Archive

Archive for May, 2009

The much-promised jetpack leads to screaming

May 30, 2009 Comments off

While reading an interesting article on CNN International’s Technology website (via the Facebook newsfeed of Point of Inquiry‘s D.J. Grothe) — about why we don’t have all the cool space-age gadgets we were promised as far back as the 1964 New York World’s Fair — I laughed so hard I had just to share (emphasis mine):

The jet pack, though, has never really taken off, Wilson says. The problem is its practical application. While a rocket belt could propel a screaming human to 60 mph in seconds, its fuel lasted for only about half a minute, “which led to more screaming,” Wilson says…

Nor could a jet pack be of use to ordinary people who wanted to avoid rush-hour traffic, Wilson says. Jet-packing hordes could transform the skies into an aerial demolition derby, with air rage and drunk drivers turned into wobbly human torpedoes.

I recommend reading the article, entitled Why Our ‘Amazing’ Science Fiction Future Fizzled, in its entireity as it’s quite interesting. You’ll probably spot a number of items and concepts from the subsequent 45 years of popular fiction and television.

It also goes some way to dispelling some of the “Where’s my jetpack?” melancholy, which I even remember hearing the character Red say in episodes of That 70’s Show.

Categories: technology Tags: ,

Can An Atheist Be a Fundamentalist?

May 28, 2009 Comments off

Extending my previous post on the harm that religion plays throughout history and in everyday life, here’s a brilliant article by A.C. Grayling, Professor of Philosophy at Birkbeck College, University of London, a Supernumerary Fellow of St Anne’s College, Oxford, and well-known as an outspoken literary atheist.

Can An Atheist Be a Fundamentalist?A.C. Grayling
Are there people who believe only somewhat that there are no supernatural entities in the universe – or only part of a god?

by A.C. Grayling, from the Guardian’s Comment is Free, 3 May 2006

It is time to put to rest the mistakes and assumptions that lie behind a phrase used by some religious people when talking of those who are plain-spoken about their disbelief in any religious claims: the phrase “fundamentalist atheist”. What would a non-fundamentalist atheist be? Would he be someone who believed only somewhat that there are no supernatural entities in the universe – perhaps that there is only part of a god (a divine foot, say, or buttock)? Or that gods exist only some of the time – say, Wednesdays and Saturdays? (That would not be so strange: for many unthinking quasi-theists, a god exists only on Sundays.) Or might it be that a non-fundamentalist atheist is one who does not mind that other people hold profoundly false and primitive beliefs about the universe, on the basis of which they have spent centuries mass-murdering other people who do not hold exactly the same false and primitive beliefs as themselves – and still do?

Christians, among other things, mean by “fundamentalist atheists” those who would deny people the comforts of faith (the old and lonely especially) and the companionship of a benign invisible protector in the dark night of the soul – and who (allegedly) fail to see the staggering beauty in art prompted by the inspirations of belief. Yet, in its bleeding-heart modern form, Christianity is a recent and highly modified version of what, for most of its history, has been an often violent and always oppressive ideology – think Crusades, torture, burnings at the stake, the enslavement of women to constantly repeated childbirth and undivorceable husbands, the warping of human sexuality, the use of fear (of hell’s torments) as an instrument of control, and the horrific results of calumny against Judaism. Nowadays, by contrast, Christianity specialises in soft-focus mood music; its threats of hell, its demand for poverty and chastity, its doctrine that only the few will be saved and the many damned, have been shed, replaced by strummed guitars and saccharine smiles. It has reinvented itself so often, and with such breathtaking hypocrisy, in the interests of retaining its hold on the gullible, that a medieval monk who woke today, like Woody Allen’s Sleeper, would not be able to recognise the faith that bears the same name as his own.

For example: vast Nigerian congregations are told that believing will ensure a high income – indeed they are told by Reverend X that they will be luckier and richer if they join his congregation than if they join that of Reverend Y. What happened to the eye of the needle? Oh well, granted: that tiny loophole was closed long ago. What then of “my kingdom is not of this world”? What of the blessedness of poverty and humility? The Church of England officially abolished Hell by an Act of Synod in the 1920s and St Paul’s strictures on the place of women in church (which was that they are to sit at the back in silence, with heads covered) are now so far ignored that there are now women vicars, and there will soon be women bishops.

