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The Baroness’ Prayer

February 14, 2012

“Oh Lord save us,”

The faithful pant,

“The secularists are coming,

And they’re militant!

 

They want to stop

Our use of God

And then they’ll want

To drink our blood!

 

They want to take

Our right to pray

(And some of them

Are even gay!)

 

They’ll burn our mosques

Dismantle our churches

And whip us through

The streets with birches

 

The answer to

This upstart breed

Is to entrench;

Each in their creed.

 

We’ll dig in deep,

Keep ancient rôles,

(We know that they

Don’t do foxholes).

 

And when we’ve won

As we surely must

Religion will rule,

All will be just.

 

Until the day

We have to deal

With the other religions

(Which aren’t real)”

Half-wit Prince

June 24, 2011

The guardian.co.uk website yesterday brought us an interview with pop-star, Prince, headlined “It’s fun being in Islamic countries”.  I read it in a kind of stunned awe which almost ended in severe cranio-facial damage due to the mega-ultra-facepalm it induced.  The headline is a fair reflection of one of the quotes in the piece, but it doesn’t come close to revealing the yawning abyss of bottomless stupidity lurking beneath.

The actual quote referred to is:

“It’s fun being in Islamic countries, to know there’s only one religion.  There’s order.  You wear a burqa.  There’s no choice.  People are happy with that.”

As for people who are not happy with that lack of choice, Prince says that’s just tough.  Apparently there’s a dark side to everything and some people will always be unhappy.  I was going to call these opinions shallow thinking and cultural relativism but, on reflection, that would imbue them with qualities they do not possess.  Clearly there has been no real formulation of ideas such as these.  He’s either made it up on the spot or he has a seriously defective understanding of logic.

In terms of religion Prince identifies himself as a Jehovah’s Witness, which is, of course, a Christian sect.  Here’s what he says about why he turned to religion:

“I had to learn what authority was. That’s what the Bible teaches. The Bible is a study guide for social interaction.”

The Bible certainly shows some good examples of what life is like under authority.  The kind of authority that is without moral compass, bereft of compassion, dictatorial, megalomaniac and utterly capricious.  As a study guide for social interaction I think it falls well short.  Ordinary human activities are classified as sins worthy of death, such as homosexuality and liking someone other than the Boss.  Even Jesus tells people to hate their family.  Wow.

The final quote from the interview is another corker:

“Noise is a society that has no God, that has no glue. We can’t do what we want to do all the time. If you don’t have boundaries, what then?”

Certainly we can’t do what we want all the time, that’s anarchy and it doesn’t work.  In fact it’s likely to be the result of the cultural relativism that Prince seems to embrace, if it is taken to its logical end.  Who says God is the glue we need though.  Apart from the fact that non-existent glue doesn’t bind very much, God, or the idea of God, doesn’t actually provide a very useful bonding of people and is more likely to be divisive.

There’s some other stuff in the interview about Prince’s actual job, pop music, which contains some more ill-informed woo.  I think the conclusion has to be that Prince is bat-shit crazy.  No surprises there.  I have to ask why newspapers solicit the opinions of people such as this on questions such as religion and society.  The only answer I can think of is to give their readers some sense of sniffy superiority over someone who, whatever else he may be, has been very successful in his chosen field.  What do you think?

A Delusion of Reference

June 9, 2011

While I was doing some ‘research’ the other day I came across a Huffington Post blog posted last summer by Prof Matt J Rossano, department head of Psychology at Southeastern Louisiana University, entitled: Why Religion Is Not Delusion. Of course religion is not a delusion, it is fact, it exists, however, it seems to me that all religious faith involves one or more delusions.

Let’s start as Rossano does, by looking at the psychological definition of a delusion:

A false belief based on incorrect inference about external reality that is firmly sustained despite what almost everybody else believes and despite what constitutes incontrovertible and obvious proof or evidence to the contrary. The belief is not one ordinarily accepted by other members of the person’s culture or subculture.

(Diagnostic & Statistical Manual (DSM IV-TR))

The dictionary gives this definition of illusion:

1. an act or instance of deluding.

