Archive for the ‘Atheism’ Category

Extremism in Religion – How many hoops are there?

Wednesday, September 17th, 2014

This post was written in response to this post by my dear friend Rob DuBois, but extremism in religion and the ‘moderate’ response is a topic that I’ve been thinking about for a while. Rob correctly points out that often the religion is a secondary point, or at least not always the main driving force.

However, I think Rob misses the central point in his argument, that actually, NOBODY and NO single group represents an entire religion.

It is just as true to say that moderate muslims do not represent Islam as it is to say that jihadists do not. It’s also true to say that Southern Baptists are as generally unrepresentative of Christianity as are Episcopalians, Lutherans or indeed, The WBC. It’s true to say that Tibetan buddhists are no more buddhist than Japanese Zen buddhists.

The trap one falls into if debating whether a group or individual practice is ‘true’ to the religion is the ‘No True Scotsman’ fallacy. Once you start to say that someone does not represent the ‘true’ religion, then you simply retreat further into factionalism, and you’ll find that there is no such thing as a ‘true’ believer. If you always find a way to excuse the uncomfortable parts of the religion that you personally (or your group) do not like on the basis that those who do believe those parts are ‘not true believers’, eventually, you must admit that neither you, nor they are the true believer. By claiming that only moderate versions of a religion are correct, one attempts to dismiss the very real problems that exist within religious belief systems, and inadvertently justify extremism in the process.

You (personally or collectively) can’t pretend that the bits of your religion practiced by others who hold up the same book and teacher as guide, are not the ‘real’ religion. If your book says it (no matter whether you want to argue it’s metaphor where it suits you), someone somewhere is going to believe it, and justify the belief on that same sheaf of papers as you justify yours. Therefore, the truth in the argument holds both ways – the extremist will argue that you, as a moderate don’t hold the true belief, and vice-versa. You’re both wrong.

Ultimately, it’s only you who believes the way you do (if you do), and you are no more representative than anyone else. In other words, there are as many religions and forms of a given religion as there are believers. Each person practices slightly differently (and has their own definition of ‘sin’), and everyone has a different interpretation of some part of his religion. This is convenient for religions which allow for ‘personal revelation’ as part of the experience (evangelical Christianity, some forms of buddhism, paganism etc), less so for the more rigid forms (Catholicism, Islam, Orthodox Judaism), but in all cases, the variation exists. This is why there is no monolithic, undivided type of any religion.*

Every major (and minor) religion has sects, factions and denominations. This happens because people disagree (politely or otherwise) about the nature of both God and the practice of his worship. One thinks God prefers slaves to honor their masters, the other thinks that whole slavery bit is not ‘true’ Christianity. Every faction is different – they argue over prophets, over forms of worship, over dress, over sexuality and sexual practice, over the role of women, over property and ownership, over governance, over childbearing and rearing, over marriage rites, over finances, over politics, over whether horses can fly, over which way the place of worship faces, over food consumption rules, over the nature of the afterlife, and over whether God made the whole world in 7 days or rather puked it out of a cosmic snake.

Almost anything you can imagine that people would fight about has been fought about, endlessly and pointlessly in the name of the religion formed on the back of the fight, often with much bloodshed in the process. And it doesn’t matter if you claim that it’s not ‘true to the religion’, if religion is used to justify the action, then the religion is a motivating factor, and absolutely it is part of the problem. Dismissing someone’s belief as wrong does not solve the problem of having that belief in the first place.

Religious belief thereby falls along a spectrum of personal comfort.
If you’re comfortable with being a murdering asshole, or picketing the funerals of suicided veterans with anti-gay slogans, then you’ll find that your religion justifies it just fine.
If you’re more into bake sales, macrame circles and feeding the homeless, then ‘God Bless Ya’ you’re a true believer too. There are African American preachers who preach against homosexuality because “the Bible tells me so” but I’m pretty sure they gloss over the parts where the same Bible also justifies slavery.

Religion has very little to do with God, and the only difference between the ‘major’ religions and sects or cults is the number of people who loosely subscribe (with individual differences in practice) to them, or have been forced to live under their rule. Religions are first and foremost political systems, but they have been personalized by every believer.
Therefore, religions have everything to do with justifying and controlling the lifestyles of a given ‘in group’ – no matter whether who considers those groups moderate or extreme. To the group, they are the true representation of their chosen belief. If it’s the same book, it’s the same religion, but infinitely varied among the population of believers, and it’s all about power over the ‘tribe’.

