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

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

An Accidental Belief.

The question of why we believe what we do has come up on a lot of Blogs lately so I’ve been giving it some extra thought. It seems to me that beliefs are basically cultural constructs, after all beliefs change from place to place and throughout time. Religious or political beliefs emerge, flower and then die. Some survive centuries or even millennia whilst others are a mere ‘flash in the pan’ – extinguished in a single life time or less.

That being the case how is it that we believe some things and not others? Why are Christians Christian and not Muslim for example? It seems obvious to me that we generally take on the beliefs of the culture we happen to be born into. If a devout Christian had been born in the Middle East instead of the USA (for example) it’s highly likely that they would have been a devout Muslim instead. If I had been born into a devout Catholic family (instead of a disinterested one) it’s highly likely that I would also be a devout Catholic today. Being the atheist that I am I do hope that if I had still been ‘me’ that the structure of my brain determined by my DNA (amongst other things) might still have made me an atheist later in life but it’s something that I could never know for sure.

The point that I’m making here is that a person’s beliefs appear to be largely dependent on an accident of birth. A practicing believing Christian, Muslim or Hindu born in a different place or at a different time would hold a radically different position. This being the case what does it say about our deeply held personal beliefs? Does it actually say anything useful? One thing I think it does say is that we should all examine our sincerely held beliefs and ask ourselves why we believe them. We should all ask ourselves just how much of our belief system is dependent on an accident of where and when we are born. My guess is that the answer is a lot.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Just Finished Reading: Fifty Degrees Below by Kim Stanley Robinson

This was a sequel to Forty Signs of Rain in which due to unprecedented levels of rain and an ocean storm surge Washington D C is heavily flooded. In KSR’s follow up Washington is hit by another climate related disaster when a stalled Gulf Stream plunges the northern hemisphere into the worst winter on record with temperatures falling (you guessed it) to fifty degrees below zero. The story revolved around the lives of a group of scientists who fight against Government scepticism and lack of funds to restart the Gulf Stream thereby ‘saving the world as we know it.’

At a smidge over 500 pages long this was quite a slog. Although pitched as a climate thriller it actually spent surprisingly little time on the climate and was far from thrilling. The story, such that it was, was a muddled affair interweaving as it did (or attempted to do) a totally unnecessary love story, a rather laughable espionage sub-plot and the main theme of radical climate change. KSR obviously did some research on the subject of Global Warming but then failed to actually apply it to ‘real’ situations. I’m fairly positive that if Washington’s (or any other cities) temperature dropped so drastically it would cause rather more problems than the author alluded too. The book could have easily been 100-200 pages shorter. If the author cut out all of the unnecessary characters and plot lines and added rather more drama it could have been a much better book. I know that KSR is capable of doing so because I really like his other work. This was a rather wasted opportunity I felt. I probably won’t be reading the next book in this series.

My reading does seem to be rather ‘hit & miss’ at the moment which isn’t good. Maybe I need to branch out a bit more?

Monday, February 26, 2007

Poster Time.
Doubt cast over brain 'God spot'

From the BBC

30 August 2006

A University of Montreal team found Christian mystical experiences are mediated by several brain regions. Researchers asked 15 nuns to recount mystical experiences while studying them on MRI scanners, the journal, Neuroscience Letters reported. There has been much debate about how the brain reacts during connections with God among religious followers.

Some people went as far as suggesting there was a specific brain region designed for communication with God. But the researchers claim this study discredits those theories. Nuns are said to experience Unio Mystica - the Christian notion of a mystical union with God - during their 20s. Researchers asked the nuns aged 23 to 64-years-old to recount such mystical experiences and measured their brain activity through MRI scans. They found increased activity in at least 12 regions of the brain, including areas normally involved with self-consciousness and emotion.

Lead researcher Dr Mario Beauregard said: "The main goal of the study was to identify the neural correlates of a mystical experience. Rather than there being one spot that relates to mystical experiences, we've found a number of brain regions are involved”.

"This does not diminish the meaning and value of such an experience and neither does it confirm or disconfirm the existence of God." Father Stephen Wang, a Catholic priest Allen Hall Seminary in London, said: "These brain studies can give us fascinating insights into how the human body and mind and spirit inter-connect, but they should not make us think that prayer and religious experience are just an activity in the brain. True Christian mysticism is an encounter with the living God. We meet him in the depths of our souls. It is an experience that goes far beyond the normal boundaries of human psychology and consciousness."

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Saturday, February 24, 2007

A War on Intelligence

by Robert Scheer for Truthdig.com

September 27, 2006

You would think that a consensus report from all 16 U.S. intelligence services concluding that he has blown the war on terror would be a really big deal to the president. But that assumes that George W. Bush values intelligence. Clearly, he does not. So the news that a 2006 National Intelligence Estimate concludes the threat of terror against the United States has increased since 9/11, largely thanks to his irrational invasion of Iraq, has not disturbed Bush’s branded “what me worry” countenance. Instead, predictably, the administration’s response to the leaked conclusions of the shared assessments of both civilian and military intelligence agencies was the same old historically ignorant claptrap that leaves U.S. policies completely out of the equation.

