Category Archives: religion

I’ll ride with you Charlie

Thank heavens I’m English, for truly we & the French are the only people worth being in Europe just now.

There’s no doubt, however Brutal it sounds, that they must be wiped out & sat on once & for all; they are only savages apparently, & as such have no place in Europe.

There are my grandfather and his brothers, fighting the Germans in the First World War.

And from To Kill A Mockingbird:

“Miss Gates is a nice lady, ain’t she?”
Why sure,” said Jem. “I liked her when I was in her room.”
She hates Hitler a lot…”
What’s wrong with that?”
Well, she went on today about how bad it was him treating the Jews like that. Jem, it’s not right to persecute anybody, is it? I mean have mean thoughts about anybody, even, is it?”
Gracious no, Scout. What’s eatin’ you?”
Well, coming out of the courthouse that night Miss Gates was— she was going’ down the steps in front of us, you musta not seen her— she was talking with Miss Stephanie Crawford. I heard her say it’s time somebody time somebody taught ’em a lesson, they were gettin’ way above themelves, an’ the next thing they think they can do is marry us. Jem, how can you hate Hitler so bad an’ then turn around and be ugly about folks right at home…”

I refuse to let Fundamentalists edge me towards racism or fear of believers. And by ‘Fundamentalists’ I mean yesterday’s murderers of the #CharlieHebdo cartoonists, but also those who have a fundamentalist or absolutist response to that outrage and who make things worse, not better.

I am not my grandfather.




John Donne, Meditation 17

A series of small epiphanies



For a while I’ve been planning  a talk about what it’s like to be  what Skeptics call “a Woo” and about my journey from there to being one of the folks running Skeptics on the Fringe.

“Woo” is a term I dislike for a bunch of reasons, mainly because labelling people makes it too easy to stop thinking about them as people and stereotype them. No-one should do that to anyone, but we are Skeptics, dammit: we should think, especially when we are complaining that the defining group of this other group is that they don’t think.  Irony, much?

I had a couple of hours of driving to do tonight, appropriately enough  visiting Ash Pryce founder of Edinburgh Skeptics and then Keir Liddle founder of Skeptics on the Fringe.  I used the time to sketch out the structure of the talk and identify the key points I want to make.  It’s now sitting as bullet points on my laptop.

I hate bullet-points because PowerPoint doesn’t kill presentations, bulletpoints kill presentations. I prefer slides – if they are used at all – to be images rather than words.  The bullet-points will become my speakers notes. I could even use this as an opportunity to learn Prezi.

So I need to get some images together.  This glamour-girl from the 1920s in my grandmother.  Come to the talk when I eventually give it and you’ll see why she’s there. Somewhere I have a supercute pic of my dad with me slung under his arm when I was about two years old, and if I can find that I want it in the slides, failing that there’s one of him in what looks like a bishop’s mitre.  I think I still have my O’level certificate somewhere.  And I want to include some book covers, some podcast logos, stuff like that.  As it says here, the talk is about a series of small epiphanies.

It’s going to take a chunk of time to put together yet, but I hope it will explain why intelligent and rational people are still attracted to Alternative Medicine, reincarnation and similar things, that it will interest scientists and atheists lucky enough to have been raised that way, that it will reassure skeptical activists that skeptical outreach really is worth it, and explain why Phil Plait was right when he said Don’t be a Dick.

I’ll be keen to do this talk at Skeptics in the Pub and other appropriate events once I’ve finished the slides. Contact me via if you’d like to discuss dates.

Show and tell – why I’m entering a competition at the Beeb

The BBC are holding a competition for someone new to do six “Pause For Thought” items on the Radio Two.

Can you make us stop, think and reflect in just two minutes? Would you like to be the newest voice on matters of faith on Radio 2? Then here’s your chance…

I am entering this competition though I don’t expect to win it; I am a humanist and an atheist and these slots on Radio 4’s Thought for the Day or Radio 2’s Pause for Thought are reserved for faith groups.

