Archive for August, 2009

Today, we’re going to talk about faith.

You can’t say I don’t tackle the Big Important Topics here. In this one post, I’m going to cover the entire foundation of almost every religion in the history of ever, the pillar on which all theology is founded, and the subject over which perhaps more hours of scholarly work and profound philosophising has taken place over the centuries than any other. The one elusive, ethereal concept whose significance has plagued the most enlightened and learned thinkers for generations.

I don’t know why they bothered, really. It’s all just bollocks.

Yep. This is why you come here, for the intellectual rigour and thoughtful, sensitive analysis of all the delicate and complex issues.

Let’s get on with it then.

“Bollocks” revisited

Let’s be clear exactly what it is that I’m dismissing so sweepingly, before we all agree that I’m right.

“Faith” is often used more or less interchangeably with words like “trust”, in more day-to-day terms. I have plenty of trust, but I don’t think I could be accused of having faith, as I use the term here. I have good reason to expect the world to continue functioning as it has, in many ways, based on previous experience. I don’t need “faith” that my toaster will scorch any bits of bread I put into it; it logically follows, from my incomplete but often useful understanding of the mechanics of the universe.

Other times, the word “faith” is just used to refer to any belief in anything religious or supernatural. Regardless of the rationality or otherwise, if it’s about God, then it’s faith. And, well, okay. That’s fine, and doesn’t preclude faith from being a perfectly rational activity. I’m not railing against every possible usage of the word, only this one concept it often represents. Just like Tony Jaa isn’t out to utterly destroy the entire population of Thailand, just the ones who stole his elephant.

The sort of faith I have no time for is the blind, unreasonable, unjustified belief sort. The abandonment of reason, of which some religious folk seem so proud. The deliberate dismissal of individual, independent, autonomous thought, the thing which more than any other gives our species a significance greater than that of coral. There is absolutely no sufficient justification for the kind of voluntary mindlessness which so many regard as a great and noble virtue.

We humans have amazing abilities. We can experience the world around us, and put those experiences in context, and construct meaningful ideas about this strange place in which we find ourselves that go beyond what any one person could ever discover on their own. We can find patterns, work out the rules, explore the causes and reasons underlying what we see. We can take the time to consider what we know, and we can ask questions. Never mind finding answers – even having a clear enough knowledge of our situation to know what we don’t know, and ask meaningful questions about it, is an unprecedented achievement of our innate curiosity. We can know what we’re doing as we go about our lives, to an extent that no other race we know of has ever achieved. That such a phenomenon could arise from the particles of the universe itself is astounding.

But some people don’t want to do any of that. To them, our efforts to improve ourselves and our involvement in the world, to aid our understanding by whatever means will allow us to inch slowly toward the truth, should be abandoned. The curiosity and questioning and unquenchable hunger to probe and discover new things, which has been responsible for basically everything our species has ever achieved, is vilified by some, and blind obedience to authority is held in its place, as some kind of morally superior alternative. Others are less extreme, but still hold that our powers of human reason, as well as being insufficient to neatly explain every aspect of existence to their satisfaction, can in fact be improved upon and surpassed by a directionless trust in what is basically guesswork.

God, I think I might be starting to talk bollocks too.

Look, I wasn’t kidding about how vastly profound and influential this subject’s been on the history of human thought, and that stuff about dedicated scholars. You could fill libraries with the serious and soul-searching contemplations engaged in on the matter of faith by people far more learned and clever than me. If I get too caught up in trying to match them for solemnity and scholarship and scope of rhetoric, then it’s obvious I’m going to get way out of my depth very quickly. Because I’m just some idiot with a blog, whose position isn’t much more sophisticated than “I don’t buy any of this crap”, and who keeps getting distracted by thinking about bagels whenever I try articulating my thoughts. See, I just had lunch between that last sentence and this one. My dedication to my art is pathetic.

Much better then, surely, to sweep aside all the bothersome details and better-informed postulatings of everyone who’s gone before, on the simple grounds that faith, as a system of belief without rational justification, is just silly.

Because really, shouldn’t that be obvious on its own? Humankind has figured out quite a few excellent tools by which to avoid being wrong, as well as identifying a number of ways in which wrongness can occur in our thinking. Faith is a matter of deliberately ignoring the very option of wrongness, and refusing to attempt to rule it out. When the option is there to use these proven methods by which we’ve discovered so much about the world, and so closely approached truth in so many aspects of the universe, faith demands you put all that aside, not ask questions, and simply hope you guessed right. Why is this ever something you’d want to do? How can you ever be better off not applying critical thinking to a closely held belief, especially when it dramatically affects your feelings, your behaviours, and the lives of others?

