Holy Sepulchre Threatened by Discord between Christian Sects

In an absolutely blinding example of how religion fosters peace, goodwill and harmony, part of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre , Jerusalem - revered by Christians around the world as the alleged site of Jesus' Crucifixion and burial, is close to collapse because the six rival Christian denominations who have a presence there cannot agree about the nature and form of essential repair work.
The whole of the church is in need of renovation, but engineers who recently examined the small Deir al-Sultan monastery, perched on the roof of the church, declared it to be extremely dangerous, and quite likely to collapse through the roof. "The structures are full of serious engineering damage that creates safety hazards and endangers the lives of the monks and the visitors. This is an emergency." Said Yigal Bergman, the engineer who led the investigation.

The six denominations concerned - the Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Coptic, Syrian Orthodox and Ethiopian - have all taken joint responsibility for the church since an agreement was drawn up under Ottoman rule in 1757. The Ottoman empire held sway over most of the Middle and Near-East and north Africa for the better part of five hundred years, and was one of the most successful and wealthy empires in history. It could not have prospered for so long in the birthing ground of so many faiths and sects if its rulers had not taken the pragmatic approach of, for the most part, allowing its subjects to believe whatever they liked, so long as they obeyed the law and paid their taxes. I can almost imagine a smile of faintly amused incomprehension touching the lips of the Muslim official sent to broker the deal between the shouting, indignant denominations, all ranting about their particular version of the same nonsense.

The factions apparently constantly vie for the use of space and facilities, and there is distrust, acrimony and occasionally violence between them that goes back centuries. The keys to the church's main entrance have been held by a Muslim family since the 12th century; such is the level of distrust between these practitioners of the same faith that they would rather entrust the keys to the most holy shrine of their religion to members of a rival and often hostile faith.

The dispute over the critically endangered monastery dates back a little more recently, to 1970. Coptic monks who had control of the area went to pray in the main church, leaving the monastery empty; Ethiopian monks grabbed their chance and changed the locks! In response, the Copts refused to recognise this quick-thinking, still claiming control of the monastery, and posting a single monk on guard duty at all times. In the particularly hot summer of 2002, the monk on duty moved his chair from its agreed position to a slightly shadier spot. Unfortunately the Ethiopians saw this as a potentially hostile move, and eleven monks required hospital treatment after the ensuing scuffle. This stuff is pure comedy!

Here are four more examples of this childish comedy, shamelessly lifted word-for-word from my newspaper:

In the 19th century, a ladder was placed on a ledge above the main entrance to the church. A priest from another denomination accused the man of trespassing and a row began that has yet to be resolved. The ladder is still there.

In 1995 the church announced that it had reached a decision on how to paint a part of the dome in the central part of the structure - but only after 17 years debate.

In 2004 during Greek Orthodox celebrations of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, a door to the Franciscan chapel was left open. This was taken as a sign of disrespect by the Greek Orthodox faction and a fight broke out. There were several arrests.

Another fight broke out on Palm Sunday this year when a Greek monk was ejected from the building by a rival faction. Police were attacked by the feuding monks [shades of Monty Python here - "Brothers, Brothers! We should be fighting the common enemy!" "The Judean People's Front!!?" "No no, the Yiddish boys in blue!"] and several people were taken to hospital.

There are calls for the Israeli government to mediate in the dispute. Although it has agreed to fund part of the works, it is, quite understandably, reluctant to get too involved in petty, centuries-old spats between rival denominations.

All of this stuff is great comedy, but on a more serious note, whatever one thinks or feels about the claims made by the faithful about this building and the site on which it stands, it cannot be denied that it is a structure of great cultural and historical significance, that must be saved for the world. If part of this wonderful building, commissioned by the Emperor Constantine in 326 and maintained ever since, is allowed to collapse because of petty differences in scriptural interpretation, it will be forever to the shame not only of Christians around the world, but also to the Israeli authorities who have ultimate responsibility. Agreement must be reached and repair work begun before this site of incalculable importance falls into complete disrepair, and we're left with the sad spectacle of six ancient factions fighting over a pile of rubble.

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Atheist Pleads Guilty to Racially Aggravated Harassment

Why are stories that interest me enough to write about rather like buses? On my days off last week, when I had the opportunity to blog as much as I liked, there was hardly anything in my newspaper that I felt like writing about. Next day (Thursday), when I was back at work with no chance to blog until today, I found three stories that I wanted to discuss. You wait for ages and then three come along, hey-ho.

Well, I've a bit more time this week, so lets begin with this one...

A man by the name of Timothy Brown, from Woodbridge, Suffolk, pleaded guilty on Thursday to racially aggravated harassment, after subjecting his Christian neighbour, Ms Helen Watson, to a year long campaign of abuse.
The problems apparently began after Ms Watson put one of those fish stickers on her car. Mr Brown, it seems, took exception to this, and started a campaign of increasingly deranged harassment.

Mr Brown began his campaign by covering her sticker with others such as "myth", "sucker" and "fiction". When this inexplicably failed to alter Ms Watson's beliefs, he progressed to allowing his dog to foul her lawn, urinating on her doorstep and rubbing dog-shit onto her car. Still Ms Watson refused to relinquish her faith, and Brown was arrested after police installed secret CCTV cameras.

In his police interview he said that he was an atheist and wanted Ms Watson to change her religious beliefs. Well, great way to go about it laughing-boy; smearing shit on someone's car is of course a tried and tested way of making them see an argument from your point of view.

His own lawyer, in defence, told magistrates "It is utterly bizarre. He ought to see his doctor."

Clearly a bit of a nutjob, but you all know how this kind of thing can play into the hands of purportedly 'moderate' theists. Tarred with the same brush, etc... The story has been covered by a Christian site (link in title).

My verdict? What a wanker.

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10 Most Annoying Things to be Asked in a Debate with a Believer

When you get into a debate with a believer, and I mean a moderate or devout but not fanatical or fundamental one, what are the top 10 questions or statements that really get under your skin? We've all heard some ridiculous retorts, fallacies and self-contradictions, but what are the ones that make you think "What's the point? This person is never going to get it."? Here are 10 teeth-grindingly irritating examples, in no particular order, that I've faced.
1. If you don't believe in God, where did you come from?
2. You don't believe in God? Do you believe in Jesus? No?! So you believe in Satan?
3. I don't believe in evolution.
4. So you really think we descended from monkeys?
5. I know there is no obvious evidence for God, that's why we have to have faith.
6. God loves you.
7. How do I know God is real? Because I can feel Him.
8. The fact that the World has so many religions is evidence that God exists! If there was no God, why would people have this need to believe in things?
9. People who use their religion as an excuse to hurt others are not religious at all, they're just perverting their faith.
10. Evolution is just a theory, it hasn't been proven.

My favourite one from this list is number 2, for sheer comedy value. It was asked without a hint of irony, the person concerned was quite serious. At that point I realised I wasn't going to get anywhere and spared myself the effort. Number 10 is the one most likely to make me scream with anguish and need a few very deep breaths before I can respond with anything approaching civility. It is a lamentably common statement, always said with a sort of flat finality as though its a knock-down argument.

If you've got 10 examples, why not write a post and I'll link up to it from here. Feel free to link up to this post.

