In about twenty minutes my taxi will arrive to take me to the train station, which with then whisk me into London for the start of TAM London 2010, taking place at the London Metropole Hotel.
To say I’m excited is a bit of an understatement. Last year saw the inaugural TAM London, the first ever Amaz!ng Meeting event to take place outside of the US. It was a resounding success and was attended by people from all around Europe from all walks of life — some of whom were household names. During that weekend I made a number of friends, most of whom I have been in regular contact with ever since. Many of us have subsequently joined or started skeptic groups in our own communities and have become more active in our fields of interest.
This year the event is taking place in a bigger venue, as there are far more people attending, and I’m looking forward to seeing those same friends again this weekend, making new ones, enjoying the talks and performances — particularly the world première of Tim Minchin‘s Storm movie — as well as the chance to chat with and get to know people during the breaks.
If you’re a skeptic, atheist, humanist, secularist, or scientist, then the opportunity to commune meaningfully with like-minded people is not to be underestimated.
After all, who said only the religious get to have a social life and sense of community?
Many people who either cannot see evidence for the existence of gods or are convinced that gods do not exist (there’s a difference) keep to themselves and never speak of it, watching in bemusement as their loved ones structure their twenty-first century lives according to the words of pre-scientific Bronze Age nomads and shepherds.
Or perhaps they haven’t given much thought to their position on the supernatural — or are frightened for one reason or another — so when asked their beliefs, they’ll write or say the same thing as their family. In some cases this can be an act of self-preservation, as much of the world does not enjoy religious freedom (yet) and can be punished severely. However, for most in the West this normally revolves around our relationships with family, friends and colleagues.
Wherever you live, the unfortunate result of this passive acquiescence is that governments and organisations with a strong religious ideology are then able to claim that the percentage of religious believers is far higher than is actually true (this can be skewed further by families with a domineering religious parent, or parents who take their babies to be christened or equivalent). Religious Tolerance states that, as of 2000, one-third of the world’s population is Christian, 19.6% is Muslim, 13.4% is Hindu, 12.7% are non-religious, and has atheism at 2.5%. They state that non-religious includes those with “no formal, organized religion include agnostics, freethinkers, humanists, secularists, etc” but clearly consider atheists to be a separate category. I think this is misguided at best — I consider myself a Secular Humanist (i.e. humanist), which is very much an atheist world view. One could also say that non-theists (i.e. all those without religion) are 15.2% of the world population, and thus the third-largest group, but that wouldn’t be entirely accurate, either.
So with all these statistical fun and games taking place from the school classroom to the highest seats of government power, isn’t it time we stood up to be counted?
Funny you should ask! Next week is the start of the ‘A’ Week on Facebook campaign (29 March to 6 April, 2010), hence the scarlet letter ‘A’ image at the top of this post. From the campaign’s front page:
Good without God? Imagine Facebook with ‘A’s all across the site showing the world is full of people who are ‘good without God‘ and don’t need religion to influence their lives. Imagine the awareness we can raise during ‘A’ Week On Facebook if 1,000s of people take part. Imagine… you can be a part of making a difference…
Details on how to go about joining this campaign can be found at its website:
Simply follow the recommended steps, then you’re good to go!
In the past I’ve been reticent to connect myself with groups such as the Out Campaign, as I consider many of them to be too aggressive to otherwise normal people who just happen to believe in a sky fairy. However, in this case I think the value of a worldwide Facebook atheist awareness campaign outweighs any differences I may have. So those who know me on Facebook can see that my profile picture is now showing the scarlet letter in support of the campaign.
Perhaps this will put paid to the oft-quoted fallacy that atheists are a tiny but vocal minority.
I hope you’ll consider joining the campaign, and look forward to a week of increasing the general public’s awareness of atheists and atheism by showing that:
- It’s okay to be atheist
- It’s okay to let others know you’re atheist
- We’re not all aggressive iconoclasts
- We don’t hate everyone
- We’re not all “angry at God” or “punishing God” for something
- Not all of us reached this point after a traumatic event
- Not all of us insist your unexplained events are hallucination or mental illness
For most of us, atheism is simply a logical process held up to the light and examined critically.
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.
Last month saw me decide to return to university study, as there are so many subjects that interest me that I could either have a hobby of “life”, and spend all my spare time sifting through much of what is available on the Internet, or instead focus my interests on targetted and effective learning. So I’ve chosen the latter, in the form of The Open University‘s Open Degree programme.
Strangely, the Open Degree is a qualification of which most people seem to be completely unaware. Within a few constraints and requirements, it is effectively a roll-your-own Bachelor’s degree in Arts or Science. You can begin the process without actually choosing to enrol in the programme, instead just doing individual units (courses) that you decide to allocate at a later date, and then choose whether you want a BA (Open) or BSc (Open) or, and this is something that makes it very appealing to me at least, you can select a named degree (e.g. BSc (Computing)) if you decide after some study that you do wish to specialise in something. Another advantage is that, aside from the occasional course expiring, being replaced, or having some time restrictions (some finance, medicine, etc, courses), there is no time limit on when you must complete all your study. 20 years to complete? No problems.
