Archive for April, 2009

Storm by Tim Minchin

28 April 2009 Comments off

It’s been a few years since I sat in my living room late one evening watching Paramount Stand Up! (or something) on the then Paramount Comedy channel and I saw a weird-haired, mascara-wearing comic and fellow Sandgroper singing a song about canvas bags:

Tim Minchin – Canvas Bags

I find the song clever and rather moving, and it’s what resolved me to actually do what the song says, rather than just thinking about it. Within a week or so, a friend and I had chipped in and bought 20 canvas bags from Clever Baggers for ourselves and family, and to this day we both independently take our bags to the supermarket.

That video was of course my first encounter with the brilliant, talented… and slightly eccentric Tim Minchin. Since then I’ve bought his three CDs — Darkside, So Rock and Ready For This? — and have tried to make it to his shows, but to date events have conspired against me (including the Nine Lessons & Carols for Godless People show where a twisted knee prevented me going).

He’s back in the UK later this year, so I’ll be going — even if it’s in an iron lung or something equally ludicrous!

And this brings me to his latest sensational piece of creativity. As he talks about his wife and friends in it, it’s entirely likely to be based on fact. But regardless of the details, it’s a great beat poem called Storm:

Storm by Tim Minchin (with text)

It sums up precisely what so many of us feel inside whenever we speak to a “true believer”. And there’s not enough beat poetry anymore…

If you like his stuff, please support him by buying his merchandise — and try to make it to a show, if you can. You won’t regret it.

What-a-sad-world disclaimer: I have no affiliation other than being from the same city, having a similar view of the world, and following him on Twitter!

Knowledge vs Preaching

16 April 2009 Comments off

While reading one of Ray Whiting’s typically excellent posts to his My Life blog — about Joss Whedon‘s speech while receiving the Outstanding Lifetime Achievement Award in Cultural Humanism from Harvard University — a couple of Ray’s comments struck me as profound, and well worth sharing:

Only in humanity, and having faith in humanity, will we expand our potential to overcome the fear, the ignorance, and the hatred that is directly bred by religion.  Belief in God leads to fear and ignorance and hatred, and it doesn’t matter which God you believe in.  Every single religion that espouses a belief in a God automatically separates people into “Us” and “Them”. Religion instills a sense of “othering” that requires treating Others as outsiders, as enemies, and by its nature religion demands ignorance of Others — believers are required to be separate and not to mingle or know Others.

It’s important here that the term faith isn’t to be mistaken for worship. It refers instead to the focus, goals and what we strive for together as a species, the continuation of life. Remove all references to gods and supreme brings or forces, and consider for a moment that we need to stop looking at the past and unseen forces, and start doing what needs to be done to ensure that life not only continues but thrives.

If we continue allowing ourselves this indulgent, unsubstantiated fantasy of religion then we’re forever doomed to maintain this destructive tribal mentality, for the reasons mentioned in the quote above. And when those primitive-minded tribes have nuclear weapons little more than a button-press away, then it doesn’t take a genius to realise our days are numbered unless something changes. (In fact, the cynic in me wonders how the world made it through the previous 8 years of US government without ending up living the Fallout lifestyle).

Ray then ended the post with:

Would you like to know what I want to see?   I’d like to see fact-checkers sitting in every church, recording the stuff preachers say, and then reporting on just how ill-informed, biased, and even downright deliberately deceptive some of those preachers are.  That would be very cool.

How brilliant would that be? For people to catalogue the litany of garbage that flies from the mouths of these Protestant Popes, who continue to spout ignorance, lies and deceit in an assumed atmosphere of Parliamentary privilege, free from having to justify what they’re saying. Imagine that catalogue being checked and then shown to them by a reporter with a camera, asking them to explain all the mistakes which were supposed to be divinely inspired?

You don’t have to imagine too hard, as many of you may be aware that this just happened to Rick Warren (mega-church bible-thumper and speaker of the Presidential Inauguration Invocation). A quick Google search will return many proofs contradicting his current statements.

I’d go a step further than merely dreaming about monitors who hold such people responsible for their words. I’d love to see an Anonymous-type movement — but without the masks and rapidly growing internal troubles — with free Sunday mornings or evenings do just that: visit their local church, chat with those who greet them (after all they’re people just like you and me, but with an imaginary friend), and note what’s said. The preacher’s message may take the form of comparing a piece of news with what the Bible says about something (classic cherry-picking: anti-gay stuff will be from Leviticus, love will be from the gospels, science will be from Genesis, etc), it might be the preacher’s version of a news topic (same as an opinion piece in a newspaper, but without the press regulation and standards), and so on.