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Pope - Pursuit of Wealth Wrong

A few days ago I wrote about the rampant hypocrisy spouted by the leaders of the Anglican church, in regard to the current financial crisis. Hypocrites? Of Course not, They're our Spiritual Leaders!

Not to be out-done, the Pope had a few things to say about the evils of wealth too.

Well, lets not kid ourselves here. We all pretty much know that every time the Catholic church says anything at all, it will include at least a smidgen of hypocrisy, but for that organisation to talk about the evils of wealth is going way beyond the pale.

The Pope said that the global financial crisis is proof that that the pursuit of money and success is pointless. He also said that the disappearance of money as banks collapsed showed that wealth meant nothing.

This is taking the argument a little too far, though I partly agree with the second statement. The pursuit of wealth can hardly be pointless, and worked a dream for the Catholic church. Irresponsible management and poor foresight have brought us to the current banking problems; a responsible pursuit of wealth and success would bring just that, in smaller quantities but more sustainably, surely.

He then went on to say that people should instead base their lives on God's word (as interpreted by yours truly, naturally).

So, people should give up all ambition, all desire to enrich themselves, and instead crawl at the feet of your merciful God.

Those who think that "concrete things we can touch are the surest reality" are deceiving themselves, said the holy one, clutching his golden, jewel encrusted and probably priceless staff.

In a strong field, that ranks as the most laughable thing I've heard a spiritual leader say for quite some time.

There is no reality other than the one spoken of in this collection of ancient stories, the interpretation of which we've altered down the centuries to suit political needs or the whimsy of popes; this truth, that we have moulded and remoulded as occasion demanded, is what you really need to live your life. All this stuff, this apparently 'real' stuff you see around you, is mere illusion, not real at all. The real world is the spiritual one, with a God who looks after us all, if you grovel before him. Now, I know you can't see him or talk to him, but don't worry, I can! And I'll always interpret his wishes for you. Oh, and if you believe, I mean really believe that God is there, you'll be able to feel him. Now, about our fee...

As for the evils of money, I was unable to find a reliable estimate of the Catholic church's wealth, but the value of its property holdings, in the US alone, is estimated to be larger than the net worth of the three largest US corporations combined (the estimate was made before the current financial crisis). With a worldwide reach, you can perhaps imagine how much cash it must have locked away in buildings. It has many billions of pounds worth of gold, both in ornamentation and ingot and bullion reserves. Unregulated by any secular government, This immensely wealthy organisation holds power over the thoughts and actions of over a billion people worldwide. Don't know about you but that scares the shit out of me.

So just how did the Pope become (possibly) the richest man in the world?

The Catholic church has operated for more than 1500 years as an extremely successful business. It has raised taxes, demanded contributions from peasants and nobles alike, offered indulgences (go on then, do something unholy if you must, just slip us a bit of gold and I'll get God to turn a blind eye), demanded tribute from Kings and Emperors, (give us gold, lots of gold, and I won't criticise your rule; refuse and I'll excommunicate you, leaving you vulnerable to invasion by the 'faithful'), sold 'relics' to gullible people (if all the 'splinters of the one true cross' are genuine, Jesus must have been crucified on a cross more than 30 feet high), and in an absolutely blinding moment of inspiration, invented purgatory. What a winner that was! As I mentioned in The Road to Rationalism Part 2 , this made them an absolute fortune. In hitting on the idea of calculating how long an individual would spend in purgatory, and offering to reduce that time for a healthy amount of gold (the more you pay, the quicker you can go to heaven, sucker!) the church hit on what I think has to be the greatest confidence trick in history. Until quite recently, the church had more wealth than all of the European empires, kingdoms and principalities combined.

Stalin once sarcastically asked of the Pope, in a typical example of his bullish stupidity, "How many divisions has he?" He completely underestimated the power of the church's wealth and influence over its followers.

So how has the church used its massive wealth and power for the good of the people its god loves so much?

By torturing and burning countless people who disagreed, by ordering and funding wars against 'infidels' and political rivals (using the trump card of excommunication) Seeking control and dominion over every person alive, and for all time after their death, sending out hordes of psychopathic inquisitors to root out 'heresy' and witchcraft, happily burning people for the merest whiff of non-conformity, demanding that everyone obeys its pathological rules and condemning all who don't, and generally making everyone know just what a load of worthless, miserable sinners they all are. Oh, and of course more recently exacerbating the population problem and spread of AIDS by refusing to allow the use of contraceptives.

So, Cardinal Joseph multi-billionaire Hitler-youth Ratzinger, aka Pope Benedict XVI, you delusional old hypocrite, how dare you lecture the world about the evils of wealth, when your organisation has used its fortune to cause misery and death to countless millions of people for more than 1500 years.

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Fatwa Phone - World's First Islamic Helpline

You really couldn't make this stuff up.

Muslims from around the world can now phone a helpline in Abu Dhabi to ask that a fatwa - a religious edict - be issued on their behalf, and for general queries relating to their faith.

I recommend checking out this article from The Times , where I first encountered this heartwarming little story.

Apparently this helpline, set up 3 months ago and staffed by 48 Muftis, takes up to 3,700 calls a day, and is open from 8am to 8pm on working days. They even have a 'skeleton staff' at night-time to deal with 'religious emergencies'.

The Times interviewed one of the Muftis, 48 year old Abdulrahman Ammoura, who said "I'm tired, so tired, I hear ringing in my ears." He was upset by his last caller, a woman whose husband was an alcoholic who became violent, beating her and forcing her to have sex (IE rape, if you're not a Muslim). The woman asked if she should try to divorce him. Mr Ammoura, one of the most learned and respected Muftis in the UAE, replied "No - it is better for him to find help. A woman living alone with children could face too many problems."

Perhaps the wife-beating rapist should 'find help' by calling the helpline to find out if God can forgive him - for drinking alcohol. Treating your woman like property is of course quite OK. I'm beginning to wonder how many Muslim women wear a full burkha or hijab just to cover up the bruises.

As for this poor woman, what on Earth would she do even if she did divorce? After all, there's no point in being property if you don't have an owner.

For all that this disgusts and amuses us, I do feel that the UAE government deserve some tiny amount of credit for setting up this helpline. Any fatwas issued by the staff are done so according to guidelines laid down by the government's General Authority for Islamic Affairs and Endowments; any fatwas issued by unregulated clerics - which are more likely to be extremist in nature - are declared null by the government.

It's still completely bonkers though, don't you think?

If you're in need of some light entertainment and would like to get in touch with the helpcentre, you can call (+971) 8002244 begin_of_the_skype_highlighting              (+971) 8002244      end_of_the_skype_highlighting.

If you can read Arabic, go to their website www.awqaf.ae


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Modern culture pushing God out of people's lives, claims Pope

Pope Benedict XVI opened a bishops Synod earlier this week with a warning that modern culture is pushing God out of people's lives. Cause for celebration, I feel.