Consider this situation. What would you call someone who takes a child a few days old, and with a sharp knife (and no anesthetic) cuts away a piece of the child’s genitals? Then, while the child is bleeding the person places the child’s penis in his mouth, sucks it and spits away the blood (occasionally infecting the child with a fatal dose of herpes). In any rational sphere of thought, we would call that person a child abuser – possibly a pedophile and lock him away for life. In orthodox Judaism, they call that a Mohel, and their religion justifies it and the rite continues without any prosecution of its practitioners. You can’t argue that ‘well, that’s not true Judaism’, because the reality is – it is. The more complex a religion is, the more hoops believers will jump through to score ‘God points’. Religions are usually as complex as hell, because complexity obscures reality, therefore your belief is just a matter of how many hoops you believe there are.

As an afterthought, and before the onslaught of accusations of me being an angry, anti-Semitic, Islamophobic atheist start flying, let me make one thing absolutely clear. I don’t care so much what you believe, I care about what you do, and I don’t believe your religion forces you to do anything that you wouldn’t do otherwise as a decent human being, nor do I dismiss all believers as ‘as bad as each other’ because of the actions of a few. The problem is always that you probably don’t agree with me entirely on what being ‘a decent human being’ means, and I doubt I can agree with your definition of God either.

That said, there are those who argue that a world without any religion would be a perfect one, where entirely rational people go about their business without dissent, argument or violence. Poppycock. After all, it’s not where we agree that matters, its where we disagree that counts (and costs).

Having spent a lot of time interacting with both people of faith and unbelievers of all stripes, I have come to realize that conflict and tribalism is simply a part of the human experience. There are ‘moderate’ atheists and there are extremists – although hopefully nobody is having their heads hacked off over it. There are ‘in groups’ and ‘out-groups’ (Atheism+ anyone?). There are liberals, leftists, centrists, libertarians, conservatives, librarians, scientists, artists, pissants, assholes, trolls, idiots, and a whole spectrum variety of wonderful, thoughtful and friendly people.
JUST AS THERE ARE IN ANY SPHERE OF LIFE, INCLUDING BELIEVERS. (And, just because of that it doesn’t mean that atheists are wrong, nor that believers are right.)

From the moment we are born, we start to pull against the constraints that are around us. We say “no” followed by tantrums very early in life – and these are not arguments about whether God wants you to wear green on a Tuesday, but whether you can have candy sprinkles on your breakfast or not. Mom says no, your heart says yes. Then when you grow up and mom can’t stop you, you bloody well have candy sprinkles on your breakfast.

C’est la vie. You can either like it, or you can go form your own damn group with whatever beliefs you like, but you can’t claim a monopoly on the truth, because someone, somewhere will point out that you’re not the true believer.

(* Except perhaps the religion I just formed right now with myself, but I already disagree with parts of it so I’m going to form a breakaway group tomorrow…that founder guy is just an idiot.)

A review of the great debate: Nye vs Ham

Wednesday, February 5th, 2014

Last night (4th Feb 2014) a controversial debate between Ken Ham (CEO of Answers in Genesis) and Bill Nye (The Science Guy) took place at the Creation Museum in Kentucky (amazing that there is such a place…).

The subject of the debate was “Is creation a viable model of origins in today’s modern, scientific era?”

Before the debate even started, it had kicked up quite a storm of controversy, particularly among the atheist and scientific communities. Dan Arel, writing for the Richard Dawkins Foundation wrote a very thoughtful piece titled “Why Bill Nye shouldn’t debate Ken Ham”. He pointed out that:

Creationism is a worthless and uneducated position to hold in our modern society and Nye is about to treat it as an equal, debatable “controversy”

Jerry Coyne, Professor of Ecology and Evolution at the University of Chicago wrote, via his blog “Why Evolution is true” that

Nye’s appearance will be giving money to organizations who try to subvert the mission Nye has had all his life: science education, particularly of kids. And you know what? I don’t even care if Nye mops the floor with Ham. Though that would be great (especially because the DVD promises to be “uncensored”), it doesn’t justify Nye making money to further Ham’s program of lying about science

Many people were expressing similar concerns, and largely I agreed with them. There seems to me no legitimate reason to have a debate about whether creation is a viable model of origins or not – it simply isn’t. There’s no real controversy, evolution is provable, proven and irrefutable. Creationism is based on a loosely assembled collection of badly translated myths written down by people ignorant of science centuries ago that has had no utility in explaining the reality of the world we live in, nor in making predictions about it. Evolution and Creationism simply are not comparable, and by offering to participate in a ‘debate’ it inevitably legitimizes those who would like to have Creationism on an equal footing with Evolution.

