Tag Archives: fundamentalism

An atheist’s guide to wrestling pigs

Pig WrestlingRichard Bandler, one of the co-founders of NLP, points out rather smugly that the word “generalisation” is just five syllables wrapped around the word “lies”. We all know that generalisations are false, but still we make them. What bugs me immensely about atheists who are anti-religion, rather than those who are just indifferent, is their tendency to see all christians as prejudiced zealots. Takes one to know one, of course. No projection there.

The thing is, there are as many kinds of Christians as there are kinds of people. Yes, some are bigoted, narrow-minded and spiteful, but not all. Not all, at all. There is a specific kind of Christian that I find compelling and attractive; the ones who are intelligent and questioning, funny, socially sensitive, tolerant of others and who quietly get on with making surprisingly substantial changes in the world. I’ve known rather a lot of them and I’d quite like to be one myself. In my dreams. They put me into a cognitive spin because I find the whole premise of Christianity so illogical that I simply don’t understand how anyone with two brain cells and a synapse can find it makes sense. How can anyone so bright be so dumb, I ask myself. They probably feel the same way about me.

When rabid anti-religionists start attacking Christians, I don’t recognise the form of Christianity they attack. I’ve known a few creationists, fundamentalists and people who have a personal relationship with their saviour and lord, and the internet constantly reminds me that they aren’t actually that unusual. I guess in the UK we are blessed with agnosticism and are spared the lunatic excesses of religious tv, evangelism and fundamentalism. I once visited the Bible Society head office in Swindon, though; it was like walking through a toothpaste advertisement made in Stepford.

They say you should never wrestle with a pig: you get muddy and the pig likes it. Put like that, it sounds kinda fun. And that’s the problem. The best responses to bigoted fundamentalists are ridicule and education, and the best responses to powerful bigoted fundamentalists (like the lunatics who’ve been running the asylum in the USA for the last years) are still ridicule and education. But in the US the Scepticism and Sceptical Humanism movements are getting sucked in to point-scoring and pig-wrestling, when it should in fact be poking fun at the pig. And then ambling off and doing something more interesting instead.


Sisterhood is for bitches

I tumbled across a this on FtM Doctor’s blog today, and have been choking on my reaction ever since.

The story is about a feminist music festival in Michigan which is explicitly for “womyn-born womyn” and explicitly excludes trans women. Presumably they also explicitly excludes trans men. In fact, it is not actually a story, it is a press release, explaining the organisers’ point of view.

The language is interesting, veering between the hate-filled and the overly emotive. At one point the organiser of the “womyn-born womyn” sends the following email to the leader of “camp trans”.

I deeply desire healing in our communities, and I can see and feel that you want that too. I would love for you and the other organizers of Camp Trans to find the place in your hearts and politics to support and honor space for womyn who have had the experience of being born and living their life as womyn. I ask that you respect that womon born womon is a valid and honorable gender identity. I also ask that you respect that womyn born womyn deeply need our space — as do all communities who create space to gather, whether that be womyn of color, trans womyn or trans men . . . I wish you well, I want healing, and I believe this is possible between our communities, but not at the expense of deeply needed space for womyn born womyn.

The self-righteous emotional manipulation of this is nauseating, with its talk of “deeply desire[ing] healing”, “respect” and “deeply needed space”s.

We strongly assert there is nothing transphobic with choosing to spend one week with womyn who were born as, and have lived their lives as, womyn. It is a powerful, uncommon experience that womyn enjoy during this one week of living in the company of other womyn-born womyn. There are many opportunities in the world to share space with the entire queer community, and other spaces that welcome all who define themselves as female.

Is it unkind of me to consider the spaces and places that I have spent with “womyn-born womyn” this past week, which include a women-only gym and the WI? It is not hard to find women-only groups, if that’s what you need for a while. I’ve been on women-only holidays and women-only retreats. I was educated in part at an all girls’ school.

Of course the gym, and the WI aren’t full of radical feminists or …

womyn who could be considered gender outlaws, either because of their sexual orientation (lesbian, bisexual, polyamorous, etc.) or their gender presentation (butch, bearded, androgynous, femme – and everything in between). … gender variant womyn …. ” or women who ” … consider themselves differently gendered

… so far as I know.

I find myself wondering why the organisers exclude trans women if the spread of women at the festival is so broad, (yes, I know, the “deeply-needed space” thing) and also whether or not there are any straight married mothers there, or whether monogamous heterosexuals are not welcome either.

