Why are you so mean?

Inherit-The-StarsBeing a lovely chap I have a lot of friends who are either relatively harmless theists/woo fans, or reasonable and moderate agnostics and atheists. Many of them are upset or boggled that I – or anyone else – could be such a strident atheist. They’re often critical of Dawkins and the kind of people who, honestly, mistake Harris’ concerns over Islam for racism.

It can be hard to explain to people quite why you’re so strident and spend so much time fighting, arguing and raising awareness of religious issues and bigotry. They understand why things like opposing male and female genital mutilation or supporting the ‘extension’ of marriage rights are important but they don’t grasp the objections to what they see as harmless – if silly – beliefs, religious education or the comfort and charity supported by it.

Let me try to explain…

It’s Wrong

Religio-spiritual beliefs are just factually wrong. It’s really that simple. There’s no afterlife, no heaven, no hell, no such thing as sin. There’s no god watching over us or devil tempting us. There are no spirits, no ghosts, no monsters under the bed. The world isn’t designed and made with us in mind. There’s no ‘special’ way that we’re intended to live, no divine law, no miracle cures or curses. There’s no magic.

If you want to split hairs then strictly speaking I’m an agnostic atheist and a skeptic. It’s that there’s no evidence for any of these things, so that it’s irrational to believe in them. In lots of cases we can say ‘X’ doesn’t exist or ‘Y’ is impossible but really to all intents and purposes we might as well just say ‘this shit is wrong’.

It’s as wrong as smells causing disease. It’s as wrong as a flat Earth. There’s no reason to believe this absolute bollocks any more.

We know better.

It’s Dangerous

Even if we strip away the specific, offensive, horrible beliefs that justify war, murder, torture, mutilation and oppression there’s the dark heart of every irrational belief system still there.

Faith.

Faith is belief without evidence. The idea that this is somehow a valid reason to believe anything, let alone to act, is supremely dangerous. A belief held to without reason is – usually – immune to reason. A rational belief held because of data can be changed if the data changes or improves. A faith belief will be clung to in the teeth of the evidence and no matter how much harm it causes can rarely do anything but harm.

To be fair this goes beyond religion and into politics. Ideological faith can be just as harmful and just as rife for abuse. It is telling that in liberal countries the generational retention rates of both religious and political affiliations are practically identical. Politics and ‘religion’ would both be served better by the application of some critical thinking.

Accepting the idea that faith is valid allows all this toxic shit to persist. Couple that with either totalitarianism or uninformed democracy and you have a recipe for disaster.

We Can’t Afford it

It is an inescapable fact – unless of course you’re a person of faith – that the world is sliding into a confluence of several crises. Climate change, overpopulation, peak oil (peak energy really), damage to the seas, the forest, mass extinction, the end of useful antibiotics, a shortage of rare earths… the list just seems to get bigger every day. These problems are not insurmountable, with the proper will and sacrifice, if we put our shoulders to the wheel as a species.

The longer we wait to act the harder it will become and the more extreme measures will be needed. Technology, science, human unity, progress these are our ‘outs’ from this developmental bottleneck. So long as we deny we have a problem, or even willingly rush headlong into it as some right-wing religious conservatives in the US do, we have no chance of getting out of it.

Superstition has a very long history of slowing technological and social progress. From the Vatican to Al-Ghazali. Europe won out over the Middle East more because they were slacker in suppressing progress than from supporting it. While religion has held sway advances have been made in spite of, not because of it.

Even in modern times we see this problem in opposition to stem cell research and GM crops as well as climate change denial.

I don’t want to sound too melodramatic but honestly, this is a choice between grubbing in the mud and inheriting the stars and anything that lessens our chances to thrive and survive as a species is hard to justify indulging any longer.

I don’t hate you

sales-argumentWe argue, but that doesn’t – necessarily – mean I hate you.

You believe in god, magic, homoeopathy or the half-arsed witterings of Deepak Chopra but most of the time this doesn’t come up between us. Sure, there’s exceptions like the WBC hatemongers , the people actively campaigning against gay marriage or the hardline Christians and Muslims blowing people up for one thing or another but by and large you and we are normal people just trying to get along through our lives.

Everyone has to get along with people they disagree with, friends, family, workmates. If we all agreed on absolutely everything then the world would be a rather boring place. We’re not going to agree on religion though and the idea that you subscribe to religion or faith as an idea while still being a mostly nice human being is as shocking to me as a racist outburst from a loveable grandmother.

Here we are in the 21st Century, communicating over a network made possible by science, engineering, human ingenuity and the skeptical processes of science and yet somehow, deep inside, you still subscribe to the idea that believing something for no reason (faith) is a good and worthwhile thing. I’ll be honest about it, that scares me, deeply. If you’ll believe – and defend – the idea of a magic man in the sky who made everything, or a flying horse carrying a paedophile away to heaven, or that ‘magic water’ can cure disease what is to stop you believing that another race is inherently inferior or that god has ordained the death of your child? What is to stop you, in fact, believing anything?

