Thursday, 13 December 2007

A Veritable Barbecue of Christians

If you saw an event entitle "Grill a Christian", would you go? Well, it turns out I would, even if I was only attracted by the slim outside chance that this might be some kind of penance for all those stake nights back in the middle ages. So, along I went, accompanied by a couple of friends from the Atheist Society.

It turned out that the event actually consisted of a panel of five christians from the Christian Union and an audience made up of we three (meeting again as we do, witch-like, on a regular basis) and maybe half a dozen other christians. At least we were told afterwards that they were probably christians. There was certainly plenty of meekness in evidence, so I assume there's a title deed for the planet heading their direction one day (lucky them). To put it another way, I don't think they brought any metaphorical barbecue sauce with them. So, it was up to us to "be blunt" as we were instructed and ask anything that popped into our heads.

Now, I'm not a very good note-taker at the best of times, and being in turns bored to death and driven to distraction doesn't aid my perspicacity one little bit. So I'm going to try and reconstruct some form of account of events from several scruffy sheets of A4, which appear to be the doodle-ridden ravings of a madman. Much of it looks like: "MORALS?", "WHY?", "PROOF!" and "PRAYER!?" interspersed with several questions that were left unasked or unanswered. There were a few interesting answers, which I shall now summarise as best I can. (it was yesterday after all!)

It turns out - and always seems to in the end - that we can all do pretty much what we like. We have all been pre-forgiven in advance thanks to a bloody human torture and sacrifice, which is apparently OK because Jesus was both human and not human at the same time. At this point there is much fallacious pontificating about how we simply haven't grasped the "obviously logical" nature of the holy trinity and that even though God is omnipotent and created Jesus, it's still a sacrifice to let us borrow him for a bit and then take him back.
But, ladies and gentlemen (I'm generously assuming I have an audience larger than 3 here...) I digress. Because, as I said at the start, we can do whatever we want to whomever we desire! Apparently, no proper Christian would ever want to murder, rape or steal (although so so many do) but, when it comes down to it, if you really say sorry afterwards you can still be forgiven. Excellent. This Christmas I would like the Junior Vlad Impaling Kit and the Flagelator 3,000 cat o' nine tails please.
When pressed, I was informed that I could indeed do anything I wanted and still be forgiven by Jesus (who loves me even if I think he's all made up) if I asked nicely.

OK, here goes, and hold on tight because this makes about as much sense as a tofu bicycle. God answers your prayers and you are special, except if you do statistical studies on it, you find zero effect of prayer. Now this is because he at the same time answers enough prayers to still be God but not enough for them to appear above the noise in any experiment. So don't get your hopes up. He also does heal people, but only of things that are conveniently open to occasional spontaneous remission or that have no serious external symptoms. Those poor amputees out there are just not praying properly or hard enough for new legs and arms.
To further enable my rapid conversion from atheism to complete nonsense we were given the following example: "My friend in the pew next to me had a crick in his neck one day, so I prayed for him and a minute later it was gone."
Well go get the holy water folks I think I need an emergency baptism after that compelling chestnut! I had a crick in my neck once and a minute later it went away by itself! How moronic to you have to be to accept this as evidence? Seriously.

OK, all they have here is the Bible, but the way they talk about it you'd think that this ragtag collection of books by many authors at many different times was the most reliable source ever. They unquestioningly accept the work of historians, many of whom - rather conveniently - have the first name "Father" or "Reverand". They completely ignore any of the controversy or discussion surrounding the texts and accept the most favourable aspects from a whole range of accounts, many of which disagree with each other. When it comes down to it, their evidence is the same old "God wrote the Bible and it says he exists so he does" circular argument, given a veneer of historical credibility by the sheer weight of religious research into the matter.
When it comes to scientific evidence we cannot, they say, expect God to show himself to us now. Not now that we have reliable ways to test and document such things. That just wouldn't be cricket! It has to be hard to believe in him because he loves us. Or something. None of it makes the remotest bit of sense!

There's a reason the defence of faith is called "apologetics". That's all it is. The making of excuses and apologies on behalf of religion. There is no reason here. There is no logic or observation or discernible method. Only a massive engine of self-reassurance designed to stop people from asking the truly difficult and interesting questions. When it comes down to it, all of the arguments we got that day can be summarised like this:

"It's like that because that's the way we want it to be!"

It's been a long time since that kind of argument was acceptable in any other sphere of investigation. Let's all hope for the day when religion is routinely subjected to the same standards of evidence as science.

