Archive for October, 2012

Christians don’t want us to be rational.

That’s a slightly unfair summary of a lot of the conversation around this experiment. I’ve been told a few times that I should “remain open” to “ways in which my prayer could be answered”, for instance. Is it a rational approach that’s being encouraged here? Nothing sounds unreasonable about keeping “open” to possibilities.

And yet, “open-mindedness” is a virtue often espoused by people who really just want you to accept their claims at face value without “closed-mindedly” asking any critical questions. Sometimes they’re so wrapped up in their own world that any reaction other than immediate acceptance is seen as debate-stifling ideological closed-mindedness; sometimes, they’re just on the defensive somewhat because they’re so used to having their extraordinary claims questioned and picked apart.

QualiaSoup has a great video about the real meaning of open-mindedness. Less helpful is the perspective of someone on the Facebook group earlier today:

It’s not that I’m closed minded to the idea, it’s just that I already know what’s true.

Sigh. It’s this kind of thing that prompts me into championing belief in Thor and leprechauns, so that the people on the other side can see what it’s like.

Any good rationalist should be “open-minded”, in that we should be willing to honestly consider the worth of new ideas when they’re put to us. But you can’t dismiss us as being closed-minded when we’re unimpressed with your anecdote of someone who had cancer and then prayed and then didn’t have cancer any more (yes, these have been put forward as arguments for something-or-other in the group) – especially when we explain why it is that common coincidences are not convincing.

What some people seem to mean when they say “just be open-minded” is something akin to “go anomaly hunting and cherry-pick your evidence to support our conclusions”. If anything good happens to you over the 40-day course of this praying thing, maybe that’s God making himself known in your life!

Sure. Maybe. Maybe every time the cat over-excitedly claws my legs, that’s God punishing me for supporting gay rights and not sacrificing any goats in his honour lately. Maybe.

There’s also a lot of suggestion that something we need to ask God for – rather than simply that he provide any evidence at all that he’s actually there – is some sort of a “change in myself”. What sort of change isn’t very precisely specified, but I’ve never heard any suggested prayers that sound even remotely like “Lord, please help improve my powers of critical thinking, so that I may more rationally analyse the evidence for your glorious existence.”

If their claims about God are true, then a greater capacity to accurately assess truth claims is the only kind of change that makes sense. But I don’t think that’s the idea. I think the implicit message behind this “change in myself” idea is that the change should be “stop resisting and just go along with it already”. God, please make me more gullible so that I might believe in you.

I’m ready to assess any evidence as best I can. But I’m waiting on something pretty special before I start believing in any god. It’s ludicrous to believe something without a reason, so give me a reason.

If you disagree with that claim, you should give me all your money. Why? No reason. Just believe.


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In the paper by which this experiment is largely inspired, the author notes that Bertrand Russell, when discussing what he might have to say to God in the afterlife if such things turned out to exist, reported that he “would chide Him for not having provided enough ante-mortem evidence of his existence”. I think Richard Dawkins has made similar comments, and it’d be near the top of my own list of questions too in such an unlikely eventuality.

The author suggests, however, that God might shoot back: “Well, you didn’t ask me for any, did you?” – thus apparently emphasising the potential importance of atheists following this Christian rigmarole of prayer to a god they don’t believe in, as I’m doing.

The paper ends on that rejoinder, but it’s not hard to imagine that Russell or Dawkins or I might have a slightly prickly response of our own. For my part, it might go something like:

No, but then I also didn’t ask any of the other thousands of gods humans have believed in over the centuries. Nor did I address every pixie, imp, sprite, or other mystical being sometimes alleged to exist, but who seemed far more likely to have been an entirely human creation. I guess I could have devoted every second of my waking adult life to personally imploring every imaginable supernatural entity to reveal themselves, but since none of them had ever given me a reason to expect they existed, asking them all for a reason seemed like a waste of time – yourself included. I did, however, ask your self-proclaimed earthly representatives – the priests and evangelists and so forth – for some scrap of evidence, on numerous occasions, but they always came up short. So what, exactly, was I supposed to conclude?

If anyone wants to play the role of God and fill in the next part of the conversation, feel free.

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Just a very quick update on this today. There’s still no God, so there’s not a whole lot to report on.