2. the state of being deluded.

3. a false belief or opinion: delusions of grandeur.

4. Psychiatry – a fixed false belief that is resistant to reason or confrontation with actual fact: a paranoid delusion.

The key difference between the DSM definition and the dictionary, what could be called the layman’s definition, is that the DSM excuses religious faith with a neat little get-out clause (emphasised in the above quote).  I want to examine this get-out clause first of all.

The DSM is telling us that an idea is not a delusion, whatever its other qualities, if it is commonly held within a culture or sub-culture.   The get-out clause in the DSM definition is simply an ad populum logical fallacy, an assertion that because a large number of people believe a thing to be true, it is true.  Which is false.  Without the protection of this clause many religious beliefs are going to end up in the delusion bracket.

We must remember of course that delusion, like most mental states, is not a starkly black and white issue, but exists on a continuum.  All of us, I think, entertain some beliefs that are not based on correct inference about external reality; it is only when these incorrect beliefs affect our functioning in relation to others that they become a problematic delusion.

Extreme examples of this are obvious: the concept of the suicide bomber, as supported by elements of Islam, being perhaps the most obvious.  Slightly less extreme but still dysfunctional might be the refusal of medical attention for a child due to mistaken belief in (the Christian) God’s power to heal, leading to unnecessary suffering and, in some cases, death of the child.

I think that most people would accept that these 2 beliefs fall squarely into the delusional category with or without the get-out clause given by the DSM.  What about belief in an idyllic afterlife for virtuous persons or belief in the efficacy of prayer then?  These are apparently harmless beliefs which, without the get-out clause, would have to be said to be delusional, but not necessarily a problem.  If someone believes that by being good they will go to a Paradise after death, or that God will guide or positively influence their life if they ask for things, this doesn’t hurt anyone else.  Does it?

The problem is that a suicide bomber’s final, disgusting act is predicated on the belief that Paradise (including virgins and/or dried fruit) awaits them and the believers in God’s healing base that belief largely on the efficacy of prayer.  The big, nasty delusions can’t exist without the little, harmless ‘eccentricities’.

Two of the categories of delusion most often referred to are delusions of grandeur (“I am Napoleon”) and paranoid delusions (“The CIA is watching me”).  These types of delusion are built into many religions and are, in fact, their root premise.

A Christian or a Muslim, for example, believes that the world was created by an all-powerful God for the purposes of humanity and that this mighty being cares deeply what they do in the privacy of their bedroom, for example.  This surely takes egocentricity and delusions of grandeur almost to their furthest extreme.  The same Christian or Muslim also believes that their invisible sky-daddy is watching them all the time and knows what they are doing and thinking.  It doesn’t get much more paranoid than that.

Rossano argues in his post that (my emphasis):

By evolutionary design, we tend to see the world in terms of intentional, meaningful patterns. Religious thinking simply takes this mode of thought to its very logical conclusion: we’re inclined to think the world is an intentionally created, meaningful place because it is.

It isn’t.  And what is Evolutionary design?  Is that a euphemism for Intelligent Design?  Evolution is not a design process because design implies a designer.  Design is also a synonym for an intention or plan.  So the above quote is a circular argument which can be shortened to:

If people believe they and the world around them are designed they will believe in a designer.

Well, duh.  The fact is that the world and the flora and fauna it supports are not designed.  The belief that they are is a delusion.  Rossano argues that people who don’t believe in a created world are more likely to suffer from an inability to reconcile their beliefs and their experience than religious types because of the way people have been designed.  Show me the evidence, Professor.

Rossano concludes that religion actually helps prevent people becoming delusional because:

(1) its general notions and practices are not obviously contradicted by evidence.

(2) it requires very little mental effort to sustain most religious notions.

(3) it encourages community integration which promotes healthy psychological functioning.

My response is:

(1) its general notions are not supported by any evidence.  Therefore they are contradicted.  Obviously.

