Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Why this might become a Reddit-free zone

It is possible that the Reddit buttons might disappear from this blog.  I honestly haven't decided, but I think you might be interested to know why I am considering it.  Reddit has been quite a good source of traffic over the last few months, but on balance its annoying quirks and capricious inconsistencies probably outweigh its benefits.

Once upon a time, self-publicity was permitted freely on Reddit, even if not actually encouraged.  At that time the community was thought to be able to sift the wheat from the chaff.  Posts that were of good enough quality would rise to the top, and those that were inferior would not, independent of the identity of the person who submitted them.

But now - without warning - you might find yourself banned from one sub-reddit for posting just 3 or 4 of your own blog posts over a period of months.  The /r/humour moderators did at least have enough of a sense of humour to rescind the ban once they had been contacted.  They also had the decency to tell me about it - albeit hidden behind a red envelope symbol that I didn't notice for a while.  I felt that I had been treated fairly at the time.  However, at least three friends have found themselves banned from other sub-reddits with no notification at all, and the whole thing is bewildering to new users trying to work out what they are now doing wrong.

Subsequently, I was posting regularly to the /r/atheism sub-reddit as I noticed was common with a few other atheist friends.  Clearly the /r/atheism moderators were not bothered by this, and with a rising karma figure one might assume that the community was benefiting in some way.  Again, I was very happy with the way that this sub-community spoke its mind about links that I provided to various other sites and to my own Something Surprising blog.

I have even blogged about the benefits of the slightly quirky Reddit community.

But then - some obnoxious and abusive b*****d who turns out to be the moderator of another sub-reddit (which I will not name) decided to indulge in a campaign of reporting contributors who posted things that offend him.  If his name was not 'iesvs' I might be tempted to think that he was an islamist terrorist.  I suppose that is still not totally out of the question.  I say 'he' rather than 'she' because his abusive comments are of a style that make it perfectly clear that he is a 'total-prick', and his obsession with potentially illegal Kindle hacking activities seem to be geekishly male. (I'm being narrow minded and judgemental here!)

Instead of indulging in intelligent and reasonable debate, this character uses his knowledge of the Reddit system to silence views that he does not like.  By repeatedly flagging a huge number of users - ten or more per day - as 'blogspot spammers', on Reddits that he does not moderate, the Reddit admins are persuaded to administer a sneaky and silent sentence.

They use a duplicitous technique known as 'shadow-banning'.  To the user, Reddit appears to work perfectly normally with the one exception that nobody at all seems to follow the links that you provide.  It takes a bit of research - all wasted time - to discover that there is one sure way to find out whether you are in this state.  You visit the Reddit.com/user/[your name] web page, and you find that you get a 404 error.  (There is a lot more information at this excellent link, from which the following image is ethically sourced.)

Shadow-banned - or ghost-banned!  And proud of it!
There must be another weapon in the armoury.  I and other users believe that it is possible to post things from other computers on other networks and be treated differently.  This cannot be as simple as an 'IP address ban' as my own home IP address is not static.  Every time I reboot my rooter it gets a new address.  Maybe Reddit uses the MAC address of my PC(s) or of the router itself - or maybe this is just anecdote and confirmation bias.  One way or another - posts from different places get treated differently, and I feel that there is no way that I want to waste time building a reputation for myself in the Reddit community when it can be terminated so easily and malevolently.

The Reddit admins do not seem to respond to messages.  Why should they bother?  There are plenty of other users and their time is limited.  They are not attributable to anyone and don't have to justify themselves.  Fair enough, but in my opinion they are a disgrace to the sub-reddit communities who live under an online 'sword of Damocles' unable to retain regular users who have enriched their world. This isn't just me but many other regular contributors.

Many disgruntled users will set up new accounts every time this happens and find ways to continue to patronise Reddit.  However - those who refuse to be silenced impolitely like this - like me - will just go to Twitter and other networking sites instead.  We might even write critical blog posts too!

I, for one, will not be looking to maintain a strong presence on Reddit.  That is not to say that I don't want my loyal and interesting readers to post items that they particularly like - I just won't be doing it myself.

Minus one vote for Reddit.

Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Thomas Paine - the first 'New Atheist'?

Thomas Paine, author of The Age of Reason, had an 'interesting' involvement in the French Revolution.  At the time he was living in France and although he was an English born 'Founding Father' of USA, he was acting as an elected member of the French National Convention when the revolution happened.  Things did not go well for him, but at least he escaped with his life.

Thomas Paine - an atheist and a deist.

Paine was a deist - in other words he believed in a creator of the universe but not a creator who intervened in its workings.  He was quite fervently anti-christian, and having been reading The Age of Reason I will be sure to write about him again in the future.

For the time being, here is what he said about the subject of miracles, with an interestingly humorous comment about Jonah and the whale.

Of all the modes of evidence that ever were invented to obtain belief to any system or opinion to which the name of religion has been given, that of miracle, however successful the imposition may have been, is the most inconsistent. For, in the first place, whenever recourse is had to show, for the purpose of procuring that belief, (for a miracle, under any idea of the word, is a show), it implies a lameness or weakness in the doctrine that is preached. And, in the second place, it is degrading the Almighty into the character of a showman, playing tricks to amuse and make the people stare and wonder. It is also the most equivocal sort of evidence that can be set up; for the belief is not to depend upon the thing called a miracle, but upon the credit of the reporter who says that he saw it; and, therefore, the thing, were it true, would have no better chance of being believed than if it were a lie.

Suppose I were to say, that when I sat down to write this book, a hand presented itself in the air, took up the pen, and wrote every word that is herein written; would anybody believe me? Certainly they would not. Would they believe me a whit the more if the thing had been a fact? Certainly they would not. Since, then, a real miracle, were it to happen, would be subject to the same fate as the falsehood, the inconsistency becomes the greater of supposing the Almighty would make use of means that would not answer the purpose for which they were intended, even if they were real.

If we are to suppose a miracle to be something so entirely out of the course of what is called nature, that she must go out of that course to accomplish it, and we see an account given of such miracle by the person who said he saw it, it raises a question in the mind very easily decided, which is, is it more probable that nature should go out of her course, or that a man should tell a lie? We have never seen, in our time, nature go out of her course; but we have good reason to believe that millions of lies have been told in the same time; it is therefore, at least millions to one, that the reporter of a miracle tells a lie.

The story of the whale swallowing Jonah, though a whale is large enough to do it, borders greatly on the marvelous; but it would have approached nearer to the idea of a miracle, if Jonah had swallowed the whale. In this, which may serve for all cases of miracles, the matter would decide itself, as before stated, namely, is it more that a man should have swallowed a whale or told a lie?

But suppose that Jonah had really swallowed the whale, and gone with it in his belly to Nineveh, and, to convince the people that it was true, had cast it up in their sight, of the full length and size of a whale, would they not have believed him to be the devil, instead of a prophet? Or, if the whale had carried Jonah to Ninevah, and cast him up in the same public manner, would they not have believed the whale to have been the devil, and Jonah one of his imps?