Bill Nye went ahead anyway, and explained his reasons for going ahead were because he is worried about science education and that a generation of children will grow up in the US as scientifically illiterate, leading to all sorts of problems, particularly economic ones. He also felt that people in Kentucky (where the debate would take place) might be influenced by the facts presented, and realise the problems of being presented with a scientifically illogical set of beliefs.

Given that the debate went ahead, what was the result?

Fortunately, Bill Nye made a very good showing at the debate, and although there were some minor problems with what he said, I felt that he acquitted himself well. Ham, of course, simply played out his box of tricks, and ultimately just said that he believed the bible, and that nothing would change his mind.

Bill Nye, being a reasonable person, stated on a couple of occasions “I don’t know” as his answer, and when asked what might change his mind, stated “Evidence”.

This is the crux of the matter. It is why there can be no debate with Creationists. When Bill said “I don’t know” Ken swooped, and his answer was “I do know, because the Bible said…”.  This is just a dirty trick, because clearly Ken does not know, he just believes. But it was a trick he used several times, and it was a winner for his crowd. Oh, how they loved it. The stupid science guy just doesn’t know, but look, the answers are right there in the Bible!

There is no debate, because the result of debate is to decide based on the information presented, which position is reasonable. Bill Nye, from all rational, reasonable points of view “won” the debate, but his opponent(s) are not rational nor reasonable.

Ham and his supporters already knew the outcome of the debate, and it was that Ken Ham and his young earth creationism are “right”. Those supporters of Ham are right now rejoicing and basking in the fact that their new hero has been given the exposure his views “deserve”. It does’t matter that Bill had actual evidence. It doesn’t matter that all the real science was on Bill’s side. It doesn’t even matter that Ken Ham has not a single shred of credibility in the real world (in what Nye consistently referred to as “the outside”), it only matters that Ham’s platform has now been elevated to one of equal footing with Nye’s. The “controversy”, in the minds of his supporters, has been exposed. In their minds, Ken Ham won, because Ken Ham’s supporters are unable to distinguish evidence from belief.

In Nye’s defense, I think it is unlikely that many who did not already believe will have been swayed by Ken’s silly arguments, and it is also perhaps good that many in the audience were exposed to some actual science. This for me, is the only redeeming factor in this debate, that the audience, which inevitably would have been packed out with Ham’s supporters have likely NEVER been exposed to the real science that Nye presented. Perhaps one or two of them will think about what was said. Perhaps also, among those watching, there would also be many theists who were cringing at the ludicrous things Ham was saying, and they may be provoked into sharing with their friends that they don’t subscribe to his nonsense.

Most of the reporting after the fact is using headlines like “Bill Nye Defends Evolution in debate…” This is exactly what many feared. Let me state again: Evolution DOES NOT NEED DEFENDING. This stupid sort of reporting is incredibly disheartening – it is actually Ken Ham who is on the defensive. To say that there is any defense necessary for evolution would be to deny all evidence. It would be like defending the Seattle Seahawks against those who say that the Denver Broncos really won the Super Bowl.

In the end, this will probably do no lasting damage, but at some point, we need to stop pretending that evolution or science needs defense, and the first step is to simply ignore the ignorant. Do you think Bill Nye would have agreed to debate with people who think the pyramids were built by aliens, or that crystals can heal cancer? Of course not, as they are ignored for the cranks they are. Ken Ham and his ilk are no different, they are either truly delusional or they are deliberate liars who are fleecing the gullible. Given that the DVDs of this debate are already being sold (I wonder if they will really be uncensored) on the Answers in Genesis site, I think we can all figure out the answer.

If you haven’t seen the debate, you can watch it here on YouTube: Bill Nye debates Ken Ham – and you can draw your own conclusions.

A Year of Living Generously

Friday, January 10th, 2014

I’ve long despised the idea of making New Year’s resolutions, because they are usually overly ambitious and rarely last the month. But, I made one this year (which broke a previous one – “Never to make another New Year’s resolution”). I made this exception because I’ve been overwhelmed by the generosity of others in the past year. My last blog post about Mental Health provoked a huge amount of feedback and all of it was kind, generous, understanding and helpful. So, I decided to spend a year living generously. With my time, with my money, with my ideas, with my skills and so on. To share. To help. To make people happier. It’s not that I’m not a generous person anyway, I certainly can be, but I mean, this year, to do it actively and consciously.