One does not have to venture as far as Nigeria to see the hypocrisies of reinvention at work. Rome will do, where the latest eternal verity to be abandoned is the doctrine of limbo – the place where the souls of unbaptised babies go. Meanwhile, some cardinals are floating the idea that condoms are acceptable, within marital relationships only of course, in countries with high incidences of HIV infection. This latter, which to anyone but an observant Catholic is not merely a plain piece of common sense but a humanitarian imperative, is an amazing development in its context. Sensible Catholics have for generations been ignoring the views on contraception held by reactionary old men in the Vatican, but alas, since it is the business of all religious doctrines to keep their votaries in a state of intellectual infancy (how else do they keep absurdities seeming credible?), insufficient numbers of Catholics have been able to be sensible. Look at Ireland until very recent times for an example of the misery Catholicism inflicts when it can.

“Intellectual infancy”: the phrase reminds one that religions survive mainly because they brainwash the young. Three-quarters of Church of England schools are primary schools; all the faiths currently jostling for our tax money to run their “faith-based” schools know that if they do not proselytise intellectually defenceless three and four-year-olds, their grip will eventually loosen. Inculcating the various competing – competing, note – falsehoods of the major faiths into small children is a form of child abuse, and a scandal. Let us challenge religion to leave children alone until they are adults, whereupon they can be presented with the essentials of religion for mature consideration. For example: tell an averagely intelligent adult hitherto free of religious brainwashing that somewhere, invisibly, there is a being somewhat like us, with desires, interests, purposes, memories, and emotions of anger, love, vengefulness and jealousy, yet with the negation of such other of our failings as mortality, weakness, corporeality, visibility, limited knowledge and insight; and that this god magically impregnates a mortal woman, who then gives birth to a special being who performs various prodigious feats before departing for heaven. Take your pick of which version of this story to tell: let a King of Heaven impregnate – let’s see – Danae or Io or Leda or the Virgin Mary (etc, etc) and let there be resulting heaven-destined progeny (Heracles, Castor and Pollux, Jesus, etc, etc) – or any of the other forms of exactly such tales in Babylonian, Egyptian and other mythologies – then ask which of them he wishes to believe. One can guarantee that such a person would say: none of them.

So, in order not to be a “fundamentalist” atheist, which of the absurdities connoted in the foregoing should an atheist temporise over? Should a “moderate atheist” be one who does not mind how many hundreds of millions of people have been deeply harmed by religion throughout history? Should he or she be one who chuckles indulgently at the antipathy of Sunni for Shia, Christian for Jew, Muslim for Hindu, and all of them for anyone who does not think the universe is controlled by invisible powers? Is an acceptable (to the faithful) atheist one who thinks it is reasonable for people to believe that the gods suspend the laws of nature occasionally in answer to personal prayers, or that to save someone’s soul from further sin (especially the sin of heresy) it is in his own interests to be murdered?

As it happens, no atheist should call himself or herself one. The term already sells a pass to theists, because it invites debate on their ground. A more appropriate term is “naturalist”, denoting one who takes it that the universe is a natural realm, governed by nature’s laws. This properly implies that there is nothing supernatural in the universe – no fairies or goblins, angels, demons, gods or goddesses. Such might as well call themselves “a-fairyists” or “a-goblinists” as “atheists”; it would be every bit as meaningful or meaningless to do so. (Most people, though, forget that belief in fairies was widespread until the beginning of the 20th century; the church fought a long hard battle against this competitor superstition, and won, largely because – you guessed it – of the infant and primary church schools founded in the second half of the nineteenth century.)

By the same token, therefore, people with theistic beliefs should be called supernaturalists, and it can be left to them to attempt to refute the findings of physics, chemistry and the biological sciences in an effort to justify their alternative claim that the universe was created, and is run, by supernatural beings. Supernaturalists are fond of claiming that some irreligious people turn to prayer when in mortal danger, but naturalists can reply that supernaturalists typically repose great faith in science when they find themselves in (say) a hospital or an aeroplane – and with far greater frequency. But of course, as votaries of the view that everything is consistent with their beliefs – even apparent refutations of them – supernaturalists can claim that science itself is a gift of god, and thus justify doing so. But they should then remember Popper: “A theory that explains everything explains nothing.”

