Saturday, 31 March 2012

Things Christians say: part 9. Worshipping Satan indeed!

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'). 

So does that mean you worship Satan or something?


It would be hard to worship anyone who I don't believe in, and strangely I believe in neither your God nor your devil, generally speaking for the same reasons.

I know that I can say 'your god' and 'your devil' from the question that you ask.  The very fact that people sometimes ask it reveals something about those people.  It shows their focus on the a specific way of thinking, the very polarised one dimensional view that God is at the good end of the spectrum and Satan at the other.  Outside that single dimension, as most atheists realise, there are other gods that we equally disbelieve in.  (Muslims fall into the same trap of course.)

Satan is unique to the Abrahamic religions.  In particular Christianity and Islam focus on his evil role.  One would not expect a Buddhist or Hindu to believe in Satan because their systems of belief simply do not include him.

Similarly I think it is unlikely that any Atheists believe in Satan, let alone worship him or work for him.



Some people who have irrational thoughts about invisible sky beings have to believe in invisible underworld beings, and they chose all sorts of pejorative methods to undermine people who do not share their views.  This type of argument is known as 'the straw man'.  It is rarely a technique that improves understanding of an argument.

Those of us who do not believe in ridiculous, inconsistent and unsupported ideas, written down by peasants in the bronze age, in one of the most illiterate parts of the world, have no such need.  How does the idea of Satan help to explain anything about the world when the god that you worship is so manifestly evil anyway?

You might have noticed that the term 'act of god' always means something bad.  Whether it be earthquakes, storms or pestilence, if you believe in a god then you have to believe that he is a uncaring and ruthless monster.

How is there any room for Satan, who presumably is even worse than God?  Maybe you believe that he uses techniques of sweetness and light to lure people to an unpleasant eternity.  Atheists don't.

Or perhaps you confuse the word 'atheist' with the word 'satanist'?  It would be an easy mistake to make.  They both end with 'ist'.

Last week: The bible is totally scientific!
Next week: You really need to read 'this' (substitute any book or web site)

Friday, 30 March 2012

God's protection

Recently a comment was left on an old post, Omniscient God, by Twitter user @TastesLikeYou.  Comments often go un-noticed and I thought this one deserved a bit more publicity so I reproduce it here as a guest post, by kind permission of its author (who I am sure would like more followers on Twitter).

It was a reply to a previous comment by another American friend of mine, who unfortunately resists the temptation to comment any more.


Regarding a couple of your points :

"But as your child grows you realise that you can not bail them out every time they get in trouble that they must learn to do it them selves or suffer the consequence. Same is true of God the Father, sometimes even though we pray and ask, the predestination is for us to suffer."

It's fine for you to praise the work of God in your little ivory tower and ponder his mysterious ways but give a thought to the reality of life out there.

Because, oh, if only God WAS that reliable to protect us until we reach an age where we could indeed stand on our own two feet. But every day (amongst other daily atrocities), your God watches paedophiles abusing children, children dying from starvation, hospital wards with diseased and dying youngsters, etc but he does .... nothing!

So he foresees the moment of horror, witnesses it in real time too and yet, in most cases, brings no relief to the suffering. Predestination? Sounds pretty tough that he has predestined this.

How can you possibly praise a god for his great works when he shows no compassion to those who are in no position to accept or reject god? How can he possibly be expected to be glorified when he his heinous crimes scream out over the pages of the Bible and across the timeline of human history?

"Why are atheists so obsessed with proving that God doesn't exist anyways?"

Because if I can prove to people that God is unlikely to exist in the format that humans attribute to him, we will keep religion out of our government, schools and other areas of life that have no place to be infiltrated by followers of myths.

I was a fervent Christian for many years and I panicked at the thought of questioning the bible and his word. But actions speak louder than words and, to be blunt, God was found severely wanting on 'action'.

Kind regards.


p.s I must add, that his choice to ignore the pleas of the innocent are backed up in the bible :

"Job 9:23 When a scourge brings sudden death, he mocks the despair of the innocent."

Perhaps he is just plain nasty after all.

Thursday, 29 March 2012

Here be dragons

A year or two ago I came across this wonderful introduction to Critical Thinking.  It was produced by the great Brian Dunning, the host and creator of one of the very best skeptical podcasts,

At 41 minutes in length, you might need to schedule a little quality time to concentrate on "Here be Dragons" which is available at that link in a variety of formats.  I very much doubt that you will be disappointed, however often you have seen it before.

And if you have never listened to the Skeptoid podcast then it is definitely time to start now.

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Amazing Hitchslap Index: part 4

Here is the next instalment of 'The Amazing Hitchslap Index', summarising the content of the next 7 of the 66 'Hitchslaps' uploaded to Youtube by Loy Machedo as explained here.  For each Hitchslap, I summarise the content in the form of direct quotations and summaries, list co-stars and 'authorities' called upon.  This series should help you to find that one perfect Hitchslap to send to someone who you are debating.

Hitchslap 22 - Don't take no thought for the morrow

Hitchslap 22: Jesus the fraud  4:44
Got to believe in everything I say or go to hell or heaven
Willing to grant the immaculate conception, the virgin birth, and the resurrection, annunciation and the assumption.  It doesn't prove the truth of the proposition that you should take no thought for the morrow.
Deluded bronze-age inhabitants of Palestine.
On the historicity point there are two reasons to believe in some sort of charismatic deluded rabbi
1/  The amount of fabrication needed to get him born in Bethlehem. None of the story of the nativity is true in any detail.
2/  That the witnesses to the resurrection were women,  illiterate stupid deluded hysterical girls who would never have been believed in a Jewish court of the time.
It is impressive to me that the evidence is so obviously, strenuously cobbled together.
Noble words of Socrates will continue to illuminate.
Cited: C S Lewis, Socrates, Jesus

Hitchslap 23: Religion is the poison chalice  2:43
Implied question – why don't you accept this wonderful offer, why wouldn't you like to meet Shakespeare
 . . . Corporeally reassembled
When Socrates was sentenced to death for his philosophical investigations and blasphemy he hoped to have discussions with other philosophers.
Whether it goes on or not after I die, I don't know, but I do know I want to do it while I'm alive.
I don't know enough, haven't understood enough . . .
Wouldn't have it any other way
Dead until you believe as they do.  What a terrible thing to be telling children.  
Cited: Shakespeare, Socrates