At the end of last year, I read an article, while flying, about an idea called “Because I said I would.” The idea really struck home, and I made hundreds of the cards and gave them away to colleagues and friends. I like the concreteness of stating the idea, not just somehow having it as a part of a personal philosophy, but as an active statement of how I choose to live. So, combining these two ideas here is my new year’s resolution:

I promise to live generously in 2014

#YearOfLivingGenerously

As a strong believer in the idea of ‘giving back’, I want to promote the idea of a “Year of Living Generously” more widely – I’ve created the hashtag on Twitter https://twitter.com/#YearOfLivingGenerously and I’d love to have others join in. All I ask is that you just use that hastag after doing something generous: it can be anything. You don’t (and this is important) have to say what you’ve done – though you can, just put the tag out there. It’s not a #humblebrag, it’s not about who can be the most generous, it’s not a competition. It’s just to remind ourselves to be generous in our daily lives.

Here are a few things that I’ve done in the past 9 days – I’m not saying it to garner praise, just to demonstrate what I’m meaning

  • Gave a shoeshine guy an extra tip because someone had been rude to him and he laughed it off and started singing
  • Left the change from $20 as a tip on a $3 coffee without the server seeing me do it
  • Sent a book to someone who expressed interest in it
  • Bought drinks for all the staff at my favorite sushi bar
  • Gave a $100 tip (wrapped inside the $10 fare) to a taxi driver who was upset because his meter had broken and he’d missed an hour of revenue getting it fixed – he was generous enough to talk to me about his life and why he drives a cab
  • Lifted bags into the overhead bins for other people on a flight
  • Fed parking meters with quarters when I’ve seen them expired with a car parked there
  • Left a $20 dollar tip at Starbucks because some moronic website has been set up to protest their stance on marriage equality

You can think of others, and really, they don’t have to be money, and they don’t have to be extravagant.

Giving your time, your skills, your ideas, your support, your kindness – all of these are perhaps even better than just giving money. It’s more about an attitude, to be grateful for the opportunity to be generous, not to do things grudgingly or with bitter resentment.

Do what you can to make a difference to the happiness of others, and do it generously.

 

Mental Health: A plea for understanding

Monday, December 9th, 2013

Someone, let’s call her Sally, once said to me: “Andrew, it’s your mind that’s the problem; you think too much”.

I’ve never forgotten that. Not just because it seemed like a really stupid thing to say (who wants to live in ignorance?), but because there was an element of truth in it.

Sally was wrong in her meaning and the context, but the truth is, my mind – more specifically, my brain – is a problem.

It’s not that I think too much – sometimes I try not to think at all. Actually, thinking is very much affected by the functioning of my brain. On a good day, my thoughts will be clear, rational, and likely to do me very little harm. On a bad day, my thoughts will be clear, rational and likely to do me a lot of harm. You see, mental illness is not about how much or how little we think. It is about the conclusions that our brain suggests as a result of the thought processes within it.

Sally’s comment was made publicly in the context of a religious meeting. We’d been discussing our Christian lives, and I happened to say that I often struggled with doubt and feelings of self-loathing. I wasn’t able to consistently believe in a God who cared about me, or the rest of the world, yet wouldn’t help me to deal with the mental health issues I struggled with. I shared it with the aim to try to help others who I was sure might have experienced the same. I went on to say that I choose to believe, as I hope that God will one day help my unbelief.

I had been, since my late teens, taking medication to control severe clinical depression, and any time this was brought up in a church context, someone would inevitably offer to pray about it, or would offer some religiously based advice, but always with the implication that the fault was with me. At times, there would be a suggestion that ‘sin’ in my life was the root cause of the depression, and that if only I would ‘get right with God’, then it would all clear up. Please, bear in mind that I was devout since a young age, I was in a leadership position within my church, I spent more time reading and studying the bible than almost anyone I knew, and I spent a lot of my time being involved with the church and serving however I could.

I was not a ‘nominal’ Christian, I was a fully fledged, born again, bible believing, servant of the Lord. More than that, I desperately wanted to believe, not only to believe, but truly experience God for myself. That I could not only made my life more hellish, and I truly believed the problems were with me, and with me alone. That I could not reconcile my belief with my inner thoughts, desires and experience was beyond awful, and yet all these other Christians seemed to be living wonderful lives of peace, joy and harmony.