"Nations once rich in faith and vocations are losing their identity under the harmful and destructive influence of a certain modern culture" he said, speaking at the synod, called to discuss the relevance of the bible to catholics - which strikes me as absurd, even by Church standards; rather like a shark calling a meeting to discuss the relevance of water to fish. I mean, come on, its just an excuse to have a bit of a get-together of Bishops isn't it? Fly the useless, pointless idiots half way around the world at great expense, have a bit of a bible reading session, argue about whose interpretation is right for a while, then have a good knees-up and play party games like pass the parcel ('What do I win? A bible again, hooray!') and pin the tail on the paedo.

So at least he feels that a 'certain' modern culture (drinking, drugs, godlessness and the 'worship' of celebrity and money, I suppose him to mean) is responsible for the decline in faith. I'd like to hope that it is greater education, knowledge, the application of reason and a willingness by the masses not to believe any old shite that comes from the mouth of some wilfully ignorant old man in a purple robe that is leading to a decline in faith. Maybe I'm just an optimist.

The holy one didn't say anything about Islam, though I dare say it gives him nightmares (or fits of jealousy - after all, the days in which people would happily murder thousands in the name of catholicism are, thankfully, long gone) but he did show how inclusive and tolerant the Church now is, by inviting a Rabbi to address the synod - the first time this has happened. Wow, all bow before the inclusive, modern, enlightened Church, as relevant today as it ever was.

What he didn't reveal is that one of his bishops - a crack shot - was armed with a water pistol full of holy water. A quick squirt on the Rabbi's head, a few mumbled words of latin and, hey presto, his soul was saved for Jesus without him even knowing.

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Putin even more macho than previously thought

So I read in my paper today that good old Vlad is even more rugged and well-ard than I'd ever imagined. Turns out that he has a black belt in Judo.

Not content with posing for the cameras half-naked and wielding a fishing rod (note to Sarah Palin: have you considered this option yet?) like it was connected to a big red button, Russia's Presi... sorry, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, has released a video entitled "Learn Judo with Vladimir Putin".

I wonder if it will be his Christmas present to the other G8 leaders?

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Pat Condell reinstated on YouTube - Hooray!

Pat Condell's video about the creeping influence of sharia law in the UK has been reinstated. It was removed after certain people complained that it might be offensive.

One of the most important things about the right to free speech is that somebody will always be offended. They have the right to be offended, and also the right not to listen, but nobody should have the right to ban opinion.

Pat does not incite anyone to violence or hatred - all he really does is take the piss. Keep up the good work Pat, and thanks to all those who petitioned YouTube about the importance of freedom of speech.

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Hypocrites? Of course not, they're our spiritual leaders!

Images - The Archbishop of York Dr John Sentamu and The Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams. I'm sure you can work out which is which.

The poor old woolly Anglican Church has put its foot in it again. After blasting short-sellers as 'bank robbers' and 'asset strippers' and calling for much tighter regulation of the financial markets, it appears that - surprise surprise - part of the Church's not inconsiderable wealth has been built up recently by betting on the value of Sterling falling - in other words, short-selling.

Of course we can't realistically expect the Archbishop of Canterbury, the most reverend Dr Rowan Williams, and his conservative token-sidekick, the Archbishop of York Dr John Sentamu, to have any deep understanding of the financial manoeuvres of their own organisation; most mere mortals do not understand the shady dealings of the economic world, but one would expect their ignorance to preclude them from making any kind of comment on the issue.

Ah, no, how naive of me. Of course their chief role in life, the reason why they get all that publicity, those colourful robes, a comfy palace with all the tea and sherry they can drink - not to mention a large stipend - is so that they can proselytise to the rest of us about how to live our lives.

So lets take a little look at what they said recently, with a translation in italics.

In a dinner speech to bankers in the City of London, Dr Sentamu said "The love of money is the root of all evil. We have all gone to this temple called money. We have all worshipped at it. No-one is guiltless... We have all become enslaved." (I wonder if he had the Pope in his sights?) Now donate some of it to the Church you greedy bastards, or at least teach our financiers how to make as much money as you do.

"The market takes its rules from Alice in Wonderland." I actually mean this as a compliment, the Church's rules are nothing like as close to the real world.

Dr Williams said "Marx saw how unbridled capitalism became a kind of mythology. He was right about that" I'm dead jealous, I've never once said anything so memorable or profound.

The full text of his comment is worth reading -

"Fundamentalism is a religious word, not inappropriate to the nature of the problem. Marx long ago observed the way in which unbridled capitalism became a kind of mythology, ascribing reality, power and agency to things that had no life in themselves; he was right about that, if about little else. And ascribing independent reality to what you have in fact made yourself is a perfect definition of what the Jewish and Christian Scriptures call idolatry."

I don't need to put my translation in, the comment is humorous enough in itself; financiers are therefore fundamentalists, money becomes an idol to be worshipped.

The rampant hypocrisy here is almost too much to bear - full credit to the bearded-one for saying all this with a straight face.

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Religion > Justice?

Images from top to bottom: 1, Mr Zaidi leaving court 2, a zanjeer 3, the zanjeer in action in Kandahar.

I am sickened by the way in which the criminal justice system is forced to tiptoe around the barbaric practices of certain religious groups.

In what appears at first glance to be a minor triumph for justice, 44 year old Syed Mustafa Zaidi was sentenced on Wednesday to 26 weeks in prison, suspended for 12 months, for encouraging two boys, one aged 13 and one aged 15, to beat themselves with a zanjeer - a wooden handled whip with five chains, each of which ends with a sharp blade.

The boys were taking part in the traditonal Shia festival of Ashura at Levenshulme mosque, Manchester. The Ashura festival commemorates the slaughter of Mohamed's grandson Hussein and his followers in the 7th century; participants flail themselves with these vicious weapons and encourage others to do likewise, in order that they recreate in some small way the suffering of the 'martyrs'.

If fully grown men want to attack themselves with particularly vicious bondage equipment then, fine, go for it. If you're deluded enough to think that a deeply held religious belief justifies causing serious damage to your skin, then no sensible person is likely to try and persuade you otherwise - at least not until you put the chained and bladed cat o' five tails safely out of reach.

Encouraging children to do it is nothing short of child abuse - religion is no excuse - making childen mutilate themselves is child abuse pure and simple.

So as I said it appears, prima facie , that British justice was able to stand up to this nonsense and let everyone know that child abuse is simply wrong.

But wait, whats this I read? Mr Zaidi was not brought to book for encouraging the children to beat themselves, but for encouraging them to use the adult version of a zanjeer, rather than one specifically designed for youngsters!. Read that again folks - if you are a devout Shia muslim, you can lawfully force young children to beat themselves up, so long as they use a kiddies whip! I was unable to find a picture of the kiddies zanjeer, so I don't know if its made of rubber or what, or whether there's a special under-fives version with extra grips for those sweaty little hands to hold on to. I have this hideous image of poor impressionable young kids watching their fathers and uncles enthusiastically mutilating themselves in the name of ancient bollocks, looking on in awe and thinking 'I can't wait 'til I'm old enough to do this with Meccano instead of Lego'.

More worryingly, I can't help wondering how many of these 'devout' men have raging hard-ons while they're whipping themselves.

