Saturday, 17 December 2011

The end of a life well lived.

Unless you've been living under a rock at the bottom of a lake, you know that yesterday Christopher Hitchens lost his long battle against esophageal cancer.

Better writers than I have paid tribute to the great man already, and many more words are to come.  All I will say is that although I disagreed with Hitch on some points, I respected him more than almost any other prominent atheist.  His intellect was remarkable, his wit unmatched, and in his final days his courage, humility and dignity were inspiring.  Hitch faced his approaching death as a simple, common and unavoidable side-effect of having been alive, and focused on making his last few months count for all he could. According to Vanity Fair, the day before his death he sat in a wheelchair in the intensive care unit, ferociously writing to provide 3,000 words for a deadline.

Hitch fans all over the world are raising a glass to him; it seems an appropriate salute, and I will be taking a moment this weekend to drink a glass of Johnnie Walker and find inspiration in the recollection of a life lived with more enthusiasm, more fire and more humour than most of us can hope even to aspire to.  In the meantime, I can think of nothing more fitting than this speech by the man himself with which to pay tribute to Hitch. He will be sadly missed, but such a truly rare human will not be forgotten.

Monday, 12 December 2011

Religion and the lack of introspection.

I'm sitting in an office this morning with two colleagues, one of whom is - by UK standards - a relatively devout Christian. In conversation the subject of Pakistan's recent shock announcement that it doesn't trust the USA came up, which led to a discussion about religious extremism.

The Christian colleague amused me with her comments about "fundamentalists" and people who take religion too far, mainly because  her definitions seemed to be so strange.  It's been established in the past that she thinks I'm a "fundamentalist" atheist (a strange title in itself; do I take disbelief in deities right back to first principles?!), which is odd to start with.  To earn the accolade "fundamentalist" a religious person must blow up a train, or shoot a doctor, or burn a clinic, or burn witches, or cut bits off other people... but a non-believer can apparently be branded "fundamentalist" just for being willing to talk about the problems with religion.

To make it clear, this is a woman who refused to attend the wedding of a mutual friend last year because he was marrying another man. People who hold religious beliefs are so strange.

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

General cogitations...

This'll probably be a long post, and one more speculative than factual or empirical.  For several months now, I've found myself more and more inclined to suspect that actually - despite appearances and in defiance of the polls - very few people believe in gods.

I know, I know; don't atheists like to spend all their time whining about being an oppressed minority?

While few of us would let the term "whine" go unchallenged - and without sidetracking now to debate the reality or otherwise of our perceived persecution - it seems reasonable to suggest that there are atheists out there who found a large part of their identity on being the minority, the problem child, the difficult one too smart to buy into the propaganda they've been fed by "the man". I don't pretend to be above feeling a pang of defiant pride every time I correct someone who's assumed a British white bird must be a christian; I still enjoy the moment of shock almost everyone betrays when I openly state my position (while acknowledging it to be slightly depressing that acknowledging a disbelief in gods still creates waves where a stated disbelief in astrology or Death Eaters would be considered innocuous or even completely superfluous).

And yet here I am saying that most people don't believe - so what am I saying here, that religion is just the largest-scale and most coordinated troll campaign in history?

Oddly enough, it was a troll who crystallised this notion for me a couple of months ago (the subject of my October 2011 post "A note about Poes" DID turn out to be a troll, and a good one). But before I caught on, there were vast swathes of facebook conversation about sin, and the troll - I shall call him "Jim" - invited criticism for apparently being a devout christian and yet having two children born out of wedlock.  He made the usual theist arguments about not being perfect etc. etc., but still claimed to know that the bible was fact, that all Jahweh's rules were real and all that; to which my response at the time was "I know gravity is a fact, therefore I don't step off tall buildings. You claim to know Jahweh will send you to hell for having sex before you're married, yet you clearly do it. Some knowledge."

Now, I have no doubt that many believers reading this will be throwing up their hands and saying "well obviously Jim didn't believe in God, he was a Poe!".  Actually, as it turns out Jim is a loose sort of deist rather than an atheist, but that's not the point; in pretending to be a christian for the purposes of winding people up, Jim was imitating many statements of belief made by christians, which don't become any less untenable when made by an actual believer - THAT is the point.

I need at this stage to dip briefly into the issue of cognitive dissonance, because we all experience it and I want to make it clear that I'm not using a psychological feature common to all humanity to arbitrarily lay into religious belief. We all experience CD; an example in  my own case is my ability to simultaneously know that I am a vanishingly insignificant blob of chemical compounds that will blip in and out of a universe that will never know nor care that I existed, while also knowing that because that same insignificant blob is also my only method of experiencing the universe I am also - subjectively at least - the most important entity in that universe. From the point of view of my awareness, the universe could no more exist without me than I could without it. Another example of CD is the very common habit of deploring - for example - the plight of starving children in Somalia, and managing to empathise deeply with them while doing very little to help.  The degree of sacrifice necessary to appease our consciences and allow us to live with this particular form of CD varies hugely, from one person who does literally nothing to another who might sack off their job and go out there to help; but one way or another, we all manage it.