In conclusion, it is worth pointing out an allied and characteristic bit of jesuitry employed by folk of faith. This is their attempt to describe naturalism (atheism) as itself a “religion”. But, by definition, a religion is something centred upon belief in the existence of supernatural agencies or entities in the universe; and not merely in their existence, but in their interest in human beings on this planet; and not merely their interest, but their particularly detailed interest in what humans wear, what they eat, when they eat it, what they read or see, what they treat as clean and unclean, who they have sex with and how and when; and so for a multitude of other things, like making women invisible beneath enveloping clothing, or strapping little boxes to their foreheads, or iterating formulae by rote five times a day, and so endlessly forth; with threats of punishment for getting any of it wrong.

But naturalism (atheism) by definition does not premise such belief. Any view of the world that does not premise the existence of something supernatural is a philosophy, or a theory, or at worst an ideology. If it is either of the two first, at its best it proportions what it accepts to the evidence for accepting it, knows what would refute it, and stands ready to revise itself in the light of new evidence. This is the essence of science. It comes as no surprise that no wars have been fought, pogroms carried out, or burnings conducted at the stake, over rival theories in biology or astrophysics.

And one can grant that the word “fundamental” does after all apply to this: in the phrase “fundamentally sensible”.

This article was written almost 3 years ago, but it’s still striking in its relevance. I suppose it will continue to be relevant as long as the ignorant continue to level their accusations at those who simply don’t accept their particular Stone Age superstition.

The Church's glass house

May 25, 2009 Comments off

Where to begin? Perhaps to say that this post may polarise your opinion.

There have been certain events within the Catholic Church recently that have, well… baked my noodle. To that end, I’ve spent a number of hours researching, writing and re-writing this post to try to find the best way to convey its contents. I have no bias against Catholicism in particular, save for the fact it’s a religion with which I’m familiar. Should any Catholics reading this subsequently feel the need to don their victim hat, please be aware that I am not singling out your faith: I have the same level of respect for all religions…

There is no denying that the world’s major religions have inspired great works of art, kindness, love and majesty, and it can be a source of comfort to some. But there comes a point when one must ask if that contribution, knowledge and legacy sufficiently counters all the vile deeds done by, or in the name of, those religions?

It turns out that a sect of the Catholic Church in Ireland raped and brutalised (or worse?) children under their care and had been doing so with the knowledge and support of Church authorities for most of the 20th century, at least, in a time when the Church leader was still one of the highest ranking people within the social class system. Naturally when the facts were inevitably made public the Church did what all moral, ethical, pious, right-thinking organisations would do: first it threw its full weight behind covering it up and threatening the victims into silence, and then fought it in the courts. What’s more, some of the clergy claim to be unaware that such behaviour is illegal!

Yet, sadly, none of this is news. For those who may be unaware, that exact same sect did the exact same thing in Australia and Canada, news of which broke over 20 years ago. To underline how “not news” this is, this sect’s worldwide historical record of child abuse even has its own dedicated page on Wikipedia. Yet, despite the worldwide media coverage, a few words of apology from that nation’s Church head is all it’s taken for the media to go away, for the legal system to merely deal with those priests who haven’t been moved out of jurisdiction quickly enough, and it is allowed to go on as if nothing happened. Until it crops up again somewhere else.

Are we so frightened of a god we can’t see and are so scared of that god’s wrath that we sacrifice our children to it? What kind of god allows his sheep-herders to do this? Back to reality: why do we as a society permit it? We allow this to happen.

A friend’s father was a first-hand recipient of god’s love under that sect’s care. He is scarred for life, and it haunts him daily. I did know some others, but they chose to take their maker to task sooner than their natural lifespans would otherwise have permitted.

Yet according to the head of the Catholic Church in England, it is I who am not human. His exact words were (in this BBC interview excerpt; emphasis mine):

Whether a person is atheist or any other, there is in fact, in my view, something not totally human if they leave out the transcendent; if they leave out an aspect of what I believe everyone is made for. Which is a search for transcendent meaning — we call it “God.” If you say that has no place, then I feel that it’s a diminishment of what is to be human. Because to be human, in the sense I believe humanity is directed, because made by God, I think if you leave that out then you are not fully human.

