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

Friday, August 31, 2007

Just Finished Reading: Legion of the Damned by William C Dietz

In the far future the Human Empire has spread amongst the stars. Its citizens are scattered on hundreds of worlds and lesser bodies protected by the Imperial Navy, the Marines and the Legion. But the Empire is corrupt at its very heart. The Emperor is becoming increasingly erratic in his behaviour and when faced with reacting to an alien invasion on the Empires borders orders his forces to pull back leaving entire worlds at the mercy of alien Hudathan warships. But one group refuses to pull back and instead decides to fight their new enemies to the death against overwhelming odds.

Using the latest in human technology the Legion utilises the reanimated dead to manufacture Cyborg soldiers capable of carrying awesome weapons and of taking astonishing amounts of damage. Some dream of their own final deaths, others lust for revenge against the people who originally killed them, all are dedicated to causing the enemy as much pain as they can before they each fall in battle. It’s just a case of who runs out of soldiers first.

William Dietz is no master wordsmith but he does tell a good tale. Whilst nowhere near original or groundbreaking in any way this book was an entertaining page turner. With two distinct and individually interesting alien races (who were actually not that alien at all), strong central characters, brutal combat scenes, huge set-pieces and a fast paced plot this was a fun read from cover to cover. Recommended for anyone who likes their Combat SF straight up.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

[There’s been a lot of talk on several of the Blogs I frequent regarding atheists ethics – or rather their lack of ethics. I’ve even seen it stated that atheists cannot be ethical by definition. I felt that it was about time I addressed this nonsense. Fortunately the philosopher Julian Baggini has written an excellent rebuttal to the idea that ethics without God is impossible. I hope you find it enlightening.]

Atheist Ethics (Part 1)

By Julian Baggini

Dostoevsky's Ivan Karamazov may have said, Without God, anything is permitted', but I bet he never tried parking in central London on a Saturday afternoon. This article is all about the truths that lie behind this joke, concerning the authority of moral law and the idea that divine authority is required to uphold it. I will argue that Ivan Karamazov was either wrong or not talking about ethics. Morality is more than possible without God, it is entirely independent of him. That means atheists are not only more than capable of leading moral lives, they may even be able to lead more moral lives than religious believers who confuse divine law and punishment with right and wrong. These conclusions run counter to much received wisdom, but the arguments that lead to them are reasonably clear and straightforward.

To begin with we need to consider why so many people think God is necessary for morality. One way in which this supposed necessity is expressed is that in order for there to be moral law there has to be some kind of lawgiver, and, ultimately, a judge. An analogy can be made with human law, which requires a legislature to make law - usually a parliament - and a judiciary to uphold it. Without these two institutions - both embodied in the moral case in God - law is impossible.

The problem with this argument is that it confuses two separate things - law and morality. Law certainly does require a legislature and judiciary. But the existence of both does not guarantee that the laws enacted and enforced will be just and good laws. One can have immoral laws as well as moral ones. What is required for just laws is for the legislature and judiciary to act within the confines of morality. Morality is thus separate from law. It is the basis upon which just laws are enacted and enforced; it is not constituted by the laws themselves.

Where then does this morality come from? It is tempting to say that moral law has its own lawgiver and judiciary. But the same questions that were asked about the law can be asked about the moral law: what is it that guarantees moral laws are indeed moral? It must be because the moral law-enactors and enforcers are acting within the confines of morality. But this then makes morality prior to any moral legislature or judiciary. To put it another way, the only thing that can show a lawgiver is moral is that their laws conform to a moral standard which is independent of the moral lawgiver. So if the lawgiver is God, God's laws will only be moral if they conform to moral principles which are independent of God.

Plato made this point extremely clearly in a dialogue called Euthypryo, after which the following dilemma was named. Plato's protagonist Socrates posed the question, do the gods choose what is good because it is good, or is the good good because the gods choose it? If the first option is true, that shows that the good is independent of the gods (or in a monotheistic faith, God). Good just is good and that is precisely why a good God will always choose it. But if the second option is true, then that makes the very idea of what is good arbitrary. If it is God's choosing something alone that makes it good, then what is there to stop God choosing torture, for instance, and thus making it good? This is of course absurd, but the reason why it is absurd is that we believe that torture is wrong and that is why God would never choose it. To recognize this, however, is to recognize that we do not need God to determine right and wrong. Torture is not wrong just because God does not choose it.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Just Finished Reading: Why Truth Matters by Ophelia Benson and Jeremy Stangroom

This was a wonderful little book. The authors set out to present a robust defence of reason and the scientific method in the face of the modern (or indeed Post-Modern) fashion of viewing Truth as just another narrative amongst many competing and equally valid narratives. Bit by bit, chapter by chapter they demolish wishful thinking, the social construction theory of truth, Post-modernism, cultural relativism and much else besides.

Told with intelligence, wit and knowing humour this book is a delight to read. The authors certainly take no prisoners in their attack on those who would devalue the search for Truth by turning their backs on reason, logic and evidence. They show time and again with up to date (and often quite ridiculous) examples of how Post-modernist thinking has undermined the validity of reasonable enquiry. Once undermined, the search for truth becomes a ship without a rudder, charts or compass producing confusing, nonsensical and counter-productive tales of wishful thinking rather than anything even vaguely productive.

Truth matters, they say, because we appear to be the only creatures with the ability to find it out. We are the only ones who can know the difference between truth and falsehood. Being so blessed we have the duty, the obligation, to discover the truth. Likewise knowing the true state of things gives us the ability to make sound decisions in often complex situations. Imagine two Generals facing each other on a battlefield. The ‘Fog of War’ can only be penetrated by accurate information. The General that bases his strategy on wishful thinking and who rewards his spies when they present him with good news will be confounded and beaten. The General who bases his strategy on knowledge and who relies on his spies to tell him the truth no matter what it is will not be surprised by what he finds and will inevitably triumph over a less well advised enemy. This is the value of Truth. Without it we are lost in a confusing and dangerous Universe. With it we can see further and plan with confidence knowing that whatever we face will not be totally unknown.