Monday, 10 December 2007

I Don't Believe in Evolution

There, I said it. I don't believe in evolution. At least, in the way that religious types, including creationists and their hideous bastard offspring "Intelligent" Designers, use the word I don't.
And, if you started reading this having linked to it randomly from afar, hoping to read a like-minded rant about how evolution is "only a theory" and how the human eye is too complex to have possibly evolved, then I'm not sorry to disappoint. In fact, keep reading. Only this time, don't take what the person telling you things says at face value, blindly following their every instruction no matter how absurd.

Because nobody has to believe in or have faith in evolution. All you need are eyes, ears and a brain - plus all the necessary interconnections of course. If you can find these then you have all the tools required to understand how every living organism on this planet came to be.  If you have these, there is no reason for you ever to believe things just because louder people tell you to.
Evolution is a hugely mind-expanding concept. The fact that a very simple phenomenon repeated billions of times can lead to such a huge wealth of complexity and beauty is quite humbling. It's almost akin to learning the letters of the alphabet or the numbers 0 to 9 and subsequently discovering the huge variety and joy in language or the emergent beauty in mathematics. Only more so.

The problem is, there are so many lies and half-truths spread about evolution by its opponents, that many people are taken in by them. Here are just a few of the stupidest things:

1. It's "only" a theory.
I'm not sure I even need to respond to this one except to say that all of science is based upon theories and that the word means a damn sight more than the crazies like to think. A scientific theory isn't just something I think up one day whilst tying my shoelaces. That's called an "idea". Scientific theories have to be tested and observations repeated, correlations confirmed and so forth. Then it has to pass through the bear-pit of peer-review and survive accepted and unscathed, or at least only slightly scathed; a bit of scathing can be good for a theory after all.
"Intelligent" Design is an idea. It can never pass beyond this fairy-tale realm because it can never be proved, can never be falsified or confirmed.
If evolution must be thrown out as merely a "theory" the faith-heads have to start living as though gravitation does not happen, as though light does not travel at constant velocity, as though every device of technology built upon scientific research and theories does not, in fact, work.
Sounds fun, doesn't it?

2. Evolution has never been "seen in the lab"
This is a good one, because you only have to read a little bit to find out how stupid this statement is. Every day, bacteria develop resistances to drugs or other agents in the lab. We can change the genes of animals and make weird things happen, weird predictable things.
Outside of the lab, we can observe the effects of evolution, both within and between species, everywhere. There are well documented examples of groups of species with geographical distributions and breeding patterns that would be confounding without the concept of evolution to explain their situation.
Finally, science has predicted the existence of intermediate species - the transitional forms that link one species to the next - and then gone out and dug them up. This is a theory that is being tested every day and that hasn't yet fallen down.

3. The human eye/spleen/testicle/immune system/incredulity mechanism is far too complex to have evolved naturally. It must have been designed.
This one is fun as it is a prime example of the argument from personal incredulity: "I'm too stupid to understand how this could have happened so god must have done it." Well, guess what, you don't have to be the brainiest biologist on the block and actually understand how your ability to be incredulous evolved. All you need is the fundamentals and to be able to grasp what they mean. The really smart guys in the labs - of which I am not one, I am occasionally found in a lab but really smart I am not - can get on with working out the evolutionary pathways and I'll be happy to read their more intelligible articles.
For a start, most of the things the creationists bring up have already been explained, and the others require years of training to fully understand. The human eye is quite a simple thing as evolution goes, and the fact is, if we don't understand a particular mechanism yet we soon will. Science will probably figure it out, it's good like that.

4. Evolution is "random"
People often misrepresent evolution this way and it comes from a fundamental misunderstanding. When a mutation occurs it occurs randomly, it's subsequent selection and proliferation through breeding does not. This is a naturally guided process. Beneficial mutations lead to more successful breeding, damaging ones do not. Evolution cannot help but occur in the presence of environmental pressures. All you need to make the human species is a simple repetitive process and lots and lots of time.

One of the things that angers me most about these misrepresentations is that the people who spread them understand exactly what they are doing. They rely on the general public to absorb and parrot these lies without thinking about them. This needs to stop. It took more than 3 billion years for life to evolve to the point that it can understand these things and it saddens me to see people abandoning their amazing natural gifts in favour of dumb incredulity.