The most extraordinary of all the things called miracles, related in the New Testament, is that of the devil flying away with Jesus Christ, and carrying him to the top of a high mountain, and to the top of the highest pinnacle of the temple, and showing him and promising to him all the kingdoms of the World. How happened it that he did not discover America, or is it only with kingdoms that his sooty highness has any interest?


Interestingly, I believe that if Paine lived today he would have realised that his deistic god had been backed so far into a corner that deism was not longer a defensible argument.  His rational and reasoning mind would be a great addition to the ranks of the present New Atheists, and he was perhaps the historical character who was nearest in every way to the late, great, Christopher Hitchens.

One could almost call Paine 'the first of the New Atheists', even though he died in 1809!

Monday, 27 February 2012

Greatest adversary of Yahweh

Following on from yesterday's post about finding the Ugaritic Texts in Musée du Louvre last weekend, here are some more detailed pictures of the tablets.  You can find more about these tablets in a post last July about The Ugaritic Texts.

The first picture is of a tablet which says in the French commentary to the right that Baal was presented as the greatest adversary of Yahweh.  I will not attempt to translate any of the others, but have added a relevant caption to each.

Their location in Musée du Louvre can be seen in yesterday's post.

Ugaritic Texts - the greatest adversary of Yahweh

Ugaritic Texts - Functionaries of a temple

Ugaritic Texts -Legend of Danel

Ugaritic Texts - Hierarchy of the gods of the kingdom of Ugarit

Ugaritic Texts - Mythological poem of the life and death of Baal

Ugaritic Texts - Mythological poem of the life and death of Baal (fragment)

Ugaritic Texts -Birth of the gods

Sunday, 26 February 2012

Finding the Ugaritic texts in the Louvre

Last July I wrote a series of articles about the gods of the Old Testament including a post about The Ugaritic Texts.  Yes - I said 'gods' rather than God.  It seems very clear that there was 'pantheon' of gods at the time and God (a.k.a Yahweh) was just one of them as you can read at that link.

Finding myself in Paris on a Saturday afternoon with no other commitments for a few hours, I took the opportunity yesterday to go to Musée du Louvre to look for the actual Ugaritic Text tablets and to see them for myself.  Just having seen pictures of the tablets without seeing their context, I didn't have a good feel for the size of them or indeed the number of finds.

Musée du Louvre, in February 2012
Finding them was a little tricky.  Even asking one of the guides (and finding for the only time in 3 days that my French is not good enough) did not help.  Sitting in the Mesopotamia rooms of the Louvre, at first I thought he was just one of those arrogant Parisiens that you hear about but don't often meet.  After a while I realised that he was only arrogant because he was also ignorant of the archaeological treasures surrounding him.

C'est la vie!  I found them a bit later all by myself, in room B of the ground floor area of the 'Sully' section of the Louvre.  I gained access to that area through the 'Richelieu' wing.  No doubt there might be easier ways to get there but I happened across some other interesting and famous artifacts on the way there. More about the amazing Code of Hamurabi in a few days time.

For today, here are a couple of photos of room B.  Tomorrow I will post photos of some of the tablets themselves.  First an overview of the room looking towards the North-East.

Musée du Louvre, Sully, ground floor room B

This is the cabinet containing the Ugaritic texts

Where in Musée du Louvre are the Ugaritic texts?  In this cabinet.
and this is a bit more detail of the cabinet itself

The cabinet containing the Ugaritic Texts in Musée du Louvre

More detail coming tomorrow, but just to finish this post on an incongruously surprising, lighter note, I thought you might smile at a sticker that I saw on a motor bike in Paris.  At the least, it is an interesting example of 'Franglais'.

J'adore rien - I'm parisien!

Saturday, 25 February 2012

Things Christians Say, Part 4 - Just rebelling against God!

A weekly series of responses to the things christians say to atheists, based on the video reproduced here on 30th January 2012.  The aim is to tackle one every weekend, to give both a moderate, polite response to each question ('Piano'), followed by a more forceful rebuttal of the same question ('Forte'). 

These so-called atheists are just rebelling against god.

Piano

This is an interesting accusation, because I think it is often true of young people who were indoctrinated into a religion. However, it is not universally so. In order to rebel against a god you would have to believe in one to start with. This is where it becomes difficult to lend any credence to the claims that they are atheists. Rebelling against god is in fact one thing that cannot possibly be claimed by any atheist. If they do believe then they are a rebel. If not, they are an atheist.

How often do I hear people claim that they used to be atheists too, but that they have now found Jesus? It is not rare by any means.

But then again, the same people sometimes tell me that they are frightened about the afterlife and that they can't understand how we can live a life without hope. As soon as I hear this I personally begin to feel that they are in the category of rebels against god.

As for me, since I am largely sure that there is no god, I don't fully understand the expression 'rebelling against god'.

***

Forte

For those christians who claim now to have seen the light I find that they parade their former atheism as a bit of a badge of pride. They use it in what they think is a subtle attempt to persuade you that you might also be 'saved' in future.  It is perfectly possible to change your mind – they say.

In their case they might have been rebelling against god or against their parents. They might have been more strident at that time than the current 'New Atheists' but I suspect that they don't realise that rudeness and stridency are not necessary characteristics for an atheist.

The only qualification required in order to be an atheist is a lack of belief in gods. Most of you are also atheists – I just take it one god further than you do.



Last week:   If evolution were true, we'd see dogs giving birth to cats!
Next week:  Well - what stops you from going out and just killing everybody?

Friday, 24 February 2012

More popular than Jesus!

The is a guest blog post written by a friend of the creator of Something Surprising.  I think you will like it.

The day that John Lennon said "We're more popular than Jesus now; I don't know which will go first, rock 'n' roll or Christianity", he caused a bit of a stir. Many of our friends in the bible belt of America decided to burn records and publications having already paid good money for them.

Burning the Beatles albums!
This was in 1966, 4th March to be exact, and at this time there was little in the way of a benchmark by which to measure the validity of Mr Lennon's statement. But it has to be said that I doubt their careers suffered much as a consequence and it has largely been forgotten.


But how can we quantify how popular something is based upon a world wide audience?

Facebook!

Yes Facebook, the new evil in the world that has been responsible for more than it's fair share of misery for the masses.  One in six of the world's population has a Facebook account and one in three has access to someone who does have an account.   That is in excess of two billion people.  Wow!

So, are the Beatles more popular than Jesus?  Yes, and by more than a factor of two.  At time of writing 25,600,000 people "like" the Beatles and 11,500,000 "like" Jesus.  Even if we factor in his 'dad', God, with 4,700,000 "likes" the figure only hits 16,200,000.

Strangely enough the third member of the "band", the holy ghost, doesn't even have a page. [Should we create one?]

So, I think it is official, The Beatles are still more popular than Jesus.

Having said that, the most popular Facebook page is Texas Hold'em Poker, with in excess of 50,000,000 "likes" so those tempted by money seem to predominate!


*********

This is a guest post on Something Surprising, kindly provided by 'Tony'.