Any way, I digress... The creeping capitulation of justice in the face of unsubstantiated ancient stories is much in evidence in this case. Not just in the paucity of the sentence (he'll only go down if he does it again in the next 12 months) but in the way the prosecution had to bend over backwards to make it clear that this was not a judgement against religious practices. The judge also made this quite clear. Mr Justice Atherton said, in summing up the case, that

"It should be clearly understood by everyone that the jury's verdict was not a comment upon the ceremony and no-one should misinterpret it as being such. The law recognises that children and young persons may wish to take part in some activities which it considers they should not. It is sometimes expressed as protecting themselves from themselves."

Yes, and no doubt some minors do want to have sex with their teacher, for example. This however would not stop a teacher from being widely condemned and imprisoned for considerably longer than 26 weeks, suspended. Religion, of course, trumps everything.

Sadly, the boys themselves said that they wanted to take part in the ceremony, but not 'under duress' and not using blades. I have little doubt that as soon as they're old enough, they'll be turning their backs into offal too, all in the name of a load of old tripe.

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Settling in

At last, I'm able to write a post in the privacy and comfort of my own flat. I've missed my pc this last week, but now I'm back with at least a little vengeance.

I felt rather uncomfortable writing that very short post last week in the library. I know its odd, seeing as how the whole point of writing a blog is for other people to read it, but I don't like people peering over my shoulder at work in progress.

For this reason I decided not to go to the internet cafe, but wait until I could use my own pc again. Unfortunately, it means I missed a trick - that very funny story I wanted to mention last week has now been covered by many bloggers, so I'll be surprised if anyone finds the following, well, surprising...

As you all know, the most incredible (and expensive) series of experiments yet devised by our considerable intelligence are just beginning at CERN. The most complex and powerful machine ever built (at least on this planet) was tested last week, and will start to produce results in the next few weeks.

Some of the scientists behind this latest display of human ingenuity have received death threats from people concerned about the possibility of the Earth being destroyed by a black hole - a genuine concern no doubt if your brain is made of pig-swill. Notably absent have been complaints from most creationists; One can only assume that the 'end of days' loons are rubbing their hands with glee at the possibility that, finally, after nigh-on 2000 years of saying the end is nigh, it might actually be.

Sorry to disappoint you folks, but the end is not quite nigh yet.

Professor Brian Cox, one of the leading scientists on the team searching for the Higgs' Boson (or 'God particle' - a name that slightly troubles me, but knowing just how much more it annoys the religious gives me the ability to write it with a feeling akin to malicious pleasure) and previously keyboard player with D:ream, was quoted as saying what is possibly the best refutation of nay-sayers ever uttered by a physicist - "Anyone who says the LHC will destroy the Earth is a twat." Brilliant. I think we could use that one in biology too. I had a wonderful vision of prof. Dawkins coming out and saying (as I'm sure he must do in private) that anyone who says evolution is just a theory is a twat. Try it Richard, make my day!

What also made me laugh is the evident intelligence and analytical ability of the people making these threats. As if we needed any more proof of their infantile simplicity, here is a typical threat, as reported in a free London newspaper.

"If you cause the end of the world, I'll kill you."

Can you spot the logical flaw here? Thought so.

Quite simply, a bunch of twats. Good on you Brian.

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More from me...

Firstly, I must apologise to the small band of people who regularly read my blog, for I have been disinclined to write anything recently.

This is largely because of a personal matter of a very serious nature, the apprehension of which has weighed heavily on my mind this last year or so, and which came to a head at the beginning of August...

Glad to say that the matter is now sorted, and my wife and I can start getting on with our lives again.

We're moving in a week or two - not far, just a bigger flat about half a mile down the road - but enough stress to be going on with.

There's so much going on in the real world at the moment that the pitiful arguments within and between religions have suddenly paled into insignificance.

I was almost roused to write a few lines about the Anglican church's descent into schism (or not? The suspense had me on the edge of my seat throughout the Lambeth conference, honest) over homosexual marriages and such, but I couldn't quite summon up the energy to really give a shit. I read only one columnist who mentioned that all the conservative African bishops who were so keen on obeying the letter of the Bible were also quite able to ignore the bit about the curse of Ham. It comes as no surprise that even hardliners just pick and choose the bits of the Bible (or _insert own religious text here_) that suit their own, usually deranged, personal ideas about the world.

As I say, the idiocies of theological argument have become rather less important in recent weeks, as a more confident and belligerent Russia attempts to re-assert its influence in the Caucasus and beyond.

I don't understand why Putin and co hold the west in such patent contempt. We have been witnessing a return to cold war tactics by these Muscovite hawks in recent years, as Russia's economy has grown stronger on the back of energy prices.

In my country, a critic of Putin was poisoned to death with radioactive Polonium 210 by Russian agents. I can't tell you how angry I was about this, but of course there was little the Government could do - Russia will not extradite the suspect and denies any connection.

Staff at The British Council, a not for profit NGO operating in Moscow, faced harrassment and the offices were closed.

Consulate staff were harrassed and prevented from carrying out their diplomatic duties.

Why so much anger at Britain? Because we harboured "dissidents" - a few ex-pat Russians like the poor poisoned Alexander Litvinenko - people who happened to have a) a different opinion to Putin and co and b) the balls to vocalise it publicly.

A few months ago, MI5 (our internal security service) identified Russia as the third most serious threat to national security.

Now witness the appalling situation unfolding in the Caucasus.

Saakashvilli's rather poor miscalculation that he could quell rebellion in South Ossetia by military means while the World's eyes were on far away Beijing met with crushing and humiliating defeat. Did he seriously imagine that the Russians wouldn't attack? Or, worse, did he really expect the US to come to his aid and declare war on Russia?

The scale, swiftness, and overwhelming success of the Russian attack makes it pretty clear that it was planned well in advance, and it's likely that the Georgians were provoked into making the first move in order that the plan could be implemented. This reminds me of the gun-boat diplomacy employed in the halcyon days of the British Empire, by which pretexts were found for taking territory from the 'natives'.

Gladly, these sort of tactics aren't employed in the modern world, (not even in Iraq; I doubt the US is keen to stay there any longer than necessary, so long as there's a friendly Government in place) at least, they weren't until the beginning of this month.

Russia must face diplomatic isolation and not be allowed to portray itself as a victim of western 'encirclement'. It cannot be allowed to offer support for rebels in South Ossetia and Abkhazia whilst crushing those in Chechenya. It must not be allowed to try to equate our support for the independence of Kosovo with its support for South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Putin and co may be feeling that it is time to make Russia strong again, but they must realise that Russia will be stronger and richer the more it integrates with the west, not by attempting to stand against it.

Nato's response must be cautious, unified, and wholly diplomatic in nature. Economic isolation will hurt the Russian economy badly. For all the strength displayed as the bear flexes its military muscles, let us not forget that the Worl'd's largest country has an economy just slightly larger than that of Spain.

Grow up Russia!

Thats my opinion.

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The Road to Rationalism part 5.1

On why it is frankly ludicrous to think we're God's (or gods', if you prefer) special creatures.

So we saw in R2R part 5 that at the lowest estimate, the Universe contains 100 billion galaxies, each of which may contain approximately 100 million stars. It is estimated that between 20 and 60% (a wide margin of error, I know, indicative of just how little we really know about the rest of the Universe) of Sun-like stars could have rocky planets (like ours) orbiting around them. In order to support any kind of complex life that we are able to recognise as such, a planet must have liquid water all year round, though not necessarily at the surface.