One could see this as a poorly worded and delivered “they just don’t know what they’re missing.” I’ll concede that, but I think his track record and public speaking experience makes that extremely unlikely.

So we have this from the man who is the national representative of the organisation who gave the world such expressions of humanity and god’s love as this sample selection:

  • The Spanish conquest of the Americas with it’s convert-or-die theology. The current Pope considers this to have been a justifiable purification.
  • Collusion with the Nazi Party in the 1930s.
  • The Pope-driven military campaigns known as the Crusades, originally to take back Jerusalem from the Muslim Seljuq dynasty in the 11th century, and later extending to various religious, economic and political enemies for another 500 years.
  • The elite leaders of the Nazi Party. Adolf Hitler, Heinrich Himmler, and Joseph Goebbels were born and raised good Catholic boys. Despite popular pulpit fantasy, none of them were raised in a liberal or atheist household.
  • The Spanish Inquisition — a religious kangaroo court that ran for almost 400 years — was an era where exquisite forms of torture were finely tuned into an art form. They were only then outdone by the “Angel of Death”, Josef Mengele.
  • The unforgivable, systematic abuse of innocent children given to their care.
  • The saint of suffering, 1979 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Mother Theresa, who ran her cult of cruelty with an iron fist and who believed pain and suffering were good and necessary, that such experiences would raise her glory and good works up to her sick and twisted god, and that the mountain of donations sat largely untouched because filth and impoverishment was more pleasing to her god of misery.
  • The previous Pope, stage name John Paul II, who chose to insist that contraception a sin and thereby accelerating the spread of HIV and AIDS throughout Africa (original article) with its population who have mixed their ancient superstitious tribal beliefs with the ancient superstitious tribal beliefs of the missionaries who came to “help” them.
  • The current Pope, stage name Benedict XVI, who not only kept contraception as a sin when he had a chance to alleviate needless suffering, but has recently gone on public record to emphasise the importance of this damaging point of dogma. As if that wasn’t bad enough, he chose to pour salt on it by saying that condoms actually worsen the spread of HIV and AIDS, which is about as reality-based as the belief that some African men have that raping a baby will cure AIDS. As if the previous Pope’s words and deeds hadn’t already sealed the fate of countless thousands from a preventable disease, this one goes a step further.
  • Bonus Points: Last but not least, definitive, unquestionable proof of god’s existence by appearing daily on toast, dog flaps, frying pans, potatoes, and countless other domestic items. (It couldn’t be pareidolia — that would just be too preposterous!) I’ve read a book where this god’s fanatics say he created the world, parted a sea, flooded the world, turned water to wine and even raised the dead. Times must be tough all round if gods are reduced to tiresome party tricks these days.

And this Cardinal… this self-aggrandising, deluded fool has the temerity to suggest that I am sub-human. Of course there have been atheists who have done awful things, but I challenge anyone to name an atheist who’s done even a fraction of that in the name of atheism.

Students of history will recognise dehumanisation as a necessary technique to allow normal, civilised people to kill other people without hesitation. All governments do it whenever they’re itching for war. In fact, Hermann Göring said something about it at his Nuremberg Trial:

Of course the people don’t want war. But after all, it’s the leaders of the country who determine the policy, and it’s always a simple matter to drag the people along whether it’s a democracy, a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship. Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders.  That is easy.  All you have to do is tell them  they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism, and exposing the country to greater danger.

I’m not suggesting that this buffoon is making a call to arms — modern evangelical Protestantism has been demonising even members of only mildly different sects for years — but rather pointing out the similarities between inflammatory public speeches and those used by propagandists to enable wars. It’s not just Christianity, of course — the media is filled with descriptions of that kind of behaviour by Christianity’s latest major competitor for bums on seats: Islam (knees on rugs?).

Perhaps we simply live in a time where many traditionally quiet religions are experiencing a surge of fundamentalism, which would explain the recent and numerous bizarre squawkings from the Catholic Church, the normally moderate Protestant sects (nutjob fundamentalist sects are a given), and the more recent inventions of the LDS Church, Sikhism and Scientology. Even the traditionally ambivalent or outright pacifist eastern religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism have made news recently for their growing fundamentalism, whose fanatics are, in some cases, beginning to target foreign visitors and tourists.

