Archive for January, 2009

A lot can happen in 20 years – Part 8

January 30, 2009 Comments off

This follows on from Part 7.

As mentioned in Part 1, I realised that it’s exactly 20 years since I entered the full-time workforce, and a lot can happen in that time, so thought I’d share my road to reason. This is the final part.

While I can understand how religion appeals to those seeking absolute certainty, there is no proof of any given religion’s validity beyond its own self-referential written text and its adherents. And there are countless religions with their own texts and followers, each claiming to be the truth, and many of them damn non-followers to their own version of hell as punishment for not making a choice in their favour. So a failure to choose correctly, when there is so much confusion and noise all around, religiously speaking, will result in an eternity of torture and brutality. And you call that a caring, just god? I don’t think so.

A book that has “This is the truth” written in it doesn’t make it true. Billions of people claiming that a book is true doesn’t make it true. Even if we might want them to be true.

That’s not to say that all religions are definitely false and that there are definitely no gods — that would be both hubris and an unsubstantiatable belief — but rather there is no irrefutable evidence in favour of them. Welcome to uncertainty: mind your step…

In case someone wishes to raise the question of whether I can afford to take the risk where eternal damnation is the cost, I would simply point to Bertrand Russell’s famous teapot. Just because something can be imagined and the concept of an after-life (with eternal punishment) can also be conceived for it, it doesn’t mean that it exists or that is should be followed. Otherwise, where would it end? Roman pantheism – haven’t we already tried that…?

As I see it, there is no proof or evidence of a god that doesn’t include something like:

These are all logical fallacies that prove nothing. Not a sausage. Nada. Zip.

It is for these reasons, founded in actual experience and investigation, that I confidently and unequivocally declare… that nothing is certain. (Anticlimax?) After all, it’s the only truly neutral judgement. All the odds (and evidence so far) are that we created all these gods in our own image and they are mere fantasy or perhaps projections of our own desires, hopes, prejudices, greed, or possibly a coping mechanism for the fears we had when cowering in the caves while thunderstorms raged outside or volcanoes erupted. But perhaps not. To state otherwise would be belief, and that’s a voluntary shackle I’ve chosen to undo.

It brings me to the definition of atheist (with a little ‘a’) from my first post. As I see it, the only neutral position is one that mirrors that point in our lives before our family, friends or teachers impressed (cynics might say infected) the unseen and unempirical upon us. So a-theism means the absence of theism (supernatural belief). Simpler days indeed.

For many atheists like myself, however, it is not enough simply to eschew supernatural thoughts and superstitions, but also the millennia of religiously-inspired rules, laws, beliefs, restrictions and horrors forced upon mankind for no other reason than they appear in one or another translations of that nation’s or continent’s holy book, and they kept its leaders in the lap of luxury. It’s very easy to point to things such as schools, hospitals and charities run in the name of a god, but it’s more distasteful pointing to the slavery, torture, rape, genital mutilation, oppression (race, class and gender), genocide, conquests, and wars that are all happening this very day in the name of any given god and his book. It’s deplorable and shameful.

So a step beyond simply divorcing oneself from such… taint is to look at ways of living that do not involve Stone Age edicts meant to keep superstitious nomadic desert tribes alive in this scientific, largely urban, modern world.

Enter Secular Humanism, a non-theistic system or philosophy of looking at and living in the world with reason, ethics and morality foremost, and without the irrelevant encumbrances of religious or supernatural thoughts or beliefs. It’s about being good and striving for goodness, justness, and morality for its own sake and for your fellow human, not because your fear hellfire or damnation. (Would you really do awful things if you weren’t afraid of a god or eternal punishment? What kind of person does that make you?) And it’s beautifully liberating — you can be a good person and knowing you’re doing it because you can and want to, not because it’ll go into some imaginary ledger for use against you in some Miltonian judgement.

There is enough beauty and majesty, cruelty and suffering in the world. Why do we insist on wishing for more of the former by creating more of the latter?

Instead, perhaps we should marvel in what we have with those we love for whatever time we may have.

The political spectrum

January 28, 2009 Comments off

I’ve just taken one of those online quizzes of 30 or so questions that determine your political leanings — almost a copy of one I was given in my Engineering Communications class back in university — and then plots your results on a graph with Left and Right as the -x and +x axis and Authoritarian and Libertarian as the +y and -y axis. You answer each multi-choice question with one of 5 answers ranges from Strongly Agree through Neutral to Strongly Disagree. The main difference with this quiz is that it adds a “How much does this matter?” bar which allows you to add a level of importance to your answer, ranging from A lot to A little.