We have absolutely no idea how many earth-like planets there are in our own galaxy, let alone the rest of the Universe, but again the lowest estimates come in at around 10 to 30 billion, in the whole Universe.

We do know however, that there is an abundance of simple organic compounds like amino acids and sugars etc, - the fundamental building blocks of life - as they have been found many times in meteorites.

One of the objections that creationists like to raise against the idea of life spontaneously arising is the sheer (they say) improbability of it. "There simply must be a prime mover" they say, a God to breath life into the 'primordial soup' - the thick stew of organic compounds dissolved in the liquid water of an early volcanic Earth.

Now, it may well be that it is an extremely improbable event for life to spontaneously arise, but given the ease with which the organic compounds necessary for life have 'spontaneously' arisen, I would say that life, if not intelligent life, is probably a quite widespread phenomenon.

But lets throw the ID'ers a little sop, shall we? Lets just say that life has only arisen once, in all the 13 or more billion years of the Universe's existence, in all the vast volume of space, in all those worlds that were born and have subsequently been destroyed, only this planet, our home world, was somehow capable of spawning life.

How much improbability do the ID'ers need? If the number of habitable planets in the Universe is estimated to be at least 10 billion, that would mean the odds of life arising spontaneously (we know this has happened at least once, obviously, or we would not be here talking about it) on just one of them are 10 billion to 1 against, at the lowest available estimate.

Just to put this amount of improbability into perspective, in the UK, the chances of winning the lottery jackpot are around 14 million to one against. An individual's chance of being hit by lightning is around 600,000 to one against.

So we can say, with a great deal of confidence, that the idea of life spontaneously arising is significantly more probable than the idea of some all powerful, all intelligent being -somehow able to exist before the Universe began (maybe even outside the Universe, as some theologians, in their more fantastical states, are wont to suggest) creating everything, tinkering around for some 8 billion years before making our sun, waiting another billion years for the earth to cool down a bit and get a really healthy dose of organic compounds, then, just at the right moment, FLASH! goes the divine fire, a little bacterium sputters into existence, divides, its progeny divide, and so on many more times, some of its descendants mutate, and off goes the process of natural selection leading over the course of more than 3 billion years to us.

So god twiddles his thumbs a bit, waits a while, as life develops. Different types of bacteria evolve, then, sometime around 2 billion years ago, some of them learn the trick of co-operating with one another. Single celled organisms evolve, and branch into what will later become the animal, plant and fungus kingdoms. Time passes - rather a serious amount of it - life develops, adapting to its changing environment; succesful organisms live and pass on their genes to the next generation, unsuccesful ones die and do not.

99% of all the species that have ever evolved became extinct - a very wasteful god he is if we must believe that his hand was guiding evolution inexorably toward us.

Finally, about 5 to 7 million years ago, the first human like-apes appeared in the African savannah.

About 100,000 years ago, Homo sapiens - the thinking man - evolved, and spread around the world, populating almost every habitable corner of it and displacing the earlier hominids, driving them to extinction.

About 10000 years ago this creature developed agriculture and began, in certain areas, to settle into large communities with specialists.

About 6000 years ago god decided to act, and 'revealed' himself to a nomadic desert tribe, telling them that they were his 'chosen people' who He had made in His own image, bestowing upon them dominion over all the animals and plants in the world, not to mention the right to slaughter other tribes (the fact that they had other gods was of course merely incidental), taking their land and their women for themselves.

Now, I see a little inconsistency here, I don't know whether your may have spotted it too... but god is supposed to be all-powerful, and of course all loving. He was supposed to have made (as it was 'revealed') the whole of Creation in a little less than a week, but we now know that it took at least 8 billion years just to get around to fixing up the sun. It seems then that this god is no more than a tinkerer, setting up the initial variables then sitting back and doing nothing for billions of years, then playing around a bit, making life, and eventually us, just so that he could then lie to us about what he did.

More likely of course, is that there is no god, no prime mover, no undesigned designer to bring the Universe into existence. Citing a god just creates an infinite regress, because he had to come from somewhere - who designed the designer? People who claim that they believe in god because the 'spontaneous' existence of the Universe is so improbable miss the glaringly obvious point that the 'spontaneous' existence of an omniscient or omnipotent god is vastly more improbable!

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The Road to Rationalism part 5

On why it is a little bit silly to think we're God's (or gods', if you prefer) special creatures.

As I have already said, ad nauseum, in earlier R2R posts, all of the World's religions have stories of creation associated with them. I haven't read many of them, but no doubt ther're many charmingly spun tales of gods doing great deeds or accidentally finding all of creation whilst cleaning out their belly buttons, or even taking almost a whole week to do it (resting on the seventh day, and leaving a great deal of speculation as to what He did on the eighth, as Hitchens wryly noted).

Lovely stories, great to tell the kids, but lets not take them too seriously, shall we?

After all, now that we know so much about how all this 'creation' we see around us came to be like it is now, we need hardly believe that a book telling us that the whole of creation is considerably less than 10000 years old is actually literally true, right?

A recent estimate (by the CIA, no less!) puts the number of followers of the three monotheisms at 55.5% of the total world population. How many of these people take their version of the Genesis story literally is difficult to know, but I would put a fair bit of money on it being a significant majority.

This character, Yahweh, was a very regional god. He had no knowledge of, or showed no interest in, the rest of the world outside the desert domain of his 'chosen people' (its really the other way around, he was their chosen god) but none of this really matters, because in actual fact, its just a story, just like all the other creation stories - it didn't happen.

With the huge weight of scientific evidence bearing down on the thin tissue of lies that we all know these stories to be, most leading theologians, at least mainstream christian ones such as archbishops and popes, accept that this story, like so many others in the Bible, is just allegory. "Of course we know now that the Earth wasn't created on Sunday 23rd October 4004 BC, thats just an old story. Nobody believes in a white-haired, bearded old chap sitting on a thunder cloud any more. Ho-ho!" they may say, whilst simultaneously giving their minions in less literate countries a free license to teach their flock that, actually, its 100% true what it says in the Bible.

So if god (or gods) created the Universe, his/their role has been pushed further and further back in time, after all, god(s) can't be younger than the Universe!

Astronomers and Cosmologists tell us that the Universe is at least 13 billion years old. They know this because in the early 20th century they devised a way to calculate the actual distance between stars, as opposed to the relative distance between them, which had been calculated some time earlier. Later, radio-astronomers were able to detect a much wider range of frequencies of electromagnetic radiation than the narow band we are able to see with our own eyes, allowing us to 'see' further back in time, and farther away, than ever before. The farthest (and thus oldest) object yet detected is more than 13 billion light years away, which means that the radiation detected was emitted at least 13 billion years ago. That is a length of time of which it is impossible for us to conceive; suffice to say that it is a very, very, very long time indeed, and certainly just a wee bit longer than Bishop Ussher's 6000 or so years since god made everything.

13 billion light years is also a quite phenomenal distance. We know that light travels at a shade over 186,000 miles per second, which is pretty damn fast. Can you posibly imagine how far away something is if it takes light 13 billion years to travel the distance?

