Sunday, 31 July 2011

Where has all the quicksand gone?

When I was growing up - not all that long ago - the adventure movies that I saw often featured something that is now becoming rather rare.  Quicksand.

How often have you seen (older) movies where the hero or heroin is running through the jungle and they suddenly find themselves stuck in quicksand.  Initially they are only up to their waists, but everyone knows that escape is impossible.  The more you struggle, the more futile it is and the deeper you sink.  Resistance is futile!

In many ways that scenario is an ideal way to build suspense.  Of course at the last minute the hapless victim was always rescued by someone who improvised an implausible solution to the problem.  Obviously the following advice was not known to them at the time:

Don't struggle. Since the human body is half as dense as quicksand, you won't sink much below your knees, or to your waist under rare circumstances. Fighting the suction-like pull can be exhausting and can cause you to sink deeper by making the solution more fluid. To extract yourself, stay calm and lean backwards to spread out your weight while backstroking to firmer ground. Kick your legs slowly to loosen the surrounding sand, and move deliberately toward the edge. 

That sounds easy doesn't it?  I feel that today's generation of teenagers are deprived of this phenomenon and this opportunity to learn.

Perhaps it is something to do with global warming?

Saturday, 30 July 2011

Historicity of Goldilocks

This lovely satirical post by @shanemuk came to my attention recently, and it fits nicely with a few of my own recent posts, but brings a little more humour than I was able to muster.

On the Historicity of Goldilocks and the Three Bears

"Since the advent of trendy theology in the 19th century, it has become fashionable to regard the Goldilocks narrative as just a story - that it didn't really happen. Nowadays many Christians even dismiss it as a myth, yet they still call themselves Christians. This is an appalling state of affairs, and it is even more tragic that few of the major Christian apologists have tackled this issue head-on. It is time to set the record straight, and affirm the historical Truth of the Goldilocks narrative. I intend to show that it is overwhelmingly more likely that the Goldilocks story is literally true than not, and not only does it constitute Warranted True Belief, it is *necessarily* true in a deep ontological and cosmological sense . . . "  Read On

This came from a blog called Answers in Genes - a nice play on words when compared with Ken Ham's disingenuous and scientifically inaccurate creationist site Answers in Genesis.

Related posts:

Friday, 29 July 2011

Identity crisis on Google+

Who am I - really?  That is a question that must be in the mind of a lot of people who have been considering using the new 'Google+' but are being put off by stories of account suspensions.  If you haven't heard the stories, try this link, Google+ and pseudonymity: An open letter to Google, for one of the more prominent stories of the week.  It details how a (quite well-known) online personality has had her account suspended by Google because GrrlScientist is apparently not her real name.  Even though it is a pseudonym that she has used for many years, it is deemed unacceptable by Google.

Google+ is clearly aiming to be a direct competitor to Facebook, and let's face it, Facebook needs one!  How often does FB 'helpfully' change features that we have started to think we understand.  FB doesn't have a great reputation when it comes to privacy either.  The default option seems to be to tell everyone everything.  Well I exaggerate a little, but I was amazed when I started using FB (just this year) that I had to spend so much time locking down information that I didn't want to be known to everyone in the world.  (And I was already cautious about what information I had added to it!)

There is a raft of reasons why people use pseudonyms on-line.  I can only give my own reasons here.  I masquerade here on Blogspot as Plasma Engineer, use the same name on, on gmail, and use @plasma_engineer on twitter.  I use another name for a work-related technical web site that I have been running for some years.  I even have a completely anonymous-looking hotmail account to use on sites that I suspect will send me a load of spam.  However I still use the name that my parents have given me on Facebook.  A few of you know all of these names, but I trust that other readers are not offended that I keep these identities separate.  I am not upset if I don't know your personal details, but I always feel honoured if you reveal them to me.  It is not just a matter of trust, it is just that we all have degrees of friendship in our real lives, and the same happens in the online communities that we frequent.

As a professional person, I believe that it is important that my personal opinions are separated from my professional opinions.  I don't kid myself that I am so important that it really matters on the grand scheme of things, but I have a role which requires me to act with authority sometimes.  I don't want my personal views on other topics to affect that role.

Having a pseudonym online means that I can exercise my right to free speech with a little more freedom than I would under my own name.  It is not that I feel concerned from a legal perspective.  After all, Google knows perfectly well who Plasma Engineer really is and the authorities could track me down in an instant, although I do not have an I-phone!  Even if I hadn't associated Plasma's e-mail account with my personal account they could easily enough spot that I typically log in from the same few IP addresses and MAC addresses and associate them.  Before you complain that Google would not do such a thing, remember the saga of the 'accidental' logging of wireless network SSIDs, IP addresses and other information while they were conducting the photographic survey of UK for Google maps.

Let's face it.  Google knows everything about us, like it or not.  It is part of the cost of an online presence.  I like to think of it as a responsibility check in some ways.  I'm not completely comfortable that Google knows so much but it does and its too late to change that.

Identity fraud is another area of concern for all of us.  We are constantly warned about it and still we hear stories about how identities and cash are stolen from the wary and the unwary alike.

On top of that, to be perfectly honest I'm literally scared of some factions.  I tend to speak out about things that concern me and some of those things are a matter of life and death to their proponents.  Indeed the life and death matters are the ones that I feel we should all know more about - if we have no warning we can't take any action to prevent things happening.  As an recovering christian, I tend to attack Christianity's inconsistencies sometimes.  There are probably fundamentalist christians who would wish me harm.  I also point out the dangers of creeping Islam, and I am certain that there are fundamentalist muslims who would actually wish me dead, and I have had thinly-veiled threats via Twitter - generally from ignorant idiots who seem to have no notion of rationality, truth or human rights.

So, is Google right to implement a rule about the use of real names on Google+.  I really don't know.  I can see why they want to avoid online fraud from accounts based on their servers. My G+ account actually is in my real name.  So is my Facebook account, and the Something Surprising Facebook

One thing I would have liked from Google was a warning when I set up my G+ account.  If they had made it perfectly clear that our accounts had to be in our real legal names rather than with a pseudonym then I would have felt that they had good reason to close some that were not - whether we like it or not.  Just saying to those who have lost their entire Google 'lives' (however temporarily) that it is against the terms of service (TOS) of the Google account is rather lame.  I have re-read the TOS again and find it hard to work out which clause they are invoking anyway.

The reason I think this is lame is a matter of consistency.   Google's fantastic and free blogging service does not seem to apply the same rules - not yet at least!