Thursday, 23 February 2012

Who gave this Kafir the right to speak?

At the recent London Rally to Defend Freedom of Expression, the author of the delightful Jesus and Mo cartoons asked for his words to be read out aloud, and Maryam Namazie of One Law for All obliged by doing it for him.

When was the last time you rushed into a place of worship while a service was taking place, and told the preacher to shut up? My guess is that you have never done this while sober.

Because you know that it is impolite to butt in to other people’s conversations and demand that they stop talking.

And yet that is what would-be censors are always trying to do. At St Mary’s College, on other people’s Facebook pages, at literature festivals, and on the website of Jesus and Mo, they have butted in with their rude – and sometimes menacing – demands for silence.

It is the height of bad manners. Those of us who understand the value of free expression wouldn’t dream of being so discourteous.

In fact, far from telling believers to shut up, we WANT them to keep talking. Because that is how their ideas are exposed to light and – inevitably – laughter.

In the end, there is only one solution available to those who don’t want their beliefs to be laughed at: stop believing funny things.

So this is my message to the religious censors: we do not merely ASK that you show us the same courtesy that we show you. We INSIST on it.

We are going to be criticizing your scriptures, lampooning your prophets, and laughing at your deeply held beliefs for many years to come. You can complain about us. You can ignore us. Or you can respond in kind with ridicule and laughter of your own.

But you cannot shut us up.

Thank you to everyone here for helping to get that message across.

To celebrate the words, here is a recent Jesus and Mo cartoon which sums up the message nicely.  Remember, Jesus is Jesus, Mo is Mohamed, and the invisible third character is the wise and wonderful barmaid.

Jesus and Mo - with Menace!

Incidentally, the title of this blog post does not strictly apply to the above speech, but it was drawn from another speech at the event.  They were the words of some islamist bigot who wrote in a blog post on a site called 'Islamic Awakening' (which I decline to link to - demonstrating that I really am islamophobic).

You can hear a report about the rally on the excellent Pod Delusion podcast, Episode 123.  The Pod Delusion also provided a recording of the whole Freedom of Expression event, which features some great speakers!   I'll be listening to it again - all of it - soon.

Who indeed did give 'this kafir' the right to speak, I say, speaking as another proud kafir.

Well - this is England.  Nobody needed to give us the right.  I was born with it, thanks to the bravery of all our ancestors who fought for these rights.  Nobody has the 'right' to take the right of free speech away from us.

The odd thing is that the right to free speech gives the Islamist bigots the right to question it.

In this country we celebrate that fact as a victory for freedom!


Other links:
http://richarddawkins.net/articles/644928-but-you-cannot-shut-us-up
and
http://freethoughtblogs.com/maryamnamazie/2012/02/12/but-you-cannot-shut-us-u/#comment-21229

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

No point in listening to peasants

From my own point of view, Peter Atkins was the star guest on a panel in the Grove Auditorium of Magdalene (pronounced 'Maudlin') College, Oxford, on 21st February.  He had the general approval of the audience to a greater extent than the other members.

The splendid 'Grove Auditorium'
(complete with a piano that was not visible yesterday).
Stephen Law was the other atheist, being part of 'team philosophy' with the christian Richard Swinburne.  I can't bring myself to comment much on Swinburne's words as they were barely comprehensible "unadulterated professorial claptrap" as Atkins said. "A world without suffering is a world where we would not have choice" and things like that poured from Swinburne's mouth - if I understood him correctly. I was told that Richard Dawkins has previously described Swinburne's work as being 'beyond satire'.  I could hardly disagree with either point of view!  The fourth member of the panel, theoretical physicist Ard Louis, spoke well about science but still seemed to require intervention from god - or particularly the christian God.

Professor Peter Atkins - a 'defunct chemist'
but not a defunct speaker (photo from here)
I'm only going to speak further on Peter Atkins' contribution, because his words delighted me and they are the only ones that I actually want to talk about and paraphrase.  He described himself as "a defunct physical chemist".  He started by saying that there are three ways of learning about the world:
  • Think about it - or 'sit around inventing crazy ideas'
  • Rely on authoritative books  - written by peasants, or
  • Experiment!
There is no point in sitting thinking what the world should be like, and no point listening to peasants. [A little harsh perhaps] It is almost surprising that it took until the 17th century to develop the idea of experimental science. Since then the reticulation of ideas - the complex interactions between the different disciplines of science - has been one of the greatest strengths of science.  Ideas from the different islands of science reinforce each other.  They are mutually supportive, testable and most importantly, public. And science works!

There are questions which can distinguish the wheat from the chaff.  "What is the purpose of . . . " type questions are definitely in the chaff category, as is 'What is the nature of the afterlife?'  Apparently the answer to that is easy.  It will be exactly like it was before you were born, in spite of the rantings of the aforementioned peasants.

There are other questions that have not been answered yet and may never be answered, but they are still in the wheat category.  Where does it all come from?  What is the nature of consciousness, aesthetics and morality?  On topics like this, science illuminates, philosophy does something else, and religion obfuscates.

There was plenty of applause.  After the other panel members had spoken, Atkins professed a 'deep distress at the dismal views of the rest of this panel'.  I'm tempted to ask who could disagree - but there were some in the audience who would say that they would. 

Having made admiring comments about Atkins, I wouldn't say that he was the most approachable person in the room.  Then again, I am just a peasant and my feelings are not very badly hurt.

Aren't people interesting?

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Think Week off to a good start

Oxford Think Week 2012 got off to a good start last night, with an event called 'In Conversation with Richard Dawkins'.  The other gentleman in the conversation was Benjamin Krishna, Chair of Oxford Atheists, Secularists and Humanists and student at Oxford University.  Oxford Town Hall was nearly filled to capacity, with an audience of about 600 people - which was said to be a larger audience than for any of the events in a week of meetings by the Oxford University Christian Union recently.

Richard Dawkins and Ben Krishna

Here are a few highlights - by no means intended to be a full transcript of the event, but just some things that I liked.

Naturally the recent results of the Isos Mori poll, (see here and here), sponsored by the RDFRS, were first on the agenda.  Much of the discussion mirrored the conversations that many people in UK will have heard on radio and TV recently.  Dawkins mentioned that most vicars and bishops were nice people who you might like to have tea with.  He said "I have only met one nasty bishop . . . quite recently actually" presumably in reference to his debate with Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali on BBC's Newsnight programme last Tuesday.

He recommended a new book by Steven Pinker, called "The Better Angels of our Nature" which sets out to demonstrate that the past was a much nastier time than the present. 

He also suggested that it would be possible to date almost any book written in the last century to the nearest decade simply by analysing the morals contained in it.  These morals come from somewhere complicated, and it is not fair to think of humans as intrinsically good or bad.  However, christianity is very good at assuming that we are intrinsically sinful

Speaking about his latest book Dawkins said that The Magic of Reality is not an atheist book - but if you read between the lines and you are a child of some intelligence you might begin to get the message.

When one of the audience questions went on longer than welcome - Dawkins replied politely "Thank you.  There's quite a lot there." and then he went on to answer the salient points.