Eventually I left the church, not wishing to be a hypocrite. I had to first admit that I simply did not believe, and then act on that disbelief. I couldn’t stay in a leadership position and claim those beliefs. That meant I lost, quite literally, all of my friends. I eventually let my family know too. That, to this day, still causes me stress and grief. Some of my relatives live in a very cloistered bubble of evangelical Christianity, and I (and my siblings) are no longer a part of that world. However, this post is not really about that, maybe another time.

This post is about the stigma of mental illness.

And, there is a lot of stigma attached to mental illness.

I am no longer in the church, and for that I’m grateful. I have since been able to accept many things about myself and have in turn become a more accepting person.

But, I am in a similar environment, ironically.

I am now in a business community, where I am a fairly well respected and known expert and CEO. You might be frowning a bit, what has business to do with the church? (Unless you live in the USA, then you’ll fully understand). In business, particularly in the USA, weakness, vulnerability, and emotion are not seen as strengths. If you meet another business leader at an event, you’re unlikely to hear much negative about him/her or the business. The mantras of business are strength, improvement, growth. Winners only need apply.

But, ask yourself, how likely is it that these very successful people are all having as great a time as they claim?

Dig deeper, you’ll find high rates of stress related illness, alcoholism, obesity and other addictive behaviors. High. Fucking. Rates. Yet, just like those outwardly happy Christians, they’ll all claim to be 100% awesome. The distance between me and the overweight alcoholic in a badly fitting suit is approximately 6 months.

Not being able to show weakness or vulnerability to your colleagues, your employees or your peers in other businesses means that there’s once again an artificial situation in which one must exist. You’ve always got to be a winner. Always be the best. Always be out in front. There are no support structures for CEO’s as such. We’ve got to be the strong decisive ones. All. Fucking. Day. Long.

Except, except for my brain. It just isn’t. Won’t be. Can’t be. IS ONLY BECAUSE I MAKE IT SO. I choose. But, oh, do I struggle to choose. Every. Single. Day. I struggle to choose.

There’s nowhere to turn. You’re the leader, you’re responsible for millions of dollars, and hundreds of employees. Thousands of customers depend on you. Yet, some days, you can’t move, you can’t even manage to eat, it’s just not worth it. You just want to pull the cushions from your sofa and build a pillow fort, and live there forever, with your cat and a tub of ice-cream. And those are the good days.

The bad days…you don’t want to know about the bad days.

And, yet, I choose, because the other choice is, well, nothing. There’s no other choice. You live or you don’t. And, you try to recognize when your brain is screwing you over.

The problem is that it’s your brain. That cold, rational brain that works really well. It’s a convincing little bugger. When it speaks, you listen. That’s what it does, it thinks for you. But, some days, what it thinks is, “You’re worthless. You’re shit. You’re the little piece of detritus that was farted out of the asshole of the universe, and you suck, worse than the suckiest person on earth”. And you believe it. That’s what mental illness does for you.

I do not want your pity, or your condescension, nor do I want your helpful advice on how to be more cheerful. I know my life is great. I really do!

I have so much to be thankful for, I have a great job, a wonderful family, I live in a country that is by and large easy to live in, and I have friends who care deeply for me. Compared to 98% of the world, I’m rich. I travel widely, I eat in fantastic restaurants, I drive nice cars and buy nice clothes. But, today, that means nothing. Nothing will convince me that my great life is worth shit.

On a good day, I will be proud of everything. My ideas will be great, and everyone will love them. The next day, the same idea sucks, even if you tell me it’s great.

It will suck so much I won’t even write it down. I can’t tell you how many times I have destroyed work or abandoned personal projects, because they … just … suck.

Depression is not about being a bit sad sometimes, so that a quick pep-talk and a cup of cocoa can ‘snap you out of it’. It really isn’t.

Depression is an ongoing battle to work out which of the things your brain is desperately trying to convince you of are not going to kill you. I can know rationally that everything is good, I can sit and list those things on a piece of paper. I can sit with a friend and explain how great everything is. My brain will not be convinced. In my mind, there is a raging beast that is able to chew rational thought into small pieces and spit them contemptuously onto the floor, as if to say “There you are, fool, see what your rational thinking is worth”, and I will believe it. I will coldly, and rationally, know, with a force and desperation that is overwhelming, that I am utterly worthless.