All this being acknowledged, perhaps it seems unfair for me to try and say that because a believer fails to live according to one rule of their book they must not really believe in any of it. Perhaps it is unfair; I'm not sure, as I said this is all speculative.  After all, there are parts of holy scripture (any holy scripture now, I'm not restricting myself to christianity here) that are literally impossible to believe to the letter; parts that contradict each other, and parts that have been shown to be factually not true. How, for example, does one mentally reconcile the Qur'anic command to slaughter unbelievers with its simultaneous command to respect the laws and culture of other lands?

There are literal impossibilities in believing parts of scripture, I accept that and am not trying to suggest that religious people should be able to do the impossible by believing two mutually exclusive things at once (although many of them seem to make a brave effort at it! God is wise, merciful and all-loving but will punish you for all eternity for being gay as he made you, for example...). But more subtly (some might say more adaptively) we also see religious people - almost all religious people - accepting a CD arising from the contradiction between scriptural command and modern values. Now I'm not objecting to this by any means - I'm quite happy not to have been murdered for having sex with my boyfriend or for any one of dozens of other infractions against scripture - but I do find the way in which so many people compromise without really thinking about it what they would claim if asked to be sacred, inviolable articles of faith is... well, odd at the very least.

Let's go back to my earlier analogy of gravity; I know about gravity, I understand its influence on my everyday existence, and I know that it makes no exceptions; therefore I don't step off tall buildings - I know what the result will be!  To me - and to most atheists, I suspect - belief and knowledge are two very different things; in fact, some of us (myself included) would make the case that they're mutually exclusive since there is no requirement to believe something you know to be a fact - I don't believe in gravity, I just acknowledge its existence.  But many believers blur this distinction, and prefer to assert that they know God X exists and that s/he makes demands of us as detailed in Holy Text Y - a misapprehension betrayed by many in their claim that nonbelievers simply choose (for whatever reason) to ignore, defy or deny their god (although they never tell us we're "denying" any other gods, ever notice that?).  In fact, many of them are so certain that what they've been taught about God X is face that they want to instruct the rest of us about it for our own good; when you step back and look at that, the level of assurance is breathtaking! We're talking - from the believer's point of view - about cosmic matters of the soul, of eternity and the struggle between good and evil. From their perspective the souls and eternal lives of every person on the planet is the stake, the forfeit to be paid by each person who chooses the wrong belief, who bets on the wrong horse of all the millions available... THIS is the cost, this is the stake, and yet so many believers are so certain that they've got it right they're prepared to gamble not only their own eternal soul but also to recruit and bet with the souls of other people too. Can you imagine how secure you'd have to be in your faith to take on - actively invite! - a responsibility like that?! In fairness to the believers, if I were to hand my soul over in the manner so many of them would like me to I'd want to be told that what they were telling me was fact, too - when you consider the stakes, "belief" suddenly looks a bit pithy and insubstantial!

Now, keep all of the above in mind... and then consider that this same person who's so sure that their god exists according to Holy Book X

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Power at a point - it's not always about force of numbers

Much has been made over the last couple of days about the actions of a bloke called Andy in the USA, who owns and runs a gelato store.  The story is explained and linked here:

Hemant - the friendly atheist - seems inclined to give Andy the benefit of the doubt and accept his apology; PZ Myers has been vociferous in his refusal to do so, both on Twitter and his Pharyngula blog.

Personally I'm undecided about the apology; I'm not sure there hasn't been a bit of a false dichotomy set up here, forcing people to choose between thinking he's sincerely sorry for causing offense and thinking he doesn't mean a word of it and is just worried about the beating his business has taken (can't it be both?). But the story's drawn attention to the power of the geek - the poster was apparently only in place for a few minutes before Andy calmed down and removed it, but that was long enough for his admittedly fairly vicious act of illegal discrimination to make it online and go viral. Within twenty-four hours Gelato Mio's ratings on Google etc. had plummeted, and he was answering incensed emails from all over the world.  We know that atheists are typically younger, more educated and more tech-savvy than the population average, and this is just the latest example of of the way in which atheists all over the world are using these advantages to communicate and coordinate action against discrimination like this; for another example, look at the backlash Bastrop High School received after a teacher publicly trashed student Damon Fowler for privately objecting to the unconstitutional inclusion of a christian prayer in his graduation ceremony.