Asked about whether his outspoken views on the burqa were helpful or not, he answered that he personally had a visceral hatred of it, and that it was abusive to women.  He said that he refused to hold back from criticising merely for fear of being branded islamophobic.

Another questioner said that he had two questions, and when asked by the chairman to choose just one of them he asked it.   Dawkins said "Oh no! Not free will! What is your other question?" which brought a round of applause. 

A good evening!  Maybe this has given you a taste of what it was like to be in the audience.  When the video is released - as I am sure it will be - I will post a link here.

Monday, 20 February 2012

The CERN Compromise

When Britain and France teamed up to build the supersonic airliner, Concorde, they had a practical problem to solve.  Which language would be the official language of the project?  In a typical European compromise they concluded that they would use both languages.

Concorde - the result of a good compromise.  Image from here.

It is said that it was official policy for all the engineers to speak in their own language.   The English spoke English and understood French spoken by the French.  The French reciprocated.  This was deemed to be the best way to minimise the likelihood of misunderstandings.  It was known as 'The Concorde Compromise'.

After all, the plane worked pretty well - at least until failure to upgrade and maintain one of the French planes let down a great design.

It is also said that another big European technological project has adopted a different solution to the same problem.

'The CERN compromise' is different.  It requires the French to learn English, and the English to learn to shake hands!

Small note - It is customary in France to shake hands with your colleagues at work every day.  In England it is customary to shake hands with a colleague once - the first time you meet them - and almost never again.  Aren't both of these options strange?

Sunday, 19 February 2012

Bible reading notes - the key is to read the odd pages

Have you ever been advised to go and read your bible and reflect?  Sometimes this is an example of christian pastoral care.  When it is said very earnestly it leaves you with a faint aroma of cognitive dissonance.

Dusty bible!  (sourced from this site which advises how to read it - a 'Test Message' being one of the options, surprisingly delivered by 'text message').

For me, there are a few questions that need to be answered.  After all, the bible is fairly thick book.  Worse that that it is a collection of random works that are said to contain 'the inspired word of God", but which were written down by fallible humans.

The first question to your compassionate adviser is "Have you read it?"  Of course they will say yes - and if it comes down to it, so have I.  But when you follow up with "I mean, have you read ALL of it?" you will get a spectrum of answers.  And no - I have not - shocking though it might seem.  But I do know people who have and most of those people are no longer christians.  Instead, they are just nice people who live good lives.

To those who tend more towards the answer that they have read the most important bits, but not the rest, I propose that you recommend them to read other bits.  Those inconvenient massacres of whole nations (sparing the young women who you can keep for yourself), or the massacre of 42 children by two she-bears after they had teased Elishah must be stories that were inspired by god after all.

The Bible - 66 Fairy Tales by 40 authors

To those who have read the whole bible and seem unshocked by the omni-malevolence of their god, I would ask them where they recommend me to start reading.  Generally it will be less shocking to start with the New Testament because it is about the way that Jesus himself introduced the new way of things.  Having said that, you have to decide which gospel to believe, as the four are mutually contradictory on all the important details (like all those that show the Jesus was the son of god).

Even then - they have to rely on you not knowing that the concept of Hell - an eternity of torture - was not known before Jesus.  Judaism had a sort of temporary hell, but the real deal in all its horror was 'invented' by gentle Jesus meek and mild.

So - considering all these aspects of the bible that we should read and reflect about, I was wondering what the trick is supposed to be.  After over 40 years of the church and its teachings nobody ever let me into that secret that the 'true' christians must know.  There must be a simple rule of thumb to ensure that you don't read any of the contradictions.

I know!  Only read the odd pages!


Small note - it works for the first two but seems not to work so well after a few more.  Maybe it is better to leave out the even pages too?

Saturday, 18 February 2012

Things Christians Say, Part 3 - Dogs give birth to cats?

A weekly series of responses to the things christians say to atheists, based on the video reproduced here on 30th January 2012.  The aim is to tackle one every weekend, to give both a moderate, polite response to each question ('Piano'), followed by a more forceful rebuttal of the same question ('Forte'). 

If evolution were true, we'd see dogs giving birth to cats

Piano

Lots of people misunderstand evolution for understandable reasons.  Darwin's beautiful idea is so good at explaining things, and yet it is so badly taught in many schools – and indeed in many countries. If you open your mind to the possibility that it is true and look at the evidence, you will see how gradual small changes, from generation to generation, are inevitable due to errors in copying the genetic code. Many – perhaps even most – of these errors are not beneficial.  But once in a while the change makes the offspring better able to thrive or even just to survive in its environment and that change is most likely to be perpetuated. It is not truly random. Yes – the errors are random but the survival is most definitely not.

One of the best books on the topic is The Greatest Show on Earth by Richard Dawkins, (known to fans as TGSOE). At over 450 pages long, you would find it hard to select a more interesting read.

My own well-read copy of TGSOE
If you are religious and feel that it threatens your faith, you might even consider checking the surprising revelation that for a large proportion of christianity (including the Catholics and Anglicans) evolution is accepted into doctrine. Not all churches are officially anti-evolution and if yours is, then you are probably not ever going to change your mind, whatever the evidence might be. Even as recently as a couple of weeks ago a Roman Catholic friend told me that she hadn't realised this.

A few other people deliberately spread lies about evolution because they feel threatened by it. When it comes to specific points like the statement that we would see dogs giving birth to cats, it is almost certainly a case of mischievous lying because nobody believes that to be a sensible conclusion from the Theory of Evolution.

***

Forte

Not that ridiculous and ignorant argument again! No!  We wouldn't. Whatever theory you are describing it is NOT evolution.

Try to remember who told you that we would 'see dogs giving birth to cats', and be VERY suspicious of them.  I certainly wouldn't trust them with my eternal soul - even if I believed that I had one!



Last week:  You're a What?
Next week: These so-called atheists are just rebelling against god.

Friday, 17 February 2012

Antidisestablishmentarianism is not favoured!

Following on from yesterday's interesting revelations from the Ipsos Mori poll carried out on behalf of the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science, let's examine the results of part 2, which can be found in full here.

There is a thread of discussion about the topic here.  Note that this report includes the questions from part 1 which I discussed yesterday in 50% of UK christians 'not religious'.

Part 2 is much more about social attitudes of those claiming to have ticked the 'Christian' box on the 2011 census.  I will pick out a few points which seemed interesting.

Only 54% supported state funding of 'faith schools' for their own denomination, with a very slightly lower figure in favour of extending that privilege to other denominations of christianity.  The figure dropped to 44% for other religions.  To an atheist it seems surprising that 'religious' people always prefer to favour other (opposing) religious people over those who are non-religious.  It is a consistent finding but nonetheless difficult to comprehend.  I think it can only demonstrate that they haven't understood the threat properly.

There was surprisingly little support for reserving seats in the House of Lords for bishops of the Church of England.  Only 26% were in favour, with 32% against.  Similarly, support for retaining the current situation of the Church of England as the 'established church' was rather weak.  46% seemed to favour disestablishment, with 32% preferring to go for antidisestablishmentarianism.  (Not often that you have an excuse to use one of the longest words in the English language!)

