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Homeopathic overdoses are homeopathically dangerous

30 January 2010 Comments off

Today is the day of the worldwide homeopathic overdose that originally started with groups of skeptics throughout the UK — the 1023 Campaign — planning a protest (or a demonstration, in the literal sense of the word) in front of a high street pharmacy chain against their insistence on selling homeopathic products, despite repeated scientific analysis and practical demonstrations proving they are no better than the placebo effect.

I had arranged to attend the Oxford Skeptics in the Pub event due to take place near Radcliffe Camera, but — despite getting everything prepared last night, including programming my satnav for a carpark near the event — I forgot to set my alarm. I admit it: I am an idiot.

So I dropped an email apology to the organiser and prepared to ‘overdose’ at home… without the homeopathic protection of homeopathic medical services against this homeopathic act of homeopathic self harm. Homeopathically dangerous, I’m sure you’ll agree.

At precisely 10:23 this morning, I broke the seal and emptied the contents of my pre-purchased container of “30c Homeopathic potency of Sepia officinalis” — as it says in bold red lettering on the label — into my camera’s lens cap and then swallowed it all (minus the lens cap) in one sugary, children’s sweets-like gulp, washed down with a few mouthfuls of water. It’s now some time later and I’m feeling homeopathically ill, the world is homeopathically spinning around me, and I think I may homeopathically pass out anytime soon. Or put another way: I’m typing this blog post while drinking a nice cup of tea, and considering making myself a late breakfast. I am, by all accounts, homeopathically dead.

And while I couldn’t quite work out how to take photos while in the process of swallowing the sugar pills, I did take some. Behold! The mighty power of the sugar pill!

Pics 1 & 2: Note the therapeutic indications line in the second image.

 

Pic 3: Every pillule emptied into my camera’s lens cap.

 

Pic 4: Oh look, it’s 10:23! We know what that time means…

 

Pic 5: All gone! Sweet sugary goodness… and utter pseudoscientific bollocks.

 

You only have my word to go on that I committed homeopathic harakiri today (although my cat witnessed it, I’m not sure she’d be suitable to give testimony), but in this article alone I have provided orders of magnitude more evidence of me swallowing these pills than exists for the efficacy of homeopathy. I did indeed swallow them all in one gulp, and it’s over 90 minutes since I did so and the world (or my world, at least) has not ended. And I paid £4.99 for the privilege.

If you think that homeopathy has helped someone you know, then neither of you understand the importance of the placebo effect. Please learn about it — it’s a very real effect with measurable positive results. Ultimately there is no direct harm in taking homeopathic products (as all 1023 campaigners have proven today), but there is harm in taking these products instead of seeking medical advice. Particularly if they have an ailment where earlier diagnosis can make the difference, or affect long-term health or even life. They may feel better taking these pills for a little while, but eventually even they’ll stop working as the problem gets worse and by then it may well be too late.

But I’m not trying to convince you of anything that’s not provable or measurable. Do your own research and come to your own conclusions — even if a thousand or more skeptics around the world ‘overdosing’ on homeopathic products isn’t enough to convince you (for some Twilight Zone reason). Perhaps pick up a book by an actual scientist and medical doctor, and examine what research they’ve done to research their conclusions. I’d highly recommend Bad Science by Ben Goldacre (Amazon or Amazon UK), as it’s very readable, full of information (including this topic), and it’s all supportable by evidence.

 

Update: Thanks to Antony, we have some video footage of the the Oxford event:

1023 Homeopathic Overdose – Oxford

Update 2: Courtesy of Science, Reason and Critical Thinking, we have some video footage of the Southampton event:

1023 Southampton

Update 3: Richard Saunders, Skeptic Zone ringleader, and Sydney skeptics have some footage of the event in Sydney, Australia:

ten23 Homeopathy Protest – Sydney 2010

Update 4: Courtesy of Kylie Sturgess, footage from my home town’s skeptical group, Perth Skeptics:

The 1023 Event with the Perth Skeptics

Update 5: And now the walls begin to fall. The New Zealand Council of Homeopaths has just admitted that… Homeopathy: There’s Nothing In It! It’s only a matter of time before the rest of the homeopathy industry worldwide admit the same or begin circling the wagons. Either way, the truth is now public knowledge and we should see less of this:

Homeopathy: There’s nothing in it (Oxford)

25 January 2010 Comments off

Many news outlets of the less credulous persuasion are talking about the upcoming national (UK) protest against the household name of Boots the chemists who happily sell homeopathic products even though they are aware there’s no proof they work.

As the Director of Professional Standards for Boots himself said:

There is certainly a consumer demand for these products. I have no evidence to suggest they are efficacious. It is about consumer choice…

On one level I can understand the free market, capitalist ideal of “There’s a market for it and people are willing to buy, so what’s the problem?” The problem, of course, is that some people who are seriously ill will turn to expensive tap water instead of seeking actual medical advice or treatment.