(2) it requires Herculean mental gymnastics to believe in, for example, an all-powerful, benevolent God who allows children to die of starvation in huge numbers for want of a bit of rain and practically none to believe that this is a by-product of nature and must be relieved, if possible, by people.

(3) it encourages community integration for those who believe the same as the community does but guarantees exclusion for those who deviate, which cannot help healthy psychological functioning of those excluded.

All in all then I disagree almost entirely with Rossano’s post.  I am not an expert in evolutionary psychology, as he is purported to be, but I know bullshit when I smell it and I got a good whiff while reading his post.  He is partially right that religion is not a delusion.  It is made of many delusions, delusions built on delusions.  If my blood pressure can stand it I may read more of what Rossano has to say.

Wiki Question

May 30, 2011

I got an interesting tip via Twitter today.  At first it was funny, then a little bit thought-provoking.  What you do is this: Go to Wikipedia Main Page and click on the Random Article link.  When you get your article you simply click the 1st link in its main body that’s not in italics and not in parentheses (<–these–>).  On each subsequent article you simply click that 1st link again.  It seems that almost invariably you will end up at the article on Philosophy.

I got there from, for example, articles entitled ‘Italian Hot Dog‘, ‘Darrell Dickey‘, ‘Northumbrian Smallpipes‘, ‘Pince-nez‘, ‘Alexey Eisner‘ and ‘Bracket (tournament)‘.  Try it yourself.  It’s a little weird.

It seems to me that the implication here is that all human knowledge (as represented by Wikipedia) is founded on Philosophy.  I am a little uncomfortable with that concept.  Is philosophy truly necessary to explain Darrell Dickey, an American Football Coach?  Or the concept of how sporting tournaments are represented graphically?  Even worse, am I doing philosophy by asking such questions?

We seem to be faced with a binary choice.  Either all human knowledge (more or less) is entirely predicated on the sometimes useful, but more often not, cognitive system that is (Western) philosophy OR Wikipedia has disappeared up its own backside.  I’m still mulling it over, so over to you.  What do you think?  I’d love to hear of more weird stuff that leads to Philosophy and how quickly or by what circuitous route you can get there.

Private Parts

May 24, 2011

It seems to me this whole privacy debate leaves a few questions unasked and/or unanswered.  The revelation came yesterday that Ryan Giggs is the footballer alleged to have had an affair with Imogen Thomas off that there Big Brother.  This is something I read 2 weeks ago and I’ve hardly got my finger on the media pulse.  Twitter told me.  So, for me, the first question is: why maintain the injunction when the information is in the public domain?

The fact that a footballer (married or not) had sex with a reality TV ‘star’ is not exactly news and I don’t really see that it is in the public interest either.  The second question then is: who cares?

Finally, nobody seems to be happy that judges are making privacy law in this country, which leads me to my final, and most important, question: why are they?

I think the answer to the first question is simply that social networking is still largely outside the experience of some judges and so very little credence is given to the information passed through such networks.  The judiciary remain unconvinced that information on social networks, such as Twitter, is in the public domain.  UK Twitter users account for anywhere between 2 and 7 million tweets per day and Facebook has over 30 million UK users.  If it’s on these media it’s in the public domain.  We’re just waiting on the judiciary to catch up.  That’s the way it is.

The answer to the second question is that, apart from Ryan Giggs and his family, nobody outside the red top media and associated people would have cared if it weren’t for the injunction.  The story would have come and gone.  The overtones of possible blackmail by The Sun and Imogen Thomas in this case are somewhat disturbing and lead me to believe that this was far from the ideal test case for privacy injunctions.  Bottom line is that footballers shag minor female celebrities and vice versa.  It’s all very unpleasant and lacking in class, but ultimately uninteresting to me.

The reason that judges are making law in regard to issues like privacy is that Parliament abdicated the responsibility for doing so in 1998 when the Human Rights Act  (HRA) was passed, incorporating the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) into English Law.  The Act explicitly passes the onus to judges when deciding how conflicting rights should be interpreted, with the final authority being the European Court in Strasbourg.  What’s more if Parliament decides to legislate on the matter, that legislation itself must pass muster with the judges as being in line with the ECHR, because of the HRA 98.

