He may be an atheist, but is he a druggy? important questions in British politics...

A beauty from my paper today, which I don't think is intentionally funny but none the less had me nearly in stitches. Its only the first half of the first paragraph of the story - I didn't really read the rest as I normally find the Lib Dems about as interesting as choosing wallpaper.

A little background for my readers from outside the UK. There exists in British politics a third party, called the Liberal Democrats, whose sole electoral function appears to be to mop up voters who are too pissed off with the two major parties to vote for either of them. In local government they are a real political force, however in the national parliament they are something of a joke, and consequently they can produce policies to the left, or right, of either of the main parties (both of whom are treading on each other's toes in the centre ground at present) with what can charitably be called complete opportunism.

Until last year they had a witty, fairly charismatic leader called Charles Kennedy, who they had to get rid of because he was slightly too fond of his drink, which is no longer deemed acceptable in today's squeeky clean world of politics (hahahaha).

They then had a leader who was fairly competent but had as much charisma as a damp tea-towel. He was also over 60, which is no longer deemed acceptable in today's squeeky clean world of A level politicians, as it is well known by marketing agencies up and down the land that 'young people' are 'turned off' politics by its image of 'old people telling them what to do', and are more likely therefore to vote for a dashingly handsome young-hip-cool-with-it politician.

No, I don't know any either, but never mind, all this is leading us away from my main topic, which is this.

They elected a new leader, who isn't grey so must be a step in the right direction for a young, cool, hip party like the Lib Dems. This new leader, who's name is Nick Clegg, has been quoted as saying that he doesn't believe in God.

Well, passionate atheist as I am, it'll take more than that to make me vote Lib Dem. In fact I think it would take a gun pressed against my head to vote Lib Dem, but that, once again, is beside the point.

My newspaper carries an article entitled "Nick Clegg is a believer ...in families, not God"

Other, more established blogs have discussed the things he said on the topic of religion, so I won't repeat them here - suffice to say its not particularly inspiring stuff.

I just want you to laugh along with me at this, the opening paragraph...

"Nick Clegg, the new leader of the Liberal Democrats, declared yesterday that he did not believe in God but refused to say whether he had taken drugs."

I'm sure its not supposed to be funny, but by [any] god [you like] it made me laugh. No doubt there is no attempt made here to link the two, but wouldn't it be great it there was?

I can't help imagining a scenario:

[Right wing]Interviewer:
-'So Mr Clegg, do you believe in God?'


-'What?! are you on drugs?'


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Mystery Worshippers - most amusing

Follow the link in the title for an amusing story from the BBC. I could cover it here, but they've already done quite a tongue-in-cheek report so I'm being lazy...

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The Road to Rationalism - Part 3.1

It is a logical impossibility for all of the many religions, sects, and sub-sects thereof to be correct in their explanations of how the Universe, this planet, and life upon it, came to exist.

There are therefore only two alternatives - one of them is correct, and all others wrong, or none ot them are correct.

A believer would plump for the first alternative, citing their sect of their religion as the only true account, rejecting all others as false. How do they reach this conclusion, and on what authority do they rely?

I've already stated that my conclusion was to reject all of them as equally false, and that I did this with only a very limited knowledge of other explanations for, well, everything!

For our entire history until very recent times, religions have provided us with the means to understand and interpret the world, and our place in it. We had no other ways to do this than through mysticism and the invocation of the supernatural. What is the Sun? Why does it rise in the morning and set in the evening? If I don't sacrifice a goat, will the Sun not rise?

What is fire? What is thunder? Why does it rain?

...You get the picture, I could go on with thousands of examples of things that our ancestors must have found terrifying and inexplicable - indeed only explicable by invoking beings with great power - gods. Gods of the Sun, gods of the moon, gods of rivers, mountains, animals.

One of the things I find fascinating about our species, and must surely be amongst the greatest things to set us apart from other animals, is the level to which we think we are the centre of everything, both as individuals and collectively as tribes and later as civilizations. Why were we so scared that the Sun would not rise if we didn't do things in a certain way? Did it perhaps occur to some ancient free-thinker that the Sun had presumably been rising and setting for a long time, without his or her tribe killing goats?

