Friday 29 May 2009

Degrees of Superstition

In many parts of Africa, e.g. Tanzania, Burundi, Zimbabwe, albinos are in danger of their lives purely from being born the way they are. They are in danger of being stalked, killed and having their body parts and blood sold to witch doctors. From these trophies  potions are concocted  which are claimed to enhance the lives of their clients. I presume no research programmes have been carried out to prove or disprove such claims  but, judged by the vigorousness of the trade, and the number of attempted prosecutions of the participants, many people must be absolutely convinced that  such potions work. And maybe, as with western alternative medicines, they do have some effect in some obscure way. One is also impressed with the straight-dealing of the witch doctors in not simply pretending to have used albino body-parts.

Meanwhile, back in the forest; another time, another place, a popular 32 year old Jew (why don't I just call him Jesus say)  was having a farewell supper with his best mates.   As the evening progressed and the wine flowed his friends began to get a bit sad and maudlin. "Oh my, how they would miss him! How would they manage without him?" Etcetera.  "Never mind" says J, "you can always get together now and again and get sloshed without me". 

Like a chinese whisper  this incident has become much inflated with religious significance  over 2100 years and today substantial numbers of  people think that if they symbolically consume J's body and drink his blood their lives are transformed in a way that parallels  an  African's experience at his local witch doctor.  This symbolism is implemented by quaffing wine & wafer over which some magic incantation has been declaimed. 

There are 2 superstitions involved here; (a) that symbolically eating the body and drinking the blood of J is a jolly  good thing and (b) that these articles not being readily available, bread & wine can easily  be made to serve instead. 

As Robert A Heinlein said "Theologians can persuade themselves of anything”, and  some  have persuaded their lives away on  the theory of  transubstantiation.  I don't intend to join them here.  The purpose of this piece is simply to highlight how the principal rite of christianity, the eucharist,  manifests to the naive eye of the non-religious onlooker.  It surely requires its participants to make a leap of superstitious belief  that is far greater than the witch doctor and his client need to make about a potion concocted from the body-parts of a murdered albino.

Wednesday 27 May 2009

Tony Blair believed God wanted him to go to war to fight evil

from an article in the Telegraph:

The former Prime Minister's faith is claimed to have influenced all his key policy decisions and to have given him an unshakeable conviction that he was right.

John Burton, Mr Blair's political agent in his Sedgefield constituency for 24 years, says that Labour's most successful ever leader – in terms of elections won – was driven by the belief that "good should triumph over evil".

"It's very simple to explain the idea of Blair the Warrior," he says. "It was part of Tony living out his faith."

Mr Blair has previously admitted that he was influenced by his Christian faith, but Mr Burton reveals for the first time the strength of his religious zeal.

Mr Burton makes the comments in a book he has written, and which is published this week, called "We Don't Do God".

In it he portrays a prime minister determined to follow a Christian agenda despite attempts to silence him from talking about his faith."

quedula says:-

Many of us had niggling suspicions about this even in the days leading up to the war, but this was also a time when we  would not accept that the incidence of belief and influence of religion in society was anything but vanishingly small. How wrong we appear to have been. If this report is accurate it reveals an absolutely disgraceful state-of-affairs. The UK's participation in the Iraq war was not to protect our borders or our citizens. It was based on lies and manipulations of evidence to fulfil the agenda of a christian fanatic.  How, in the 21st. century, in an advanced, supposedly civilised and democratic country can we have allowed this to happen?

Ricky Gervais- On being an Atheist

Saturday 23 May 2009

Godbothering Exemplified

Those of us who follow various atheist blogs and discussion groups on facebook and elsewhere will be aware of the sudden visitor from outer space, the sudden alien posting from the "other side".  On the whole I think these visitations are to be welcome as they surely indicate the depth of penetration of the atheist awareness movement. Sometimes these visitors are seeking serious discussion about what they consider a valid point about the atheist/religious divide, sometimes they post purely self-indulgent rants only serving to display the extent of their self-indoctrination. In the last category is a comment recently posted by one Tally Smith on "Thank you Everyone" of the Atheist Bus Campaign website . This is the closing statement of her post:-

"May all those who think there’s absolutely no God or creator, have a second to ponder their belief the last second of their life so that they might see the vision and enter into heaven to meet their loved ones. Enjoy life. Live every day as if it were your last, and live your last day as if you will live forever in heaven or hell. Ask forgiveness of sins your last moment of breath and I think the creator will forgive and accept you. What could it hurt?"