To summarise then: Parliament handed responsibility to judges over 10 years ago for decisions in matters like privacy versus free speech.  In order to regain control of such matters Parliament must either repeal the HRA or create legislation within that framework which will have to be rubber-stamped by a court outside the UK.

Not bad for a country that first enshrined civil liberties and human rights in law around 1000 years ago and has been at the forefront of developing such ideas ever since.

A good father knows… what?

May 19, 2011

During a random whizz through WordPress.com today I saw a post with the title: A Good Father Knows the Heavenly Father.  This post asserts exactly what you’d expect from its title.  Apparently, trust in, and reliance on, god is what a man needs to model for his children.  We are also told that a man’s ultimate triumph as a father comes when his children say, “I serve the god of my father.”  The thrust then is that god is the perfect role model as a father.

Wow.

The god we are talking about here is the god of the Bible.  You know, the god who asked one of his favourite ‘children’ to kill his own son and was happy when the guy proved he would do it.  The god who got hacked off with his ‘children’ and killed all but 8 of them in a flood.  The god who ordered his ‘children’ to commit genocides.  The god who sent his own son to be killed by his ‘children’ to atone for their sins; sins which only existed because his eldest ‘children’ ate an apple once when he didn’t want them to.

I’m a father and I suspect that if I did any of this stuff in relation to my child the authorities would be pretty interested.  I can only imagine what life is like if your father really is as choleric, intolerant, megalomaniac, homicidal and petulant as god.  Unfortunately too many children know exactly what it is like to suffer under the tyranny of fathers like this.  It cannot be a good idea to hold up this fictional construct of Bronze Age mythology as a role model for fatherhood.  It is simply impossible to trust, or rely on, a father with these characteristics.

So what is the ultimate triumph for a man as a father?  To hear a child say, “I serve the god of my father,” is no triumph in itself.  It is, in fact, more likely to be an abject failure.  I would far rather my child said, “I am the best person I can be.”  If they decide that includes serving a god then so be it, but it must be their decision.  A father’s job is surely not to produce little carbon-copies of himself, slavishly regurgitating his platitudes.  My job as a father is to equip my child to be better than me, to move themself and others forward, to seek knowledge.

I’m not sure it is possible to fully succeed as a father, but it is certainly possible to fail utterly.  If god exists, which is very unlikely, then he is a failure as a father.  The vast majority of his ‘children’ don’t know him and do not have any relationship with him.  Those who do acknowledge him as a father don’t understand him and disagree on what he wants.

I do not presume to offer advice to other fathers.  I’m still in the middle of doing the job and have no idea if I’m doing it well.  I think I am, I hope I am, but only time will tell.  I do know I’m doing better than that dysfunctional god though.

What do you think?  Any insights you can give into fatherhood or parenthood will be gratefully received.

Sophisticated? No. Sophist? Certainly.

May 3, 2011

While punting about on t’Internet the other day I came across something that boggled my mind, via the RDFRS site.  It is a theological explanation of the Slaughter of the Canaanites described in the Bible.  The explanation is provided by Dr William Lane Craig.  Dr Craig is a research Professor of Philosophy at Talbot School of Theology in California.

The short version is that the Bible describes the Israelites being ordered by God to kill all the Canaanites; men, women and children; no Canaanite to be spared.  The reason given by God is that the Canaanites are evil and steeped in sin and, perhaps incidentally, they occupy the land that He has promised His people.  The Israelites dutifully carry out this slaughter in due course, with no apparent qualms.

To me, the actions of the Israelites in committing genocide are inexcusable.  The defence of ‘following orders’ would be no more valid for them than it was for German soldiers after the Second World War.  More tellingly in my opinion, what kind of loving, just God would order such a massacre?

Dr Craig offers a turgid, turbid, labyrinthine apology for the events described.  I can’t answer it all here, but I am going to try to address the most heinous and/or outrageous points in it:

1.  The event probably never happened.  Well then, case closed.  The Bible isn’t literally true, move on.  End of pontification.  Surely?  Not for Dr Craig, he’s going to attempt to justify the thing anyway.

