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Archive for June, 2010

I aten’t dead

But I’m still taking a holiday. Because I can, dammit.

Seriously, this heat is draining my creativity and motivation, and it’s been a while since not writing anything has felt this good. So, I’m going to keep trying that for a little while longer. See you soon.

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Penn Jillette kicks ass. I kinda don’t even care how much I disagree with him on some stuff, which is actually less than you’d think when you really get down to it.

– If you’re in the UK, the British Humanist Association want you to email your MP to try to ensure that good science gets taught in schools. It looks like “faith schools” might be given even more of a chance to teach kids whatever reality-ignoring crap they like, which is worrying, and letting your MP know where you stand could make a difference. You can do this through the BHA’s site on that link, and don’t forget places like WriteToThem and TheyWorkForYou.

– Orac continues to knock it out of the park on the subject of liars who claim they can cure cancer.

– And finally. If anyone ever tries to claim that atheists are immoral, or that “you can’t be good without God,” or that regular church-going folk are any better than the rest of us, or that there is any positive causal correlation between being religious and being a decent human being… remind them that a guy was killed by his wife and children because he changed the channel from a gospel show.

That’s it. That calls bullshit forever on any religious claims to the moral high ground. Anyone of any religion can be just as fucked up as anyone else. This is the kind of thing that some believers insist atheists should be doing, because we have no moral basis without God. Well, believers are out there killing their families and raping children too, so pardon me for not feeling too ethically insecure by comparison.

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FGM FTL

What’s your immediate reaction to this sentence:

University research into the long term effects of using a sharp blade to hack bits off the genitalia of young girls.

If you thought something along the lines of “sounds pretty fucked up to me“, you’re not alone. (That quote isn’t the abstract of a scientific paper or anything, but I’m paraphrasing pretty accurately what’s going on.)

I won’t go into any of the graphic detail described in the write-up on that site, for which you can thank a combination of ‘lazy’ and ‘ew’, working together to make me want to stop talking about this as quickly as possible. But you should probably read it.

If the reporting of this “research” is accurate – and that may be a big “if” – then I cannot fathom a way by which this is remotely conscionable. I’d love to hear someone try and explain it. Seriously. Someone needs to have a fucking good explanation for something like this.

I’m really trying not to be too knee-jerky. I know almost nothing about how most kinds of scientific research work, and wouldn’t necessarily know a legitimate, carefully controlled experiment into sexual and reproductive health from a dangerous and sloppy one unless it was explained to me very carefully.

But all the obvious criticisms being made seem pretty convincing so far. Oddly enough, I’m inclined to side with the people who don’t approve of cutting a six-year-old child’s clitoris down to what you deem a more acceptable size and then asking how strongly they feel this vibrator you’re pressing against what remains of their sex organs.

Aaaaand that was one of the least fun sentences I’ve ever typed on this blog.

The F Word blog is also worth reading on this, as is this post on Heresy Corner, which brings up something important that deserves a new paragraph, now that I think of it.

The doctor involved in the controversial procedures has a solid background in doing good medical science. He has plaudits and accomplishments aplenty, which the Heresiarch has been good enough to research so us lazy folk don’t have to.

In short, whatever you might think of this guy, he’s a proper doctor. And what he’s doing here is, at worst, an invasive and inappropriate medical procedure which fails to sufficiently take into account the wellbeing of his child patients.

Don’t get me wrong, that still leaves the potential for a horrendous situation. But however bad that might be, what he’s pretty definitely not is an inhuman slathering paedophile who’s somehow sneaked his way into professional medicine so he can fiddle with young girls. And it won’t help the ethical debate if things devolve to the point where the only arguments being made against this dubious medical research are the mob’s outraged screams about touching children.

Right. Now, I’m going to get started on my weekend, which I’m hoping will have no sexual assault in it at all. Fingers crossed!

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So there was this statue in Ohio called King of Kings.

It was a massive sculpture of Jesus, but only the top half of him, so it looked like he’d sunk into quicksand and was reaching up for someone to help pull him out.

And on Monday night it was struck by lightning and burned down.

All the fibreglass and styrofoam that made up the structure itself is gone; there’s just a scorched metal frame left there.

The church that put it there is apparently planning to rebuild it. To rebuild the artificially created image of their god, which was struck by a bolt of lightning and destroyed.

Now.

I’m not aware of what the faithful churchgoers are saying about this event in general. No doubt they’re upset to have lost such a famous and popular landmark. Probably they’re glad that nobody seems to have been hurt. Maybe some are disappointed by the financial toll this will take.