I’m honestly rather baffled what people have managed to write thousands of books about on this. (Some people might suggest I should try reading one. They may have a point.)

But I’ve written before about why critical thinking and a skeptical approach should be applied to all knowledge, and I still think that summarises the point quite well enough. But I suppose I know what some of the common complaints are, so I’ll briefly go over what some people often say to justify what they call their faith. (If you have anything better, feel free to comment.)

Belief without proof

A lot of people go this way, as the most innocent-sounding cop-out excuse for being irrational. All they’re doing is choosing to believe something without “absolute scientific proof”. They’re trusting in an idea that simply hasn’t been studied and examined by emotionless scientists in white lab coats and described in cold, clinical detail, and this somehow makes them virtuous. They’re not being deranged, because there is some evidence for what they believe, it’s just not been proven beyond all doubt.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t really help. Having bad evidence for something isn’t half-way to having good evidence for it, and isn’t a worthwhile step in the right direction from having no evidence at all. (Having good evidence for the object of your faith seems to rule out the need to have faith at all. If you think you can prove the truth of, say, the Bible, then why would you need to “just believe” in it when you can be perfectly rational and get there by following the evidence?)

People cite various experiences of the world as reasons for belief in some divine power, but the way they mix reason and faith always seems haphazard. If the smile on a baby is to be cited as evidence of a god’s existence, then you need to leap through all the usual scientific hoops if you want to be taken seriously. How does a grinning tiny person support your model of reality? What would falsify it? Can this data not be reconciled with the null hypothesis, namely a universe without a god?

Yes, these are all sciencey questions, and God is often held to be “outside” of science, but what is that supposed to mean? If you’re making a definite claim about reality, then science is the best tool we have to establish whether or not you’re probably right. If, when you claim that your deity is evinced by a particular autonomic response in certain carbon-based lifeforms, you’re not doing science, then what the hell are you doing? If you’re abandoning the due process of logic and reason, you literally might as well be saying “Penguins are made of cheese, therefore God exists”. Hey, if it doesn’t have to make sense, why worry?

To press the point further about proposing evidence, admitting that it doesn’t constitute proof, but claiming it as a basis for faith, consider the following two conversations:

“What evidence do you have that UFOs regularly visit the Earth and abduct people?”
“None at all. I just have faith.”
“You’re an idiot.”

“What evidence do you have that UFOs regularly visit the Earth and abduct people?”
“Well, this one time I saw a thing in the sky, that definitely wasn’t a bird because it was massive, it probably weighed about 28 tonnes, and was about 450 feet away and 20 feet across, all of which I precisely estimated in the few seconds I thought I saw it behind some tree branches, and also my sister’s friend’s cousin’s dentist saw some weird green alien-looking creature in his bedroom once, in between a dream about giant dancing corkscrews and waking up in a cold sweat at 4am. So, that might not be good enough for a bunch of scientists, with their test tubes and litmus burners and all that fancy science malarkey, but it’s some evidence, and based on that I choose to have faith.”
“Sounds good to me. You should see what’s in the book I base my spiritual belief system on.”

See, just because you’re capable of saying that this, this, and this are why you have faith, doesn’t mean you’re necessarily making any more sense than if you just picked a random notion out of the air and based a religion around it.

Faith is necessarily arbitrary

Faith, being a belief in spite of an absence of supporting evidence, is by definition arbitrary in its object. There’s a limitless supply of things you could believe in, which have no evidence to support them – and yet, without evidence, how can any groundless claim be superior to any other? Why is faith in Jesus any more valuable or virtuous than faith in the Flying Spaghetti Monster? If you point out that Pastafarianism was created as a deliberate parody just a few years ago, then remember that you’re using evidence to assert that, and suddenly we’re having a reasonable discussion and not talking about faith any more. Explain to me why faith in any other god is “better” – in any interpretation of that word that you choose – without using a rational analysis of any evidence to do so. I don’t see how you can, but I’d love to hear it if you’ve got something.

