected by ScienceDebate2008 and the thousands of people who submitted questions. It’s a pretty thorough set of answers, I haven’t been through the whole lot carefully yet and certainly don’t have the political nous to analyse it convincingly, but it looks pretty good to me. There’s a fair bit of just general, positive-sounding talk, the sort of thing in which I don’t pretend I can really tell the pandering apart from the genuinely good intentions, before he’s had a chance to show how he’s going to act – John McCain’s stated his intention to provide answers as well, and I imagine he’ll also be coming out fairly strongly pro-science to this particular audience.

But there are some encouraging specifics. Obama has been part of the “Enhancing Science, Technology, Engineering and Math Education Act of 2008”, which sounds like a good thing, and his support of stem cell research implies an appreciation of science over morality based on religious ideology. Which would be a nice change.

So, yeah. I’ll be watching out for comments on this from anyone more intelligent than me, but so far, Barack is still my man. (Another ScienceBlogs hat-tip for this one.)

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Presidential hopeful John McCain has announced that Sarah Palin, the current Governor of Alaska, will be his vice presidential candidate in the upcoming election. I’ve no idea what Republicans are thinking about this, but the buzz I’m getting from the parts of the blogosphere around which I linger is that not much about her is surprising, and it’s all piling on to the reasons why the Republican Party really doesn’t deserve the chance to keep screwing things up for another four years.

Obama picked Joe Biden as his running mate recently too, which I don’t think I blogged about properly. Not that I have much to say about Biden either, having barely heard of the guy, but the general response seems to be more or less one of “eh, makes sense”.

One thing getting commented on about Palin is that she seems to be, if not a creationist herself, then someone who doesn’t fully understand evolution and science and is willing to pander to that crowd. (The whole “teach the controversy” idea is something I should write about later.) Eh, I don’t know. There are crazier and scarier ideas being suggested by other Republicans out there (and no doubt a few Democrats too), and I guess I don’t want to be too much of a single-issue non-voter. I doubt this decision really sways many people.

Hat-tips to PZ and the denialism blog, both of whom have rather more on this than me.

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Been fairly occupied with other things today (partly writing a book, partly watching one of my favourite Buffy episodes), so just have a few bits and pieces to half-heartedly report on.

I’ve also been scribbling more thoughts on this ongoing dialogue of sorts with Eric, my wacky Christian buddy. You can catch up with that in the comments a few posts down from here, or on his blog, but as a bonus DVD extra, here’s a quick thought that didn’t make it into that discussion, after I rewrote the whole piece in a somewhat different direction.

Eric said:

I also agree that we should not be subject to a tyrannical god. However, to suggest that an omnipotent god, no matter his disposition, actually OWES us something, it [sic] to have a view or [sic] humanity a bit higher than our actual position in this universe.

Which sounds unusual, coming from someone who – unless my Christian theology is severely out of wack – believes that the universe was created solely in order for us to live in it. That would seem to set our position pretty high. You could stroll into the Total Perspective Vortex with that attitude and walk out with your sanity, no sweat.

But even leaving that slight glibness aside, I disagree with the entire premise here. If a being who is all-powerful, who knows what’s going on down here, and who loves us unconditionally, has created the world and all the rules by which it runs, and created us and put us here, then yes, he has a responsibility to us, he owes it to us not to neglect us and allow needless suffering.

If, instead of creating the world as he did, he’d simply made Hell and then conjured a few souls into existence solely to throw them into the fire and watch them burn for eternity, would that be just? Would he not owe his creations a little more respect, compassion, and basic decency than that? As it happens, God is not that sadistic, but we’re still apparently bound by his contract and his rules which we never had a chance not to agree to. We’re human beings, you don’t get to walk all over us just because you’re bigger and more powerful. We deserve better. Has Spiderman taught you nothing about what traditionally comes with great power?

So, there’s that.

In exciting maths news (not an oxymoron, so shush), the Great Internet Mersenne Prime Search may have found a new Mersenne prime number – that is, a number into which no smaller number will divide exactly, and which takes the form 2n – 1, for some whole number n. If it checks out, it will be more than 12 million digits in length, far longer than the previous record-holder, which was just under 10 million digits long.