Why this feeling that we are either responsible for the way things are, or that they are like that especially for us?

Even today we all do it, I'm no exception, though I always try to catch myself in the act... we know its irrational but we still do it. I'm talking about how we think random events happen just to spite us, or through good luck, or because we have willed it (please let me have a good run in the traffic; please be nice weather on my day off; please let me get a parking space etc) when in actual fact events are entirely indifferent to the personal desires or fears of individuals.

This feeling of being the centre of things, and of being able to influence our environment (and not just by killing goats) has had an amazing effect upon how we interpret, and interact with, our environment and each other.

One inevitable result of needing an explanation for this was, as we have already seen, the rise of religions and beliefs in every single culture around the world.

Another was the process of experiment, thought, and accumulation of knowledge that we now call science.

For most of history there was little or no conflict between these methods, indeed they often went hand in hand. Occasionally however, individual scientists (for want of a better word) would discover or work something out, the conclusion of which indicated that the established religious position was wrong.

In these circumstances, either the position of the establishment would be altered to reflect the new knowledge, or the scientist would be ridiculed, surpressed, exiled, forced to recant or even tortured or killed, and the established position would remain unaltered; sometimes until the weight of evidence gathered by independent workers became undeniable, more often in spite of any evidence, however convincing.

As an example of how long this process of adaptation can take, it took the Catholic church slightly more than 400 years to pardon Galileo for his advocation of heliocentrism (the sacrilegious idea that the Earth and other planets orbit the Sun), by which time science had shown us how the planets move around the sun, how far away they are, how fast they are going, and established the type of calculations that are used to this day whenever we send a craft into orbit, amongst many, many other things (physics is not my forte, sorry!).

What cannot be denied is that the position of religions has had to alter to reflect new knowledge, however stubbornly they have dragged their heels in this process.

What cannot be ignored is that all of the religions (and interpretations thereof) practiced today, from the most benign and peacable to the most warlike and ranting, require their followers to believe things, without any evidence, that contradict observable or deductable facts. To make this proposition more palatable to their followers, they claim that believing things in spite of contrary evidence is virtuous and will be rewarded.

Can we not see how dangerous this is? Can we not understand what an insult to human dignity and intelligence faith really is?

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Religious hero or just a hero?

Another one from The Times...

"'Hero' takes on subway gang
New York A Muslim man has been hailed a hero after coming to the aid of four Jews who were being attacked by a gang on the New York subway. Hassan Askari, 20, a student, was also beaten but his actions gave the victims a chance to summon police. (AP)"

What is the relevance of religion to this story?

I can guess the writer or editor's intention: we all know that Jews and Muslims hate each other, or are supposed to anyway, so here is a heart-warming account of a Muslim reaching out to help those of a rival faith. I think we should look a little deeper. Are we being asked to believe that this hero helped them because they were jewish? Far more likely is that he was one of those one-in-a-hundred people who would help anyone in that situation, even at risk to themselves. I couldn't do it, I'd be too much of a coward - could you?

The man deserves credit for sure, but I don't believe for a second that he was motivated by a desire for inter-faith harmony.

To attempt to insert religion into an ordinary story of human bravery or kindness is really quite disingenuous, if not actively misleading. To better understand why, lets suppose this man was one of the ninety-nine-in-a-hundred who would prefer not to get involved. How does the story read then?

"Muslim man stands by as four Jews are beaten on New York subway."

Doesn't sound so good, eh? I doubt the writer would have mentioned religion if the story had been like that.

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Thieves make off with healing leg

Staying on the subject of Hinduism for a moment longer...

I was almost moved to laughter when I came across this story buried away in one paragraph of my paper. Unfortunately I left my paper behind so can't quote it verbatim, although I later found that the BBC have also covered the story (see link)...

An 80 year old Hindu holy man is recovering in hospital after two thieves cut off his leg, which he claimed had the ability to heal the sick.

