Sunday 30 November 2008

Burnee links for Sunday

"The collective obsession focusing on the loss of a small vaginal membrane still carries on, and it should be stopped"

"And then there's the flat-out creepy association made between a woman's alleged moral worth and her virginity, a stance often accompanied by the father's right to 'give away' his daughters' sexuality when and how he chooses to, as exemplified by the growing popularity of 'purity balls' and communal pledges within the American evangelical community. Here we are, once again, with authoritarian paternal figures using religious and cultural to control their offsprings' bodies no matter that abstinence campaigns have been, time and time again, proved to be inefficient in preventing teenagers from having sex or combating unwanted pregnancies. Not that pro-lifers wish their promiscuous teenagers eternal damnation: when Sarah Palin's 17-year-old daughter announced her pregnancy, conservatives conveniently ignored the 'making the baby' part to rejoice at Bristol Palin's decision to 'have the child and not sneak off to have an abortion'."

"It doesn't make you a eugenicist to speak up for the right to abort a foetus that may have Down's"

"This week it was shown that there were more children born in the United Kingdom last year with Down's syndrome than there were before the introduction of universal testing, 20 years ago. One of the reasons is more obvious than the other - fertility among women in their 30s outstripped that of those in their 20s for the first time in the UK during 2005. Mothers are getting older and that trend is continuing; with it the incidence of Down's syndrome increases. The more surprising aspect, I find, is that 40% of women who have a Down's syndrome baby having been advised of that strong possibility during pregnancy didn't believe the test results."

More on the incidence of Down's syndrome from Ben Goldacre at Bad Science:

Scientific proof that we live in a warmer and more caring universe

"The internet provides a space for discussion of God outside the narrow margins of the British print media"

"If I may be allowed a quick spurt of self-reference, a few of my pieces for Cif have been a bit off-the-wall (inviting people to join me in a new religious ritual, for example), and polemical (calling atheists cowards), and personal (explaining the basis of my faith), and obscure (cutting-edge analysis of a blasphemy trial of 1656), and downright theological (expressing my belief in Satan). No newspaper would be likely to print such articles. But they found many interested readers (as well as hostile atheists), and sparked some well-informed debates (as well as some rude ranting). Likewise my recent debate with Julian Baggini about literal and metaphorical belief was not the sort of thing a paper would print – it would seem too earnest, too up-itself, too rarified for a print-editor to contemplate. But there are many people interested in such discussions."

"Extremist Hindu groups offered money, food and alcohol to mobs to kill Christians and destroy their homes, according to Christian aid workers in the eastern state of Orissa."

'In recent weeks the violence has subsided but at least 11,000 Christian refugees remain in camps in Kandhamal, the district worst affected. “They are too scared to go home. They know that if they return to their villages they will be forced to convert to Hinduism,” Father Manoj, who is based at the Archbishop’s office in Bhubaneshwar, the state capital, said.'

"A meeting of around 400 evangelicals at one of London's biggest churches went largely unnoticed last week. Hardly surprising really, given that nothing was achieved and nothing agreed. But actually, the fractious, ill-tempered gathering could be scene as a significant tipping point in years to come. Talk of division and schism in the Anglican communion has been discussed for years, but is normally viewed as a battle between the liberals and evangelicals. Now it's the evangelicals who are fighting amongst themselves."

"The simmering tensions spilt over at the recent meeting, held at All Souls Langham Place - the church which was home to the evangelical doyen John Stott for 30 years. Lacking such an inspirational and unifying figure, they have been reduced to bickering and squabbling."

'The Government is about to fund a series of conferences on religious belief - organised, needless to say, by militant atheists. The British Humanist Association will host free public events at which Evan Harris MP (the scary Lib Dem nicknamed "Dr Death" for his pro-abortion views) and atheist philosopher AC Grayling will talk about "religion or belief in equality and human rights groups". The bill will be footed by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) - ie, the taxpayer.'

'We shall see how much fuss the General Synod or Eccleston Square make about this ludicrous waste of money as we dip into recession. Probably not much, I guess. They'll just ask that they should also be allowed to stick their hands into the public honeypot so they can spread their Thought for the Day-style message in "seminars" etc.'

Tuesday 25 November 2008

What would it take to convince you that you're mistaken?

A critical test of anyone who appears to hold fundamental - or indeed fundamentalist - beliefs, is to ask the question, "What would it take to convince you that you're mistaken?" Someone who is convinced beyond reason that their beliefs are true will always reply to the effect that nothing would convince them. This is a sure sign of unreasonable fixed belief, and it's not worth anyone's time trying to argue them out of their position.

It's a question often asked of atheists, but Michael Shermer's flippant response, "A deposit of ten million dollars in a Swiss bank account under my name," doesn't count*.