However, I am encouraging humanists and skeptics to submit entries, and to do so thoughtfully and in good faith. (Pun unavoidable).  In other words, don’t be a troll, and don’t be a dick.

And here is why.

The most senior people at the BBC, the policy-makers, seem reluctant to accept that humanists, atheists and philosophers may have something to say on ethical and maybe even spiritual matters.  

In November 2009 the BBC Trust said:

it had found that Thought for the Day is “religious output….”

But I suspect that this faith in faith groups is eroding; people taking editorial decisions seem less convinced. The then Controller of Radio 4, Mark Damazer said:

it was a “finely balanced argument” whether non-religious speakers should become a part of the long-running Today programme feature.

The way to get these slots opened up so humanists, skeptics and atheists can discuss issues of ethics and morality in these mini-sermons is to undermine the argument that religion deserves special treatment in this way.  This competition gives us the opportunity to show the people who make editorial decisions that we can do it.

These are not the guys who make policy decisions, but one day they will be.

And — hey — I could be wrong, and one of us could win!

Reasons I’d like to be religious

This was written in January 2009 but not published for some reason. For what it’s worth, here it is now.

Reasons why I would like to be religious:

  • Instant social life with people who are obligated to be welcoming, whatever they actually think – (c of e, chapel)
  • Karmic justice – (buddhism)
  • The opportunity to see how it all pans out – (buddhism or hinduism)
  • The chance of being a musician or a dancer – (buddhism or hinduism)
  • Seeing dad again – (christianity)
  • Everything being for a reason – (all of them)
  • Choosing one’s parents rather than the whole thing being a lottery – (buddhism)
  • The ability to influence events just by praying – (abrahamic religions)
  • The comfortable idea of moral absolutism – (abrahamic religions)
  • The absolute duty of social and ethical responsibility – (wicca and buddhism)
  • Additional dimensions and emotional depth to the experience of Cathederals and the music of Tallis and Bach – (christianity in the western tradition)
  • A sense that we don’t stand on shifting sands of hapenstance and chance – (all of them)

Ultimately I guess it boils down to:

  • Greed: – ie more time alive


  • Comfort: – It may happen guys – but hey, it’s not actually shit

Oh well.

Somewhere to escape to

I’m struck that we don’t have a folk-memory of women escaping from domestic captivity in the way that Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus and Michelle Knight have escaped in Cleveland, and Elizabeth Fritzl and her siblings, and Jaycee Dugard, Elizabeth Smart, Shawn Hornbeck and Natascha Kampusch escaped before them.

The stories of these escapes are new.

Women being captured is not new, it’s not even specific to our species. At a recent Skeptics in the Pub Talk, Dr Alison Craig told us about “coercive consortship” in dolphins.

Women running away isn’t new either. Allegedly, Wilkie Collins took the title for his book “The Woman in White” from his first meeting with Caroline Graves, the woman who became his mistress. Collins was walking through London one night past a suburban villa when

“the iron gate leading to the garden was dashed open, and from it came the figure of a young and very beautiful woman” ….  she had been imprisoned at the villa under the mesmeric influence of an unnamed suburbanite.

What appears to be new, is that the escapes are successful, they are reported, and the victims are reunited with their families.   Today Caroline Graves’ story would be international news. But in the 19th century it was not told by the men who witnessed her escape. (Of course, it may not be true).

There are so many possible reasons for this change.

It is finally clear that a man who prevents a woman leaving him is committing a crime not exercising a right.  A line has emerged between a consensual domestic relationship on one side, and imprisonment on the other.  This is new. In the 19th century and before, you would have happy love-matches on the one hand, pragmatic civil contracts and arranged marriages in the middle, and who knows what hells of captivity and servitude at the far end.  Then, as now, a good marriage could go bad. But how many young women were kidnapped in a world where the neighbours all assumed they were wives not prisoners?