Here are my results for the Political Spectrum Quiz: Your Political Label:

Political Views: Left moderate social libertarian
Left: 3.2, Libertarian: 1.81
Foreign Policy Views: -1.9
Culture War Stance: -4.32

For those of you who have been reading this blog for its short life — and those who know me — my results should come as no surprise. The results are almost identical to the tests I’ve taken every 5 or so years since my first such test over 15 years ago.

Interestingly, the results page goes on to tell me that all of my answers are pretty much the average, though it doesn’t indicate how many people have taken the quiz (it could be just 10 people). The quiz doesn’t pretend to be scientific or of greater significance than it is at face value, but I thought it was worth the 5 minutes it took.

Give it a go and let me know how you got on. It might give you an insight into yourself when you go off and search Google or Wikipedia for the precise meanings of whatever your results say.

Categories: politics Tags:

In which we realise our insignificance

January 27, 2009 Comments off

I felt compelled to share this fantastic video footage, posted to a friend’s blog. I’m not sure where the footage originates, but the music is clearly John Barry’s The Overture from The Black Hole, a film I enjoyed when I was young:

Our small world

[Edit: Normally I wouldn’t make this kind of edit, but Unreasonable Faith posted a similar video that just had to be shared]:

Star Size Comparison

I think it does they do a fantastic job of showing the relative sizes of planets within our solar system, our Sun, and the staggering sizes of nearby stars. The extra-solar stars pictured range in distance from almost 9 ly (Sirius or Alpha Canis Major, and is also the brightest star in the night sky) away to over 20,000 ly (the recently discovered V838 Monocerotis).

To put the video into context: if V354 Cephei were placed at the centre of our solar system, its radius would end somewhere between Jupiter and Saturn. It’s that big. And just look at the final comparison between our Sun and VY Canis Major, which is the largest star that we know about. If placed at the centre, its radius would reach to Saturn. This image puts the relative distances of the inner and Jovian planets into context (image from solcomhouse):

Visible Planet Orbits

Orbit of the inner and Jovian planets

It’s just mind-boggling how insignificant our own yellow dwarf Sun is in comparison to others in our own galaxy never mind a thought for our home, this pale blue dot hurtling through space around it.

Categories: science Tags:

A lot can happen in 20 years – Part 7

January 27, 2009 Comments off

This follows on from Part 6.

As mentioned in Part 1, I realised that it’s exactly 20 years since I entered the full-time workforce, and a lot can happen in that time, so thought I’d share my road to reason. This is a continuation.

Muslims are taught to pray 5 times per day — always facing towards the Ka’aba, the ornate black cube-shaped structure (satellite map) in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, in which is contained the fabled Black Stone — at various offsets of the rising and setting sun. The times vary based upon the seasons and latitude, but typically take place before sunrise, around noon, mid-afternoon, early-evening and late-evening. The higher the latitude, the more these times vary: for example, in London these times are (shows the variation for each prayer over the year):

  • 02:30-06:00 – Fajr
  • 11:45-13:00 – Dhuhr
  • 13:30-17:30 – Asr
  • 15:45-21:30 – Maghrib
  • 17:45-23:30 – Isha

This is because the sun rises and sets at quite a varied range of times throughout the year (ignoring the different ways used to calculate sunrise and sunset, which itself is controversial in Islam), again using London as an example:

  • 04:45-08:00 – sunrise
  • 15:54-21:30 – sunset

It gets worse at even more polar latitudes, at its extreme resulting in the midnight sun, which makes literal adherence to any schedule based on sunrise and sunset an impossibility. The prayer system does not seem to have been designed with all of the world in mind, apparently favouring more equatorial locations.

Praying at the required time and in the correct direction (the Qibla) is a relatively simple task in some locations on earth (both in terms of latitude and culture), but in some locations at some times of the year it can mean waking up twice in the night to pray. This is aside from the day’s normal tasks (such as commuting, working, classes, recreation time, etc) during which Muslims are expected to stop to pray — which you see in many Muslim countries, with even bus and lorry drivers pulling over on the roadside to pray. Various Islamic societies and groups have different ways of dealing with this problem: some do them all exactly when required, some have a window of time, others skip one or two (sometimes “making them up” later in the day), and some groups “stack” their prayers and do them all at the beginning or end of the day. I have met Muslims from all over the world for whom each of these is permitted in their culture, though the ruling used in the mosque I was visiting was the window method: if a prayer was meant for 13:00, you could pray that prayer from something like 12:00-14:00 and it would still be “valid”.

