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A year after the first confirmed outbreak, progress is being made in the Ebola crisis in west Africa. The situation’s far from perfect, but the news is tentatively good.

So I hope you’ll all join me in a hearty chorus of “Thank you, Bob Geldof!”

You may have noticed he re-re-recorded that song even he thinks is terrible against last year, with another new crowd of young poptastic faces helping to raise lots of money to fix another foreign country where everything’s terrible. It sold well, probably, and pooled some cash that made some sort of a difference to people trying to fight a horrible disease, I imagine.

But I think I may have figured out what it is about his recurring Band Aid obsession that makes him so irritating:

The whole thing is classic Gryffindor.

The whole purpose of the narrative is to put him on display as the Hero who boldly leaps into action to save someone in distress. And when you’re the Hero, there are certain things the narrative requires you to do, like Stick To Your Guns, and Stand Up For The Victim, and other things that perpetuate an idea of black-and-white morality and can best be achieved through posturing. Little things like critical scientific analysis of your methodology don’t fit with the model at all.

I’m not sure if Geldof’s ever heard of effective altruism, but there’s none of it present in his obsession with re-treading old ground over and over again, and I suspect he’d dismiss it as something for smart-arse tossers to feel high-and-mighty about while people like him are out there actually doing the work and raising the money.

It’s an unfair characterisation, I don’t know the man nearly well enough to guess how he might respond to new ideas, but frankly given how little curiosity he displays for improving or reassessing his methods he deserves no benefit of the doubt.

His narrative requires that buying the song is the way you show that you care about diseased Africans, whether or not you like it, as if buying a single on iTunes for 99p as many times as it takes was a remotely efficient way to contribute financially to an international relief effort.

Being a Gryffindor, Geldof jumps at the chance to be selfless and self-sacrificing in pursuit of the greater good, in a way that just so happens to make him look dashing and noble, and it wouldn’t occur to him that maybe a genuinely selfless path wouldn’t put him at the focal point, or that helping other people might leave his ego bruised or ignored rather than elevated. After all, if he doesn’t get to take a messianic role, how can he be saving everyone?

Meanwhile the Hufflepuffs of the world are buying the single in their hundreds of thousands, because they’re kind and decent people who are presented with an easy way they can make some sort of difference. They were also texting their donations a few months before, to an appeal for funds that would improve the medical infrastructure in countries preparing for an outbreak like this, but before such an outbreak gets out of control, at a point when much more harm reduction can be achieved and lives saved at a much smaller expense.

The Ravenclaws have been working on these improvements to infrastructure for a while, but haven’t really gained much serious traction with the public because the Gryffindors keep distracting their potential supporters with grand heroic gestures that end up hurting the cause more than they help.

I’m not sure what Slytherin are up to. I’ve never had a good grip on how that lot think. Patenting an Ebola vaccine?

But however the hat sorted you, don’t let fucking Bob Geldof lecture you on where your ethical responsibilities lie with regard to charitable giving. Try to give more of a shit about the practical end result of a suggested action than how much feel-good cheerleading you get to do about it. Consider donating directly to organisations you know will do real good. Read some folk who live and work in Africa telling Bob Geldof to fuck off, though far more eloquently than you’ll get from me. Cross your fingers we don’t hear another celebrity chorus later this year asking whether they know it’s Christmas in Nepal.

Happy Christmas. War is over.

Or something.

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Still mostly on hiatus while existing in a state of half-packed limbo and ever-mounting impatience and bafflement at the convoluted antics of fucking mortgage underwriters. But chipping in with a quick thought.

I agree with the bulk of Alex Andreou’s latest column. I have little doubt that Jimmy Carr’s a bit of a twat, Gary Barlow’s a major bell-end, JK Rowling is fairly splendid, and David Cameron is a gammon-faced fuckbucket wankspangle with the face of a dish. This has broadly been the left’s characterisation of players in the latest celebrity tax avoidance psychodrama, and it seems largely acceptable to me.