Part of me suspects this is related to some of the world’s loudest western nations being virtual theocracies — I’m looking at you, Mr Bush — or appeasers of theocracies — I’m looking at you, Mr Blair — and unashamedly proselytising not only their religion but their particular twisted, perverted and intolerant version of it upon the nations they chose to occupy against the majority will of their respective peoples. Nationalism is probably a natural reaction to such consistent transgression. The military rules may say that proselytising in a theatre of war is forbidden, but it clearly happens. Even non-believers are being victimised in these Christianised armies. Is it any wonder that many Muslims refer to the War on Terror as the new Christian Crusades, or the Tenth Crusade?

Having said all that, I won’t speak against allied troops who are on the ground in the countries they have occupied. They are just like you and me, and are doing a job for their country, their squad mates, and often for their families (military service often offers better future prospects). It’s a hard job that someone has to do, and will have to do for as long as we have governments, religions and resource imbalances. Particularly if those governments continue to use religion as a tool in their territorial or resource agendas.

The pillock and the peerage

On a related note, you may be surprised to know that the inspiration for this post — the former Archbishop of Westminster Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor — is being considered for a Peerage by the British government. If you find that as offensive, and indeed inappropriate in the tireless pursuit of the separation of c
hurch and state
, as I do, you may then be pleased to know that there is a petition that UK residents can sign to ask the Prime Minister that this peerage not be granted:

Number10: No Peerage for Cormac Murphy O’Connor

If opposing that honour is is something you agree with, then please consider signing the petition. It expires in March 2010, so you still have some time left…

Conclusion

It has not been my intention to insult or upset you, whatever your beliefs or lack of. Nor has it been my intention to suggest that all clergy, whatever their religion or sect, are guilty of such things. That is clearly not the case, but a partial complicity could be argued whenever a complaint is dismissed, sudden relocation of a member of the clergy is assisted, and any of a number of other possible scenarios.

Rather, is has been my intention to outline how unbelievable it is that the head of any church in any country could possibly consider atheists sub-human when the inhuman behaviour of his peers has resulted in permanent, irreparable damage to thousands of the most vulnerable members of our society. That anyone could say that absence of belief is more important — that it’s in the same ballpark, or even the same game — beggars belief.

Such statements and attitudes are indicative of a sense of priorities and reality so screwed and twisted that it belongs in the dank, darkened tribunals of the Inquisition, not in an age of western enlightenment where art can be created without fear of being tortured or killed, where life expectancy has doubled, where nearly all people have a roof over their heads (or have access to shelter), where life-saving operations can be performed without pain, where we look into space and realise that not only are we looking at faraway objects beyond our solar system but are also looking back in time, where we realise that the orbital motion of stars around galactic cores resembles the motion of planets around stars, moons around planets, all the way down to electrons around atomic nuclei, and that all life on this one blue planet — this pale blue dot — is made from star stuff and coded in a helical ladder combination of just 4 nucleotide bases.

We know all this through science. Religion has fought the discovery of this knowledge every step along the way.

So how — with such magnificent understanding and observation of the universe without and within (of which we’ve uncovered only the tiniest amount) — can we possibly sit by an allow such abuse to happen?

The CNC music factory is Still Alive

May 5, 2009 Comments off

As Yogi Berra once said: It’s déjà vu all over again.

Well, almost: I’d like to start this post with a welcome to those who have found me via Planet Humanism, and to pass my thanks to nullifidian for adding me to the aggregator. He, too, seemed to find something interesting in my ramblings. Good luck.

Actually, this is a kind of half-way post to both introduce you poor lucky folk to my blog and to share something with you, although it’s been around the intertubes for the last day or two. The following contains spoilers for the game Portal — part of The Orange Box by Valve Software.

For those of you who have been lucky enough to play Portal and have finished it will know of the fantastic ending song by Jonathan Coulton called Still Alive. As ending songs go it is the perfect epilogue to what is a thoroughly enjoyable game: it ties up the loose ends, it captures precisely the personality of the game’s antagonist and, when you get the in jokes, it leaves you walking away laughing.

Here’s the ending song in all its glory:

Alternatively, here are the lyrics to Still Alive.