Rather than rant on and on about this, I will conclude with three final comments.

Firstly, it would be acceptable for the “womyn” of Michigan to create an activity exclusivly for “womyn-born women” if, on other occasions, they created events which were exclusively for other sub-sets of women, for example women who have been abused, or widowed, or who are lesbians, or indeed trans. But to exclude trans women and only trans women smacks of the “all men are rapists” school of separatist radical feminism which de-personalises half of the human race in a way which is as unjust and unacceptable as the de-personalising of women by men which went on for centuries before.

Secondly, I wonder if this is actually personal. If it isn’t about all trans women, but about one particular trans woman, if the organisers lacked the balls to exclude her and if they therefore decided to exclude them all. I find this theory rather compelling, given how petty, emotional and factional groups of women can become. See quotes above.

Finally, I put the press release through Gender Genie, and it scored 30% female and 70% male. Which made me snigger. Bitch that I am.

Abortions, sex changes, genetic defects

I offer you two thoughts from two different sites.

First – 21st century data in the UK: “A patient will not be entitled to refuse to make their personal data available to the [NHS] Spine [data systems]. Data about all patient events may be routinely communicated to the Spine without the consent of the patient. … The citizen has no legal right to stipulate what will and will not be recorded … nor where those records will be held.”

And secondly – 20th century data in Germany: “Only after Jews were identified — a massive and complex task that Hitler wanted done immediately — could they be targeted for efficient asset confiscation, ghettoization, deportation, enslaved labor, and, ultimately, annihilation. It was a cross-tabulation and organizational challenge so monumental, it called for a computer. Of course, in the 1930s no computer existed. But … punch card technology did exist. … [and] Hitler was able to automate his persecution of the Jews … from the identification of the Jews in censuses, registrations, and ancestral tracing programs to the running of railroads and organizing of concentration camp slave labor.”

The problem of course is not with data, per se. NHS staff are a pretty benign bunch. The problem comes when people with strong convictions have relatively friction-free access to data, and it is compounded when data becomes more enduring.

In this world of increasing fundamentalism, I am not comfortable that the health service can record abortions, gender re-assignments, genetic abnormalities, and other politically, socially or financially sensitive information, that they can record it in ways that mean that the data is pervasive and enduring, and that they can record it against our will.

Good god, bad god

The devil may have all the best tunes, but god certainly has all the best choral music. I was listening to a Byrd Magnificat on the way in to work last week and started thinking about the good things about religions.

So: choral music, from plainsong to gospel taking a diversion through Buddhist and Hindu chanting, is definitely one of the best things about religion.

Also the concept of stewardship. This is a Christian one really, the idea that we are answerable to a deity for how we look after and manage their creation. Unfortunately some interpretations of this concept assume that we have been given the rights to own the world rather than the duty to act as its caretakers. No creator worth believing in would just hand over a jewel like this planet of ours for us to to destroy in the way we are.

Reciprocity. Christianity is keen on reciprocity. Luke 6:31 And as ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise. This is is an exhortation to pay attention to karma really, isn’t it? However, Christianity does not seem to be as hot on cause and effect as Buddhism and Taoism are, with the Great Big Escape Clause In The Sky offering to let you off the hook: that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life. John 3:15.

Meditation. Stilling the mind. One of the things I really like about eastern religions and philosophies is just how damn practical they are. They give clear instructions. Breathe in-two-three, breathe out-two-three-four-five-six. Look at the candle. In-two-three. And guess what? Their instructions work.

Parables. All the great religions have wonderful parables, metaphors and fables. Love ’em.

Architecture. Hard to beat a good medieval Cathedral in the impressive architecture stakes. Modern bridges do it, but not much else. Robes. Most good religions have impressive robes. Padded embroidery. Gold thread. I’m rather fond of the Orthodox tradition of long beard, square hat and fancy copes myself, though a mitre is very satisfactory in its own way and the red and orange robes of Buddhists are rather jolly. And ceremonial, there is something very calming about slow and measured movements which have been repeated for centuries and a good procession is always a pleasure to watch. And then there’s the smell of incense and the walking around with a censor so the smell of it gets everywhere. Ach, let’s face it: I’m a ritual-bunny.

But I think that’s about it. Good things about religions: choral singing, the concepts of reciprocity and cause and effect, instructions on how to meditate, a rag-bag of stories and metaphors, some neat buildings and robes and some soothing ceremonial. Mind you, any half decent military service should be able to deliver the goods in terms of costume and ceremony but they have a bad habit of doing it all to the sound of marching bands.

