Archive for September, 2009

It’s my badminton night, so you’re not going to get much. But it’s International Blasphemy Day, and I can’t let that go unnoted.

So, for what it’s worth:

– I deny the divinity of the holy spirit.

– Here’s a picture I made of the prophet Muhammed doing a dance: O-Z—<

– I believe in and worship your preferred god/gods, and fully subscribe to your belief system of choice. And now I don't, they're all fake. Universal apostasy FTW.

– That piece of halibut was good enough for Jehovah.

– The flying spaghetti monster is rhetorically useful, but entirely fictitious. And pirates aren't that interesting.

Why I think the occasional outburst of irreverence is important is something I think I covered pretty well in this article, way back when. It’s interesting seeing people’s different responses to today, though. I’m going the fairly straightforward route, partly because I’m too tired to be creative, but not all atheists are getting on board in the same way.

For instance, there’s this dissenting view, which sees the whole thing as childish intolerance. I disagree. What some religious people deem unacceptable – even what they deem punishable by death – doesn’t even come close to being hate speech. You really don’t have to try very hard to offend millions of people, and if you’re just speaking freely without “respecting” their made-up nonsense the way they want you to, it’s not up to you to tread oh so carefully to avoid bruising any delicate egos.

Yes, being irreverent and satirical can often overflow into being an obnoxious ass for no good reason. But going not an inch further than “calling attention to Biblical, Koranic or scientific criticisms” in a rigorously scientific way, as this article suggests, is too much to ask. Some times it’s entirely appropriate to say, “You and your holy book want me dead if I don’t fall in step? Well fuck you, and fuck your god.” We’re not being the first to trample the line of civility.

And remember, in most parts of the Western world, Christianity is far from a denigrated minority struggling against oppression and constant prejudice. Neither the UK or the US has yet had a non-Christian elected leader. Atheists are still the minority, and we’re standing up for ourselves.

That said, there are some pockets of society in which atheism is such a comfortably established standard that we may have to be wary of getting too sure of ourselves, and something like Blasphemy Day can easily become an exercise in aggressive chest-beating. Brian Thompson in particular has chosen to “blaspheme” more against some kinds of standard atheistic thinking than anything else. I hope we don’t reach the stage where saying something like “There are some lovely turns of phrase in the King James version of the Bible” actually becomes a controversial thing to say.

So, yes, we do need to be able to take some mockery on our own side. Although atheists are often said to have no dogma, no guiding principles, beyond a simple lack of god-belief, it can be tempting for skeptics and rational thinkers to form some sort of united front, assuming they fully understand their position on everything, and slip somewhat into autopilot as regards dismissing other points of view. But although atheism is a fast-growing minority, it is still a minority. There are still a lot of places out there where coming “out” as an atheist is hard, and can be a serious and troubling life experience – far more than where being openly Christian would cause similar problems. There are a lot of people out there who need things like the Atheist Bus Campaign, and the Freedom From Religion Foundation‘s posters, and people speaking the unspeakable on International Blasphemy Day, to let them know that it really is okay. Humility and self-deprecation is important, but don’t lay it on too thick too fast.

Really tired. Yay blasphemy. Bed now. Hope this is coherent.

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If you want to know what I think of the Atheist’s Guide to Christmas, a book that’s just been released, which was put together by the lovely Ariane Sherine (organiser of the Atheist Bus Campaign) and which features essays from many of the grooviest godless guys and gals of our time, you can read my review on Amazon. What follows is something like what I might have written for the book, had I been asked to contribute able to fit it into my jam-packed schedule at the time.

Most atheists who are open about their non-belief – and have any interest in following the kind of discussions about it that some of us obsess over and base entire blogs and websites around – are used to having quite a variety of epithets and accusations hurled at us from those kind and generous people who follow the commands of a loving god. They tell us how we’re going to burn in hell throughout eternity, for instance, or that our stubborn disobedience must be borne of hatred and foolishness, or that we’re all amoral maniacs who have no reason not to embark on a constant rampage of hedonistic violence whenever it suits us.

It’s this last one I want to focus on here: the idea that any atheists who aren’t raping and murdering left, right and centre are somehow “doing it wrong”. The notion that we’re failing to understand the ethical implications of our worldview, and ought to be acting like despicable bastards if we had any sense.

I’m sure I don’t need to explain to anyone here that there do exist a number of good reasons not to revert to feral sociopathy whenever it suits us, beyond simply the threat of eternal punishment from some supposed authority. Even most religious people are moral and compassionate for reasons entirely unrelated to their fear of retribution or a desire to please some celestial overlord. But in a way, the lame accusation about the godless is… nearly right. Sort of. In some regards.