But as a recovering liberal, I have to keep reminding myself to get the fuck over this fixation with paying your taxes as being the ultimate expression of civic duty and compassion for your fellow countryfolk.

My corner of the internet’s been all a-twitter lately with quotes from Rowling in particular – transcribed next to a picture of her in a way that apparently constitutes an inspirational piece of art – describing how obligated she feels to her home country, and how privileged she feels to be able to give something back to the land which supported her when she was going through hard times, now that she has the means to support others in the same way. This is an under-appreciated point among many rich people, and is commendable and warm and fuzzy and all that.

But if JK Rowling, driven by a desire to help those less fortunate than herself and ease the burdens of those troubled by circumstance, cannot think of any more effective way to achieve this goal than to give vast sums of money to David Cameron, George Osborne, and Iain Fucking Duncan Fucking Smith, to let them spend it doing what they think is best for the country…

…then she appears to have been stricken by a colossal and uncharacteristic lack of imagination since the last time she set pen to paper.

Look, giving something back to your fellow man is a great and important thing, and paying your taxes so that government social programmes can be funded is sometimes one way of doing that, but if it’s the best way, or the only way, then we’re all fucked. The very fact that charities exist and solicit donations directly should tell you that helping people directly without letting a bunch of politicians get involved has a lot going for it.

Which isn’t, as I can tell you’re already objecting, simply the standard right-libertarian argument in favour of letting private organisations fix all society’s ills on their own. We absolutely need to have a national and collaborative way of supporting the less well-off, and leaving it all to the presumptive benevolence of an Ayn Rand fan’s idea of the “free market” is absolutely not it. But we need to stop clinging to the notion that letting people gather thousands of lifetimes’ worth of wealth to themselves, then having the state claw half of it back again before redistributing it among its own pet projects, is a good enough solution that we can stop working on anything better.

JK Rowling is most likely a good person acting kindly toward people. And the result of her doing this is that the coalition government, which is slashing benefits and demonising the poor across the board, is now better funded to embark on whatever projects it chooses to spend taxpayer money on.

Gary Barlow’s probably a cock. But – although the double-standards of the government and the extent to which tax avoidance by the wealthy gets a free pass are serious problems which imply a need for monumental systemic change – keeping your money out of George Osborne’s coffers is something you should be aspiring to as well. And it’s not incompatible with a dedication to providing compassion and assistance for other people.

You just need to be less of a cock than Gary Barlow. How hard can that be?

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take time this winter to check that elderly friends or neighbours are ok – sign up to be a winter friend

So the Secretary of State for Health tweeted earlier today, adding a link to an NHS page about how awful winter is for many elderly folks and how we can all help it suck a little less.

This seemed largely in keeping with Tory policy in general, which I rather unfairly characterised thusly at the time:

Come on, poors, huddle together for warmth. What’s that? Help with your heating or food bills from the millionaires in charge? Piss off.

There’s an interesting thing, though, about the government’s regular advice on charity, and how we can all help each other out when times are tough, and other such flimsy shreds of Big Society remnants – in particular, in how much it differs from their own policies on matters of poverty and welfare.

When it comes to charity, and the idea of individuals selflessly helping others, the coalition say many of the right things. Giving some of your time to check in on your more frail neighbours, donating to food banks, volunteering with children – the kind of stuff it’s basically impossible to get wrong, so long as you have the barest understanding of how platitudes work. The emphasis is all on generosity and kindness and compassion, which are wonderful things even when right-wing politicians are giving them lip service. And the image they paint of a community looking after each other and socialising warmly is a charming one.

Pop round to visit old Mrs Beadle at number 36 and see if she’s got enough blankets, or needs some help working the thermostat, or might just appreciate some company for an hour or two now her son’s moved away for his job and can’t visit so often. Knock on the door of that grumpy chap with one leg whose name you’ve never got to know, and see if there’s anything neighbourly you can do even though he always seems to be glowering and he’s not that easy to be around. Ask if there’s anything that harried single mum would love the time for this Christmas, which an offer of an evening’s childcare might make possible. There are lots of really nice ways to make the world better and kinder, which are entirely in line with the government’s own advice.