In fact, if lack of evidence is somehow a bonus and adds value to your level of faith, then surely it would behoove you to deliberately choose the most ridiculous and unsupported set of ideas you can imagine, and latch fervently onto those. Say you’re a Christian, and believe every word of the Bible in spite of (or even because of) how unlikely it looks based on evidence and reason and every logical way of examining the world. Wouldn’t it then show even more faith to believe in Vishnu instead? I mean, it’s even more unlikely that Hinduism’s going to turn out to be true, right? If faith is really a virtue, why not pick something completely outlandish, which there is genuinely no good reason to give even a moment’s credibility?

This might work for Alan Moore, but nobody’s as awesome as Alan Moore, particularly people with “proper” religions which they think should command some sort of respect. Most people’s religious convictions are deeply ingrained ideas, which they then try to justify and explain at length why it’s not all illogical nonsense.

And I’m not sweeping all those efforts aside with this one article. Whether there’s a reasonable justification for religious belief, based on observations of the world and hypothetical thought experiments and such, is the basis for a thousand fascinating discussions. But they’re totally different from having faith. If you’re prepared to be rational about it, then great, let’s have that discussion instead. But if there are no sound reasons to believe what you do, then faith is in no way an acceptable fallback position to which to retreat. It’s a tacit admission of defeat, but one that’s seized upon and rallied around, as if it can be made to seem like it does anything more than demonstrate conclusively that you know you’ve lost and your position makes no sense.

Appealing to any force “beyond reason” is like trying to climb through a hole an inch wide by holding onto a mouse’s tail as it pulls you through; even if some other power really does have abilities beyond our own (either to determine truth or fit through tiny holes) and is willing to show us the way, our own limitations are a part of who we are. If you’ve decided what to have faith in by rational means, then obviously you’re still restrained by the powers of human reason. If you’ve made this decision with no such recourse to reason, and you’ve just plunged in with no rational consideration for what you’re believing at all, then you’re on no firmer ground than literally anyone else, believing literally anything else. How can you be? Any claim you make to divine super-rational authority can be repeated by anyone else, with equal credibility.

If you’re not using logic and reason, you’re being illogical and unreasonable. The opposite of skeptical is gullible. And actually, most people think they can prove what they believe, or at least argue the case for it rationally. So let’s do that.

Otherwise: I have faith that God tastes of cinnamon and lives in my stapler. And my faith’s just as good as yours.

Read Full Post »

Reminder: Submit your entries for the 119th Skeptics’ Circle as per this entry here, ahead of Thursday September 10th. There’s plenty of time yet to get skeptically scribbling and have your post featured.

Now, on with the regular blog.

There’s nothing particularly special or original or unusual or remarkable about this post on the Law of Attraction. It’s just the one that I happen to have stumbled upon today, and which has reminded me that I really need to write something about this bullshit at some point.

It’s full of the usual craptastic blather that the kind of newagey idiots who follow this philosophy are always coming out with. Oh, don’t listen to the skeptics everyone, they just don’t understand this wonderful thing we’ve found, they keep trying to tell us it’s not real, just because there’s absolutely no evidence for it, they’re so closed-minded.

So far, so blah, but there’s one thing it made me wonder.

How much, or how often, is it our fault that people take this approach to skeptics?

See, now that I’ve asked it, I don’t even think it’s a very good question. I mean, how else are believers going to respond to people fervently disagreeing with them and denying the very existence of some important aspect of their lives, if not by reaffirming their beliefs and discussing amongst themselves our reasons for dissenting? Maybe there’s really nothing to say about this at all.

But something about the tone of it really grated, and I think it may relate to the common perception of skeptics as being closed off to new ideas, and unable to understand the new and exciting phenomenon in question, because of some insight we’re lacking. And I wondered, how much of this is a perception we could help to change through our actions, and how much is just an inevitable effect of believers and their delusions?

Could we be doing more to make sure we don’t seem like this? Or should we stop worrying about it, because we’re always going to get this kind of complaint from people devoted to their wacky ideas?

Eh. Not the deepest of deep thoughts, but I’m tired so it’ll do. Hopefully another big Skeptictionary entry should turn up in the next couple of days.

Also, the comments in the post that sparked off yesterday’s rant might be turning into quite a fun discussion. Or I might just start getting annoyed with everyone very soon. Hard to say.

Read Full Post »

Reminder: Submit your entries for the 119th Skeptics’ Circle as per this entry here, ahead of Thursday September 10th. There’s plenty of time yet to get skeptically scribbling and have your post featured.