Women are free to leave in a way they weren’t before. Divorce gave women the the legal freedom to leave. Before divorce was available, women were chattels in a very literal way. I was checking references for the Mayor of Casterbridge auctioning his wife and  I found a Wikipedia entry about Wife Selling, which  apparently took place as recently as 1913. Later, women gained the cultural freedom to leave. However, in living memory in the 1970s and 1980s what went on behind closed doors stayed behind closed doors and the police would not intervene.  Putting it bluntly, if a woman runs away now, whether she is a wife or a kidnap victim, she will be listened to.  There is somewhere to escape to now.

But I think there’s more to it than that. We see the victims as unambiguously innocent and wronged. When there is no religious fundamentalism or misogyny at work we do not see them as someone whose moral worth has been destroyed. However, Elizabeth Smart said:

… she “felt so dirty and so filthy” after she was raped by her captor, and she understands why someone wouldn’t run “because of that alone.” …

I have tried to find out more about Smart’s upbringing in Salt Lake City to discover if it was particularly religious. She certainly expresses herself powerfully:

“I thought, ‘Oh, my gosh, I’m that chewed up piece of gum, nobody re-chews a piece of gum, you throw it away.'”

Smart felt worthless as a result of her repeated rapes but we see her as a victim not as “damaged goods” and  we celebrate when a kidnap victim escapes.  And if we have not yet managed to stop blaming the victims of rape we have at least progressed  beyond flogging them, stoning them or forcing them to marry their rapists.

So I am encouraged by the fact  that when victims of kidnap and imprisonment escape they now do so into the relative safety of a supportive and rejoicing world.

Easier to be good without god

It’s not only possible to be good without god, it’s much easier to be good without god. All sorts of dilemmas just go away.

Want a tattoo? Have one. Poly-cotton shirts? Sure. Ham and cream cheese in your bagel? Coming up.

Prefer that animals should be humanely killed? Object to male and female genital mutilation? Think there are better responses than stoning someone who cheats? Believe your choice of spouse should not be restricted by gender?

Think that child abusers should be brought to justice?

Think women should have the same rights to study and teach as men?

These are all easy peasy things for atheists to decide on; but many seem to be sources of moral anguish for christians, jews and muslims. Or for some christians, jews and muslims, anyway.

(In the interests of full disclosure, I should say there’s one ethical dilemma that atheism has made harder for me: My transition from vague-Buddhism to actual-Atheism has made it harder for me to accept abortion. I am 100% pro-choice, but belief in reincarnation let me off an ethical hook and atheism requires my position to be more nuanced.)

Back to women teaching in church.

The recent events at Bristol University Christian Union have highlighted how much harder it is to make their moral choices when you have to base them on the translated, reported, edited and often bat-shit crazy opinions of apostles and prophets. Put briefly, Bristol CU will only permit women to teach in certain specific circumstances, and then only with their husband present. This is based on two verses in Paul’s letter to Timothy: 1 Timothy 2:11-12 “Let a woman learn in silence with all submission. And I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man, but to be in silence.” This is also the “theological” basis for the opposition to women bishops. The Guardian summarises the Bristol CU stooshie nicely.

The irony is that Bristol CU’s position, which has generated a predictable shit-storm in twitter, is in fact a softening of their previous position. They are aiming at exclusivity by trying to include the evangelical men who side with Paul. (I am unclear whether and how the women can object.)

There are pleas on twitter for us to be kind and patient with the young people who are out of their depth, and I have a certain sympathy for the well-meaning lad, probably in his early 20s, who is facing this unnecessary moral dilemma. He is trying to accommodate evangelicals who quote Paul at him (good, sincere and maybe even lovely people) while I assume he is struggling with the blatant injustice of this prohibition. Not to mention all the other biblical inconsistencies and culturally sanctioned brutalities. Looks like a recipe for cognitive dissonance to me, and no wonder so many believers seem to be saying “la la la, I can’t hear you” so much of the time.