As I said this is a wonderful treasure of a book. I highly recommended it for anyone who seeks the Truth but is unsure exactly where to find it. Go, buy it now.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Friday, August 24, 2007

Quote.

"Live a good life. If there are gods and they are just, then they will not care how devout you have been, but will welcome you based on the virtues you have lived by. If there are gods, but unjust, then you should not want to worship them. If there are no gods, then you will be gone, but will have lived a noble life that will live on in the memories of your loved ones."

Marcus Aurelius AD 121-180

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Bush's Belief in a Worldwide Islamist Conspiracy is Foolish and Dangerous

by Max Hastings for the Guardian

August 14, 2006

George Bush sometimes sounds more like the Mahdi, preaching jihad against infidels, than the leader of a western democracy. In his regular radio address to the American people on Saturday he linked the British alleged aircraft plotters with Hizbullah in Lebanon, and these in turn with the insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan. All, said the president of the world's most powerful nation, share a "totalitarian ideology", and a desire to "establish a safe haven from which to attack free nations". Bush's remarks put me in mind of a proverb attributed to Ali ibn Abu Talib: "He who has a thousand friends has not a friend to spare, and he who has one enemy will meet him everywhere."

In the United States a disturbingly large minority of people - polls suggest around 40% - remain willing to accept Bush's assertions that Americans and their allies, which chiefly means the British, are faced with a single global conspiracy by Islamic fundamentalists to destroy our societies. In less credulous Britain one could nowadays fit into an old-fashioned telephone box those who believe anything Bush or Tony Blair says about foreign policy. Many of us are consumed with frustration. We know that we face a real threat from Muslim fundamentalists, and that we are unlikely to begin to defeat this until we see it for what it is: something infinitely more complex, diffuse and nuanced than the US president wishes to suppose.

There is indeed a common strand in the anger of Muslim radicals in many countries. They are frustrated by the cultural, economic and political dominance of the west, whose values they find abhorrent. In some, bitterness is increased by awareness of the relative failure of their own societies, which they blame on the west rather than their own shortcomings. They turn to violence in the spirit that has inspired fringe groups of revolutionaries through the ages. It is essential for the western democracies to defend themselves vigorously against such people, whose values and purposes are nihilistic. We must never lose sight of the fact that al-Qaida's terrorists attacked the twin towers on 9/11 before Bush began his reckless crusade, before the coalition went into Afghanistan and Iraq, before Israel entered Lebanon.

In September 2001, most of the world clearly perceived that a monstrous crime had been committed against the United States, and that the defeat of al-Qaida was essential to global security. While many ordinary Muslims were by no means sorry to see American hubris punished, grassroots support for Osama bin Laden was still small, and remained so through the invasion of Afghanistan. Today, of course, everything has changed. In the eyes of many Muslims, the actions of Bush and Blair have promoted and legitimised al-Qaida in a fashion even its founder could hardly have anticipated a decade ago.

Bush has chosen to lump together all violent Muslim opposition to what he perceives as western interests everywhere in the world, as part of a single conspiracy. He is indifferent to the huge variance of interests that drives the Taliban in Afghanistan, insurgents in Iraq, Hamas and Hizbullah fighting the Israelis. He simply identifies them as common enemies of the United States. Almost three years ago he contemptuously challenged the Iraqi insurgents to defy American will: "My answer is - bring 'em on." Today he has widened this bold defiance to embrace a vastly more ambitious range of foes: "He who has one enemy will meet him everywhere."

Far from acknowledging that any successful strategy for addressing Muslim radicalism must include a just outcome for the Palestinians, he endorses Israel's attempt to crush them and their supporters by force of arms alone, together with Israeli expansion on the West Bank. The west faces the probable defeat of its efforts to stabilise Afghanistan, a worthy objective, because of the likely failure of its campaign in Iraq, which began on false pretexts. There is no chance that the west will get anywhere with the Muslim world until the US government is willing to disassemble a spread of grievances in widely diverse societies, examine them as separate components, and treat each on its merits. America cannot prevail through the mere deployment of superior wealth and military power, the failure of which is manifest. Judicious and discriminatory political judgments are fundamental, and today quite lacking.

The madness of Bush's policy is that he has made a wilful choice to amalgamate the grossly irrational, totalitarian and homicidal objectives of al-Qaida with the just claims of Palestinians and grievances of Iraqis. His remarks on Saturday invite Muslims who sympathise with Hamas or reject Iraq's occupation or merely aspire to grow opium in Afghanistan to make common cause with Bin Laden. If the United States insists upon regarding all Muslim opponents of its foreign policies as a homogeneous enemy then that is what they become. The Muslim radicals' "single narrative" portrays the entire course of history as a Christian and Jewish plot against Islam. It is widely agreed among western governments and intelligence agencies that, in order to defeat the pernicious spread of such nonsense, a convincing counter-narrative is needed. Yet it becomes a trifle difficult to compose this when the US president promulgates his own single narrative, almost as ridiculous as that of al-Qaida.

Whatever the truth about last week's frustrated aircraft bomb plot, we cannot doubt that Britain faces a serious and ongoing threat from violent fanatics undeserving of the smallest sympathy. Yet we shall defeat them only when our Muslim community at large perceives that its interests are identified with Britain's polity. This objective will remain elusive as long as the British government supports the United States in pursuing policies that many Muslims perceive as directed against their entire culture. You and I know that this is not so. We are as dismayed as they are by Bush and Blair's follies. Yet, however eloquently we explain this, many Muslims respond by pointing to the spectacle of American, Israeli and British troops daily executing operations that the president declares to be in furtherance of his global jihad. It avails little that we know our boys in Afghanistan are pursuing infinitely more admirable purposes than the Israelis in Lebanon, when Bush is telling the world that the two conflicts are mere different fronts in a common struggle.