Of all the blogs that I follow - not many, but surely a representative number - I think only 10% are published under legally recognisable names.  My main concern about Google is that this identity crisis might get extended to Blogspot.  I have put a lot of effort into this blog this year, and loved doing it.  I now have a reasonable following of intelligent readers too.  Will Something Surprising get closed summarily because I would not answer to the name Plasma Engineer in the street, even though I really am an engineer (of sorts) who works with plasma?  If so, Google will save a LOT of server space as most of our blogs will vanish overnight without warning.

I would find that sad.

(Time for a backup I think!)

Later edition:
Reading further, I think the aim of Google's campaign against pseudonyms is to avoid the launch of a lot of 'corporate accounts' for every company, band and blog.  This link is to an article that Google+ Witnesses Traffic Growth Decline.  Funnily enough it neglects to emphasise that subscription is still by invitation only.

Thursday, 28 July 2011

Laws of Thermodynamics

For those of you who found physics a struggle, here is a humorous (pessimistic-sounding) interpretation of the three laws of thermodynamics.

First Law:  You can't win, you can only break even.

Second Law:  You can only break even at absolute zero (the lowest temperature conceivable, minus 273.14 degrees celsius, or zero kelvin)

Third Law: You can't get to absolute zero (and indeed personally I wouldn't want to anyway).

So all appears to be lost!  But most of the physicists I know are surprisingly cheerful about it.

Flanders and Swann were pretty cheerful about it too.  (They were an entertaining duo who worked together from the 1960s.)  I defy you to keep a straight face as you listen to this.  (The pictures seem rather bizzare, but you don't need to look at them!)

I haven't mentioned the zeroth law.  Yes, there really is one!  Although it was discovered last, it was considered to be the most important basis for the others.

Rapture Index - quick update

You might remember my post on the Rapture Index

Well - it has now stabilised at a score of 182, just 2 below its peak value.


Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Crop formations in trees?

For a few years I have heard rumours that 'crop formations must be caused by aliens because they have been found in trees' (in Canada I think).  Yes - apparently the appearance of a vaguely similar pattern, in trees, half way round the world makes complete sense of the patterns found in fields of wheat in southern England.

Having had a few posts about crop formations recently, I did a google search to see whether I could find pictures of this phenomenon.  So here it is.  A pattern that looks a bit like a crop formation, and it qualifies for inclusion on this blog because it certainly does look surprising.

I have no idea what the explanation for this is, but I would say the smart money is probably not on the alien hypothesis.

Source of this photo: Enormous tree-circles (like crop-circles) were discovered in the Wabikon lake forest (Wisconsin).  (I actually think it is a Photoshop job as the water in the furthest circle seems sloped.)  You can see this lake on Google maps too.  I couldn't spot any circles like this.  Can you?

Related posts:
'Out' Crop Formation
Cornucopia for Cereologists
Income from crop formations  
Where are the formations?
Japanese Rice Art

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Japanese Rice Art

The crop circle formation might not have reached Japan, but instead there is a thriving meme for rice art.  Something about the water in the paddy fields lends itself to the production of striking high-contrast images like these.

Related posts:
'Out' Crop Formation
Cornucopia for Cereologists
Income from crop formations  
Where are the formations?
Crop formations in trees

Monday, 25 July 2011

Where are the formations?

This site Crop Circles and More has a nice utility to show where the crop formations are appearing.  This was this year's map.  Who knows whether it is reliable and indeed how many have now been harvested.

This was the state of play as of yesterday evening.  All the formations in the world seem to be in England.  For some reason the 'aliens' seem to favour just two areas, with Wiltshire and the surrounding counties being highest on the list of places they like to visit.

I might go to see the two or three nearest to my house.  More news if they are still visible.

Related posts:
'Out' Crop Formation
Cornucopia for Cereologists
Income from crop formations  
Japanese Rice Art  
Crop formations in trees?

Sunday, 24 July 2011

Income from crop formations?

It is hard to argue that the making of crop formations is anything other than vandalism.  Some farmers have claimed that the damage caused by the vandals is not as bad as that caused by people visiting the land to see the formation from themselves.

A few circle makers make an income by accepting commissions to create adverts for products, but they are very much in the minority.  Clearly most of them do it for the sense of adventure and mischief, and they enjoy convincing the 'croppies' that the patterns are so complex that they can't be man-made.  (See Delusional Logic to work out which logical fallacy is invoked here!)

But some suggest that the farmers who are most innovative can cash in on a good formation, by charging people to go into their field to 'commune' with whatever they believe to be present.  Set up a booth and allocate an area as a car park and people will pay.  (Obviously not all people will pay, but those who are more nervous of being accused of trespass get the opportunity for a legitimate visit.)

There is a rumour of one farmer making a tidy £30,000 in this way.  This is much more than the value of the whole crop, let alone the small area damaged by the visitors.  It seems quite difficult to find out who this particular farmer might have been.

I wonder whether the tax man managed to find out!

Above picture and others came (ethically sourced) from this link.

Related posts:
'Out' Crop Formation
Cornucopia for Cereologists
Japanese Rice Art  
Crop formations in trees

Cornucopia for Cereologists

This is the time of year for a special harvest, mainly in the English speaking countries of the Northern hemisphere, and this year is no exception.  This is not the harvest of the crops that feed hungry mouths, but the deliberate wanton destruction of those crops in the name of art . . . and mischief.

I am talking of crop circles of course.  Or to use the 'proper' term they are not necessarily circles but 'formations'.  I am under no illusion whatsoever that it is aliens in UFOs who create and implement some of these brilliant designs.  They are expertly planned and usually implemented in secrecy by dedicated teams of pranksters.  Then they are lovingly studied and interpreted by 'cereologists' who seem not to have a skeptical bone in their bodies.

There are some common features throughout crop circle culture, apart from being most common in the English-speaking countries.  They only came to the attention of the public in the early 1980s - more on this in another post soon - but some would argue that this has been going on for centuries.  The only 'evidence' that cereologists can present for this claim is a single page wood-cut print about a 'mowing devil', in Hertfordshire, England, in 1678.  (Yes, that's how we spell that county in these enlightened times. We pronounce it Hart, not Hert. It seems to me that they got the spelling right in the 17th century.)

However, this is probably the first ever crop circle hoax.  For one thing, if it was a mowing devil it was cutting the crop.  In today's 'true' formations the stems of the crops are bent.  There are 'nodules' on the stalks which naturally allow the plant to bend, and as the crops are flattened the stalks are flexible enough to bend at these points.

As I often do, I am 'sitting on the fence' on the topic of crop formations, or as I prefer to say, I am presenting a balanced argument. While I feel sorry for the farmers who's crops are ruined I can't help admiring the art.  In another post soon I will look at the economic arguments for the 'industry'.