Estimates for the number of galaxies the Universe contains vary wildly, as we simply don't have enough information to give a reliable number, but the lowest accepted estimate is more than 100 billion. I know, its another impossible number, and they get bigger, but I'd just like for you to share with me for a moment the vastness and complexity of this Universe, and how our increasing scientifically obtained knowledge has pushed back the boundaries of our creation stories by many orders of magnitude.

Our own galaxy is considered to be a fairly normal sized one, and contains approximately 100 million stars. Just try to think, though it may be impossible as your mind becomes numb at the prospect, of 100 million stars each in 100 billion galaxies. My mind just turns to jelly when I try to think about that number.

Remember, then, that our Sun is a perfectly unremarkable little yellow star, about half way through a lifetime of some 10 billion years. We know this because astrophysicists have calculated how quickly different types of star use up their fuel, and since we know the mass of the sun, we know how much fuel it has burned and has remaining to it.

So at least 8 billion years passed before our own lovely little sun and our solar system were formed from the debris of an exploding star. We know this because we have calculated how much energy it takes to produce the elements heavier than iron that we have here on Earth, and only a supernova can produce such massive amounts of energy. We have also observed the aftermaths of supernovae with our telescopes, and have seen how new stars and thus planets are born.

About 4.5 billion years ago, our planet was fully formed, and began to cool. The oldest rocks we have so far found, and reliably dated, are more than 3 billion years old.

I'm not going to go through the story of life and evolution as I want to talk about all that in a separate post, but we know that our species, Homo sapiens, has existed for a mere 100,000 years. Yahweh was conceived of merely 6000 years ago.

The mainstream, you may say 'enlightened' (though I wouldn't) theologians of Christendom accept that all this scientific evidence is irrefutable, and though we may quibble over absolute dates (to a margin of thousands with human prehistory; tens of thousands to millions with the dates at which prehistoric species branched; tens of millions with the age of the Earth; hundreds of millions with the ages of stars etc) the fact cannot be ignored that the pentateuchal/biblical/koranic age of the universe is not just slightly wrong, but incredibly, ridiculously, laughably wrong.

We can forgive the story's writers, because they lived in a time of the most appalling ignorance. What excuse do we have today?

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The Road to Rationalism part 4

So what's so good about Science anyway?

As we saw in earlier 'Road to Rationalism' posts, we can quite logically reject the metaphysical claims and creation stories of all of the World's religions, by the simple expedient of realising that, since all of them have them, they can't all be right, and that since dedicated followers of all the myriad sects of each religion claim that their interpretation is the only true account, basing this claim on absolutely no evidence but their own blind faith (and of course the fact that they were told, again and again, that it was true, before they even found out that the tooth fairy wasn't real) it should be quite obvious to all that the likelihood of any of these interpretations actually being correct is vanishingly small.

Obvious to all, that is, but the individual members of each of these sects, who of course just 'know' that they are right. Were it not for the sheer number of these people, the deeply worrying amount of power, money and influence (particularly over their own poor children) that many of these people hold, in some cases individually as well as collectively, we could dismiss them as being simply anachronistic and irrelevant. Tragically, we atheists and humanists are a very small, but growing, minority, able to exist (almost exclusively to the best of my - admittedly partial - knowledge) only in wealthy democracies.

"What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence" is one of my favourite quotes from Christopher Hitchens' fantastic book, 'God is not Great'. I could fill a very large post with excellent quotes from this book but I'd probabaly get in trouble for it, so, read it yourselves.

What then, are we to do with evidence?

If you adhere to a religious sect, chances are you will either ignore it, supress it (if you can) or (eventually) incorporate it into your teachings.
If you don't subscribe to any religious ideas, you will either change your world view to include this evidence or, if you have a cherished idea based upon earlier evidence or a different interpretation, you will attempt to challenge it or wait until more evidence arrives before accepting it.

This, to my mind, is what is so good about science.

Our view of the universe, the world, life, in fact everything is constantly being updated and refined as new evidence comes in.

We have amazing theories that tell us more about who we are and our place in the world than any religiously inspired story can ever hope to do.

It really breaks my heart to know that so many people around the world are missing out on all this discovery, all this knowledge, all these ideas, hypotheses and theories, by believing in ancient rubbish.

They cling on to their comfort blankets, wishing, willing, praying that they are right, most dangerously, 'knowing' that they are right, as reality briskly passes them by.

The best I can say, with my layman's knowledge of current scientific theories, is that we have a very good idea of how old the universe is, but this is subject to review; we know how old the solar system, and therefore the world is, to within a few million years; we know how long ago life began here and have a very good idea of the chemistry that made this possible; we know how life developed and evolved to produce the diversity we see today; we know that we are an intrinsic part of this life and the only thing that sets us apart from the rest of life is our relative intelligence and our level of consciousness. There are many, many things we do not know, but the one certainty about the gaps in our knowledge is that the scientific procedures of evidence gathering and empirical testing are the only ways in which we can hope to fill them.

Some things we may never know, but to say 'hey, don't worry about these gaps in our knowledge, God did it!' is nothing more nor less than intellectual suicide, and those who would reject evidence simply because it contradicts the teachings derived from some ancient text or other, deserve to be ridiculed as the simpletons that they are.

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Entertaining reading on the tube

How amusingly bizarre a recent journey of mine was.

I normally travel to work by tube, which at peak times is something of a nightmare. In fact one of the few positive things about my line of work is that I am rarely forced to become a sardine and join in the twice-daily mass experiments to see just how much human flesh it is possible to fit inside a small cylinder...

No, I prefer the more sedate journies just after rush hour when its actually possible to get a seat and read the paper in some semblance of comfort.

People-watching on the tube is a fantastic pastime, and I always take an interest in what other people are doing - be it the slightly dodgy looking bloke perving at the girl opposite (oh no, sorry, that's me) or the old woman talking to herself, or the guy who looks like he's going to start talking to you (avoid eye contact at all costs - he who shows an interest is lost). I always pay mild attention to what other people are reading, particularly if its my newspaper that they're reading over my shoulder.

The vacuous ads posted around above the seats occupy your attention for a few minutes, and also give you a great excuse to pretend to read whilst keeping the talkative looking chap in your peripheral vision, ready for you to make a rapid escape if it looks like you're going to be his victim. Our flight response may have evolved hundreds of millions of years ago, but it is certainly not redundant even now in the age of mass transit.

The other day there was a remarkable juxtaposition of conflicting texts, that fair tickled me pink.

A rather dour looking middle-aged woman was sitting next to me, reading a book entitled 'Teach Yourself Biblical Hebrew', which, excitingly for her no doubt, aimed to do this by listing Old Testament verses, in English, followed immediately by their Hebrew counterparts (originals, perhaps? Or were they re-translations of the English verses? Who knows, or indeed cares?).

I'm sure she had very good reasons for learning Hebrew, though none immediately occur to me. I looked at the book for a few moments, as one does, and may even be able to tell you how to write 'Daniel', if pressed (I think it goes 'vertical line, horizontal line, bendy line' but I'm not sure, it could have been something else). My overall judgement was that if I wanted to learn how to write Hebrew, I'd do it by studying modern, relevant language rather than the supposed rantings of deranged, long-dead prophets written many years after their uncomfirmed existences came to an end.