And, while I don’t particularly want to be unkind, I thought I should briefly draw your attention to a comment from the Facebook group. I won’t insult you by explaining why it made me laugh as much as it did.

One thing I have found interesting. According to my understanding of the Bible God wants us to believe in him out of our free will. He doesn’t want to force us in any way to follow him. Therefore isn’t providing empirical evidence of his existence, in effect, taking away free will? In other words if we had clear evidence of God’s existence wouldn’t we kinda be forced to follow him? Just a thought.


Christ, that’s desperate.

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Ben Goldacre has a new book out. You can read the foreword, and also watch a TED talk he gave on the subject which is the book’s focus: the systematic distortion of evidence and profit-driven manipulation of reality by the pharmaceutical industry and numerous related groups and individuals.

I’m really looking forward to reading it once I’ve got through some more of my intimidating literary backlog. I’m expecting to be appalled, judging by what I’ve learned about this general clusterfuck so far. Much about modern medical science has been integral to one of the greatest forces for good in human history, but Big Pharma clearly has its Orwellian nightmare side too.

Here’s one thing I’m interested to see: What do the alternative medicine fans think of all this?

Bad Science did, after all, rip the world of fake unmedicine to shreds with a blistering effectiveness rarely matched elsewhere. I can assure you from personal experience that simply blogging about it occasionally is enough to get you labelled as a bought-and-sold shill by some sections of the alt-med crowd, so you can imagine the kind of things he got accused of for writing a popular book and newspaper column about it.

If you listen to the extremists, practically everyone who’s ever dared question the value of drinking bleach to cure AIDS is obviously in the pay of greedy corporate propagandists trying to keep the populace in check (wake up, sheeple!) – so where does Ben Goldacre fit into that model? You can imagine the confusion:

He says our wonderful homeopathy is worthless bollocks… but he’s written and is eagerly promoting an entire book denouncing the pharmaceutical industry’s profit-driven distortions of medicine. Which is what we do! I don’t understand. Was there a clerical error somewhere in the Big Pharma finance department and his cheques stopped getting sent?

It seems rare that an alt-med advocate will credit their opponents with enough intellectual honesty to be expressing the views they do for any reason other than monetary gain (although, to be fair, this may be something of a two-way street). I wonder if the publication of this new book will persuade anyone that people like Ben Goldacre often spend so much time rebutting alternative medicine because they really think that, and that they can see the problems with Big Pharma for what they are as well.

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One of Christianity’s big draws is the forgiveness thing. Yahweh’s way into that. If you’re really, properly sorry, you can be let off the hook for anything. (Well, almost anything.)

(I was going to use that link to send you to my YouTube video of me taking part in the Blasphemy Challenge way back when, but I look so young and hideous and wooden and my old webcam was so shit that I just can’t bear to. Anyway.)

This is often seen as being an easy way for Christians to avoid personal responsibility, and up to a point this is likely true for some of them. But for many, it can be a way for them to achieve a far less cynical kind of reassurance.

Guilt is often directionless, ethereal, hard to pin down, but equally hard to let go of. Zarquon knows that Christianity’s been an immensely damaging tool for ladling on the guilt over the centuries too, but in some hands, I can see how it might do some people some good.

Having someone forgive you – particularly someone authoritative and paternal – can, I suspect, often make it a lot easier to forgive yourself.

So in my prayer today, I did some apologising, and asked for some forgiveness.

Sorry, God, for breaking what was meant to be a 40-day run, and forgetting to do the prayer part of this experiment a couple of times.

Yeah, it felt a bit feeble. I didn’t get much of that euphoric rush of letting go of all my pent-up guilt in one big cathartic wave. I guess mostly because I wasn’t exactly feeling that torn up about anything to begin with. I could’ve tried to muster up some shame for the other participants who are working harder at this than I am, or for my sense of intellectual honesty, but actual guilt hardly seems worth bothering with.

I try to be aware of my limitations and failings. Insofar as they negatively affect other people, I think I should strive to apologise to those people and rectify my behaviours; insofar as they affect only myself, I think I should learn to do better, to work with my tendencies toward procrastination and laziness and navigate them as best I can, and forgive myself. I don’t need to feel sorry to God. The idea that I automatically owe him anything of the kind makes me feel indignant, and want to start ranting about the things humanity ought to hold him to account for.