Nearly half (46%) did not consider homosexuality to be 'wrong', with 28% believing that it was.  (The others were apathetic about it - which seems typical of the sample.)  Three times more agreed that homosexual couples should have the same legal rights as heterosexuals than disagreed.

Three times more agreed with legal abortions than objected, and 2.5 times more agreed with the concept of assisted suicide for the terminally ill (with proper safeguards in place).

But the big surprises come in the attitudes to the separation of church and state.  78% thought that religion should be a private matter that government should not interfere with, whereas only 7% disagreed.  A similar proportion thought that religion should not have special influence on public policy.   Perhaps if UK could have a constitution we could arrange to have the same First Amendment as USA?

The really big consensus in the whole survey was about the law.  92% agreed, very reasonably, that the law should apply to everyone equally, regardless of their personal religious beliefs.  Take note Mr Prime Minister and Judges!  Ignore this at your peril.

It is time for Sharia to be outlawed in civilised countries!


 

Thursday, 16 February 2012

50% of UK christians 'not religious'

Results from a survey of people who would have ticked the 'Christian' box on the UK 2011 census have been in the news this week.  Sponsored by the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science, the detailed results of the first part of the survey to were revealed at the link in this sentence.   I found some surprising numbers about the way the church is crumbling.

The church is crumbling - Image by JasonRogersFotographie from here

50% of the christians surveyed admitted the amazing revelation "No I don't consider myself a religious person", and 49% have not attended any ordinary religious services or meetings in the last 12 months.  Two thirds of those had not even attended once in the last 10 years - the time since the previous census!

15% have never read the bible independently, 43% pray less frequently than once per year, and 18% do not even believe in the resurrection.  27% believe in astrology, and yet only 17% answered that they "believe in God and that Christianity is the only true way of knowing him".

At least 44% claim that "Jesus is the Son of God, the Saviour of mankind".  However, that suggests that a majority do not believe in his divinity, and it is further revealed (although not divinely) that only 15% have "accepted Jesus as my Lord and Saviour".

When it comes to right and wrong, 8 times more christians look for guidance from their own inner moral sense, or the opinions of the family and friends than from religious teachings!

Remember - these are percentages of people who claimed that they ARE christians, not percentages of the population as a whole.

Perhaps less surprising, only 23% of these christians hold that "the bible is a perfect guide to morality and its teachings hold true today".  This low percentage is, after all, a figure that is believable when you think of the behaviour of people who you know.

Of course it is dangerous to extrapolate these numbers to the rest of the population - the 46% who did not claim to have ticked the Christian box.  It would be statistically incorrect to assume that none of the non-christians believed that Jesus is Lord and Saviour.  Surely some do, but it can't be a large proportion.

All in all, these results pretty conclusively indicate that the government has no business assuming that 'Britain is a Christian country any more'.  Christians of my acquaintance are getting quite worried about this.

My own worry is the Islam will get more of a foothold in my country.

Tomorrow - comments on part 2 of the survey.  Antidisestablishmentarianism is not favoured!

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

St Valentine's massacre in religion wars

A somewhat desperate article entitled "St Valentine's massacre in religion wars as Dawkins forgets full name of seminal Darwin book" can be found at this link.  Just glance at the original to get the context before you read this parody.

Originally written by someone called Tim Edwards, it was full of irrelevant claims.  A new corrected version is featured here on Something Surprising.

..............

In a typical act of clutching at straws, Christian apologists today claimed that RICHARD DAWKINS suffered 'a rare skewering' at the hands of the clergy after taking to the airwaves to argue that people who call themselves Christians are often using the term in an unexpected way.  At one point the so-called 'high priest of atheism' even cursed under his breath as he struggled to remember the exact title of Charles Darwin's monumental treatise on evolution.

Dawkins - the facts of the UK census, 2011

Dawkins went on BBC Radio 4's Today programme yesterday morning to explain a survey he had published, showing that half of the people who described themselves as Christian on the 2011 census do not consider themselves religious.

The object of the poll, carried out by Ipsos Mori for the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science, was to show that census data could not, in all honesty, be used to justify the UK's habitual favoritism for Christian practices such as government funding for faith schools and bishops having seats in the House of Lords.

Struggling to get a word in edgeways, against a 'gish gallop' from Rev Giles Fraser, the former canon of St Paul's Cathedral who was forced to resign last year, Dawkins was  able to squeeze in the fact that 64 per cent of people who said they were Christians in the census were not able to identify Matthew as the first book of the New Testament.

For some surprising reason Fraser asked him if he could tell him the full title of On the Origin of Species, the book by Charles Darwin.  Why this might be relevant to the actual facts of the survey were not exactly clear.  Perhaps Fraser was indulging in the common Christian tactic of rhetorical distraction to avoid admitting the unpleasant facts.  Dawkins, was able to provide "On the Origin of Species, er, with... oh god [N.B - small g!] ... On the Origin of Species, um... There is a subtitle... er, um, with respect to the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life."

Not bad, under pressure, with an audience numbered in the millions, to give almost exactly the full title of a text book written a century and a half ago.  On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life is of course the proper answer, as I'm sure you know.

It has to be said that it is a bit easier to recite the complete title of "The Holy Bible".  It was not revealed whether Fraser was able to remember the sub-title.

A jubilant Fraser then claimed - as if it actually mattered: "You are the High Pope of Darwinism. If you asked people who believe in evolution that question and only two per cent got it right it would be terribly easy for me to say they don't really believe it after all."

I suppose that shows the difference between discredited clerics and respected scientists.  Clerics think that everything comes down to belief and scientists think that the evidence is more important.  Someone should remind Fraser that the official doctrines of both the Anglican and Roman Catholic churches accept evolution.

Meanwhile evolutionary biologists tend not to refer to themselves as Darwinists, as the term is often used pejoratively.  They rarely find any need for a pope - neither ordinary nor high.

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

The glass is half full . . .

Apparently the glass is half full according to an optimist, but the glass is half empty to a pessimist.

Glass completely full.  (Image ethically sourced from here.)

Some actually regard this a a serious philosophical question, but to me it  represents a logical fallacy that I can't exactly name.  It is something like the fallacy of the missing middle, but not exactly the same.  There are other ways to look at the problem.

To one engineer it might be said that the glass is twice as big as it needs to be.

To another engineer, the glass is completely full but only half-filled with liquid.  The other half is filled with air.

As for me - I always thought from a pragmatic point of view that the glass is half-full if you are filling it and half-empty when you are drinking from it.

Another view that someone passed to me recently was that while we've spent all that time arguing about the glass, someone swiped it and drank the contents.  Now the answer is a bit easier . . . and its your round!

The Dawkins Announcement is here!

As had been suggested, the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science has made an announcement and if you want to hear Richard speak about it on BBC Radio 4 tomorrow morning you can find all the details here.

