Posts Tagged ‘history’

“Why oh why didn’t I take the BLUE pill?”

3 January 2011 Comments off

Flickr CC-BY ninjanoodles

Most of us are familiar with the scene in the fantastic 1999 film, The Matrix, where Cypher and Neo are chatting about their introduction to life outside the matrix via Morpheus’s offer of a choice between the red and blue pills. Cypher laments that he wished he’d taken the blue pill instead, making it clear he’d have preferred to be living a happy fantasy rather than risking everything by fighting against the machines.

One of the great things about Cypher’s character is that you can empathise with him. Nobody can blame him for wanting a simple, easy life — especially as he’s not The One. At that point in the film we all know that he’s just as likely to end up a smudge on the ground as make old bones.

I mention The Matrix because that’s how I’ve been feeling lately. And this is where I may lose you as a reader. Either way, so it goes

Over the last few weeks I’ve been consuming the works of two prolific writers and speakers, both world experts in their fields: Noam Chomsky and the late Howard Zinn. Chomsky (now 82) is regarded by many as “the Einstein” of his field of linguistics and cognition at MIT, though outside the classroom he talks almost exclusively about political science. Zinn was regarded similarly in his field of history at Boston University.

I first encountered Chomsky in the early 2000s via his book Necessary Illusions: Thought Control in Democratic Societies [Amazon|UK], a collection of essays and papers focussing mainly on Central American politics and history over the last 40 years. It’s an astounding book that left me truly stunned, wondering about the rest of the world if even half it it was true. He provides full references and consistently avoids a simple answer to, “If the mainstream media is wrong, biased, controlled or corrupt, then where should we turn to get reliable information?” His answer is typically a variation of Ben Goldacre‘s, “I think it’s a bit more complicated than that.” There is no single source, type or medium of reliable, unbiased or uncorrupt information. You need to look at the mainstream, the margins, including sources you may dislike, and analyse what’s going on for yourself.

Damn. I’m going to have to think for myself. And that’s the point.

Zinn is a fairly recent discovery for me, though most people know him via his groundbreaking A People’s History of the United States: 1492-Present [Amazon|UK], where he included the viewpoints of non-Europeans in the discovery and conquest of North America. I’ve not yet read it, but I understand that it’s a polarising work, and your reaction to it will depend upon whether or not you’re prepared to revise your views on official history. Interestingly, the FBI kept a large file on him, most notably due to his influence on Martin Luther King, Vietnam anti-war campaigning and the McCarthyist hysteria of the time.

And this is where I think many of Chomsky’s and Zinn’s detractors come from: many seem to regard them as un-American or even traitors. Both authors present alternative versions of recorded history, removing the infantile notion of good (us) versus evil (them), and add insult to that injury by presenting other reasons why such things did or are happening in the first place. It’s not as simple as the official version; it’s not even as simple as the counter-accusations or popular conspiracy theories. It’s a complex mix of power, greed, acquisition, control, domination, influence and coercion, and furthering of interests.

The use of past and present tense is deliberate — these things are still happening. Consider the endless stream of major and minor wars in the 20th and present century, the provision of “foreign aid” weapons and training to brutal and sadistic regimes, the quiet growth of internal enforcement agencies into international intelligence agencies (as has just happened with the DEA), the dismantling of union-protected workplaces that made our workers cheaper than those in some developing countries, and national elections of leaders whose candidates can be differentiated only by their party’s logo. To name a few.

Neither Chomsky nor Zinn pretend to be 100% certain about everything they say. Both admit they may be wrong, and are open to evidence-based correction. Nor should you take it from me as fact, an amateur hack who spends his spare time consuming non-mainstream information, wondering about the world and sharing the occasional thought here whenever I’m not playing computer games or socialising with friends. Use, refine and practise your analytical skills and skepticism to examine what these men say, compare it against what you see, know and/or suspect, read the papers and articles to which they refer, and then judge for yourself.