There are many specific wrongs in many religions and woo beliefs but this idea that faith (faith=(belief-evidence)) is somehow desirable, worthwhile or praiseworthy is the universal danger that such thinking represents. Humanity progresses through doubt, questioning, testing, not through blind belief. Faith holds ideas sacred and unassailable, even if they’re utterly wrong. Faith allows the Catholic Church to ignore its predatory and child-endangering actions. Faith allows Islam to oppress women and to try to impose itself on other cultures. Faith is what leads to prayer over a child who could have been saved with medical science. Faith, to cast the net widely, is what has right wing governments dead set on austerity programmes and free market capitalism even though they do not work.

Most of you avoid talking about these things, but they’re not going away. Our growth is outstripping the resources our planet has to offer and we have a finite time to crack the problem. Faith holds us back. In the USA resistance to climate science, green energy projects, science education, contraception, abortion and same-sex marriage are all rooted in a paranoid, religious, right-wing section of the population running on faith. They hold us back. In the UK, previously thought relatively immune to the lure of such non-thinking the UK Independence Party has recently done well in elections with their mix of acceptable middle-class racism and empty rhetoric.

I want humanity to thrive and continue. I want progress to remain. I want us to grow as a species and to achieve wonderful things but that belief you hold, that faith you think so fine, that threatens everything.

I don’t hate you. I fear what your blind-belief, combined with that of billions of others, will cost us.

Can we Blame Islam for Boston?

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Spot the…

It’s been a weird few days, hasn’t it?

Every time a new atrocity occurs it acts as a stark reminder about just how rapidly the news and media landscape is changing. On 9/11 we were watching streaming video in the office (the only place with a fast enough connection) and helping people check on friends and relatives by connecting over IM and IRC.

Madrid and the 7/7 bombings in London were transformed by the prevalence of cellphone video and images and places like Moblog became hugely important in working out what was going on and seeing what was occurring.

Now in 2013 – which always seemed like the distant future to me growing up – we have an atrocity at a marathon caught on multiple (civilian!) cameras from multiple angles, online vigilantes and the news media being totally outstripped by Twitter, Facebook and so on despite throwing aside their advantage (authority and objectivity) in a desperate attempt to keep up with the pace.

Speculation early on was, of course, about the brown faces in the crowd and that could have potentially gotten very dangerous. In a bizarre twist however, it turned out that the bombers were, quite literally Caucasian. It did, of course, also turn out that they were Muslim but I’m sure the concept of a white Muslim has someone like Ann Coulter’s head exploding in incomprehension.

There’s a couple of things I found particularly interesting and timely in the speculation we saw going on, things I hadn’t seen before.

  1. Some people were trying to pin the blame for the bombing on atheists, rather than religious or political fanaticism.
  2. Only very recently Harris, Dawkins etc have been coming under fire under the presumption that questioning Islam is racism.

Number 1 is interesting in that it shows that the rise of atheism (or more accurately the decline of theism) has some people spooked and many of them don’t know what atheism actually is.

Number two is a godsend (ha, ha) for those of us repeatedly making the point that having a problem with Islam is a matter of the religion and what it says, encourages and inspires. It’s not having a problem with Arabs, Pakistanis or whatever other ethnicities are most strongly linked with Islam. Here we have the perfect example to counter that argument. Two white Islamic terrorists.

Is it fair to blame Islam?

Yes, I think it is. The older brother at least seems to have been pious and increasingly militant and while the younger brother was a drinker he seems to have been caught in his brother’s shadow and tugged along by the weight of his growing fanaticism. Various excuses are already being made to try and distance the brother’s actions from their religion and amongst these is the suggestion of ‘white privilege’ that white mass murderers and terrorists, like, say Tim McVeigh, are not seen as part of a movement as a problem, but as individuals.

That is not entirely true. American gun culture, right wing paranoia, conspiracy theory, distrust of government and fanatically extreme individualism and Christianity have played a big role in a lot of American domestic terrorism and massacres and quite rightly this toxic mix should be held to blame for inspiring those individuals. It is much less of a unified belief system and set of grudges than Islamic fundamentalists have  but it is there. Of course there are also violent individuals, sometimes working together as in Columbine, perhaps the event that most closely mirrors Boston in many ways. Those events are individual though, they are not unified by anything more than disaffection, mental illness and isolation.

Moderate Muslims will say that the religion does not condone the killing of civilians or excuse violence and they are to be applauded for exercising their own personal morality to reject the morality present in the Koran, but the fact remains that it is full of passages that speak to violence, particularly against non-believers and that it has inspired much of the terrible violence in this century in the same way political ideology did in the 20th (both are articles of faith).