But wait… Are we really just meant to pop round and help, no questions asked? Just, see if there’s something good to be done, and offer to do it? Give up something of our own through simple generosity, and make the world a little brighter for others? We’re meant to do all this… without interrogating all these people in our community as to whether they deserve our help?

Maybe you’re better acquainted with your own neighbours than I am with mine, but I haven’t done nearly enough background checks into these people to be sure that I’ve rooted out all the scroungers.

Why doesn’t Mrs Beadle order some warmer clothes and blankets online, or support a local small business by hiring someone to help her out with any gadgets and whatnot around the house that she might find confusing? She could offset the expense by trying Princess Whiskerbelle on an unbranded catfood for a while – there’s such a thing as responsible budgeting, you know. It may not exactly be in the spirit of charity, but until she gets her paperwork together to prove that she really is finding it tough, how can I be sure my valuable time is being well spent when I go to sit with her?

And that guy with one leg – is he really “disabled” and in need of help? There’s plenty of things you can do which you don’t need both your legs for, but he seems to be at home most of the time, so for all I know he’s not even bothered looking for ways to support himself. If I start going round and offering to help out with things he might struggle with, for free, then I may just be reinforcing the kind of habits which aren’t good for any of us in the long-term.

Obviously this is completely the wrong attitude. But the fact that the government act like it’s obvious too is actually rather odd. They’re not encouraging us, on a personal level, to be stingy, to be pernickety bean-counters, to demand evidence making sure that the old and infirm humans to whom we’re considering giving our time (and by extension money) are sufficiently deserving. We’re told to just go out and help. Be there for people. Give them your time. Donate what you can. Support the needy and less fortunate.

Whereas when they do it, the amount they end up spending on administration costs, to make sure that nobody has a chance to mooch a single penny more than they’re “entitled” to, is so vast that they could practically solve the whole problem for no more than it’s currently costing them to maintain and exacerbate it. The DWP recently wrote off over £40,000,000 on a failed IT system. That’s just one futile project with nothing to show for it, in one department, with many more examples like it. Hundreds of millions of pounds being spent elsewhere on nothing more than counter-productive penny-pinching.

And meanwhile, every time there’s a chance to avoid paying a meagre but vital weekly allowance to someone who needs it – whether it’s by inhumane and stupid sanctions or making someone with cerebral palsy check in every few months to see if they’ve got better yet – they pounce on it. According to one whistleblower, for people working in Jobcentre offices, not finding enough excuses to stop enough people’s benefits would result in disciplinary action.

It’s quite a cosy dichotomy our ruling class have set up for themselves. While it’s just the great unwashed masses offering charity to each other, free and easy is the way to go. Give generously! Spare what you can! If someone looks like they’re in need, assume they really are, and have a heart in these difficult times. But when it comes to their own funds – which they’ve legitimately earned by calling it taxes and taking it directly from us, remember – then everyone’s a thieving scrounger until proven otherwise. And quite often even then.

Come on, poors. Huddle together for warmth. And don’t be selfish with those blankets I see a few of you wrapping around yourselves. Charity’s important this time of year.

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Theists often like to set the bar unreasonably high when demanding that atheists rationally or empirically support their position.

One obvious example of this surrounds the whole “you can’t disprove God” thing. It’s sometimes claimed that we have to go a really, implausibly long way to show that their god doesn’t exist. Given the limits of human knowledge even about the planet we live on, let alone the entirety of creation, it is asserted to be the height of arrogance to assume the “perfect knowledge of the universe” necessary to deny the possibility of God’s existence.

This, clearly, doesn’t stand up. I don’t need to know the exact position of every particle of matter in my bedroom to forthrightly assert that there’s not an elephant in there. And most gods that have ever been described are purported to be much grander and more noticeable than an elephant. Is Jesus hiding on a rock on Titan that we haven’t looked under yet, waiting for the right moment for the Second Coming?