But I don’t think there’s a lot of serious consideration among believers that this might have been God’s will.

Among all these people who devote substantial portions of their lives to their church and their worship of God, and who fervently believe that he is real and present in the world, nobody seems to be taking this as a sign.

A manmade object, which could in many ways be seen as an idol, has been destroyed by a lightning bolt – perhaps the single most iconic, archetypical, quintessential “sign from the heavens” in the history of religion – and none of the followers of the god in question appear to be reading anything into this at all.

It’s just a random act of nature, presumably. A “real tragedy“. Just one of those things that happens, I guess, and we deal with it as best we can, replacing what’s lost or adjusting to the aftermath.

And, y’know. They’re right, obviously.

The only problem is that, if they’re going to take this approach, it also completely negates the presence of God in their lives.

Because everything that happens, “just happens”. And if a lightning bolt striking down your graven image isn’t a sign from heaven, then neither is anything else.

So, look.

Any time a sports team wins a game, you don’t get to claim that God was on that team’s side, even if someone on that team prayed for victory beforehand (given that they basically all do, on every team, in every game).

Any time someone being treated for a serious illness goes into remission, you don’t get to put it down to God’s intervention. Over 11 million people in the US alone have a history of cancer. And that’s just the ones who haven’t died yet. Million-to-one spontaneous “miracles” happen pretty regularly when the numbers are that big.

Any time a pilot with decades of experience brilliantly executes a safe landing in horrifying and dangerous conditions, you don’t get to give some holy overseer the credit for that guy’s awesomeness, skill, and coolness in the face of possible fiery death.

Any time it’s a nice day during the fucking summer, you don’t get to pretend it must be magic. There’s nearly seven billion people on the planet; some of them are going to appreciate the weather some of the time, it doesn’t mean you’re a precious snowflake and all this was made especially for you.

You don’t get to do any of those things any more.

Unless

…you also admit that God wanted Touchdown Jesus destroyed, and the people rebuilding it are arrogantly defying his divine will.

(And that every child who ever died of leukemia was God’s idea too.)

Or… you can draw some coherent distinction between the two cases, and explain why the instances that benefit you and support your pre-conceived biases are genuine examples of divine intervention, and the ones that it’s more convenient for you to ignore are just examples of shit happening.

Or… you’re okay with admitting that there is no consistency to your own entirely self-serving belief system, and that you wilfully ignore any evidence that doesn’t fit into the precise set of ideas you’re already comfortable with, regardless of how much reality has to be disregarded to maintain this frail and pitiful illusion.

Up to you.

I also wrote something sillier, funnier, and (most importantly) shorter about this story on my other blog, The Daily Half-Truth.

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Sorry for the silence. I have a good old-fashioned rant almost ready for tomorrow, and a few links to briefly moan about now.

Gosh, I make this blog sound like so much fun, don’t I?

– Let’s start with a nice list of things atheists didn’t do. Specifically, some religiously motivated acts of immorality, where if the people involved had been godless we all would have been much better off. I’m still waiting for any equivalent examples of atheists doing terrible things that could have been prevented if they were Christians instead.

– Remember that time Danny Dyer was kind of a twat? (I know that’s not the term I used at the time; I’m trying to make this place more family friendly.) Well, some enterprising chap decided to use Dyer’s probable cuntitude as a springboard to launch a fundraiser for a women’s charity. You can still donate money to a great cause there, and so far this one pledge has raised more than four times the opening weekend box office take of Dyer’s recent film Pimp. It’s worth joining in with if you want to piss off Danny Dyer by supporting a project that’s against the concept of cutting women in the face with a knife. You can find said enterprising chap’s account of this project here.

– Who the fuck is Victoria Jackson?

– And I have a tumblr account, but no idea what to do with it. If anyone wants to fill me in on what I could possibly use this thing for, that’d be very helpful.

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Yeah, so atheism again.

It’s still interesting and important, even if I’ve been drifting somewhat lately, toward other topics on which I’m even less qualified to comment.

And even aside from the occasional appalling and criminal outrage to get angry about, there are still things that wind me up about the ongoing religion discussion.

Here’s the question that’s been bothering me lately:

Why is atheism the only position you can take, in just about any category or field of knowledge, where people think that you must be claiming 100% absolute certainty?

I still regularly hear people banging on about how being agnostic is the only really rational position to take (as if it were mutually exclusive with atheism anyway), because you can’t be sure there’s no God, you can’t know absolutely everything about it, so it must only be intellectually honest to maintain a neutral middle ground.