There is no universal truth, and I’m not declaring that this is it — but it makes you think. However, if you’re unwilling to have your perception of world history and current events challenged, you may want to choose the blue pill…

Here are some of Noam Chomsky’s works that you might want to look at:

  • An American Addiction [Amazon|UK]
  • Case Studies In Hypocrisy [Amazon|UK]
  • Class War: The Attack On Working People [Amazon|UK]
  • The Clinton Vision: Old Wine, New Bottles [Amazon|UK]
  • The Emerging Framework Of World Power [watch online]
  • For A Free Humanity [Amazon|UK]
  • Free Market Fantasies: Capitalism In The Real World [Amazon|UK]
  • The Imperial Presidency [Amazon|UK]
  • The New War On Terrorism: Fact And Fiction [Amazon|UK]
  • Propaganda And The Public Mind [Amazon|UK]
  • Prospects For Democracy [Amazon|UK]

Here are some of Howard Zinn’s works that you might want to look at:

(I haven’t read or seen all of these yet). Both have released many more works, but I think that will keep you busy for some time.

Excellent essay series on Stoicism

2 November 2010 Comments off

Flickr CC-BY euthman

For many years I’ve internally identified with many of the central tenets of the ancient Stoic philosophy, mostly after reading Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations (Amazon|UK), but it’s not something I’ve seen much about so haven’t really considered it beyond the “Yes, I identify with that” concept that many of us do whenever we encounter a whole or partial philosophy.

I’ve written previously about my exploration of some philosophies and religions, but Stoicism is something I’ve not really spoken about with anyone. It, along with my examination of Buddhism have, largely unconsciously, informed much of my mental wiring with regards to topics such as reactions, drives, ambitions and wants. It affects and informs my interactions with family and friends, my view on possessions and consumerism, many aspects of my personal and working life, and even how I behave in the inevitable British traffic queues.

Imagine my surprise to discover recently on BoingBoing, one of my daily reads, an excellent series of essays on the subject of Stoicism by William B. Irvine, Professor of Philosophy at Wright State University, entitled Twenty-First Century Stoic:

  1. From Zen to Zeno: How I Became a Stoic
  2. Insult Pacifism
  3. Stoic Transformation

They are an excellent introduction to the philosophy, and the comparison to certain aspects of Buddhism resonates with my own experiences. I can’t pretend to agree with everything in these essays, nor do I think the philosophy is without its faults, but by the same measure I don’t completely agree with everything written by atheists or humanists — also worldviews with which I strongly identify.

Even if you are not particularly interested in adopting such a philosophy on life, I recommend looking into what Stoicism is really about. It may surprise you to learn that it’s not really all about emotional passivity and the stiff upper lip. You could read a modern work on the topic, such as Irvine’s own A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy (Amazon|UK) — or you could go directly to the ancient writings of Marcus Aurelius (Meditations), Seneca (Letters from a Stoic / Epistulae morales ad Lucilium),  Epictetus, and the logician Chrysippus. Their works aren’t covered by copyright, so are available in many places online, including Project Gutenberg.

The 2,000 year old modern problem

16 April 2010 Comments off

Following on from my previous post about the Pope’s apparent direct involvement in covering up the illegal sexual activities of some Catholic church staff, here’s something that illustrates how old this so-called “new problem” really is:

The Beast File: Catholic Church Sex Scandals

Two thousand years of sweet fuck-all being done about this problem strongly suggests that exactly the same will continue to be done about it unless the public makes it happen. The right-leaning religiosity of most modern Western governments almost guarantees they won’t be doing anything about it anytime soon.

However, as pointed out by Jack of Kent recently, care does need to be taken to determine whether crimes have actually been committed by Ratzinger. Particularly when you’re looking an international borders and legal differences.

Hat tip: PodBlack Cat

Happy Zombie Jesus Day 2010

4 April 2010 Comments off

Why reinvent the wheel when I can recycle last year’s seasons greeting?

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 Eostre, 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 Eostre (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 Eostre/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.

The illustrated argument for Agnosticism

17 September 2009 Comments off

I always find it immensely pleasing to discover an image that describes what is often a complex topic in a succinct way. So following on from an earlier post where I discussed the 4 positions of belief, here is a brilliant way to present the argument for Agnosticism:

Why I can't be anything other than Agnostic

Hat tip to Godless Blogger.