Understandably, most photos of these beautiful patterns carry a copyright warning, and not wishing to be eviscerated in court for infringing their rights, all the photos that I will use in the next few posts have been 'sourced ethically'. 

This spectacular formation appeared in 2001 in southern England.  It is sad that the ethical sourcing policy excludes some of the pictures from this year, but to be safe I have provided a link to a source for these.  Apparently cubes are in fashion in 2011.  I should warn you though that the word WOO is strongly associated with the second of the links below.

Some sites for some brilliant photos:
Free Natural Wallpaper - crop circles photos to download
Crop Circle Connector- large woo warning!  Lots of nice up-to-date photos though.

Related posts:
Out crop formation!
Income from crop formations  
Where are the formations?
Japanese Rice Art  
Crop formations in trees?

Out crop formation!

Isn't it surprising what appears in the crops these days!

This is the start of a series of posts about crop formations and cereology in 2011.  And yes, they are all hoaxes, just like this one.

Related posts:
Cornucopia for Cereologists
Income from crop formations 
Where are the formations?
Japanese Rice Art  
Crop formations in trees?
Wallabies on opium make crop circles!

Saturday, 23 July 2011

Texas evolves at last!

Who would have thought it?  The Texas Board for Education has finally voted on the 'controversial' topic of the teaching of evolution in high schools in the state.  The most surprising thing of all is that the vote was unanimously in favour of evolution.  Maybe that is evidence that evolution is taking place in Texas!

By 8 votes to none, they approved scientifically based supplements to biology text books and rejected supplements based on so-called 'intelligent design'.

Does this matter?  Why would anyone else care what they decide?

It matters because Texas is the state that has most influence over schooling in the whole of the USA.  Whatever gets approved in Texas tends to get adopted in the other states.

Anything that introduces the Fact of Evolution to millions of young people in US must be a good thing. 

Read more at Victory for evolution in Texas

Related posts:
Evolution video - Jack Szostak
Intelligent Falling
The myth of half-humans

Deeply corrosive to science!

Have you ever seen the delightful talk that Richard Dawkins gave at TED a few years ago?  If not, I strongly recommend that you watch him at work in times before The God Delusion was published.  Many of the familiar arguments are rehearsed here and it is fun to see how they developed.

I loved some of the comments and enjoyed all the subtle English humour in this video.

For example, Dawkins claimed to be 'strictly agnostic about the tooth fairy . . . but it isn't very likely . . . is it?"

He also admitted (if that's the term) that Creationists have got one thing right.  Evolution is hostile to religion and deeply corrosive to religious faith.

He went on to say that religion is deeply corrosive to science too.

"Religion's trivial, supernatural, non-explanations blind people to the wonder of real explanations.  Religions teach obedience to authority, the power of revelation and the benefits of faith.  In doing so they inoculate people against the actual evidence using 'the poverty-stricken arsenal of the religious imagination".

Friday, 22 July 2011

The Grandfather Gospel Challenge

Many people claim that Jesus was a real historical character, rather than the extension of the myths of Krishna, Horus and Mithras (see the post "Not even a new myth!" from 13th June).  I believe that most make this claim because they have learned from early childhood to believe that Jesus actually existed and they have never questioned the fact.  The few who are aware of the doubts about the historicity of Jesus and wish to counter them principally offer 'evidence' in the form of texts that were written 'not long' after his lifetime.  One such web site can be found here.  This was offered as evidence in a comment on a post "Historical Jesus" here at Something Surprising a couple of weeks ago.

As I replied at the time, I wondered whether the contributor had actually read the page at that link?  It is one of those pages designed to impress you (or perhaps depress you) by quantity not by quality.  I would have thought that with 1 billion christians in the world, just one of them could come up with something more convincing than that.

The earliest 'evidence' presented there was the work of the Jewish historian, Josephus.  However, did you know that early copies of Josephus do not contain the passages about Jesus?  It is pretty certain that the copies commonly published are forgeries from the 2nd or 3rd century.  (You may dispute this claim, but if so I trust that you can provide solid evidence.)

Besides that, Josephus and the Roman historian Tacitus were writing decades after the supposed time of the crucifixion, and the other writers mentioned on that page were even later than that.

Thinking about this helped me to formulate the idea of "The Grandfather Gospel Challenge".  If you feel strongly about the early gospels being historically accurate, I challenge you to respond to it.  Follow this link and surprise yourself.

Download this unique file free at this link and take the challenge if you dare.

Maybe that will at least make believers think again about the nature of evidence.  I don't for one moment expect it to deconvert anyone.

Piggy Irony

Wouldn't it be ironic if this came true.  Here is a link to an article about how pig farms can be used to generate fuel - as well as pork.

Can Pigs help end our dependency on muslim oil?

The manure-to-oil process uses thermochemical conversion, in which heat and pressure act on organic compounds in a revved-up, tightly controlled imitation of the much longer process that occurs in nature. In order to develop a commercially viable method, the research team ditched the catalyst required by the conventional process, and they figured out a way to keep pig hair and dander from fouling the equipment. The team also skipped the conventional first step, which would be to dewater the manure. Instead, their process uses raw manure containing 80% water. The use of raw manure requires more heat to activate the conversion, but the researchers note that could be captured and recycled with a heat exchanger.

I could never be a muslim.  This is for many reasons, but in this context the main factor is that pork is easily my favorite meat!  That is a little tricky if you want to join islam.

If pigs can help to save the world from islam as well as tasting so great, that would be wonderfully ironic.

Related post:
Ask the pigs!

Thursday, 21 July 2011

Muhammed - genuinely unpleasant!

"Muhammad is a narcissist, a pedophile, a mass murderer, a terrorist, a misogynist, a lecher, a cult leader, a madman, a rapist, a torturer, an assassin and a looter."  Former Muslim Ali Sina offered $50,000 to anyone who could prove otherwise based on Islamic texts. The reward has gone unclaimed.

Someone kindly sent me a link to an interesting web site, Islam: The religion of Peace (and a big stack of dead bodies).

If you feel that I have been critical of Islam from the outside on this blog, then I think you will see a critical perspective from the inside via that site.

The quotation at the top of this post comes from their page on The Life of Muhammed.

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

250 Surprising Things

This is the 250th post on the Something Surprising blog, and it is now frequently getting 50 visits per day.  To celebrate the occasion, and for the benefit of some of the newer readers, here are the 5 posts that have proved most popular.