Opposite my seat was a mildly irritating and utterly vacuous advert from 'Lamb of God.org' which was simply a quote from a New Testament book (I didn't bother to check which one) - something about Jesus gathering all to him, I think. I really wonder what goes through the minds of the people who commission these adverts; I mean, I know the copy is cheap to produce, but what do they think it will achieve? Will the bed-sheet clad gentleman with the serene look on his face glance at the advert and put down his Koran, muttering to himself 'Dear me, but I have been wrong for all these years, of course Jesus is my saviour!' Will the middle-aged dragon learning Hebrew see it and think 'Hmmm, I must learn Aramaic next, Hebrew is so passe'? I think not.

Opposite and slightly to the left of me, I clocked a youngish man reading 'The God Delusion'.

Shortly after I spotted it, the Hebrew student glanced up, copped a sight of it, and sort of froze... I could almost feel the iciness spreading out from her... the silent indignation, then, with truly classical religious behaviour, the re-gathering of dignity, the return of the eyes to her book - her knuckles were white - an almost imperceptible shake of the head, the staunchly pretending that nothing had happened. Forget the nasty Dawkins monster, concentrate on what Daniel did instead.

But her natural curiosity (for even the deeply religious cannot supress it all of the time, except by trying to silence other people) kept getting the better of her. She kept glancing up, eyes darting from 'lamb of god' to 'no god' and back again. Back to Daniel, then a long hard look at the offending man. He looks up, catches her gaze briefly, impassively, glances at the title of her book... a wry smile turns the corner of one lip as he returns to his book.

Haughtily, coldly, she returns to her book and turns the page. The tension in the air was palpable (though it might be that it was only me who noticed) but all one-sided.

The young man couldn't have cared less, by the look of it, what she was reading. For the student though, anything that made her think about, perhaps even for a moment question, the veracity of her beliefs was enough to send her into icy tension.

I studiously returned to my newspaper, trying hard to keep a grin from spreading across my face.

If it makes you feel better, I had a shit day at work.

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More evidence of the direct corelation between religiosity, bigotry and xenophobia

(Link to full story in title)

A little note tucked away in the world section of my newspaper yesterday tells us that a group of Orthodox Jews in the Israeli town of Or Yehuda burnt hundreds of copies of the New Testament that had been distributed by missionaries...

A little research leads me to http://www.haaratz.com/ and their coverage of the story, to which I have linked in the title.

Following complaints, the deputy mayor of the town, Uzi Aharon, apparently drove through the town with a loudspeaker car urging residents to hand over the Testaments and other material to 'Jewish religious students who went door to door to collect it.'

The books were then burned in a pile near a synagogue, presumably so that God could look on and be proud of his chosen people. After all, anyone familiar with the Pentateuch can scarcely deny that God is rather keen on burnt offerings - He just might be a little disappointed that they were only books.

He later said that he regretted the burning of the books, but called it a commandment to burn materials that urge Jews to convert, so, thats alright then. A jihadist suicide bomber may regret the slaughter of innocents (collateral damage - lovely phrase) who happen to get in the way, but he or she is following a commandment, so, thats alright then. A doctor-murdering 'Pro-Life' nut may briefly regret the killing of a full grown human to save 'babies', but he (I doubt women will object to my use of the male pronoun in this instance) is following a commandment so, thats alright then. In short, you can do whatever you damn-well like to other people, so long as you do it in the name of God.

"I certainly don't denounce the burning of the booklets, he said. I denounce those who distributed the booklets."

Personally, I would denounce anyone who would burn something that anyone holds dear, be it a book, a flag, or a building. That may be because I'm prepared to accept that everyone has a right to live in the way that seems best to them, PROVIDED THAT IN DOING SO IT IS NOT NECESSARY TO HURT OTHER PEOPLE. I know this is a vague and naive interpretation of the ancient Golden Rule, but a form of this rule is the basis by which all secular humanists live their lives, and needs little definition from me.

So, the more religious an individual is, the more faith they have in whatever nonsense they have been brought up to believe is true, the more likely they are to be racist, bigoted xenophobes. The more one is prepared to take instruction and law from ancient texts, the more cruelly do they treat their fellows.

Conversely, the more secular a person is, even if they have faith but accept that their faith must not take precedent over the temporal laws of their country, the more likely they are to live peacefully and constructively with those of other opinions.

Faith itself is not a virtue, and absolute faith is positively destructive.

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A note on the definitions of 'theory' and 'hypothesis'

I occasionally enjoy debating the faithful on the subject of their particular beliefs. I won't say 'chosen beliefs', as nine hundred and ninety-nine times out of a thousand these beliefs are held simply because the person concerned has been told from a very young age that a) 'x is true' and b) 'questioning x is wrong and you will be punished for it'. Unfortunately powerful memes that do much to perpetuate faith.

It is a constant uphill struggle for those of us who value truth obtained through the analysis of evidence to get these people to look beyond their blinkers at the real world, but a rewarding one when it succeeds. One intelligent person saved from the darkness and superstition of blind faith is worth a hundred foolish converts.

Since Darwin (and Wallace) opened our eyes and showed us how all life could have arisen from simple origins, religiously inspired (or funded) researchers have been trying to show that evolution is wrong. They have had almost a hundred and fifty years to provide us with evidence that disproves the theory of evolution - none is so far forthcoming.

In the other direction, the more we learn about life, the more we study it, from the level of ecosystems, to whole organisms, right down to the level of their constituent molecules, the more evidence we find to support evolution. In fact, this evidence is now so overwhelming that even the Vatican has had to incorporate evolution into its official teachings of how God made us all. This fact might surprise some of the catholics I debate, and I would simply ask that they take a look at what the Vatican has said rather than listen to their own parish priests.

I say that this will surprise many catholics, because when I debate them, I often get asked 'if you don't believe in God, where did we come from?' or something similar. When I reply 'We evolved' I often receive the rejoinder 'but evolution is just a theory, right? it hasn't been proven.'

I have written this post specifically so that I can direct people I am debating with to it, in the hope that it will clear up this pernicious little mis-understanding.

When scientists speak of theories, they mean this in a technical sense. In its non-technical sense, a theory really is just an untested idea, like if I have a theory that the Conservatives will win the next election, for example.

In science, a theory is defined as a coherent group of general propositions used as principles of explanation for a class of phenomena.

When scientists have an idea that they want to test, they call this a hypothesis.

A hypothesis is defined as a conjecture put forth as a possible explanation of phenomena or relations, which serves as a basis of argument or experimentation to reach the truth: This idea is only a hypothesis.

(Source: http://dictionary.reference.com - link in title.)

In short, when lay-people think that evolution is not a fact, because it is only a theory, they have not understood that the word theory is used here in the technical sense of the term. They are thinking that evolution is in fact a hypothesis.

I note that this mis-understanding does not apply to other theatres of scientific endeavour: - I have never heard of a creationist who is scared to use a computer, or indeed switch on a light, because they doubt the theory of electromagnetism, or one who is scared to fly because they doubt the theory of aerodynamics.

