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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.

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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

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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.

Another booky wook? I hope not, to judge by this shitty wit.

April 12, 2011

Russell Brand has written a little thing in the New Statesman in which he tells us that Richard Dawkins is the best argument for the existence of God.  The main thrust seems to be that, hey, religion isn’t so bad and there must be something bigger than us.  Right?  RIGHT?

The article tells us that Russell will question Richard Dawkins, explain Transcendental Meditation and give us a touch of the divine and, by these means, prove the existence of God.  Not bad going for a moderately funny and intelligent man.  Why didn’t we all see this before? Could it be too good to be true?

Russell begins by telling us that he is unqualified to prove God’s existence.  So far, so obvious.  There’s some waffle about why it doesn’t matter, but I have developed a zero-waffle tolerance over the years so it can safely be ignored.  All very clever and wordsmithy but, ultimately, just hot air.  The punchline to this opening is the comment that atheists, presumably all of us, have some good arguments but are “incredibly reductive and manipulative in their targets”.

Let’s start with ‘manipulative in their targets’.  Russell has no problem with atheists, personified for him by Richard Dawkins, attacking mad mullahs and televangelists who espouse Creationism.  They’re an open goal.  But what, asks Russell, of such men as Ghandi, St Francis of Assisi or the Dalai Lama?  They are or were religious and yet Russell implies that they are or were completely good men and good examples to prove “the existence of a power beyond man.”  By “power beyond man” I believe Russell means God, but he’s clearly not a man to use one word where 5 will do.  I have no argument with Russell’s assessment of these men’s virtues.  What I do question is that they in any way, through their respective examples, point to the existence of a God or a power beyond man.  No evidence is offered in the article beyond this:  They’re good, they’re religious; therefore religious is good.  It’s a simple failure of logic.

As I recall, Prof Dawkins and other prominent atheists have in fact directed arguments against the Dalai Lama and St Francis in the past, so the assertion that atheists are manipulative in their targets seems a little wide of the mark.  It seems that Mr Brand might be accused of it though.  He has selected one atheist who some would regard as extreme to stand for the whole amorphous mass of us and then attempted an assault on his position by enlisting the examples of religionists from 3 different traditions.  For shame.  Especially since his thrust is so limp-wristed in the end.

But what about the no 2 in Russell’s 1-2 punch?  The contention that atheists are incredibly reductive.  By picking through the verbosity I think I have identified what he means.  Those pesky scientists and their demands for evidence are impertinent because, wait for it, God is beyond such petty, small-minded concerns.  We are simply not capable of processing the evidence into a proof of God (although Russell is).  Russell explains that God lies beyond the reach of current science, but not for ever.  In the meantime Russell, like a raggedy, sensual Messiah will bridge the gap twixt God and man.  What a relief.

There is plenty more in the article about how people like to fight (it’s not just because of religion), how Russell doesn’t understand how evolution could result in ‘ingenious and incredible’ Richard Dawkins and some guff about Transcendental Meditation and how it proves there is a God (it doesn’t by the way Russell).

I had intended to refute Russell’s wooly thinking in this post, but I realised it’s just too wooly.  I can’t cut through it, so the only option is to burn through it.  Russell, you’re a fairly funny man and clearly very lucky in many ways.  You’ve been given a platform to say something interesting in life, but unfortunately nobody reminded you to pull your head out of your arse first.  The result is the hodgepodge of incomplete arguments, unevidenced claims and general, dare I say, bullshit that I have just read.  It’s not big, clever or even diverting.

Dude, you stick to funnies and husbanding Katy Perry and leave the fundamentals of the Universe to those far cleverer than both of us.  Deal?  I reckon you’ve got the better end there really.  Not that you give a toss I expect as long as your new thing doesn’t totally bomb.  Ta ta.

Black & white political language?

April 3, 2011
AV cartoon

A rather grubby little row has blown up in British politics.  The issue of racism has raised its ugly head in the campaign for the Alternative Vote (AV) referendum.  It would appear that the ‘Yes to AV’ campaign have distributed leaflets in London which include a photo of poet Benjamin Zephaniah, but have used an image of actor and writer Tony Robinson in his place in some of the more rural areas of England.