“Their hatred for freedom and liberty did not develop overnight,” said White House spokesman Peter Watkins. “Those seeds were planted decades ago.” What seeds are those? It was “decades ago” that the CIA encouraged Muslim fanatics worldwide to go to Afghanistan to fight a holy war against a secular regime backed by the Russians. The end result of that engagement was— after their troop withdrawal and the consequent U.S. attention deficit—a devolution into civil war, warlordism and, eventually, the takeover of the country by Osama bin Laden’s friends, the religiously extreme and oppressive Taliban. Sound familiar? It should: The same deadly process has been taking place under Bush’s watch in Iraq since our idiotic invasion in 2003. If the Bush administration were serious about protecting us from terrorist attacks, it would end the ineffectual “war on terror” model and instead treat terrorism as a pathology that needs to be clinically and relentlessly excised. If terror groups such as Al Qaeda are a cancer in the world’s body politic, as the intelligence estimate suggests, then the goal should be to surgically isolate and neutralize the malignant cells.

“We assess that the Iraq jihad is shaping a new generation of terrorist leaders and operatives; perceived jihadist success there would inspire more fighters to continue the struggle elsewhere,” reads a section of the National Intelligence Estimate that Bush declassified on Tuesday. “The Iraq conflict has become the ‘cause celebre’ for jihadists, breeding a deep resentment of U.S. involvement in the Muslim world and cultivating supporters for the global jihadist movement.” A few Washington leaders do seem to be taking this sobering assessment seriously. Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) told CNN he was “very concerned” about the estimate, adding, “My feeling is that the war in Iraq has intensified Islam fundamentalism and radicalism.” But the rest of his party, and their cheerleaders in the media, fell into line, including the occasionally independent Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who seemed to suggest that U.S. policy decisions don’t matter at all. “If it wasn’t Iraq, it’d be Afghanistan that [terrorists] would use as a method of continuing their recruitment,” said McCain, without offering evidence of this flip claim. Much more considered was the testimony this week of retired Maj. Gen. John R.S. Batiste, who commanded the 1st Infantry Division in Iraq in 2004 and 2005 and served as a senior military assistant to then-Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz.

“If we had seriously laid out and considered the full range of requirements for the war in Iraq, we would likely have taken a different course of action that would have maintained a clear focus on our main effort in Afghanistan, not fueled Islamic fundamentalism across the globe, and not created more enemies than there were insurgents,” said Batiste in joining other retired generals in calling for the resignation of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. The Bush administration, he charged, “did not tell the American people the truth for fear of losing support for the war in Iraq.” Of course, unlike McCain, the retired generals can speak the truth because they are not running for office based on a record of six years of lousy GOP leadership. But those not wedded to the short-term fortunes of the Republican Party in an election year should welcome the non-partisan sanity being offered by the intelligence agencies and military brass. With his security policy, Bush’s alleged strong suit, exposed as a clear failure, it is time for the nation’s political middle to make a corrective move and give Congress back to the opposition to provide a check and balance on this arrogant administration.

In the name of defending our security, the Bush administration has suppressed any intelligence information it could, ignoring the public’s right to know, as much as is feasible, what is being done in its name. We must never forget that our system of government is based on the utility of freedom that truth will expose error—and just such an accounting is long overdue.

[..and this same attitude is leading to a war with Iran. I guess that some people just don't - or can't - learn from their mistakes.]

Friday, February 23, 2007

Picture Time.

Giant Mutant Squirrel captured. Hide your nuts people... there could be more of them!

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Stop using the Cross to fuel a cultural row, Christians advised

from Ekklesia -24/11/06

The row over whether British Airways (BA) staff can wear religious costume jewellery trivialises the real issues highlighted by the Cross – turning it into a club badge rather than a symbol of liberation, claims a leading Christian commentator today. The Rev Dr Giles Fraser – who is vicar of Putney, an Oxford philosophy lecturer and founder of Inclusive Church – said on BBC Radio 4’s Thought for the Day slot this morning that “many Christians like me remain deeply uneasy that the way the cross is being defended by some is transforming it into a symbol of cultural identity.” Dr Fraser, also an associate of the think tank Ekklesia, points out that the Christian Cross started life as an anti-imperial symbol, because Jesus was killed by the political and religious powers-that-be.

But its meaning was reversed when Christianity allied with Empire, and since then “the cross has been all too easily conscripted by various forms of objectionable propaganda”, such as that developed to justify the Crusades, says Dr Fraser. Now a symbol which is actually about “God’s act of solidarity with the disgraced and the powerless” is being distorted again. For some, says Dr Fraser, “defending the cross is about defending something called ‘Christian England’. Those on the extreme right, for instance, seem to be using the defence of Christianity as cover for an attack upon multiculturalism in general and Islam in particular. For such as these, the cross has nothing to do the brutality of empire and, bizarrely, everything to do with the cultural politics of a little country that Jesus had never heard of”, he explains.