‘Natural selection,’ you may cynically retort… but now imagine that person is your grandmother.

As the legendary Tim Minchin says in his excellent beat poem, Storm:

You know what they call alternative medicine that’s been proved to work? Medicine.

It’s as simple as that. Unless you’re some kind of conspiracy nut (“they are hiding the truth”), a deluded fool who thinks reading a few pseudo-scientific layman blogs qualifies you to know more than proven, peer-reviewed science (particularly meta-analyses of methodologically-reliable scientific studies), or think you have an open channel to some kind of supernatural force.

If you’re not familiar with the ‘theory’ of homeopathy, it consists of finding an agent that, when swallowed, generates symptoms that resemble the patient’s symptoms (e.g. food poisoning and Ipecac Syrup both induce nausea), dilute it to the point where there’s statistically no chance of a single molecule of the agent remaining, banging it a specified number of times to shake it up, and then believing that such super-dilution magnifies the healing properties, because it somehow remembers the life force (or something) of the original agent. Again, I refer to Storm:

Water has memory! And while its memory of a long lost drop of onion juice is infinite, it somehow forgets all the poo it’s had in it!

Homeopathy is magical thinking based on poor science, logical flaws and unsupported assumptions. It’s water. I suspect the two main reasons that homeopathy is so popular is because its methodology sounds similar to the principle behind vaccination (a small amount of an antigen is given, allowing the body to generate antibodies) and because major, trusted retailers sell it alongside actual medical treatments.

And this last point is what the 1023 Campaign in the UK is addressing:

At 10:23am on January 30th, more than 300 homeopathy sceptics nationwide will be taking part in a mass homeopathic ‘overdose’.

The closest protest to me is taking place in Oxford, and is being run by Skeptics in the Pub (Oxford). If you’re nearby and interested in attending, please visit the event’s page:

Skeptics In The Pub: Oxford ‘mass overdose’

More importantly, please contact Rosie (on the above page) to let her know you’ll be attending. You’ll also need to bring along your own Boots brand 30C homeopathic remedy pills.

Let me make this perfectly clear: this is a peaceful, harmless protest against a company that has a business practice that some of us consider unethical or harmful, it is not against government or other authority. Leave your politics and Guy Fawkes masks at home.

Why 1023? How’s your middle/lower school science memory? Avogadro’s Constant! A fitting use for it, I think.

Update: It appears this campaign has gained some momentum, with various skeptical groups worldwide planning their own ‘homeopathic mass overdoses’ this coming Saturday. Check with your local skeptics group, the 1023 Campaign website, the #ten23 hashtag on Twitter, Facebook or forums such as the JREF for more information.

 

How about an honest Christmas #1 song this season for once?

13 December 2009 Comments off

I’m going to assume that you don’t know who on earth Tim Minchin is. And that you’re unaware of how cool a musician, comedian and skeptic that he is. And by doing that, I’m going to assume that you’ve never heard me wax lyrical about him before.

To address that travesty, I strongly exhort you to go and watch Canvas Bags and Storm. Done? Now you know Tim.

Today Tim has released a longer studio version of a track from his Ready for This? album/DVD onto iTunes, his Christmas song called White Wine in the Sun (it’s also available online from HMV, We7, Play.com, TuneTribe and Tesco). Those of you who have grown up (or even holidayed) in a hot climate in December will know that roasts, hot eggnog, and the other trappings of the northern hemisphere’s winter solstice as celebrated for thousands of years (well before Christianity co-opted them, of course), are unimaginable most years. Instead, such locations typically go for a barbecue, cold meats, salads and cold drinks.

Hence… drinking white wine in the sun.

If you’re one of the few people reading this who don’t have the album and want to try-before-you-buy, have a listen to the live version of the song here:

Tim Minchin – White Wine in the Sun (live album version)

Now that you’ve done that, please help make it reach the #1 position in your location’s music charts by buying the song on iTunes and if you are on Facebook, join the Tim Minchin for a Top 20 Place in the Christmas Charts! group.

So why am I shamelessly shilling one of Tim’s songs? One of the answers is two (or is it one?) words: X-Factor.

How sick are you of Simon Cowell‘s latest money-magnet protégé being pumped, pushed and manipulated through to #1 in the Christmas charts year after year? Does anyone over the age of five actually think that these airbrushed, possibly Auto-Tuned, divas are actually achieving this through hard work, songwriting, talent and skill? (If you do, then you’re banned from this blog).