Tony Blair - "waist deep in the big muddy", as Pete Seeger used to sing about Lyndon Johnson in the Vietnam era - clings to a messianic conviction that he must continue to endorse American statements and policies to maintain his restraining influence on George Bush. This invites speculation about what the president might do if Tony was not at his elbow. Seize Mecca? The west faces a threat from violent Muslim fundamentalists that would have existed even if a Lincoln had been presiding at the White House. As a citizen, I am willing to be resolute in the face of terrorism, which must be defeated. I become much less happy about the prospect of immolation, however, when Bush and Blair translate what should be an ironclad case for civilised values into an agenda of their own which I want no part of.

[Isn't it sad to see just how little has changed since this article was written 12 months ago……]

Monday, August 20, 2007

Just Finished Reading: The Master of Rain by Tom Bradby

Shanghai 1926. Newly arrived Special Branch officer Richard Field finds himself attached to a murder investigation. A young Russian prostitute has been violently stabbed to death in her own apartment. As the investigation continues Field and his compatriot Detective Caprisi discover that her death is the third in a series of unsolved murders. Things become personal when Field falls in love with the beautiful Natasha Medvedev a friend of the murdered girl who knows far more than she is telling the police.

The young and naïve Field must navigate his way through a strange and exotic city, discover who he can trust and stay alive long enough to solve the case and save the life of Natasha. But in a place where no one cares about dead Russian girls the cards are most definitely stacked against him.

This is my second Bradby book (the first being The God of Chaos) and another outing into the historical fiction genre which I must admit to enjoying greatly. Though rather long at just under 600 pages and a bit woolly in places I was impressed by several things that the author managed to accomplish. As in his previous novel the setting, this time of colonial China, felt right. The rich and very decadent owners of Shanghai – mainly British corporations – contrasted well with the poverty and violence endured by the native Chinese population. Also I particularly liked the powerful characterisation of the main players who both had real depth and real personal issues which drove them in believable ways. This I always find rewarding and interesting. Whilst not as good as Alan Furst, Bradby is capable of writing solid historical thrillers worth the time to read them. If he could just restrain himself from writing such long books and thereby tightening up the plotting a bit he could be first rate.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

10 myths—and 10 Truths—About Atheism (Part 2)

By Sam Harris for The Los Angeles Times

December 24, 2006

6) Atheists are arrogant. When scientists don’t know something — like why the universe came into being or how the first self-replicating molecules formed — they admit it. Pretending to know things one doesn’t know is a profound liability in science. And yet it is the life-blood of faith-based religion. One of the monumental ironies of religious discourse can be found in the frequency with which people of faith praise themselves for their humility, while claiming to know facts about cosmology, chemistry and biology that no scientist knows. When considering questions about the nature of the cosmos and our place within it, atheists tend to draw their opinions from science. This isn’t arrogance; it is intellectual honesty.

7) Atheists are closed to spiritual experience. There is nothing that prevents an atheist from experiencing love, ecstasy, rapture and awe; atheists can value these experiences and seek them regularly. What atheists don’t tend to do is make unjustified (and unjustifiable) claims about the nature of reality on the basis of such experiences. There is no question that some Christians have transformed their lives for the better by reading the Bible and praying to Jesus. What does this prove? It proves that certain disciplines of attention and codes of conduct can have a profound effect upon the human mind. Do the positive experiences of Christians suggest that Jesus is the sole savior of humanity? Not even remotely — because Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims and even atheists regularly have similar experiences. There is, in fact, not a Christian on this Earth who can be certain that Jesus even wore a beard, much less that he was born of a virgin or rose from the dead. These are just not the sort of claims that spiritual experience can authenticate.

8) Atheists believe that there is nothing beyond human life and human understanding. Atheists are free to admit the limits of human understanding in a way that religious people are not. It is obvious that we do not fully understand the universe; but it is even more obvious that neither the Bible nor the Koran reflects our best understanding of it. We do not know whether there is complex life elsewhere in the cosmos, but there might be. If there is, such beings could have developed an understanding of nature’s laws that vastly exceeds our own. Atheists can freely entertain such possibilities. They also can admit that if brilliant extraterrestrials exist, the contents of the Bible and the Koran will be even less impressive to them than they are to human atheists. From the atheist point of view, the world’s religions utterly trivialize the real beauty and immensity of the universe. One doesn’t have to accept anything on insufficient evidence to make such an observation.

9) Atheists ignore the fact that religion is extremely beneficial to society. Those who emphasize the good effects of religion never seem to realize that such effects fail to demonstrate the truth of any religious doctrine. This is why we have terms such as “wishful thinking” and “self-deception.” There is a profound distinction between a consoling delusion and the truth. In any case, the good effects of religion can surely be disputed. In most cases, it seems that religion gives people bad reasons to behave well, when good reasons are actually available. Ask yourself, which is more moral, helping the poor out of concern for their suffering, or doing so because you think the creator of the universe wants you to do it, will reward you for doing it or will punish you for not doing it?

10) Atheism provides no basis for morality. If a person doesn’t already understand that cruelty is wrong, he won’t discover this by reading the Bible or the Koran — as these books are bursting with celebrations of cruelty, both human and divine. We do not get our morality from religion. We decide what is good in our good books by recourse to moral intuitions that are (at some level) hard-wired in us and that have been refined by thousands of years of thinking about the causes and possibilities of human happiness. We have made considerable moral progress over the years, and we didn’t make this progress by reading the Bible or the Koran more closely. Both books condone the practice of slavery — and yet every civilized human being now recognizes that slavery is an abomination. Whatever is good in scripture — like the golden rule — can be valued for its ethical wisdom without our believing that it was handed down to us by the creator of the universe.

Friday, August 17, 2007

10 myths—and 10 Truths—About Atheism (Part 1)

By Sam Harris for The Los Angeles Times

December 24, 2006

SEVERAL POLLS indicate that the term “atheism” has acquired such an extraordinary stigma in the United States that being an atheist is now a perfect impediment to a career in politics (in a way that being black, Muslim or homosexual is not). According to a recent Newsweek poll, only 37% of Americans would vote for an otherwise qualified atheist for president. Atheists are often imagined to be intolerant, immoral, depressed, blind to the beauty of nature and dogmatically closed to evidence of the supernatural.