Atheists certainly aren’t without morals, but we are without sin. The very concept of sin is meaningless without a religious context. Unless you take it to mean nothing more than an immoral or unethical act, or a crime against some earthly authority, there’s simply nobody for atheists to sin against. We may have a moral system rooted in humanism, and there are often penalties for flouting human-instituted laws – but any commandments issued solely by God, we are totally free to ignore. If the deity of some religious sect wants things done in a particular way, or requires certain obeisances, rituals, or the like, and proclaims that it would be “sinful” to neglect these duties, we needn’t pay any attention.

We can act freely, with no code of restraint at all on the matter of sin and religious tradition. We can do whatever the hell we like.

This doesn’t mean we will, of course. In many cases, the blasphemy, heresy, satire, and other brands of irreligious disrespect to which we are entitled will overlap with our own moral codes of behaviour. I could offend every supreme being you care to mention as vilely as I can find words for (and tomorrow I may well do just that), but civility sometimes holds me back. I have friends who are Christians, and there’s no need for me to be a dick about it. But this is exactly my point: I can pick and choose my own behaviours on this matter, based on what suits me. When it comes to sin, and theological tenets, and religious traditions, I make up my own rules.

Religious traditions like Christmas.

I love Christmas. As I said in that review (which, as of this moment, 10 out of 10 people found helpful), it seems like an opportunity for everyone to just be happy and nice to each other for absolutely no reason. And I think this can only be a good thing.

Admittedly, it has its boring elements. There are several times throughout the day when many people feel obliged to go to church and remind God how great he is. Some of the more Jesus-centric music is pretty drab. And what’s the point of an advent calendar that just has some rubbish pictures behind the doors and no chocolate?

But the great thing about being an atheist, and thus being bound to no religious rules, is that I can disregard all that stuff I don’t like. And the even greater thing is that I can indulge in all the fun bits as much as I can feasibly make happen. Decorating a tree, exchanging presents, eating a gorgeous roast dinner, spending time with my increasingly half-heartedly religious family… count me in. Even listening to some seasonal carols, and maybe singing along with some songs about Jesus. Whether these are important parts of somebody else’s belief system needn’t concern me at all. Whether I’m having fun (within the limits of my regular, secular principles) is the only thing that I need to feel obliged to.

So, I’ll take a pass on the worship, but look forward to putting on a compilation CD with some choirs singing Silent Night. Yes please to the angel on the tree, the rousing harmonies of O Come All Ye Faithful, and Elf ; no thanks to the eggnog, chestnuts, nativity plays, and “remembering the true meaning” of anything. I’ll wish people a Merry Christmas, a Happy Holidays, and whatever other festive greeting they’d prefer. I’ll revel in Christmas spirit, and I’ll co-opt whatever sacred traditions I damn well please.

I can even use the obvious Tiny Tim reference as a sign-off, and not care about the faultiness of the premise:

God bless us, every one.

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You keep saying that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.
– Inigo Montoya

This is a staple of pseudoscience. Not quoting The Princess Bride – everyone does that too much, regardless of their scientific credibility. I mean anomaly hunting. But the anomalies that woo-mongers think they’re looking for often aren’t anomalous in any useful, scientific sense of the word.

A scientific anomaly is a fact that is strange or unusual, in that it doesn’t fit into the model suggested by a particular theory. It’s some piece of data which genuinely oughtn’t to be there, if our present understanding is completely correct.

A scientific anomaly is emphatically not any event or occurrence that makes you go, “Oooh, that’s spooky“.

For instance. If biologists ever observed a modern chimpanzee giving birth to human offspring, that would be an anomaly totally irreconcilable with the current theory of evolution. This is true despite the persistently ignorant insistence of some creationists, who think that this is exactly what would be needed to finally prove Darwin right. Similarly, a verifiable discovery of those famous rabbits in the Precambrian would be entirely anomalous, and could not be accounted for within evolution.

If psychics exist, they would presumably be able to demonstrate their powers under controlled experimental conditions. If their rate of success at telling me what number I’m thinking of was sufficiently above what you’d expect from chance guesswork, then this would be an anomalous result, incompatible with the current scientific worldview which does not admit psychic powers. So, we would need to update our picture of the universe to accommodate this. This kind of anomaly can’t simply be left hanging.