I’ll believe it, and sit there and cry into my coffee and be convinced that the great leader I’m supposed to be, who can speak to an audience of hundreds, or stand up and play guitar in front of a crowd is the most hated fucker on the planet, who should just fucking die. And, I’ll hate everything. Nothing will be good enough. Nothing will be right. No-one will be doing a good job. You could offer me the nobel prize for awesomeness and I would think you were an idiot. I’ll just give up. I’ll decide nothing is worth doing. I’ll call people and tell them I quit. I’ll delete files of work. I’ll send weird messages to social networks. I’ll drink myself stupid. All the while, I’ll know I have a great life.

I’m typing this in a hotel room in Singapore. I’ve spent the day hating this place. Resenting the fact that I’m 2 long haul flights away from home, in a country that’s too hot and doesn’t have adequate taxi service.

I’ve spent the day in business meetings meeting people who I’ve needed to convince of my usefulness, and the worth of my company and colleagues. And I did it. I did it fucking well. And then, I came back to my hotel and cried.

I’m typing this fast, because a friend on Twitter (and you should be following @francosoup, because she’s awesome), managed to say the right thing. Because, she just wrote “I hope you’re Ok mate”. And, I wasn’t. I was broken.

I’m not going to edit it. I’m going to post it, because, in the morning, I’d probably just delete it. Or maybe not. Maybe I’ll be proud of it. Who the fuck knows?

I just want you to understand that just as you would go to the doctor if you have bronchitis, or a broken arm, and you would not in the least bit feel embarrassed to do so, that if I have to do the same because my brain is broken, then that should be ok.

If I have to admit that I’m not the strong, together person you thought I was, it doesn’t mean I’m not capable of doing my job. In fact, I’m good at my job because, you know what? I think too much. I think until it’s all thought out. Then I plan for failure, and think some more. And I make sure things can happen, because if you don’t plan for those days when you simply can’t move, you’ll screw everything up.

So yeah, Sally, my mind is my problem, but it’s also my strength. Because, if I can convince myself that today is worth it, then I can do anything today. Anything.

If you know someone with mental health issues, please understand how strong they are to just be out of bed, and just try to be understanding. Just. Be. There.

Ask, “Are you ok mate?”. And don’t judge the answer.

Sometimes change is just not fast enough

Tuesday, October 18th, 2011

Today brings the terribly sad news that, once again, a teenager has taken his own life because of bullying about his sexuality.

http://www.shewired.com/soapbox/2011/10/17/gay-teen-jamie-hubley-commits-suicide

So much has changed in the last 50 years or so; we’ve moved (here in America at least) from a country where slavery was legal and black people were considered sub-human, to a better world where slavery is a receding memory and we can have an African American (in the truest sense of that descriptor) president. That is not to deny that, sadly, racism is still found in some measure.

However, we still have so far to go as a society (globally) in our acceptance of diversity. We need teachers and schools to adopt a positive attitude towards LGBT individuals, and to help them support such young people as Jamie (whose lives are hard enough just with going through their teens). We need to be tougher on bullies, and we need to teach more positively around homosexuality.

But, school reflects society as a whole. Children have all the biases of their parents, in concentrated and unfiltered quantity. Therefore, a big part of the change that is needed is going to have to be the decline of traditional religious attitudes towards homosexuality. Teachers can only do so much, but much more needs to be done in churches, synagogues and mosques around the country (and world), to help to build a more tolerant and accepting environment. Parents need to teach their children that slurs like ‘faggot’ are simply unacceptable, no matter their private beliefs about the subject. Surely if you truly believe in ‘god’s love’ you should teach your children to love others without judgement – lest you be judged yourself?

Of course, I’d rather that nobody felt the need to cling to any religious dogma at all; particularly where it impinges on the freedoms and safety of others; but recognizing that many people of belief are essentially good, and sincerely believe while wishing no ill to others, I have to accept that change will be slow, and that perhaps it can only come from within the belief systems themselves. Most ‘true believers’ will not accept the pleas of an atheist, but perhaps if their pastors/rabbis/imams and other leaders begin to teach a more welcoming religion, one tolerant of the natural diversity in our society, then perhaps there will be hope that we won’t have to see another Jamie.

My sincerest condolences to Jamies friends and family, he was a truly brave young man.