Even John Locke, one of the great patriarchs of the Enlightenment, believed that atheism was “not at all to be tolerated” because, he said, “promises, covenants and oaths, which are the bonds of human societies, can have no hold upon an atheist.” That was more than 300 years ago. But in the United States today, little seems to have changed. A remarkable 87% of the population claims “never to doubt” the existence of God; fewer than 10% identify themselves as atheists — and their reputation appears to be deteriorating. Given that we know that atheists are often among the most intelligent and scientifically literate people in any society, it seems important to deflate the myths that prevent them from playing a larger role in our national discourse.

1) Atheists believe that life is meaningless. On the contrary, religious people often worry that life is meaningless and imagine that it can only be redeemed by the promise of eternal happiness beyond the grave. Atheists tend to be quite sure that life is precious. Life is imbued with meaning by being really and fully lived. Our relationships with those we love are meaningful now; they need not last forever to be made so. Atheists tend to find this fear of meaninglessness… well … meaningless.

2) Atheism is responsible for the greatest crimes in human history. People of faith often claim that the crimes of Hitler, Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot were the inevitable product of unbelief. The problem with fascism and communism, however, is not that they are too critical of religion; the problem is that they are too much like religions. Such regimes are dogmatic to the core and generally give rise to personality cults that are indistinguishable from cults of religious hero worship. Auschwitz, the gulag and the killing fields were not examples of what happens when human beings reject religious dogma; they are examples of political, racial and nationalistic dogma run amok. There is no society in human history that ever suffered because its people became too reasonable.

3) Atheism is dogmatic. Jews, Christians and Muslims claim that their scriptures are so prescient of humanity’s needs that they could only have been written under the direction of an omniscient deity. An atheist is simply a person who has considered this claim, read the books and found the claim to be ridiculous. One doesn’t have to take anything on faith, or be otherwise dogmatic, to reject unjustified religious beliefs. As the historian Stephen Henry Roberts (1901-71) once said: “I contend that we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours.”

4) Atheists think everything in the universe arose by chance. No one knows why the universe came into being. In fact, it is not entirely clear that we can coherently speak about the “beginning” or “creation” of the universe at all, as these ideas invoke the concept of time, and here we are talking about the origin of space-time itself. The notion that atheists believe that everything was created by chance is also regularly thrown up as a criticism of Darwinian evolution. As Richard Dawkins explains in his marvelous book, “The God Delusion,” this represents an utter misunderstanding of evolutionary theory. Although we don’t know precisely how the Earth’s early chemistry begat biology, we know that the diversity and complexity we see in the living world is not a product of mere chance. Evolution is a combination of chance mutation and natural selection. Darwin arrived at the phrase “natural selection” by analogy to the “artificial selection” performed by breeders of livestock. In both cases, selection exerts a highly non-random effect on the development of any species.

5) Atheism has no connection to science. Although it is possible to be a scientist and still believe in God — as some scientists seem to manage it — there is no question that an engagement with scientific thinking tends to erode, rather than support, religious faith. Taking the U.S. population as an example: Most polls show that about 90% of the general public believes in a personal God; yet 93% of the members of the National Academy of Sciences do not. This suggests that there are few modes of thinking less congenial to religious faith than science is.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Faith's last gasp

By AC Grayling

November 2006

On the basis of apparently incontrovertible evidence, commentators of various persuasions, among them Eric Kaufmann in the last issue of Prospect, John Gray, writing recently in the New Statesman, and Damon Linker, author of The Theocons: Secular America Under Siege (Doubleday) are convinced that we are witnessing an upsurge in religious observance and influence.

Kaufmann relies on the weak argument that demographic trends will turn Europe into a predominantly religious place, John Gray seems to hope that this will be so, and Damon Linker is convinced that a “theocon” conspiracy has so successfully captured Washington that the US has become a de facto theocracy—the home of faith-based politics, faith-based science (creationism), faith-based medicine ("pro-life"), faith-based foreign policy (conducting jihad for American/Baptist values) and faith-based attacks on civil liberties. Add this to the all too obvious fact of political Islam—Islamism—and the case seems made.

But I see the same evidence as yielding the opposite conclusion. What we are witnessing is not the resurgence of religion, but its death throes. Two considerations support this claim. One is that there are close and instructive historical precedents for what is happening now. The second comes from an analysis of the nature of contemporary religious politics.

If a given interest group turns up the volume, it is usually reacting to provocation. We view the Victorian era as a sanctimonious period of improving movements such as self-help, temperance and university missions to city slums. But prudishness and do-goodery existed precisely because their contraries—poverty, drunkenness, godlessness and indecency—were endemic: some streets of Victorian London swarmed with child prostitutes, and were too dangerous to walk at night. In the same way, today’s “religious upsurge” is a reaction to the prevalence of its opposite. In fact, it is a reaction to defeat, in a war that it cannot win even if it succeeds in a few battles on the way down.

Here is what is happening. Over the last half-century, sections of the Muslim world have become increasingly affronted by the globalisation of western and especially American culture and values, which appears arrogantly to disdain their traditions. Yet latterly, some of these same sections of Islam have been emboldened by the victory of warriors of the faith over a superpower (Afghanistan’s mujahedin over Soviet Russia); the combination encourages them to assert their opposition to the engulfing encroachment of western modernity, even by taking up arms.

When a climate of heightened tension such as this prompts activists in one religious group to become more assertive, to push their way forward in the public domain to demand more attention, more respect, more public funds (faith-based schools are one example), other religious groups, not wishing to be left behind, follow suit. In Britain, Muslim activism has been quickly mimicked by others—by Sikhs demonstrating about a play, Christian evangelicals demonstrating about an opera, and all of them leaping on the funding bandwagon for faith and interfaith initiatives. To placate them, politicians lend an ear; the media report it; immediately these minorities of interest have an amplifier for their presence. The effect is that suddenly it seems as if there are religious devotees everywhere, and the spurious magnification of their importance further promotes their confidence. As a result they make some gains, as the faith schools example shows.