Thursday, 6 December 2007

The "Evils" of Moral Relativism

This is a topic which came up last night at an Atheist Society event. Somebody in the audience asked that old favourite question, which I shall paraphrase here:

"If you don't believe in god(s), then where do your morals come from? Why don't you just go around killing and raping each other?"

My initial reaction to this question is usually one of incredulity, rapidly followed by hope that the questioner really doesn't mean what they are suggesting. It keeps coming up though; people keep asking it and then waiting with that smug expression on their faces for the inevitable admission that all atheists are entirely devoid or morals, or that like Prometheus we 'borrowed' what we needed from the gods without acknowledging them. Or even sending a thank-you card. Godless heathens that we are!

What the question itself seems to suggest is that before religion came along, we did just go around murdering and raping each other. That, as Moses trudged down from Sinai, commandments fresh of the presses, everyone was busy coveting their neighbour's ass and killing and thieving and raping their little hearts out.
So Moses stands up and, after clearing his throat really loudly to distract them from their rampant sinning, reads out his ten simple rules. And after that, everyone is all about peace, love and understanding.

Given that we evolved as a social species, it seems far more likely that morals evolved along with us. That in order for us to exist in a tribe we had to follow certain rules of engagement. We didn't kill our fellow tribe-members and we didn't steal from them, because doing so would destroy the harmony of the group. Observation of other primates shows this kind of behaviour, whilst it has also been shown that they understand the concept of 'fairness' on an instinctive level.

Even disregarding other species and considering modern humans as we are now, one can derive a perfectly functional set of morals from the simple idea of doing unto others as you would have done to yourself. You don't kill because you wouldn't want to be killed, and likewise with theft, rape and so forth. It benefits the species if we help our fellow people, rather than fighting them.

In addition to this, deriving your morals from personal experience and not from a list of absolutes allows you to be more flexible in determining the morality of a given act. It is not always wrong to lie, most of us tell small lies all the time in order to avoid offending people, or to avoid recrimination. It is not always wrong to kill, although it nearly always is. There are scenarios in which killing one person is the more moral option, however distasteful this may seem. This does not lead to the collapse of society, however much the faithful say it will.

And finally, onto the big one, the best response I think you can give to that stupid question:

"Are you saying, then, that without a god or gods to watch you and punish you when you transgressed, you would be raping and murdering and stealing? Is it that these things are so fundamentally enjoyable that divine retribution is the only thing that will stop you?"

By placing the responsibility for morals on a higher authority, they abdicate all responsibility for thinking or caring about other people. They pass the buck. And by living by absolutes they miss out on a huge range of human moral experience.

Monday, 3 December 2007


Today's post is brought to you by the question "why?"
Feel free to use this useful little question to find out about the motives of the other humans around you. Feel free to use it about anything you can see.

However, don't stretch poor little Why beyond it's limits. A better question when asking the universe questions is usually "how?" How does that work? How did the universe form? This kind of thing. Because, you see, little old Why has his limits. People seem to get awfully confused about the universe when you use Why, and they start to invoke all sorts of silly reasons.

"Why did the Universe start to exist?" seems to lead billions of people, inexorably, to god. As if the universe must have a reason for existing, a purpose. Poor old Universe doesn't have a purpose that we can properly discern, it only exists and, quite frankly, it does a rather good job of it. So, three cheers for the universe. But let's try to stick to how it came to exist and leave the why to the police and private detectives who deal with motives.

After all, as far as we know, motives have only existed as long as we have, which is really no time at all as far as the universe is concerned. Before we came along, it almost certainly had no motives. 4.5 billion years of hard, unconscious work it took before the universe had motives. Not bad going at all when all you get to start with is a quantum singularity.

So, as a species, let's try to remember that it is we who are the motives of the universe, and we are a comparatively new invention.

Friday, 30 November 2007

Jehovas Witless

I apologise for double posting but...
Another one bites the dust.

Only this time a 14 year old has been indoctrinated to the point of killing himself. And a whole range of adults were complicit in it too. Particularly the friendly relative who convinced him of this bullshit, and to a lesser extent the judge who granted him the right to decide to die from something he had a good chance of surviving.

You want to know why?

"...No soul of you shall eat blood... whosoever eateth it shall be cut off"
-Leviticus 17: 12-14

Yeah, becuase the current method of transfusing blood is to give it you in a pint glass and say "bottom's up!"