Giles Fraser is a contributor to the book Consuming Passion: Why the killing of Jesus really matters, published by Ekklesia through Darton, Longman and Todd last year. Edited by the think tank’s co-directors, Simon Barrow and Jonathan Bartley, the book examines the link between certain popular Christian understandings of the Cross and issues of violence, domination and social justice. “There are difficult questions about freedom of expression at stake in the British Airways row”, says Simon Barrow, “but the turning of the incident into a major drama involving angry politicians and protesting church leaders does Christianity little credit. It looks like a sign of cultural anxiety not faith. At the same time, we all have to learn that there are cultural anxieties in a changing society – and find ways of talking about them," added Barrow.

“Christians urgently need to offer a better account of the cross than simply that it’s a badge of identity”, says Dr Fraser. The contributors to Consuming Passion – writers, scholars and clergy from Britain, Australia and the USA – look at the meaning of Jesus death in terms of absorbing rather than inflicting violence, and as an expression of non-coercive sacrifice rather than imperial religion. “It would be good if we could accept a diversity of symbolism in a plural society, but using political power to enforce the display of the Cross spectacularly misses what it is really about”, says Simon Barrow.

British Airways insists that its policy on costume jewellery is about company identity and safety, and applies to people of all religions and none. Cross-wearing is entirely voluntary in Christianity, it points out. But it would not stop someone from wearing a turban if dress was part of a core religious identity, and the aim of the policy is equal treatment. BA permits all items of jewellery, including crosses, to be worn underneath its uniform. The company has been put under pressure by MPs and by Archbishop of York John Sentamu. Home Secretary Jack Straw has also backed the wearing of crosses, in spite of his criticisms of the Muslim veil. Heathrow check-in worker Nadia Eweida, aged 55, of Twickenham, London, lost her appeal against BA's policy on Monday. BA pointed out that it had not banned the wearing of crosses and said Ms Eweida had a right to a second appeal. The incident has caused a huge public row, with Tory MP Ann Widdecombe saying she would boycott British Airways if they did not change their policy.

[Of course all of this raises interesting questions: What is the Cross for? What does it symbolise and why do people wear it?]

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Action plan for killer asteroids

By Jonathan Fildes for BBC News

Saturday, 17 February 2007

A draft UN treaty to determine what would have to be done if a giant asteroid was on a collision course with Earth is to be drawn up this year. The document would set out global policies including who should be in charge of plans to deflect any object. It is the brainchild of the Association of Space Explorers, a professional body for astronauts and cosmonauts. At the moment Nasa is monitoring 127 near earth objects (NEO) that have a possibility of hitting the earth. The association has asked a group of scientists, lawyers, diplomats and insurance experts to draw up the recommendations. The group will have their first meeting in Strasbourg in May this year. It is hoped the final document will be presented to the UN in 2009. "We believe there needs to be a decision process spelled out and adopted by the United Nations," said Dr Russell Schweickart, one of the Apollo 9 astronauts and founder of the Association of Space Explorers.

The threat of an asteroid hitting the Earth is being taken more and more seriously as more and more NEOs are found. In the US, Congress has charged Nasa with the task of starting a more detailed search for life-threatening asteroids. "Congress has said that Nasa's efforts to date are not sufficient to the threat," said Nasa's Dr Steven Chesley. "They have changed Nasa's targets so that the cataloguing and tracking of asteroids is part of its mandate." Congress has asked the space agency to mount a much more aggressive survey. At the moment Nasa tracks all objects greater than 700m in diameter. The agency's new goal is to track all objects greater than 70m in diameter.

To do this, the agency needs to use a new suite of telescopes. Alternatives include building a new Nasa-owned system or investing in other proposed telescopes such as The Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) or the Panoramic Survey Telescope & Rapid Response System (Pan-Starrs). Pan-Starrs is a wide-field telescope being developed at the University of Hawaii, whilst the LSST is a proposed ground-based instrument being developed by the not-for-profit LSST corporation based in the US. Nasa estimates that there are about 20,000 potentially threatening asteroids yet to be discovered. "Out of those thousands there will be without question many that look like they might hit the earth with a high enough probability that the public and everyone else will be concerned," said Dr Schweickart. "This has gone from being an esoteric statistical argument to talking about real events," added Dr David Morrison, an astronomer at the NASA's Ames Research Center.

The UN draft treaty would set would establish who should be in charge in the event of an asteroid heading towards earth, who would pay for relief efforts and the policies that should be adopted. In addition it would set out possible plans to deflect the object. Possible deflection plans could include hitting the asteroid with a spacecraft or rocket to deflect its orbit. Other less destructive proposals include a gravity tug that would simply hover over the asteroid and use gravity as a "towline" to change its path. But any decision to deflect an NEO could come with its own set of conundrums for the UN, as changing its path may simply alter its final target. "It's important to understand when you start to deflect an asteroid that certain countries are going to have accept an increase in risk to their populations in order to take the risk to zero for everyone," said Dr Schweickart. It is difficult decisions like this which can only be addressed by the UN, the Association of Space Explorers believes. And it is under no illusion that the process can be sorted out quickly. "You have to act when things look like they are going to happen - if you wait until you know for certain, it's too late," said Dr Schweickart. Experts who will draw up the treaty include Lord Rees, head of the Royal Society; the ex-director of science at the European Space Agency Roger Bonnet; and former UK government advisor Sir Crispin Tickell.