2.  All morality comes from God and He is not subject to it.  Dr Craig argues that God provides morality for us to live by, but God is not subject to it.  He can choose when to create life and when to end it.  I think Dr Craig is essentially saying, ‘God moves in mysterious ways.’  Thanks for the insight Prof.  A classic case of special pleading.  If God is all-good etc then surely he would set a perfect moral example for us to follow.

3.  The Israelite soldiers were morally obligated to be the instrument of God’s judgement against the Canaanites.  If so, how terrible to be an Israelite and subject to such a capricious, uncompromising authority?  An all-loving, all-good God would surely not subject his chosen people to living with the slaughter of so many innocents.  What a horrific choice for the Israelite soldier to have to make.  To obey a direct command from a bloodthirsty deity or to be cast out of society and punished by that bloodthirsty deity.

4.  Canaanite culture was debauched and cruel.  Perhaps it was.  That does not mean that every single person in that culture was debauched and cruel.  The children certainly were not.  Next.

5.  The Canaanite children were to be killed to prevent intermixing with the Israelites.  I don’t even know where to start with this.  Explicit racism and hints of a ‘Master Race’.  Very disturbing and surely impossible to support.

6.  The infants and children killed went immediately to heaven and, therefore, they and we should be happy.  No they didn’t.  They were killed in presumably brutal fashion.  They would have been in gut-wrenching fear as they saw their death and those of their loved-ones approach in the guise of hard-hearted warriors from another culture.  Even if heaven existed there can be no justification for these deaths or the manner in which they were caused.  In any time, in any context, these killings were repugnant.

7.  My favourite I think: “Aslan is not a tame lion.” (yes, really.  A  genuine quote from Dr Craig).  OK, C.S. Lewis’ Aslan is an allegory for God.  We get it.  This reference, however, is both trite and unsophisticated.  This tells us nothing except to undermine Dr Craig’s earlier claim that God is not capricious in His judgement.  Translated, it says something like, ‘God’s judgement is arbitrary.  He might kill you for sin or he might send his son to die for you.  Heads up.’

8.  The ethnic cleansing of the Canaanites is different from modern-day Islamists claiming to be acting on God’s orders.  Apparently those Islamists claiming to be acting on God’s orders when they kill unbelievers are wrong for one simple reason.  They’ve got the wrong God.  That’s it.  If they had the right God then Dr Craig would presumably be there with them, sleeves rolled up and killing sinners and innocents of the ‘wrong’ religion alike.  The mind boggles.

The fact that this man is not considered an extremist wingnut, but a ‘sophisticated theologist’ shows not only that the phrase ‘sophisticated theologist’ is an oxymoron, but that the difference between mainstream and extreme religion is not clear-cut and, to my eyes, does not exist.  This man claims to be a Professor of Philosophy.  He is a perfect example of those philosophers excoriated by Nietzsche, and others, for deciding an issue on their gut instinct and constructing their argument after the fact.

Christopher Hitchens writes to American Atheists

April 23, 2011

I reproduce (via PZ Myers) below the letter sent to the American Atheist convention by Christopher Hitchens when his illness prevented from speaking there.  The man is truly an inspiration.

—————————————-

Dear fellow-unbelievers,

Nothing would have kept me from joining you except the loss of my voice (at least my speaking voice) which in turn is due to a long argument I am currently having with the specter of death. Nobody ever wins this argument, though there are some solid points to be made while the discussion goes on. I have found, as the enemy becomes more familiar, that all the special pleading for salvation, redemption and supernatural deliverance appears even more hollow and artificial to me than it did before. I hope to help defend and pass on the lessons of this for many years to come, but for now I have found my trust better placed in two things: the skill and principle of advanced medical science, and the comradeship of innumerable friends and family, all of them immune to the false consolations of religion. It is these forces among others which will speed the day when humanity emancipates itself from the mind-forged manacles of servility and superstitition. It is our innate solidarity, and not some despotism of the sky, which is the source of our morality and our sense of decency.