We’ve been up Mount Olympus, and we didn’t find Zeus. For the same reason that believers don’t give the Greek gods much thought these days, atheists are fine ignoring Yahweh until he bothers to actually show up either.

But there’s another way I’ve noticed some theists expect atheistic standards to be impossibly high: morality.

Atheists often act morally to other people, making large charitable donations and demonstrating love for their fellow humans. Meanwhile, Christians are quite capable of ignoring what they think God wants or failing to stick to the rules (otherwise why would they be asking forgiveness all the time?). Sometimes they rationalise selfish and harmful acts as being part of some “greater good”, or just ask forgiveness later. In other words, they can do bad things and decide that it “doesn’t count” for any of the myriad reasons that people regularly use when they’ve acted in contradiction to their image of themselves as a moral person.

Given the obvious truth that both atheists and believers are capable of tremendous good or terrible harm, why should an ultimate religious source of morality be important? And, in particular, if atheists want to do good, to value humanity, and to care for other people, why isn’t that enough? Sure, they often fail to meet their ideals, but they’re not alone in that, and generally they’re striving toward morality and compassion. Isn’t that as much as you can hope for?

Seriously, what more do you want?

A secular morality is based on doing good for goodness’ sake. It depends on compassion and love for others, on community and caring and kindness, and yes, to a degree, on social structures and restraints designed to reprimand or discourage behaviour that doesn’t line up with this moral ideal.

If that’s not good enough for you – if that’s not an admirable system of ethics, which commendably aims to promote happiness and harmony and well-being and to nurture the best parts of us and bring out our optimal glorious humanity – then what do you think morality means?

I hope we’re not back to the tedium of “just do what God says” again. Surely we’re above that by now.

No matter how much we try to explain the basic concept of humanism, it’s still sometimes asserted that we have no “basis” for morality; that there’s no fundamental ethical bedrock giving meaning to our morals, in the way that religious people have God to define good and evil.

This is widely believed, even in the absence of any reliable trend toward more moral behaviour by the religious. Atheists are a tiny fraction of a minority of the prison population, and some acts – honour killings, for instance – are driven by religious motivation, but are deemed morally repugnant despite the religious basis that condones them. Theists and atheists alike are often quite capable of telling right from wrong, regardless of what they think about God’s opinions. (Also genocide.)

But it’s apparently vital that atheists come up with a way to provide an absolutely cast-iron guarantee that anybody who doesn’t believe in God will always act without the slightest hint of selfishness or cruelty. Any time they can highlight an atheist doing something immoral, it becomes a demand that we infallibly ensure that we never cross the line of moral dubiousness ever again. The mindset keeping the ungodly on the straight and narrow is expected to be completely impermeable, and 100% successful at all times, or else it’s deemed a dismal failure proving the whole concept of godless ethics to be impossible.

The people making such claims, of course, show absolutely no interest in concocting a similar system for their fellow believers. Religious folk “sin” all the time, because we’re human and fallible, and no abstract belief system is ever going to be able to exert a total, unbreakable hold over your behaviour.

But at least they still have a solid “basis” for their morality, in a way that’s totally different from how atheists behave, and obviously superior, because… umm…

It’s not. People do good when they care about other people, and when they’re not strongly incentivised to act selfishly in a way that’s harmful. In some people, religious beliefs help nudge them toward compassion; in others, quite the opposite. At best, belief in God is unnecessary for any kind of moral behaviour.

I just want people to care about each other and be kind. The idea that atheists have any loftier expectations to meet than that, to simply be taken seriously as moral beings, is misguided and deeply biased.

And if you’ve got a system of ethics which you think reliably produces more good in the world than “care about each other and be kind”, I’d love to hear it.