One real anomaly, which intruded into astronomy in the mid-19th century, concerned the orbit of the planet Uranus. We had a wonderful theory of how everything in the solar system moved, and could predict where all the known planets would be at future times with fantastic accuracy, using Newton’s law of gravitation. But Uranus wasn’t quite behaving. People had checked and double-checked the numbers, but the seventh planet was definitely wandering very slightly off course, if the information they were plugging into the calculations was right.

So, this anomaly prompted people to start wondering what was going on that we weren’t seeing. For the most part, we had a pretty good theory going, and it turned out that it could be saved if we supposed that there was another planet further out, tugging on Uranus’ orbit a little with its gravitational pull. Then the numbers would all work beautifully again.

Crucially, though, they weren’t just assuming that some other massive body must exist out there, because the theory just had to be true. They were refining the theory, adding new elements to it, and in so doing they made a new prediction, by which they could test whether the new version of the theory was any good. Theories do that. If it can’t predict specific future observations, it ain’t a theory. And in this case, the Newtonian model of the solar system predicted a new planet of a specific mass, in a specific place, with a specific orbit.

They worked out where it should be, aimed their telescopes thataway, and, lo and behold: Neptune.

So, looking for anomalies and ways to account for them can be productive. But if you go chasing after things that aren’t truly anomalies in this sense, you’re not going to be doing anything as awesome as finding new planets. It just becomes pseudoscience.

The kinds of anomalies that some people go hunting for don’t hint at improvements to good scientific theories, but consist simply of any result which stands out in some way. Anything that looks a bit weird can be seen as an “anomaly” – even though weirdness is often a fundamental and entirely expected feature of the universe. Not every theory should be expected to immediately explain every observation. To suggest that a theory needs to be entirely thrown out, and replaced with some entirely new paradigm, is a common overreaction to one small “anomaly” being found.

So, when anomaly hunters approach an idea that’s actually pretty solid and widely accepted – say, that 9/11 was perpetrated by a band of Islamic extremists, or that ghosts don’t exist – they might pick up on some small factors that seem at first glance not to fit perfectly with the established explanation – say, that “fire can’t melt steel”, or that there’s something strange in your neighbourhood – and use these to call the established explanation into question. The very fact that anomalies exist – in this sense of strange-seeming things that can’t be immediately explained – is held up as evidence of the weakness of the prevailing theory.

But it may well easily be shown, with a little more work, that the prevailing theory is entirely consistent with everything we’ve seen – say, by slowly explaining how chemistry works, or by just growing up. These aren’t genuine anomalies, in that they don’t really need any new phenomena to be invoked to explain them. They fit just fine into a description of the world that we already have.

The kinds of anomalies that people latch onto might be things that we really don’t know the answer to, and can’t explain with certainty to everyone’s absolute satisfaction. But y’know, those are actually okay too. The unknown is pretty consistent with a lot of good ideas. Failing to absolutely nail every single detail of everything that’s going on is not scientifically anomalous at all. There’s no problem if it’s just an uncertainty; it’s only when something is truly inexplicable that your theory needs to be re-worked.

Every so often, a person might see some strange-looking lights in the sky which they can’t accurately identify. These reports are exactly the types of anomalies that UFO-enthusiasts go hunting for, but they’re not comparable to the problem with the orbit of Uranus. There’s nothing about a world free from alien visitors which implies that everyone will know exactly what they’re looking at every single time they spot a thing in the air. People occasionally squinting up at the sky and going “Wassat? I dunno… some geese maybe? Helicopter?” doesn’t undermine the skeptical position, because that could easily happen if there weren’t any aliens around. It would take much more than that – a genuine scientific anomaly, entirely lacking in plausible naturalistic explanations – before their case is supported.

This actually relates to Ockham’s razor, which I’ve apparently neglected to provide its own entry yet. These supposed “anomalies” are often held up as being evidence of some new and strange phenomenon, but if that phenomenon is something completely unproven, then a more mundane explanation might be far more reasonable to assume, even if we can’t be sure of all the details. There was no plausible mundane explanation – one that didn’t introduce some new assumption – as to why Uranus’ orbit shouldn’t fit the calculations; but people thinking they see stuff in the sky can easily be explained without bringing aliens into the equation. The Moon confuses some people. We know that boring stuff is often what causes these things. Saying that it might do so again, even without absolute proof, isn’t much of a stretch.

To see someone getting this particular point really wrong, check out Steve Novella‘s blog on this topic, in the section where he mentions Richard Hoagland. The “anomalies” that guy finds have only the flimsiest connection to his pet crazy ideas, and have very easy explanations already that don’t require massive leaps of logic to some totally new concept. When you have to invent vast alien civilisations and sinister, all-encompassing government cover-ups to account for the fact that there’s no other evidence for what you’re saying… at what point do you decide that maybe some mountains just happened to make a kinda interesting shape that one time? It’s a quirk, but not an anomaly.