Life is so much easier when you say “sod this for a game of angels” and decide for yourself that child abusers should be brought to justice, that women should be the ones who decide whether or not they can cope with a child, that we should inflict as little pain and stress as possible on any animals we slaughter, and that the only qualification for speaking should be having a voice and the only qualification for teaching should be – you know – an actual qualification. You don’t even need to be an atheist to do this: I come from a tradition which acknowledges the fallibility of scripture (life is much saner when you disregard Paul and Leviticus). Then of course you have to take responsibility for your moral decisions, you cannot just out-source them. But as Bristol CU are finding, you can’t out-source them anyway.

Here are a couple of other relevant links:
and – which is currently showing Bristol CU’s statement

This post was first published on the Twenty-First Floor

Logical advice about wrestling pigs

The maths text book I had when I was 14 had a cartoon and quotation at the beginning of every chapter. The one on the chapter about stats said

Politicians use statistics as a drunk uses a lamp-post, for support rather than illumination.

This is not just the fate of stats of course; many people misuse logic in the same way.  The confusing thing is that they don’t realise what they are doing is an abuse of logic.  Debates between thinkers and feelers or between sceptics and believers become tedious spirals of cross-purposes and often break down into insult and ad hominem attacks.  The only effective way to cut through this is to introduce cognitive dissonance and use the gap created to introduce some logic, which is what happens in the video below:

Logic is highly structured, it follows rules.  It is not metaphorical or allegorical and people whose minds work best with metaphor and allegory do not (can not?) follow a logical argument step by step to the inevitable conclusion. Instead they arrive at their conclusion intuitively and then seek out arguments that sound as if they justify and support it.  The arguments sound like logic, they use the same language and the same semantic structures as logic, but they are being used in fundamentally different ways.1

When these two approaches meet, you get an impasse.

Don’t wrestle with a pig, you get muddy and the pig enjoys it.

These arguments are un-winnable.  If someone validates their beliefs intuitively then they are  not going to accept the validity of a logical argument.  And vice versa.

What makes this situation even worse is the Dunning-Kruger effect.  Put very crudely, this is unconscious incompetence in action.  At the lower levels of incompetence, people do not even have the ability to recognise competence in others. Think of David Brent (anti-hero of ‘The Office’, played by Ricky Gervais).  He is so inept it is painful, but he doesn’t recognise his own ineptness and he doesn’t recognise the abilities of others who far outshine him.  Me too: for example I cannot play chess though I know the moves, and I wouldn’t recognise skillfull chess playing if I saw it, though at least I don’t think that I’m any sort of chess player.

Theramin Trees gives a neat summary of the Dunning-Kruger effect below, and I urge you to watch it:

The thing that I find really odd though, is not the persistent failure of the illogical to acknowledge a good argument when it’s presented.

No, what I find really odd is the persistent attempts to flog the dead horse by those who do understand logic.  If someone is not convinced the first time that you say “there’s no evidence base for homoeopathy” then they won’t be convinced the 30th time or the 300th time.  Simply doing the same thing again and again won’t work.

As I have said, what does work is introducing cognitive dissonance, which brings us back, as so often, to the power of finding the right question and asking it.

1:  I was going to link to the episode of Beyond Belief broadcast on 28th December about Angels, but for some reason it is not available.  It was even more barking than the rest of the series, which I rather like in an outside-the-comfort-zone sort of way.  The reason I like it is because I listen to so many Sceptical podcasts which lazily make a virtue of scorning believers, and this makes a refreshing change without proselytising on behalf of anyone’s specific imaginary friend.

Back to post.