The proposals were outlined at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) annual meeting in San Francisco, US.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Saturday, February 17, 2007

House of Lords reform raises question about C of E bishops

From Ekklesia -01/02/07

The automatic presence of 26 Church of England bishops in the unelected second chamber of parliament has been raised again, in light of the UK government’s deliberations about House of Lords reform. Responding to cabinet discussions, Hanne Stinson, chief executive of the British Humanist Association, said that in the interests of fairness members should be there on an agreed basis of merit, irrespective of religion. BHA is calling for any new Cabinet proposals to include the removal of the bishops who sit in the Lords as of ‘right’.

When substantial Lords reform was last mooted, ecumenical and inter-faith bodies were consulted about the possibility of spreading or sharing places currently allocated to the C of E. But Congregationalists, Quakers and others objected to ‘religious representation’ on principle – and the Church of England resisted reducing its bishops or including lay members, even from Anglicans in Scotland, Wales and Ireland. Ms Stinson said today: “The UK is the only Western democracy to give religious representatives the automatic right to sit in our legislature and this anachronism should be top of the list for reformers. Modern Britain is a society with a staggering diversity of religious and non-religious beliefs.”

The House of Lords has 784 members (known as 'peers') at the moment. They consist of Lords Spiritual (senior Church of England bishops) and Lords Temporal (lay peers). Law Lords (senior judges) also sit as Lords Temporal. Members of the chamber are unelected and were originally drawn from the nobility and allies of the monarchy in Britain. Church of England bishops have seats in the Lords because of its Establishment under the Crown – something traditionally opposed by Free Church (‘non-conformist’) Christians and others who object to the arrangement on both civil and theological grounds.

Ms Stinson said: “Continuing to privilege one denomination in this way is preposterous and it would be just as unacceptable to extend the privilege to all religions. If the proposed reform includes appointments to the Lords these should all be on personal merit - there could be no objection to the occasional bishop or other religious leader being appointed on that basis.’ Reflecting on the likelihood that the government would propose such change, the BHA and other opponents of Establishment are doubtful, however. Ms Stinson commented: “The fact that the government faced up to religious pressure recently over gay adoption has given some people reason to hope that they will not be as intimidated by [such] lobbying in the future, but the u-turn on faith school admissions last year and the recent [concessions] over issues such as religion or belief discrimination are not reassuring.”

Following the House of Lords Act 1999 there are only 92 peers who sit by virtue of hereditary peerage. The majority of members are now life peers and the government has been consulting on proposals and attempting to legislate for further reform of the Lords. Civic and equalities campaigners wish to see a substantial extension of democratic principles into the process. New Labour has opposed a fully-elected second chamber.

[No bishops in the House of Lords? It's certainly a small step in the right direction.]

Friday, February 16, 2007

Video Time.

Ne me quitte pas - Nina Simone. Inspired by a recent visit to CrazieQueen's Blog.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Valentine Card.
Multiplying the Enemy

by Derrick Z. Jackson for the Boston Globe

September 27, 2006

President Bush first declared Iraq to be the ``central front" in his war on terror in a nationally televised address in September of 2003, just before the second anniversary of 9/11. ``Two years ago, I told Congress and the country that the war on terror would be a lengthy war, a different kind of war fought on many fronts in many places. Iraq is now the central front," he said. Even then, top intelligence officials were worried about such rhetoric. The very next month, a National Intelligence Estimate warned -- in a story unknown until Knight Ridder broke it this year -- that the unrelenting violence in Iraq after the US invasion was over local conditions and the presence of US forces. It was not inspired by foreign terrorism, as the White House kept saying.

``Frankly, senior officials simply weren't ready to pay attention to analysis that didn't conform to their own optimistic scenarios," Robert Hutchings, chairman of the National Intelligence Council from 2003 to 2005, told Knight Ridder. Despite every rationale for the lengthy war being proven false, the ``central front" declaration remains the centerpiece of propaganda. Bush repeated the ``central front" line two times apiece in fund-raising speeches last week in Orlando and Tampa. In the Tampa speech, he said, ``Iraq is a central front in this war on terror, and we've got a plan to defeat the enemy." This rhetoric is a central affront to the American people. His plan is multiplying the enemy.

``The Iraq war has made the overall terrorism problem worse," a US intelligence official told The New York Times in a story Sunday on a classified National Intelligence Estimate on the terror threat. The estimate represents the consensus conclusions of all 16 US spy agencies. In its story on the estimate, The Los Angeles Times quoted another intelligence insider as saying, ``Things like the Iraq war have given the terrorists recruiting tools and places to ply their trade and a training ground."

The Washington Post's version said the invasion and occupation of Iraq is now the ``leading inspiration for new Islamic extremist networks and cells that are united by little more than an anti-Western agenda." As the White House boasts of incremental victories as individual Al Qaeda leaders are killed, the National Intelligence Estimate says that terror networks are spreading like cancer around the planet. Even though Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden is himself on the run and much less able to personally direct attacks, according to the Post's account of the National Intelligence Estimate, ``his status as the ideological leader of a global movement that appeals to disaffected Muslims has vastly increased." Hutchings, now a diplomat in residence at the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University, said nothing about the new estimate surprises him. He warned publicly at the beginning of 2005 that Iraq could replace Afghanistan as ``a magnet for international terrorist activity." He said Monday over the telephone, ``Us against them has won us more enemies than anything else."