Why, then, does this stupidity persist when it comes to the theory of evolution?

So please, after reading this, do not you tell me that you doubt evolution because it is only a theory, and remember, that in the technical sense, the idea of God is just a failed hypothesis.

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London to be transformed by mass prayer (link)

A story from a leading UK Christian news website (christiantoday.com - link in title) tells us that London is to be transformed this year, following the completion of London's 'prayer marathon' - in which

"Thousands of individuals from hundreds of churches representing the breadth of churchmanship across the capital joined together in continuous prayer for London every minute of every day in 2007."

This Friday they will launch the run-up to the Global Day of Prayer London (GDOP), which is to be held in Millwall stadium on Sunday 11th May 2008. Their aim is to '[seek] God's favour for the UK, so that individuals, towns and cities are transformed.'

Well thanks, I feel heartily reassured and know that this year will be wonderful for London and the UK, because of course there is stack-loads of evidence to show that God always answers prayers, and when ther're up to 30,000 people (as the article suggests) expected to pray for the same thing, how can He possibly ignore them?

Personally I think that if these no doubt well-meaning people really want to make London a better place, they'd be more usefully employed getting up of their arses and actually doing something, like volunteer work or community support work, or even just picking up rubbish off the streets, rather than beseeching some obviously non-existent (or at the very least entirely indifferent) entity to do it for them.

“The narrative of the church is the story of prayer,” said Dr Jonathan Oloyede, Assistant Pastor of Glory House church in London and one of the visionaries behind the Global Day of Prayer London event.
“When Christians unite to pray things happen; continents are shaken, movements begin and history is made. I truly believe that this is Britain’s season for change.
“It is our hope that as hundreds of churches come together and thousands of Christians mobilised, we would catch a glimpse of God’s heart for reconciliation, spiritual renewal and community transformation.”

Hmm... call me a doubting Thomas, but I can't see as this continued effort to insert craniums into rectums will achieve anything at all.

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Not all answers can be found in the planets...

News reaches me that the Astrological Magazine, a stalwart of (presumably) predictive journalism since 1936, has had to cease publication with its Dec 07 edition, due to "unforseen circumstances."

I found it funny any way.

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Dirty tricks or a dirty Islamist? The farce of religion knows no bounds in US Presidential race

It really is a tragedy for the whole world that so many citizens of the only superpower believe the bible to be true. Whichever interpretation of it people follow, they all take it as read that Jesus was a real historical figure of divine origin, and many millions of people accept the ludicrous idea that the Universe is less than 10,000 years old...

We all have to hope that pragmatism, especially in foreign policy, and the power of secular institutions will prevent a slide into theocracy. If it doesn't, we'd better start building bomb shelters (or at least hope the government can remember where the old cold-war ones are!)

This year will see a new President. I expect even members of the most isolated tribes in the jungles of Papua new Guinea have been unable to avoid this fact, indeed they may even discuss the merits of Clinton vs Obama over a dinner of neighbouring tribesmen!

Humorous musings aside, all of the candidates have to profess Christianity of some sort - not to do so would be electoral suicide - and of course questions of religion often crop up in debate.

Obama was openly questioned about allegations that he is a secret muslim, a sort of stealth jihadi - practicing Christian by day, dirty Islamist by night (must be why he disappears to the toilet at set times every day and carries that silly little mat with him, lol).

This stems from the fact that his father was a muslim, and some of the comments I've seen on forums and in the blogosphere show how people feel about this. People seem to think that because in Islam, if you're born to muslim parents (or even just one as in this case), you remain a muslim for life no matter what your professed views, and no matter that he was raised a Christian by his mother. The implications of this (so these people say) are that he will come under massive pressure from the muslim world to alter American foreign policy, and that being by birth a muslim he will be unable or find it extremely difficult to resist.

As an atheist, I am unable really to understand the deep prejudices that religious people feel toward one another, and I find the idea that from conception, a child belongs to a faith for life no matter what they go on to think or learn, frankly disgusting.

No doubt the issue of religion will remain centre stage in the ongoing election campaign. I sincerely hope that whoever wins (and by Jupiter it had better not be Huckabee) they will be pragmatic enough in office to resist the concerted attempts by the religious right to turn a nation founded on secular values into a Christian version of Saudi Arabia. If this happens, no god can save us from armageddon.

Follow the link in the title for The Times' coverage of this story.

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The Road to Rationalism pt 3.2

In part 3.1 I attempted to show that all of the world's religions provided us with pre-scientific explanations for the existence of the Universe, and that the acquisition of knowledge through the process of science has revealed all of them to be false.

It was my premise to suggest that explanations for the existence of the Universe (or at least the relevant religion's corner of it) form the core of any religion; we cannot doubt that any dedicated believer of one of the Abrahamic religions, for example, must believe the creation stories told by genesis to be true.

A reader was kind enough to take the time to comment on my post, casting doubt on my conjecture that the primary role of religion is to explain the world around us. He said:

"I think the trouble with this sort of analysis is that it makes certain unexamined assumptions about what religion is "meant to do". In particular, you assume that it's role is to somehow "explain" things in the world, in the same way that science does, but of course, much worse."

He goes on to say that although religions do have "cosmogenies associated with them" these explanations are most likely secondary considerations, and that we should view the ritualism (sacrificing goats, to take my favourite example) of religion as the primary function.

I am happy to concede that this may be the case, and would be happier still if the reader could cite any of the "lots of evidence to the contrary" to which he alludes.

I must disagree with the main point of his argument though, which is to suggest that since explanations are only a secondary consideration and not the primary function, my fundamental argument that religious explanations are inferior to scientific ones is somehow weakened...

"I bring these points up because I don't [doubt?] that the phenomenology and anthropology of religion and religious experience at all support the "explanatory" theory about primitive religion: and thus the implications that follow from this sort of theory are also suspect."

The 'implications' of course being the main premise behind my Road to Rationalism posts - that all religions teach evident falsehoods to be true, and require their followers to believe in unscientific, unsubstantiated nonsense to the exclusion of all evidence to the contrary.

As I said in my reply

"The main thrust of your argument appears to be: 'explanation is not the primary role of religion, as you have suggested, therefore comparing the validity of explanations put forward by religion to that of scientific explanations is suspect.' I strongly dispute this argument, if that is indeed what you are suggesting, for the fairly obvious reason that it doesn't matter whether the founder of a religion invented the story, or whether the stories were set in stone much later by an organised church; what actually matters is the truth value of the explanation put forward.

We live in a world where the vast majority of people accept that their religion's creation stories are true.

Tell them that their explantions are only secondary roles in their religions, and see how far you get."

I look forward to continuing this debate.

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Infidelity discovered - by both partners!

An absolute gem of a comic/tragic story from my paper yesterday that I hope you'll all enjoy. Nothing to do with religion at all but it's too funny to let it pass...

The game is up
Warsaw A Polish man visiting a brothel discovered that his wife was one of the prostitutes. She had told her husband she was working at a store. "I was dumbfounded" he said. The couple, married for 14 years, are divorcing. (Reuters)


Do any of you have humorous stories like this to share? Contact me and I'll link to your site in a post.

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