Homeopathy is a Bunch of Crap

It had to come at some point. The anger has been simmering away (in a purely metaphorical way) for some time now. And the straw that broke the simmering camel's back? Well, it was the Guardian, last bastion of esoteric spelling in a world of computers that it is.

First we had Jeanette Winterson prattling on about how homeopathy works, which is utter rubbish, and then we had a spirited defence of it from a Denis MacEoin. This is starting to get tiring and I'm increasingly annoyed with the media rushing to present an illusion of balance where there is none. In order to maintain this balance they did publish a rebuttal from Ben Goldacre so it's not all bad.

Homeopathy is a load of rubbish. There, I said it. It's water you morons! It doesn't remember what you put in it and subsequently diluted out of it. It is H2O, billions of molecules constantly moving about with no way in which to store a "memory" or "form" of its solutes, former or current.

The evidence is clear on this one. Properly run, objectively analysed, peer-reviewed studies have shown that the effect of homeopathy is no more than that of a placebo. In addition, trained homeopaths cannot tell the difference between water and one of their remedies without reading the label! Please can we just tell the crystal-wavers, the psychics, the creationists and the homeopaths where to go? It's all nonsense. Convincingly peddled nonsense but nonsense nonetheless.

In fact, homeopathy can kill. When substituted for genuine, proven medical procedures it can result in horrific tragedies. As a complementary treatments it takes credit for the effect of drugs and used in place of medical treatment it can lead to deaths. This all leads me to wonder why the NHS funds 5 homeopathic hospitals. That's right, taxpayers money in the UK is spent on quacks who are at best misguided and at worst dangerous charlatans.

Because, when it comes down to it, if you're a homeopath I have one simple question for you:

Which kind are you? The liar or the idiot?

There is no middle ground. Either you genuinely believe what you're peddling, in which case go learn about science and stop pushing things you clearly don't understand (nobody can understand it what with its being made up!) or you know it's a load of rubbish and you seek to profit from others' gullibility. It may sound unfair but it's not. I, unlike the media at present, do not intend to peddle a false debate where there is none.

Tuesday, 27 November 2007

Best Argument for God's Existence Ever!

Time and again I find that the funniest things on the internet are published by the pro-religion crowd on the Guardian's Comment is Free page. Apparently this time, the reason to believe in God is as a kind of untouchable hobby, something nobody can stop you doing if you want some relaxing time alone.
I'm quite in favour of the general idea that we could manage to slow down the pace of the modern workplace a little without losing a huge amount. We could do with a little extra holiday time or more flexible hours, especially in the more stressful jobs. (As a point of order I'm not including advertising executive, middle-manglement or other pretend jobs here.)
So, pack away all of your rational arguments for the non-existence of God, ladies and gentlemen! We should join the ranks of the faithful and get a little more 'me' time. Apart from that time spent in church listening to the pious man drone on about 2,000 year old fairy stories on the only reliable day off you get in a week of course.

Monday, 26 November 2007

The First Post and Guess What? It's a Rant.

I'm not much for introductions, so I'm just going to dive right in.

So, there I was quietly going about my business of reading the news websites, gradually coming closer to the over-optimistic conclusion that perhaps nothing really stupid would be reported today. Perhaps I could spend a day not worked up into a near-maniacal frenzy, ready to chew the arms off my chair in frustration? Just one free day? Because I can't not go and look. It's a moth-flame scenario. My only way out is for the whole world to conspire to be rational for a day.

So, I found this on the BBC News website. And I read it, and I can't have been paying attention because I got to the end and did a very realistic Scooby Doo double-take. I'd like to say I said "Zoinks!" but I lack the self control for such self-censorship. So, basically, a woman is likely to be sent to prison or whipped bloody because she allowed her school-pupils to name a teddy bear Muhammad in Sudan (As in the teddy is in Sudan, it's not a surname, that'd just be silly). Let's take a moment and remember that Muhammad is about the most common name in any Muslim society. It's OK for mummy's ungrateful delinquent snot of a child to be named after the prophet but when it's a stuffed animal it's time to bring the law in and apply brutal corporal punishment.

Great. And there are quite a few countries with similar systems of Islamic law with whom western governments deal on a regular basis, apparently not batting an eyelid at torture, excused only by the flimsiest of excuses. Not that there are many convincing excuses for torture.

I'm the first to admit that the UK doesn't have an untarnished record so far as human rights are concerned, but seriously. Even looking down from the lofty heights of mediocrity, this whole thing is inexcusably, primitively, barbarically stupid.