In a speech he gave at the University of Virginia in 2004, Hutchings counseled that ``we should not assume that `we' and `they' have nothing in common . . . Our frame of mind -- even as we are waging a resolute campaign against international terrorism -- should be that we are not engaged in a fight to the finish with radical Islam. This is not a clash of civilizations but rather a defense of our shared humanity and a search to find common ground." Yet just this month, in his address on the fifth anniversary of 9/11, Bush upped the ante on that kind of rhetoric as well. ``This struggle has been called a clash of civilizations," he told the nation. ``In truth it is a struggle for civilization." Hutchings said the latest news should not disintegrate into a partisan hammering of Bush (``I don't think the Democrats have covered themselves with glory on Iraq," he said). What concerns him, he said, is that for the United States to have any chance against terrorism, US leaders have to drop the stark war terminology. ``We can't kill enough people to keep us safe," Hutchings said. ``It's not a matter of being tough or soft on terrorism. It's a matter of being smart." He said a smart policy would be one that delegitimizes jihads by de linking them from legitimate regional economic and political grievances. ``Right now we throw everything into the war on terror," he said.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Just Finished Reading: Metropolitan by Walter Jon Williams.

Aiah is a minor bureaucrat in the Plasm Authority living a life of quiet desperation. Her dead end job, mounting debts and an absent lover are slowly grinding her down. All that changes after a chance discovery during a routine search of an underground chamber. Aiah stumbles across an as yet untapped and unmetered source of plasm that she can use to transform her life. Risking everything she contacts the only person she can think of to sell her secret for untold wealth – the Metropolitan Constantine.

This was not the book I was expecting when I started it. From a cursory glance at the blurb on the back cover I was expecting a familiar tale of cyberpunks in the style of William Gibson. How wrong I was! For a starter this book isn’t science-fiction its science-fantasy. Yes, that’s right science-fantasy. Plasm is probably what present day magic users (especially those who play fantasy games on-line) would call mana. Mana, or in this case plasm, is the power behind magical acts. With it you can transform matter, create or destroy just about anything, drive an entire society’s economy. This is exactly what Williams does in this fascinating novel. Magic, in this case Geomancy (literally Earth Magic), is a science and its use a technological solution to the problems of a far future world spanning city. Those with access to plasm are not only wealthy but extremely powerful. The whole idea is very intriguing and what makes it wholly believable is the quality of Williams’ writing.

Aiah is a wonderful character and a truly inspired creation. She has a dysfunctional family, both a believable personal and cultural history; ambitions limited by her upbringing and so much else that makes her ‘real’. Likewise the super rich Constantine is a well rounded and understandable person with drives and faults that are also totally believable. Whilst reading this book you are inhabiting a fully formed and functioning world with petty politics, crime, incompetence and (my personal favourite) weather. The subtle attention to detail, with a line here and there pointing out little things like broken chairs or cheap jewellery, give the book a sense of place and a firm sense of realism – despite the underlying fantasy aspects. Williams has gone to the effort of making the reader totally suspend disbelief thereby making this novel a sheer joy to read. I cannot recommend this book too highly. This was such a difference from the lazy work of my recent Michael Moorcock novel that the contrast was all the more powerful.

I’ve just learnt that there is a sequel to Metropolitan but it appears to be out of print (as is Metropolitan itself). Looks like I’ll be searching for it on the Web. I’m confident that it will be worth the hunt. Find them if you can.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

There is No God (And You Know It)

By Sam Harris for The Huffington Post

November 3, 2005

Somewhere in the world a man has abducted a little girl. Soon he will rape, torture, and kill her. If an atrocity of this kind not occurring at precisely this moment, it will happen in a few hours, or days at most. Such is the confidence we can draw from the statistical laws that govern the lives of six billion human beings. The same statistics also suggest that this girl’s parents believe -- at this very moment -- that an all-powerful and all-loving God is watching over them and their family. Are they right to believe this? Is it good that they believe this? No. The entirety of atheism is contained in this response. Atheism is not a philosophy; it is not even a view of the world; it is simply a refusal to deny the obvious. Unfortunately, we live in a world in which the obvious is overlooked as a matter of principle. The obvious must be observed and re-observed and argued for. This is a thankless job. It carries with it an aura of petulance and insensitivity. It is, moreover, a job that the atheist does not want.

It is worth noting that no one ever need identify himself as a non-astrologer or a non-alchemist. Consequently, we do not have words for people who deny the validity of these pseudo-disciplines. Likewise, “atheism” is a term that should not even exist. Atheism is nothing more than the noises reasonable people make when in the presence of religious dogma. The atheist is merely a person who believes that the 260 million Americans (eighty-seven percent of the population) who claim to “never doubt the existence of God” should be obliged to present evidence for his existence -- and, indeed, for his benevolence, given the relentless destruction of innocent human beings we witness in the world each day. Only the atheist appreciates just how uncanny our situation is: most of us believe in a God that is every bit as specious as the gods of Mount Olympus; no person, whatever his or her qualifications, can seek public office in the United States without pretending to be certain that such a God exists; and much of what passes for public policy in our country conforms to religious taboos and superstitions appropriate to a medieval theocracy. Our circumstance is abject, indefensible, and terrifying. It would be hilarious if the stakes were not so high.