It’s with all this in mind that I’ve decided to take up the torch and study a degree of topics that interest me. Such things include, but most certainly aren’t limited to (nor in any particular order): astronomy, archaeology, history, philosophy, art & art history, forensic science, languages, environmental science, classical studies, mathematics, evolutionary biology, ethics, creative writing, literature, political use of the media, and a few work-related topics. I also hope to be able to develop my critical thinking skills during the process.
One of my Twitter friends calls me a Renaissance man, and I suspect he’s referring to the breadth of my interests and the sense of urgency to cram as much experiential knowledge in my head as I can while I can. That is, a polymath — like Pythagoras, Aristotle, Da Vinci, or Benjamin Franklin — as opposed to the protagonist in the film of the same name. I choose the former option, if you don’t mind…
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.
This follows on from Part 2.
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.
It astonishes me to this day that this kind of surgical excision of my entire life could have happened. This elder and his wife had lied to everyone, peers my age had simply accepted it without question, and none thought to contact me — even on the side, just in case (or to wish me well). I could just have easily contacted any or all of them, but that would have misses the point of my choice to stop making contact.
It wasn’t the appalling behaviour of some of the people I’ve mentioned that has made me “hate God”, as is the common accusation levelled against atheists. I don’t hate God or even the concept of a god. It’s far too easy for our black and white views of the world — particularly in areas of high emotion, usually around the age old controversies of origin, religion, race, creed, politics and gender — to encourage us to pigeon-hole one another. Theists and atheists are often equally to blame, as it’s due to the logical fallacy of False Dichotomy (or Excluded Middle) which completely excludes the middle ground that nearly always exists. It’s what governments, leaders, politicians and advertising companies use against us on a daily basis and is quite likely to be a natural tendency (the same goes the truth of “sex sells”), so it takes thought and reason to both see and avoid.
So once I realised how things stood with the church congregation — my “loving family” and community — I ceased all religious activity. It wasn’t only because of the hurt and shock, as I was then unaware of what the elders had done on my departure, but rather because I felt as though my eyes had been opened and I was finally able to examine the previous 3-4 years of my life and the material, dogma and beliefs that had been accrued. And it was staggering. I did not consider myself an atheist at that point, in fact at that time I still consider myself a Christian, albeit non-practising. This examination included taking stock of the beliefs, policies, behaviours and dogmas of the churches I had attended, the contents of the Bible (particularly the sections chosen, those used as justifications, and those specifically ignored), and of course soul-searching my own beliefs now that I was out of the self-reinforcing environment of a congregation.
Outside of the community, it’s amazing how much time you have to think and, while you may not have someone to immediately seek advice or answers from, that is not necessarily a bad thing. There is, after all, often a difference between a fact and the party line (and that doesn’t just apply to religion). Until leaving I had mainly received the party line or an on-the-spot made up answer based upon the teachings of the party line… and it usually differed from even the written word in the Bible. Such is the nature of interpretive preaching and cherry-picking.
Continued in Part 4.
This follows on from Part 1.
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.
I was welcomed into this new church with open arms, possibly because of attendance crossover between churches, and over time I found myself with more and more responsibility, leading the youth group band, singing in the choir, mentoring new youth group members and younger church members, providing general counselling or advice to those who asked for it, and eventually I began attending bible college with the intention of becoming a qualified pastor. At this point I was doing 3 evenings per week plus at least a day per weekend: this was a serious commitment.
It was at bible college that I began thinking critically, which quickly led to a number of questions (not the least was why hadn’t I done so sooner, but that’s another topic). I brought these questions to the people training me and received insufficient responses, ranging from outright dogma and answers made up on the spot right through to outright hostility. Not receiving the answers I needed — and with some alarm bells dully beginning to ring — I brought my questions to the church elders and pastors, believing them capable of answering difficult questions without the brimstone zealotry, but I received the same kinds of responses. Rather than make a bad situation worse, I put those questions away and continued with my studies, which of course led to more questions. In a short time I found myself gradually being firewalled away from my responsibilities within the church: another person would take over youth mentoring, the youth group needed a change of band and leader “to inject new fire”, an elder’s wife really wanted a position in the choir so would I mind being a gentleman (of course, it could have been my voice), the youth group were given a timely reminder only to spend time with people who were edifying and “at peace with the Lord”, and so on. Eventually I was asked to stop attending bible college, too.
In a combined state of incredulity and despair, sometime in 1992 (aged 20), I decided to stop attending everything and watch what happened. The vast majority of my friends — indeed my closest friends — were members, so I had no doubt whatsoever that I’d hear of events through them. To my utter astonishment, nobody ever contacted me again — not even my friends. It was as if I had ceased to exist.
It wasn’t until 1998 that I happened to meet one of my friends from that time (coincidentally the daughter of one of the church’s senior elders) on the bus and we chatted. Naturally those events came up in conversation and she told me that her parents had advised her and the church that I had moved to another church in another town and wanted to make a clean break of it, requesting that nobody try to contact me. These upstanding church elders had stood up and lied to their children and the entire congregation (addressing them all because of “my” unusual but specific wishes), effectively excommunicating me in a way that would minimise any rational fallout upon the members.
Continued in Part 3.