There is a strong concept of valid/invalid in Muslim actions, suggesting that an act of devotion to god would either be accepted or rejected by god based upon the validity of your actions, the way you did it and in what circumstances. One example is that it is forbidden to pray in any room that has a toilet in it (e.g. large bathroom, jail cell), and some groups think prayer is invalid if there is a toilet between you and the Ka’aba (e.g. if you are facing Mecca and the toilet is in an adjacent room in front of you) — to do this would make that prayer invalid. This, and the black-and-white concepts of haram (forbidden) and halal (permitted) have meant that Islamic jurisprudence is a big deal, with these scholars issuing fatawa (non-binding religious opinions, though often treated as a requirement if it suits — the 1988 fatwa against Salman Rushdie, for example) on whether an action is permitted or forbidden. It is effectively deciding whether god considers it a sin or not, in much the same way that the Catholic Pope has done throughout history. Since the end of the last Caliphate in the 1920’s there are now many such scholars in Islam, though this cannot be a unique criticism, as this is comparable to Protestantism — also without a central authority or head — where each church’s leader (minister, pastor, father, priest, etc) acts in the same capacity, declaring this or that a sin under god. Probably because of this, both have the same problems of fragmentation, isolationism, and a easier tendency to extremes of belief, interpretation and opinion. The religious component of American politics is one such example.

All Abrahamic religions have a holy day each week, and Islam is no different. While attendance at mosque for prayers is preferred/ideal whenever possible, and in practice many even devout Muslims are lucky to manage two visits a day, attendance at Friday’s midday prayer, Jumu’ah, is considered almost compulsory (it is mandatory in some places). Jumu’ah is similar to the other mosque attendance throughout the week, except it includes a story or lesson from the Qur’an by the prayer leader, and is the closest thing to a sermon in Islam. This communal prayer is also a way to ensure that the Ummah are together at least once a week, and furthers the bonds of friendship and brotherhood.

While I can fully appreciate why Muslims value their community so highly, as it really does provide a sense of belonging that is more universal than other religions I’ve seen and experienced, it suffers from a number of problems — some of which are shared with other religions and others that may be unique to Islam. The absence of a central authority — the Caliph — is a new problem for Islam as it has always had one in the past to unify and prevent splinter groups forming, but since the Caliphate’s demise I think it is unlikely to ever be replaced as in the presence of any power vacuum, many self-appointed authorities have now stepped up in its place often with vastly different agendas, interpretations and priorities, and I can’t see how they will all voluntarily bow down to one leader, regardless of how regular and orthodox his election might be. Also, a large portion of the Islamic world lives in areas of strife and war that, whether or not the strife is religious in origin or not, has polarised its inhabitants into believing it is a religious struggle — and the Qur’an speaks quite a bit about religi
ous struggles, and the call to and justifications of jihad. This fallacy provides an opportunity for agenda-driven self-appointed leaders to steer people to suit their own ends.

There are other issues on which I could elaborate, but the final, undeniable stumbling block is again the beliefs and dogmas. As with Christianity, this too has its requirement of belief in a god and its attendant dogmas and practices, along with quite extreme punishments should any member decide to enact them, with only its text and adherents as proof of its truth. For many that is more than enough.

Continued in Part 8.

A lot can happen in 20 years – Part 6

January 25, 2009 Comments off

This follows on from Part 5.

As mentioned in Part 1, I realised that it’s exactly 20 years since I entered the full-time workforce, and a lot can happen in that time, so thought I’d share my road to reason. This is a continuation.

Having had my fill of what could probably be considered the traditional religion of the “white western world”, Christianity, and living in the UK (that contains a large immigrant population from outside that region), it seemed natural to look into one of the world’s other dominant religions, Islam. Up to 2 billion people follow or were born into it, and many reports say that it is growing in popularity, and may even be the world’s fastest growing religion.