Say the BBC -
'Police say the reason for the attack could be because Mr Kondaiah told too many people of the alleged magical powers of his right leg.
"This might have motivated some people to take away his leg hoping to benefit from it," a police spokesman said.
"But it is difficult to say that this was the only motive. It could also be a case of a revenge attack." '

Revenge attack? What for, not being healed? Or maybe it was a rival holy-man, jealous of his power. These chaps had better be careful in future to attribute their magical power to their whole bodies, or perhaps something expendable like a little finger. Healing the sick seems like a dangerous business these days!

I do of course feel sorry for the poor chap, who now has to rely on just medicine and surgery to make him better, but I can't help wondering what the thieves are now doing with the leg, which must be getting a little high by now. Are they trying to sell its healing properties on to others? How desperate would you have to be to pay to be touched by a semi-putrid leg? How stupid would you have to be to think it would heal you and not make you worse?

Ah well, such is the power of mysticism...

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Holy Cow!

RSPCA vets trampled hoof and nail over the religious sensibilities of Hindu monks at Britain's largest Hindu temple on Thursday, as they gave a lethal injection to 13 year-old Gangotri, a Belgian blue cross cow who had been suffering great pain from sores and limb wastage.

Cows are of course sacred to Hindus, and the killing of one in a temple amounts to sacrilege of a terrible kind. It remains to be seen whether the leaders of the monastery will attempt to take legal action against the RSPCA but they have already accused the local police of being heavy-handed, alleging that officers used force to remove monks who were peacefully praying for the cow to get better.

Far be it for me to accuse the monks of willful animal cruelty; they had in fact been doing their very best to look after the cow, by praying every day and chanting. They also used more hands-on methods of veterinary science such as reiki and homeopathy, all to no effect (I find this very surprising, after all how could praying to a non-existent entity, manipulating the animal's energy fields and giving her magic water possibly fail to heal a terminally ill cow?)

Luckily for the poor cow, who presumably had no idea that she was in constant pain because she was sacred, the RSPCA and local constabulary had the balls to go in there and put the poor thing out its misery. This they did by lethal injection, which must have been some kind of sop to the poor sensitive monks as the usual method of destroying cattle humanely is to put a bolt or bullet through their brains.

A terrible offence of religious sensibilities, or a fresh breath of common sense and a point scored for the forces of anti- political correctness? No prizes for guessing my view on the subject!

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Reciting psalms is punishment - official!

Those of you who've been reading my ongoing Road to Rationalism posts will no doubt have noticed that my main objective is to establish that through reason and the accumulation of knowledge, the human race has steadily overturned the old creation myths told by the world's religions, and to reinforce the point that believeing literally in these tales is quite ridiculous and not in fact laudable or virtuous behaviour.

Mostly I'll be doing this by employing reasoned argument, but my cynical, sarcastic and scathing wit cannot help occasionally wanting to take the piss out of deeply held religious beliefs, because once you have had your consciousness raised above the traditional 'respect' that we are supposed to show to religions, the religious, and the idea that blind faith held in the face of massively overwhelming contrary evidence is somehow virtuous, it follows quite simply that faith should actually be a target for ridicule.

My intention is never to offend, but if religious people can be made to feel even just a little bit silly for believing what are, after all, extremely silly ideas, we can slowly chip away at the confidence they have in their faith, and this can only be a virtuous outcome!

To this end I'll be posting the amusing tit-bits that I sometimes find in my newspaper, The (London) Times.

"Holy punishment
Santiago A catholic priest in Chile has been told to recite seven psalms every day for three months after a traffic violation. Father Jose Cornejo said he could not afford the 50,000 peso (£49) fine for illegally parking in the city of Puerto Montt. (AP)"

I like this story for several reasons. Why would it be a punishment for a priest to read out psalms? I suppose they are deeply depressing! Was the court taking the piss, do you think? Who would supervise the sentence - is the ultimate abritrator in Chilean justice God? Most importantly, for the sake of the priest - how much extra time will he have to spend in purgatory for parking illegally?