Now, on with the regular blog.

Ooh, someone’s written me a letter.

It’s not one of the old-fashioned kind which appeared on my doormat amidst the bills and ads for takeaway pizza services, admittedly. And it’s a bit impersonal, addressed to “Dear Skeptic”, and put up on the internet where anyone could read it. But it’s always nice to hear from someone who cares enough to write.

I’m terrible at producing timely replies to people’s correspondence, so I’m going to make a point of getting this one done straight away, and putting it up here, so that you can all hold me accountable for being prompt, and so that my pen-pal can find it immediately without having to wait.

Dear Demian Farnworth,

Hi! How’s it going? Please don’t feel you need to apologise for not writing sooner. I know how things can get on top of you, other priorities can mount up, and you just never seem to find the time for those little things you always meant to get around to. I’ve been meaning to replace the lightbulbs in the living room for months. It’s cool, you’re here now, and there’s no time like the present to catch up.

But I see you’re concerned about some of my behaviour lately, and I hope I can put your mind at ease on a few points here as well. Although I do feel we’ve gotten to know each other well over the recent years never that we’ve known each other, rest assured that your obligations to me stretch not an inch further than whatever guidelines you wish to establish for yourself.

Honestly, you are “obligated” to me in no binding way whatever. (At least, as regards the nature of our discussions, beyond the basic morals of human decency.) You could respond to all my questions by doing a little dance and showering me with confetti, and you would have reneged on no contract.

But there are favours which I might ask of you, to aid a smooth negotiation of terms in any future conversation. You may grant or refuse such boons entirely at your whim; I will hold no grudge if you prefer to disengage completely and keep your own counsel. But, well, if we’re going to have a discussion, there needs to be some give and take.

For instance, you’re quite welcome to articulate your gospel, explain what’s important to you, and express the truth as you see it. Of course you are, it sounds like a great thing to do, and I’m always interested in hearing what people think and what got them there.

But, well. If you do that, I get to judge what you’re saying. And if I want to persistently and mercilessly call bullshit on it, then that’s part of the deal.

You’re not obligated to just take this criticism with no resistance, obviously. You’re not even obliged to listen to me. I mean, if you do decide to stuff cottage cheese in your ears rather than hear what I have to say, then I might not want to bother talking to you any more – but hey, it’s your prerogative.

You’re even welcome to speculate openly as to my motives when I criticise you. I know I do that about you sometimes, which appears to be what pushed you to write to me in the first place. But, well. It kinda doesn’t matter why we’ve taken the positions we have. If I’m wrong about something, then you should be able to present an effective counter-argument to it, regardless of whether I got there through logical deliberation or sheer bloody-mindedness.

Take this point you make, for instance:

But unfortunately, you’re not looking to understand our position. You’re looking for a soft spot. And when you think you find that soft spot–you punch it…

You demand we give you a systematic explanation that satisfies you. We explain, you find another soft spot–and punch that one. Ad infinitum.

Yeah. I don’t know if you’ve heard of this thing called science, but it’s a pretty nifty thing we’ve figured out, which is how we’ve actually discovered everything we know to be true about the world. Sounds useful, right? And a big part of scientifically testing whether an idea is true is, as you put it, to punch its soft spots.

It’s sort of a violent metaphor, but a model of how the world works isn’t a puppy, or a baby whose squishy and fragile head needs to be supported. Those “soft spots” aren’t hunks of tender flesh being cruelly pounded by some brutal butcher; they’re potential weaknesses in a hypothesis. The “punches” I seek to deliver aren’t physically violent – I have only fractionally more upper-body strength than Mr Burns – but represent efforts to demonstrate flaws in this hypothesis, by asking probing questions, suggesting counter-examples, pointing out logical fallacies, and the like.

If your hypothesis can withstand being punched in this way – if it remains consistent, shows significant predictive and explanatory power, isn’t easily sliced away by Ockham’s Razor, and so on – then it sounds like it’s not such a soft spot after all. It sounds like it’d be quite a tough carapace surrounding a solid theory, were that the case. But you’ll never know that, if you never let anyone punch it for fear it might crumble.

And if it does crumble, then it’s not really something worth protecting.

So, when you complain about the way I seek out a soft spot and punch it, what you seem to mean is that I keep expecting you to be able to justify your beliefs with data and logic, and demonstrate that you’re making some sort of sense.