Specifically for Alfster and SoRB among others – you know who you are

Here’s an atheist meme I picked up on Adopt-An-Atheist  who credits The Friendly Atheist Site.  I’ve done it more because I’m interested in how others will reply than because I think you give a flying-meatball about my beliefs.  But here, for the little it’s worth is 

The Atheist Quiz

Have you ever…

  1. Participated in the Blasphemy Challenge? – No – but one of my favourite jokes has the punchline – “Are you kidding….?  I went there 2000 years ago, got some bird pregnant and they’re still talking about it!”  If that’s not denial of the holy spirit, what is?  My big sis said that the sin against the holy ghost is usually thought to be bestiality, but I’m not sure how they work that  out.  I’ve not notched that one up either.
  2. Met at least one of the “Four Horsemen” (Richard Dawkins,Daniel DennettChristopher HitchensSam Harris) in person? – No – but I did go to hear Richard Dawkins speak when he was plugging was “Unweaving the Rainbow”.
  3. Created an atheist blog? – Well it’s a blog and I’m an atheist…
  4. Used the Flying Spaghetti Monster in a religious debate with someone? – No.  I’m an atheist not an evangelist.   I don’t care what you believe so long as you don’t care what I believe.
  5. Been offended when someone called you an agnostic? – Impossible to say.
  6. Been unable to watch Growing Pains reruns because of Kirk Cameron? – Huh?
  7. Own more Bibles than most Christians you know? – Just the one, I think.  Maybe two.   Dunno.
  8. Have at least one Bible with your personal annotations regarding contradictions, disturbing parts, etc? – Puh-lease.  I have only one life.  Why would I spend precious time trying to prove it?
  9. Have come out as an atheist to your family? – Dunno.  Probably not.  It’s a belief-system not a lifestyle.
  10. Attended a campus or off-campus atheist gathering? – Er.  Why would I do that?
  11. Are a member of an organized atheist/Humanist/etc. organization? – Surprisingly, yes, I’ve signed up to the BHA.
  12. Had a Humanist wedding ceremony? – No.  But I’m thinking of becoming someone who can officiate at humanist funerals.  Not a thing to do lightly, so I’m mulling it over.
  13. Donated money to an atheist organization? – Yes, the atheist bus campaign and the BHA.  
  14. Have a bookshelf dedicated solely to Richard Dawkins? – No, but I do have a chair dedicated solely to … oh, I can’t be bothered.  Dawkins is eye-wateringly good on genetics, but I dislike polemics.  
  15. Lost the friendship of someone you know because of your non-theism? – I doubt it.  I do believe very strongly we should all be allowed to go to the devil our own way.
  16. Tried to argue or have a discussion with someone who stopped you on the street to proselytize? – No.  Why bother?  
  17. Had to hide your atheist beliefs on a first date because you didn’t want to scare him/her away? – No.  I don’t foam at the mouth.
  18. Own a stockpile of atheist paraphernalia (bumper stickers, buttons, shirts, etc)? – No.  Or any other kind for that matter.
  19. Attended a protest that involved religion? – No
  20. Attended an atheist conference? – No
  21. Subscribe to Pat Condell’s YouTube channel? – Who?
  22. Started an atheist group in your area or school? – No
  23. Successfully “de-converted” someone to atheism? – I doubt it. 
  24. Have already made plans to donate your body to science after you die? – No.  I’ve arranged to have my ashes packed into fireworks and set off at my wake.
  25. Told someone you’re an atheist only because you wanted to see the person’s reaction? – No, I’m not a teenager.
  26. Had to think twice before screaming “Oh God!” during sex. Or you said something else in its place? –  Heh heh.  No.  (There has to be a marian joke here, but I can’t work it out).
  27. Lost a job because of your atheism? – No.  That would be illegal.
  28. Formed a bond with someone specifically because of your mutual atheism (meeting this person at a local gathering or conference doesn’t count)? – I doubt it.  You’d have to ask my friends.
  29. Have crossed “In God We Trust” off of — or put a pro-church-state-separation stamp on — dollar bills? – N/A
  30. Refused to recite the Pledge of Allegiance? – N/A
  31. Said “Gesundheit!” (or nothing at all) after someone sneezed because you didn’t want to say “Bless you!”? – No.  And I tend to say “Bless me” rather plaintively after I sneeze.  Pavlov’s got a lot to answer for.
  32. Have ever chosen not to clasp your hands together out of fear someone might think you’re praying? – Eh?
  33. Have turned on Christian TV because you needed something entertaining to watch? – N-n-no.  Though I have played follow-the-fundy on YouTube.
  34. Are a 2nd or 3rd (or more) generation atheist? – My father and great-grandfather were clergymen.  So that’ll be a ‘no’ then.
  35. Have “atheism” listed on your Facebook or dating profile — and not a euphemistic variant? – Oh, I don’t know.  I think I don’t list it one way or the other.
  36. Attended an atheist’s funeral (i.e. a non-religious service)? – No, but see #12 above.
  37. Subscribe to a freethought magazine (e.g. Free InquirySkeptic)? – Only as podcasts.
  38. Have been interviewed by a reporter because of your atheism? – No
  39. Written a letter-to-the-editor about an issue related to your non-belief in God? – No.   But I did write a chunk of the Wikipedia entry on the atheist bus campaign.
  40. Gave a friend or acquaintance a New Atheist book as a gift? – “The Selfish Gene” doesn’t count, presumably.  Call that a “no”.
  41. Wear pro-atheist clothing in public? – No.  But then I don’t wear any slogans in public.
  42. Have invited Mormons/Jehovah’s Witnesses into your house specifically because you wanted to argue with them? – No.  One and only precious lifetime.  Not going to spend it arguing about something that doesn’t exist.
  43. Have been physically threatened (or beaten up) because you didn’t believe in God? – No.
  44. Receive Google Alerts on “atheism” (or variants)? – No.
  45. Received fewer Christmas presents than expected because people assumed you didn’t celebrate it? – No.  I actually don’t celebrate it when I’m single, only when I’m in a relationship with someone who does.  I find it bemusing and rather sweet that people give me presents.
  46. Visited The Creation Museum or saw Ben Stein’s Expelled just so you could keep tabs on the “enemy”? – No
  47. Refuse to tell anyone what your “sign” is… because it doesn’t matter at all? – No.  Confirmation bias and expectations theory have made me an absolutely typical Aries.  Little sheep that I am.  Baa-aaa-aaa.
  48. Are on a mailing list for a Christian organization just so you can see what they’re up to?  – Do I look like someone who gives a bleep?
  49. Have kept your eyes open while you watched others around you pray? – No.  I still bob to the knees when I sit down in Church.  Pavlov again.  It stops other people chatting to me and lets me focus on why I’m there – wedding, funeral, whatever.
  50. Avoid even Unitarian churches because they’re too close to religion for you? – Eh?