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The Road to Rationalism - Part 2

...So we can see how various stories and traditions became established in widely seperated geographical locations over time, and how they subsequently spread through conquest, merging of similar traditions (Hinduism and Shinto, as examples, have thrived by bringing many local gods into the fold of a pantheon), word of mouth, and occasionally, conversion of rulers.

Through centuries of practice, traditions become established as truth. Religious institutions, most notoriously the Catholic church, have amassed great wealth by usually highly dubious means and have used this wealth to build awe-inspiring cathedrals and temples which they fill with gold and images of gods or saints (isn't a pantheon of saints, each of whom you should pray to for different problems, really a form of polytheism in disguise? think about it!) designed to stun the ordinary mortal with the power of God - or at least the ability of God's workers to gather wealth from the gullible and pious.

It is worth noting one of the more the cynical methods by which the Catholic church collected such wealth, too, as to our (non-catholic!) eyes today it seems like nothing more than a massive con trick. Perhaps it seemed that way to those who instigated it too, though I might be prepared to give them the benefit of the doubt and accept that they really believed they were doing God's work and that would be enough to justify being so ludicrously rich, just as 'doing God's work' is enough to justify the slaughter of people of a different faith, even today.

I'm talking about purgatory, of course. It seems that the idea of heaven and hell as the only options available after death were somewhat too simple, so, some clever-dick came up with the idea that souls of individuals who were not quite good enough to go to heaven straight away, yet not bad enough to go to hell, would spend some time doing penance in a place called purgatory before they were allowed in to heaven. Genius!

It followed from this that the church could calculate how many years you would spend in purgatory by how pious you were whilst alive, and even better still you could reduce the amount of time spent there by paying money to the church. What a truly world-class con trick. Pious and wealthy people could put their minds at rest by simply paying a cash sum to the church, so, everyone's a winner!

Another way of looking at it is to say 'what incredible arrogance!' how could these people really think that God would be happy to see his followers ripped-off like that, just to fill the coffers of an already bloated church, which up until modern times had more wealth than most of the European empires, kingdoms and principalities combined?

Such is the power of mysticism. A few words spoken in a dead language by a man in a colourful frock transforms a wafer of bread into the flesh of Jesus, and a cup of wine into his blood. Does it really though? Catholics would say 'yes, of course'. Jews would say 'nonsense' as would Muslims and in fact any follower of any other faith.

So who is right?

Lets take a look at the situation we are in today. Perhaps seven major religions (depending upon your definition of a religion) are followed around the world. Which of these belief systems an individual follows is almost invariably just an accident of birth - taking Palestine/Israel as an extreme example, it could even just depend which side of a wall you're born on.

Children are told by their parents, who were told by their parents, and so on, that their beliefs are right and those of the chaps on the other side of the wall are blasphemous and wrong. They follow their traditions, pass them on to their own children and so the cycle continues.

But how can any of them say 'we are right, they are wrong' when the fact is that all of them say that? Clearly, it is impossible for all of the world's religions, and the many different sects of each individual religion, to be fundamentally right. Does it follow from this that one of them must be right, and the others wrong? Surely, if there were any truth to any of the myths, people could look objectively at all the myths available and say 'that one looks to be true, it fits the world I see around me' and would choose that religion?

The position I arrived at, after much thought, is to say that they must all be wrong.

All of them claim to be true, and yet all of them are based upon myths and stories that are extremely unlikely or impossible. When a religious person looks at another faith, they have no problem dismissing as ludicrous that other faith's miracle stories, yet they find it easy to believe (or at least to convince themselves that believing is the right thing to do) their own incredible stories. An objective observer, such as an atheist, can see how ridiculous are the claims of all the religions. I have no problem dismissing the story of Mohamed flying up to heaven on an angel-powered horse, just as I have no problem dismising the idea of a virgin giving birth to the son of God (who also happens to be himself - neat trick). A muslim can laugh at the story of Jesus' birth, but is forced to take seriously the ridiculous idea of a horse flying (Pegasus, anyone?).