For those of you with Friday lunchtimes free, and assuming they’ll let you, you may care to visit your local mosque and observe jumuah, the early afternoon prayer followed by the khutba (the Muslim weekly equivalent of a sermon). Or the Jewish temple, Buddhist temple, and so on and so forth. All of the above welcome newcomers as potential converts.

However, if anyone does do this it’s important to keep your opinions to yourself. Don’t lie, but remember you’re in someone else’s domain and need to show the person respect, regardless of your opinion of their belief. The Golden Rule, people. Also make sure you’re dressed appropriately and that can include skin and hair being covered, depending upon the religion, local cultural mix, and level of fundamentalism — particularly if you’re female. Also be sure to let us know how it went.

I have done what I suggest above in depth, as I have blogged about previously, so from a position of experience I have to ask you: what’s the worst that could happen? At worst you’ll be turned away at the door, perhaps for no reason other than the colour of your skin, or perhaps rudely without reason; but at best you’ll have an insight into another religious culture. You’ll realise that those people also have concerns about many of the same things you do: job security, child’s education, grandmother’s illness, etc. I found it made a huge difference to my level of compassion for my fellow human.

After all, we’re all clinging to the same rock, trying to make it to the end of the day.

Categories: atheism Tags: ,

Unreasonable people have access to cars and guns?

14 April 2009 Comments off

One of the humanist bloggers I read quite regularly posted a blog entry entitled The Most Inhuman Statement Ever?, in which he’d posted about how he couldn’t understand how someone could post an incredibly ignorant, hateful and hurtful response to a poll. While having a conversation via the comments to the blogpost, he asked (and I hope he doesn’t mind me sharing it here):

If we want to reduce the number of criminals in the world, shouldn’t we be screening for this person, early in life and finding a way to reach their humanity?

I started to respond with another comment that again I realised was large enough to both make an unwieldy comment and a useful blog post of my own. So here we are, with a reply that became a standalone blog post…

I completely understand your despair and the reasons for your questions. But as a fellow humanist, you probably recognise that part of the nature of humanity is varying beliefs, approaches to problems and ways of dealing with situations. For us secular humanists, and therefore typically atheists, there rises the popular statement:

Whenever there are 2 atheists in a room you will typically find at least 3 opinions.

And of course what we may allow ourselves to think or say — particularly on the Internet with its (mistaken) assumption of anonymity and no risk of being smacked in the mouth for it — does not necessarily relate to the actions we allow ourselves to take. There are exceptions, of course, to every rule.

It’s been my experience that up to a certain age most people are simply spouting the beliefs and bigotry of their parents, and aren’t reasonably and rationally responsible for them. Then they reach an age where they are forming their own view of the world and those beliefs and opinions are either challenged and replaced, or solidified. It’s at that point, I think, that a person truly becomes liable for their beliefs and opinions. However, you still have the gap between thought/speech and action.

After all, I may think that all religions and their apologists/colluders have deliberately retarded the development and progress of mankind, and have in many (but not all) cases been immense forces for harm, but other than words it’s extremely unlikely I’d take any direct action — except whenever those people regularly try to use the system of government to force their religious dogma onto me. My inaction is not because I’m cowering in the corner, but because I recognise that Homo sapiens babies are born completely dependent on their parents — due to brain size, early development, motor skills, etc — and therefore to unquestioningly accept whatever our parents tell us, and is an instinct that enables us to survive long enough to reach young adulthood. And the things our parents typically tell us include, but aren’t limited to:

  • Don’t touch that fire!
  • A fat bloke on a sleigh visits each year.
  • That animal is dangerous!
  • The sky wizard will take us to heaven if we’ve been good.
  • This is how we make a shelter.
  • The sky wizard will evilly torture us forever if we make a mistake.
  • This is how we hunt for food.

And so on. But unfortunately some of us never re-evaluate those stories, as many people do not truly attempt to think for themselves. Perhaps because that is a deliberate attempt to question what we’ve already been told is fact, and constitutes a thought-crime or doubt of the established authority?