For the rest of you… please consider making a stand this year. Yes, I’d like you to consider White Wine in the Sun because it’s moving and honest, but also because big business has hijacked the music industry. The pre- and early-teen market are their cash cows, but what about the rest of us? I’m 37 and am limited to Scuzz or Kerrang!, Planet Rock, ClassicFM, streaming facilities like Last.fm and Spotify, and my own music collection… commercial and popular radio seems to have become largely a minefield of poo interspersed with a few islands of goodness. There’s awesome music out there being made every day, but manufactured bands are given the most airtime.

While it’s true that manufactured bands have been around forever (The Monkees and Sex Pistols are two examples) and, while they sometimes contribute positively to music and culture, they’re not even playing the same game as their contemporaries (such as The Rolling Stones and The Clash) who built their names by raw talent, long hours and hard graft. How can a bedroom warbler get onto a talent show, spend a few weeks under the spotlight, impress a mogul and his minions, and suddenly be accelerated into super-stardom? That’s not a music industry — it’s an assembly line.

If you decide that you like Tim’s work, please also consider purchasing one of his excellent CDs or DVDs. You’ll laugh and you’ll enjoy.

Edit: Added links to the new track from various online stores.

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.

Welcome to Reality

4 May 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.

Storm by Tim Minchin

28 April 2009 Comments off

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

Tim Minchin – Canvas Bags

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

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

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

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

Storm by Tim Minchin (with text)

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

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

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

Is the economic crisis really that bad?

18 March 2009 Comments off

There’s definitely a lot of talk going on about the global economy — along with the obligatory wailing and gnashing of teeth — but it’s either an incredibly slow slide, or perhaps something else is going on or it’s not as straightforward as it appears. I say this after conversations with colleagues and friends who — aside from preventative job losses and the news about banks — have not really seen what all the fuss is about.

Of course it may be that myself and everyone I’ve chatted to is sufficiently insulated from the situation that it’s not affecting us directly yet (it certainly didn’t take long back in early 2001 when I experienced my first redundancy). Yes, it’s likely that one of our glorious capitalist system’s regular “busts” is happening, as part of the recognised boom and bust cycle, but is it actually any worse than the 2-3 such situations over the last 15-20 years? It’s hard to tell when you raise your head above the reportage, which seems prudent as the news media are hardly objective sources of information.

I’m beginning to wonder if this might be a combination of regular bust — exacerbated by globalisation, monopolisation and near-absent regulation (if they’re bringing in the money…) — combined with media hysteria, post-9/11 politics, and the changing face of media and advertising. The news media are currently saying that it’s the worst economic situation since World War 2, which is a highly emotive statement in the UK and Europe. I’m guessing they’re leaving Great Depression references to pull out as a trump card at a later date. Perhaps it’s time to declare shenanigans.

The post-9/11 politics of the West, in particular, is markedly different to society before 2001. These changes can’t be justified by saying it’s a more dangerous world now, as countries like the UK have suffered terrorism from organisations such as the IRA since before World War 2. A cynic might say that the rules changed when an attack happened on American soil — and that might not be entirely incorrect — but that notwithstanding, there has been a systematic worldwide change in global politics since those awful events in 2001. There seems to have been a visible shift in government’s perspective on the public, resulting in a state of perpetual suspicion of the citizen and systematic erosion of hard-won liberties. And with the advances in technology such as biometrics has followed unending attempts at forcing or sneaking through legislation to mandate biometric identification of populations – with all the idealism, hopes, fears and dread that such measures make. And none of that deals with the wars we’ve created and funded, whatever the validity or justification, and the economic costs of prolonged warmongering.

And of course the media hysteria. Thanks to the proliferation of what currently passes for journalism, the public seem convinced that every male teacher is an unproven paedophile, that they will be mugged if they walk any town at night, serial killers exist in every village, all parents who discipline their children are child abusers, that all teenagers are knife-wielding, crack-smoking, drunken, granny-bashing louts, that violent games/films cause violent acts (yet comedy doesn’t cause humour on the streets…), and so on ad nauseum. Just watch Sky Two in the evenings, or read any Red Top or Daily Whatever newspaper.

But is there any reliable evidence that it’s statistically any worse than it was a century ago? It reminds me of the 1970s song by the Australian band The Skyhooks, called Horror Movie: Horror movie… it’s the 6:30 news. (I couldn’t find the uncensored lyrics, so you’ve got the video instead). If you go back to 1970 or 1940 or 1910 you’ll find the exact same “society is falling apart, we’re all doomed!” spoken as fact. I’m not sure it hasn’t always been like that so, instead, please cast a skeptical eye on the spoon-fed news and political talking heads.

I don’t know the truth, but common sense suggests that it’s not neat enough to fit into a 15 second soundbyte or 3 newspaper column inches.

Have I told you about the dragon in my garage?