NOMA and cognitive dissonance

23 August 2009 Comments off

Charles Darwin is demonised by many religious people for his seminal work, On the Origin of Species, and for contributing to the discovery that all life on earth is essentially a huge family tree and subject to natural selection — concepts that have stood the test of time and been confirmed with DNA analysis. Theists who consider it their “duty” to conduct ad hominem attacks on those who threaten their fragile worldview are often unaware that this knowledge created a dilemma for Darwin himself, particularly as even while on his historic journey on the Beagle (1831-1836) he was a religious man studying to become a church minister who saw adaptation of the species as proof of God’s design. But to him the truth was more important than wishful thinking.

My suspicion is that those who vilify Darwin not only have never read a single word he wrote, nor understand the magnitude and relevance of what that work has given us, but assume that it was his life’s ambition to be an iconoclast. While in a sane world such patently ignorant people would not rise to the surface and require scraping off, our world is one of vox populi, inadequate or ideologically-manipulated education, idealised and politically-aligned news and media, and what much of the service industry call “80/20 people”: 20% of people cause you 80% of the grief. The vocal minority.

The late biologist, historian and science populariser, Stephen Jay Gould, coined the term Non-Overlapping Magisteria (NOMA) which referred to his philosophy on science and religion, developed during his many dealings with Young Earth Creationists of which he says:

Evolution has encountered no intellectual trouble; no new arguments have been offered. Creationism is a homegrown phenomenon of American sociocultural history — a splinter movement (unfortunately rather more of a beam these days) of Protestant fundamentalists who believe that every word of the Bible must be literally true, whatever such a claim might mean.

Young Earth Creationism is clearly the lunatic fringe by anyone’s rational measure, but there are other forms of Creationism that can’t be dismissed as easily, so tend to fall into the same category as whether there is a god(s).

Gould’s view was that religion and science are two realms that are logical and ethically unable to comment on one another, in the same way that a food chemist is unqualified to comment on matters of architecture. It seems to be a form of cognitive dissonance, separating faith from the world around us in a positive context. The inference being that it’s possible to believe in a god and be a scientist, and never have the two concepts collide in your own head.

I have a good friend who is a PhD scientist and a devout Wiccan: cognitive dissonance and NOMA allow both of those things to exist in her head without clashing. Of course I hope she understands what I’m trying to convey here, and doesn’t take offence! :)

Mainstream social taboos

10 August 2009 Comments off

While reading a recent post on the always excellent Friendly Atheist blog, I was interested to see a guest blogger writing about the polyamory lifestyle. The article opens as follows:

As atheists, many of us have faced some level of negative reaction from those around us, on account of our deviation from our culture’s expected norms. I’ve found that atheists, in general, tend to support GLBT rights and other civil rights issues despite opposition by an offended religious majority. After all, atheists have no religious inhibitions that lead them to view certain deviations from the norm as anything immoral or harmful to society. Atheists know what it’s like to be demonized and hated by those who fear us for our differences. I’d like to call your attention to another group of people — a group even deeper in the “closet” than atheists — who could use your support: polyamorists.

The rest of the article can be found here: In Defense of Polyamory

Part of what interested me about this article was that I was unaware polyamory was a lifestyle movement outside religion (e.g. Muslims or Mormons) and hedonistic stereotypes (bored marriages, bohemian students or artists, etc). Another interesting point was the author’s comments about deviations from cultural and social norms, which I suspect is most likely the crux of religious and conservative problems with those who don’t fit into the God-fearing, husband & wife, missionary position, change-is-bad, tradition-is-to-be-trusted, meat & 2 veg pigeonhole.

It seems that most old law-giving religions were borne from tribal groups where certain laws and behaviours were established to keep the (relatively small) tribe fit and healthy, with transgression being met with brutal punishment as the survival of the tribe was at stake. (We still do the same thing: consider the penalty for treason in your country). Hence, non-procreative sexual activity was distrusted and, when it let to same-sex relationships, the tribe had lost two potentially viable sources of children and mates for two other people. No more children means no more tribe, and we recognise that concept today in our perfectly correct “children are our future” mindset. It doesn’t matter that the argument is a false dichotomy.