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So, Jules off of Brook had a thought about my latest video, where I was rather hard on a charity spokeseejit’s attitude to scientific testing of different charitable approaches:

Which is an eminently sensible thing to consider. I mean, I do think there was an element of ridiculous scaremongering in the interview that pissed me off, but even if you’re not patently doing Evil ScienceTM, a reasonable experimental protocol might still, at the least, involve withholding your intervention from some of the people you’re usually trying to help. Isn’t this something charities should be averse to, given that it’s exactly the opposite of their entire mission statement?

Yeah, I still don’t really buy it.

Having reservations about standing idly by while people suffer who you could be helping, I get. But sometimes the question of whether what you’re doing is even helpful at all is still at issue, and it’s your responsibility to help resolve it. Until there’s data definitively showing that withdrawing your intervention actually would be harmful, any claim that you can’t possibly make room amid your important work to gather data on its effectiveness seems pretty flimsy. Not least because any finitely resourced charity (i.e. all of them) is going to be constantly presented with a glut of people it doesn’t have the capacity to help anyway.

Especially when you consider the potentially limitless benefits that could accrue from improving your performance indefinitely into the future. If it turns out that a different way of allocating your resources is, say, 20% more efficient at solving the problem than what you’re currently doing, you’d be doing a much greater disservice to the people you’re trying to help by refusing to take the time to analyse your own processes and find this out. This is why anyone ever bothers to do scientific trials, rather than just charging ahead and doing stuff, at all.

Again, the homeopathy comparison is apt. Alternative medicine practitioners often claim that they don’t have time to take part in clinical trials or publish an analysis of their methods in any reputable scientific journals, because they’re too busy just treating people. But if you haven’t done the science, nobody knows if that latter part is true. It could be that you’re actually just distracting your patients from legitimate medical treatment with your worthless placebos. If you did take the time to do the experiments, then rather than callously refusing help to people who need it for the sake of some abstract notions of “science” or “experimentation”, you’d really be vastly improving the help you can give people in the future.

You don’t even need to totally neglect 50% of the individuals under your care in order to run a proper experiment. If there’s an established alternative protocol, maybe one which already has some evidence behind it, then you can do a comparison with that, rather than with a complete lack of intervention. New medical treatments are often tested against the best thing we can currently offer, rather than against no intervention at all. I didn’t really emphasise that point in my video, but an experiment could involve the two charity approaches going head to head, with simply a more systematic approach to examining who’s being helped, and how much, by each technique.

But judging by the one unscientific, reality-detached attitude on display in this infuriating interview, even that didn’t seem to be on the table. It’s a conversation worth having in a lot more detail, and with sympathy to the kind of squeamishness Jules is describing. But the tragically science-phobic approach I’d meant to aim my ranting at is utterly undeserving of a place in the debate.

It’s not always necessary or helpful to “do more science”. Good science can be expensive and time-consuming, and there often comes a point where it makes sense to say that the jury’s in, and any further testing of our ideas really would be a distraction. But charitable services are one area where there’s still a lot of work to be done.

(Incidentally, Brook do sexual health advice and resources and are definitely good folks, you should check them out.)

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My face is back. Press the button and hear it talk.

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See, the thing is, religion isn’t all bad.

*FIRST PARAGRAPH CONTROVERSY KLAXON*

It’s not, though. But it’s still a long, long way from the best we can do.

The Skeptics with a K framed some ideas interestingly in a recent episode of the podcast. They were talking about the classically bullshit-ridden debate over whether religion or atheism has directly caused more historical death and suffering, and which is therefore “worse”.

The first thing to remember is that this is entirely disconnected from the question of whether God exists, or whether any religious ideas are reasonable to believe based on the available evidence.

But, even while there have certainly been religiously motivated murders numbering well into the millions, and also genocidal regimes led by atheists, I’m increasingly of the view that there’s nothing useful to be gained by trying to determine any sort of comparative body count.

As I think Mike pointed out on the show, the idea of atheism being responsible for murder seems ridiculous on its face; there’s no way to logically get from “there is no god” to “I should kill a bunch of people”, without adding a load of unrelated shit in the middle.

But then, theism doesn’t directly result in or endorse killing anyone either. There’s no more a logical way to get from “there is a god” to “I should kill a bunch of people”, without also adding a load of unrelated shit in the middle.