The ‘NO to AV’ campaign are calling this change racism and their spokesman had this to say:

“Why are Yes to AV ashamed to have the support of Benjamin Zephaniah in places like Cornwall and Hampshire?  The Yes campaign’s leaflet offers a chilling preview of politics under the alternative vote.  We have warned that AV would encourage parties to pander to extremist opinions in a chase for second and third preference votes, but we never imagined the first example of such outdated views would come from the Yes campaign itself.”

The ‘Yes to AV’ campaign have denied that race is an issue in the leaflet distribution.  They explain the change by saying that they have a number of celebrity endorsements to accommodate on the leaflets.  Their spokesman said:

“These allegations mark a new low for the ‘No’ campaign and their increasingly desperate smears.  Let’s put it this way: Operation Black Vote, the Muslim Council of Britain and a host of similar groups are backing the ‘Yes’ campaign. The BNP are backing the ‘No’ campaign. People can draw their own conclusions.”

As a bit of background, AV is a proposed system of voting to replace First Past the Post (FPTP), the current system in the UK.  There’s a pretty good explanation of AV on Wikipedia.  In a nutshell, rather than voting for one preferred candidate in an election, voters rank the choices in order of preference.  If one candidate doesn’t achieve a majority (over 50%) on the first count then the bottom-ranked candidate is removed and the second choices of their voters are put into a new count.  This continues until one of the candidates achieves a majority and is elected.

The ‘NO to AV’ campaign claim that one of the reasons AV is a bad system is that it will encourage politicians to appeal to followers of extremist and fringe groups in order to gain second choice on their ballot papers.  The ‘Yes to AV’ campaign state that this isn’t the case and that extremist groups will find it much harder to get elected than under FPTP.

Back to the row then.  ‘Yes to AV’ certainly appear to have used different celebrity endorsements in different regions.  This is a rather unedifying spectacle, whether it’s a matter of race or not.  Presumably they believe that people in, say, Hampshire will not recognise or identify with Benjamin Zephaniah as readily as people in London.  The clear implication here is that Londoners read cutting edge poetry and yokels watch Time Team.  It is also possible that the ‘Yes to AV’ bods really do believe that people in the country don’t like black people, but I really hope that wasn’t a factor.

Meanwhile the ‘NO to AV’ people have jumped in with both feet to try to make some sort of point about politicians pandering to extreme opinions to get votes.  Since the referendum will be a straight Yes or No vote it will be conducted under FPTP, so why would there need to be any currying of favour with extremists to obtain second votes?  It’s a failure of logic and a fairly obvious case of mud-slinging.  Are they really trying to tell us that Nick Clegg, Stephen Fry and Joanna Lumley are racists?  Really?

This whole episode brings nothing but shame to both sides.  The Yes campaign have clearly taken the targeting of their message to an extreme that simply leaves them open to ridicule.  The No campaign have leapt on it and tried to turn it into something it’s not in a cynical attempt to smear their opponents.  Frankly, these are two of the activities in politics that annoy me the most.  Politicians have to get out of their little bubbles, start working for the people of this country rather than for each other and recognise that people can and will follow the facts of a debate and decide an issue on its merits (as an aside on that subject: just because the BNP support something it doesn’t automatically make it something to oppose.  The BNP are an offensive little gang of bigots in the main, but let’s stick to the facts in political debate thanks).

For the record I lean a bit more towards AV as a voting system but I’m still looking at the information.  I urge you all to do the same and, whatever you do, please vote in the referendum.  A lot of good people have made huge sacrifices so that you can.