For myself, the idea of a personal God who listens to your thoughts, answers your prayers, obsesses over what you do with your sexual organs and demands worship on pain of eternal banishment to some undefined unpleasantness, is absurd in the extreme and not worthy of consideration. I therefore find it hard to imagine anything that could convince me that such a God exists. Nevertheless, just because I can't imagine it, doesn't mean it's not a possibility, however remote. There's a chance I could be convinced of God's existence, but only if He convinced me Himself, in person, in a manner congruent with my reasonable standards for evidence. I will not, however, accept his petition from any third party.

The probability of such a petition is highly unlikely, I believe, but (as I've already indicated) not completely out of the question.

There is, however, an area where I would be more likely to accept the existence of some kind of intelligent creator - though this intelligence would bear little resemblance to the God of scripture.

If scientific analysis were to reveal that the Big Bang could not have been instigated by anything other than the creative will of some kind of intelligence, science might have to concede that the universe came about by other than natural processes. But speculation about what happened at, during, just before or just after the Big Bang appears to be mired in philosophy rather than science, with doubts about whether you can meaningfully say anything temporal or spacial about an event that brought both space and time into existence. (You might also question your definition of 'natural processes'.)

Similarly, if science were to show that the presence of information in DNA could not have originated naturally, the existence of some agency that inserted the information would have to be postulated. But we would have no reason to call that agent 'God'. Just because such an agent would likely be beyond our comprehension, we are not barred from speculating on its origins.

What applies to DNA also applies to the Big Bang. Calling the originator of the Big Bang 'God', or the originator of the information present in DNA 'God', simply stops all further speculation. It's an abdication of intellectual responsibility, not worthy of science, and should be deplored.

Science has yet to explain these things, but that doesn't mean the answer is "Goddidit."

There are many arguments for the existence of God, and the Argument from Design (also known as the teleological argument) is the least weak.

(*During a recent debate in Australia between John Lennox and Michael Shermer, the moderator asked Shermer, "What piece of evidence, formula, piece of reasoning, whatever ... what would cause you to believe in God?")

Sunday 23 November 2008

Fantasy on a Thursday night: Apparitions - BBC1

Utter tosh or serious religious fiction?

Apparently the new high-profile drama Apparitions, starring Martin Shaw, was originally scheduled for the beginning of this year, but is only now appearing on UK TV screens:

It's earnest stuff, judging by the first two episodes, with plenty of gore and special effects, but it has a problem with credibility. Being based on Catholicism, it inevitably elicits rolled eyes as the main characters come out with religious nonsense as if it were established fact. Martin Shaw plays a Catholic priest who moonlights as an exorcist - naturally he's very good, playing it as Judge John Deed in a dog collar.

It will be interesting to see whether the Catholic Church denounces the show. I have a feeling it won't. It didn't denounce the film The Exorcist, and probably rightly so, as everything in that film ought to have reinforced any Catholic's faith.

And if the Catholic Church doesn't denounce Apparitions, are we to interpret that as tacit approval - that the things it portrays are in line with Catholic doctrine?

Wednesday 19 November 2008

Religion or Cult - is there any difference?

[I]f you pound people hard enough with certainty when they're feeling vulnerable under the pressures of life; if you offer them instant family when their lives are poor in friendship; if you offer them a message which makes meaning of life, when their lives are confused and problematical; if you offer them a special task - to spread the group's gospel when their work is dull or meaningless, or they can find no work to do; if you offer them clear leadership when they can find no-one to admire or believe in or follow in their world or church; if you offer all this, together with intoxicating, mind numbing worship - then you're offering a powerful package which many people will buy.
The passage above, spoken on air only yesterday, is a comprehensive exposition of the mind-wrecking aspects of religion. But this wasn't some so-called New Atheist ranting against the evils of faith, this was The Rt Rev. Tom Butler, whom you can hear delivering his Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4 here:

You can read the whole thing for yourself here:

Burnee links for Wednesday

How atheists robbed me of my faith in atheism | Comment is free |

Susan McCarthy: Tact means not saying 'you're going hell', or, 'I don't believe it' | Comment is free |

Put creationism on a par with evolution, say third of teachers - Times Online

NeuroLogica Blog » Reflexology in UK Schools

Greg M. Epstein: Atheism/Agnosticism Plus Compassion Equals Humanism - On Faith at

(Just a few links this week - I've been busy.)

Sunday 9 November 2008

Fires of Hell

The flames of hell, the lake of fire, eternal torment, unremitting agony - it sounds tough, and sufficiently off-putting to deter any potential sinner.

"But it's not like that," say the religious moderates. "That's an outmoded view of Hell," they say. "Hell," they say, "is separation from God."

Oh really. Well in that case, as an atheist I'm here to tell you - it's not so bad.

Californians are selfish?

Sooner or later we'll have to deal with this in the UK, but for now we can only look in abject amazement at what the Californian majority has done.