5 February 2009 Comments off

Every now and then one comes across something that illustrates a certain point supremely well. And when it’s written by one of my personal heroes, I have to share it. It’s probably an excellent allegorical response to works such as C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, which many understand are in themselves an allegory for Christianity. Not to mention new age beliefs, other religions, and other forms of belief.

The Dragon In My Garage
by
Carl Sagan

“A fire-breathing dragon lives in my garage.”

Suppose (I’m following a group therapy approach by the psychologist Richard Franklin) I seriously make such an assertion to you. Surely you’d want to check it out, see for yourself. There have been innumerable stories of dragons over the centuries, but no real evidence. What an opportunity!

“Show me,” you say. I lead you to my garage. You look inside and see a ladder, empty paint cans, an old tricycle–but no dragon.

“Where’s the dragon?” you ask.

“Oh, she’s right here,” I reply, waving vaguely. “I neglected to mention that she’s an invisible dragon.”

You propose spreading flour on the floor of the garage to capture the dragon’s footprints.

“Good idea,” I say, “but this dragon floats in the air.”

Then you’ll use an infrared sensor to detect the invisible fire.

“Good idea, but the invisible fire is also heatless.”

You’ll spray-paint the dragon and make her visible.

“Good idea, but she’s an incorporeal dragon and the paint won’t stick.”

And so on. I counter every physical test you propose with a special explanation of why it won’t work.

Now, what’s the difference between an invisible, incorporeal, floating dragon who spits heatless fire and no dragon at all? If there’s no way to disprove my contention, no conceivable experiment that would count against it, what does it mean to say that my dragon exists? Your inability to invalidate my hypothesis is not at all the same thing as proving it true. Claims that cannot be tested, assertions immune to disproof are veridically worthless, whatever value they may have in inspiring us or in exciting our sense of wonder. What I’m asking you to do comes down to believing, in the absence of evidence, on my say-so.

The only thing you’ve really learned from my insistence that there’s a dragon in my garage is that something funny is going on inside my head. You’d wonder, if no physical tests apply, what convinced me. The possibility that it was a dream or a hallucination would certainly enter your mind. But then, why am I taking it so seriously? Maybe I need help. At the least, maybe I’ve seriously underestimated human fallibility.

Imagine that, despite none of the tests being successful, you wish to be scrupulously open-minded. So you don’t outright reject the notion that there’s a fire-breathing dragon in my garage. You merely put it on hold. Present evidence is strongly against it, but if a new body of data emerge you’re prepared to examine it and see if it convinces you. Surely it’s unfair of me to be offended at not being believed; or to criticize you for being stodgy and unimaginative– merely because you rendered the Scottish verdict of “not proved.”

Imagine that things had gone otherwise. The dragon is invisible, all right, but footprints are being made in the flour as you watch. Your infrared detector reads off-scale. The spray paint reveals a jagged crest bobbing in the air before you. No matter how skeptical you might have been about the existence of dragons–to say nothing about invisible ones–you must now acknowledge that there’s something here, and that in a preliminary way it’s consistent with an invisible, fire-breathing dragon.

Now another scenario: Suppose it’s not just me. Suppose that several people of your acquaintance, including people who you’re pretty sure don’t know each other, all tell you that they have dragons in their garages–but in every case the evidence is maddeningly elusive. All of us admit we’re disturbed at being gripped by so odd a conviction so ill-supported by the physical evidence. None of us is a lunatic. We speculate about what it would mean if invisible dragons were really hiding out in garages all over the world, with us humans just catching on. I’d rather it not be true, I tell you. But maybe all those ancient European and Chinese myths about dragons weren’t myths at all.

Gratifyingly, some dragon-size footprints in the flour are now reported. But they’re never made when a skeptic is looking. An alternative explanation presents itself. On close examination it seems clear that the footprints could have been faked. Another dragon enthusiast shows up with a burnt finger and attributes it to a rare physical manifestation of the dragon’s fiery breath. But again, other possibilities exist. We understand that there are other ways to burn fingers besides the breath of invisible dragons. Such “evidence”–no matter how important the dragon advocates consider it–is far from compelling. Once again, the only sensible approach is tentatively to reject the dragon hypothesis, to be open to future physical data, and to wonder what the cause might be that so many apparently sane and sober people share the same strange delusion.

Fantastic, isn’t it? Using his renowned ability to instruct and correct kindly and sympathetically, and without the frustrated emotion and insults that many of us succumb to, he manages to illustrate and educate this point brilliantly. A true humanist, skeptic, educator and ambassador for science and reason.

A lot can happen in 20 years – Part 8

30 January 2009 Comments off

This follows on from Part 7.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A lot can happen in 20 years – Part 5

22 January 2009 Comments off

This follows on from Part 4.

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

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

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

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

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

Continued in Part 6.