And just so you know how you fare, here’s a scale to rank yourself (adapted from Darwin’s Dagger’s suggestions):

0-10: Impressive, but not too far from agnosticism.
11-20: You are, literally, a “New Atheist.” But you now have something to strive for! Go for the full 50!
21-30: You are an atheist, but babies aren’t running away from you. Yet.
31-40: You are the 5th Horseman! Congratulations!
41-50: PZ Myers will now be taking lessons from you.

That’s 5 or so out of 50.  So not a militant then.

If you are so critical, why don’t you think?

Working out who the good guys are in a room full of atheists and believers is something of a preoccupation of mine.  So it’s no surprise that the comment and fall-out from the Atheist Bus campaign has set me off on this line of thought again.  Before I launch into this, I must acknowledge that the posts in the campaign thread are light-hearted and full of good humour and playfulness.  By contrast a lot of the response has been peevish, mean-spirited and picky.  Unfortunately, it is hard not to react to that peevishness dismissively, and some people have done so.  This is what’s prompted me to consider what aspects of religious faith are in fact baby which we risk throwing out with the bath-water.

I’ve decided to list the sloppiness of thinking that turns up in some atheists’ thoughts.  Come on guys – you are pinning your colours to the mast of critical thinking – think critically please.  That way we can all lurch slowly towards the truth.