Consider: the city of New Orleans was recently destroyed by hurricane Katrina. At least a thousand people died, tens of thousands lost all their earthly possessions, and over a million have been displaced. It is safe to say that almost every person living in New Orleans at the moment Katrina struck believed in an omnipotent, omniscient, and compassionate God. But what was God doing while a hurricane laid waste to their city? Surely He heard the prayers of those elderly men and women who fled the rising waters for the safety of their attics, only to be slowly drowned there. These were people of faith. These were good men and women who had prayed throughout their lives. Only the atheist has the courage to admit the obvious: these poor people spent their lives in the company of an imaginary friend. Of course, there had been ample warning that a storm “of biblical proportions” would strike New Orleans, and the human response to the ensuing disaster was tragically inept. But it was inept only by the light of science. Advance warning of Katrina’s path was wrested from mute Nature by meteorological calculations and satellite imagery. God told no one of his plans. Had the residents of New Orleans been content to rely on the beneficence of the Lord, they wouldn’t have known that a killer hurricane was bearing down upon them until they felt the first gusts of wind on their faces. And yet, a poll conducted by The Washington Post found that eighty percent of Katrina’s survivors claim that the event has only strengthened their faith in God.

As hurricane Katrina was devouring New Orleans, nearly a thousand Shiite pilgrims were trampled to death on a bridge in Iraq. There can be no doubt that these pilgrims believed mightily in the God of the Koran. Indeed, their lives were organized around the indisputable fact of his existence: their women walked veiled before him; their men regularly murdered one another over rival interpretations of his word. It would be remarkable if a single survivor of this tragedy lost his faith. More likely, the survivors imagine that they were spared through God’s grace. Only the atheist recognizes the boundless narcissism and self-deceit of the saved. Only the atheist realizes how morally objectionable it is for survivors of a catastrophe to believe themselves spared by a loving God, while this same God drowned infants in their cribs. Because he refuses to cloak the reality of the world’s suffering in a cloying fantasy of eternal life, the atheist feels in his bones just how precious life is -- and, indeed, how unfortunate it is that millions of human beings suffer the most harrowing abridgements of their happiness for no good reason at all.

Of course, people of faith regularly assure one another that God is not responsible for human suffering. But how else can we understand the claim that God is both omniscient and omnipotent? There is no other way, and it is time for sane human beings to own up to this. This is the age-old problem of theodicy, of course, and we should consider it solved. If God exists, either He can do nothing to stop the most egregious calamities, or He does not care to. God, therefore, is either impotent or evil. Pious readers will now execute the following pirouette: God cannot be judged by merely human standards of morality. But, of course, human standards of morality are precisely what the faithful use to establish God’s goodness in the first place. And any God who could concern himself with something as trivial as gay marriage, or the name by which he is addressed in prayer, is not as inscrutable as all that. If He exists, the God of Abraham is not merely unworthy of the immensity of creation; he is unworthy even of man.

There is another possibility, of course, and it is both the most reasonable and least odious: the biblical God is a fiction. As Richard Dawkins has observed, we are all atheists with respect to Zeus and Thor. Only the atheist has realized that the biblical god is no different. Consequently, only the atheist is compassionate enough to take the profundity of the world’s suffering at face value. It is terrible that we all die and lose everything we love; it is doubly terrible that so many human beings suffer needlessly while alive. That so much of this suffering can be directly attributed to religion -- to religious hatreds, religious wars, religious delusions, and religious diversions of scarce resources -- is what makes atheism a moral and intellectual necessity. It is a necessity, however, that places the atheist at the margins of society. The atheist, by merely being in touch with reality, appears shamefully out of touch with the fantasy life of his neighbors.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Video Time.

Staind - It's Been a While. Quite, quite superb!

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

The End of the West as We Know It?

by Anatol Lieven for the International Herald Tribune (Paris)

December 28, 2006

Every political, social and economic system ever created has sooner or later encountered a challenge that its very nature has made it incapable of meeting. The Confucian ruling system of imperial China, which lasted for more than 2,000 years, has some claim still to be the most successful in history, but because it was founded on values of stability and continuity, rather than dynamism and inventiveness, it eventually proved unable to survive in the face of Western imperial capitalism. For market economies, and the Western model of democracy with which they have been associated, the existential challenge for the foreseeable future will be global warming. Other threats like terrorism may well be damaging, but no other conceivable threat or combination of threats can possibly destroy our entire system. As the recent British official commission chaired by Sir Nicholas Stern correctly stated, climate change "is the greatest and widest-ranging market failure ever seen." The question now facing us is whether global capitalism and Western democracy can follow the Stern report's recommendations, and make the limited economic adjustments necessary to keep global warming within bounds that will allow us to preserve our system in a recognizable form; or whether our system is so dependent on unlimited consumption that it is by its nature incapable of demanding even small sacrifices from its present elites and populations.