Yet the fact is that only 10 per cent of the British population attend church, mosque, synagogue or temple every week, and this figure is declining in all but immigrant communities. This is hardly the stuff of religious resurgence. Yes, over half the population claim vaguely to believe in Something, which includes feng shui and crystals, and they may be “C of E” in the sense of “Christmas and Easter,” but they are functionally secularist and would be horrified if asked to live according to the letter of (say) Christian morality: giving all one’s possessions to the poor, taking no thought for the morrow and so impracticably forth. Not even Christian clerics follow these injunctions. This picture is repeated everywhere in the west except the US, and there too the religious base is eroding.

The historical precedent of the counter-Reformation is instructive. For over a century after Luther nailed his theses to Wittenberg’s church door, Europe was engulfed in ferocious religious strife, because the church was losing its hitherto hegemonic grip and had no intention of doing so without a fight. Millions died, and Catholicism won some battles even as it lost the war. We are witnessing a repeat today, this time with Islamism resisting the encroachment of a way of life that threatens it, and as other religious groups join them in a (strictly temporary, given the exclusivity of faith) alliance for the cause of religion in general. As before, the grinding of historical tectonic plates will be painful and protracted. But the outcome is not in doubt. As private observance, religion will of course survive among minorities; as a factor in public and international affairs it is having what might be its last—characteristically bloody—fling.

[An interesting interpretation I thought. Religion certainly seems to be in terminal decline in the UK and probably in the rest of Europe too. Reports from Australia suggest that the decline is happening there as well. The only country in the Western World which appears to buck this trend is the US. Maybe, for a host of reasons, such a decline is just taking longer to manifest itself? Although religion especially in the shape of Christianity certainly doesn’t seem to be under threat in America so I am less than convinced by Grayling’s argument but I guess that only time will tell.]

Monday, August 13, 2007


Just Finished Reading: The Dark River by John Twelve Hawks

This is the recent sequel to The Traveller in which we first encountered the secret war between the forces of control – called The Tabula or The Brethren – and the forces of freedom personified by the Travellers themselves and their bodyguards the Harlequins. Throughout all of recorded history The Brethren have tried to suppress the disruptive influences of Travellers as they return from journeys into other Realms bringing back revolutionary ideas. Finally at the turn of the 21st Century they are close to their dream of total societal control. With the expanse of information technology they are within reach of their Virtual Panopticon – a world where it is always safest to assume you are being watched at all times.

But first they must eliminate the last of the Travellers before he can ferment dissent and unhinge their plans. Standing in their way are the last of the Harlequins, warriors dedicated to protecting Travellers at all costs. But their enemies have a new weapon at their disposal. They have a traveller of their own now.

The first book in this series – The Traveller – subtly changed the way I look at things. Read it and you’ll begin to notice how many surveillance cameras there are around you and just how many times you tell the 'Vast Machine' exactly where you are and what you’re doing. So you can imagine just how much I was looking forward to the sequel – which is probably why I was a little disappointed with it. Though I couldn’t fault the writing style, the story or the underlying philosophy of the book I don’t really think that it moved the story on very much. We had more of an insight into the workings and personnel of The Brethren as well as a bit more about the Four Realms that Travellers can go to. People died, people fell in love and interesting new characters were introduced – but to what end?

Although the story ‘progressed’ it didn’t really feel like it was going anywhere in particular. Maybe it’s because it’s the middle book in a trilogy. I don’t know. But it did leave me feeling kind of flat at the end. I still want to know what’s going to happen next but my expectations have been lowered. Quite possibly that’s a good thing. Maybe with that attitude the third volume will blow me away?

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Quote of the Day.

"To accuse science of robbing life of the warmth that makes it worth living is so preposterously mistaken, so diametrically opposed to my own feelings and those of most working scientists, I am almost driven to the despair of which I am wrongly suspected… The feeling of awed wonder that science can give us is one of the highest experiences of which the human psyche is capable. It is a deeply aesthetic passion to rank with the finest that music and poetry can deliver."

Richard Dawkins.
Cartoon Time.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Democracy's roots are far from liberal

By Bettany Hughes

06/07/2007

The word democracy has become ubiquitous. It is used to justify everything from regime change to parking meters. The internet is drenched with talk of e-democracy, open democracy, local democracy, consensus democracy, liberal democracy, illiberal democracy. If this is going to become one of the most exploited words on the planet, we need to be clear about what we mean when we use it. Democracy is too potent and exciting an idea to be trifled with. We take the term from ancient Athens, but Athenian democracy, the product of an age remembered as egalitarian and high-minded, bore almost no resemblance to ours. In the ancient world, some thought that Demokratia meant not the rule of "the whole people" but the rule of the mob.

From the harbour at Piraeus, Athenian oarsmen rowed out to claim new territories in the name of democracy. They were not always welcome. At Melos, all men were slaughtered, all women and children enslaved when the island preferred to "put our trust in our gods, to try to save ourselves" and preserve their liberty rather than accept Athenian-style democracy. Little surprise, then, that when recording the "free cities" in league with Athens, there is sometimes a slip of the chisel: instead of "our allies" on inscriptions, the Athenians can refer to "the cities that we rule". None of these details diminishes the Athenian achievement, but they do nuance it. We love Golden Ages. It comforts us to think that, in a distant time and place, mankind achieved some kind of high-minded perfection - a utopia we can replicate.

As a society, we want to remember that, long ago, democracy, liberty and freedom of speech were created as touchstones for civilisation. We uphold them as pure and robust entities. But we owe it to ourselves to recognise the Realpolitik. First, Athenian democracy was a dead end. Athenian direct democracy was transparent, face to face. Every adult Athenian citizen was a politician; he could propose motions, vote in the assembly - rule and be ruled in turn. Kratos meant hold or grip, and the Ancient Athenian would have been under no illusion that he had a real, direct grasp on power. Six thousand citizens at a time could fit on the bare rock of the Pnyx, where they voted on how they should run their lives. There was no notion of individual liberty - all was enacted for to koinon, the commonality.