Unfortunately, adding a load of unrelated shit in the middle is precisely what religion tends to do. Hence “I believe in God” leads, blunderingly and meanderingly and by way of numerous distortions and corruptions, to the Crusades, the lynching of homosexuals, and all the rest.

And on the flipside, you have religious charities, and the unavoidable fact that belief in God, however mistaken, often engenders a kindness and desire to do good works in people of faith.

Atheists are always quick to point out various things when this is brought up – that historic religious institutions are in a much stronger position to provide infrastructure and funding for charitable organisation, that organised atheism hasn’t had centuries to establish a similar community that can embark on charitable projects, the name of the biggest lending community on Kiva, and so forth – all of which is quite correct. The idea we’re rushing to counter, in these cases, is the common claim that believing in God makes you a more compassionate, more generous, better person, than being an atheist. We’ve been told often enough that we all have no reason to be moral, and so that’s the bullshit we most easily react against.

But there are other things to be taken from the observed association between religion and charity. It’s not a condemnation of atheism to note that some forms of religion, as a system, are pretty good at arranging, organising, and motivating people to do good things, behave kindly and compassionately, and strive to alleviate suffering.

It’s also pretty good at helping people justify and rationalise the most grossly inhumane atrocities of which humanity is capable.

So it’s a mixed bag. Racist genocide and feeding the hungry are two things people are entirely capable of, with or without religion – but which religion often exacerbates and supports.

So, can’t we have one without the other?

It’s not that hard to conceive of a better system, which does more of the good things, and less of the bad. We could identify the parts of religion (or any other system) that are beneficial, separate out the ones that are harmful, and organise ourselves in a way that promotes and encourages charity without also helping people rationalise and justify tyranny and cruelty.

It should be possible. It doesn’t seem likely that, if you want everyone to be better at sheltering the homeless and not passing by on the other side when someone’s in need, you have no choice but to accept the corresponding tendency to lead armies against anyone else who’s basically trying to do the same thing as you but gives it a different name. We can surely have compassion without religiously inspired evil.

Atheism isn’t this system. (Though I suspect, and urge, that many people acting this way would be atheists.) Humanism might be it, or at least might be a few steps down the right path. It doesn’t need to be any more formal than that, nothing with an official hierarchy and rules and whatnot. Just a set of ideas, picked and chosen to help us do the best we can.

Skepticism and critical thinking are also positive things, and any belief systems we have in place should encourage and nurture these things. Religion often tends to be hostile to genuinely honest and open questioning of ideas – not always, but it throws up some serious roadblocks. So let’s see if we can’t do better.

The claim that religion is never any good for anything doesn’t hold up, but atheists shouldn’t feel they’re conceding anything important by abandoning it. Many people cling to their faith as a source of comfort and reassurance, in times of difficulty and pain. It does them some good, in a situation where simply removing it and replacing it with non-belief would not be better for them.

What’s important, though, is that religion is not the best we can do. Not by a long way. The comfort it provides comes only at the expense of a rational approach to the real world. It lets you feel better, but only by believing false things.

Can we improve on that? Can we come up with an approach which helps and supports and comforts people, and allows us to help and support and comfort each other, while remaining grounded in the real world, letting both compassion and rationality drive what we believe?

Christ, I hope so.

It’s unhelpful to focus too fixedly on whether “religion” or “atheism” is responsible for any of history’s great mass slaughters, because nothing’s that simple. But there are things to be learned about different approaches one can take to the world, and what kind of institutionalised behaviour these approaches tend to engender. Authoritarianism and inflexible thinking are strongly connected with cruelty and tyranny, and religion is by no means the best way we have of avoiding authoritarianism and inflexible thinking.

The demonstrable falseness of religious claims is ample reason to reject them; the regularity with which bigotry, hatred, and aggression are backed up by religious motivation should be ample to strongly compel us toward a more optimal system of organising ourselves to do good things.

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