RD.net promised that there would be an announcement 'after midnight' and the world waited . . . and waited.  What they said was true of course.   It was just a little longer after midnight than we hoped

At last, after holding our breath for half an hour, it appeared . . .

RDFRS UK commissioned Ipsos MORI to carry out the research in the week immediately following the 2011 UK Census. It explored in depth the extent to which adults recorded as Christian in the 2011 UK Census (or who would have been recorded as Christian, if they had answered the question) believe, know about, practise and are influenced by Christianity, as well as their reasons for having described themselves as Christian in the Census. [Read on]

As luck would have it, the dreadful Baroness Warsi has managed to time a visit to the Vatican perfectly.  Steve Zara has written a nice succinct comment on the story on his blog.

The most important line in the announcement (for me at least) was this:

A copy of the data relating to this Press Release may be found here.

Reason and science live up to their names. 

And there is more! The second press release can be found here:
UK Christians oppose special influence for religion in public policy

Monday, 13 February 2012

RDFRS_UK announcement expected soon

I saw this announcement on Facebook recently, written by someone who is always worth listening to:

If you're a Twitter fan, you might want to follow @RDFRS_UK. The Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science (UK) has opened a Twitter account - and we are expecting to be in the news soon ...

Soon means Tuesday (apparently). All I can say is that I immediately started following and I'm very curious about what might be announced this week.

RDFRS_UK Twitter page

Sunday, 12 February 2012

Darwin's Heretic - an exercise in logical fallacy

The Intelligent Design (ID) community has pushed the boat out and made an entertaining little movie which they think will help to promote their cause.  In actual fact it simply demonstrates rather well why their claims have been largely ignored by the real scientific community.  Some of the descriptions of evolution are presented by Michael Flannery, who might be a professor of something from the University of Alabama, Birmingham, but not the sort of professor who understands the very basics of evolution. (see below)**  He says (at 07:50):

" . . . and quite frankly the origin of life isn't explained by it . . ."

This is true. But as Luciferadi so nicely put it in the comments on one of my posts a few days ago:

"I put some water in the freezer and it turned into ice. Can evolution explain that? I threw my copy of Existentialism For Dummies into the air and it fell back to earth. Can evolution explain that?"

Darwin's Heretic can be seen below or via Youtube.  It is a strange little tale about Alfred Russel Wallace, the co-founder of the Theory of Evolution.  Their claim that he was a 'Victorian Indiana Jones' seems to be intended to support their assertion that it matters that he didn't believe that evolution applied to humans.

Alfred Russel Wallace - 'Darwin's Heretic?'

Without acknowledging that the term 'Intelligent Design' has only been in common use for less than two decades, they claim that Wallace 'believed in Intelligent Design'.  Apparently he claimed that the origin of conscious life could never be explained by natural selection.  The fact that even he believed this is supposed to prove something. 

Have a look at their efforts and spot any logical fallacies.  It should be child's play.  Proof by analogy is one of them!


There you are.  We draw an analogy to something. prove something about the analogous situation, and then assert that this proves something

Darwin was apparently aghast. An emphatic 'NO' was written in the margin of his copy of Wallace's paper.  I'm fairly aghast that the Discovery Institute puts out a video like this one.

Of course, Darwin was quite right to react like that, and Darwin Day is as good a day as any other to ridicule pseudo-scientific stuff about ID.

Small note:  Even the argument from authority that they use to justify the conclusions of the movie cannot be applied to Michael Flannery! 
** A little research suggests that Flannery's specialist area is/was pharmacy, that he is now director of a library, and that his three most recent publications as first author were not exactly in relevant topics for him to be considered an expert in evolution:
'That Which is Above is Like That Which is Below': the Persistence of the Hermetic Tradition in Science and the Case of Alfred Russel Wallace
The English Physician 
Well Satisfied With My Position: The Civil War Journal of Spencer Bonsall  

Saturday, 11 February 2012

Things Christians Say, Part 2 - You're a WHAT??

A weekly series of responses to the things christians say to atheists, based on the video reproduced here on 30th January 2012.  The aim is to tackle one every weekend, to give both a moderate, polite response to each question ('Piano'), followed by a more forceful rebuttal of the same question ('Forte').

You're a WHAT?

Piano

Yes I'm an atheist, and I hope you can respect my lack of religion.  To be honest I take great comfort from escaping from the christian stories that never made much sense to me as a child.  I enjoy understanding how they can be explained in a rational way as stories that have been told for generation after generation.  I delight in learning things about the world around me and marvel at the incredible detail in nature, without feeling the illusion that they needed to be created by a creator. 

More than that, I came to realise that the friendly ecumenicism which suggests that god is one god and that all religions glorify him in the different ways is just fluff.  It seems obvious to me now that it is not true, and seems equally obvious that the choice of the preferred god in any region of the earth is largely a matter of geographical chance.

I don't need the false hope of an afterlife.  When this life is over I won't even notice the peace that has replaced it, and that does not frighten me at all.

Does my lack of belief frighten you?

***

Forte

Yes I'm an atheist - perhaps even an anti-theist these days - and although you might not respect my lack of religion you have no right to be offended by it.  In fact hiding behind the smiley-faced image portrayed by religions today, you have no right to claim that the harm they have caused is just a thing of the past.  When religions are powerful they dominate and impose fear and intolerance on a society.  I'm just lucky enough to live in a place and an age where there is a glimpse of freedom from that totalitarianism.

Incidentally, you are an atheist too - with respect to every god except the one you choose to have faith in!  Relying upon the writings in ancient texts by barely-literate no-nothings is a recipe for disaster.  You are only reading this now because of the power of science and reason.  No amount of prayer could create the technology that powers the internet. 

Even as a child religious matters never made sense, but now as an adult who has finally dared to read other points of view, I realise why the bible countenances against 'wisdom' for the ordinary people.  It was obvious to the early teachers of the church that wisdom, questioning and learning represented the biggest threats to the institution that they were creating.  These are also the factors that led to the heresies and splits in every system of belief, and to so much unnecessary suffering.

I marvel at the world around me and the incredible detail in nature.  I find the notion that they needed to be created by a creator to be due to a lack of imagination.  I find the claims that evolution can't explain the beginning of life to be frankly ignorant and risible (as the Theory of Evolution has nothing whatsoever to do with that branch of biological science).

The fact that I cannot ever know the answers to some things fascinates me.  I don't need to put gods into the gaps to fill them.  'God created the universe!'  How do you know?  'God inspired the bible!'  How do you know.  You can't know, you don't know and nor can I.  But I don't accept that the answer to every difficult question is that 'god did it'.

More than that, I came to realise that the friendly ecumenicism which suggests that god is one god and that all religions glorify him in the same way is nothing but vacuous fluff.  It is obvious to me now that it is not true, and it is equally obvious that the choice of the preferred god in any region of the earth is largely a matter of geographical chance.

I don't need the false hope of an afterlife.  When this life is over I won't even notice the peace that has replaced it, and that does not frighten me at all.