You’re not obligated to do that. But I’m not obligated to take you seriously if you don’t.

You’re also not obligated to assume that I’m capable of intelligent discussion, or that I’m willing to listen to new ideas, take new evidence on board, and refine or adapt my opinions and beliefs if it seems rational to do so. You’re not obligated to credit me with any intellectual honesty, and you are perfectly within your rights to dismiss my refusal to accept your conclusions as the result of pompous arrogance, blindness to reason, and a fundamentalist devotion to my own ideology which irrationally excludes your own set of beliefs.

Just like I’m not obligated to refrain from calling you a deluded, patronising, Bible-thumping, unthinkingly dogmatic twat.

But if I go around saying things like that, we’re really not going to get anywhere. And I don’t think we’ll enjoy each other’s company half as much.

The main theme of your letter was about your sometime tendency to change the subject on me. I fear I may have strayed from the subject myself a little in my own missive, but I’ll try to get back to that now.

If you’re changing the subject, that implies that the discussion is ongoing – there still is a subject, so we’re still talking, and I can presume you don’t consider this discussion completely fruitless just yet. But if you’re changing the subject because you consider the question I’m asking unimportant, it probably doesn’t seem that way to me. I’m only asking it because I consider the answer to be of significance, and if you don’t answer, whatever your reasons are, it sometimes just looks like you’re floundering.

You’re not obligated to disabuse me of this notion every time I ask a question you don’t want to answer. Maybe you’ve answered enough questions for one day. Maybe your dinner’s ready, or there’s a movie you want to go see. But if I don’t get an answer, that’s what it’s going to look like.

And while preaching the gospel might be the most important subject to you, it seems like it’d be a pretty ineffectual effort if you’re not going to take into account my objections, and the reasons why I remain unconvinced by all your grand proclamations about the wrath of God and the law of the cross. You’d probably have better luck if you let me ask some questions, and try to stay on-topic while explaining things to me.

I’ve run out of steam now, so I’ll stop here. But I do hope to receive another letter from you again soon. And what was that delightful perfume you used on the envelope?



And people say the internet has killed the art of pen-pallery. Pah.

Also, I took this opportunity to check my unread mail, and found this particular gem also awaiting my attention. I don’t think I’ll be replying to this one, though. I’m not sure it even came to the right address. They seem to have confused me with a gullible prick.

Read Full Post »

The latest edition of the Skeptics’ Circle blog carnival is up, over at the evolving mind. It’s an interesting batch, so go have a look.

And I see by the carnival schedule that the next edition, in two weeks’ time, is to be hosted at some place called Cubik’s Rube. Whoever that guy is, let’s hope he doesn’t screw it up and bring the Circle’s illustrious history of creative brilliance to a crashing end.


Well, I’m due to be sent some sort of “guidelines and instructions package” at some point, but I’ll take a stab at the initial bit now. I’m hosting the next edition of the carnival two weeks from now, on Thursday September 10th. If you have anything you want to submit to it (which you think is appropriate based on the guidelines on this page here), then email it in to me, ideally not leaving it until the last minute on Wednesday September 9th to do so.

My traditional instructions for constructing my email address are as follows: ‘cubiksrube’, then that little curly ‘at’ sign, then ‘hotmail’, then a dot, then ‘co’, then another dot, then ‘uk’. I can’t rationally justify my belief that describing it obliquely like that helps to prevent some kind of automated spam-bot from noticing it and bombarding me with trash, but it’s what I’ve seen other people do, and when did blindly following the herd without understanding the reasoning behind your actions ever do anyone any harm?

Heckuva skeptical attitude right there.

Sorry I didn’t get anything posted yesterday, incidentally, but my evening was unexpectedly diverted by the plight of three drag queens travelling across Australia in a sparkly pink van. It was more fun than I thought it would be, actually.

Read Full Post »

Wait, I mean: Incompatible!

(It’s the best sort-of-pun I could think of at short notice. Shut up, I’m only starting writing this at 11:30pm.)

It’s only dated yesterday, but I’m pretty sure I remember seeing this article here, by Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum, getting a fairly thorough response from PZ Myers a few days ago. Maybe it appeared somewhere else first. Anyway, I’m sure this has already been said much more eloquently than my fatigued self will manage now, but about 98% of all blogging would cease entirely if people didn’t ever say things that have already been said better by someone else. So.