I get excited about these things. I’ll be following this story closely and providing regular updates.

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It’s a grand day indeed. I have been painfully inducted into the hallowed realm of The Atheist Blogroll, kept by Mojoey over at Deep Thoughts. Once I’ve recovered enough from the hazing rituals to be able to sit down again, I’ll hopefully be in a position to attract a wider audience of tens, dozens, perhaps even – dare I dream – scores of new visitors.

You should go check out the whole list – there’s a link in the sidebar, though only the one static image, as I don’t think WordPress can cope with doing anything complicated like using some PHP code to actually display the blogroll, unless I was hosting the blog myself. But it’s an interesting bunch of bedfellows I seem to have acquired – the first one I happened to browse at random was Christian Pwnage, which took me instantly to this image, which, although not really very Christian, was entertaining in that depressing sort of way that Fox News does so well.

In other news, I want this book that Hemant the Friendly Atheist found. I’m sure it’d make for some lovely bedtime reading. (Dubiously SFW, not that I imagine I’m on many people’s lists of useful distractions when they’re supposed to be working.)

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This is an excellent article about the teaching of evolution, and following one teacher in Florida in particular, as he tries to work out how best to handle the creationists in his biology class. It’s an inspiring reminder that some real education can sometimes take place in schools, if you’re lucky, and this guy sounds like the kind of teacher that some kids are lucky to have one class with in a lifetime. One interesting point among many, which seems to demonstrate something which could be pointed out to some religious kids, without it being a personal attack:

“But there is scientific proof that there is a God,” he said. “Over in Turkey there’s a piece of wood from Noah’s ark that came out of a glacier.”

Mr. Campbell chose his words carefully.

“If I could prove, tomorrow, that that chunk of wood is not from the ark, is not even 500 years old and not even from the right kind of tree — would that damage your religious faith at all?”

Bryce thought for a moment.

“No,” he said.

Very often the religious want it both ways. Any evidence that can be read as supporting their dogma is leapt upon and raised high as scientific validation, but science is simultaneously condemned and vilified as being unable or unsuitable to address the question. Does the evidence actually matter to your belief, or not?

Hat-tip to Coturnix, who also has a much more detailed analysis of the subject matter.

In other news, can Sweden really not go a single month without something making me want to bitchslap the entire country over the internet? This time, the symbol of a hand pointing upwards, towards the button you’re meant to push next to a pedestrian crossing, is apparently a hidden religious message. “We want to show that there is only one way to reach God and that is up and through Jesus,” the CEO of the company behind the signals apparently said. Well, I can see the ‘Up’ part, but… it’s a small logo of a hand pointing towards a button. The guy who designed it for the company says that’s all it is. What the hell?

Some guy called Tom Willis appears to be a serious fucktard. I mean, seriously, this guy must have really liked the taste of crazy pills and just kept on munching. One of the highlights: “Since evolutionists are liars and most do not really believe evolution we could employ truth serum or water-boarding to obtain confessions of evolution rejection.” You know, I’ll bet good money that this guy was among the crowd screaming for PZ Myers‘ head on a stick when he mistreated a cracker that one time. But threats of violence, torture, and exile to Mars (you really have to read this) against anyone who accepts a majority scientific consensus, well that’s just good sense.

And apparently it’s about time we had an atheist Prime Minister over here. There’d be a lot of plus points, as outlined in this article, though I know very little myself about David Miliband’s actual politics – he’s not a sufficiently influential figure to have reached The Daily Show’s news-desks, and Have I Got News For You is between series at present, so it’s a surprise I’ve even heard of the guy – and that’s probably something important enough to be worth looking into before voting for him. Still, it’s nice to live in a country where something like an absence of religious faith isn’t a trait that stands out or gets noticed much among prominent public figures. Nick Clegg, another atheist, is the leader of one of the country’s three major political parties, though probably has less of a shot at ever actually ending up running the place.

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Ceci n’est pas un blog

I’m taking the day off blogging today. Because I can. What are you gonna do about it? Huh?

Back tomorrow.

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