I’m over-using the italics again already. It happens when I’m annoyed, and this is bollocks of an annoying nature.

I don’t believe in any god. I’m an atheist. There you go.

The idea that I must be 100% certain to make such a claim is entirely without precedent in all other areas of debate. If you expect me to simply stop at saying I’m an “agnostic”, or “undecided”, or “I don’t know” unless I’ve scanned every cubic micron of the cosmos and made absolutely certain there’s no deity hiding behind the dark matter… then why doesn’t this carry over into any other kind of idea or belief?

I’m also a capitalist. Although I’m iffy on exactly where I stand with regard to regulations, broadly speaking I support the idea of a free market economy.

But nobody’s ever told me that, unless I examine a detailed model of every single possible government based on common ownership of the means of production and determined empirically that no form of socialism could ever possibly be better for society, I shouldn’t use a word like “capitalist” which implies such absolute certainty, and insisted that I keep to the I-don’t-know middle ground.

I’m not a monarchist. I don’t support the idea of all political power being heritable and possessed by a single individual.

But I haven’t utterly ruled out every imaginable arrangement within this paradigm, and made absolutely sure that not one of them could ever possibly be functional as a system of government. And nobody would expect me to.

I am of the opinion that the bar of chocolate I’m about to eat doesn’t have any dogshit in. But have I even checked? Shouldn’t I really be ambivalent on the matter? Doesn’t arrogantly declaring “It’s just a chocolate bar, it’s got chocolate in it” imply an awful lot of certainty about the universe that I just don’t have a right to claim?

Well, no. It’s just what I reckon. It seems to make sense. If you want to prove me wrong, fine, maybe I’ll reconsider. But it looks to me like a chocolate bar. And it looks to me like there’s no god.

Not every religious person claims to be 100% irrevocably sure of their faith. But how many of them identify as “agnostic” rather than “Christian”, say, for the sake of intellectual rigour?

Sometimes we just reckon stuff. We could be wrong, but it’s what we think, and we’re waiting on a reason to change our minds.

Anyone else get bothered by this?

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I am also, in case you were wondering, not an Anti-Christ.

I’m less than certain what I want, and am very vague on the subject of how to get it.

I’ve been following the Broadsnark blog for a while now, and trying to learn a little something about the political philosophy of anarchism. I’ve flirted with libertarianism in the past, and I’m big on the idea of personal freedoms, so it’s an interesting concept.

It’s also extremely easy to know more about anarchism than almost everyone else. The term “anarchy” is usually only brought out to refer to things like riots, where large numbers of people are acting chaotically and aggressively, and society seems to have completely broken down.

But if you think that angry mobs throwing bricks through windows is a fair representation of anarchy, you might as well think that communists want to saw people’s legs off until everyone’s the same height.

Anarchists, broadly speaking, are opposed to the existence of a state, which uses force to coerce the general population into doing things they wouldn’t otherwise want to do. Within that criterion, there are many differing ideas, but they’re all basically against hierarchical authorities ordering people about.

With me so far? Congratulations! You now know more about anarchists than 98% of the world (and 100% of mainstream media outlets (note: both of these numbers are estimates that I just made up)).

Anyway, Mel’s latest post on Broadsnark is in some ways a good summing-up of why I’m not an anarchist.

She admits to some cognitive dissonance, and to trouble in settling on a complete set of “ideologically pure” points of view. Despite being against the state’s very existence, she admits that:

The need for the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and for social security is real.

It’s not hard to understand what’s causing her dilemma. The ideals she strongly believes in don’t allow for a governing authority… and yet the benefits such an authority can bring may be vital.

I’ve struggled with similar ideas myself. I’m against almost all restrictions on free speech, but do I really want the Westboro Baptist Church to be allowed to picket soldiers’ funerals? It would make things so much nicer if some powerful state force could just shut them up, wouldn’t it?

There are two obvious ways the dilemma can be resolved. On the one hand, you can acknowledge that holding unwaveringly and inflexibly to your fundamental principles is not, in practice, the best thing to do in every situation. Maybe some types of speech are so hateful, offensive, or damaging, that they should be restricted. Maybe some kind of governing state is necessary to provide for certain basic societal needs.

Alternatively, we could stick to our guns, grit our teeth against the unfortunate consequences that might not go entirely our way, and believe that these principles are worth holding onto, and are more noble and important than our momentary personal preferences. Yes, even despicable homophobes can have their say. Yes, freedom from authority is more important than any potential personal benefit from government handouts.