That essential sense of decency is outraged every day. Our theocratic enemy is in plain view. Protean in form, it extends from the overt menace of nuclear-armed mullahs to the insidious campaigns to have stultifying pseudo-science taught in American schools. But in the past few years, there have been heartening signs of a genuine and spontaneous resistance to this sinister nonsense: a resistance which repudiates the right of bullies and tyrants to make the absurd claim that they have god on their side. To have had a small part in this resistance has been the greatest honor of my lifetime: the pattern and original of all dictatorship is the surrender of reason to absolutism and the abandonment of critical, objective inquiry. The cheap name for this lethal delusion is religion, and we must learn new ways of combating it in the public sphere, just as we have learned to free ourselves of it in private.

Our weapons are the ironic mind against the literal: the open mind against the credulous; the courageous pursuit of truth against the fearful and abject forces who would set limits to investigation (and who stupidly claim that we already have all the truth we need). Perhaps above all, we affirm life over the cults of death and human sacrifice and are afraid, not of inevitable death, but rather of a human life that is cramped and distorted by the pathetic need to offer mindless adulation, or the dismal belief that the laws of nature respond to wailings and incantations.

As the heirs of a secular revolution, American atheists have a special responsibility to defend and uphold the Constitution that patrols the boundary between Church and State. This, too, is an honor and a privilege. Believe me when I say that I am present with you, even if not corporeally (and only metaphorically in spirit…) Resolve to build up Mr Jefferson’s wall of separation. And don’t keep the faith.

Sincerely

Christopher Hitchens

Voting for an alternative?

April 22, 2011
AV cartoon

The referendum on AV is fast approaching now and I’ve been weighing up the options and trying to ignore the rather dismal spectacle of the 2 opposing sides using the worst kind of political debate at every turn.  So, what does it come down to?

First Past The Post (FPTP) is the system currently used for Parliamentary elections in this country.  Under FPTP each voter in a constituency selects one candidate and the one with the most votes in a single count is elected to Parliament as that constituency’s MP.  This means that a politician selected by considerably less than half of constituents can be sent to parliament to represent them.  I think it’s fair to say that this is not ideal.

Alternative Vote (AV) is the system proposed to replace FPTP in the coming referendum.  Under AV each voter in a constituency has the opportunity to indicate an order of preference for the candidates on the ballot paper.  The 1st preference votes are then counted and if no candidate has more than 50%, the candidate with the lowest number is eliminated.  The eliminated candidate’s 2nd preference votes are then allocated to the relevant candidates and used in a second count.  This process of counting, elimination and re-allocation of votes continues until a candidate achieves over 50% of the votes in a count.  That candidate is then elected as the MP for the constituency.

At first glance AV seems complicated when compared to FPTP.  On closer inspection, it’s really not.  We all do this process in our heads on a regular basis.  Going to the shop for a snack for example: I’ll have a Mars Bar or, if there aren’t any, I’ll have a Kit Kat or, failing that, I’ll have a cereal bar.

More importantly, it seems to me, is the question of whether AV actually delivers a viable alternative to FPTP and makes our democracy more representative.  I believe the constituency link of each and every MP is a vital part of our democracy so AV, which retains that link, is viable in that sense, unlike some other possible systems.  It doesn’t seem that AV will appreciably increase the cost or administrative burden of running an election either.  So far, so good.

The question I’m stuck on personally is: does AV make our parliament more representative and, therefore, more likely to respond to the needs of constituents?  First of all I don’t think, as has been said by the No campaign, that AV will drive politicians to adopt extreme policies or views in order to pick up lower-order preferences from the voters of extreme parties (eg. the BNP).  Politicians are notorious vote-whores but I think even that sort of thing might stick in their craw a bit.  Not to mention that they would risk alienating their core vote and that sort of thing scares them more than a phone call from the News of the World on a Saturday.