Before reading on, note that all words in Islam are Arabic, as Muslims believe Arabic is the only language in which their holy book can be read or understood (perhaps even so far as to believe that “Arabic is the language of god”). All translations are considered merely guides, which is why translations of the Qur’an are always have the title prefixed with The Meaning of… In addition, transliterations of Arabic words can be spelled various ways — my understanding is that there is no ‘correct’ way to spell them outside of the Arabic character set: hence Islam, Islaam, Muhammed, Mohamed, Mohammed, Mahomet, Qur’an, Quraan, Koran, Muslim, Moslem, etc.

Islam is seen by Muslims to be the third and last in the line of Abrahamic religions, that is a monotheistic religion with Abraham as its original prophet. Contrary to what most right-wing people or extremist members of each religion will say, all three of these religions worship exactly the same god: the god of the Jewish prophets Abraham, Noah, Moses and Jesus. All three originated in a small area of the Middle East and have essentially the same roots, regardless of whatever branding and localisation may have happened where you live. The most obvious differences between the three religions are what they call their god, what level of importance they place on notable people in their holy books, and who they consider to be their authoritative prophet. Muslims believe that Muhammed is the last and greatest prophet of the Abrahamic god, whom they call Allah. Allah is simply the transliterated Arabic word al-Lah, meaning “the (only, one) god.” To make that perfectly clear: Allah is literally the Arabic word God — not actually a name. They do not believe that Muhammed (often simply referred to as The Prophet) was divine, though many critics seem unable to discern a difference between the Islamic treatment of Muhammed and the Christian treatment of Jesus.

It was not my intention to convert to Islam, though I did want to give it the attention to detail and respect that it deserved, so I observed many of the rules of the religion — to the consternation of some of my family and friends.

I began my exploration of Islam via the Islam Channel on TV, the Internet (which can be a minfield, as with all topics that polarise beliefs and opinions), and an Islamic centre not far from where I work. This centre and an Islamic Internet Relay Chat (IRC) channel (or ‘chatroom’) would enable me to talk with Muslims, to learn and to get an idea of the varying opinions, sects and beliefs. On IRC I quickly found people who ranged from mature, moderate live-and-let-live responsible global citizens to angry young men (and women) screaming for jihad against the West with every breath. These people ranged from 3rd generation Americans and British citizens through to people sitting in Internet cafes in war zones. Putting up your hand in such an environment to say that you’re a white Anglo-Saxon, and not a Muslim, always gets a variety of reactions: some will immediately seek retribution (expulsion from the channel, attacking your computer, verbal abuse and threats, etc), many will raise an eyebrow but continue on as normal, and a few will be happy for the change of perspective. For the most part, once I’d been there for a couple of hours nobody asked who I was, and I was able to have interesting and meaningful conversations with a number of people. No pretending or lying was required on my part.

A few weeks into my online experiences — which also included reading numerous websites, online web forums, and a PDF copy of the Qur’an — I decided to visit the nearby Islamic centre which was open one evening per week. They were attached to a local mosque — both taking up 2-3 shops in a small strip mall — and the centre was manned by two Pakistani friends who felt it their duty to reach out to the wider community, in much the same way Christian churches sometimes do, by providing a drop-in and information centre for those who were curious. On my first visit I was struck by the difference in appearance of the two men, particularly as the UK seems to consist mainly of a fundamentalist version of Islam (which includes uncut facial hair and traditional clothes, among other things), as one had some of the typical appearance of what I had seen on TV and the other was wearing western clothes and was cleanly shaven; the former was a medical writer and the latter a school teacher. The centre itself took up one of the shops and had a glass front, school desks and chairs set up in a square in the middle, a few armchairs in one corner, and shelves on the walls with Islamic books, CDs, bookmarks, posters, and the usual kinds of things you find in a religious bookshop.

Over the next few months I visited the centre periodically, and then started going into the mosque during prayer times as the evening prayer began when I was there, so I took the opportunity to watch exactly what went on. Eventually I started to take part in the prayers, and found the process quite complicated with the movements changing depending upon which prayer you were doing, it had to be in formation with the other people there, and there were words to learn that had to be mouthed quietly throughout the prayer. Regardless of the political opinions that I knew some of the members had (I spoke with some of them before/after prayers), every single person there made me feel welcome, even though I was the only white person in the building. There was no sense of not belonging, no hint of malice, no racial awareness — each person treated me as a brother, no matter whether they spoke English or not (many didn’t). There’s a lot to be said for that sense of family, and I can see how it binds good people and bad people, and provides that global sense of community, the Ummah.