Penn Jillette

Sunday, October 2nd, 2011

Penn & Teller are my favourite magicians. I love many magicians, especially Derren Brown (ok, so he’s more of a mentalist, but whatever), Lennart Green, Jerry Sadowitz and Paul Daniels, but Penn & Teller are my absolute favourite. I’ve seen their show in Vegas live more times than I care to mention and I’ve watched almost everything they’ve ever done on TV (Collection of some rarities here).

So what? Well, it just so happens that Penn & Teller are also well known for their atheist (anti-theist?) stance. Penn, the larger and louder half of the two (both by volume), is especially outspoken on the subject, and has now written a book “God, No!” which is doing very well in the NY Times bestseller list. It’s on my Kindle, along with about 5 other books I’ve yet to get to, but I’m saving it, like leaving the best part of a meal until the last moment.

However, Penn also writes on a more ad-hoc basis on the subject of atheism and religion. As I live in America (but am not yet a citizen), I have noticed the increasingly bizzare antics of American politicians (not just on the right), who constantly ‘namedrop’ god. Penn’s latest article is a really excellent examination of why it is that, since Carter, almost every presidential hopeful has had to have god on his (or her) campaign trail.

I agree with many of his points, and would only add that it seems pretty likely that politicians are also reflecting the national mood of worry about identity and the threat of terrorism (the new communism). People, when they are scared, flock to the familiar, retreat in into xenophobia and nationalism, and the familiar arms of a comforting religion where no thought is necessary. That, coupled with the rise in scientific thinking, the increasingly vocal atheist community and a suspicion of all things middle eastern and Islamic, has brought out the very worst in the religious right – a large and motivated portion of the voting population. Expect things to get even stranger from here out.

By the way, if you’ve never heard Penn in full flow, you should check out this appearance on PBS some years ago. His incredible oration and flawless delivery is really wonderful to behold. He’s a giant of a man, and has a brain to match. Did I say that he’s half of one of my favourite magical duos?

Sorry if I’ve neglected Teller in this post…I’ll make up for that in a future blog, he surely deserves it!

Joy is simple

Sunday, September 25th, 2011

I’ve sometimes been asked how, as an atheist, I can enjoy life when all I have to look forward to is nothing (i.e. no afterlife). Actually, this sort of question is based on  a fallacy, the truly sad idea that true joy can’t be experienced in this life, but only in some perfect (albeit robotic and choice free) life to come.

I doubt there is anyone who really lives life only in anticipation of an afterlife. Even the most committed religionist sometimes will think about other events as being joyful – perhaps the next visit to the mosque or church, or the marriage of a child etc – so clearly they understand that joy is available, in a very tangible way, in this life. Would you really like to pass up on the birth of your child, or his marriage to be immediately in the afterlife? Maybe some would, but many would not think twice about asking for a stay – this indicates that experience in this life does have some grip over even the most devoted believer.

That being true, the atheist simply extends his (or her, but I happen to be male) understanding of such temporal joy to being the only type of joy worth longing for. I love my life: I enjoy getting up and going to work, I enjoy meeting people, climbing rocks, diving in the beautiful oceans, flying in our incredible aeroplanes to amazing places; I enjoy creating and listening to music, appreciating art, playing with my children and watching them grow up. I enjoy a glass of wine  on the couch while watching home improvement programs with my partner, going to the store and getting groceries, buying shoes and winding up a watch – there is little I consider mundane.

I never for a moment worry about what will happen after I die. Indeed, I know that there is no need for such a worry, I will simply not exist, just as I did not exist before I was born. I sometimes wonder about the process of death itself, and at times that worries me – but that worry is more centered around the possibility of pain, and the ending of this great life that I have lived and the effect that might have on others, but when I die, I will know that I have lived. Lived joyfully, and fully and without regret.

There’s a good article that relates to this subject over at Freethought blogs, which inspired this post.

And, if you’re stuck for sources of joy today, go and have a look at these beautiful books on Typography by Stephen Heller and Lita Talarico. Typography is so much a part of life that we rarely think of it as art, but that’s a mistake, it really is, and has a huge power to provoke a reaction (good or bad) in us, so great as to influence our behavior. That’s why companies spend so much on branding exercises that include testing different typefaces – for instance can you imagine Apple using  a Gothic font?

Sam Harris

Friday, July 29th, 2011

I’ve really been enjoying Sam Harris’ blog recently. It’s a refreshing look at the world that I find extremely inspiring. http://www.samharris.org/