For me the path to real atheism is obviously a one way street.  This week at work an intelligent young woman assured me sincerely that I will find a way back to god (to her God of course).  In the end apparently I will be saved.  She knows it in her heart.  During the following 10 minutes of conversation it became obvious that I knew more about her faith and her bible than she did. 

The only bit that is missing for me is a feeling that there is any need for faith!  Thank God for that!


Last week:  The fool hath said in his heart that there is no god
Next week: If evolution were true we'd see dogs giving birth to cats

Friday, 10 February 2012

The 'Versailles Time Slip' and what it tells us about the bible

What could be the connection between the story of The Versailles Time Slip and the bible?  Read on.

In typical style, Brian Dunning's excellent Skeptoid podcast covered the account reported by two highly educated and respected English women, Charlotte Anne Moberly  and Eleanor Jourdain, the principal and vice-principal of St Hugh's College, Oxford.  They claimed that they had slipped back in time from the summer of 1901 to the period of the French Revolution.

Dunning's episode transcript begins:

The year was 1901, and a pair of friends, 55-year-old Anne Moberly and 38-year-old Eleanor Jourdain, were on holiday in France. They were both teachers at St. Hugh's College in Oxford. Moberly was in fact the Principal there, and Jourdain would become her successor fourteen years later. With a Baedeker's tourist guidebook in hand, the two set out to see the vast Palace of Versailles, the center of political power in France until the French Revolution in 1789. They turned to visit the Petit Trianon, a small chateau on the grounds given by Louis XVI to his 19-year-old wife, Marie Antoinette, as a private retreat for her personal use.

Moberly and Jourdain got a bit lost searching for the chateau, and it was during this interlude that they made history, even if only in some small way. They encountered several people in 1789 period attire, carrying out period activities, and passed a handful of structures that had not existed since 1789. Their unexpected visit to 112 years in the past culminated with an encounter with Marie Antoinette herself, sketching on the grounds of her chateau. Read on

Later in the episode (listen here) he describes how these two professional academics, who had a reputation to uphold, gradually elaborated on their story over the following years.

Does this remind you of anything?  After all, all the accounts of the life of Jesus were written down decades after his death (if indeed such an event ever occurred).  Somehow we are expected to believe that the stories of his life and ministry are so important that the story-teller's art did not come into play.  But if you have listened to the story above I wonder whether anyone would dare to claim that all the 'facts' in the inconsistent and demonstrably incorrect bible are unquestionable.

I wouldn't.



Small note (but in suitably large text this time):  Skeptoid.com is a podcast that is well worth following.  It is immaculately researched and very professionally presented.  Usually only about 10 minutes long, it should be a weekly habit for all skeptics.

Thursday, 9 February 2012

Video games - a Cross we have to bear?

How often do we hear about the harm caused by violent video games?  Apparently they are likely to affect our young people's views of right and wrong.  They are going to make them accustomed to cruelty and violence.  As such, they will not be able to cope with ordinary peaceful life in the real world.

If you have ever seen people playing some of these games they do certainly get involved pretty deeply.  You can see the look of determination on their faces.  They are going to kill the enemy if it is the last thing they do - and of course almost invariably it really is the last thing that their character does.  They get up with a few penalty points and start all over again.  Then somehow that situation is labelled 'realistic'.  Yes really!

Already you might see that there is a flaw in the hypothesis that they are harmed irredeemably by the experience.  All the players must realise that they are not playing a scene that they could really believe themselves to play in real life.  They can't have failed to notice that in real life it would hurt to be shot or that if you were dead the game would be over.

On top of that there is no convincing evidence either way about harm.  One of the good features of the games might be that their reaction times improve the more they play. 

However, when I was young(er) we used to play armies, or cowboys and indians, using sticks as guns.  We used to play with catapults, fireworks and air rifles.  We used to dismantle electrical equipment risking death in real life.  But now it seems that a Play Station is a much more of a lethal weapon.  Repetitive strain injury is the biggest danger.  (I'm not belittling its consequences by the way.)

But there is another comparison that is forgotten by some of the pious people who complain about video games.  This is not in the realm of analogy, but a literal truth that we must face.

The threat of christianity (and indeed the threat of Islam)!

Sticking to christianity for now, as Islam is too easy a target, let's look at what children are taught about their faith.  First of all we have to ask whether it is, in any way, moral to believe that our sins can be forgiven by the punishment of another person?  Surely vicarious redemption by human sacrifice is utterly immoral and unforgivable in any real-life situation.  Nobody can take responsibility for another person's actions in the way that is suggested by the church(es).  Only by using the morals of the bronze age can the philosophy of scape-goating be proposed to have any meaning.

And yet we teach young children that there was something good about the way that Jesus died on a cross - for us - without seeking our approval to become involved in this vile ritual.  We might not (often) dwell on the gory details of crucifiction, and in avoiding the subject we might think that children are not affected by it.  But what child can approach Easter without wondering how terrible it could have been to be beaten close to death, and then forced to carry your own instrument of torture to a place where you will be nailed to it?  Then they can imagine hanging there in agony for hours until they die.  Somehow all this atones for the fact that a talking snake persuaded Eve to eat an apple. 

The mental harm of wondering where Easter eggs fit into the picture pales into insignificance in comparison.

How can that be less harmful than a Play Station? Tell me!  I know adults who have been damaged by christianity and who are still recovering.  I don't know any adults who have been so damaged by an X-Box.

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Poe's Law in action!

This is the best example yet of Poe's Law in action on Something Surprising. I honestly can't tell whether the barely literate ramblings left yesterday on an earlier post, "Evolution video - Jack Szostak", are meant seriously or not. However I thought it was worth posting them here for your amusement.

micro evolution exists macro evolution not so as different species can not mate to produce new spices such as Ligons(lion and tigers)which are already from a closely realated species) it is very hard for them to reproduce but when they have they are sterile and cannot reprduce and create a new species if macro evolution is correct there would be new species being constantly created but it is the exact opposite slowly more and more spiecs are being extint & lowering in numbers.

evolution leads to death. do u not think that there is more to our existance than that?

As for the homolgous structures that just shows that thier are similarites between species which for he show that they have been created by the same creater, you see this in the was electrons revolve around in atoms and teh way the world revolves around the sun.

with stratography and rock layers they date them by using circular reasoning: the rocks are dated by the fossil layers in the rock and the fossils are dated by the rock layers and they do find fossil in "incorrect layers" they have also found human hand and footprints in these layers. they are also tree remains that stand upright that go through these "billions" of years old rock layers which fill in for noahs flood as when you have different types of dirt in a jar with water and you shake it it settles down in layers.

A for dating methods scientists have dated new objects and have been given absolutley reductious dates and did you know it doesnt take hundreds of years for objects to become pertriefied sneakers have been pertrified as well as a buch of other objects.

just think a couple of hundred years ago australia was not even discoverd and this back a nother couple of hundred and another humas history does not really go back very far at all.

Thats just some food for thought. I recomend that you do some research on the other side of the argument aswell :)

and are you going to deny my uncle being healed of cancer when he was 60 on his death bead looking as pale and sickly riddled with tumours all through his body. We all prayed for him and God healed him and he passed the tumours and now he looks heathy as anything and doctors are amazed at his medical records. can evolution explain that.