Someone may have boobed

March 31, 2011

The hashtag #nationalcleavageday has been trending on Twitter today.  It’s a topic that has excited a fair amount of interest.  One female Tweeter, @SiobhanDockerty is claiming a large number of new followers (over 50) thanks to the pic in this tweet:

https://twitter.com/#!/SiobhanDockerty/status/53507540784390144

Others have been less impressed with the concept, complaining that they have no cleavage to display:

A different group dislike it for reasons of sexism and/or its objectification of women, a bit like this:

Of course, plenty of people love the idea, both men & women:

https://twitter.com/#!/enemveecee/status/53538757579780097

https://twitter.com/#!/katyt89/status/53538297649168384

And then there’s the funnies:

Personally, I appreciate a good cleavage as much as the next person who appreciates a good cleavage.  I also quite like most other parts and configurations of the female body.  I don’t think we really need to have a day dedicated to cleavage, but how about a day set aside for the appreciation of how great people’s bodies are, in all their wide variety of shapes?  And while we’re at it, let’s remember that a person’s body is not the greater part of what they are by any means.

10 000 non-believers in Blackburn, Lancashire

March 29, 2011
A Day in the Life Cover

I know the title doesn’t scan properly but I couldn’t resist it when I saw an article on the Lancashire Telegraph website about changes to the Religious Education (RE) curriculum in Blackburn.  It seems that in response to the stated religious preferences of the people of Blackburn and the surrounding area (in the 2001 census) the study of non-belief is to be added to RE studies alongside the big 6 religions: Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism and Sikhism.  Well, good.

A few things caught my eye in the article.  The first and most trivial is the category error of equating humanism with atheism.  Humanism does not involve belief in a God or Gods but not all atheists are humanists and not all humanists are atheists.  As I said this is a trivial thing but it is representative of the way journalists sometimes portray those things they don’t fully understand or think their readers won’t understand.

Rev Kevin Logan, who has a column in the Lancashire Telegraph, had this to say:

“It is quite a change but it is completely right to recognise atheism and humanism.  They are religions like any others. It is just that people worship man instead of a god.  I am certainly not worried about Christianity. It can stand against any belief and come out in a good light.”

Rev Logan is right when he agrees that atheism and humanism should be recognised but wrong to say that they are religions that worship man.  Atheists and humanists do not worship anything as such.  Atheism and humanism celebrate reason and human experience, but this is not worship in the religious sense.  I also believe Rev Logan should not be so sanguine about Christianity.  It may well be able to stand against any belief, but it is beginning to waver in the face of reason, facts and evidence.

The biggest point for me in the article was this quote from Salim Mulla, chair of Lancashire Council of Mosques (my emphasis):

“We believe it is important to have faith values whether that is Christian, Islamic or any other religion.  The values are very, very important. I don’t think the non-God aspect should be introduced into the curriculum.  I don’t think it is right. People are born into faiths and are brought up in that faith and that’s how it should stay.  The non-faith beliefs send a wrong message to the children and confuse them.

That is a lot of bullshit in such a short quote.  Distilled down, the first part says, ‘Faith values are important.  Well, actually faith is important.  The values don’t matter as long as you believe in something.  Anything.’  He also doesn’t think that the ‘religious’ stance of 10 000 people in the area is right.  Fair enough I suppose, I don’t think he or his religion is right.  Just a matter of opinion right?

The real meat of his statement is in the last 2 sentences.  ‘People are born into faiths and are brought up in that faith and that’s how it should stay.’ – not only does this show a distinct lack of understanding of how his own religion has spread over the years, it is the worst kind of brainwashing drivel.  He is saying that people don’t have the right to examine the world they live in, to question it, to seek answers.  He is labelling people, children, at birth and confining them to a box for their whole lives.  Unbelievable.

‘The non-faith beliefs send a wrong message to the children and confuse them.’ – where do you start with this level of head-in-the-sand idiocy?  How can you have a non-faith belief?  The terms faith and belief are essentially interchangeable.  He goes on to say that atheism and humanism send a wrong message to children.  Opinion again.  He concludes with the gem that this ‘wrong’ message will confuse children.  The only response to this is a quote:

If you’re not confused, you’re misinformed.

Salim Mulla, you’re misinformed.  I’m just glad that the children of Blackburn won’t be in future.