I think Tally  is from the US  because elsewhere she makes reference to the American ABC and  she also exemplifies the fairly naive attitude to religious belief that still holds sway over large areas of the States. To give prosyletisers on this side of the pond due credit I think they would have adopted a far more sophisticated or oblique approach if venturing to advance some pro-religion argument on this particular blog.

What strikes one immediately about this comment is its insufferable smugness and air of superiority. The amazing assumption that she knows what is best for the rest of us who do not happen to believe in her particular Invisible Magic Friend.  Apparently she can read her IMF's mind and knows that if in our dying moments we do not revise our disbelief, he is not going to let us meet up with our "loved ones". Yes, it is rather  vindictive, but that's the god of the Bible for you. But try not to let this worry you too much. In the meantime "enjoy life" and live your "last day as if you will live forever in heaven or hell". Not quite sure how we identify our last day or exactly how we should conduct ourselves if we could. If we think we are going to heaven perhaps we could relax a bit? If hell, do we just give up? Not much practical advice there. 

And then we get to the business of sin. What exactly is it that make the religious so preoccupied with "sin"? Do they go about “sinning” all over the place secure in the knowledge they can always ask “forgiveness”? I don’t want to sound arrogant but, sincerely, I can’t remember the last time I did some “sinning” nor exactly what the sin was. Anyway might as well be on the safe side and ask the IMF for forgiveness so 
here goes: "Please forgive me my sins O Invisible Magic Friend". There, that's better. Yes, she is quite right, it didn't hurt.

Thursday 21 May 2009

Religion vs. Reason

It occurred to me the other day that all religions have to include in their creeds and dogmas some elements of fantasy, irrationality, unprovable assertions or simple nonsense. If they based their teachings on commonsense, reason, rationality and logic we could all belong to the same religion.

We know that wouldn't do at all.

Thursday 14 May 2009

Tony Blair's Foundation inspires ridicule

"The wheels are coming off the Tony Blair Faith Foundation following his demands for wholesale changes in Catholic belief and practice. He, his wife Cherie and the foundation were firmly rebuffed in Rome this month at a meeting of the Pontifical Academy for Social Sciences where he was compared to Cromwell and his good faith was impugned."

(From an article by Hugh O'Shaughnessy in the Guardian's Cif belief)

The attack was spearheaded by Professor Michel Schooyans of the Catholic University of Louvain, a specialist in anthropology and political philosophy. Speaking uncompromisingly, Schooyans accused Blair and his wife of supporting a messianic US plan for world domination.

The Belgian all but ridiculed the former prime minister. "The fresh 'convert' does not hesitate to explain to the pope not only what he must do, but also what he must believe! Is he a Catholic? ... So now we are back in the time of Hobbes, if not of Cromwell: it's civil power that defines what one must believe."

"Given the hostility expressed towards Blair in Rome he will be lucky to recruit the outgoing archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Cormac Murphy O'Connor, to the foundation as he promised. The hostility – and ridicule – that the Blairs and their associates stir up mean he is increasingly unlikely to achieve his ambition of becoming president of the EU."

Wednesday 13 May 2009

Tuesday 12 May 2009

BBC "Thought for the Day" Appeal

I have received a reply to my Appeal to the BBC Trust from the Secretary to the Editorial Standards Committee. He states:-

"We believe it appropriate for the ESC to make a decision as to whether to hear your complaint on appeal due to the arguments you have raised. We will therefore place all of your correspondence with the BBC, as well as your appeal letter to the ESC in front of the Committee at their next meeting on  1 July 2009."

So far so good. I presume this means I've sprung some new argument on them that they need to consider.  Watch this space.  . . .

Friday 8 May 2009

Bertrand Russell

What a man believes upon grossly insufficient evidence is an index into his desires -- desires of which he himself is often unconscious. If a man is offered a fact which goes against his instincts, he will scrutinize it closely, and unless the evidence is overwhelming, he will refuse to believe it. If, on the other hand, he is offered something which affords a reason for acting in accordance to his instincts, he will accept it even on the slightest evidence. The origin of myths is explained in this way." Bertrand Russell

Monday 4 May 2009

TftD Complaint - Appeal to BBC Trust

BBC Trust,

35 Marylebone High Street, 


W1U 4AA.

 3rd May 2009

Dear Sirs

“Thought for the Day”

I am writing to ask you hear on appeal my complaint about the programming of “Thought for the Day” (TftD); in particular the omission of the humanist or atheist voice from among its presenters.