Looking at my own background, I’ve gone from a credulous child to a fervent believer to agnostic and have now settled as a secular humanist. I may or may not be representative of humanity as a whole, but I’m pretty certain that had someone with a well thought out rationale tried to foist reality onto me in the middle of my fervent believing, I’d have laughed in their face. (As I did with the many poorly thought out rationales). And today I recognise that arguing with true believers is ultimately a futile exercise until they reach the point in their journey when they begin to realise that the questioning voice in their head isn’t Satan (as most are taught to regard the voice that questions religious authority), but rather their natural curiosity demanding to know why it’s been shut away while the believer rides the emotionally-intoxicating roller-coaster addiction that is fervent belief.

Every believer comes to that point somewhere in their journey, and it’s then that those of us based in reality need to be there to provide support and establish dialogue. Not least because they’ll have also coincidentally realised that there is no reason for their being — they are purely a cosmological accident whereby a few billion cells have collectively agreed to be them for a while — no more and no less. And that’s another reason why religious belief is so popular — it makes us feel warm and cosy in the belief that we are special. This also explains why early scientists had such a hard time of things when their discoveries were made: they represented a gradual understanding that neither mankind (and their religious leaders), Earth nor its Solar System was in any way remotely special, except that there is life here in the Goldilocks Zone. The much later realisation that there were other galaxies beyond our own was another nail, and then the discovery that our Solar System was far out on an unimportant arm of our own galaxy simply sealed the coffin.

I think it’s this realisation of the total and utter insignificance of mankind that represents the biggest fear of religious believers. It’s not that we’re not the centre of the universe — as our monstrous, primitive egos would have us think — but that we just don’t matter. Once that is truly understood, it creates both an existential dilemma for those who are new-to-thinking and puts all our petty tribal wars and power-mongering into perspective. We’re not fighting for Right or Wrong, Good or Evil, the side of God versus his Enemy… we’re just angry little ape-descendants flinging increasingly-advanced forms of dung at each other.

But that’s not cause for despair.

Whenever I step outside to watch the International Space Station pass by overhead (see the ISS section at Heavens-Above), I feel intense awe and pride at knowing that in that shiny sardine tin flying 190 miles overhead sits a number of those angry little ape-descendants on the baby steps to exploring and populating the Solar System and — given time and the chance to mature as a species without an advanced-dung-induced catastrophe — we may even survive long enough to explore and populate our nearest neighbouring Solar System, and perhaps beyond that.

Isn’t it amazing?

Isn’t that enough?

Categories: atheism Tags: , ,

Happy Zombie Jesus Day

12 April 2009 Comments off

Well, it’s that time of year again — the long-weekend that a number of Western nations observe as a national holiday: the pagan festival of ?ostre, better known as Easter, where millions of people gleefully glorify in the brutal killing of their god, who was the son of their god sent by their god to cleanse the world from sins stipulated by their god, for the appeasement of their god.

I have a computer wallpaper that describes it succinctly:

Christianity, n.: Sending telepathic messages to a Jewish ghost letting him know that you will accept him as your master and to ask him to remove a magical curse that was passed down to you because an old woman that was made from the rib of her partner ate a piece of magical fruit from a magical tree because a talking snake told her to.

Ask me again why I’m an Atheist?

Those who recognise that monotheism is one god too many, know it as:

Zombie Jesus Day!

The Parody
According to popular culture and today’s political-religious voices, this holiday all began with…

Christianity Defined

…the death of a Jewish martyr named Eashoa or Yashua (depending upon which etymology you follow) — who most people know by his translated name of Jesus or Isa — around 2,000 years ago. And then a few days later, it ended with…

The Resurrection

…the apparent resurrection of the martyr to the least objective audience possible: Mary Magdalene, sometimes considered to be a love interest or equal leader. Major opposition to this last point is usually from the same people who naïvely think Jesus’s mother died a virgin. (All of this accepts, for the sake of argument, that the people in the story actually lived at that time, that Jesus was born to Mary, that he had a group of followers, etc).

Then some time afterwards, this strange and little-known sect was chosen to replace the polytheistic Roman pantheon as the official religion of the Roman Empire. The Roman Catholic Church was born, complete with its equally absurd Doctrine of the Trinity (one god is three gods but is really just one god — presumably to keep the polytheistic migrants from pantheism happy).

Protestants, particularly ones from modern fundamentalist sects, don’t like this fact but: Catholicism is Christianity. There was no distinction and, with the exception of the schism over the power of the Pope which lead to the formation of the Eastern Orthodox Church, it remained that way until the 16th century Reformation.

For those who haven’t yet completely signed over their rational and critical faculties, here’s the official story for those looking to join the club…

The rules are simple...