In 5th place, on a physics/philosophy topic:

Death of a photon  (16th June, 201 page views)

4th place

Bursting the bubble (8th April, 234 page views)

3rd place

Horus and Jesus (12th June, 252 page views)

2nd place:

Sink Holes! (27th April, 294 page views)

and perhaps surprisingly (because I felt that I was being a little silly while writing this), by far the most the most popular post so far is:

A school of Darwin Fish (15th June, 417 page views)

A big thank you to all my readers.  I didn't expect my ramblings to be so popular but I am glad that they amuse you.

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Jesus - madman or something worse?

You might find the title of this post a little surprising.  But before you decide that you disapprove,  you should be aware that the words come from one of the 20th century heroes of christianity.

However, as Peter Brietbart writes:

C.S. Lewis, a serious and sensible theologian wrote in 1942 about Jesus:

“I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: 'I'm ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don't accept His claim to be God.' That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic -- on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg -- or else he would be the Devil of Hell.

You must make your choice.

Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.”

Watch the movie at "A Madman or something worse".  As they say:

Jesus of Nazareth was an awful moral philosopher. He compares badly to such modern greats such as Mill, Rawls or Ross and also to historical thinkers such as Aristotle, Diogenes or Plato. His moral contributions are not original, and his original contributions are not moral.

God is little more than a pleasant fable for adults, a pacifier for the mind that quells the nervous forebodings of death. And so Lewis is right. The Nazarene was A Madman or Something Worse.

Of course there is a third option.  Whenever someone presents you with a choice or two or three options there is always another option, and that is not to make a choice at all.

I'm almost certain that Jesus was neither mad nor a great moral teacher.  To be either of these he would have had to have existed, and it is not at all clear that he did exist.

Related posts:

Monday, 18 July 2011

Incredible time-lapse

From this site, you can watch this amazing video of the night sky.  Full screen is best.

Ocean Sky from Alex Cherney on Vimeo.

Thanks to Sarah for finding this.

Sunday, 17 July 2011

The crucifiction darkness

Remember the story of the crucifiction?  This is the version from Mark's gospel.

15:33And when the sixth hour was come, there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour.
015:34And at the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, saying, Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani? which is, being interpreted, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?

Some have suggested that this was a solar eclipse.  But those who have made that suggestion have neglected to check whether it fits with scientifically demonstrable facts about the behaviour of the sun and the moon.

Was there a solar eclipse that fits with the time of the crucifiction?  The short answer to that is an emphatic 'no' and we can be certain of that for a number of reasons.  We don't need to interpret the astronomical calculations and wonder whether they are accurate enough (which of course they definitely are).  We don't even need to ask whether a solar eclipse ever lasts, or could last, for a full three hours.  It can't.  Totality only ever lasts for a few minutes.  The one pictured above was in 1999 and I was there.  It lasted about 2 minutes.  (A wonderful experience, by the way!)

It is simpler than that.  We learn it from the bible. (It is not often that you hear me say something like that, is it?)

Jesus' crucifiction took place around Passover.  This feast is defined to be at the middle of the lunar month - namely at full moon.

Solar eclipses take place only at the time of the new moon.  Really!  Always!  Without fail!  If you think about it you will understand why.  At a solar eclipse, the moon passes exactly between the earth and the sun.  That means that the far side of the moon is fully illuminated by the sun, so the near side is fully dark.  That is what is meant by a new moon, even on other months when the moon is only approximately in line with the sun.

Therefore we can be sure that there was no such solar eclipse at the crucifiction - if indeed it ever happened anyway.

Incidentally, this mysterious darkness would surely have been recorded by contemporary historians, and it wasnt.  So here is a clear and obvious example of a biblical story that can be tested, and it fails the test.

I wonder what that says about the other 'facts' that you can't check.  It doesn't fill me with confidence in their accuracy.

Related posts:
Wikipedia's article on the Crucifixion Darkness and eclipse 
Not even a new myth!
Historical Jesus"

Saturday, 16 July 2011

Ask the pigs!

News has broken in Oxford this week that the new Centre for Islamic Studies is being built on controversial ground.  This building is the latest addition to Oxford's 'dreaming spires'.  What would Inspector Morse have made of this new centre for taqqiyah - an extension perhaps than the closed ranks around the good old 'friendly' colleges in the city which conspired to defeat him in his inquiries.

It has been rumoured for a little while that the site was previously a pig farm, but at last a map has been found which may confirm the urban myth to be true.  Read more about the story at this link.

Everyone I know seems to find this story ironic (and remember that in England irony is funny).  The registrar of the new centre had no comment. 

Nobody seems to be concerned about what the pigs might think of it.  Don't pigs have human rights too?  Their ancestral lands have been taken over by a culture that considers them unclean.

Friday, 15 July 2011

FSM strikes in Austria

At last - a victory for a 'sensible' religion in Europe!

You might have seen this story about a young driver who has succeeded in getting a driving license issued to him.  What is unusual about that, you might ask?  It was the nature of the religious attire that he was permitted to wear.  It was a spaghetti strainer.

Niko Alm claimed to be a member of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, who's only dogma is the rejection of dogma.

The "Flying Spaghetti Monster" first appeared in a satirical open letter by Bobby Henderson in 2005, written in protest against the decision by the Kansas State Board of Education to permit the teaching of intelligent design as an alternative to evolution in public schools.  The deity has evolved from Bertrand Russell's concept of the flying teapot.

It is interesting to note that this church has already experienced its first internal wranglings, with the Reformed Church of the FSM splitting away from the original within a couple of years.

Thursday, 14 July 2011

Oxford Skeptics in the Pub - Stephen Law

Philosopher Stephen Law made another visit to Oxford on Wednesday evening to talk about "Believing Bullshit" - which happens to be the title of his new book.

The room was well filled with people between their 20s and 60s - and certainly not the all white, male, middle-aged demography that you might expected of a group of skeptics only a few years ago.  (OK - as it happens all were whitish.)

The aim of the talk was to examine why 'true believers' (in anything from religions to conspiracy theories) can consider - in spite of all the evidence - that they are the ones with the reasonable attitude and that everyone else is deluded.  Law introduced the concept of the 'intellectual black hole' (IBH) as an analogy for a belief system which it is impossible to escape from.  He suggests that the IBH tends to encourage people to adopt methods of thought that confirm the illusion of reason.

He suggested that there are 8 aspects of the IBH scenario, which we can learn to spot when we are talking to the people caught in them.

  1. The mystery card
  2. But it fits
  3. Moving the semantic goalposts
  4. Going nuclear (an example below)
  5. I just know
  6. Pseudo profundity
  7. Piling up the anecdotes
  8. Pressing your buttons

Buy the book to find out exactly what these mean and to see interesting examples of all of them.