And here’s the point of this post: some genius has taken a CNC router and used its stepper motors to play Still Alive. Its three-dimensional motorised control means it can effectively play 3 notes: a chord. The result speaks for itself:

I’m truly hoping that you can appreciate this as much as I can. Okay, it’s geeky and is an off-the-wall kind of musical art expression. But what tickles me is that the artist has programmed a robot to play a tune about a robot that spent the entire game lying to you.

After all, you must remember:

The cake is a lie!

It’s gold, I tell ya…

Categories: games Tags: , , ,

Welcome to Reality

May 4, 2009 Comments off

I’d like to start this post with a welcome to those who have found me via The Global Atheist, and to pass my thanks to Doug for adding me to the aggregator. He seemed to find something interesting in my ramblings (and this is one of them), so I hope you do, too. Fingers crossed?

This weekend I attended the marriage of a friend and work colleague near the ancient and amazingly beautiful city of Bath, in south-western England. He is most definitely what many term a New Atheist and his lovely wife is most definitely an evangelical Christian. It makes for some interesting conversations and — as they are both mature, intelligent people — it will mean that they’re never stuck for conversation when a storm knocks out the power. It may also explain why the wedding took place at a beautiful old hotel in a picturesque rural setting, rather than in a church. I felt honoured to have been invited to the actual ceremony, rather than just the reception in the evening — though when invited, I did jokingly ask who had pulled out at the last minute…

Of course all the extended family were in attendance — many of whom were continental Europeans and antipodean, mostly from the bride’s side of the family — so many had at least crossed the Channel to get here, while others had crossed the equator. Parents, step-parents, siblings, cousins, aunts and uncles — the usual suspects. It made for a marvellously diverse experience with people from various walks of life all united for the common purpose of wishing the Bride and Groom the very best on their promises to each other and themselves. It was, of course, a beautiful day.

It was while sitting down to the post-wedding meal in the early afternoon that I struck up a conversation with a young couple to my left and an older man to my right and — as is probably natural at such occasions — the topic gradually turned to the greater meaning of the day’s ceremony and all three turned out to be remarkably naturalistic in their view of the event. The consensus between we four was that the underlying importance or motivation of the marriage ceremony is predominately to add some kind of “ultimate seal” to the event, to help the newly-obligated couple understand that they have made a promise to one another in the presence of their loved ones and that it’s not something to be taken lightly. I, like everyone else there, hope they have the maturity, flexibility and friendship to grow old together happily.

Later in the evening I was chatting with the same couple and we chatted more about secular world views, and they seemed interested in my views. We discussed the basics of secular humanism, secularism and the problem of religious privilege, soft/weak atheism and its contrast to strong/hard atheism (often characterised as intolerant of religion), the logical reasoning for admitting ignorance as opposed to declaring a position, and so on.

So it took me completely by surprise when he took out a notebook and asked me for a list of books that I’d recommend. After plenty of Guinness — and through the loud music and flashing lights filtering from the next room — this is what I came up with:

  • The Demon Haunted World [Amazon|UK] by Carl Sagan. The man is my hero, what can I say? The book presents his genuinely compassionate view of supernaturalism and what it’s meant to mankind.
  • Anything and everything else by Carl Sagan — including Contact [Amazon|UK] and especially the Cosmos [Amazon|UK] TV series. All his and Ann Druyan‘s works share the same compassionate, understanding view of the world.
  • God is Not Great [Amazon|UK] by Christopher Hitchens. He may be one of the founders of New Atheism as one of The Four Horseman, hold political views that swing as wildly as a large grandfather clock, and get himself beaten up for insulting thugs on their own turf (and here), but the man is undoubtedly one of the best thinkers of our time. That all of his opinions don’t agree with your own is a good thing — I don’t want to read someone whose words I agree from start to finish, as there’s no critical thinking in that.
  • The God Delusion [Amazon|UK] by Richard Dawkins. Many religious people consider this worse than Anton LaVey’s contentious work, The Satanic Bible, but I suspect that’s because the former uses provable facts to justify itself and makes absolutely no room for dogma.
  • The Selfish Gene [Amazon|UK] by Richard Dawkins. It may be a little hard going on the majority of us who are “bioscience-challenged,” but it is a classic piece of work that helps illustrate how un-you you actually are. Helps put things into perspective when your ego wants to insist that You Are Special — and perhaps you are… just like everyone else.
  • The Culture series of novels by Iain M. Banks — I started with Look to Windward [Amazon|UK]. I’m only a few books into the series, but I find it fascinating.
  • 1984 [Amazon|UK] by George Orwell. I read this in the year it was set, at the age of 12, and it changed me forever.
  • Watchmen [Amazon|UK] by Alan Moore. It shows that even bad people have redeeming qualities and good people have damning qualities, stripping the infantile false dichotomy of Good and Evil People. But of course without such flawed thinking we can’t possibly justify war and capital punishment, so it remains as valid today as ever before.
  • 50 Reasons People Give for Believing in a God [Amazon|UK] by Guy P. Harrison. I’m reading this at the moment, and it’s brilliant.
  • The websites of the following organisations:
  • There are also the podcasts and vodcasts listed via the link at the top of the page.