I often find myself going the compromise route. Although I like to consider myself a capitalist, I also think that various tax-funded social “safety nets” are a good thing, or at least have the potential to be. The NHS, for instance. I’m not sure what would replace that in an anarchist society, but I’m not convinced it would be an improvement. (Which isn’t to say the government-run NHS couldn’t be improved upon. Of course it could, but my optimism about what the state could achieve is what fundamentally sets me apart from most anarchists, I guess.)

As for Mel’s resolution of her internal struggle… well, it’s not really clear. She’s seen people who’d have had much less of a chance at having a decent life if not for state efforts like social security. But this itself isn’t persuasive enough to induce a compromise on principles. The conclusion she reaches is to “embrace the doubts, ambiguities, and moral dilemmas”. Which seems to be a useful but unsatisfying way of pushing the problem aside and deciding not to worry about any inconsistencies for now.

Personally, I have no trouble compromising on this one. There are drawbacks to a system of authority like a state, but centralised government can provide many things which I’m not convinced would otherwise exist, so the benefits of having the infrastructure seem worth the trade-off. (I still take issue with some aspects of the current arrangement, but that’s not to say I don’t think it should be there at all.)

So. Is compromise ever okay, if what you call your “principles” are to mean anything? Is it irrational fundamentalism not to allow some wiggle room based on the pragmatic effects of those principles? Are brick-throwing mobs always bad? Let me know what you think.

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– A list of ten reasons to support comprehensive sex education in schools.

My only real quibble is that it doesn’t cite any specific sources, or link to any raw data, but it’s still persuasive. (I also got a little twitchy about the implicit association between “faith” and “moral behavior” in point 8, but it’s a valid point they’re making.

– As recently suggested by Phil Plait, John Scalzi wrote a very interesting article a while ago about those particular Christians who aren’t really so Christ-y.

It’s pretty much dead on. A significant proportion of religious people are only really interested in arguing their own prejudices, and using religion to back those up whenever they can. Only 0.03% of the Bible’s rules relate to homosexuality in any way, and yet it’s covered by more than 40% of all public discourse on religious morality by Christian commentators. And even though I just completely made those numbers up, they’re still quite revealing.

– And it looks like these days Glenn Beck’s not even pretending to not be racist. He’s happily telling his radio show listeners all about a book he read and loved recently by a Nazi woman in which she describes “Negroes” as “backward”.

The Glenn Beck seal of approval there, being given to a woman who spoke at Nazi rallies during World War II.

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A 15-year-old girl had to stand in front of a crowd to apologise for being raped.

And no, not in one of those crazy, backward, foreign countries, where they wear funny clothes and do things differently from us, and have their own primitive religious ideas where women have to cover their whole bodies up and are sentenced to be raped for no crime.

This was in New Hampshire.

She got pregnant, as a result of being raped. And because she was female, she was a much more legitimate source of scandal and shame than the man who raped her. Which is no less primitive a concept than blaming women for stirring men to lustful thoughts because of their bodies.

Her pastor told her to apologise to the church congregation for her guilt, and that she should be glad she wasn’t being stoned to death, as would have happened “in Old Testament Times”.

That’s the Old Testament which forms a substantial part of the basis of the Christian religion, just to be clear.

The man who’d got her pregnant also apologised. For being unfaithful to his wife.

And if all this wasn’t sickening enough, there’s a comments thread with people trying to explain how a fellow Christian could do something like this.

We’re all sinners, after all, someone rationalises:

The only difference is they have accepted the message of Christ and they are placing their hope on the righteousness of Jesus Christ to cover their sins so they no longer have to be accountable for their sins

Yep. Rapists are better than you if they believe in Jesus enough to get them off the hook.

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I’m still on something of an annoying journalism kick.

That’s a kick against annoying journalism, I mean. It’s not annoying that I’m blogging about journalism more these days. At least, I’m not annoyed about that.

Stories like this one, however, do annoy me somewhat, because it’s about something I feel like I know just enough about to be able to comment on. Specifically, it’s about people taking drugs while in prison.

(Yeah, how gangsta does that make my life sound? Probably quite a lot less now that I’ve just attempted to use the word ‘gangsta’ so casually. Sigh. I am so white.)

The gist seems to be that a Conservative think-tank disapproves of drug addicted patients being given opiate substitutes like methadone while in prison. But they don’t seem to have a clear idea on what should be done instead.