Personally I can't understand it. The nearest thing I can liken the passing of Proposition 8 to is an unbelievably selfish dog-in-the-manger attitude. We can be thankful for one small mercy I suppose: at least those same-sex marriages that occurred during the brief respite will not be annulled.

"Marriage is ours! You can't have it!" seems to encapsulate what the vote is saying. The majority don't want gay marriage. Fine, it's entirely up to you whether you approve or not. But don't deny it to those who do want it. Gay marriages aren't performed in church, so it's not a religious issue.

In the UK we have church marriages and we have registry office marriages. The church should consider itself privileged that signing the register as part of a church ceremony counts as a legal wedding. Those who don't wish for a church ceremony can have a civil wedding at a registry office - and they will be legally married under UK law.

The church is free to make up its own rules as to who can and can't be married in church (though in the case of the Church of England it's a bit more complicated than that, because they are the 'established church'). Those who don't like the rules can get married in a registry office.

It seems to me that what's happened in California is that the majority has voted for the church to have dominion over the secular. In a country whose constitution explicitly forbids such interference, this is a serious matter indeed.

In the general euphoria surrounding the news that the American electorate made a wise choice on November 4, the passing of Proposition 8 in California is unpleasant and embarrassing.

UPDATE, 2008-11-12:

Burnee links for Sunday (belated post - more soon)

Missed a post last Sunday - here's what would have been in it (probably) . . .

"Website censorship erodes the very freedoms that the home secretary
purports to defend"

John Ozimek: A victory for the terrorists | Comment is free |

The UK's law banning the display of material that "directly or
indirectly" encourages terrorism is likely to be unenforceable.

"There is no contradiction between creation and science, says Benedict XVI"

Stephen Hawking to address Vatican conference on evolution -Times Online

"The Catholic Church accepts evolution, but sees it as part of the
divine plan. Pope Benedict has been described as a 'theistic
evolutionist' who believes that God created life through evolution,
and thus that there is no inherent clash between religion and science.

"The Catholic Church does not take the Genesis story that God created
the world in six days literally, regarding it instead as an allegory.
However some Christians - not least in the United States - do take the
Genesis account literally and object to evolution being taught in

"A passion for conservative values has united diverse Christian
groups, giving them influence way beyond their numbers"

Religion remains fundamental to US politics | Susan Jacoby - Times Online

"To most of my European friends, an inexplicable aspect of American
culture is the quixotic persistence and social influence of religious
fundamentalism. They cannot understand how Americans could seriously
consider for the second highest office in the land a candidate who has
worshipped all her adult life at churches where congregants believe
the literal truth of every word in the Bible and practise 'speaking in
tongues'. Thanks to YouTube, we even know that Sarah Palin has been
blessed to protect her against witchcraft."

(Some of the comments on this article are discouraging, to say the least.)

Vatican approves psychological tests for screening out homosexuals :: Damian Thompson

"The Vatican has given cautious approval to the use of psychological
tests to root out men with 'deep-seated homosexual tendencies' from
seminaries. Rome first used this phrase in 2005, when it said that
these tendencies were a bar to ordination; now, in a document released
today, it sanctions the use of tests to identify those 'deep-seated'
traits - but not without the seminarian's permission.

"Voluntary tests can also be used to identify men for whom the burden
of celibacy is too great and will cause emotional disturbance even if
they manage to keep their vows."

Two posts from Tim Farley:
The Long Tail of Skeptical Web Sites « Skeptical Software Tools

Skeptics! Load your google bombs! « Skeptical Software Tools
If you've previously linked to Stop Sylvia Browne, you should now link to Stop Sylvia Dot Com, like this: Stop Sylvia Browne. Why is this important? See Tim's post.

Friday 7 November 2008

Iconoclasts - Andrew Keen - BBC Radio 4 (repost from other blog)

I didn't hear it live (I was watching a fireworks display at the time), but the programme mentioned on a previous post is available to stream for a few days more:

Website here:

The debate was bit of a mess, and nothing much was resolved. None of the participants addressed the fundamental issue - that new media technology has rendered the old gatekeeper-style of publishing obsolete. We live in a different world now, and there's no going back.

When the audio streaming link above expires, download the mp3 from RapidShare:

Sunday 2 November 2008

YouTube - Palin Ignorant About Scientific Research

This video clip (in various versions) has by now done the rounds of the blogs and news sites, and it might seem superfluous to repeat it here. But this is just one more example of the continuous anti-science, anti-intellectual and anti-elite stance taken by McCain/Palin throughout the current US election campaign. Just one more to add to the list, which now includes:

'planetariums and other foolishness'
'overhead projector' - referring to the Zeiss projector of the Adler Planetarium in Chicago (a planetarium I have visited myself, and where I found the educational facilities especially impressive)
'fruit fly research, in Paris, France. I kid you not!'

This isn't dumbing down - it's dumbing off the bottom of the scale.

UPDATE 2008-11-03:

(From Wendy Chao, via Skepchick)