As one version of 'going nuclear' he gave an example that is common to 'new age thinkers', although less common with theists.  When confronted with an argument that they are going to lose, the people in the IBH might say "That's true for you but its not true for me".  By saying that though, they have made all truths equally valid, however preposterous.  In doing so they have undermined their own argument as effectively as those of their opponent.  (Now you can see why theists do not like to use it.  They like their own version of the truth too much to risk it.)  Law suggested that the best thing to do when someone 'goes nuclear' is to suggest that 'my truth is neither more nor less reasonable than yours' and then leave, and never to get drawn into the argument.

In the questions and answers, he mentioned the work of Justin Barrett who has been working on the concept of 'invisible agents' and who has a new book out soon.  He has developed the Hypersensitive Agency Detection Device (HADD) hypothesis to explain the need that humans seem to have to believe in the supernatural.  His new work suggests that atheists have to work hard to suppress this tendency and that we are hard wired for religiosity.  (That is not to suggest that this is evidence for god though - just of a need for a god.)

An excellent evening!  I must get round to ordering a copy of the book at the weekend.

Related posts:
From Oxford Think Week
The Moral Landscape (introduced by Stephen Law)

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

200,000 years before Jesus

Inspired by Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris . . .

We now know that the human race is 100 to 200 thousand years old. For all of that time people have been inventing better ways of living, and spreading around the world. They have been developing fire, art, music, wheels, levers, tools and . . . religions. Not just one religion but thousands of them.

For all that time humanity has faced disease, earthquakes, volcanoes, predators and no doubt temptation.

Heaven looked on, unconcerned.

But then, suddenly, 4000 years ago in barbaric, illiterate parts of the bronze-age middle east, God (with a capital G) decided to intervene. He didn't reveal himself in China or Europe, but only to a chosen people (who have subsequently split themselves into Judaism, Islam and Christianity).

What most religious people of today fail to notice is that this religion was just one of humanity's first attempts to explain the world in terms of:
  • Philosophy
  • Morality and 
  • Healthcare

We now have better attempts at all three of these without relying on the supernatural.  We now have much more elegant and persuasive scientific explanations for the world around us. It is not perfect, but with every iteration it gets nearer to perfection.

Meanwhile, religion stands still.  It was first written down by people who knew nothing of the world of science.  They did not know what caused people to die.  They could not predict the natural phenomena around them.  They were not stupid of course, but nobody reading this anywhere in the world knows as little as they knew, and in fact probably none of us have ever even met anyone so ignorant.

But still people look back on the great religious texts as if they contain the wisdom of the ancients.

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

An owl, not an angel!

This surprising imprint of an owl on a window appeared in northern England recently.  No owls were harmed in making this picture - although no doubt it was a little surprised too.

Read on via BBC Cumbria.

Monday, 11 July 2011

Taqiyya - lying for Islam

Here is a short video about Islam, the religion of peace.  It is only 8 minutes long.  If you have any doubts about the dangers of creeping islam to the west you should watch this 'to set your mind at rest'.

Oh by the way - that last phrase about setting your mind at rest was an example of inverse taqiyya!  Nothing about this video should set your mind at rest.

If you don't have the time to watch it, or feel that it is not your problem, I will summarise the three things that it mentions.  (But follow the first of the three links below to see a more detailed transcript of the text).
  • Islam has not been hijacked by fundamentalists. It is complete and consistent and it is not open to a variety of interpretations like other religious texts.
  • Striving to institute worldwide sharia law is a religious duty for all muslims.
  • Muslims are allowed to deceive non-muslims if it helps Islam.  Watch the video to find out what taqiyyah means.

Islam is at war with the non-islamic world until the whole world follows sharia law, and those three points make it clear how everything you are told about peaceful Islam is completely consistent with its fight for world domination.

According to the Koran the world will be at peace only when Islam and sharia reign in every country, and never until then.  This is why every muslim can 'truthfully' say that Islam is a religion of peace.

Links from the video:

Related posts:
Learning from Islamic History  
Kitman - more lies for Islam

Ayaan Hirsi Ali - victim of Islam

Described by Time magazine as one of the hundred most influential women in the world, Ayaan Hirsi Ali has established herself as a notable critic of Islam.  She speaks with an insider's insight into the religion of peace, and as such those of us on the outside can learn a lot from her.

Her life has not been free of controversy.  After she was elected to the Dutch House of Representatives in 2002 it emerged that her initial application for asylum in 1992 had been flawed.  She had given false information about her date of birth and in some sense about her full name (although some argue that this might have been due to a nuance of Somali culture).  Whether or not it is true, the claim that that she was trying to escape from a forced marriage to her cousin was not disputed, and after an investigation into the affair her Dutch citizenship was confirmed.

So - none of us is perfect.

Perfect or not, most people in the west believe that they have an absolute right not to have our lives threatened for any reason at all, let alone due to religious bigotry.  After she escaped marriage and fled she was already under threat from her extended family.  Had they found her there is little doubt that they would have murdered her for damaging her family's reputation.  But things moved on when she worked with Theo van Gogh to make a film about her experiences.  The movie Submission brought to the public view the treatment of women in Islamic society.  Passages from the Qur'an were displayed alongside scenes of actresses portraying Muslim women suffering abuse.

Van Gogh was a friend and supporter of the (somewhat controversial) politician Pim Fortuyn and his last film was a fictional account of Fortuyn's murder in 2002.  Controversial or not - surely it is wrong that Fortuyn was apparently killed 'to stop him from exploiting Muslims as "scapegoats" and targeting "the weak members of society" in seeking political power'. 

Having established himself as a leading critic of islam, in the early hours of 2nd November 2004, Theo Van Gogh was murdered by  - you guessed it - another supporter of the religion of peace - Dutch-Moroccan, Mohammed Bouyeri who is now serving life in prison with no hope of parole.

Now Ayaan Hirsi Ali is living with the threat of murder from a larger proportion of the muslim world - not only from her close family.  She continues unabated to campaign against islam, claiming to have become an atheist in 2002 while drinking a glass of wine and wondering why such an action would condemn her to eternal damnation in hell.

She is the founder of the AHA Foundation which campaigns for womens rights in cultures all around the world.

You can hear her speak (among other places) in a Point of Inquiry podcast episode from 2009 or read the episode notes at this link.

I find her to be inspiring, interesting and courageous, standing up for the rights of people who may not even realise that they need support or that there are other ways to live.