I remember listening to an American on Radio 4 shouting that, in a democracy, of course kids had the right to buy cans of spray paint and do what they liked with them. Athenians would have hooted: the babbling of a maniac. The democratic club in Athens was also very small. It was only Athenian men over 18 who could vote: no foreigners, and eventually - following reforms by Pericles - only those whose parents had both been born in the city. Athenian women were less than second-class citizens - Aristotle considers them sub-standard. They were thought to pollute. Female bodies were porous: evil could come oozing from open orifices, their mouths and eyes. And for this reason they were kept not only covered but veiled. The first hard evidence we have of the use of the full face veil comes from Athens.

What London and Washington do share with Ancient Athens, across a gap of 2,500 years, is a firm belief in the power of words - ancient Athens was littered with inscribed stone stele, all showing the workings of the democracy - plus a passionate relationship with one word in particular. As time went on, Demokratia was worshipped as a goddess. In Athens's Agora Museum, you can still see her, carved on a stone stele, crowning the people with a wreath. There are other similarities between then and now; a delight in litigation among them. Athens could expect to hear more than 40 cases a week by anything up to 6,000 jurors. Our adversarial political process is also prefigured by the Greek belief in argument and counter-argument. Athenian society was deeply competitive. The word for competition, agon, gives us "agony". We have whips in the Commons possibly because, through the streets of Athens, slaves, with ropes dipped in red paint, would tickle the reluctant up to the Pnyx to vote. The Athenians, like us, were fascinated by this thing democracy, and wanted to find deeper tap-roots for their new political system, fantasising that the origins of the way they were stretched over the millennia to the Age of Heroes. They invented myths about their local superhero Theseus, calling him the world's first democrat. Yet as an ideology, Athenian democracy's horizons were narrow. The rule of the people emerged through chance, not design; it was a tentative, fluctuating system that existed before a word was dreamt up to nominate the unusual situation.

I have no doubt that the Athenians of the fifth century BC would be slack-jawed to learn that Demokratia was being marketed around the globe. Liberty, democracy and freedom of speech were established as means in Athens, not as ends in themselves. In Ancient Greece, those who preferred a private to a publicly aware life were categorised idiotes. Idiots indeed. Equally idiotic to peddle chimerical promises of "democracy". The rule, or grip of the whole people is not a panacea, it cannot be identikitted out across the globe; it is too important, too strong to be commodified. Liberty, equality, freedom of speech, human rights, the greater good, universal suffrage are all the finest goals, but true democracy, the absolute rule of the people, is not universally or necessarily the finest way to achieve them. Remember, when the Ancient Greeks imagined Demokratia a goddess, they did not abstract her. She was made incarnate. The Athenians knew that the gods and goddesses walked the earth. They ate, they drank, they made love, they argued. When they made democracy divine, they also admitted that she was flawed.

Remember, too, the men of Athens, fired up by their solidarity, voting to go to war, to slaughter "barbarians" and fellow Greeks alike. When we talk of bringing democracy to the world, we must be careful what we wish for.

[What a fascinating History lesson……………… and a lesson for the future too about the dangers and stupidity of exporting the Democratic idea to other cultures. As with most things, one size does most definitely not fit all.]

Friday, August 10, 2007

Picture Time.

TOUCHDOWN......! And the crowd goes wild........................

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Russia’s Gorbachev Says US is Sowing World Disorder

by Guy Faulconbridge for Reuters

Friday, July 27, 2007

Former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev criticized the United States, and current President George W. Bush in particular, on Friday for sowing disorder across the world by seeking to build an empire. Gorbachev, who presided over the break-up of the Soviet Union, said Washington had sought to build an empire after the Cold War ended but had failed to understand the changing world.

“The Americans then gave birth to the idea of a new empire, world leadership by a single power, and what followed?” Gorbachev asked reporters at a news conference in Moscow. “What has followed are unilateral actions, what has followed are wars, what has followed is ignoring the U.N. Security Council, ignoring international law and ignoring the will of the people, even the American people.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Bush say they are friends but ties have been strained by U.S. plans for a missile defense shield in Europe, disagreements over Kosovo and the war in Iraq, and competition for allies in the former Soviet Union. Many Russians view the United States as a rival and enemy. Gorbachev, 76, who left politics after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, is deeply unpopular in Russia. Though feted abroad, he is blamed in Russia for sinking the Soviet empire and plunging millions into poverty.

“When I look at today’s world I have a worrying feeling about the growth of world disorder,” he said. “I don’t think the current president of the United States and his administration will be able to change the situation as it is developing now — it is very dangerous,” he said. Gorbachev said Russia’s hopes of building stronger ties with Washington had waned in the face of a series of U.S. administrations interested in building an empire. “It is a massive strategic mistake: no single centre can command the entire world, no one,” he said. “Current America has made so many mistakes.”

He said the U.S. administration was apparently unable to adapt to a swiftly changing world and had ignored — or was unable to see — the rise of Brazil, Russia, India and China as economic heavyweights. Treaties limiting the number of nuclear weapons should be observed, he said, adding that officials in Washington should be wary of sparking a new arms race. Gorbachev, who became Soviet leader in 1985, battled against the conservative wing of the Communist Party to push through reforms that dismantled the one-party system, freed the press and ended restrictions on religion.

The father of “glasnost” (openness) said he supported Putin’s policies but that the pro-Kremlin United Russia party had eroded democratic rights. He said Putin’s “seriousness” as a leader would be assured if he left office according to the constitution. Putin says he will leave office in 2008 after two terms in office.

[The on-going action of the US (and its rather unfortunate Allies) is certainly destabilising the Middle East, but the question that occupies my mind is this: – Is the destabilisation of the region deliberate or accidental? Or to put it another way – Is the present US Administration stupid or stupid?]

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Just Finished Reading: Political Philosophy – A Very Short Introduction by David Miller.

Yes, another VSI book. I’m certainly working my way through them at quite a pace. I just hope that as well as being interesting they’re going to turn out to be useful too.