Hitchslap 24: Religious right and wrong.  4:23
Christian scientist – or at least scientist who is Christian.
Mark Twain said of Mary Baker Eddy “chloroform in print”
People have been around for at least 100,000 years.  They were born and they died, living not much more than 25 years. Dying of their teeth, appendix, terrible diseases, misery, malnutrition and fear.  Where do the earthquakes . . .
Awful cults of sacrifice, war and rape.  Struggle to make progress.
To the point where they could brew beer – a breakthrough in my opinion.
You have to believe this if you believe in mono-theism, for the first 97-98 thousand years heaven watches with indifference.  3000 years ago at the most it is decided that heaven must intervene now, but the revelation must be made to the most backward, barbaric, illiterate, superstitious and savage people in the most stony part of the world.
Not in China where they could already read.  Not in the Indus valley.
Force them to cut their way through all the neighbours with slaughter, genocide and racism and settle in the only part of the middle east where there is no oil.
And without this we wouldn't know right from wrong!
Cited: Mary Baker Eddy, Mark Twain, Richard Dawkins, Francis Collins

Hitchslap 25: religion poisons everything.  05:35
[If there is no god why do you spend all your life trying to convince . . .]
Not my whole career but now a major pre-occupation.
Opposition to theocracy.
Resist those who serious want to encompass the destruction of civilisation.
Mono-theistic Messianic religion wants us to die.
Can tell the yearning for things to be over, whenever you read any of its real texts.
Escatological argument that if you don't believe that there is going to be an apocalypse then you are not really a believer.
Extreme Muslims can't wait for the 'final solution'.
Cult of death to be opposed in our daily lives where there are people who only want to ruin good relationships between different people, nations, tribes . . . 
When I said "Religion poisons everything" I meant that it infects us in our most basic integrity and says that we can't be moral . . . and forces us to love someone that we fear.
Though I do, some nights, stay home, I enjoy more the nights when I go out and fight against this ultimate wickedness and ultimate stupidity.
Cited: Rapture, Israeli settlers, Messiah

Hitchslap 26: Christians prey on the dying.  2:47
[Serious illness – has it shaped you view of the afterlife?]
It fractionally increases my contempt for the false consolation element of religion and my dislike for the dictatorial and totalitarian part of it.
Perfectly normal in this society to approach dying people who you don't know and say “Now are you going to change your mind?”  Its considered almost a polite question.
Horrible undertone of blackmail to it.  History of fraud.
People say “I'm writing to you as a friend”.
...haven't had quite the vinegar that I would like to have had
To Catholics:  Would it be polite to say “You may only have a few days left but you don't have to live as a serf you know”?
I think it would be something of a breach of taste but if it is in the name of god it has a sort of licence.
Cited: Charles Darwin, Thomas Paine, Sam Harris

Hitchslap 27: God is a joke and the believer is the punchline.  1:40
One of the reasons I like debating the religious is that you never know what they are going to say next.
Already had a suggestion that god is only really a guru, a friend when you are in need.
He wouldn't do anything like bugger around with Job to prove a point.
For hundreds and thousands of years this kind of discussion would have been in most places impossible to have, or Sam and I would have been having it at risk of our lives.
Religion now comes to us in this smiley-faced ingratiating way because it has had to give so much ground and because we know so much more.
You have no right to forget how it behaved when it was strong, when it really did believe that it had god on its side.
Cited: Sam Harris

Hitchslap 28: Slavery and genocide with divine permission.  3:41
Whoever asked that has obviously only just come into the room.
McGrath was unusually good on this point – Dostoevsky.  If god exists we have to do what he says, and if he does not exist then we can do what we like.
Is it not said of god's chosen people in the Pentateuch that they can do exactly as they like to other people with divine permission?
Have been to Iran, not allowed to sentence a woman who is a virgin to death, but religious law means she can be raped by the revolutionary guard, then she is not a virgin any more and can be sentenced to death.
Divine permission enables actions that a morally normally unbeliever would not contemplate. Genital mutilation – who would do that.
Morally normal and intelligent people find themselves saying fatuous and wicked things.
Suicide bombing community is entirely faith based
Genital mutilation community is entirely faith based
Slavery is mandated by the bible.  Abolitionist might have been christians but it was about time.
Name an ethical statement made or an action performed by a believer in the name of faith that couldn't have been by an infidel, and name, if you can, and this is easier, a wicked action that could only have been mandated by faith. Then you will see how silly your question was, whoever you were.
‘Co-stars’: Alistair McGrath
Cited: Dostoevsky, Poet Laureate

Hitchslap Index posts: 1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9

The next parts coming regularly.  Check back for more!

Please add your comments, suggestions and corrections so that they can be included (with credit) in the final summary index that will be made up of these posts.

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Dawkins at his best, last weekend

Update 10th December 2012, sadly this video is no longer available. 

Update 4th February 2013 - here is another copy of the video, albeit without the introduction! Follow this link

See Richard Dawkins'  the keynote address at the American Atheists National Convention in Bethesda, Maryland, March 25, 2012, with a rousing introduction by Sean Faircloth.

This is one of those rare speeches where you seen Richard speaking in many different styles from humble to strident, from serious to jubilant.

See his delight in introducing the first member of The Clergy Project to make his lack of faith public.

Well worth half an hour, wherever you live!

Monday, 26 March 2012

So . . . God makes us good?

How often have you heard the argument that it is not possible (or even necessary) to be good if you do not believe in a god?  Let's not get into the question of defining 'good' as that is a long topic on its own.  Let's not even worry which particular god.   I would accept 'good' as being whatever tends to greater well-being, along the lines proposed by Sam Harris in "The Moral Landscape".  (I really must buy the book and read it but I have so many others to read first!)

I have often heard people argue the 'good without god' point with christians.  Many atheists are outraged by the question "So why are you good?"  Personally I find the question to be more risible (and indeed ignorant) than offensive.   However, I understand that for some of us atheists it is a useful rhetorical counter-argument.  It can be an opportunity to turn the table on theists who normally seem to claim the 'moral high ground' of being offended as their own.

It is interesting to see the way that some decent god-fearing people assure their atheist protagonist that without god there would be nothing to stop them stealing, raping and murdering.  I have heard peaceful people expressing surprise that atheists in general do not feel a need to indulge in criminal activities.

In one report which is easily found on the web, but difficult to verify, I read that 75 percent of Americans are 'God­‐fearing Christians'; 75 percent of prisoners are God­‐fearing Christians. 10 percent of Americans are atheists; 0.2 percent of prisoners are atheists.  That sounds like good evidence for the atheist point of view if it is actually true, but to be honest I tend to be skeptical about the claim.  I think it seems most likely that one of the statistics dates from a 1925 survey of prisons, and that the rest has become an internet meme after some mischief on a web site.  (Please correct me in the comments if I am wrong.)

However, even if you assume that the data is true, I wonder what this statistic really means.  Is this the figure for people who are in the process of going into prison, or the figure for people who are already coping with the obvious difficulties of prison life?  I'm not so sure how I would behave if I found myself in that situation, but I suspect that I would answer the question differently in the two cases.  Once in the prison I think I would want to do everything possible to avoid standing out from the crowd.  If that meant pretending to be christian again, I think my conscience would not prevent me from such a claim! 

Would god forgive me for such duplicitous behaviour?  Strangely enough I don't worry about that too much.

Sunday, 25 March 2012

Is this a church?

You and I have (at least) one thing in common.  You might not expect it to be the thing that I am about to say, because it doesn't sound quite like the sort of thing I would normally write.

We have been brought together by the power of a mysterious, worldwide and transcendent entity.  In our daily lives we witness to our fellow humans, evangelising to young and old and teaching our followers about the deepest meanings of life.  The spiritual support that we bring to each other fulfils the pastoral needs of members of our broader community.  Uplifting those who feel oppressed, we can all play our part in comforting the afflicted and protecting them from the evil influences all around us.

In spite of these powerful and wonderful strengths we are divided into different 'churches'.  Our 'faith' might  divide us from our closest friends and family.  Some of us are persecuted for our beliefs by people who are not so enlightened.

The name of this transcendent entity is written with no vowels. 


Of course I am drawing an analogy, and all analogies are wrong.  But it is clear to me that the internet offers an international opportunity for all of us to join a community of like-minded people, whatever our views might be.  We are no longer separated from each other as we have been throughout the whole of human history, limited by the happenstance of our birth and upbringing.

Internet christianity - not quite the same thing.  (Source here)

Almost every day I communicate with people all around the globe.  At last the minority groups who's diversity strengthens humanity can act together.

Our 'churches' are neither physical buildings nor gatherings of believers at a special time of the day or week.  They are much more transcendent than that.  The church of Facebook has more followers than most 'real' religions (certainly if you divide the big religions into their factions).  The cult of Twitter opens up a meritocratic world to anyone who wants their word to be heard.  Free blogging facilities let all of us expand on our views and invite comments from others.  Even the sect of Second Life offers companionship and friendship to insomniacs who need to wile away the dark hours while the world around them sleeps peacefully.  Each of these online communities plays a role similar to that of a church.

Persecution is rife too.  How often do you hear people say "Facebook is just evil".  "Twitter is such a waste of time - why do I want to know what lady Gaga had for breakfast?" "Online friends are not real friends". "Second Life is only there because of the virtual sex."  "Why would I want to read the ramblings of an amateur writer on a blog - I never read blogs".  "Get out and get a life" and the old and unfounded canard "too much screen time will damage your eyes".

All of these show a definite narrow-mindedness, and they neglect to celebrate the unity of the world wide web.  It is not even worth debunking them.  Whatever its flaws the world-wide web allows communication on a scale that has never been known before.  Whether your preferred access to the web is through Windows, Mac, Linux or other more specialised operating systems, and whether via desktop, laptop, tablet or phone, we all have a huge resource at our fingertips.

Of course we all know that in an ideal world it would be great if everyone could have fulfilling and satisfying 'real lives' with real people who we can see and touch.  But whether our own personal limitations are geographical, physical or psychological, the online communities all play a role like that of the churches.  We can all support the unfortunate and 'disabled' (whatever that might mean) and everyone can be equal in a way that is not always possible in reality.

Good or bad, if you are reading this then you must be part of one of those communities.  Where would we be without them?

I believe we would be impoverished?

Saturday, 24 March 2012

Things Christians Say, part 8: The bible is totally scientific!

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 bible is totally scientific!


It has become a favourite ploy of some preachers to claim that the bible contains a lot more science than we thought.

Typically they will make a claim, and then give a reference to a bible verse, which naturally the listeners do not have time to look up and consider.  This means that even the most fair-minded member of the congregation will not have a chance to examine the claims.

Now obviously whatever claims I choose to 'debunk' you could say that, yes, obviously that one is stretching things beyond the bounds of credulity, but I invite you to suggest a few examples in the comments if you can.

Now of course the bible does contain some scientific observations.  I say scientific in that any observations of the real world are the beginning of science.  However, when I last looked I found no equations in the bible.  Whenever I have actually looked at any of the examples that I have heard cited, the 'science' of the scriptures is dressed up as metaphor in such a way that it could mean something deep.  On the other hand it could just be poetic.

I respectfully invite my fair minded readers to provide any proof that the bible's science is above kindergarten level.

Few examples of claims that I have heard, and comments about them:
The world is round: Isaiah 40:22.  In saying "It is he that sitteth upon the circle of the earth" it entirely neglects the three dimensional nature of a sphere.  Science: 1/10
Stars too numerous to count: Jer 33:22's "All the innumerable host of heaven" surely means beings, not stars.   Besides that we know how many stars there are in the galaxy, and it would be pushing it to suggest that this text mentions any knowledge of other galaxies at all.  Science: 1/10
Gravity: Job 26:7. "Suspending the earth in the void" means something about gravity?  To me it says the opposite.  Science 1/10
Stars emit sound:  Ps 19:3 "Their music" means nothing and anyway might not refer to stars, and Job 38:7's "when the morning stars sang together" is obvious poetry.  Oh yes, by the way - stars do not make a noise as such.  They are in the vacuum of space which does not carry sound.
The hydrological cycle.  Eccl. 1:7 neglects to mention the word 'rain' at all (science 1/10), but at least Job 36:27  does a fair job of recognising that mist forms over the sea and that mist is wet.  This is about the best and I give it a score of 5/10!



Let's face it!  Claims that the bible is the source of all science are pretty risible aren't they.  Even if you can find examples better than the ones given above, the biblical texts are at best vague, unsystematic and entirely non-mathematical.  I would contend that they could barely be represented as science with any honesty or integrity to a child of age greater than about 10.

Worse than that, while putting myself through the 'pain' (and amusement) of listening to a few Youtube sermons that claim verses of the bible to explain science, I actually put myself to the trouble (and further amusement) of looking up the references in two respected translations.  (Obviously everyone has their favourite bible which spins 'the word' in the way that they like best, but I chose KJV and New English.)  When you actually look up the verses you find that roughly 50% of the time they refer to nothing that resembles the claim whatsoever.

When you hear a preacher claiming biblical science, just look up his references.  Decide for yourself whether they mean anything with a deeper understanding of science than you would expect to have had in the bronze age.  Do not underestimate the technology of the bronze age - wheels had barely been invented - but you should seriously question whether any of it is science in the modern sense.

Last week: You're SO closed-minded
Next week: So does that mean you worship Satan or something?

Friday, 23 March 2012

Mind games

Think of a two digit number, containing two different odd digits.  Write that number down and see the small note at the end of this post.

Professor Chris French gave a talk about Anomalistic Psychology at the Reading Skeptics in the Pub meeting last week.

Chris French - former editor of 'The Skeptic' magazine

Touching on diverse topics including dowsing, psychic abilities, spoon bending, card tricks and paranormal experiences, he gave a whistle-stop tour through the science that explains how our brains are so easily confused.  He explained that he spends his life taking a scientific approach to these investigations because so many people have superstitious beliefs.  This popularity must suggest that it is an important part of 'being human' and therefore it is worth understanding it properly.

One of the disturbing effects that he described was that of eye-witness testimony.  Basically it is now well established that such testimony can not be trusted, and yet every legal system in the world relies on it.  We all mis-remember details, and surprisingly it is even found that the reliability is not improved when there are multiple witnesses.  It actually becomes worse!  Any opportunity that the witnesses might have to discuss what they have seen, they accidentally contaminate each other's memories without realising it.

These results come from the staging of mock crimes.  It has been found that at least 40% of people are susceptible to 'suggestions' from others.  Errors might even be introduced accidentally by someone who is investigating the crime.  If a 'stooge' is introduced too, the proportion of people who unwittingly modify their testimony can rise to 60%.

Moving on from the fascinating talk by Chris, these interesting reports resonate strongly with other research on the same topic.  I have heard reports of witnesses being influenced, either accidentally or on purpose, by investigating officers.  Just a simple question like 'Did you see a red car at the scene?' could plant the idea of red cars in the memory, even if their initial answer had been to deny noticing the car.  The next time the memory is recalled, the red car has a chance of featuring in it.

Some institutions actually train their staff in techniques to minimise the risk of memory contamination though. Banks are aware that accurate reporting of the facts can lead to better investigations, with a greater chance of stolen money being recovered.  They know that once people have had chance to confer they tend to converge on a single narrative and forget other essential details.

One way to avoid that is to take contemporaneous notes - which is something that police are trained to do.  Something that is written down at the time carries much more weight than something that is remembered later.  Hence in the more progressive institutions, staff are trained how to behave after an incident. They are told to sit down on their own and write down everything that they can remember, before talking to anyone else.

Armed with a little knowledge about eye witness testimony, it makes me fear for the justice system.  How many people are wrongly convicted because of false memories?

On the other hand it also gives me a lot of hope that it is a good way to explain personal religious revelations without having to resort to a supernatural explanations! 

Small note: Relating to the first line of this post, Chris French told us that 33% of people choose 37, and 25% choose 35.  I don't know whether you chose one of those numbers, but I did, and I think its scary how predictable we are!

Thursday, 22 March 2012

May be gone some time

We might all know a version of the famous phrase uttered by Lawrence 'Titus' Oates as he left the tent for the last time, in an heroic act of self-sacrifice, attempting to save the rest of his party at the tragic end of Scott's disastrous mission to the South Pole.

Scott's crew - on a day without a blizzard
One hundred years ago this week, Oates, who had been suffering terribly from the effects of frostbite and exhaustion, quietly told his companions "I am just going outside and may be some time."  His companions survived only a few days longer as the Antarctic winter closed in around them.

I have known the story of Captain Scott since I was a boy and I have always been saddened by it.  When it was first told to me, I wasn't aware that anyone had begun to question Scott's skills as a leader, or the wisdom of some of the decisions that were made during the journey.  Somehow we were meant to praise the efforts of a famous Englishman, battling against impossible odds in an under-funded attempt to reach the South Pole first.  Somehow we were being taught that the success of Amundsen's team was due to the way that they had 'cheated' by using dogs to haul their sleighs, whereas Scott's (failed) attempt to use mechanical methods were not considered to constitute cheating.  (See this comparison between the two missions.)

A century after the death of Robert Falcon Scott and his crew, I think even the English have the perspective to recognise weaknesses in his leadership skills, and yet still to respect him.  In particular I would question his fateful decision to attempt the last stretch to the pole with five team members, even though they had only planned the resources for four.  We can still recognise the great qualities of a man who was driven by his passion to succeed and to keep his team happy.  At the same time I completely respect his competitor's use of the best equipment and arctic experience available at the time, to succeed and to survive.

Amundsen successfully reached the South Pole - without 'cheating'.

I mentioned last year in 'Tears and Heroism' that I do feel a certain empathy with Scott.

One of the things I found that I have in common with Scott was an inability to organise things properly.  Yes - I am indulging in another bout of self-deprecation as a dear friend sometimes reminds me.  But I fear that I could organise things no better than Scott did.

The other was that he has a tendency towards lacrimosity, both in sad situations and (surprisingly) in happy occasions.  He found that it was embarrassing to him and to the other men around him

Perhaps at the time I had been having a bad day and was feeling less confident about my organisation skills than I am now.  Tears in happy moments are still a daily threat though.  Thank goodness for the happy moments!

Small note: Don't worry - Something Surprising will continue on schedule tomorrow in spite of the title!

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Amazing Hitchslap Index: part 3

Here is the next instalment of 'The Amazing Hitchslap Index', summarising the content of the next 7 of the 66 'Hitchslaps' uploaded to Youtube by Loy Machedo as explained here.  For each Hitchslap, I summarise the content in the form of direct quotations and summaries, list co-stars and 'authorities' called upon.  This series should help you to find that one perfect Hitchslap to send to someone who you are debating.

Hitchslap 17 - "Here comes the really nice bit".

Hitchslap 15: What ill is the crucifixion a cure for?  2:24
Of course I have emancipated myself from all that nonsense as I wish you would do too.
No more optional than Abraham saying to his son “Do you want to come for a long and gloomy walk?”
Millions of people every year celebrate this act of sado-masochism.
He knows what it is like to lose a son?  If the story is true, which I don't think it is, it is self-evidently not the case.  He doesn't loose a son – he lends one.  He doesn't offer one because nobody has demanded it.
No problem that has been identified in the human species that demands human sacrifice.
I'm doing this because the prophets said I would . . . have the boy tortured to death in public . . . to fulfil ancient screeds.
I don't want torture, human sacrifice, blood lettings . . .  I don't want it. I can't think of a single thing that it will make better.
‘Co-stars’: Alistair McGrath

Hitchslap16: Hitler was no atheist  2:14
Atheism is not a moral or political position of any kind.
To say that Nazism is equivalent to implementation of Darwinism is a filthy slander
Darwinism was derided in Germany
Hitler was not an atheist
Oath to Fuhrer “I swear in the name of almighty God . . ”.  Gott mit uns etc.
Catholic control of German education
To suggest that there is something fascistic about me and my beliefs is something that I won't hear said and you shouldn't believe.
Cited: Hitler, Vatican , Darwin , Freud, Einstein, Mein Kampf

Hitchslap 17:  I don't want to praise the dear leader for eternity.  3:04
Its a bit mushy isn't it - this I'm OK you're OK ecumenicism, as well as a bit ahistorical.
Millions died on these points of distinction and thought that their lives had been well thrown away for it, and I think one ought to respect that.
As a deist you still have all your work ahead of you before you can be a theist.
Roman Catholics believe Ex eclesiam nulla sallis – outside THEIR church there is no salvation.  Many protestants same the same about Catholics.
Which kind of Christian do you have to be to be a real one?
These are not small distinctions.
Wouldn't go to paradise if I was asked.  Its like a fucking celestial North Korea.
The trouble with religion only starts when people have affirmed that it is true.  Then comes the really nice bit – inter-religious warfare.
‘Co-stars’: ?
Cited: Rick Warren

Hitchslap 18: Religion thinks it has a right to threaten non believers  3:33
It is not possible to have moral authority within religion.  The two things are so sharply divorced.
This doesn't lead to chaos.
e.g. 1 Moral blackmail of Denmark by the OIC.
e.g. 2 The fatwah against Salman Rushdie.  The offer of money to suborn murder for the crime of writing a work of fiction.
Friday prayers at Tehran University with banners and slogans saying that the sentence of Salman Rushdie will never die.
There is something shady involved here – some people say that Islamist's give themselves permission to lie to non-believers.  Sounds like the kind of vulgar and paranoid thing that an islamophobe would go round saying.  It would be very easy to disprove, except that it hasn't been.
These are not minor threats but threats to the very core of what we believe.
Claims of a religion that says it is the answer to everything.
(Also found in Hitchslap 29 - Link:
Cited: Organisation of Islamic Congress, Ambassadors of Egypt, Turkey etc., Spiritual leader of Shia islam

Hitchslap 19: God has a special plan for us  3:09
Reference to RDFRS lecture by Lawrence Krauss.  Universe from nothing
Every single second a star goes out.  A lot of annihilation and destruction.  A wasteful scale.
It does have the positive outcome that we are all constituted of those materials – we are made of stardust
More majestic, wonderful and beautiful and impressive than a burning bush
One has the virtue of being true and provable and studiable, and the other doesn't.
I do think that the verifiability of something is a virtue.
Until 50,000 years ago there were 4 other kinds of biped humanoid on the planet. No religion ever invented knew anything about other hominids.
All of this could be part of a plan – there is no way an atheist can prove that it is not - but it is some plan isn't it.
All set in motion on a scale beyond our imagination – all so that the pope can tell people not to jerk off.
Cited: Lawrence Krauss

Hitchslap 20: Stupid questions  1:32
[How can you justify taking away something that gives meaning?]
What an incredibly stupid question!
1/  This stuff cannot be taken away.  It is their favourite toy and will remain that way as long as we are afraid of death.
2/  I'm perfectly happy for people to have these toys as long as they play with them at home.  I will not play with the toys.  Don't say my children must play with these toys.
Enough of clerical and religious bullying and intimidation.  Is that finally clear?
‘Co-stars’: Fora TV
Cited: Sigmund Freud

Hitchslap 21: The weakness of religion.  3:29
Strong connection between wishes and thought.
We are the first species to know that one by one we are going to die.  To give someone the suggestion that maybe an exception can be made in their own case is making a fairly obvious offer.
Our strength is that we don't need support groups.
The weakness of religion is that it needs constant reinforcement.  Of course it needs that.  It would crumble without it.
Princess Diana checked out the same week as Mother Teresa – douche-bag, liar and thief.  Sobfest.  Ah well – there is a god.
I like it when bad people die.  I don't love my enemies.  That's why I think Christianity is immoral.
Cited: Sigmund Freud, Henry Kissinger, Mother Teresa, Princess Diana

Hitchslap Index posts: 1, 2, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9

The next parts coming regularly.  Check back for more!

Please add your comments, suggestions and corrections so that they can be included (with credit) in the final summary index that will be made up of these posts.

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Haiku errors

One from the archives today!

The Japanese have replaced the impersonal and unhelpful Microsoft error messages with their own Japanese haiku poetry, each only 17 syllables, 5 syllables in the first line, 7 in the second, five in the third...

A file that big?
It might be very useful.
But now it is gone.

The Web site you seek
Can not be located but
Countless more exist.

Chaos reigns within.
Reflect, repent, and reboot.
Order shall return.

Windows NT crashed.
I am the Blue Screen of Death.
No one hears your screams.

Yesterday it worked.
Today it is not working.
Windows is like that.

First snow, then silence.
This thousand dollar screen dies
So beautifully.

Stay the patient course.
Of little worth is your ire.
The network is down.

A crash reduces
Your expensive computer
To a simple stone.

Three things are certain:
Death, taxes, and lost data.
Guess which has occurred.

You step in the stream,
But the water has moved on.
This page is not here.

Out of memory.
We wish to hold the whole sky,
But we never will.

Having been erased,
The document you're seeking
Must now be retyped.

Serious error.
All shortcuts have disappeared.
Screen. Mind. Both are blank.

Small note: Hmmm!

Monday, 19 March 2012

Highly visible

Working for a large organisation, rules are sometimes applied in strange and inconsistent ways.  After an unfortunate road accident on-site, in which a pedestrian's leg was broken, one of our partner organisations introduced a rule that their employees must wear high visibility jackets whenever they are outdoors.

Maybe this is sensible, maybe not, but fortunately that rule has not been rolled out to the rest of us.

Wouldn't it have been rather ironic to have to wear a high visibility vest on top of the smart black 'low-visibility' jacket that was issued last year?  Strangely though, it is exactly the sort of thing that I could easily imagine happening.

On a 'partner site' a few years ago a rule was introduced to stipulate that all cyclists must wear cycle helmets.  That is not required on the public roads in UK, and there are statistics from other countries that have implemented such a law to suggest that accidents might even increase.  On that particular site there are also outdoor areas where it is mandatory to wear a hard hat.

I speculated to one of the directors that I might find it difficult to decide what to do if I had to cycle through a hard hat area.

It seems that that very argument had already been rehearsed for real.

Such is the fun of working for the government!

Sunday, 18 March 2012

Dunbar's Number in Social media

You might have heard of the concept of 'Dunbar's Number' without having put a name to it.  If you have, you might have formed a view about whether you believe in the idea that we can only keep a certain number of social contacts in our thoughts. 

To quote from Wikipedia, Dunbar's number is a suggested cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships. These are relationships in which an individual knows who each person is, and how each person relates to every other person. Proponents assert that numbers larger than this generally require more restrictive rules, laws, and enforced norms to maintain a stable, cohesive group. No precise value has been proposed for Dunbar's number. It has been proposed to lie between 100 and 230, with a commonly used value of 150.  Dunbar's number states the number of people one knows and keeps social contact with, and it does not include the number of people known personally with a ceased social relationship, nor people just generally known with a lack of persistent social relationship, a number which might be much higher and likely depends on long-term memory size.

Like me, I'm sure that you know people who seem to remember everything said by everyone, however long ago.  Perhaps like me you recognise your own inability to do the same.  In my job I find that I have to interact with a huge number of people, and I often find myself completely unable to remember the name of someone who I have known for years.

Robin Dunbar - a touch is worth a thousand words any day!

Whether or not Dunbar's hypothesis about neocortical processing capacity or theories about long term memory are the perfect explanations of the phenomenon, I think almost all of us recognise the feeling.  You can see him speaking about Facebook friends and 'real friends' and related topics in an excellent 19 minute long talk on ForaTV.  See Robin Dunbar: How Many Friends Does One Person Need?  He says that he thinks touch is one of the most important factors in maintaining a real relationship and discusses the role of kinship, and talks about the fragility of friendships.  Interestingly it seems that the limit to the number of friends seems to be largely limited to primate species too.

A recent episode of the always-interesting podcast, Skepticality, featured an interview with David McRaney at this link You Are Not So Smart.  In a discussion that covered a huge range of interesting topics he mentioned that studies of people's use of social media have been used to test Dunbar's number in a new way.

Looking into this I found one such study of Twitter users.  Validation of Dunbar’s Number in Twitter by Bruno Goncalves et al seems to confirm the idea, with a sample of 1.7 million individuals, 380 million tweets and 25 million conversations.   The magic number of contacts comes out at around 200 again. 
Small note: I must admit that I'm not entirely certain where this was formally published as it is now in an online open-source repository,  The authors appear to come from respectable organisations.  I sometimes think that peer review is an over-rated idea anyway!

Saturday, 17 March 2012

Things Christians Say, Part 7: You're SO closed minded

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 SO closed-minded!


Requiring evidence before believing something surprising is not the same as being closed-minded, is it?  I would like to think that I can look at the world and consider all the possible explanations about how it came to be this way.

I happen to find it interesting first to consider the explanations that are based on all the human observations that have been made so far.  Critical thinking actually demands an open mind.  It is absolutely necessary to be able to consider the possibility of new options.  If I can't understand the world on this scientific basis, then perhaps I would have to consider other options on the basis of their merits, and one option is that we do not yet know the answer.  Falling back on supernatural explanations is very much a last resort for me though.

Many Christians do not do the same.  They fail to look at the conflicting evidence and counter arguments against their position, and by doing that I feel that they are missing so much of the beauty of the world.

If you honestly use the argument that non-believers are closed-minded, then I can only quote Christopher Hitchens who said to someone who asked a silly question

"You give the awful impression of someone who has not read any of the arguments against your position ever."

An open mind accepts new ideas!



This accusation is one that I find very hard to understand.  I'm assuming that this is the opposite of open-minded, but assumptions like this do not always work when talking with theists.  The sands of logic shift much too often.

I am so closed-minded that, as a former Christian, I opened my mind and dared to consider the possibility that there is no God.  The more I explore these ideas, the more I am convinced that there are no other deities either.  I still consider the question to be an open one.  However, I think the probability that I will see any convincing evidence that makes me change my mind back is vanishingly small.  I'm a fir 6.9 on the Dawkins' seven point scale.

I have gone from being a lazy, closed-minded Christian to being an open-minded atheist very comfortably and without trauma.  I can only recommend it!

Do supernatural options fit into the set of possible explanations though?  For me, no, not really.  The reason for this is that it seems to be an intellectually lazy option.  "I can't personally work out how that happened . . . so it must have been God!" doesn't explain anything at all.  Such an explanation requires an explanation in itself.

Cogito ergo non ovis - not a sheep!

Last week:  You can't prove there is no god
Next week:  The bible is totally scientific!

Friday, 16 March 2012

Not so fast with the neutrino mystery!

When I attended the village Harvest Festival supper last year, the news about neutrinos travelling faster than light had just hit the headlines.  Since it is known that I work in 'big physics', several friends confronted me with a smile, and various versions of the same question, dressed up as a statement.  "So! Physics is wrong then!"

At the time I was amused by this interrogation, and it reminded me that it was an opportunity to spread the word about how science progresses.  For very many people it is surprising to find out that being wrong is an opportunity to find something new.  It is sometimes said that physicists like nothing better than hearing what they already know.  This 'confirmation bias' is a feeling that we all have, for most of our lives.  We like to believe that we understand things, even if we are deluding ourselves. 

However, for most of us who work in science, the 'second best' thing in our professional lives is to find a surprising mystery that challenges our 'beliefs' and opens up the chance of learning something that nobody has ever known before.  The mystery of the neutrinos that might be travelling faster than light definitely falls into this category.  So much of fundamental physics points to the complete unlikelihood of the observation, but nevertheless the observation had been made. 

In actual fact I think almost every physicist was skeptical about the claim - and this would include those who had made the observation and who were calling on the broader community to explain where they might have gone wrong.  After all, we know exactly how fast ordinary neutrinos travel compared with light and would be surprised to think that those created by CERN would behave differently.  The very best and most sensitive evidence came from observations of a supernova known as SN1987A.  The light from this distant exploding star took 168,000 years to reach us and the burst of neutrinos arrived just 3 hours earlier.  We know for certain that the neutrinos came from the same direction and we understand how light can be delayed in its journey.  Light reflects and scatters from particles of matter on its way here - the neutrinos just go straight through.

SN1987A supernova - a great neutrino source!
Image from here

Even last October, the 'smart money' was on the likelihood of a subtle experimental error, and now, months later there are rumours that there are two possible candidates.  As it happens, these two tiny imperfections in a huge and complex experiment would have opposite effects.  One would make the neutrinos appear to be going even faster, and the other would make them seem slower.  Nobody yet knows which one of these dominates the measurement, but in May there is a good chance that they will find out.  At the moment, we just know that the error in the measurement is big enough to include the expected result that neutrinos do not break the light barrier.

So what does this reveal about the path of science?  I think that the openness of the scientific community, and the ease with which news can now be transmitted to the public, are strengths that we should celebrate.  The media exploits this openness for its own ends - namely profit.  However, at last the general public are able to see that science progresses in little steps, with our models of the universe getting closer to the truth each time.  Some of the steps take us backwards but they probably teach us something anyway.

The best comparison I can make to everyday life is that of seeing a delicious sausage being made.  It is perfectly OK if you are squeamish and decide not to watch what goes into the sausage, but if you don't watch then you are missing something about life, part of the path to true understanding of our universe.    In my own case I'm probably more squeamish about making a sausage than making science, but everyone is different!

Small note:  This has been written to go into a local magazine, but it was published here first!

Thursday, 15 March 2012

Russell's Teapot

As philosophers go, Bertrand Russell is well known to us.  He was one of the most notable and outspoken atheists of the 20th century.  If you have not had the chance to read his essay "Why I am not a Christian" then I recommend that you take the time to read it soon.  In some ways it feels like a condensed version of 'The God Delusion'.

One of the interesting concepts that Russell brought to the attention of the public was the idea of a supernatural teapot.

Many orthodox people speak as though it were the business of sceptics to disprove received dogmas rather than of dogmatists to prove them. This is, of course, a mistake. If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes. But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense. If, however, the existence of such a teapot were affirmed in ancient books, taught as the sacred truth every Sunday, and instilled into the minds of children at school, hesitation to believe in its existence would become a mark of eccentricity and entitle the doubter to the attentions of the psychiatrist in an enlightened age or of the Inquisitor in an earlier time.

Russell's teapot - image from here
Naturally, since Russell first suggested the idea, it has been extrapolated to the concept of the Invisible Pink Unicorn, and the Flying Spaghetti Monster (FSM) which was last manifested in Austria as you might see at that link.

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Amazing Hitchslap Index: part 2

Here is the next instalment of 'The Amazing Hitchslap Index', summarising the content of the next 7 of the 66 'Hitchslaps' uploaded to Youtube by Loy Machedo as explained here.  For each Hitchslap, I summarise the content in the form of direct quotations and summaries, list co-stars and 'authorities' called upon.  This series should help you to find that one perfect Hitchslap to send to someone who you are debating.

Christopher Hitchens on the subject of Billy Graham

Hitchslap 08: This so called merciful god 1:52
[What does your anti-theism have to offer in the way of dignity hope to those who are not as strong or intelligent as you?]
...not just deist belief in a creator but theist belief in someone who knows and watches and cares.
Fraulein Freisel – kept in a dungeon - Imagine how she must have prayed, beseeched heaven for 24 years.
Heaven watched with indifference because that score will later be settled.
So it was well worth her going through it.  She'll have a better time next time
‘Co-stars’: Panel of many, 
Cited: Fraulein Friesel, (Austria)

Hitchslap 09: Rev. Billy Graham was an evil man 1:25
Billy Graham – a disgustingly evil man.
Anti-Semitism an unfailing sign of a sick and disordered person, horrible conspiratorial, pseudo-intellectual mean-spirited, eventually lethal piece of bigotry.
Richard Nixon – squalid little bigot – outmatched by the way that Billy Graham talks.
Goes round spouting lies to young people for a living – what a horrible career.
(This is included in Hitchslap 36.)
‘Co-stars’: In Depth
Cited: Billy Graham, Richard Nixon, , 
Hitchslap 10: Why Heaven wouldn't be a heaven at all 
Wish to be a slave. Desire that there be an unalterable, unchallengeable tyrannical authority who can convict you of thought crimes while you are asleep . 
Total surveillance of your life around the clock. Every waking and sleeping moment.
The real fun begins after you are dead.
A celestial North Korea – a necrocracy.  A thanetocracy.  One short of a trinity
At least you can fucking die and leave North Korea.  Does Koran or Bible offer you that liberty? No!  The tyranny misery, utter ownership of your entire personality, smashing of your individuality only begins at the point of death.
Cited: Kim Jong Il, Kim Il Sun

Hitchslap 11:  The teachings of Christianity are immoral 3:20
Is it moral to believe that our sins can be forgiven by the punishment of another person?
I submit that the doctrine of vicarious redemption by human sacrifice is utterly immoral.
Compulsory love is another sickly element of Christianity
I'll pay your debts but can't take away your responsibilities.
Scape-goating – a positively immoral doctrine that demolishes the concept of personal responsibility on which all ethics and morality must depend.
I am told that I have to have a share in this human sacrifice even though it took place before I was born.
I had no say in it happening.  I wasn't consulted.  Had I been present I would have been bound to do my best to stop the public torture and execution of an eccentric preacher.
Sin of Adam in Genesis
This may sound a mad belief but it is the Christian belief.
To connect meteorology to morality seems to me flat out idiotic whichever way you do it.
Fisher - Nuclear war will only hasten our transition into a more blessed state.
Another immoral and sinister thing about religion is that lurking under it at all times in every one of its versions is a desire for this life to come to an end.
What is it like to lie to children for a living and to tell them that there is an authority that they must love.
Cited: Bishop of Carlisle, Jeffrey Fisher, Archbishop of Canterbury
Hitchslap 12: Blackmail and extortion, Christian style
[Possibility of transformation being offered to me but not imposed upon me]
Not imposed??
What if you reject the offer that took place by means of the torture to death of a human being?
I don't want it.  Oh you don't? Well you have to go to hell.
This has been preached to children. . . by gruesome elderly virgins for centuries
Religious faith is not modest and humble but the reverse.  It is unbelievably solipsistic.
To move from the deist position to the theist – to assume that we know about the mind of god. That we know what he wants us to eat and in what positions to make love or with whom.
Unbelievable piece of conceit . . . claiming to know things that they can not conceivably know.
If Dr McGrath has access to such extraordinary sources of information as the ones he has claimed I can't understand why he is only occupying a chair at Oxford University.
You don't know any more than I do.  You couldn't know any more than I do.  You can't.  You just claim that you do.
‘Co-stars’: Alistair McGrath
Hitchslap 13: The Catholic Church is Evil 
The pope, on March 12th 2000, begged forgiveness for the crusades, the inquisition, the persecution of Jews, injustice towards women (half the human race), the forced conversion of the indigenous people of S America, the African slave trade, the admission that Galileo was right, silence during Hitler's final solution, regret for the rape and torture of children.
These are very serious matters, not to be laughed off by reference to occasional work of charity.
Most loving pastoral care . . . well I'm sorry they have already had that.
Anti-Semitism was official Catholic doctrine until 1964.
Will one day be admitted that it might have been in error to say that AIDS is bad but not quite as bad as condoms are bad.  Or not as immoral in the same way.
Preachings of his church are responsible for the death of millions of people in Africa
A child made in the image of god.  Oh no you are not you're a faggot.
. . . clutch of hysterical sinister virgins
Cited: Joseph Ratzinger, Galileo, Hitler, Stephen Fry, Catholicism in Africa

Hitchslap 14: Shame there’s no hell for Fallwell to burn in.
Falwell established a business, a racket.  A hereditary job.
Rid of an extremely dangerous demagogue who lived by hatred and prejudice.
Treason of saying that USA deserved the attack upon it in 2001.
A pity there isn't a hell for him to go to
Discovery of the carcass of Rev Falwell was of zero significance.
You, no doubt, as a Christian, require hypocrisy of people.
Made a career out of sponsoring dislike and superstition.
Said people he didn't like would go to hell.
Took up all the time with your long and rather unlettered question.
I think his death is a deliverance.
‘Co-stars’: Hannity & Colmes
Cited: Jerry Falwell, Ralph Reid

Hitchslap Index posts: 1, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9

Please add your comments, suggestions and corrections so that they can be included (with credit) in the final summary index that will be made up of these posts.

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Wearing magic underwear

The 'magic underwear' of the Mormons is often mentioned in such a way as to poke fun - and I hope to continue with that tradition because, like me, you might never have taken the trouble to investigate the matter further.

It seems that the semi-Masonic emblems represent different Mormon mysteries, including the Melchizedek priesthood and the Aaronic priesthood.  All these mysteries stem from the imagination of the inventor of Mormonism, Joseph Smith.

First here is a video about the secret underwear, by an amusing Australian who interviews some ex Mormons who explain the magic of the garments and succeeds in buying some (illicitly).

The Mormonism Research Ministry's page The Protective Garments of the Holy Priesthood says

The garment provides a constant reminder of the covenants you have made in the temple. You should treat it with respect at all times. You should not expose it to the view of those who do not understand its significance, and you should not adjust it to accommodate different styles of clothing. When you wear it properly, it provides protection against temptation and evil. Wearing the garment is an outward expression of an inward commitment to follow the Savior”.

This is a former Mormon, Ed Decker describes a bit about the mysteries of the Mormon religion in this video (part 1 of 2)

Having seen a little bit about this subject, what would you think of America if it elected a Republican president who wears this magic underwear?  With this in mind, I think it could be argued that Mitt Romney is the most sane of the Republican candidates. I think that gives Obama a good chance of a second term.

That is not to say that the Mormon couple that I know are not very nice people.  The strange thing is, I can imagine that one of them does wear the magic underwear but perhaps not the other.

Monday, 12 March 2012

Rights of women or wrongs of bishops?

Annie Laurie Gaylor is one of the co-presidents of the American body, the Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF), along with her ex-minister husband Dan Barker.

Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor of the FFRF

If you want to hear Annie Laurie and Dan in action, try listening to the podcast "Freethought Radio" as I do every week.  Although it is very much focused on issues surrounding the 1st Amendment to the US constitution (and in UK we have no such constitution) I find that they often have guests with interesting opinions.

Last week, Annie Laurie and Dan wrote a hard-hitting 'open letter' to 'Liberal' and 'Nominal' Catholics, and published it as a full page advert in the New York Times on 9th March.  Here is a copy of the letter which points out many of the evils represented by the church.

I think this goes a long way to confront the claim that the church does more good than harm.  Of course 'other' christians will cheerfully dissociate themselves from these Catholic evils.  Whatever their disagreements might be, many christians will stick together in the face of a realistic and rational challenge to the beliefs that they share.  They always do.

Much of the message is relevant to the comments left last weekend on my latest post in the series 'Things Christians Say Part 6'.

Full page advert by FFRF in the New York Times

Why is this relevant?  It all comes down to the one and only proven cure for poverty in the world.  Any society that gives women control of reproduction naturally becomes more prosperous.  This goes very much against the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church - and several other notable religious movements. 

After all . . . AIDS may be bad, but condoms are a greater sin.

So, "Do you choose women and their rights, or bishops and their wrongs?" is rather a good question isn't it?

Sunday, 11 March 2012

Outraged by pre-historic jockey!

A few months ago, I mentioned one of my local pre-historic monuments, the Uffington White Horse.  It is one of a collection of hillside art, carved in the chalk of Southern England.

Uffington White Horse unblemished

One morning this week, people living close to the site of this ancient monument woke up to a surprise.  Some described it as desecration.  Others were appalled that anyone could have committed an act of rural graffiti like this.

The Uffington White Horse had acquired an Uffington White Jockey, courtesy of a company called Paddy Power, in advance of Cheltenham Festival this week.

Uffington Jockey - tastefully executed and sadly removed!

Outraged or not (see Oxford Mail's article), I think that the enterprise was carried out rather well.  The jockey is designed very much in sympathy with the style of the original horse, using white canvas pegged to the gorund.

Don't worry - no white horses were harmed.  Sadly the spectacle was removed before enough people had a chance to enjoy it, demonstrating that a sense of humour is not a necessary qualification for the officials of the National Trust.

Even more sadly - much more harm will be done to real horses in order to ensure that Paddy Power continues to profit from other people's gambling stupidity.

Related post: White Horses in the Chalk

Saturday, 10 March 2012

Things Christians Say, Part 6: Can't prove there is no 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'). 

You can't prove that there's no god


With all due respect, I have to question why you use this type of argument at all because it does not establish anything useful.  I can't prove that there is no god any more than you can prove that you worship the right one when you have so many to choose from. 

You might even admit that God doesn't exactly make it easy for you to believe in him either.  The bible is often used as 'evidence' for his existence, but let's face it, it isn't good evidence.  The bible is supposed to be the inspired word of God, but The Old Testament includes other gods - Baal perhaps being Yahweh's greatest rival.  El and all the host of heaven appear from time to time too.

Many of the stories existed for centuries or millennia before they were written down as The Torah.

The gospels in the New Testament neither agree with each other, nor with the known historical facts from a region that was of great strategic importance to the Roman Empire, in a century that is particularly well documented.  e.g.  The Crucifiction Darkness and the raising of all the dead in Jerusalem would surely not have gone un-noticed.

I feel that these are some of the reasons to have a strong doubt about the existence of god(s) in general and your God in particular.



That's true.  And you can do better?  No, I thought not.  I can't actually prove the non-existence of the tooth fairy or unicorns but I'm an a-fairyist and an a-unicornist too.

If you disagree, you prove it!
Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence!
There is an increasing amount of evidence from brain science to suggest the reasons for our superstitious beliefs.

Last week:   Things Christians Say, Part 5: Just go out and kill!
Next week:   You're SO closed minded

Friday, 9 March 2012

Europium protects the currency

You may have heard the expression that nobody counterfeits bad currency.  As it happens, they do.  At the moment the Euro does not quite fit into the category of 'bad currency' in spite of the efforts of some EU countries to make this happen. 

Working in a community of curious physicists, I was intrigued yesterday to hear a story about the steps taken to avoid the counterfeiting of Euro notes.

Apparently, under ultra-violet light, a Euro note will glisten in several different colours, and the precise colours produced can be used to check that the notes are not forged.  Some physicists study light, and they use instruments called spectrometers to break light down into it constituent parts to analyse the type of atoms that are present.  All atoms have characteristic light patterns, called spectra, and with the right type of expertise you can identify them.  This is how astronomers determine the materials in distant stars or indeed in the sun.

Europium used to prevent counterfeiting

In the particular case of the Euro notes, the light is produced by a process called fluorescence.  The energy from ultra-violet light is used to excite the fluorescing atoms, and then for a short time the atoms radiate their energy again, but at different colours.  Some atoms fluoresce for only a short time and others for much longer.

The rather beautiful finding that surprised me yesterday was that Euro notes use an element called Europium in a special (and undetermined) formulation.  There is something rather poetic about this isn't there? 

I only hope that USA does not follow the same poetry for American dollar bills.  Unlike the two stable isotopes of Europium (with masses 151 and 153), all the isotopes of Americium are radioactive and it is not a material that you would want to have in your pocket.

Small note: It has been suggested that it might be illegal to investigate the sources of the other colours in too much detail!  Genuine scientific curiosity could be misinterpreted as conspiracy!