But that sounds rather tedious. So instead I’ll re-tell a story I posted on this experiment’s Facebook group recently:

I had a quiet few minutes to myself just now, and thought maybe I’d use it for today’s prayer.

A moment later, I heard a disembodied voice from above, reassuring me that I was exactly where I needed to be, and heading in the right direction, and I relaxed.

As it happened, it was just the train driver announcing that this is indeed the 8:16 to Ramsgate, which I find quite compatible with a godless universe. But if you’re really keen to see *anything* as a sign… I guess this would count?

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This article is one of the best things I’ve read on the subject of abstinence-only sex ed, and is a fantastic display of Cracked’s power as a force for awesome in the world.

Rather than attempt to summarise or make any of my own points, I’m just going to quote some highlights and urge you to go revel in the full fury of Luke McKinney’s sexy wrath.

Abstinence-only education starts with the idea that teenagers listen to adults and manages to get even stupider.

Abstinence-only education doesn’t work, doesn’t work, lies, doesn’t work and doesn’t work.

If trying to restrain your sexual urges means thinking of a squad of burly rugby players, you are one important revelation away from cutting the legs off your jeans and being much happier.

People buying pewter collectibles warning against sex are like a nuclear submarine crew warning against sunburn: They’ve already gone to a dark place beyond such problems, and for the sake of all humanity, we pray they never get the chance to deploy their payloads.

When you won’t even refer to genitals without infant talk like “no-no square,” you may be ill-equipped in a battle against boning. There are aliens with a better understanding of hu-man mating ports because they found the Pioneer plaque and know “triangle” would be better.

Recommending that teenagers shouldn’t have sex until they know what the hell they’re doing is a great idea. Refusing to teach them about the cheap, widely available products that can prevent them from ruining their lives when they do something hormonally stupid — which is a teenager’s entire biological function — is generational manslaughter.

This is how you write a fucking article.

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And this is totally how grown-ups behave.

He’s finally noticed that in 1987 there was this award-winning photograph called Piss Christ. Don’t ask me why. I don’t understand art, and I don’t understand this.

He’s offended by it, which is not remotely surprising, but also not entirely unreasonable. It’s a symbol of Jesus on the cross submerged entirely in urine. Even if most Christians have more sense than to get particularly riled over it, it’s pretty offensive.

But Bill Donohue’s reaction to it is very confused. First of all, he wants those people who spoke out against that YouTube film which offended Muslims recently to mount a similar defense of Christians:

Where are they when Christians are being offended? We are offended over and over again, through the artistic community, on radio and television, in the movies. Where have these people been? Why don’t they ever speak out against anti-Christian fare?

I suspect the answer is partly to do with the dearth of Christian extremists bombing embassies who officials feel they should mollify, and partly because the overwhelming majority of the USA are still Christians, are in no way a persecuted minority, and are in no actual danger of suffering any serious detriment to their lives because of a few jibes about their belief system.

He then adopted a completely different set of principles, and presented a piece of art of his own creation, in which a doll of Obama is mounted in some fake shit.

It’s not a subtle or complex piece. (Or maybe I still just don’t get art.) But I suspect it honestly expresses the artist’s feelings, in a way likely to offend many people. In this way, perhaps it’s doing exactly what art should do. But the target of the work is in such a position of power or authority that their autonomy and dignity is not remotely threatened by something so weakly subversive.

Bill Donohue has, in fact, chosen to closely emulate the creator of Piss Christ.

You know what? This part kinda doesn’t bother me. Because, in his blindly petulant lashing-out, in his latest childish tantrum against some irrelevancy he’s picked on and inflated to a major injustice against the centre of his own personal universe, he’s actually managed to stumble quite by accident across the right answer.

The solution to bad speech is more speech.

If someone creates something which denigrates you or your ideas, then assuming those ideas have any merit, the only way for you to really lose that fight is to try and forcibly shut them up.

Make some art of your own. Add to the conversation. Don’t try to hush it up.

Bill Donohue’s part of the way there. He knows he ought to have the right to insult Obama and his supporters. He gets why free speech is important when it supports his cause, even if you can just hear him squawking:

“Hey, if you get to do that, I get to do this! Yeah, Obama’s covered in shit! See? Not so fun, is it? How d’ya like your precious free speech now, huh?”

We like it just fine, Bill.

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