Anyway…. As with most of these books the title is pretty self-explanatory. Professor Miller outlines the major themes of Political philosophy as well as giving his own opinions on the subjects he covers. These subjects are – The need for political philosophy which was nicely illustrated by the Allegory of Good and Bad Government by Ambrogio Lorenzetti, the roots of political Authority, the various meanings of Democracy, the idea of Freedoms and the limits of Government because of them, the idea of Justice and the modern idea of Social justice, the impact of feminism and multiculturalism and finally a section on how States interact with each other on the global stage and the ideal of Global justice.

All in all quite a fast romp through just about every subject in the political philosophy handbook. Unlike the previous VSI book on Foucault I did manage to keep up with this one without bending my mind too much. It all seemed to be pretty straight forward (which was comforting). Like all of my previous VSI book this managed to expand my knowledge of the subject and prompt me to read further on the subject too, so they have all performed exactly as promised. A highly recommended series of books.
Poster Time.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Religion losing its allure

By Roger Coombs for The Daily Telegraph (Australia)

July 03, 2007

ACCORDING to the census, religion in Australia is on the decline. Since 2001, the number of people saying they have no religious conviction has risen from 2.9 million, or 15.5 per cent of the population to 3.7 million, or 19 per cent. So, over a period during which the total population has grown by just under a million, the number of non-believers has risen by 800,000. Which means the percentage increase of non-believers is close to 30 per cent. Conversely, the percentage affirming commitment to some form of Christianity has hardly fallen – from 54 per cent to 53.2.

In numerical terms, the overall number of Christians has declined from 10,768,000 to 10,577,000 – hardly cause for the bishops to sweat. However, when the population is increasing, it's difficult to deny the emergence of a trend towards decline – and if the trend were to continue, as it has over the past three census periods, Christians will be a minority very soon. Those who fear that as Christianity declines, other religions will gain new adherents need not do so. In the past five years, the percentage of Australians claiming belief in "other" religions – Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism and so on – has also slipped – from 30.5 per cent to 28.1 per cent. So, however you cut it, there are fewer of us, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, who believe in some form of religion than there were in 2001.

There may be some who will question the reliability of the ABS information, but whether we like the data or not, the bureau is the most reliable and statistically trustworthy guide to social trends we have. So it seems beyond dispute that, rather than cleaving to "new" religions offering new alleged truths and insights and rather than falling back on the age-old shibboleths of "traditional" Abrahamic religions, increasing numbers of Australians are rejecting religion altogether. And in Australia, that's our legitimate entitlement.

We're allowed not to believe – just as we are allowed to believe in God, in reincarnation, or in the Great Rainbow Serpent if we so desire. What we are not allowed to do in a pluralist and officially tolerant society such as ours is to force our beliefs or convictions upon others. Without being specific, there are some sects of some religions which go to great lengths to force people into compliance with restrictive codes and edicts – and there are followers of such sects in this country. Let's hope the trend away from destructive belief systems is gathering strength. If that trend were to be accompanied by a rise in the rational philosophy of scientific reason and a swing away from the idea of religion in general as a source of truth and understanding, some would argue such a trend would be a move in the world's best interests.

[So, it’s not just in Europe then? It would seem that the ‘Freedom from Religion’ idea is catching on in other Western countries too. Who knows where it might eventually lead.]

Sunday, August 05, 2007

I first saw this on Jewsish Atheists Blog (always worth a visit) so thought that I would replicate it here. Checkout Foilwoman too for her take on things....

Why do you not believe in God?

The complete and utter lack of evidence to support that belief.

Where do your morals come from?

Many places. An individuals moral beliefs originate in their culture, upbringing, education and peer relationships, life experience and probably a sprinkling of genetic inheritance. This is why different people have different ideas about morality and have different moral beliefs. This is also why different cultures have different moralities and why moral ideas change over time. Morals are human constructs developed over thousands of years in particular cultures.

What is the meaning of life?

A better question would be ‘Is there a Meaning to Life?’ However, there is no single Meaning to anyone’s life. Meaning is created either by what we do, what we seek or is borrowed from the various religions or ideologies humans have created over the millennia.

Is atheism a religion?

Not by any reasonable definition of religion. Religions are by necessity a product of supernatural thinking. Atheism explicitly rejects the supernatural.

If you don’t pray, what do you do during troubling times?

I try to reason my way out of things as well as talking to friends and family about it. I really can’t see the point of praying for help. Even if God did exist what would be the point? If my life and everything that happens in it is part of God’s Will then the bad times are all part of His plan too. Why would He change His plan just because I ask Him to?

Should atheists be trying to convince others to stop believing in God?

Only if they want to. There is no good reason why they should go ‘out of their way’ to do so but they should not be afraid to debate the question of Gods existence in a robust manner.

Weren’t some of the worst atrocities in the 20th century committed by atheists?

Only technically. The atrocities committed by the Nazi’s, the Soviet Communists and the Communist Chinese where all about power – not religion or anti-religion. They each in their own way saw organised religion as a danger to their power base so made efforts to remove it, as they did to other powerful or potentially powerful groups. They may have not believed in God but I would argue that this was not their motivation for the millions of people they killed. Any ideology that views those who do not adhere to it as substantially less than human and has the power to do something about it will ineviatably lead to deaths on this scale.

How could billions of people be wrong when it comes to belief in God?

Easily. Billions of people over time have been wrong about many of their beliefs. Also you need to ask yourself which God are they talking about? Presumably the many millions who are Christians passionately believe that the Muslims are wrong? Also the many millions of Hindus believe that the Buddhists are wrong? You could say that all of these groups believe in ‘something’ but that something is very different from faith to faith. Not all of them can be right but they can all be wrong.

Why does the universe exist?

The Universe does not exist for a reason – any reason. Clearly the Universe *does* exist but it is a natural object and therefore does not have any purpose or goal. It just IS.

How did life originate?