Mooney and Kirshenbaum have become somewhat notorious in certain parts of the blogosphere, for their “accommodationist” stance. They’ve often attacked staunch, outspoken, aggressive atheists like PZ and Richard Dawkins, for attempting to promote atheism in a way that would actually be off-putting and needlessly alienating to the people they ought to be trying to connect with. And although I’ve seen other pieces that go much further on that theme than this one, it is sometimes hard to remember that they’re theoretically on our side.

They’re scientists, Mooney and Kirshenbaum, or at least science writers, and support the promotion and education of science, and are against religious encroachment onto these areas. But their ideas of how this should be done have provoked much ire from angrier bloggers than myself.

In this article, they pose the question:

Who in the United States will read Dawkins’s new book (or ones like it) and have any sort of epiphany, or change his or her mind?

They’re talking about The Greatest Show On Earth, Dawkins’s latest book, due out in a scant few weeks now, which is to present the evidence supporting the scientific Theory of Evolution, explaining how the theory has developed and been reinforced over the years, and demonstrating just how much data exists confirming the truth of common descent and evolution through natural selection.

M&K have a problem with this.

Well, perhaps their problem isn’t so much with this book itself, but with Dawkins as an advocate for science. The implication is that “[a]n in-your-face atheist touting evolution” is unhelpful as a public proponent of science, and that his aggressive and hostile attitude toward religion is the reason for the answer to the above question being almost certainly “no”.

But I wonder quite how M&K would expect “America’s anti-evolutionists” to react to any mode of presentation of the evidence supporting this theory which they “doggedly refuse to accept”. Does some style of prose exist, by which such an epiphany could be induced in a fundamentalist to whose religious convictions evolution is an utter heresy?

It’s popular to suggest that any kind of proselytising is only of merit if flocks of people spontaneously convert on sight. There was similar inane criticism about the Atheist Bus Campaign in this country earlier in the year, when people asked whether anyone was likely to read the signs declaring “There’s probably no God – now stop worrying and enjoy your life”, and suddenly and immediately realise that they’re wasting their time believing a load of nonsense.

Well, no, obviously that’s never what was meant to happen. I also doubt many people have ever opened a drawer in a bedside table in a hotel while looking for some stationery to nick, picked up an unfamiliar tome called “The Bible” that some bloke called Gideon apparently left behind and forgot to pack, and found every word of it utterly and instantly convincing. The abrupt all-or-nothing approach isn’t what those are for either.

Some people actually are persuaded, often rather suddenly, when presented with a weight of evidence of which they’d been previously honestly unaware. I remember hearing Michael Shermer, now Editor in Chief of Skeptic magazine, talking about a class in evolutionary theory he took in his early years as a devout Christian. For the first time, he got to see what it was all about, without the facts being twisted and distorted into easily mockable straw men by the creationist filter, and it very quickly dawned at him that there was actually something to this.

But it usually doesn’t work like that. People’s opinions don’t tend to leap quantumly (if “quantum” hasn’t had its own adverb before now, then it should do) from one extreme to the other as a result of a single exposure to one individual argument (or collection thereof). And the success or value of a book like Dawkins’s shouldn’t be judged by how many irrational zealots find their minds being opened upon reading its contents. Instead, it adds to the overall conversation. It nudges the balance of total verbiage a little way in our favour. It reaffirms that the religious creationists and other promoters of anti-science (who don’t seem to worry about the “accommodating” tone of their own proselytising and who, let’s remember, are the ones who are wrong) don’t get to go unchallenged.

M&K’s criticism seems to be largely that this book won’t appeal to a very specific audience, which they’ve designated for it, and which they’ve defined as being people to whom this book is unsuited anyway. Which seems silly. Maybe the intended audience consists more of people like me, in which case I imagine it will do rather well, because I’m looking forward to it. My favourite Dawkins book so far has been The Ancestor’s Tale, in which – as with most of his stuff before The God Delusion – anti-evolutionism is briefly dismissed as being silly, and the point isn’t laboured beyond a page or so, letting him just get on with discussing the science.