Exploring the limits of a prevailing scientific theory’s power to explain the available evidence is one thing. But anomaly hunting, tracking down any slightly funny-looking result or interesting quirk of data, and using it to bolster the standing of your alternative hypothesis, however tenuous the connection might be, regardless of whether it matches with any of your own predictions, and without exhaustively checking whether it can be reconciled with the original theory, is not good science. It’s a wander into crazyville.

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The 43rd Humanist Symposium is up now, over at the Prior Perceptions Blog. I’m going to be hosting the next one, on October 18th.

If you post anything in your blog between now and then which you’d like to be featured, email a link to cubiksrube, at hotmail dot co dot uk. Full guidelines for how the symposium works are here, so check those over to find out about the kind of thing we’re looking for.

This time, I’ll aim to send a quick acknowledgement email reply within 24 hours of each submission received. That wasn’t something I prioritised when I was hosting the Skeptics’ Circle, but it’s probably good form. So, if you don’t hear back from me within a day of sending your link in, feel free to send another email my way, or leave a comment here if you don’t seem to be getting through.

Okeydoke. That should do it.

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Bible study

I’m feeling healthier today, and writing more stuff, hoping to get a new Skeptictionary entry up tomorrow. For today, just one quick thought, out of nowhere, with no real context, but possibly something worth thinking about. Either that, or one which I’ll marvel at the pointless of in the morning.

I was reading some blog yesterday, which had the common irritating conflation of various entirely different ideas under the heading of “evolution”. Mercifully I forget where this was, but there are plenty of other examples around, not least among various ramblings from Kent Hovind. He and others talk about the “cosmic evolution” of space and time, the “chemical evolution” of heavy elements, and the “biological evolution” of life, as if they all came under one general heading of things that “evolutionists” believe.

Of course, describing these different aspects of science as “evolution”, in the sense of cumulative change over time, isn’t necessarily inappropriate. And many people who accept biological evolution would also accept the other notions he describes, simply because it’s all good science. But they’re entirely different fields, and carelessly ignoring the boundaries between them is just one of many ways that people like Hovind show how little they understand what “evolutionists” actually claim.

Anyway, to get to the point, I had the idea of drawing a parallel that might explain quite why it’s a bad idea for them to group all these types of evolution together as if they were basically the same sort of thing.

A common phrase used by some religious types is “Bible study”. These Bible studiers often read the text inside their books to put together a historical narrative of events; they might read the teachings of Jesus and gain wisdom from his philosophies; some of them examine the calligraphy and language used in the book, and work to categorise different Bibles by the time and place of printing; others may dust their Bible for fingerprints, and study the results to see who’s been using it lately.

These are all ways of studying the Bible. And yet, they’re all very different activities, which don’t necessarily intersect all that much with each other. If someone mentions their Bible study to you, and you start asking about how fine the powder has to be to accurately pick out the whorls and arches on an individual’s digits, it might turn out that there are two completely different conversations there.

Hmm. Is there anything to this? If not, I continue to plead fatigue and illness. I’ll do better tomorrow.

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Guess who’s just bought his ticket to TAM FUCKING LONDON, bitches!

(Hint: someone whose crappy annoying cold/flu symptoms had fucking better have cleared up properly by next weekend.)

Yeah, I’m still ill and have nothing to add today. Except that the new Skeptics’ Circle is up. Go there. I sleep now.

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This sodding cold/flu/thing still isn’t leaving me alone. So I’m too tired and sickly to rant properly about the latest tedious story of politically correct secular fanaticism / “just take the damn necklace off when you’re at work” (delete as appropriate for your own chosen polarised extreme).

Okay, I have the energy for one quick jibe:

Everyone I have ever worked with has clearly known I am a Christian – it is what motivates me to care for others

Some of us are motivated to care for others by a sense of compassion and basic human decency. But I guess that’s not for everyone.

Also, the latest Scientia Pro Publica blog carnival is up, and was kind enough to feature a post of mine among many other, better informed articles. The guy spelt my name wrong, but go have a look anyway.

Random discussion question of the day: If their nature is defined as being the exact opposite of you, what would be the predominant characteristics of your arch-nemesis? As I was discussing earlier on Twitter (follow me here), one of the things I’d have to watch out for would be someone who really hates marzipan.

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