Related posts this weekend:
7/7 - Imagine no religion
Geert Wilders - Innocent
Ayan Hirsi Ali - victim of Islam -- this post

Previous related posts:
Look out! Sharia about!
Adam and Eve featured
Draw Mohammed Day
Discrimination in Afghanistan

Learning from Islamic History 

Sunday, 10 July 2011

Geert Wilders - Innocent!

How many native English speakers around the world are aware of the name Geert Wilders?  Of those who are, I suspect that only a small proportion have succeeded in avoiding the totally biased media message that he is a right-wing politician who has been stirring up hatred about Islam.  Fewer of us can pronounce his first name properly.

Although I have not heard Wilders speaking, I suspect that his British counterpart is the 'foaming-at-the-mouth' Pat Condell, who has a reputation for speaking out against the privileges of religion.  In particular on his recent podcasts and Youtube videos he has taken a strong stand against islamisation.  His style of speech is certainly not to everyone's liking, but it is hard to argue against the truth of his words and the depth of his knowledge on the danger that Islam poses to the western style of life.

For those who are not aware of the Wilders story so far, over the last few years there has been an embryonic anti-islamic backlash in the Netherlands, and one of the figureheads of this movement is the democratically elected politician, Wilders.  Not only is he elected, but he is leader of the 'Party for Freedom'.  He has been accused of criminally insulting religious and ethnic groups and inciting hatred and discrimination.  In his own defence he has claimed that

"While Islamization of our society grows, the political elite looks in the other direction and ignores the real problem, namely, the impending loss of our freedom. I am fighting not against Moslems, but against the influx of a totalitarian ideology called Islam."

According to Wilders himself, it was not he who was on trial, but his "freedom of speech" and that traditional European freedoms were at stake.

You should consider the context of his concerns.  Over recent years the tolerance that The Netherlands has shown to Islam has been serially abused.  It is dangerous to exercise your right to free speech in Netherlands if you should happen to stray onto the topic of criticism of Islam.  Notable examples include the death threats against another democratically elected politician, Ayaan Hirsi Ali (see tomorrow's post) and the actual murder of film maker Theo Van Gogh.  It is hardly surprising that some people are starting to object to the behaviour of militant islamists.

In the first attempt to take Wilders to trial last year, the judges were deemed to have acted unlawfully by showing bias against Wilders and in particular of trying to persuade a witness that the trial was justified under the law.  When the 'show-trial' was restarted in 2011 under new judges this turned out (surprisingly) to be a minor factor, and the trial proceeded.

I find it interesting to speak with some Dutch friends and colleagues on this topic.  All my colleagues have been very guarded about their opinions.  They will tell you that "not everyone in Netherlands likes the approach that Wilders takes".  They have stopped short of saying that they personally were against the way that he has been pilloried by the courts and the media.  In fact, in each case I detected a quiet admiration for the man who is saying what nobody else dares to say in public.  (I have detected similar views among British friends who know of Pat Condell.  They dare not approve too loudly.  Of course, there is also one significant difference.  Wilders is elected and Condell is self-appointed.)

Only on one occasion has a Dutch friend actually raised the subject of Wilders in my presence.  She was speaking with two members of her family, in Dutch and I think they were surprised that I picked up what they were talking about.  I detected no reticence in their views.  They were delighted that the trial was over and that the outcome was so sensible.

At last, on 23 June 2011 Wilders was acquitted on all counts:
  • Group insult
  • Inciting hatred against Muslims because of their religion
  • Inciting discrimination against Muslims because of their religion
  • Inciting hatred against non-western immigrants and Moroccans because of their race
  • Inciting discrimination against non-western immigrants and Moroccans because of their race
His statements were, as presiding judge Marcel van Oosten put it, "acceptable within the context of public debate."

Now we wait in dread that those poor helpless 'insulted' plaintiffs will try to take their case to the European Court of Human Rights.  We can only hope that they don't introduce a new 'right not to be offended'  That would be the end of free speech as we know it.

Related links:

Trial of Geert Wilders
BBC bias on the result of the trial
Learning from Islamic History 

Related posts this weekend:
7/7 - Imagine no religion
Geert Wilders - Innocent - this post
Ayaan Hirsi Ali - victim of Islam -  coming tomorrow

Previous related posts:
Look out! Sharia about!
Adam and Eve featured
Draw Mohammed Day
Discrimination in Afghanistan

Small note:  Does anyone detect a similarity between the appearance of Geert Wilders and that of Draco Malfoy in the Harry Potter movies?  Is this a coincidence?  (Malfoy was translated to Dutch as Malfidus.)

Saturday, 9 July 2011

York Minster fire, 1984

This was the scene of devastation in York, this day in 1984.  As you may remember, some people blamed the Bishop of Durham for the fire - or at least they blamed God for an act of retribution.  After all, the bishop had dared to say that it was not absolutely necessary to believe in the virgin birth in order to be a christian. 


God does indeed work in mysterious ways if he chooses to destroy the glorious York Minster for the actions of another bishop.  But of course we knew that already.

7/7 . . . Imagine no religion.

In the week of the sixth anniversary of the islamic terrorist bombings in London, on 7th July 2005, I feel that it is worth remembering why we should be islamophobic.  Remember the definition of that word.  We should be fearful of islam, not biased against moslems.  However, that lack of bias has limits.  I am biased against anyone who questions my freedom of speech in my country under my system of law, whether moslem or not.

Although the attack on the twin towers on 9/11 was the greatest atrocity of the last decade, it must be remembered that other democracies around the world are also under threat.

Here are the reported words of one of the 'British' moslem terrorists, Mohammed Sidique Khan in 2005:

"I and thousands like me are forsaking everything for what we believe. Our drive and motivation doesn't come from tangible commodities that this world has to offer. Our religion is Islam, obedience to the one true God and following the footsteps of the final prophet messenger. Your democratically-elected governments continuously perpetuate atrocities against my people all over the world. And your support of them makes you directly responsible, just as I am directly responsible for protecting and avenging my Muslim brothers and sisters. Until we feel security you will be our targets and until you stop the bombing, gassing, imprisonment and torture of my people we will not stop this fight. We are at war and I am a soldier. Now you too will taste the reality of this situation."

So we should look to religions for our morals?  I think not.  Did he speak for all his moslem brothers and sisters?  I think not.  Did he remember why there was an attack on Afghanistan? (I'm not saying that I agree with it but it was a direct result of the 9/11 event).  I think not.

He had quietly forgotten this while he was being incited to murder by the islamic cowards who send young fanatics to a glorious death from the comfort of their own middle-age.

Khan and those who incited him represent a significant danger to western life and freedom of speech.  When the views of the Taliban start to impact on life in countries half way around the world I almost start to approve of action taken to liberate the oppressed people of Afghanistan.  Sadly though, I am not sure that they want to be liberated or even know that they are oppressed.