On a similar subject I can’t see any extremist party making gains, like a seat in Parliament, out of this.  They’re extremists because they lie so far outside normal politics that they won’t be able to get 50% of the vote.  If  I’m wrong, we’re screwed anyway as a nation.

What I can see happening is politicians actually listening to what people in their constituency want, even if they indicate that they will be voting for someone else, in the hopes of picking up those lower-order votes.  I think we will see, at a local level, much cherry-picking and tweaking of issues from others’ manifestos.  This is likely to have the effect of reducing the importance of the national structures of the big parties and politicians being ‘on-message’.  I hope so.

So, it looks like I think that AV is viable and is likely to make our democracy more representative at the constituency level.  It won’t stop hung parliaments and won’t entirely stop certain seats being ‘safe’ but nothing’s perfect.  The only question for me now is whether the probable benefits of AV are enough to justify voting for it and all the changes it would bring or is it better to stick to the devil you know?

In answer: I will be voting Yes to AV.  It seems to be the only way to go and is a little bit of a reaction to the negativity of the No campaign.  Although I suppose a No campaign is negative by definition.  We’ll call it excessive and unnecessary negativity then.

Whatever happens, on the 5th May this year I’ll be sticking an X in the box.  Whatever system is used to run our democracy doesn’t change the fact that it is a democracy.  Democracies don’t just happen, they are made by people defending, and ultimately exercising, their rights to elect their own leaders.  Please, vote in this referendum, one way or the other.  Exercise your right to vote and hopefully we’ll never have to fight again to defend it.

Frantic rationalisation?

April 21, 2011

I had an interesting conversation the other day.  As some of you may know I pride myself on being a rational person.  I don’t do ‘faith’ or ‘beliefs’ I do rational thought based on evidence.  Or so I thought.  It turns out the very self-image I hold, of a logical, thinking person, may have been, in itself, a belief based on very little evidence.  Just like a Christian who wants to believe that God loves him and convinces himself it’s so, it may be that I have simply convinced myself I am anything other than a collection of primordial instincts held together by tenuous threads of apparent rationality.

What tipped me off to all of this was the realisation that all the rational thought that I am so proud of is simply sitting on top of a seething stew of nonsense beliefs and animal drives.  At best, my will can steer or divert these underlying states but never control them.  It turns that I have a caveman inside me; sitting next to a fire in a cave, trembling at the thunder and lightning and wondering how to appease it.

Now don’t get me wrong here.  I’m not saying that just because many important parts of my life are driven by the same brain processes as, say, a lizard that I have to act like a lizard.  I am a human being and I can and will rise above the fact that large parts of my nervous system are similar to that of a rat.  To say though, as I have been, that I am entirely rational in my outlook was to ignore the evidence.

Here’s an interesting exercise for those who believe they’re not superstitious (do it as you read it):

Take a piece of paper and fold it in half.  Above the fold, write the name of the person you love the most, the person most dear to you.

Now open the fold and, underneath that name, write ‘will die today in a terrible car accident’.

Speaking for myself, I simply could not do it.  At the start I would have said I was not the tiniest bit superstitious.  Just the thought of writing that second part under the name of someone so special made me feel physically sick.  My every atom recoiled from it.  There is no rational reason for that sort of reaction.  Writing something will not make it so, yet I could not even think of writing it.  I am told by someone who would know that the vast majority of people given that test cannot do it or can only do it by an effort of will.

So, what now?  Well, I would still describe myself as a rational person and certainly still an atheist.  I now have a lot more evidence to take into account when I think about my self and my place in things.  This, I think, is the fundamental difference between someone like me and a religious person.

A religious-type person, when faced with evidence which conflicts with their world-view, will simply ignore the evidence, attempt to denounce the evidence or attempt to change and co-opt it.  A rational-type person in the same situation will take a look at their world-view and, if possible, change that to incorporate the new evidence.  If that’s not possible the rational type will look for more evidence to explain the gap.

So we progress.  Maybe one day our brains won’t be built out of a bodge of 200-million year old parts and our descendants will be able to claim truly to be rational.