It’s not inconceivable that the tribal prohibition against same-sex relationships could have, as the law gradually became more conservative over time, been extended to include other relationships outside the “proven to work” formula (choose a mate or have one chosen, betrothal and binding, breeding and offspring; rinse and repeat). This simple linear progression has worked since Prehistory but, when enshrined in law or even cultural expectation, it doesn’t allow for what engineers call a corner case: people who don’t fit into the expected behaviours. We see this in both animals and humans, so it’s not people just “choosing to be different.”

However, what struck me the most about the article was that although I have reassessed my opinion on homosexuality — which has naturally expanded to include the LGBT umbrella — polyamory and polygamy are two concepts that I had not yet reassessed. By reassess I mean the thoughts and opinions that we all gather over time, initially as children through young adulthood and into mental and emotional maturity. Some people are constantly re-evaluating their perspective on things as they encounter them, some reach old age without adjusting many opinions formed in childhood, and I suspect the majority fall somewhere in between — perhaps leaning one way or the other based upon our liberalism and conservatism. But especially pronounced if we are religious.

As I’ve blogged about previously, I had minimal formal religious instruction (though various notable influences) until I was 17, then a few years of intensive fundagelicalism during which everything I knew about just about anything was re-forged and realigned into a specific way of thinking — a kind of mental aquaduct designed to funnel everything along a certain route to a certain outcome. When I was eventually spat out of that homogenous situation, every opinion I had was filtered through that lens and my rational self knew almost none of it could be trusted. These opinions were not mine and they had not been formed through critical analysis; they had been overlaid to match the party line. Deconstructing one’s own mind is no trivial undertaking.

So this article has got me thinking about two aspects of life that I haven’t had cause to reassess in 17 years or more. That’s not to say that I will automatically find a way to accomodate acceptance of it, as that is not the application of critical thinking. The way I have managed the deconstruction of my mind is to treat just about every contentious topic as a blank canvas — I have no opinion on many things, allowing me to consider and think about them properly before forming my own opinions.

Those opinions may turn out to be wrong, but they’re mine. From there it’s relatively straightforward and clear sailing…

The fundagelical problem with humanism

8 July 2009 Comments off

While reading a friend’s blog post in which he puts down some thoughts about recent events and the subsequent comments from his readers, I was struck by one comment in particular which was a comment to a comment, so to speak. Here is the relevant snippet from Mark’s comment:

Humanist and Utilitarian beliefs existed long before religion and will continue to exist long after religion has disappeared into the annals of ancient history. One does not need a fairy godmother to understand right and wrong.

It’s a perfectly logical comment, as the basic tenets of humanism are universal to the wellbeing of a group or society, and obeisance to or existence of a higher power isn’t a prerequisite (e.g. I love my parents and a god does not need to exist to enable that).

The comment that intrigued me also confused me a little. I’d rather not simply copy and paste it here as it would then be out of context, so here is the link to the comment for you to read in situ.

It appears to me that the commenter considers Humanism to be a world view devoid of morals and values, and quotes from the American Humanist Association‘s Humanist Manifesto II, written in 1973 (the most recent is the Humanist Manifesto III, written in 2003), choosing to combine parts of the 3rd Principle (Ethics) and 6th Principle (The Individual) as follows:

Happiness and the creative realization of human needs and desires, individually and in shared enjoyment, are continuous themes of humanism… individuals should be permitted to express their sexual proclivities and pursue their lifestyles as they desire.

I presume the intent of this is to justify the commenter’s assertion that Humanism is devoid of morals and values, as at face value and out of context this quote may suggest that it is hedonistic and perverted, existing to encourage lascivious behaviour and baser expressions of human activities. I believe the Daily Mail are always looking for journalists…

To provide their proper context, here are these two principles in their entirety (emphasis mine):

THIRD: We affirm that moral values derive their source from human experience. Ethics is autonomous and situational needing no theological or ideological sanction. Ethics stems from human need and interest. To deny this distorts the whole basis of life. Human life has meaning because we create and develop our futures. Happiness and the creative realization of human needs and desires, individually and in shared enjoyment, are continuous themes of humanism. We strive for the good life, here and now. The goal is to pursue life’s enrichment despite debasing forces of vulgarization, commercialization, and dehumanization.

