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.

#IllRideWithYou

#JeSuisCharlie

#JeSuisAhmed

John Donne, Meditation 17

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A series of small epiphanies

Nell

Nell

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 contact@edskeptics.co.uk 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

And:

  • 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:
http://www.bristolvantage.com/2012/12/05/thomas-raffael-how-cu-gate-shows-up-the-main-problem-with-the-press/
and
http://www.bristolcu.org.uk/ – 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.

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