I first complained to the BBC about the TftD slot by email on 1st January 09. I received a response from Mark Damazer (MD) on 8th January and I responded to this on the 9th January. I received a further reply from MD on 25th January in which he was unable to add anything  to his first and advised me to refer the matter to the BBC Trust. (I have since learnt that this was in fact the wrong advice.)

I wrote to the BBC Trust on 9th February and they referred my letter to Tim Davie (TD), Director of Audio and Music for a further response which I have now received. This is dated 21st April 09.  

Neither MD or TD have addressed my specific reasons for considering the views expressed in TftD lacking in balance. They  seem content to rely on mere assertion to the contrary.

Also I am surprised that I have had no response from the Religion & Ethics Department who produce TftD  and would seem to be in a unique position to throw some light on the matter. The web page of the Religion & Ethics Department provides a list of "featured religions & beliefs". This list is headed (alphabetically) with "Atheism" with a sub-category “humanism”. The R & E Department is evidently quite content to feature atheism elsewhere in its schedules but, in a strange lapse of impartiality, seems unable to include  a humanist speaker in the TftD slot.

However to return to the responses I have received, I understand from Mr Damazer that: TftD aims to offer a brief, uninterrupted interlude of spiritual reflection in the midst of the three hour Today programme; that the speakers are chosen from those religions having a “significant” membership in the UK; and that a “careful balance” is maintained between these different religions.

To anyone who considers humanism as valid as any religious creed this “careful balance” is self-evidently absent.   But even among the religions presently  represented in TftD I do not see evidence for this “careful balance”. Surely my complaint calls for the “balance” to  be quantified in some way. For example, in very round terms what is the threshold for a religion to be considered significant and how many TftD slots per annum would that give entitlement to? 

According to Tim Davie speakers are expected to make brief references to their faith & its scriptures but are not allowed to proselytise or to disparage other religions. 

The monologues are in fact very variable in quality. Some, by expressing humane and readily endorsed views can stand alone without reference to religion, which reference is sometimes brought in  like an afterthought.  The worst monologues are platitudinous or strain to answer moral or ethical questions in way that fits religious dogma. Yet the humanist viewpoint is never represented because, in the words of Mr Damazer, it would “detract from the distinctiveness of the slot”. It is impossible to see how this would be so. As religious proselytisation is not allowed the distinctiveness of TftD overwhelmingly  relies on its scheduling, brevity, and  meditative nature. Again Mr Damazer has not made any attempt to justify his assertion.

Even if the occasional humanist presenter would in a small way alter the character of the slot it is surely an insufficient reason for exclusion. According to the 2001 census 20% of the UK population stated that they had no religion or left the question blank. Many of these will switch off their minds if not their radios during TftD. Is it really the BBC’s position that this 20% have no interest in spiritual reflection or that only religious believers are fit to cater for it?

Both MD and TD give examples of other programmes in which religious & non religious voices are balanced such as Sunday, Beyond Belief, and The Moral Maze on Radio 4, Good Morning Sunday and World of Faith on Radio 2. 

I do not understand the relevance of this to TftD. In the examples given it is possible to provide balanced views within the scope of a single programme and, as far as I know the BBC generally succeeds in this. In the case of a 5 minute slot this is obviously not feasible but balance can still be demonstrated over a run of programmes  by regular inclusion of the humanist voice. 

Lastly, in support of their case, MD and TD both make reference to the non-religious voices that “are also heard extensively across the general output in news, current affairs, documentaries, talks, science, history”. 

Again this seems irrelevant to TftD.  MD has stressed the unique nature of TftD. This uniqueness sets it apart from the general run of programming, and its present lack of any humanist input cannot be notionally rectified by random non-religious voices elsewhere in the general programme output.

Yours faithfully

Friday 1 May 2009

Nice Quotation

"I think that I speak for many atheists when I say that we are tired of having religion crammed down our throats, with legislation constantly being passed to pander to the religious, with decisions on science education by those who know nothing about science, with having to tiptoe around religious issues so no one is offended and with having to constantly give this assumed respect to beliefs, simply because they are religiously motivated. I have never suggested any sort of physical harm on the religious but I will use my first amendment to the fullest extent. They are protected by the constitution. That is respect enough."
Ken Ueda
(With thanks to the anti-theist blog)

Unfortunately the UK doesn't have a first amendment.