Sloppy thought:  All believers are the same

Cricial thought:  No they’re not – they are all different

It does not help the cause when atheists lump all believers together, characterising them as simple-minded at best and psychotic at worst.  If you have any level of diversity among your friends and acquaintances then you will almost certainly know sensitive, intelligent and thoughtful people some of whom are believers and some of whom are not.  Any sentence that starts “Christians say…” or “Christians believe…” or “Christians think…” is quite demonstrably a lie.  Truly critical thinkers must acknowledge that each of those sentences must be qualified:  “Some Christians say…”, “Bible-belt Christians believe…”, “Liberal Christians think…”.  This, I suspect, is more relevant in the US where religion is a force in politics and on the Internet, where there’s a tendency to flame in haste and troll at leisure.

Sloppy thought: Religion ruins the lives of individuals

Critial thought: Only some individuals – it transforms the lives of others

Again, the only way for this statement to be true is to qualify it.  Some kinds of religion ruins the lives of some individuals.  Actually that’s another piece of sloppy thinking.  The truth is that it’s bigotry that messes people over, and bigotry may or may not spring from a monotheistic faith.   If your particular life has been damaged in the name of religion, then it’s hard to separate religion from the bigot who told you that the bad things they did to you were in fact good things.

Religious faith can be transformative.  It is important to acknowledge this.  Until atheism can produce a a treatment for addition as effective as the 12 Step programme it behooves us to tread carefully when dissing belief.  Some years ago I met a woman who had been abandoned by her mother, raised by abusive foster parents, had a child as a teenager whom she abandoned in turn, and sunk into alcoholism, addiction and imprisonment.  When I met her, she was the most annoying kind of Christian, the kind who cannot hold a conversation without praising god every third sentence.  But – and this is the infuriating thing – her life had been completely and profoundly transformed.  Sure, it’s the placebo effect.  But it turned her life around.

We need to acknowledge that it’s not religion that ruinse the lives of individuals it’s bigotry – the parental bigotry that rejects the gay son, for example.  Sure, many believers are bigots, but not all of them by any means.  And religion doesn’t have the monopoly on bigotry.

Sloppy thought: Religious people are full of hate

Critial thought: … but transformative forgiveness springs from religious faith

Maybe the truth is that some people full of hate cling on to religion in the way a drunk clings on to a lamp-post, for support rather than illumination.  I am not convinced by the correlation of religion and hate.

It is almost always religious faith that helps people whose family members have been murdered to not get swept up into a cycle of anger and bitterness.  They grieve, but they do not muddy their grief with anger and recriminations.   Two individual’s whose reaction to the murder of their children astonished the nation are Gee Walker, who is the mother of Anthony whose racist murder took place in Liverpool in 2005, and Gordon Wilson, whose daughter Marie died holding his hand in the rubble of the Enniskillen bomb in 1987. An article in the Independent suggests that Wilson’s act of forgiveness was a small but significant part of the peace process in Northern Ireland.  The Independent quotes Wilson: “I have lost my daughter and we shall miss her, but I bear no ill will. I bear no grudge. Dirty sort of talk is not going to bring her back to life. She was a great wee lassie. She loved her profession. She was a pet. She’s dead.”   I cannot think of an example of this kind of astonishing and transformative grace which did not spring from religious faith, though I’d be happy to be shown wrong.

Sloppy thought: It is folly to think dead people are alive in another place

Critical thought: Yes, but faith comforts the dying and the bereaved

If you are a believer, then that belief in the face of your own death or the death of someone you love gives the experience meaning and that is an enormous comfort.  It makes the experience easier, and it may even make it enriching.   Only an arrogant fool would mess with that, no matter how distasteful they found it.

Personally, I find it fascinating that the term for what happens at the end of our lives is “dying”, not “stopping”, because stopping is so clearly what happens.  Anything else is a euphemism.  I’d rather deal with death in a spiritual context.  Unfortunately for me, I can’t.