Continued in Part 7.

A lot can happen in 20 years – Part 5

January 22, 2009 Comments off

This follows on from Part 4.

As mentioned in Part 1, I realised that it’s exactly 20 years since I entered the full-time workforce, and a lot can happen in that time, so thought I’d share my road to reason. This is a continuation.

Upon coming to a decision about Buddhism, I then chose to examine an aspect of Christianity that had I no experience of: the Religious Society of Friends (or Quakers). They seemed to be non-existent where I grew up, so it wasn’t until I moved to the UK that I learned more about them in passing, and eventually decided to investigate them in greater depth. My understanding is that the Quakers in the UK are notably different from those in the US — my friends there speak of Quakers there as if they are fundamentalist or fire-and-brimstone organisation, which is nothing like the Quakers I’ve come across here.

In the UK they meet in a Friends Meeting House (a church by any other name, but usually without many of the trappings) with the chairs arranged in a rough circle so that everyone can see one another, and the meeting consists of everyone sitting in silence. There is no preaching, no sermon, no tub-thumping, no agenda being cast down from the pulpit — just people sitting and quietly reflecting. It remains this way until someone feels moved to speak, at which point they will stand and calmly say their piece, then resume their seat; later on someone else may feel moved to speak (sometimes in response, sometimes not), and this continues until the meeting finishes. Once finished, everyone stands and shakes one another’s hands with a smile, and then everyone retreats to the canteen/dining area where everyone shares lunch, with most people having brought a plate of food to share.

With the exception of one meeting where a member clearly felt strongly about his son being sent to war and subsequently feeling moved to speak out against it (followed by another member gently providing Biblical platitudes, resulting in the same man feeling moved to speak out again against his son’s predicament, and so on), which drove home the unfortunate nature of the concept of “being moved to speak”, all of my attendances at Quakers meetings were delightful. Regardless of such instances of emotion-driven speeches, it is a truly welcoming and peaceful environment. In fact, one of the members of the same local Buddhist group I once attended is a regular attender at the Quaker meetings — they are so welcoming that one does not even have to profess Christianity (or indicate that you’re willing to “sign up”) to attend and be truly welcome, unlike every other religious organisation I’ve ever attended, before or since.

My experience with the Quakers showed that they are as much, if not more, about community and spirituality than religion and dogma, and those are attributes that I’m sure anyone can respect, admire and appreciate. However, they are prey to the same faults as other Christian groups: the adherence to the Bible as infallible, the belief in God/Jesus/Holy Spirit (the Trinity), and to the belief in the concept of “being moved” to speak. My biggest concerns were that nearly all such motions were from the speaker’s personal life or recent headline news. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to fathom that the source is mundane, not divine.

Continued in Part 6.

Finding the balance

January 19, 2009 Comments off

It struck me today that it’s quite difficult to find a happy balance between the consumption of information — from blogs, newspapers, periodicals, etc — and contributing to the public sphere. I have a voracious appetite for knowledge, including conscious revision of prior Did you know…? “facts” that often turn out to be erroneous or unproved, but the trick seems to be working out an acceptable ratio of input (reading and watching) to output (writing and blogging). As someone with a reasonable level of research skill and a high level of  Internet experience, it’s extremely easy to spend all my time consuming what the world has to offer.

Even with a good RSS reader like Bloglines or GReader, consumption of information can take all of my time if I’m not careful, particularly as I’ve always felt that one should have more than just a passing familiarity with a topic before opining on it. After all, as we’re so often told these days, once you hit the Publish button on your blog, you are a published author… in the eyes of litigators, at least. And I have quite a few personal and professional interests.

I suppose I’m like most people: there are a number of topics on which I am an expert, some on which I am a keen hobbyist or competent lay-person, and a limitless amount for which I haven’t a hope of being able to bluff my way through. The trick is where to draw the line and to recognise that, although one might not know a particular topic in any depth, the application of critical thinking and logic should provide enough to enable a fair appraisal of it, even if it’s not feasible to become an authority on it.

Of course, a shortfall with this approach is that faulty thinking, idealogy, emotions or subjectivity can allow for conclusions that are not based in reality. I’m sure every person already holds numerous such “facts”, but having them in our heads doesn’t make them real. It now depends on whether you’re prepared to re-evaluate them or not.

Categories: misc Tags: ,