It’s not a long list, really, is it? And you are more than bright enough to know what I’d put on a list of things that are bad about religions. Me, I’m going to listen to that Byrd Magnificat

Needles, motes and beams

Zeitgeist is tricksy stuff. The problem is that it is impossible to tell how much of what one thinks is just the brainwashing of the times one lives in, and how much is actually what one thinks.

Something someone said the other day reminded me of Sir Isaac Newton, the gravity guy. A difficult, reclusive and distinctly odd man Sir Isaac, who was capable of challenging the simplest of assumptions:

Why do things fall?

Because they are heavy. Obviously.

Yes, but what is it about being heavy that makes them fall?

It is almost impossible to imagine the clarity of thought that’s needed to challenge presuppositions and assumptions to that degree. As well as identifying gravity and developing calculus, Sir Isaac invented the cat-flap which is rather endearing. One starts to realise something of his oddness when one discovers just how far he was willing to go in his ruthless search for the truth: he stuck blades and needles into the socket of his eye, between the ball and the bone, in order to distort the retina and thereby understand more clearly the difference between what there is to see and the act of seeing.

So here we have a man who is capable of turning all sorts of assumptions and follies on their heads and of discerning intellectual and practical truths, who then lets himself be swept along with the follies of his times. You see, Sir Isaac was an alchemist, and they were a pretty rum lot. They were good at chemistry on a mechanical level, but based their theories on, well, on theory; and because their theories that lead could be transformed into gold were wrong, a lot of them stooped to deception and trickery in order to present their ‘truth’ to the world. (I can’t be bothered to make cheap comparisons with the Bush & Blair Governments, although the attempted legerdemain of Rumsfelt’s comments about the Guantanamo suicides being “an act of war” springs to mind).

Alchemy became chemistry in the decades after Sir Isaac’s death, when practitioners started questioning assumptions, challenging axioms, and generally being scientists and iconoclasts rather than propogandists and hypocrites. But the thing that I come back to again and again, when considering Sir Isaac, is that if someone as capable of thinking for himself as he was could be swept along by the zeitgeist, then what hope is there for the rest of us?


PS – I’ll be far away from the Internet this Wednesday, but I’ll be back on Friday, so just two posts this week.

9/11 – Five years on

Like everyone else I guess, I’ve spent a lot of the past week or so trying to take some sort of stock of the last five years, so I looked up something which I posted in a largely British and American web community on the 12th September 2001. I remember it as being incisive and insightful, but re-reading it now, I find that it was over-punctuated and over-blown. However, it did contain some interesting analysis.

It is useful to have even 5:5 hindsight, so here are the main points, annotated, re-punctuated and mildly paraphrased:


The cry goes out “how can these evil people kill innocent victims?” but Muslims everywhere are being threatened and attacked in response, and those angry responses show us how come innocent people get killed. I am not a Muslim …but I do remember events like Tripoli, and the innocent people killed there. As a direct result, NYC and DC have been attacked, and MORE innocent people are killed. … the dead of yesterday were not the first, and neither will they be the last. (Statement, not threat).

Hardly prescience, but even so I’m astonished and shocked by the estimate of 72,265 dead as a direct result of 9/11, which has been reported in The Independent.

The next section discussed some unsympathetic reactions from Brits who were referring to our long history of Northern Irish terrorism, and it is curious how irrelevant these comparisons now seem. The most interesting part of it reads:


… The other thing that Ireland and the shift from Imperialism since 1945, has done to us is made us aware that we are not inevitably and inviolably correct just because we are British…

That is a lesson that the current American regime, and I suspect a majority of the American people, have yet to learn about themselves. Ach, there are only so many apocalyptic visions I can manage in one evening, particularly when I’m comparing those of five years ago with those I have now; please feel free to insert your own here.

The next section is worryingly prescient:


There is a difference between saying … “the US has been arrogant, and responsible for … atrocities…” and saying “the US deserved to to be attacked in retaliation for those atrocities”. Some people are hearing the former, when often what is being said is the latter…

It feels like fewer and fewer people are hearing words clearly, which is increasingly worrying considering the laws designed to monitor and control us which have been introduced since 2001.