Bear in mind that I arrived at this decision before I had really had time to learn about the alternative, knowledge-based theories and explanations for the existence of the universe and life here on Earth. I was about fourteen when I realised that my Anglicanism had no right to call itself superior to Catholicism, or Islam, Hinduism, or any other religious system. No one, single religion or sect's interpretation of a text can be said to be right, ergo they must all be wrong, ergo all religious teachings are fundamentally wrong. You do not even need to have an alternative explanation for existence to reach this logical conclusion!

We cannot doubt that the Universe does need a pretty damn incredible explanation for its existence, but to accept that any ancient story, from any of the world's myriad cultures, can in fact be that explanation is patently ludicrous.

Of course we don't have to accept what we were told when we were young, or even what somebody else was told when they were young. We can actually try to find out what the real world is like by looking at it, testing it, thinking about how it could be and then designing ways in which we can establish how it really is. This process has been going on quietly for thousands of years, and now we do actually know quite a lot.

At the age of fourteen however, I had barely begun to take a serious interest in this process of accumulation of knowledge that we call science; that would come later, as it must now, in part three.

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The Road to Rationalism - part 1.

I said in my introduction that I would give reaons for my atheism, and so I shall now begin.

As I said in an earlier post I have been an atheist for more than half of my life now, and that prior to this I had simply followed (although extremely loosely) the religious ideas that were taught to me by teachers at my C of E primary school.

As a child I was fascinated by dinosaurs (many small boys are) and loved to collect books about them. I would draw them, trace them, and during play pretend to be them. I thought at the time (with typical childish conceit!) that I must be the only six year old who could spell 'palaeontologist' and want to be one!

Of course it never occured to me that there could be any conflict between the life processes and time-scales explained in my dinosaur books written for children (any way, I was just interested in the pictures at that point!) and the word of the Bible, which was at that time the only religious book with which I was familiar. I think this will be a common experience for children of that age, as they are not equipped to recognise, let alone decide between, competing explanations for such important matters as life itself.

The first time I noticed there could be a conflict was at age seven or eight, when searching for dinosuar books on a day out to town (at least I was, I suspect my mother had different priorities, lol) I said to my mother 'look, there's a bookshop there, lets have a look' and she replied 'I don't think there'll be any in there, its a Christian bookshop.'

I didn't understand what she meant, but didn't question her either. I think I briefly wondered why they would have no books about dinosaurs and then just starting looking forward to the next shop.

My interests changed, and although I remained keen on dinosaurs, for some reason I wanted to be a botanist instead and started asking for books about wild flowers, for which I avidly searched the nearby country lanes at weekends, when the weather was nice!

So religion was never a big part of my life. I prayed occasionally, went to church for Christmas carols and at Easter, and because I was no longer so interested in prehistoric life I had no reason to question or think about it very much.

As I said I didn't come to question it until I came to my early teens, when we began to find out more about the world at school. I was keen on geography, and although I found religious education dull or amusing I could not escape the obvious fact that different cultures around the world have different religions, and that in many cases the practice of rites and ceremonies in accordance with these religions form the basis of whole ways of life. Clearly therefore, religion was for more important to many - if not most - people around the world than it had been to me during my early years.

This fact interested me and it was obvious of course, after thinking about it for a short while, that this is the way it must be. Everybody seems to need some kind of explanation as to why we're here, why life is here, and what, if anything, happens next. This must be why all cultures we can think of have some kind of creation story - whether for the whole world or just for their own particular corner of it. Historically, the ideas of the ruling chief, or more accurately his favourite witch-doctor, would become favoured in a particular tribe. Over time, as these stories were passed on from generation to generation, they would become accepted as truth. We all know the power of legends to remain as common knowledge, long after their origins have been lost in the mists of time.

Of course different tribes held different traditions, and individual people worshipped different animalistic gods, but ideas and rites spread by military conquest or by the simple expedient of being more appealing than the other ones available. It is perhaps an oversimplification (sorry, but how complex do the ideas of people who couldn't explain the mechanics of rainfall, for example, have to be?) but the meme 'you will live forever in paradise if you believe in this god' is obviously more appealing than one that says 'sacrifice to all these gods and one of them might just look after you'.

I think I will finish for now, and continue soon...

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