…and is only sanctified by you joining in the cannibalistic ritual of eating the god/man/father/son’s body and drinking his blood. No brains required. Brains…

The Reality
The festival of the Anglo-Saxon pagan goddess ?ostre (or Ôstarâ) celebrates the rebirth of life after the long cold winter by marking the coming of spring, and observes the lunar calendar (as seasonal events have done throughout much of civilisation). Most people know it as Easter, and have bought into the claim that it originated with the death of a religious fanatic around 2,000 years ago.

Easter did not originate with the death of Jesus any more than Christmas originated with his birth. As with most Christian holidays, it was piggy-backed onto pre-existing holidays of the culture in which it spread, and then was later enforced and rewritten by the Church as if the original never existed. Hence the ?ostre/spring symbolism and timing for Easter, and the Yule/winter solstice symbolism and timing for Christmas. Easter is timed to mark the end of Passover — a national & religious celebration of the story of a brutal god murdering thousands of innocent infants — making them follow a lunar, seasonal calendar. Hence the fact that both occur at seemingly random times between late March and late April, matching the Jewish month of Nisan (also called Aviv, or spring), marking the timing of the barley harvest. And don’t forget the Easter egg and its symbolism of new birth/life.

Rebirth, new life, resurrection… recognising an ongoing theme?

The Incredulity
I’ve clearly parodied the stories surrounding the crucifixion of Jesus, basing them in a more Catholic setting than Protestant as the former has been around the longest and the latter is cherry-picked from the former, but they serve to outline the outlandish beliefs surrounding the holiday being celebrated. I say celebrated, but the facts are that only a tiny percentage of the Christian population actually observe (or even know) all the requirements of this holiday, and the number of people who actually know the popularised Easter story is dwindling yearly. For most of the Western world, Easter is simply a 4-day long-weekend where we may have some nice meals and catch up with family, get away for a few days to the coast or snow, or do some DIY around the house to wash away the winter and prepare the house and garden for the coming spring and summer.

The latter is really what Easter is all about. We’ve come through the harsh winter, those of us left alive and healthy will now rebuild what winter has damaged, and life will begin again for the year — as can be seen all around with plant growth, spring lambs and the returned warmth of the Sun.

It’s a shame that some people voluntarily hang on to Bronze Age superstitions, from a time when humanity wasn’t enlightened enough to realise the reality of the annual wonders occurring around us this time of year. I understand why church and political leaders encourage and propagate such absurdities as it ensures their unrivalled power — particularly when you can threaten disobedience with eternal torture in a place that the threatened cannot be certain whether such an evil torment exists or not (enter the fallacy of Pascal’s Wager) — but for otherwise intelligent lay-people to do the same thing feels like collusion or appeasement. Something similar to knowing that you don’t need to outrun the lion chasing you to stay alive, merely that you have to outrun the person next to you. It’s a sick rationale from a sick system borne of sick minds.

Despite what believers reading this may think or say: I do not hate people of religion. I can respect the person while despising the belief, whether religious or political. Beliefs do not stop a person from being human, nor from being worthy of treatment as such. That’s the nature of secular humanism.

Humanity is more important than invisible friends.

An atheist in church

7 April 2009 Comments off

Last week I found out that a good friend had died, having suddenly dropped dead of his second heart attack, aged 65 and too young for such a fate these days. Although almost 20 years my senior, Vic was as alive as any of my peers my own age. He leaves behind a widow, 2 children, 7 grandchildren, and would have been a great-grandfather later this year. And he was a committed Freemason, which is how I came to know him. It was his passion: he was a member of at least 17 Masonic groups, he was Director of Ceremonies in the group we shared and either Almoner or Charity Steward in nearly all the others.

It may surprise some readers to know that I am a Freemason, particularly as I am also atheist (Secular Humanist). Those familiar with Freemasonry will know that one of the fundamental requirements for joining is affirmation of a “belief in a Supreme Being”, which might suggest that I’m either a liar or hypocrite -– but I’m neither. When I first joined Freemasonry (called Craft here, but also called Blue Lodge elsewhere) I considered myself agnostic -– that is, I figured there was probably a supreme being of some kind but I just simply didn’t know what or whom, so I chose neutrality over a position. But as I’ve mentioned previously, it can be argued that a self-identified Agnostic is simply an Atheist who hasn’t really given it much thought.