One thing which concerns me in particular these days is the danger involved in using the word “understand” in the context of young radicalised Muslims being sickened by the war in Iraq. “Understand” means “comprehend”, but it is often assumed to mean “endorse”. I absolutely can understand the reasons why young Muslim men become radicalised – the mechanisms are fairly straightforward and could probably be replicated in a lab if one could still conduct unethical psychological experiments on students for $25 a day. They are broadly the same mechanisms which produced the inrush of foreigners to fight in the Spanish Civil War. I do not endorse the terrorists’ actions, but I do think it is vital we learn to comprehend them. The only way to deal with terrorism in the long-term is to make it irrelevant, and you cannot do that if you refuse to understand it.

The next section commented on double standards and perspectives but could not find any conclusions:


… The old joke about learning languages says: I am a freedom fighter, you are a member of the resistance, he is a terrorist. Let us be clear: the US has given … unofficial support to groups who have been considered terrorists…

The final section was the most important at the time, but the least coherent. It paraphrases down to:


[What the terrorists have done is taken the initiative, so that the only thing the American psyche is capable of is reacting to events; it is the terrorists’ game and the Americans are now playing by their rules.]

The best response would be to do something outside the world view of their attackers. Usually one only gets outside a world view by being outside the times: this is … ‘the historical perspective’ and it is easy to be wise after the event. But we are IN these events…. and … the only thing that will work is something the terrorists do not expect, but I do not believe that the US is capable of doing that.

So… five years on, my opinions have not really changed other than finding that Northern Irish terrorism has become irrelevant.

I am trying to assess whether or not the events of the last five years have been better or worse than I expected. There is a rule of thumb, though I forget who it is credited to, which says that we tend to over-estimate the short-term effects of a technology, and under-estimate the long-term effects. I think I fell into that trap. The final line of the piece I wrote five years ago presupposes a tactical nuclear response by the US, which was clearly an exaggerated prediction. But in the long-term our prospects are worse than even I thought, and the long-term has just begun.

I find the estimate of 72,265 casualties shocking in both senses; I’d have guessed the figure at 10,000 or so. It is clear that the West’s young Muslims are becoming radicalised even faster than they can blow themselves up, and I am disgusted by the exploitative cynicism of a leadership and a priesthood which can manipulate young men into committing suicide in that way, while the leaders and the priests carry on regardless. That is something which I find hard to understand.

What leaves me sick with fear is that we are still only a dozen yards or so down this particular Cresta Run, but there really is no way to slow down or stop. All this, and global warming too.

Truth, stardust and comfort blankies

We should be able to do it now. We should be able rise above superstition, supposition and woolly thinking. We have arrived at the once-in-a-species chance to combine wisdom with knowledge and transcend both.

For the first time in our history we have the data. We really do know things. We have researchers and academics finding things out and publishing them as if their jobs depended on it.

We are also joining the gaps between these pieces of knowledge to some extent. Climatologists train as mathematicians and physicists first, but climatology also draws on the skills of botanists and archaeologists and palaeontologists and zoologists and lepidopterists and… well you get the idea. Not just climatology. Bristol University provides a taught Masters in Archaeology for the Screen Media. The list of connected specialities is huge.

And finally, we have methodologies. There were many seminal innovations in the 20th century: the internal combustion engine, flight, digital computing, penicillin, genocide, but the one without which none of the others would have had any effect is the development of methodologies. It was the development and application of manufacturing processes which enabled the Model T to roll out of the factories in Detroit in its hundreds of thousands. It was the development of a methodology for genocide which meant that six in every eight European Jews were killed in the 1940s.

The relevant methodologies though are the ones for generating information, for finding hard data and separating it out from theory, hypothesis and speculation. So, not only do we know stuff, we have reliable ways of sorting out true stuff and sifting out the plausible stuff, putative stuff, speculative stuff and down right wishful thing.

The ostrich-eye view

However we have not outgrown our comfort blankie. We prefer the warm cosiness of superstition and woolly thinking to the hard realities which face us and – and this is the really unforgivable thing – we tell ourselves we are looking at the evidence and drawing our own conclusions. We are doing nothing of the sort. We lie.

There are examples of this all the time. I once heard a taxi driver saying “75% of all cars on the road are red: if you think about it, it’s true”. The fact that he had failed to look through his windscreen and see that three in four cars are not in fact red was worrying enough. But the fact that he thought he had gone through a verification step pushed me off my mental cliff. What on earth did he think he was doing when he ‘thought about it’? What did ‘thinking about it’ mean to him?