The Christians of my aquaintance will be frustrated that I attribute these good things to faith rather than god.  However, I find it easy to accept that the placebo effect can do all these things.  For me, religious faith is the placebo effect writ large – there’s no great big medicine in the sky.  But it is belief in that medicine that gives the placebo effect its power. It’s a bit of a bugger, really.

One last thing:

Critical thought: The danger of monotheism lies in the way it polarises ideas – atheists shouldn’t fall into the same trap

God vs the Devil.  Good vs Evil.  Right vs Wrong.  The belief in a single virtuous deity makes it much easier to create demons.

However, atheists and the non-religious must make sure they don’t play the same game and demonise people of faith.  It is a rich, complex, multifaceted world we live in.  Embrace that complexity.

Anyway – I’m just being crabby.  If you want to read something full of warm good humour step aboard the Atheist Bus.

Footnote:  This is not a new preoccupation.  I was discussing similar ideas here in March and here a year before that .  Five years ago and elsewhere I contributed to a debate which concluded that there was an evolutionary advantage to belief.

If gods existed and magic worked

I do sometimes wonder what the world would be like if gods existed and magic worked.

If magic worked as mechanically as, well, mechanics then I doubt it would make that much difference. We’d just rush about the place in our seven league boots or on our magic carpets.  As Arthur C Clark said: any sufficiently advanced technology is indistigishable from magic, but it’s less obvious that the reverse is true too.  If you could summon up spirits from the vasty deeps, you’d probably just get their voicemail.    I think a magical world would be shiny but mundane like a cross between Ikea and Comet.   You’d expect there to be less of a problem with pollution and global warming of course, but maybe there’d be a shortage of newts’ eyes in much the way that there is a shortage of tigers and rhinoceroses already and for exactly the same reason. (Rhinoceroi? Rhinocerodes?  Why is there never a greek scholar around when you need one?)

Ok, so magic would be dull, but what about the power of prayer?  

It seems to me that if prayer worked then it would be just another form of insurance.

Travel insurance? – Check.
Passport and tickets? – Check.
Prayer? – Oh, no, hang on a minute while I get down on my knees.

I’ve certainly sat down to meals where grace was as meaningless and mechanical as putting a napkin on your lap.

If prayers and special pleading worked,  it would suck great big hairy cheese-monsters.  It’s always shit when the middle-sized bully gets the big bastard on their side.  For example, you’d have to avoid competing against one of the deity’s top pray-ers if you wanted that promotion:

Let’s see now, Aphra has more experience, better qualifications and a personality that will really fit in, but we’ve just had a note from the Big Guy that we’ve got to hire the other one.

Functional prayer just sounds like belonging to the mob:  The power of prayer – putting the god into godfather.  

On top of which, I’m not at all sure about a world where there’s a god who’s nicer to those who are nice to it, and who really did throw thunderbolts at the bad guys.   That suggests a world where the supreme being has the emotional intelligence of a five year old, a point well made 40 years ago by Gene Roddenberry in The Squire of Gothos not to mention everyone who’s ever written about the classical or nordic gods since Homer had an eye test.  

And if we go for the nature-thang, we end up with a world where healing spirits heal you without any of that annoying waiting-lists-and-cold-hands-on-your-privates stuff, and where sister wind and brother rain come to your garden but are far too nice to fart about or piss around like drunks at a barbeque, which – lets face it – is how they behave right now.  It sounds nice, but would you really want to live in a world which was trapped inside a shop in Hebden Bridge and full of wind-chimes, incense, velvety lace and oestrogen?   

Mind you, the only way I can make sense of a world where Sarah Palin could be president of the US freaking A is to conclude that this whole universe is indeed the bad-acid trip of some great big hairy cheese-monster.  

I take it all back.  I’ll have the Hebden Bridge one, thank you.