If the latter proves the case, and the world suffers radically destructive climate change, then we must recognize that everything that the West now stands for will be rejected by future generations. The entire democratic capitalist system will be seen to have failed utterly as a model for humanity and as a custodian of essential human interests. Even the relatively conservative predictions offered by the Stern report, of a drop in annual global gross domestic product of up to 20 percent by the end of this century, imply a crisis on the scale of the Great Depression of the 1930s; and as we know, the effects of that depression were not restricted to economics. In much of Europe, as well as Latin America and Japan, democracies collapsed and were replaced by authoritarian regimes. As the report makes clear, however, if we continue with "business as usual" when it comes to the emission of greenhouse gases, then we will not have to wait till the end of the century to see disastrous consequences. Long before then, a combination of floods, droughts and famine will have destroyed states in many poorer parts of the earth — as has already occurred in recent decades in Somalia.

If the conservative estimates of the Stern report are correct, then already by 2050 the effects of climate change may be such as to wreck the societies of Pakistan and Bangladesh; and if these states collapse, how can India and other countries possibly insulate themselves? At that point, not only will today's obsessive concern with terrorism appear insignificant, but all the democratizing efforts of Western states, and of private individuals and bodies like George Soros and his Open Society Institute, will be rendered completely meaningless. So, of course, will every effort directed today toward the reduction of poverty and disease. And this is only to examine the likely medium-term consequences of climate change. For the further future, the report predicts that if we continue with business as usual, then the rise in average global temperature could well top 5 degrees Celsius. To judge by what we know of the history of the world's climate, this would almost certainly lead to the melting of the polar ice caps, and a rise in sea levels of up to 25 meters.

As pointed out by Al Gore in "An Inconvenient Truth," this would mean the end of many of the world's greatest cities. The resulting human migration could be on such a scale as to bring modern civilization to an end. If this comes to pass, what will our descendants make of a political and media culture that devotes little attention to this threat when compared with sports, consumer goods, leisure and a threat from terrorism that is puny by comparison? Will they remember us as great paragons of human progress and freedom? They are more likely to spit on our graves. Underlying Western free-market democracy, and its American form in particular, is the belief that this system is of permanent value to mankind: a "New Order of the Ages," as the motto on the U.S. Great Seal has it. It is not supposed to serve only the short- term and selfish interests of existing Western populations. If our system is indeed no more than that, then it will pass from history even more utterly than Confucian China — and will deserve to do so.

[Clearly things cannot go on as they are. Hopefully we will realise that sooner rather than later.]

Monday, February 05, 2007

I AM: unique (as far as I can tell).
I WANT: to live for ever.
I WISH: the killing would stop.
I HATE: almost nothing.
I MISS: Carol (still).
I FEAR: we are too stupid a species to survive much longer.
I HEAR: music in my head.
I VALUE: honesty.
I WONDER: what will become of us.
I REGRET: very little.
I AM NOT: a Number. I am a Free Man.
I DANCE: as if no one was watching.
I SING: surpisingly well.
I CRY: during the sad parts in movies.
I MAKE: mistakes.
I WRITE: well – when the muse takes me.
I CONFUSE: people about my sexuality.
I NEED: to be touched.
I SHOULD: speak my mind more.
I START: many things.
I FINISH: few of them.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Just Finished Reading: The Dreamthief’s Daughter by Michael Moorcock

In early 1930’s Germany Count Ulric Von Bek is approached by agents of the Nazi party eager to examine and confiscate objects that have been in his family for generations. One is reputed to be the Holy Grail itself, the other is an ancient black sword reputed to have enormous magical power. When Ulric refuses to part with them he is arrested and thrown in a concentration camp where he is beaten and tortured. As he becomes convinced that he cannot survive much longer he is rescued by a British secret agent and a mysterious white haired woman. So begins Ulric’s adventures as he plays his part in an increasingly fantastical battle between Law and Chaos throughout the Multiverse.

Back in my youth I used to be a huge Moorcock fan and have read many of his books. I was particularly fond of his Elric stories and for a time there dreamed of having a flowing cascade of pure white hair. Unfortunately this book failed to live up to my memory of his earlier works. It certainly started well enough but as soon as the action moved away from the ‘real’ world into a fantasy one I found it increasingly difficult to maintain much of an interest in the story or the characters. What irked me most about the writing was that it was just so lazy both in style and execution. Far too many rabbits were being pulled out of far too many hats in order to save the heroes from increasingly impossible positions. Sure it was a fantasy novel – but there has to be some rules to maintain a credible storyline. Moorcock provided few (if any) in this book. Needless to say the other two books in the trilogy are no longer on my Amazon Wish List. Very disappointing.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Atheists challenge the religious right

By Jane Lampman for The Christian Science Monitor

January 04, 2007

For some time, the religious right has decried "secular humanism," a philosophy that rejects the supernatural or spiritual as a basis for moral decision making. But now, non-believers are vigorously fighting back. Only a small percentage of Americans admit to being non-theists (between 2 and 9 percent, depending on the poll), but that equates to many millions. And religionists' role in debates over stem-cell research and evolution vs. intelligent design - as well as radical religion in world conflicts - have galvanized some atheists to mount a counteroffensive.