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…difference

It is not racist to criticise and to honestly examine Islam any more than it is to criticise and honestly examine Christianity. One seems to be inspiring violence on a global level and even on the Christian side of the aisle one sees ‘Crusader’ rhetoric in the war against terror and a similar level of extremism leading to attacks on abortion doctors.

Faith provides the capacity for a level of fanaticism in religion (and ideology) that makes appalling actions seem justified, excusable, even correct. It is worth taking a stand against that way of thinking, both in Islam and more generally.

Bad Reasons to Believe in God: The Invisibility of Air

Yes, this one still comes up from time to time in one form or another. Somehow, some people seem to think this argument still has the ability to sway opinion even though it’s both incorrect and fallacious. The argument usually runs something like this…

Air is invisible, but it exists even though you can’t see it. God is also invisible and you can’t see him but you should believe he exists, because you believe in air.

Balderdash, nonsense and piffle.

You CAN see air. You can see it in its effects – swaying trees, heat haze etc. You can see it through thermographic imaging as it flows. You can freeze it to a liquid or a solid (oxygen, nitrogen, CO2) and then you can see it. You can feel it, weigh it, confirm its existence by experimentation. You can even see it due to the diffraction of sunlight through nitrogen molecules – blue skies.

We don’t even need to get that far to show that this is a bloody stupid way to think though as it could be used to argue for anything, including things we’re just making up on the spot.

The Invisible Pink Unicorn is also invisible and you can’t see her but you should believe she exists, because you believe in air.

Substitute your own invisible ‘X’ for the unicorn as you wish and the problem with the argument holds true.

Apples are green. Orcs are also green. You should believe in orcs because you believe in apples.

This also amounts to the same thing.

There is no evidence for god, no reason to believe in it any more than there is orcs. Grow up.

Faith is a Synonym for Batshit Loco

Faith is belief without evidence.

A (combined) definition for a delusional disorder is:

“A fixed false belief held without and or against evidence.”

Considering the nature of religious beliefs it’s pretty obvious to anyone not suffering from cognitive bias that this is essentially the same bloody thing and ‘revealed knowledge’ or ‘personal experience’ ain’t going to cut it as evidence.

Faith & Harm

More than any specific religion what I find myself to be against is faith. Faith is a toxic meme.

Faith = (belief – evidence)

Faith is not limited, even in this strict definition, to religious faith. You can find this kind of unquestioning, blind loyalty also held in people, ideologies and just about anything else you care to mention.

Sometimes it can be hard to demonstrate how, exactly, faith is dangerous. It varies according to what is being believed of course but I would argue faith itself, the mere act of believing something for no reason carries with it implicit dangers.

The Occupy Wall Street movement, or rather some of the reactions to it, do however provide a very real and practical opportunity for me to demonstrate the problem of faith because, you see, the people of America have been sold a very dangerous and pernicious faith belief. That faith is the one that the rich only get to be that way through their own virtue and that the poor are only that way because of their own failings.

Is this a harmful faith belief?

Unquestionably.

Not only is it manifestly untrue but it keeps people oppressed and it even prevents them fighting back against their oppressors, far more effectively than any police state.

Look through We Are the 53% and you’ll see that oh-so-many of these people are in situations as bad, or worse, than many of those protesting as part of the 99%. Yet they have swallowed hook-line-and-sinker the concept that it’s either their fault or that by sheer hard work they can overcome a society that is increasingly unequal and increasingly resistant to social and financial ascent.

These people have been sold, not only on the idea that they can overcome their situation through sheer graft, but that anyone asking for even the most basic consideration by the state, or the richest people in it, has no right to it. Rights to health and a basic social safety net that people in most civilised nations take for granted.

That’s the power and the danger of faith. It can make people work against their own individual and collective interest for the sake of an idea.

Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.
– Steinback 

Ever wish you were religious?

Sometimes it’s tempting to wish that I was. That level of absolute certainty about things is seductive, as is the idea of having all the answers without having to work for them. If I lived in the US I imagine there’d be a lot more social pressure brought to bear as well which might make it a lot easier with family and friends if one were religious. I don’t though and there’s no such pressure this side of the pond.

Alluring as all that is no… I definitely prefer the universe as it is, rather than as we might wish it would be. I place truth higher than comfort or safety and I think religion is a defiance or perversion of man’s natural curiosity. It makes us settle, stop questioning and because it is founded on nothing but blind belief and the authority of its interpreters there can be no negotiated middle ground between opposing faiths.

The sheer amount of harm religion causes isn’t worth the tiny amount of good it does – which can be accomplished by other means.

So no, other than in very rare moments of weakness I don’t wish I were religious and even in those moments, I’m not really tempted at all.