My un-named critic has actually suggested that I should do some reading about the 'other side of the argument', as if it actually appears that I have not done that already.  Its not worth refuting the creationist babble that they have accepted uncritically, asking them when Australia was discovered, nor pointing out in more detail that they haven't understood the difference between petrification (which is worthy of another post soon) and fossilisation.

As for the fortunate uncle, how could I possibly deny that he has been healed?   Spontaneous remissions occur about 1 time in 10,000 cases, and this must have been one of them.  I won't try to explain it with evolution, nor do I need to, but I certainly wouldn't explain it with prayer either.

By coincidence or not, another post soon after the above pointed to this image.



Interestingly one of the examples used in that parody of evolution, Nebraska Man, was more of a creationist hoax.  Read about it on Rosa Rubicondior's blog.

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Was Douglas Adams right about the mice?

Cartoon mice might have been singing to us for a few decades.

But a recent finding suggests that real mice sing to each other too and that they choose mates on the basis of their songs.

Male house mice pro­duce me­lo­di­ous songs to at­tract mates, not un­like many birds, ac­cord­ing to new re­search.


The dit­ties are too high-pitched for hu­man hear­ing, but sci­en­tists at Vi­en­na's Un­ivers­ity of Vet­er­i­nary Med­i­cine an­a­lyzed them and found they con­vey in­forma­t­ion about ident­ity and kin­ship. The find­ings are pub­lished in the jour­nal Phys­i­ol­o­gy and Be­hav­ior and in the Jour­nal of Ethol­o­gy.  [Read on]


Admittedly that particular link is to a sensational online science article designed to appeal to the public, but there is much more information to be found in a more technical format, in other places.  In fact mouse song has been studied at some length in many places around the world.

One such publication is Development of Social Vocalizations in Mice.  In this paper it suggests that adult mice can vocalise 11 different syllables, and that their pups can manage nearly all of them while only a few days old.  The introduction to the paper begins

Mice are highly vocal animals, with both males and females vocalizing in same-sex and cross-sex social encounters. Mouse pups are also highly vocal, producing isolation vocalizations when they are cold or removed from the nest, despite the fact that they cannot hear until postnatal day 10. Adult mice can discriminate between vocalizations of pups and adults. For example, virgin female mice are attracted to playbacks of male song, but not pup vocalizations. In contrast, playback of pup vocalizations to mothers, but not to pup-naïve virgins, elicits search and retrieval behavior. These behavioral differences have a correlate in the auditory cortex, where physiological responses to pup syllables differ for maternal and virgin animals. The complexity of acoustic communication behaviors and the presence of neural correlates that underlie some of these behaviors provide a strong rationale to explore the details of this vocal communication system and how it changes developmentally.

So - mice can communicate with each other through their songs.  Indeed, their songs would probably sound more complex than the beautiful bird songs that we hear in everyday life if only our ears were able to pick up such high frequency sounds.

The revelation that mouse songs are clearly forms of communication is hardly enough to support the idea that Douglas Adams' claim in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Universe is true.  However, it is not quite as far-fetched as we all thought.  Maybe the mice really are the 3D manifestations of multi-dimensional intelligent beings after all.

Small note: No - I'm not really being serious!

Monday, 6 February 2012

Jihad against dogs

One of the things that I found most trying about Christmas Day last year was the presence of a Golden Retriever.  This lovely-natured dog belongs to some visiting relatives who came to lunch (and kindly provided part of it).  Much as I like dogs I prefer them to be somewhere other than in my house, and particularly somewhere other than my kitchen.  I find that it is like having a bear in the house.  Large dogs are even more destructive than toddlers, knocking things over with their tails indiscriminately.

But worst of all, whenever I put my hands below waist level I found that they were licked! I must have washed my hands more often that morning than any other in my life. 

Just this month though, I have discovered that it could be even worse if I was a Muslim.  I hadn't realised that many Muslims consider dogs to be unclean.

In one surprising news item, I read that 'Muslims declare Jihad on Dogs in Europe'

This latest canine controversy -- which the Dutch public has greeted with a mix of amusement and outrage -- follows dozens of other Muslim-vs-dog-related incidents in Europe. Critics say it reflects the growing assertiveness of Muslims in Europe as they attempt to impose Islamic legal and religious norms on European society.

I might not like having a dog in the house, but I wouldn't go as far as declaring jihad.  Then again - atheists don't create holy wars do we?  In order to do such evil we need god.

Now I know about this new jihad I have a new urge to invite more dogs into my house!

Sunday, 5 February 2012

. . . the 'he' is always lower case!

Never having been a great fan of Steve Martin, I was surprised to hear this entertaining song. The link was kindly contributed by regular reader, Tony.



As they say:

"In their songs they have a rule,
The 'he' is always lower case!"

Saturday, 4 February 2012

Things Christians Say, Part 1 - The Fool

A weekly series of responses to the things christians say to atheists, based on the video reproduced here on 30th January 2012.  The aim is to tackle one every weekend, to give both a moderate, polite response to each question ('Piano'), followed by a more forceful rebuttal of the same question ('Forte').

The fool hath said in his heart that there is no god

Piano

Psalm 14 verse 1.  Atheists do hear this assertion quite frequently - certainly often enough that we tend to know the verse of the bible that is being used.  Oddly enough, the same is not always true of the christian who asserts it. 

But when it comes down to it it is just a verse from the official handbook of the Christian faith, the bible.  That makes it more than a little biased and it means that it relies of certain assumptions that you take for granted.  In order for it to mean anything useful to the listener they would need to have some sort of faith that the bible is inspired by a god.

This is where the problem lies.  If you don't believe in a theistic god (as atheists by definition do not) then it is an obvious fallacy to assume that they will respect the contents of the bible. 

Coming from the opposite point of view, even bible readers who have any belief in a theistic god have all their work in front of them.  Considering that it is claimed to be the inspired word of their god, it is riddled with inconsistency and contradiction.  There are so many of these contradictions that I know you know about them and will not even bother to quote one.

On a more frivolous note, how can you 'say' anything in your heart anyway.  You might think it in your mind or say it with your voice.  Thought crime being a capital offence in the Old Testament, either might be considered dangerous.

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Forte

What an offensive thing to say!  Are you calling me a fool?  Surely it is much more foolish to rely on blind faith in something transcendent which you cannot see, hear, smell, touch or taste.  This collection of writings that you call 'The Old Testament' doesn't make much sense, but the more you read the fragments, the more you realise that much of it is about the fight between Yahweh and the other gods in the host of heaven.  By trying so hard to deny the truth of polytheism, surely it actually achieves the opposite.  Even the one god who you choose to worship is undeniably a monster.  Here are the words of Richard Dawkins:

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.

See this link for a detailed unpicking of every phrase of it to prove to you, from your bible, that it is undeniably true.

How dare you use the moderate cuddly parts of christianity to lecture me about being a fool when you can't even recognise your own god for what he is?


Next week: You're a What?