In bestselling books, on websites, and with a national lobbying effort, atheists and other non-theists are challenging the growing religious influence in government and public life. Some are attacking the foundations of religion itself. Two particularly provocative books, in fact, hit the top of Publishers Weekly's religion bestseller list in December. No. 1, "The God Delusion," by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, and No. 2, "Letter to a Christian Nation," by writer Sam Harris, are no-holds-barred, anti-religion polemics that call for the eradication of all manifestations of faith. "I am attacking God, all gods, anything and everything supernatural, wherever and whenever they have been or will be invented," declares Dr. Dawkins, the famed Oxford professor who wrote "The Selfish Gene." These offerings are so intolerant of religion of any kind - liberal, moderate, or fundamentalist - that some scientists and secularists have critiqued their peers for oversimplification and for a secular fundamentalism. "They undermine their own case by writing in a language that suffers from many things they say are true of believers - intolerance, disrespect, extremism," says Alan Wolfe, a professor of religion at Boston College, who is a secularist and author of several books on American religious perspectives.

Yet the authors are anything but modest about their efforts to supplant faith with pure scientific rationality. While critics point out that religion is a genuine reflection of people's experience and will always exist, Mr. Harris suggests it could be equated with slavery, which once was widely acceptable, but eventually was looked upon with horror. He sees it as responsible for many of life's tragedies. Harris first hit the bestseller bull's-eye in 2004 with "The End of Faith," and he says the responses to that book, particularly those from Christians, spurred his latest epistle. A mere 96 pages, "Letter" may be dismissed by many for its condescending tone or overheated rhetoric. Yet its bold arguments offer a useful window into non-theist perspectives and could also startle some complacent religionists into a rethinking and refining of perceptions.

Many non-theists don't share this militant perspective, but have decided that keeping silent in religious America no longer makes sense. They are astonished that a majority of Americans question evolution and support teaching intelligent design in the science classroom. They are distressed over polls that show that at least half of Americans are unwilling to vote for an atheist despite the Constitution's requirement that there be no religious test for public office. And they contend that in recent years, Congress has passed bills and the president has issued executive orders that have privileged religion in inappropriate and unconstitutional ways. As a result, seven organizations of non-theists including atheists, freethinkers, humanists, and agnostics began the Secular Coalition for America (SCA), a lobby seeking to increase the visibility and respectability of non-theistic viewpoints in the United States.

"In some parts of the country, children are ostracized if someone finds out their families are atheists," says Lori Lipman Brown, SCA director. "We need to educate the public that people who don't have a god belief can be good neighbors and friends and moral and ethical people." They also intend to stand up vigorously for their rights. "Some people want to go back to a time when religion was imposed, such as official prayer in public schools," she adds. "For someone to say they can't practice their religion appropriately if all schoolchildren are not required to recite a public prayer is very disturbing." The SCA intends to lobby the new Congress to override a presidential veto on stem-cell research and to repeal land-use legislation and other laws seen as "privileging one religion over other religions or over those who don't follow religion."

Still, the group makes clear on its website that while it promotes reason and science as the bases for policymaking, it also supports religious tolerance. "I have absolutely no problem with anyone believing differently than I believe, as long as they don't impose their religion on me or my government," says Ms. Brown, a former Nevada state senator. To spotlight the prejudice against atheists holding public office - and to encourage atheists to "come out of the closet," SCA is sponsoring a contest to identify the highest US official who acknowledges being a non-believer. They expect to announce contest results in February. Internet-based groups are also seeking to spread the atheist message, particularly among young adults. The Rational Response Squad (RRS) has chosen a provocative mode using the popular website YouTube. Their "blasphemy challenge" calls on young non-believers to create videos in which they renounce belief in the "sky God of Christianity" and upload it on the site; in return they'll receive a free documentary DVD, "The God Who Wasn't There," which includes interviews with Dawkins, Harris, and others. RRS is publicizing its campaign on 25 popular teen websites.

"We wanted to strike up more of a conversation about religion, and this was a way for people to show their non-belief and encourage others to come out," says Brian Sapient, RRS cofounder. Mr. Sapient says he was raised Catholic and then a born-again Christian, but later learned that many things he was taught were fictional. RRS now has some 20,000 people on message boards, with about 5,000 actively engaged in debunking religious claims, passing out fliers, and placing DVDs in churches. As for the blasphemy challenge, "there's about 490 response videos so far, and 85,000 views on our trailer video," he says. Sapient acknowledges this approach may not persuade religious youths. "There are people with a more palatable approach to talking about religion," he says, "but I wonder if those people would be as effective if it weren't for us or Sam Harris or Richard Dawkins shaking up the group a bit." He also insists that you don't really respect people unless you speak up when you think their beliefs are wrong. It's OK with him, he adds, if religious people try to convince him they are right.

Harris and Dawkins make it clear that they think faith has gotten off too easy for too long. Their books have spurred widespread commentary, much of it a strong critique of their arguments and lack of religious knowledge. But in a culture immersed in combativeness in politics and the media, the intemperate books are selling well. Yet one critic, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, calls for a truce: "We've suffered enough from religious intolerance that the last thing the world needs is irreligious intolerance."

[It would appear that there’s an atheist backlash – long overdue I feel.]