Related external links:

7th July 2005 London bombings from Wikipedia
2004 Madrid train bombings from Wikipedia

Related posts this weekend:
7/7 - Imagine no religion - this post
Geert Wilders - Innocent
The bravery of Ayan Hirsi Ali - coming soon

Previous related posts:
Look out! Sharia about!
Adam and Eve featured
Draw Mohammed Day
Discrimination in Afghanistan
Learning from Islamic History 

Outraged islam?

Is this what it is like to feel outraged if you look at it from the islamic point of view?  I have a feeling that those of us who open our eyes to what is happening around us have more right to be outraged.

This cartoon introduces this weekend's mini-series of posts about aspects of the 'religion of peace'

Related posts this weekend:
7/7 - Imagine no religion
Geert Wilders - Innocent
Ayaan Hirsi Ali - victim of Islam - coming soon

Previous related posts:
Look out! Sharia about!
Adam and Eve featured
Draw Mohammed Day
Discrimination in Afghanistan
Learning from Islamic History

Friday, 8 July 2011

Patronising posts - and Paul

Apparently yesterday I was a bit patronising and condenscending while dissecting the comment that someone left anonymously on my post about Yahweh.  Two friends have separately mentioned that it was not very nice of me.  While not quite apologising for that I will at least explain.

My degree is in physics.  Although I never claimed to be very good at physics (honestly) I do at least know a little bit about the implications of the laws of thermodynamics.  I'm happy to have anonymous comments on the blog . . . BUT . . .  I would respectfully request that real science is used instead of pseudo-science and scientism.  The 2nd law of thermodynamics was explained much more eloquently by Luke Scientiae, who also left a comment about the dragon that Carl Sagan kept in his garage.

Meanwhile, I have been watching a movie which I didn't expect to enjoy.  Simon Pegg and Nick Frost's 'Hot Fuzz' was great but 'Run Fatboy Run' and 'Sean of the Dead' were not quite as entertaining for me.  However, I hadn't realised that their latest movie 'Paul' is full of comment about evolution and atheism in America.  It has had me laughing while writing.

Maybe I should learn a bit from the end where Paul responds to a blessing "God be with you" with the casual reply "Yeah . . . whatever dude, sure!"

I vote for Paul as the atheist movie of the year.

Small note: Not sure I can do that when people use scientism though.  I suppose the message is that if you prefer me not to be patronising then perhaps you should not leave scientistic comments for me to be patronising about.

Thursday, 7 July 2011

Order from chaos

I love to get comments on my blog posts!  In an anonymous comment on a post a few days ago, I recognise a number of the standard tired old pseudo-scientific creationist arguments.  Shall I dissect the comment into its components?  The italic text is what was written by my anonymous but concerned friend.

God is a spirit, you cannot see a spirit. 

First demonstrate to me any evidence at all that there is such a thing as a spirit.  Then we can talk about the visibility.

But just because I cannot physically see God does not mean He does not exist. 

True.  Nobody can disagree with this although I have to point out that the balance of probability strongly suggests his absence, or at least his indifference. I suggest that there is actually no evidence that he does exist.  (The evidence of the heart doesn't count as evidence.  The evidence of scripture is too recursive to be any help either.)  Go on - show me your real evidence.  Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and you are the one claiming the existence of an extraordinary being.

The complexity of information contained in biological systems is incredible. 

It is truly amazing and wonderful.  You personally might find it incredible, but many of us do not have such a problem.  In this day and age you can go to places called libraries where they have books explaining how the diversity of life has arisen.  Personally I would recommend 'The Greatest Show on Earth' by Richard Dawkins as a clear and informative description of the fact of evolution.  If you choose to remain ignorant of the evidence that is available to anyone who can read, then it is your own choice.

Order does not come from nothing. Chance occurrences lead to entropy not ordered systems. 

The old ones are the best!  So you have read somewhere that the 2nd law of thermodynamics describes the progression from order to chaos, and you have drawn a pseudo-scientific (not scientific) conclusion from your incomplete understanding of physics.  Yes indeed, entropy increases when you consider the whole universe, but that is actually not the same as the inevitable universal chaos that your argument seeks to invoke.  You see it is perfectly possible to generate order from chaos and for entropy to decrease locally without breaking the 2nd law.  Try dissolving some salt in water and leaving it on a windowsill in the sun for a few days.  The salt solution is surely chaotic, but the crystals that emerge from it are rather obviously orderly.   Explain that if you can.  The bonus is that the laws of physics remain entirely unscathed.

Give yourself the opportunity to believe. 

Well, there are several aspects to this.  First of all, I spent 45 years doing that.  But now I have escaped from feeling a need to try to believe in an invisible but omni-malevolent being, my first question is to ask why you think I should believe in your particular deity.  Is it the Christian God, the Jewish God (who is different), Allah (who the Koran claims to be the same as the previous two), Thor, Ra or Ba'al?  The list is endless.  Why yours?

Interestingly the comment was on a post which didn't touch on evolution or entropy at all.  Does anyone have anything to add to my response?

Small and frivolous note:  Incidentally, whisky is a spirit and I can see that.

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Atheist 404 error?

How often have you typed in a web address and made a mistake, resulting in

Error 404:  The page you are looking for can not be found.  You may have mistyped the address or it may have moved.

If this happened on an atheist web site there might be an opportunity for a little fun.  What might we like the error message to say?

Error 666: The deity you are seeking can not be found.  You may have prayed to the wrong entity or failed to find the true way.

Perhaps you have a better suggestion and might be tempted to leave it in the comments.

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Intelligent Falling

Anyone interested in the Theory of Evolution will have heard of the concept of "Intelligent Design" .  After all evolution is 'only a theory'.

Of course the Heliocentric Theory (that the sun is at the centre of the solar system) is 'only a theory'.  It just happens to be a very well established theory - just as evolution is very well established if you only prepared to look at the evidence.

Another one that is quite well established (as we all know through painful experience) is the Theory of Gravitation.  Why on earth aren't the creationists out to demonstrate that Intelligent Falling is a better explanation?

In the Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams famously described the best way to fly.  You have to throw yourself at the ground and miss.  Can you imagine a more intelligent way to do this than a space walk in orbit?  Any object in orbit is doing exactly what Adams suggested.  It is falling continuously, at exactly the right rate to keep missing the earth.

Monday, 4 July 2011

Enough about Yahweh - mysterious indeed!

This is the last of a mini-series of 'ramblings' about the many faces of the many gods in the Old Testament.