SIXTH: In the area of sexuality, we believe that intolerant attitudes, often cultivated by orthodox religions and puritanical cultures, unduly repress sexual conduct. The right to birth control, abortion, and divorce should be recognized. While we do not approve of exploitive, denigrating forms of sexual expression, neither do we wish to prohibit, by law or social sanction, sexual behavior between consenting adults. The many varieties of sexual exploration should not in themselves be considered “evil.” Without countenancing mindless permissiveness or unbridled promiscuity, a civilized society should be a tolerant one. Short of harming others or compelling them to do likewise, individuals should be permitted to express their sexual proclivities and pursue their lifestyles as they desire. We wish to cultivate the development of a responsible attitude toward sexuality, in which humans are not exploited as sexual objects, and in which intimacy, sensitivity, respect, and honesty in interpersonal relations are encouraged. Moral education for children and adults is an important way of developing awareness and sexual maturity.

As can be seen, when taken in context the 3rd Principle is explaining that morals, values and ethics are based upon self-evidential experience (students of American history should be familiar with the idea of self-evidence, if not the phrase itself) and free from absolutism or dogmatic interpretation. That we know without doubt that we have this life now, but anything beyond that is uncertain and unproven, so to form an ethical framework around words written by men and adhering to them unquestioningly is foolish. And the 6th Principle is explaining sexuality and the universal sexual rights of human beings, again without unquestioning adherence to a framework or dogma.

That this Manifesto has seen four versions shows that Humanism is like science — it adjusts, revises and corrects as necessary. Nothing is absolute. And that frightens the living daylights out of many believers and conservative people.

Unfortunately for them, life and the universe is uncertain, relative and without absolutes. Those responsible for tracking objects from the Kuiper Belt and beyond may tomorrow detect an object on a collision course with earth with an ETA of 2 weeks and after which it’s All Over (if it happens, we won’t get much notice), the leader of a nuclear power may lose the plot and push The Button throwing us all into a nuclear winter, or any number of end-of-the-world scenarios.

Once you understand that not only do you not matter, that your country doesn’t matter, that this planet doesn’t matter to the universe, then you will have some insight into the marvellous thing that is life. Someone once said that before he was born he was a long time dead and after he dies he’ll be a long time dead, so he makes the most of this blink of an eye in which we’re born, grow, live, grow old and die. It also shows why Humanists have such a thirst for life, and why things such as the AHA’s Humanist Manifesto are so necessary.

Whether a god or gods exist is immaterial — and there are logical refutations and arguments that can be used to illustrate why such existence is unlikely at best — as that is not the issue here. There is nothing in human existence to suggest that any of the millions of religious texts on this world weren’t either written by men seeking power or a genuine, primitive attempt to understand the wonders and horrors of the world: fire, lightning, weather systems, the joy of sex, the birth of a child, the death of a mother during childbirth, the untimely diseased death of a child, a volcano burying a city.

We’re born into a world where people with an imaginary friend’s supposed writing dictates not only the way they live their lives but they mandate the same behaviour on to everybody else. What if you’re wrong? Have you considered that possibility seriously for just 5 minutes? I mean really seriously, without falling prey to the inevitable Argument from Incredulity or Argument from Popularity within 30 seconds and snorting your derision. And then extend that and ask how it can possibly be right for your values (immaterial of whether they’re correct or not) to be forced upon others — upon entire nations.

We’re a race that have flown to the Moon, we’ve fired things we’ve made to the very edge of the known Solar System, we’ve worked out empirically the age and size of the universe as we’re able to see it today, and we’ve sequenced our own genetic code and are in the process of decoding half a billion years of post-Cambrian development

And to this day we’re going to war for the same reasons with the same Books that we did back in the Bronze Age. Now tell me again why religion is good but Humanism is bad?

Can An Atheist Be a Fundamentalist?

28 May 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

25 May 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…


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?