I get the impression that The Greatest Show On Earth will be similar in this regard, but is likely to be criticised as attacking religion anyway. This is because sometimes reality clashes with people’s groundless, irrational beliefs, and so people object to being told things like “The Earth is around 4.6 billion years old”. Ideally, that would be all that needed to be said on the matter, but some people do take issue with this, so Dawkins will probably expand along the lines of “No, it really is, people have checked”. But if telling people that they’re wrong about these things is somehow unaccommodating or alienating, then it’s either the believers or reality itself that are at fault, not the scientists pointing this out.

People who think the universe is six thousand years old are wrong. We know this through numerous fascinating scientific means. It doesn’t obstruct anyone’s religious convictions to say this publicly. If your religious convictions are factually incorrect, that’s for you to reconcile in your own way. But science can’t be a part of any kind of “truce” that involves not pursuing and rebutting religious claims that assert a status of fact or scientific credibility.

I had planned to go through that article bit by bit, briefly responding to each segment in turn. Instead, I seem to have taken one quote from near the start, and just gone wherever my thoughts took me, for about 1200 words. It’s now past midnight, so I’m just going to post it up and save any pesky details like proof-reading, fact-checking, and clarity for tomorrow.

Here’s PZ’s take on this same article, which may be useful, depending on just how incoherent I became in my last few paragraphs.

Read Full Post »

Or “loving” the monkey. Or the bishop. Or… well, those are the obvious ones.

The guys on the Amateur Scientist podcast mentioned this thing called Love Won Out in their most recent episode. It’s one of those “ex-gay” projects, where guys who have successfully repressed their burning hunger for hot, sweaty man-flesh teach others how to do the same. It might be worth collecting my thoughts on that idea as a whole sometime, but not today. I don’t think I have any novel or inventive opinions on it, anyway. There’s no need for Jesus to be cock-blocking anyone, and that’s about it.

But when I first heard the name of the ministry, I somehow heard it as “Love One Out”. And I wasn’t sure to make of it, because whereas “Love Won Out” fairly straightforwardly implies that anything deviating from hetero wedded bliss can’t possibly have anything to do with love and must therefore be reviled, “Love One Out” sounds more like a surprisingly gentle and delicate euphemism for masturbation. Like if you’d run yourself a nice hot bath, and lit a few candles, giving yourself a really romantic evening in alone, before loving one out on the soft silk sheets of your single bed.

Good to know my tendency toward uncomfortable mental imagery isn’t being quenched by the fact that I now know my dad reads this blog regularly.

I’m still knackered from socialising, so that’s all you’re getting today. Night night.

Read Full Post »

Just a very short one today, because I’ve had an exhausting day of social obligations. But the latest Carnival of the Godless is up, hosted by the Radical Atheist. That’s more interesting than anything I’ve got for today.

Read Full Post »

Just quickly, because it’s Friday and I have far more important things to be sleeping.

The New Humanist blog links to a site offering a valuable service. If you believe the time is near when you and the other true believers will start floating up into the air and vanish from this world, then you might want to enlist the aid of Eternal Earth-Bound Pets.

One of the major design flaws of the Rapture is that, when you are lifted bodily to Heaven, your cat won’t have anyone left to open their cans of food (which is the only reason they ever bothered to keep you around in the first place, obviously). I can only blame a lack of foresight on God’s part when he put this system into place. But, thanks to some more forward-thinking atheists, you no longer have to worry.

Register with these guys, and for a modest fee you can be assured that your beloved pets will be taken care of after you’ve ascended, by some of those heathens who won’t be invited along with you.

It’s not the first time I’ve seen this sort of idea expressed, though I’m not sure how many people have tried turning it into a valid business model before. So, what do we think of this? Inspired or exploitative? I think they’re sincere and up-front about what they’re offering, but I also think I’d feel like too much of a dick if I took money from someone purely because of their own delusions. Even if they know what they’re getting and it’s what they really want to pay for, is it right to act as an enabler?

Eh, maybe I’ll have the answer in the morning.

Read Full Post »

Yep. I’m talking about politics again.

In theory, I did have a more-sort-of-guideline-than-an-actual-rule about not doing that any more. But apparently that’s being abandoned almost as soon as it was established. I’m not going to get very in-depth or academic, but I feel on fairly safe ground when I ask:

What the fuck, America?

Yeah, it’s the healthcare thing. It’s the retarculous fuckosity that’s dominating what could be a useful national conversation.

It’s the mindless, droning repetition of mantras like “greatest healthcare system in the world”, based on the inviolable rationale that “USA = #1”, without any noticeable consideration of what factors might actually make a country’s healthcare system “great” or less so.