This happens in commercial environments too. I recently distracted a meeting for five minutes by trying to understand if the statement “20% of balls are blue” meant “20 balls in every 100 are blue”, or if it meant “each ball is pie-bald and has a blue patch covering 20% of it”. Eventually the person I was asking the question of snarled “it’s just an expression” and I had to bite my tongue not to reply “no it’s not an expression, it’s a number”. I paraphrase, but I still say he was talking bollocks.

It is this intellectual laziness and moral cowardice that enables intelligent, educated and otherwise thoughtful people to believe in medieavalisms such as astrology or crystal healing or spiritualism or tarot cards. It’s incredibly simple to demonstrate astrology – just run the thing backwards. Collect data on people’s personalities and the events of their lives, and get an astrologer to tell you where the stars were when each person was born. You could limit them to a specific year if you felt generous. If astrology works, you should be able to run it backwards as well as forwards. You could take the same approach for tarot readings. If homoeopathy has more than just the placebo effect, then it should be demonstrable. It isn’t, and one has to conclude that it doesn’t.

Actually, homoeopathy is a case in point. The less a person engages with the methods and concepts of evidence based-medicine, or experimental and evidence-based science for that matter, the more likely they are to accept homoeopathy on trust. (Mind you, the only evidence I have for this is anecdotal and my argument is deductive – but this proves my point – we can now validate and categorise both the data we use and the conclusions we draw from it). What is worrying though is that the reasonably well-educated and predominantly middle class patients of homoeopaths believe that their faith in homoeopathy is worth as much or more than the evidence-based practice of medicine, despite the fact that medical science actually is curing more people year on year and this information is readily available. There’s none so blind as those who won’t see.

Stepping up to the line

By contrast, one of the most fascinating programmes on British radio at the moment is In our Time with Melvyn Bragg. Lord Bragg made his name in literature, humanities and the arts; he is nobody’s fool and no kind of intellectual slouch. However, he struggles with some pretty simple mathematical and scientific concepts whenever the subject is outside his own cultured fields. Fair play to him, he tackles the subjects and tackles them well. But it is astonishing to hear someone as polymathic as Bragg flounder in the midst of really very simple science. And then one realises just how innumerate and scientifically illiterate even the most educated and cultured of us are and – even more worryingly – that this is not seen as any kind of problem.

Almost half a century ago C P Snow argued that someone who does not understand the second law of thermodynamics is as uneducated and uncultured as someone who hasn’t read Shakespeare. He also says “if I had asked an even simpler question — such as, What do you mean by mass, or acceleration, which is the scientific equivalent of saying, Can you read? — not more than one in ten of the highly educated would have felt that I was speaking the same language.”

The madness of crowds

On top of that, we don’t get it. We all feel entitled to an opinion in this democratic age. Like the taxi driver, we do not realise that we cannot think. We all feel that our opinion on – for example – evolution is as valid as the next person, even if the next person is a geneticist or an anthropologist or a palaeontologist and we aren’t. In fairness, the failure is in our education system where people are encouraged to ‘think for themselves’ without being taught how to think critically or being given the basic tools of analysis. This is the downside of democracy. We dumb down to our lowest common denominator. I am not going to argue against democracy: as Amyarta Sen points out, it is the only demonstrable safeguard against famine for a start.

Looking further up the slippery pole, we glimpse our leaders, chosen by us mainly from graduates who studied humanities or social science or business or law. It is not just that they are ignorant. The thing that gives me the great big hairy heebee-jeebies is that they believe that they are ‘informed’ and that being intelligent is enough. They do not accept that some subjects are too technical, too specialised or just plain too hard for the lay person, no matter how intelligent, to grasp, and that some things simply cannot be paraphrased. We are being led by people who just don’t get it, and who don’t actually know that there is stuff to get.

However, I do believe that responsible government requires our winsome elected leaders take and act on the professional advice of specialists even if we don’t like it. Interestingly Thatcher was the political leader in the 1980s most alert to the challenges of climate change. She was a scientist and understood the methodology, even if it had been decades since she’d actually done any chemistry.

Our bad

We are failing the great moral test of our times and retreating into the comfort of a new mediaevalism, surrounding ourselves with ideology and doctrine and the warm and righteous certainties of fundamentalism. We have the chance to rise above all this, to step into reality and claim our inheritance as intelligent and wise children of the stars.

Instead we are sitting in the dust, looking for comfort by casting runes, and that will bring about the ruin us all.