Richard Dawkins, in his best selling book The God Delusion, (available at all good internet shops - and indeed book stores if you can still find one) described Yahweh in unsympathetic terms.

“The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”

I think we can now add a few more words, including:
  • Schizophrenic (as in 'The Trinity')
  • Psychopathic
  • Domineering
  • Overbearing
  • Precocious
  • Egotistical and . . .
  • . . . Imaginary
Whatever you decide for yourself - and I know it is unlikely that I have influenced your firmly held views in either direction - the Old Testament of the Bible is a strange mix.  I am sure that I was once young enough to take these myths of the bronze age seriously, but even through my adult years as a christian I found them strangely inconsistent and frankly ignorant of the way that the world can be explained without reference to the supernatural.  Now that I have escaped from that christianity I look at them seriously and skeptically.  I wonder how I could ever have taken the Old Testament seriously without being skeptical.

If you have enjoyed this series of posts, summarised in the links below, you might also be interested in the earlier series about the Historicity of Jesus.

If you have been appalled by my romp through the confusion about the god of the old testament, you might like to leave comments to explain where I went wrong.  Please avoid quoting scripture at me to do that, as I do not accept quotations as evidence.  What you need to demonstrate is that things are not really as confusing as they appear.  Good luck.

Related posts:

Asherah - the wife of Yahweh

In the 1975 excavation of Kuntillet Ajrud, a site dated to the 8th century BCE, pottery was found covered with amazing and revealing scripts.  Asherah's name was associated with Yahweh as if as his wife.  "I have blessed you by Yahweh ... and his Asherah".

Yahweh (normally portrayed either as a storm god or desert god) is often mentioned in other archeaological finds in association with Asherah.  Her name even appears 40 times in the Hebrew bible.  Perhaps you remember passages from the bible that appeared not to make perfect sense [ironic smile] but some of them might be clearer if you know that Asherah is generally translated into English (King James Bible) as the 'grove' or 'pole' - both of which probably represented her ritually.  In fact Asherah was usually represented in a distinctive way using a tree or branch motif.  She was thought of as the 'tree of life' and in Ugarit she acted as an intermediary between mortal men and her husband the Most High god El.

Deuteronomy 16:21 "Thou shalt not plant thee a grove of any trees near unto the altar of the LORD thy God" is one example where she seems to be described as a cult object.  The meaning seems clear (even if slightly strange) until you find that the 'grove of trees' might represent a goddess if translated differently.

2 Kings 23:4 it is clear that the King is attempting to purge all the trappings of polytheism,". .. to bring forth out of the temple of the LORD all the vessels that were made for Ba'al, and for the grove, and for all the host of heaven . . ."

Deuteronomy 33:3 says in some translations "At his right, his own Asherah"

A similar figure to Asherah appears in other cultures under different names, including Athirat, Ashertu and Astarte and but with a similar tree of life theme.  The Wikipedia article about Asherah says that in the Ugaritic texts Athirat is distinct from Asherah  but then goes on to say "although in non-Ugaritic sources from later periods the distinction between the two goddesses can be blurred; either as a result of scribal error or through possible syncretism".

This all points towards the Old Testament being a huge mixed bag of myth and legend and some biblical scholars, including Francesca Stravrakopoulou would go so far as to claim that God's wife might have been edited out of the bible.

I suspect that speculation like this is not what one might term 'strong evidence', and certainly the 'lovely Francesca' has her critics.  Somehow though I find her arguments more compelling.  At the very least she is not afraid of point out inconsistencies in the Jewish and Christian interpretations of the Old Testament stories.
The next post is the final one in this mini series.  It aims to summarise the mixed bag of anecdotes presented over this weekend.

Related posts:

Sunday, 3 July 2011

The Ugaritic Texts

The remains of the ancient city of Ugarit were discovered in 1929, and the stone tablets found there contained writings that must have implications for the Old Testament.  Scholars are of course divided about how to interpret them and theologians obfuscate about their relevance, but many of them are now preserved in the Louvre in Paris.

There seems little doubt that the Ugaritic Texts pre-date the Old Testament.  There is strong archaeological evidence to show this, but the evidence is partly of a type that does not satisfy certain people with a vested interest in the bible.  For example, if you believe in the literal truth of the Old Testament and that the world is only 6000 years old, then carbon dating and other rational scientific evidence that sheds doubt upon these claims can be dismissed as easily as the rest of science.  (I will not dwell on the irony of the observation that many of these people rely on same basis of science to read this post on the internet, or to use their mobile phones, while denying that science has anything useful to say about their area of 'special pleading'.)

Those who do not actually deny the scientific truth of the dating of these texts sometimes try to pretend instead that it is not very relevant.  However, it seems obvious to me that contents of the Ugaritic Texts cannot be irrelevant to this weekend's theme about god in times of the Old Testament.  Any evidence from the same geographical region from a time slightly earlier than the Old Testament must shed light on the way people were thinking and acting in their religious lives. If experts disagree with each other, then it is obvious that they all need more evidence to back up their arguments.  Ignoring some data in favour of other evidence that you prefer is lazy and un-scholarly.

The Ugaritic texts show that the Israelites were clearly very closely associated with the tribes living around them.  At that time in the Canaan region, it is claimed by many that polytheism was not the exception but the norm.  There are strong clues about this throughout the Old Testament.  Interesting verses are slipped into the text here and there, and it is as though have not been effectively removed while trying to make the Old Testament appear monotheistic.  I touched on Psalm 82 and Deuteronomy yesterday, but here are some more.

  • 1 Kings 22:19  "I saw the LORD sitting on his throne, and all the host of heaven standing by him on his right hand and on his left."  (Who were all the host?)
  • Exodus 15:11  asks about Yahweh "Who is like unto thee, O LORD, among the gods?"
  • Genesis 1:26, uses the plural - "And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness".   Even from the very creation it seems that god was not alone.
I expect there are 'weasel words' to explain these oddities, but how can theologians say that the bible is all literally true except where it isn't?

So who were these other gods in this polytheistic environment, one might wonder.  The people of Ugarit worshipped a god called Ba'al.  This time he was a storm god, unlike the way he was described yesterday, so you could be forgiven for assuming that I was confused.  (In the event that that is true, it is because the 'evidence' is truly confusing.)  But the texts mention a god even more powerful than Ba'al, namely El.  The Ugaritic version of El was the husband of Asherah and the father of all gods.

You won't be surprised to see the familiar names Ba'al and El but now you can see why I chose to look at them in more detail in the previous posts.  But who was Asherah?  More on her in the next post.

Related posts:
More on the details of the Ugaritic Texts can be found here.