No one knows yet. But I suspect that life first emerged in water about 400 million years after the Earth was formed. Certain chemicals naturally bond with each other and, after enough time when the right conditions existed passed over the ‘gap’ between lifeless and life. From then on Natural Selection took over. 4 billion years later… here we are! The details are still debatable but I certainly see no need to add anything like God into the mix. Life emerged here naturally and has undoubtedly done the same throughout the Galaxy and the rest of the Universe too.

Is all religion harmful?

On balance I would have to say yes. Clearly though it is not all bad. A lot of good work has been done in the name of religion to say nothing of the great art, architecture and music produced in its name. However, religion has been (and still is) clearly responsible for much human suffering both directly and indirectly. It has been resonsible for holding back scientific endeavour and still clouds many peoples minds with ideas that in another time and place will be seen as pure nonsense.

What’s so bad about religious moderates?

Not much. I don’t subscribe to the idea that moderates protect extremists by their very existence. Applied universally this would mean that social-democrats give hardline communists some kind of justification just by their mere existence. This is clearly nonsensical. But what moderates should be doing is speaking out against their more extreme bretherin. Any kind of extremism (and not just of the religious type) gives all adherents a bad name. If moderates ‘called them’ on their views and actions more it would isolate them and maybe make extreme views somewhat less acceptable.

Is there anything redeeming about religion?

Many things – but nothing that can’t be replaced by non-religious non-supernatural beliefs.

What if you’re wrong about God (and He does exist)?

Well, if He’s the wrathful jealous God of the Old Testament then I’m in trouble [grin]. But if He’s the loving forgiving God of the New Testament I’m pretty sure that He would forgive me!

Shouldn’t all religious beliefs be respected?

Clearly not. The three big World Religions are based on writtings sometimes thousands of years old. Things have moved on in many ways since then. So I think it somewhat inappropriate to stone people for breaking ancient laws or instituting other barbaric means of jurisprudence. Once people bring ancient beliefs into the modern public arena they should expect the same level of respect as any other belief system be that political or philosophic. Religious belief should not be a no-go area for argument just because its religious.

Are atheists smarter than theists?

Belief in God (or otherwise) is not a matter of intelligence. Smart people believe in God and stupid people are atheists – but equally intelligence people are atheists and dumb people believe in God. There does seem to be some correlation between educational standards and belief (basically the higher the education the less belief) but this is not always true. Belief is more complicated than that.

How do you deal with the historical Jesus if you don’t believe in his divinity?

If Jesus did exist (which is debatable) there is no reason why I, as an atheist, would have to ‘deal’ with him. He may have been an ancient Jewish teacher and ‘wise’ man. That has little relevance to me. Of course I do not believe he was divine. If he could be shown to have existed my very first thought would be “So what”.

Would the world be better off without any religion?

Yes. The various functions of religion can be undertaken by other means. There is enough philosophy in the world already to address peoples so-called ‘spiritual’ needs without recourse to any supernatural agency. Without the many illusions (and delusions) associated with religion people would be free to pursue activities to improve their lives here and now rather than to wait for a ‘better life’ after they die. If people accepted their own mortality maybe they would be less willing to kill themselves and others in the name of frankly silly beliefs. At least one would hope so.

What happens when we die?

Presumably this means ‘after’ we die? That’s it. Lights Out, Goodnight, Game Over. No Heaven (or afterlife of any kind). No reincarnation. No Hell. Nothing.
Cartoon Time.

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Just Finished Reading: Foucault – A Very Short Introduction by Garry Gutting.

Michael Foucault who died in 1984 was one of the greatest French thinkers of the 20th Century producing works on a variety of topics as diverse as Literature, Crime and Punishment, Power and Sexuality. He was, and continues to be, a huge influence on both Continental and Anglo-American Philosophical discussion.

Foucault, like many modern European philosophers, is not an easy read. Gutting however does a sterling job of explaining his varied work and indeed pulls them together into a coherent theme. Foucault was interested in power relationships both between people and between the State and the individual. His historical studies of Madness and Punishment in particular call these relationships into question and prompt the reader to see things with fresh eyes – and what more can be asked of philosophy.

Whilst readable and full of incisive comments this book demands a certain amount of concentration and effort to understand just what Foucault was trying to get across. I was intrigued in particular by his views on crime and what he called ‘the archaeology of knowledge’. I expect that books by Foucault himself will be somewhat of a challenge but I have been inspired to know more about his ideas. Gutting’s book is hard work but worth the effort.
Picture Time.

Nice shot Sister...!

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Parents won fight against mandatory religious class

From Aftenposten

Friday July 06 2007

Parents who sued the Norwegian state 10 years ago over mandatory religious classes in public schools could finally claim victory on Friday. The European Court of Human Rights narrowly ruled in their favour.

The court in Strasbourg ruled that Norway's so-called KRL classes in elementary schools (an acronym for the Norwegian words for Christian education, religion and lifestyle) violated Article 2 of the European human rights convention. The parents wanted to exempt their children from the religion classes but weren't allowed to do so. They sued, and the legal appeals process took them all the way to Strasbourg.

"Think that our boys would be old enough to drink champagne by the time this case was decided!" exclaimed one of the plaintiffs, Carolyn Midsem. She was the mother of a 10-year-old boy in 1997 who she didn't think should have to sit through the religion class. "It's almost unreal that it took this much time, but now we have confirmation that we were right," Midsem told new bureau NTB. The secretary general of The Norwegian Humanist Association (Human-Etisk Forbund) hailed the court decision, saying that the schools must now conform to the court's decision.

The court noted that schools in Norway, where there's no separation of church and state, have Christian goals and that Christianity has a dominant position in the curriculum. The state religion is evangelical Lutheran. The court wrote in its opinion that it's therefore difficult to accommodate minority groups with other religious rights by only offering a KRL class that stressed Christianity. The Humanist Association claimed the state school system can now no longer use public schools for religious classes aimed at influencing students.

Seven families had sued the state, and lost at the local, appeals and Supreme Court levels. Four of the families then appealed to the European Court of Human Rights. Education Minister Øystein Djupedal said he'd take the court’s ruling under advisement.

[Rather interesting I thought. I wonder what implications this legal precedent will have in other parts of the European Union.]