One of the things I learned pretty soon in my time working in an addictions centre is that most heroin users really don’t want to be heroin users. Whatever you might think of the war on drugs, and the campaign to scare people out of taking them, one thing that’s true is that heroin can seriously fuck you up. And a lot of addicts know this, even as they start shoplifting or selling sex or breaking into cars to get money to buy more heroin.

Heroin’s really quite moreish, you see.

But methadone is pretty handy stuff, because for a lot of people a small regular dose of it will dramatically reduce the intense, uncontrollable craving that heroin leaves you with.

This is useful, because getting physically or psychologically dependent on heroin is very easy. And there are reasons why so few addicts choose to just voluntarily not have any more of it. These reasons include tremors, sweats, cravings, nausea, vomiting, hallucinations, fits, blackouts, and delirium tremens, among others.

None of which is much fun. This is why people who have started using heroin are often inclined to use more heroin. And this is why there exist structured treatment programmes to help these people.

So criticising the system which “maintains rather than halts” prisoners’ drug habits rather seems to be missing the point. Providing a substitute prescription means people can stop having to acquire heroin through their own means to deal with their addiction, and can start engaging in a more complete treatment programme, which includes things like counselling sessions and psychological advice on how to stay clean.

Most of this think-tank’s “Coming Clean” report (PDF link) seems to be focused on the problem of illegal drugs being smuggled into prisons, rather than the approach to substitute prescribing. This is obviously a significant issue, and I don’t feel equipped to tackle it in much depth, but I wonder if getting prisons completely drug-free isn’t essentially as doomed an ideal as the rest of the “war on drugs”.

In the bits that do focus on substitution, they seem mainly concerned that patients aren’t being mandated to detoxify from all drugs fast enough. But it’s not clear why reducing their doses of medication in a substantially reduced timeframe is always going to be a good thing.

There should certainly be emphasis on reduction with an eventual goal of abstinence, but the fact is that this might not always be clinically indicated, and bringing down someone’s dose of methadone with the aim of having them clean within two weeks could end up being counter-productive. If it’s too fast for them to handle the change, their cravings will flare up, and they’ll go back to taking heroin. (I hear that’s not hard to do, in prison.)

I didn’t have to look far to find an example of the Daily Mail being outraged at the “limitless free drugs” available to prison inmates. It’s not an especially raving or offensive article by their standards, but there’s still less of an understanding of substance misuse issues than you might naively hope for from serious journalism. Nobody’s “admitting defeat” here. The goal is still a safe reduction of harmful activities as much as it ever was.

“The new strategy has all the hallmarks of keeping addicts addicted,” they declare, without ever explaining what any of those hallmarks are, probably because it’s bollocks. A two-week detox doesn’t stop you being addicted to heroin, and often it’s simply not the most effective or practical way to achieve abstinence.

According to this same article, “two-thirds of all crime is drug-related”. A staggering proportion of the people who end up in jail are there because of, for instance, “acquisitive crimes”, necessitated entirely by the urgent need to obtain more drugs. I’m not going to get into the argument for legalising everything here, but surely the thing to offer heroin addicts that’s most helpful to everyone is to keep them out of a situation where the best option for them is to use some more heroin.

And sometimes simply detoxifying them safely and giving them a stern talking to about how drugs are bad isn’t the best way to do that. When I said that heroin was moreish, I was using understatement as a comical device. I hope that was clear. Heroin is highly addictive, and helping people to stop taking it any more is difficult. In the centre I work in, there are regular group meetings and one-to-one counselling sessions, and the team regularly liaise with other departments who organise things like social activities, gym memberships, childcare, and safe housing. This is all important if you want it to be worth people’s while staying clear of the stuff they’re addicted to.

This is quite long already, and I don’t quite have the energy to carry on ranting just now, about the popular dehumanising portrayal of all drug users as hardened criminal scum who made their own choices and should have to live with them. Suffice it to say for now that this view is deeply unfair. Maybe I’ll go into that another time.

Okay, I have just noticed one more thing to moan about here though:

Some inmates do try to give up drugs, but prison is the wrong place, from a physical, psychological and practical point of view, for addicts.

If they had somewhere more suitable to go, the prison population would be reduced by almost half.

Hmm. Imagine for a moment that the government actually introduced a scheme to take half of all current inmates out of the prison system, and gave them an inpatient detoxification in some clinical centre especially set up for their treatment.

Can you imagine the response of the Daily Mail and its readers to such outrageous taxpayer-funded coddling?

Anyway. It may not be a traditional unicorn chaser, but the Guardian have an article about prison drug treatment which I found a nice relief after all that.

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