I’ve subsequently given it much thought, and that’s also led to me giving much thought to my Masonic membership. I was also a member of a side order called the Holy Royal Arch (often simply referred to as Chapter), which I joined later, but it is unapologetically Judeo-Christian –- more so than Craft in its present form –- so I felt it only right to leave, but also because I felt the morality story and ritual that it uses is too contrived. In short, I left Chapter because I felt that it was incompatible with atheism, but I joined both Craft and Chapter at a time when I met all entrance requirements.

Although I should in theory resign also from Craft, as it has an ongoing assumption that its members retain that belief in a supreme being, but I have remained for a number of reasons. Part of the reason is compassion and responsibility: as I have worked my way through the Lodge offices over the last 5 years, this year I am to go into the Chair (i.e. I’ve earned the right to run the Lodge for a year) and as the lodge member numbers are quite low, my resignation would have a notable negative impact upon the lodge itself. It’s an interesting ethical dilemma.

So back to Vic.

In my early teens I had 4 family members tragically die: the first was a cousin aged 7 who was buried alive, the second was a family friend who we think was murdered by a serial rapist (she introduced me to Catholicism when I was young), the third was my grandfather (and best friend), and lastly was my “godfather” (a family friend my grandfather’s age who I called and considered my uncle). Having had my fill of deaths, burials and cremations before coming of age I’ve been quite fortunate to have not been to a funeral service since.

Over the weekend just gone I was informed that Vic’s funeral was today, and was asked if I could attend. This presented multiple mental hurdles for me:

  • The old but strong feelings of my teenage funereal experiences.
  • I’ve not been to a church service of any kind in 17 years, and that was when I was a true believer.
  • I’m now unapologetically atheist.
  • It was to be a Masonic funeral service conducted in a Church of England chapel by a Church of England Reverend and Freemason.
  • Unapologetically atheist or not, in Masonic terms it’s something I’ve discussed with only a couple of close brothers.

Ultimately my decision was based in the humanistic position that one may respect a man regardless of his beliefs. He was a good man who lived his life as he felt right, and he did what he did in life for the right reasons. So I wanted to pay respect to that life as well as be there to support my friend (who introduced me to Vic and was close friends with him) and Vic’s widow.

So at noon we were standing with over a hundred people, all suited and booted outside the chapel, in marvellously good weather. We all filed into the chapel and the place was filled to bursting: 50 or so people had to stand, so it was a huge turnout. Say what you might about Freemasonry, there’s no doubt it engenders a huge sense of community.

I find it difficult to not be disparaging about clear emotional manipulation throughout any major religious event (e.g. funerals being good recruiting opportunities, etc), but I think it worth sharing here to give those who are unfamiliar with how Church of England funereal services are conducted:

  • Kenny G’s Forever in Love was played while the pall-bearers brought in the coffin.
  • The minister welcomed everyone and said some prayers.
  • A hymn was sung by all: Guide me, O thou great redeemer.
  • The minister read John 14:1-6 from the Bible.
  • One of Vic’s friends from our Chapter spoke a moving tribute.
  • The minister gave an address, largely consisting of the usual platitudes but also peppered with Masonic phrases that the majority of the room recognised and appreciated.
  • We were all asked to silently reflect on Vic’s life for a few minutes in our own way, while Kool & The Gang’s Cherish played in the background.
  • The minister spoke a number of prayers.
  • Everyone was asked to speak The Lord’s Prayer.
  • We all sang the Closing Ode that is sung at the end of every Masonic meeting, which was moving for all the Freemasons present.
  • The minister spoke a commendation and farewell to Vic, which ended with the automated curtain closure.
  • The minister read a blessing to all.
  • Boyzone’s No Matter What was played on loop as everyone left the chapel. This took some time, so it played at least 3 times.

As you can see, I’m not derisive or dismissive of the service. I think it was done for the right reasons, it’s what Vic would have liked (if he’d ever thought far enough into the future to think of such things), and it wasn’t overly treacle-covered and full of unusual string-pulling. While I disagree with much of the content, execution and reason, I don’t disagree with the intent.

After the service we all met at the nearby Masonic Club for a reception and lunch. We stayed for a couple of hours catching up with people, offering condolences to Vic’s widow and all the family who had come, some of whom had travelled internationally. Those present were philosophical, reflective and some downright cheerful, which is I suspect as Vic would have liked it to be. He lived all aspects of his life to the full, not doing anything by half, and a hundred or more miserable people in a building he loved would have broken his heart.

I’ll certainly miss him –
– as I miss all family and friends that I’ve lost — but I’m very pleased to have known him for the time I did. He got what so many never get: the opportunity to be born and to live a life, for however long.

Categories: atheism Tags: , ,