It’s the unimaginative and lackadaisical slapping of a Nazi label onto any policy that displeases you in any small way, restricting any counter-arguments to bellowed accusations of “HITLER HITLER HITLER“.

It’s the way that all of this is reported nationwide, constantly, as if it were really representative of the convictions and actions of a substantial and significant proportion of the country.

It’s the even scarier idea that that might actually be the case.

This piece sums a lot of it up pretty well, and the phrase “death panels” really does neatly encapsulate the problem. Anyone actually referring to these things, as if they were anything but figments, either knows the origin of the phrase and the real details of the policy it describes, or they don’t.

If they don’t, then they’re cluelessly parroting someone else’s ideas, probably because the anti-Obama sentiment suits them fine and that’s all they need. If they do, then they’ve abandoned all pretence of intellectual honesty, and appear not to care how much bullshit they have to make up to win.

The disingenuous nature of Fox News in particular is staggering. Last night’s The Daily Show demonstrated brilliantly what an important role Jon Stewart and his team are playing. They’re at the front lines of the battle to at least keep the debate internally consistent, and to some degree reasonable, enough that the rest of us aren’t head-desking so hard that splinters are stabbing us in the brain.

After the hilarious bollocks some Conservatives have been throwing out about institutions like the National Health Service in the UK in an effort to discredit the idea of socialised healthcare, comedy writer Graham Linehan started a campaign on Twitter. He asked people to report some of the NHS’s success stories that they’d experienced, the care they’d received, and the benefits that had been provided for them by the state, tagged with #welovetheNHS. It took off massively. It was the biggest thing happening on Twitter for several days straight, and produced thousands of stories about people whose parents or children or friends wouldn’t be alive today without the free help provided by the state.

There was a backlash, obviously, but the criticism that was actually interesting came mostly from UK people, in favour of the NHS, who simply didn’t find this form of debate constructive. After all, wasn’t it just countering useless, anecdotal data with more useless, anecdotal data?

I’m still inclined to think that #welovetheNHS does serve a valuable purpose, but we shouldn’t start thinking that this collection of stories amounts to the whole of the opposing side of the argument. It demonstrates the vacuity of certain conservative claims, perhaps, but a debate on public healthcare should be about much more than that. @jackofkent started a new hashtag (at least he’s the first person I remember seeing use it, and I think it began with him), called #wehaveahealthyscepticismabouttheNHS. Ideally, this would be a much better description of the tone of the conversation. It didn’t take off in quite the same way on Twitter, but I think there are a lot of people out there who want to have that healthily skeptical discussion. Maybe even a few right-wing American conservatives who have reasonable points to make, but are reduced to head-desking even harder than I am at seeing the lunacy of those perceived as speaking for them.

The question it seems to come down to, as is often the case in so many other areas of discussion, is: What’s the best approach to take to this loud, persistent, resourceful, and (perhaps irredeemably) irrational onslaught of zealots?

I guess there are parallels to religion in here, which you’ve probably thought about in more depth than I have. There’s much division among atheists about the best way to talk about religion and its adherents, and how to interact with them. Some are merciless and unapologetic in their promotion of science and critical thinking in every area of life, regardless of the danger of religious folk being “offended” by the awkward facts that contradict their arbitrary beliefs. Others decry that group as “shrill” and “militant”, and tread far more carefully as they seek out common ground, aiming to gain acceptance by appearing non-threatening.

I tend to side with the likes of Richard Dawkins and PZ Myers on the militant atheism front, who are both very firmly in the former camp. I’m much less sure of the politically equivalent position, and whether I’d advise Obama taking such a firm stand in quite the same way. But judging by Barney Frank’s recent crowning moment of awesome, I’m tempted to think maybe a little bluntness would go a long way. Would it really do more harm than good to their popularity, if once in a while the White House would just call someone a moron and have done with it?

This is way more than I meant to write about this. I’ll stop now. But you guys carry on. Take this wherever you like, I anticipate the politics getting way over my head soon anyway.

Read Full Post »

Nope, sorry, I got nothin’. I’ve not written anything today aside from some silly jokes on Twitter from work, and now I have to get up again in 7 hours, so it looks like I’m taking another day off.

If I didn’t know better, I’d say I was lazy and unmotivated.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »

%d bloggers like this: