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I have a burning need to know stuff and I love asking awkward questions.

Thursday, May 31, 2007

All hell breaks out as pagans given go-ahead for university gathering

From Scotland on Sunday

Sun 27 May 2007

SOME would call it the Devil's work. Two ancient religions have locked horns in a bizarre "freedom of speech" row that is echoing around the corridors of one of Scotland's oldest academic institutions. The University of Edinburgh has granted permission to the Pagan Society to hold its annual conference - involving talks on witchcraft, pagan weddings and tribal dancing - on campus next month. Druids, heathens, shamans and witches are expected to attend what is a major event in the pagan calendar. But the move has enraged the Christian Union, which accuses the university of double standards after banning one of its events on the "dangers" of homosexuality.

Matthew Tindale, an Edinburgh-based Christian Union staff worker, claimed some faiths and beliefs appeared to be more equal than others on campus. "This seems to be a clear case of discrimination," he said. "It's okay for other religions, such as the pagans, to have their say at the university, but there appears to be a reluctance to allow Christians to do the same. All we are asking for is the tolerance that is afforded to other faiths and organisations." The Union has won strong backing from the Catholic Church in Scotland, whose spokesman, Simon Dames, felt that allowing the pagan festival to go ahead while barring the Union meeting was an example of "Christianphobia". "This appears to be a clear case of double standards," he said. "The principles of a pluralistic democracy revolve around an acceptance of competing ideas and universities should be enshrining this principle. Anti-racism groups would never be asked to put up posters saying there are alternative views." The row has its roots in last year's decision by university officials to ban the Christian Union from using campus premises to run a course which claimed that gay sex was morally wrong.

The course was deemed to be in breach of university anti-discrimination guidelines although a compromise measure was later offered to allow the course to take place if posters offering differing views were prominently displayed. Much to the displeasure of some campus Christians and the Catholic Church, no such conditions will be attached to the pagan gathering. But the pagans point out that, unlike the Christian Union, their followers fully support the university's equality policies and condemn homophobic attitudes as "deplorable". John Macintyre, presiding officer of the Pagan Federation Scotland, stressed that his faith was based on tolerance and backed the university for opposing "hurtful" discriminatory behaviour. "Pagans, as a rule, don't believe that sexist or homophobic views are acceptable and discrimination on that basis is deplorable," he said.

The conference will feature a range of talks, including Magic and Witchcraft in the 21st Century, Pagan Parenting, Pagan Marriage and Pagan Symbolism and Practice. Taking place at the Edinburgh University Students' Association premises, it will also feature a talk on Ancient Greek magic, a tribal dance workshop and a performance by the Glasgow Labyrinth Theatre Company as well as poetry from "Notorious Mad Mick" and rituals by the Akasha Group. Macintyre said: "It will be an opportunity for people to listen to talks on various aspects of modern paganism and socialise with like-minded people in a relaxed, tolerant atmosphere.

"Most people now recognise that the old stereotypes about witches and witchcraft are way off the mark and there is nothing remotely sinister about it." The pagans are not the only organisation to take issue with the Union over its course, which deals with the Bible's attitude to sex and relationships. It has also been condemned by the Edinburgh University Student Association and Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Scotland. Tim Goodwin, EUSA president and himself a Christian, said: "We are strictly opposed to the course. It is essentially homophobic and we have a policy that condemns the course itself." A University of Edinburgh spokesman said: "The University's offer of accommodation - with certain conditions - stands. We strongly defend the right to free speech and freedom of conscience."

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

World Opposed to U.S. as Global Cop

by Eli Clifton for Inter Press Service

April 19, 2007

WASHINGTON - The world public rejects the U.S. role as a world leader, but still wants the United States to do its share in multilateral efforts and does not support a U.S. withdrawal from international affairs, says a poll released Wednesday. The survey respondents see the United States as an unreliable “world policeman”, but views are split on whether the superpower should reduce its overseas military bases.

The people of the United States generally agreed with the rest of the world that their country should not remain the world’s pre-eminent leader or global cop, and prefer that it play a more cooperative role in multilateral efforts to address world problems. The poll, the fourth in a series released by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and WorldPublicOpinion.org since the latter half of 2006, was conducted in China, India, United States, Indonesia, Russia, France, Thailand, Ukraine, Poland, Iran, Mexico, South Korea, Philippines, Australia, Argentina, Peru, Israel, Armenia and the Palestinian territories.

The three previous reports covered attitudes toward humanitarian military intervention, labour and environmental standards in international trade, and global warming. Those surveys found that the international public generally favoured more multilateral efforts to curb genocides and more far-reaching measures to protect labour rights and combat climate change than their governments have supported to date. Steven Kull, editor of WorldPublicOpinion.org, notes that this report confirms other polls which have shown that world opinion of the United States is bad and getting worse, however this survey more closely examines the way the world public would want to see Washington playing a positive role in the international community. Although all 15 of the countries polled rejected the idea that, “the U.S. should continue to be the pre-eminent world leader in solving international problems,” only Argentina and the Palestinian territories say it “should withdraw from most efforts to solve international problems.”

The respondents tend to agree that the US should do “its share in efforts to solve international problems together with other countries” in: South Korea (79 percent), United States (75 percent), France (75 percent), China (68 percent), Israel (62 percent), Peru (61 percent), Mexico (59 percent), Armenia (58 percent), Philippines (55 percent), Ukraine (52 percent), Thailand (47 percent), India (42 percent) and Russia (42 percent). In a majority of countries — 13 out of 15 — publics believe Washington is “playing the role of world policeman more than it should,” including France (89 percent), Australia (80 percent), China (77 percent), Russia (76 percent), Peru (76 percent), Palestinian territories (74 percent) and South Korea (73 percent). Seventy-six percent of those polled in the United States also agree that their country plays too big a role as a global cop, but 57 percent of Filipinos disagreed with the statement, and Israelis were evenly split on the issue.

Majorities think that the United States cannot be trusted to “act responsibly in the world” in: Argentina (84 percent), Peru (80 percent), Russia (73 percent), France (72 percent) and Indonesia (64 percent). But majorities or large percentages in the Philippines (85 percent), Israel (81 percent), Poland (51 percent), and Ukraine (49 percent) say the superpower can be at least “somewhat” trusted to act responsibly. Although most of the countries involved in the poll had majorities who believe the U.S. was too involved in policing issues of international concern, there were mixed views about whether it should reduce its military presence around the world. Only five out of 12 publics favoured decreasing the number of overseas U.S. military bases: Argentina (75 percent), Palestinian territories (70 percent), France (69 percent), China (63 percent) and Ukraine (62 percent).

Majorities in the Philippines (78 percent), United States (68 percent), Israel (59 percent) and Poland (54 percent) favour maintaining or increasing the current levels of U.S. military bases. Armenia and Thailand lean in favour of maintaining current levels or reducing base locations, while India was divided. No country favoured increases. The survey clearly shows that the perception of the U.S. role in the world is negative and getting worse, but some publics did have significant numbers who felt relations between their country and the United States are getting better.

Most of the respondents in India (58 percent) and China (53 percent) felt relations were improving, while pluralities agree in Australia (50 percent), Armenia (48 percent), Indonesia (46 percent), and Thailand (37 percent). Majorities or pluralities in Poland (60 percent), South Korea (56 percent), Israel (52 percent), Ukraine (52 percent) and Russia (45 percent) say relations with the U.S. are about the same. No countries had majorities or pluralities who say relations with the United States are getting worse.

[It would appear I’m not alone in this opinion either…… No US 'Global Cop' role is required or desired.]

Monday, May 28, 2007

Just Finished Reading: The Enlightenment – An evaluation of its assumptions, attitudes and values by Norman Hampson

In this very readable book Hampson outlines the origins and development of Enlightenment thoughts and values during the 18th Century. Concentrating mainly on France (where it all began) he teases apart the often complex and conflicting movements of ideas across the Continent from England to Russia. Ending with the French Revolution of 1789 Hampson analyses the connection between to two and draws some interesting conclusions.

I actually thought I knew more about the Enlightenment than it turned out to be the case. From reading this book I now realise that the origins and growth of the ideas surrounding it are far more complex than I thought. Things were certainly not as ‘clear cut’ as I had imagined. Then again my knowledge of that period is less than complete - my historical interests being elsewhere (basically Ancient and Modern history with only a passing interest to anything in between). I certainly know a lot more about late 18th Century European history than I did before. My knowledge of the Enlightenment itself obviously needs to be deepened. I have a few more books on the subject waiting on my shelves so hopefully after reading them I’ll have a better understanding of what went on back then.

Though fairly old – being originally published in 1968 – Hampson’s book is well worth a read if you can find a copy. Only one thing irritated me about the text. He did have a habit of quoting from books in French or German without offering any translation. As my knowledge of other languages is limited I would have appreciated them in English too.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Video Time.

Fiona Apple - Sleep to Dream.

I bought the amazing Ms Apple's first CD after hearing her on one of the myriad music video channels. Her second CD was bought on my brief visit to San Francisco. I'm not particularly impressed by her third CD but the first two..... are sublime.

Cartoon Time.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Who you gonna call........ Ghostbusters?

A few times I have heard the ‘argument’ put forward that Atheists have no one and nothing to fall back on when times are hard. Whilst Christians can call on God or Jesus to help them through disasters, difficulties and day to day problems the poor atheists are left to their own resources which (rather inevitably) prove inadequate to the task. Atheism is, therefore, a rather sad, cold and unforgiving belief system.

What nonsense!

Everyone, and not just atheists, can call upon the greatest minds that have ever lived. These singular members of humanity have, through the ages, pondered the ‘many shocks that flesh is heir too’ and have derived ways of coping with adversity in order to come out again the other side possibly stronger than before. The only thing you need to access this awesome wealth of knowledge (apart from the will to do so) is the ability to read. With such a skill you too can have access to the wisdom of Socrates, Aristotle, Plato, Voltaire, Rousseau, Hume, Darwin, Marx, Sartre, Nietzsche and thousands of other Western philosophers. If these greats are not enough for you then try the equally rich philosophy from the East. There is an abundant resource of non-theistic philosophy available with little effort required to access it. It is not, nor has it ever been, a case of a rich religious tradition versus the bleak non-religious outlook. When you realise that the answers offered by religion are inadequate this does not mean that answers to your questions are unavailable – it just means that you have been looking in the wrong place. Start reading philosophy and you’ll be surprised by what you find – I know I have been.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Just Finished Reading: Industrial Magic by Kelley Armstrong


All Paige Winterbourne wants is an easy life – where she can run her web authoring business, bring up her young ward and enjoy life with her new love. Unfortunately things are never that easy for a witch and her half-demon lover. When it comes to her attention that a supernatural killer is targeting the children of the powerful Cabals she knows that she must act to save their lives. Things prove to be far from simple however as Cabal politics and a restless violent spirit combine to almost literally raise hell.

This was the second outing for Paige Winterbourne and Armstrong’s fourth book in the series Women of the Otherworld. Unfortunately it’s far from her best. The book is way too long at just over 500 pages and needed a much tighter plot. The characterisation was fairly good though far too ‘fluffy’ after reading Alan Furst a week or so previously. Armstrong’s magical world lives alongside this one but hardly interacts with what we would call ‘the real world’. This is generally OK for a fantasy novel but I think this book in particular was too detached from reality. Interesting in parts, particularly a short excursion into the Afterlife, it consistently failed to engage anything but a light involvement of my time and mental energy. Rather disappointing after her earlier works Bitten, Stolen and Dime Store Magic. One for die-hard Armstrong fans only I think.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Things I Like……. Though I’m not sure Why.

The colour Blue

Neo-Classical sculpture

19th Century Romantic paintings

The smell of Vanilla

Dramatic Coastlines

Film Noir

Baroque Music

Red-headed Women

People speaking Welsh

Symmetry

Monday, May 21, 2007

Pope warns Latin American Christians against Marxism

From Ekklesia

15 May 2007

Pope Benedict XVI has spoken out against both Marxism and unbridled capitalism, seeing them as twin problems for the future of Latin America. His comments came at the end of his visit to Brazil, where the pontiff, head of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics, also condemned "pro-abortion politicians" and warned drug dealers that they "would have to answer to God". Benedict said that Catholics should stay away from Marxism. He commented: “The Marxist system, where it found its way into government, not only left a sad heritage of economic and ecological destruction, but also a painful destruction of the human spirit."

His comments are being seen as the latest in a long line of public hostility towards the political Left in both politics and religion. As Cardinal Josepth Ratzinger, Benedict was known for his tough stance against liberation theologians and political clerics who championed social justice. He has also championed a moderate critique of capitalism developed within Catholic Social Teaching. But the Pope's alternative is to reinstate the power of the Church and of Christian Democracy, rather than to support radical Christian initiatives and a post-Christendom people's power approach. Marx is a controversial and at times much derided figure in religious circles. Jordan Tchilingirian, researcher for the religious thin-tank Ekklesia, commented today that peoples’ views of Marx “are clouded by popular spin, misreadings of his work and mythology.”

He said: “It is a mistake to confuse Marx’s essentially moral protest against the injustices of capitalism with his misappropriation by those who perpetuated the evils of Soviet and Eastern European totalitarianism. The Pope is correct; much done in the name of Marx has been terrible. But this is also true of what has been done in the name of Christ and the Gospel.” Tchilingirian added: “Binning everything about Marx is ridiculous. His critique of the dominant ideology has parallels in the way Christian scripture speaks from the perspective of the poor and Jesus condemns 'Mammon'. You don’t have to buy Marx’s precise economic prescriptions or his philosophical positivism to acknowledge this.”

Marx has at times been described by some academics inside and outside the churches as ‘the last great Hebrew prophet’, because his attack on injustice parallels those of the Old Testament prophets. But his appropriation by 'command communism' and the violent and oppressive legacies of Lenin, Stalin and Trotsky have put him 'out of bounds' since the collapse of the Eastern bloc.

The theologian Jose Portifa Miranda is among those who have written on the Bible and Marx as twin critiques of oppression. He also sought to reclaim Marx for a humanistic Christianity in a book called Marx Against the Marxists. Liberation theologians have been accused by Christian conservatives of being Marxists in disguise. But the leaders of the movement deny this, pointing to the evidence of their writings and action which indicate that they are critical and selective in their use of Marx, and that they are restoring the theological underpinnings he denied.

[Almost makes me want to start reading Marx.... grin].

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Just Finished Reading: Politics – A Very Short Introduction by Kenneth Minogue.

This is my second VSI (Very Short Introduction) book and I’m starting to be impressed by their quality. Professor Minogue manages to cover a very broad subject in just 111 pages. Starting with a run through (actually a gallop through) of political history from the Greeks – who invented it – to the Early Modern period in Europe he points out the major factors which influenced the emergence of what we recognise as the modern State. Later sections covered the experience of Politics from the point of view of Activists and Political Parties. The section I found most interesting was on Political Ideology (the term actually invented in 1797 by a French philosopher called Destutt de Tracy) and how that has affected the shape and understanding of political ideals.

All in all this was a very interesting introduction to the world of politics – which was the whole point. Both readable and stimulating it made me want to know more about the subject so more than adequately fulfilled its purpose. I’ve got about 6-8 of these books to read yet and am already looking forward to them. I think that there are about 200 books in this series so they should keep my mind expanding in all directions for years to come.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Let’s end the free ride.

By Victor J. Stenger

For Skeptical Briefs.

January 25, 2007

The continuing war between science and religion has attracted a lot of media attention lately. A few scientists have begun to speak out more forcefully about the contradictions between science and religion, and the public seems to be listening. Richard Dawkins's The God Delusion and Sam Harris's The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation have been bestsellers. I have made my own modest contribution with God: The Failed Hypothesis. How Science Shows that God Does Not Exist, which was released in January.

These books represent an escalation in the science-religion rhetoric that is not welcome to many scientists. Consider the recent attempts to have intelligent design creationism taught in schools. This movement is completely motivated by religion. Yet scientists and science organizations such as the National Academy of Sciences, 93 percent of whose members do not believe in a personal God, have avoided confronting religion directly on the issue by insisting, wrongfully in my view, that science has nothing to say about God. As a matter of practical politics, this has worked well and evolution now looks secure. Although this battle seems to be over, the National Center for Science Education, a private organization that coordinates the political efforts to keep evolution in the schools, and its cohorts in various "citizens for science" groups around the country remain obsessed with creationism. They worry so much about the dreaded word "creation" damaging schoolchildren that they ignore far more dangerous threats religious ideas pose to science and society. These groups are sitting on their hands while theology has taken over the role of science in advising Washington policy makers. This has lead to decisions that not only contradict science but also threaten the lives and well being of people everywhere.

The strong influence of religious thinking on the policies in the Bush administration, and the corresponding diminished role of science, has been thoroughly documented by Kevin Phillips in American Theocracy, Chris Mooney in The Republican War on Science, and Chris Hedges in American Fascists. Key conservative power brokers in Washington have imposed their biblically based views at almost every level of the federal government. Theological arguments have affected policies on everything from reproductive rights to the environment. Often these arguments fly in the face of scientific facts and restrict scientific research that could, in the end, greatly improve human life.

In one of his first acts as president, George W. Bush restored a gag rule on aid to international organizations that counsel women on abortion. Of millions of dollars spent on preventing and treating AIDS in Africa, 30 percent was earmarked for promoting sexual abstinence and none for condoms. Here at home, $170 million was spent in 2005 alone in promoting abstinence-only in schools. The Centers for Disease Control was pressured to remove from its website scientific findings that abstinence-only programs do not work. According to a 2003 report issued by Democratic Congressman Henry A. Waxman and the minority staff of the Government Reform Committee, the Bush administration modified performance measures for abstinence-based programs to make them look effective. Similarly, under pressure from conservatives, a National Cancer Institute website was changed to reflect the view that there may be a risk of breast cancer associated with abortions, a claim made by evangelicals that has no scientific support. Bush's obstruction of stem-cell research, which holds promise to provide a wide range of therapies, is based on the theological view that a 150-cell blastocyst contains a human soul. While scientists may prefer to remain neutral on the matter of souls, they should point out that a blastocyst cannot suffer while stem-cell research could result in considerable less suffering in fully developed humans.

Bush appointee to FDA's Reproductive Health Drugs Advisory committee, gynecologist W. David Hager, is an evangelical who prescribes Bible readings to treat premenstrual syndrome. Hager was primarily responsible for FDA blocking over-the-counter sales of the birth control drug known as Plan B. This was despite testimony before his committee by a scientific advisory panel that "Plan B was the safest product that we have ever seen brought before us." In the 2004 Conference on World Population, only the U.S. and Vatican representatives voted against a resolution to limit population growth. Evangelicals have also influenced Bush administration policies on the environment, the White House intervening in 2003 to remove cautions against global warming from a report on the environment. More recently, Bush has seemed to make an about face on global warming, but NASA is still delaying or canceling a number of satellites designed to obtain critical information on Earth climate. Bush gives the Space Station higher priority, despite the fact that a consensus of scientists regard it as scientifically useless.

In October 2005, George Deutsch, a presidential appointee in NASA headquarters sent an e-mail message to Flint Wild, a NASA contractor working on a set of Web presentations for middle-school students. The message said the word “theory” needed to be added after every mention of the big bang. The big bang is “not proven fact; it is opinion,” Mr. Deutsch wrote, adding, “It is not NASA’s place, nor should it be, to make a declaration such as this about the existence of the universe that discounts intelligent design by a creator.” While scientists have begun to speak out against these policies, they have not directly confronted the religious thinking underlying those policies. Presumably they fear offending "deeply held beliefs." I am pleading that religion no longer be given this free ride. The stakes are too high. Let science compete with religion in the marketplace of ideas. Scientists should question religious assumptions just as they question those of other scientists. And they should vigorously protest whenever faith is used to suppress sound scientific results.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Monday, May 14, 2007

War is Not a Solution for Terrorism

by Howard Zinn for the Boston Globe

September 2, 2006

There is something important to be learned from the recent experience of the United States and Israel in the Middle East: that massive military attacks, inevitably indiscriminate, are not only morally reprehensible, but useless in achieving the stated aims of those who carry them out. The United States, in three years of war, which began with shock-and-awe bombardment and goes on with day-to-day violence and chaos, has been an utter failure in its claimed objective of bringing democracy and stability to Iraq. The Israeli invasion and bombing of Lebanon has not brought security to Israel; indeed it has increased the number of its enemies, whether in Hezbollah or Hamas or among Arabs who belong to neither of those groups.


I remember John Hersey's novel, ``The War Lover," in which a macho American pilot, who loves to drop bombs on people and also to boast about his sexual conquests, turns out to be impotent. President Bush, strutting in his flight jacket on an aircraft carrier and announcing victory in Iraq, has turned out to be much like the Hersey character, his words equally boastful, his military machine impotent.

The history of wars fought since the end of World War II reveals the futility of large-scale violence. The United States and the Soviet Union, despite their enormous firepower, were unable to defeat resistance movements in small, weak nations -- the United States in Vietnam, the Soviet Union in Afghanistan -- and were forced to withdraw. Even the ``victories" of great military powers turn out to be elusive. Presumably, after attacking and invading Afghanistan, the president was able to declare that the Taliban were defeated. But more than four years later, Afghanistan is rife with violence, and the Taliban are active in much of the country.

The two most powerful nations after World War II, the United States and the Soviet Union, with all their military might, have not been able to control events in countries that they considered to be in their sphere of influence -- the Soviet Union in Eastern Europe and the United States in Latin America. Beyond the futility of armed force, and ultimately more important, is the fact that war in our time inevitably results in the indiscriminate killing of large numbers of people. To put it more bluntly, war is terrorism. That is why a ``war on terrorism" is a contradiction in terms. Wars waged by nations, whether by the United States or Israel, are a hundred times more deadly for innocent people than the attacks by terrorists, vicious as they are.

The repeated excuse, given by both Pentagon spokespersons and Israeli officials, for dropping bombs where ordinary people live is that terrorists hide among civilians. Therefore the killing of innocent people (in Iraq, in Lebanon) is called accidental, whereas the deaths caused by terrorists (on 9/11, by Hezbollah rockets) are deliberate. This is a false distinction, quickly refuted with a bit of thought. If a bomb is deliberately dropped on a house or a vehicle on the grounds that a ``suspected terrorist" is inside (note the frequent use of the word suspected as evidence of the uncertainty surrounding targets), the resulting deaths of women and children may not be intentional. But neither are they accidental. The proper description is ``inevitable."

So if an action will inevitably kill innocent people, it is as immoral as a deliberate attack on civilians. And when you consider that the number of innocent people dying inevitably in ``accidental" events has been far, far greater than all the deaths deliberately caused by terrorists, one must reject war as a solution for terrorism. For instance, more than a million civilians in Vietnam were killed by US bombs, presumably by ``accident." Add up all the terrorist attacks throughout the world in the 20th century and they do not equal that awful toll.

If reacting to terrorist attacks by war is inevitably immoral, then we must look for ways other than war to end terrorism, including the terrorism of war. And if military retaliation for terrorism is not only immoral but futile, then political leaders, however cold-blooded their calculations, may have to reconsider their policies.

[As with any conflict, whether it is against Terrorists or ants in your garden, you must choose the appropriate weapons and appropriate methods of using them. You do not carpet bomb cities in an attempt to kill terrorists in just the same way as you don’t use mortars to kill ants in your back yard. We’re smarter than that. Shock and Awe might look good on the Six-O’clock News but it doesn’t exactly get you the results you want. The so-called ‘War on Terror’ is not only immoral and futile as Zinn points out, it’s also really, really stupid.]

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Just Finished Reading: Blood of Victory by Alan Furst.

At the end of 1940 Russian émigré and novelist I A Serebin is in Istanbul visiting an ex-lover dying of TB. Whilst there he is approached by a member of British Intelligence with a request: Will he help them disrupt the flow of oil (the blood of victory in the title) from Romania to Nazi Germany. Feeling the need to ‘do something’ he agrees and becomes involved in the clandestine world of espionage in Occupied Europe.

As expected from reading a few of his pervious works, Furst delivers a beautifully written book about fractured people living through desperate times. Taking place largely within émigré communities throughout Europe a sense of loss is palpable throughout the entire book. Furst cleverly evokes a real sense of time and place and with consummate skill makes the reader feel that they are looking over Serebin’s shoulder as he makes his way through the plot. Twists and turns abound – along with incidents that are unexplained and remain unresolved – and the tension is at times almost unbearable. The characterisation is quite superb as is the dialogue between the characters where much is left unsaid yet reading between the lines much is conveyed. It feels like the author knew these people intimately and after reading this book it feels like I do too. There are even laugh out loud moments of gallows humour – exactly what real people would say in those circumstances. Furst has a first-rate knowledge of both the era and the people who inhabited it. With every page turned the reader is drawn a little more into that strange though hauntingly familiar world. This was one of those books that you put down at the end with a sigh and a regret that it’s all over. Quite, quite superb. Very highly recommended for fans of spy novels or anyone wanting a cracking good read.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Just Seven Weeks.


So Teflon Tony has finally resigned. He'll be gone as Prime Minister by the end of July. How I loathe that man - let me count the days.........

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

The ‘risk’ of Atheism?

Sirkolgate made this comment recently and I wanted to capture it before it went into old post Limbo.

He said: What you do in your life is up to you and you can make it good or bad. Main difference is I think you’re making a scary choice, because if you’re right… I’ll be dead having still lived my life the way I wanted. If I’m right, well shit, sucks to be you.

This seems to be a variation of Pascal’s Wager. Blaise Pascal basically said that the rewards for a belief in God are infinite whilst the dangers of not believing in Him are just too terrible to contemplate. Therefore it is far more reasonable to believe in God than not – because you lose nothing if you’re wrong (dead is still dead) but gain everything if you’re right.

There are so many things wrong with this philosophy that it’s difficult to know where to start. I actually think that Pascal’s Wager is the argument of a coward. It basically states that we should believe in God because of the fear of the consequences of not believing. It is essentially a negative belief. Personally I don’t believe in things just because I’m threatened – indeed if a belief is based on a threat then I am less likely to believe its validity.

As an Atheist I, of course, recognise that I could be wrong in my belief. However, I think that the odds of me being wrong are pretty slim. I have given the subject a great deal of thought and have come to what I believe is a reasonable conclusion. If God does indeed exist I find it hard to conceive of Him punishing me for all eternity for an honestly arrived at mistake. I think that He’d be a bit bigger than that.

There is, of course, the very real possibility that the Christians are wrong and that God does not in fact exist. What few Christians seem to contemplate (apart from the fact that their beliefs might be wrong) is that both of us might be incorrect. Maybe the Hindu’s are right or the Buddhists? Maybe an obscure tribe deep in the Amazon are the only ones clued into the real Dive Plan? How can we possibly know? There is a very real possibility that your particular religion – whatever that is – is the ‘wrong’ one and some God you might never have heard of is really angry with you. It’s about as likely a scenario as your God being the ‘correct’ one. So to be on the safe side which God should I worship and how would I know (for definite) that He, She or It was the right one?

Sirkolgate made a point about ‘living my life the way I wanted’ and still being either rewarded (by God) or just going out like a light bulb (if Atheists are right). Well, I too am living my life as I want and with as much integrity as I can manage. I have developed my beliefs and do my level best to live by them. If God does indeed exist and He’s a good as He’s cracked up to be I’m confident that a life of integrity would mean something to Him. If, however, in His infinite loving wisdom He casts me into the pits of Hell I’m sure I could give Satan a few ideas for a campaign to re-take Heaven.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Just Finished Reading: Atheism – A Very Short Introduction by Julian Baggini.


This is a very good (though admittedly very short) introduction to the idea of Atheism. The author sets out not to attack theism but to build a positive case for scepticism in relation to the idea that a God (or multiple Gods) exist. He sets out in very clear terms just what atheism is (and is not) and gives it a very solid base in the wider belief of Naturalism – the idea that all phenomena have natural causes rather than supernatural ones. He does a more than adequate job of answering many of the questions theists put to atheists and whilst not (in my opinion) a perfect book on the subject it is a high-quality one. I would recommend this to atheists who might be unsure of the philosophical grounding of their beliefs as well as to theists who might gain a greater appreciation of where we are ‘coming from’ in our beliefs.

I picked this little volume (a mere 111 pages) on impulse whilst recently buying some of its companion volumes on politics and philosophy. The ‘Very Short Introduction’ series seemed just the thing to clue me into some of the core subjects I’ll be studying later in the year though rather inevitable I started an off-topic book first! You’ll be hearing more about books in this series soon (I’m reading two others ATM) and I hope that they’re all as interesting as this one – though I admit I am struggling with the one on Karl Marx a bit [grin].

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Atheists split over message

By Jay Lindsay for Associated Press

March 30, 2007

BOSTON -- Atheists are under attack these days for being too militant, not just disbelieving in religious faith but for trying to eradicate it. And who's leveling these accusations? Other atheists, it turns out. Among the millions of Americans who don't believe God exists, there's a split between people such as Greg Epstein, who holds the partially endowed post of humanist chaplain at Harvard University, and so-called "New Atheists." Epstein and other humanists feel their movement is on the verge of explosive growth, but are concerned it will be dragged down by what they see as the militancy of New Atheism.

The most pre-eminent New Atheists include best-selling authors Richard Dawkins, who has called the God of the Old Testament "a psychotic delinquent," and Sam Harris, who foresees global catastrophe unless faith is renounced. They say religious belief is so harmful it must be defeated and replaced by science and reason. Epstein calls them "atheist fundamentalists." He sees them as rigid in their dogma, and as intolerant as some of the faith leaders with whom atheists share the most obvious differences.

Next month, as Harvard celebrates the 30th anniversary of its humanist chaplaincy - part of the school's chaplaincy corps - Epstein will use the occasion to provide a counterpoint to the New Atheists. "Humanism is not about erasing religion," he said. "It's an embracing philosophy." In general, humanism rejects supernaturalism, while stressing principles such as dignity of the individual, equality and social justice. If there's no God to help humanity, it holds, people better do the work. The celebration of a "New Humanism" will emphasize inclusion and diversity within the movement, and will include Pulitzer Prize-winning scientist E.O. Wilson, a humanist who has made well-chronicled efforts to team with evangelical Christians to fight global warming.

Part of the New Humanism, Wilson said, is "an invitation to a common search for morally based action in areas agreement can be reached in." The tone of the New Atheists will only alienate important faith groups whose help is needed to solve the world's problems, Wilson said. "I would suggest possibly that while there is use in the critiques by Dawkins and Harris, that they've overdone it," he said. Harris, author of "Letter to a Christian Nation," sees the disagreement as overblown. He thinks there's room for multiple arguments in the debate between scientific rationalism and religious dogmatism. "I don't think everyone needs to take as uncompromising a stance as I have against faith," he said. But, he added, an intellectual intolerance of people who strongly believe things on bad evidence is just "basic human sanity."

"We do not jail people for being stupid, but we do stop listening to them after a while," he said in e-mailed comments. Harris also rejected the term "atheist fundamentalist," calling it "a silly play upon words." He noted that, when it comes to the ancient Greek gods, everyone is an atheist and no one is asked to justify that to pagans who want to believe in Zeus. "Likewise with the God of Abraham," he said. "There is nothing 'fundamentalist' about finding the claims of religious demagogues implausible." Some of the participants in Harvard's celebration of its humanist chaplaincy have no problem with the New Atheists' tone. Harvard psychologist and author Steven Pinker said the forcefulness of their criticism is standard in scientific and political debate, and "far milder than what we accept in book and movie reviews."

"It's only the sense that religion deserves special respect - the exact taboo that Dawkins and Harris are arguing against - that people feel that those guys are being meanies when applying ordinary standards of evaluation to religion," Pinker said in e-mailed comments. Dawkins did not respond to requests for comment. He has questioned whether teaching children they could go to hell is worse in the long term than sexually abusing them, and compares the evidence of God to evidence for unicorns, fairies and a "Flying Spaghetti Monster." His attempt to win converts is clear in "The God Delusion," when he writes of his hope that "religious readers who open it will be atheists when they put it down." A 2006 Baylor University survey estimates about 15 million atheists in the United States.

Not all nonbelievers identify as humanists or atheists, with some calling themselves agnostics, freethinkers or skeptics. But humanists see the potential for unifying the groups under their banner, creating a large, powerful minority that can't be ignored or disdained by mainstream political and social thinkers. Lori Lipman Brown, director of the Secular Coalition of America, sees a growing public acceptance of people who don't believe in God, pointing to California U.S. Rep. Pete Stark's statement this month that he doesn't believe in a supreme being. Stark is the first congressman to acknowledge being an atheist.

As more prominent people such as Stark publicly acknowledge they don't believe in God, "I think it will make it more palatable," Brown said. But Epstein worries the attacks on religion by the New Atheists will keep converts away. "The philosophy of the future is not going to be one that tries to erase its enemies," he said. "The future is going to be people coming together from what motivates them”.

[Personally I tend to oscillate between the two positions mentioned here. Mostly I don’t care what people believe in their own heads or do in their own time – in private. But from time to time religion irritates me enough that if I could wish it all away I would. I don’t think getting rid of religion is impossible, just very, very difficult. I hope that one day we could be a world without it but it’s not going to happen anytime soon. So, for the time being at least, we need to accept that religion exists and be practical about our relation to it – whilst still hoping that it will all just go away at some point…. And maybe working towards that day whenever we can.]

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Defense Spending Soars to Highest Levels Since World War II

by James Rosen for McClatchy Newspapers

March 20, 2007

WASHINGTON - As the Iraq war enters a fifth year, the conflict that President Bush's aides once said would all but pay for itself with oil revenues is fueling the highest level of defense spending since World War II. Even with past spending adjusted upward for inflation, the $630 billion provided for the military this year exceeds the highest annual amounts during the Reagan-era defense buildup, the Vietnam War and the Korean War. When lawmakers approve a nearly $100 billion emergency spending bill in the next few weeks, Congress will have appropriated $607 billion for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, with about 75 percent going to Iraq, according to a new Congressional Research Service study obtained by McClatchy Newspapers.

Less than three months after assuming control of Congress, Democrats are moving away from their election campaign pledges to restrict or eliminate funding for Iraq. "Nobody wants to be labeled anti-military for the crime of cutting the budget," said Winslow Wheeler, an analyst at the Center for Defense Information in Washington. "It makes supporting whatever the military services request a political necessity amongst both Democrats and Republicans." Bush appealed to lawmakers Monday to pass the war supplemental measure without adding troop withdrawal dates. "They have a responsibility to get this bill to my desk without strings and without delay," Bush said. Rep. Ike Skelton, D-Mo., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, responded: "This week's House debate on the supplemental appropriations bill offers an opportunity to change the current course in Iraq by demanding accountability and beginning a phased redeployment of U.S. troops, which is a step that serves the interests of both the United States and Iraq."

No one disagrees that a lot of money is being sucked up in Iraq and Afghanistan, where the relentless violence grinds up tanks, planes and other aging equipment. Beyond the immediate war costs - accelerated by the 30,000-troop increase Bush has dispatched to Iraq - defense analysts inside and outside the government cite several factors that they say are driving military spending:

Pentagon funding declined in the 1990s, under the first President Bush and President Clinton, as Americans enjoyed what would prove to be a short-lived "peace dividend" after the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War.

Aging weapons systems fell into disrepair and weren't replaced at what would have been bargain-basement prices by today's standards.

Military health care and pension costs are soaring as the recruits and officers who formed the volunteer armed forces after the Vietnam War retire and begin to age.

Pentagon planners are replacing several generations of major weapons systems simultaneously in the Army, Navy and Air Force; the new high-tech tanks, ships and planes are as much as 10 times more expensive, on a per unit basis.

Congress is likely to approve Bush's request for an increase of 92,000 soldiers and Marines in the country's active-duty forces, the largest growth spurt since the Cold War ended.

About 300,000 American troops are deployed outside U.S. borders - roughly half in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the other half in 76 other countries. Gen. Peter Schoomaker, the Army chief of staff, told the Senate defense appropriations subcommittee last week that winning the war on terror will require still greater resources. "The country's not mobilized," Schoomaker said. "Less than one-half of 1 percent of the people are participating in this. And I absolutely believe that we've got to get people out of the spectator stands and onto the field. ... I believe that this is a very long, serious fight that's going to continue to get more and more dangerous." Already, the United States is spending almost as much on its military as the rest of the world spends on combined armed forces.

Some analysts wonder whether the torrent of money is being channeled in the right directions. "Since we are outspending the rest of the world on big-ticket weapons systems, we really don't need to worry about an enemy who fights us with those sorts of weapons," said Loren Thompson, head of the Lexington Institute outside Washington. "The place where we seem poorly equipped is in unconventional conflicts," he said. "Maybe instead of spending billions of dollars on high-tech networks to fight wars like Iraq, we might spend a more modest amount of money on teaching our soldiers just to speak the (Arabic) language." James Carafano, a defense analyst at the Heritage Institute in Washington, said military spending isn't nearly as high when compared to the overall size of the U.S. economy. Current defense appropriations equal about 4 percent of the gross domestic product, Carafano said. That figure is up from the 3 percent level under Clinton, he added, but still a good bit lower than the 7 percent share reached during the Cold War.

"When you have a bigger house, you buy more insurance," Carafano said. "When the nation is worth a lot more, we have to spend more to protect it." History, Thompson said, will determine whether Americans are getting a fair return on their investment in defense. "We have not had any follow-up attacks to 9/11; that's a pretty powerful success story," he said. "On the other hand, the world's best-equipped military is being fought to a standstill by a handful of zealots in Iraq. That's a powerful story of disappointment and frustration."

[Of course all of this makes a mockery of the idea that the world can’t ‘afford’ to fight Global Warming. It looks like the US could easily fund that on its own – if it stopped wasted money fighting un-winnable wars that is.]

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Just Finished Reading: Life Form by Alan Dean Foster.

In the near future a mission sets out to explore a promising new world. On landing the scientific team find more than anyone had imagined possible – not only an abundant eco-system but the first contact with extraterrestrial intelligent life. Slowly the planet Xica gives up its secrets and all too soon the scientists discover that not everything is as it first appeared and fairly soon people start to die.

This is a solid piece of science fiction. It’s certainly been done before and possibly better but ADF writes well and it was certainly worth the time and effort involved in reading it. Don’t expect anything astounding or life changing from this novel – just good characterisation, an interesting location and some fascinating aliens. A fun read but nothing to write home about.