Last but not least, have a read of the Affirmations of Humanism: A Statement of Principles:

  • We are committed to the application of reason and science to the understanding of the universe and to the solving of human problems.
  • We deplore efforts to denigrate human intelligence, to seek to explain the world in supernatural terms, and to look outside nature for salvation.
  • We believe that scientific discovery and technology can contribute to the betterment of human life.
  • We believe in an open and pluralistic society and that democracy is the best guarantee of protecting human rights from authoritarian elites and repressive majorities.
  • We are committed to the principle of the separation of church and state.
  • We cultivate the arts of negotiation and compromise as a means of resolving differences and achieving mutual understanding.
  • We are concerned with securing justice and fairness in society and with eliminating discrimination and intolerance.
  • We believe in supporting the disadvantaged and the handicapped so that they will be able to help themselves.
  • We attempt to transcend divisive parochial loyalties based on race, religion, gender, nationality, creed, class, sexual orientation, or ethnicity, and strive to work together for the common good of humanity.
  • We want to protect and enhance the earth, to preserve it for future generations, and to avoid inflicting needless suffering on other species.
  • We believe in enjoying life here and now and in developing our creative talents to their fullest.
  • We believe in the cultivation of moral excellence.
  • We respect the right to privacy. Mature adults should be allowed to fulfill their aspirations, to express their sexual preferences, to exercise reproductive freedom, to have access to comprehensive and informed health-care, and to die with dignity.
  • We believe in the common moral decencies: altruism, integrity, honesty, truthfulness, responsibility. Humanist ethics is amenable to critical, rational guidance. There are normative standards that we discover together. Moral principles are tested by their consequences.
  • We are deeply concerned with the moral education of our children. We want to nourish reason and compassion.
  • We are engaged by the arts no less than by the sciences.
  • We are citizens of the universe and are excited by discoveries still to be made in the cosmos.
  • We are skeptical of untested claims to knowledge, and we are open to novel ideas and seek new departures in our thinking.
  • We affirm humanism as a realistic alternative to theologies of despair and ideologies of violence and as a source of rich personal significance and genuine satisfaction in the service to others.
  • We believe in optimism rather than pessimism, hope rather than despair, learning in the place of dogma, truth instead of ignorance, joy rather than guilt or sin, tolerance in the place of fear, love instead of hatred, compassion over selfishness, beauty instead of ugliness, and reason rather than blind faith or irrationality.
  • We believe in the fullest realization of the best and noblest that we are capable of as human beings.

I expect some atheists — and of course theists and deists who find their way here — will disagree with what I’ve said, both in this post and previous ones (please feel free to read through the archive), but I cannot reconcile the concept of belief, or even emphatic or ardent disbelief, with logical reality. While at university some of my peers jokingly nicknamed me Data — the android from Star Trek: The Next Generation — and I then (as now) considered it a sideways compliment, as the character was all about logic and intellectual honesty, and that series of Star Trek was the poster-child of and introduction to the concepts of humanism for millions of people. Sure, I have countless flaws in every aspect of my life, but I try to improve this blink of existence called my life and to help others (and nature) where I can. And I think that’s all any of us can really do.

But I do what I do for humanity, not to try to earn a place in an afterlife. That is, I think, what humanism is all about.