The wish to exclude non-believers seems distressingly prevalent in the USA, from Bush Sr.'s now infamous (and as yet unretracted) comment "No, I don't know that atheists should be considered as citizens, nor should they be considered as patriots. This is one nation under God" to endless polls showing atheists to be the most untrusted minority in the country through to Andy, the owner of Gelato Mio, deciding in the heat of the moment that he will not serve atheists in his store.

But what would happen if the more conservative US christians got their way, the ones who would see atheists banished from the Land of the Free? Polls have shown that around 93% of members of the National Academy of Science are atheist, and extrapolating from general trends we can guess that many medical doctors, teachers, authors and other educated professionals would be lost. Meanwhile, other studies suggest that almost none of the prison population would go, and similarly much of the migrant population these same conservatives seem to spend their time complaining about would remain. Fortunately someone who is better at internetting than I am has already put this together in a rather nice youtube video, which I have linked below for your enjoyment.

By excluding a superficially insignificant minority group from his store, Andy of Gelato Mio suffered a potentially devastating blow to his public image; he also lost a lot of money on the night, and might well continue to lose it as word spreads about his actions. This might be seen as a microcosm of what will happen to the USA if the fundies get their way and atheists are marginalised even more than they are at present.

Monday, 21 November 2011

Sometimes atheism bites hard.

A very dear friend of mine lost her mother last week to a very painful and undignified disease. My friend - I shall call her "Celia" - had been caring for her mother for several months, and I suppose it's natural that she should be more relieved than grieved now that it's finally all over.

Celia and I talked for half an hour in private this morning, and I learned more about her mother's awful illness, which lingered for months and then took her quite suddenly at the end. I've never enquired about Celia's religious views, but I know she's not a regular church-goer or anything like that; if I'd had to guess, I'd've said she was probably a vague sort of fuzzy deist, like most people in the UK. I did already know she harbours some beliefs I would describe as irrational, such as the belief that the brother who died very young and her father who died many years ago watch over her and guide her actions - I learned more about these beliefs this morning, and found it extremely uncomfortable.

Celia knew the evening before her mother died that she didn't have long left, and she woke up at 5am the next morning with a strong feeling that she needed to get to the hospice right away. She ignored it for a bit telling herself that the nurses had her number, and that her sister had been there all night and would call if anything urgent happened. She says she got a resurgence of the same feeling at about 8am, and this time she listened to it; with the result that she got to the hospice and into her mum's room about a minute before she died. She took her mum's hand and told her she was there and that it was time to go; and her mother took one last breath and left. Celia holds that her mother held on until she knew Celia was there, and that she herself was guided by the spirit of her deceased father and that's how she knew to go.

Now, I have no way of knowing how much of this is accurate and how much is down to my friend remembering what confirmed what she wanted to believe - and frankly, it's not even remotely my place to form a judgment on the matter. Celia believes that her mother is now with her son - Celia's brother - and her husband, Celia's father, and that she's happy - what purpose would be served by rational opposition on this point, and in what way would it be MY place to make it?

There are times when being rational to a fault sucks. In talking to Celia, I couldn't avoid recalling the death of my own maternal grandmother, who actually died in quite a similar manner almost two years ago.  I wasn't there when my gran died; although she too died of advanced cancer, hers wasn't spotted at all until the day before she died, when she was taken into hospital for what they thought was a blocked bowel. My mother, one of her sisters and one of her brothers were there; the rest lived too far away to make it to Glasgow in time.

Although I was sad to lose my gran, I was more sad about the way she'd died that about the fact that she was gone - after all, I have no beliefs suggesting to me that she knows anything about it. I never had the slightest impulse to believe she was still around us at the funeral, and although I'm sure her final moments were calmed by her belief that she was going to be reunited with my grandfather - who died before I was born - I consider that belief to be a positive thing for her in its own right, without the slightest inclination to think it was correct. At the funeral, I was sad for my mother and my uncles and aunts, not for my gran.

The one aspect of losing religion that I still struggle with - emotionally, not intellectually - is the loss of belief in an afterlife.  The idea that after death we are reunited with our loved ones was presented to me when I was a child as simple fact, as something that was categorically known to be reality.  I've long since forgiven my teachers for threatening me with hell, for making me feel intrinsically inadequate, scared and guilty at all times, for warping my developing morality... but I've never been able to forgive them for giving me belief in eternal life, because it still hurts to have lost that and I believe it would have been better for me never to have had it - you can't miss what you've never had after all. The idea that someone who has died is simply gone, lost to me forever, makes perfect sense intellectually, academically and logically, and I don't think I even have it in me to fool myself into letting what I want to be true override what I know to be fact - but knowing I can do nothing about it doesn't stop it being the scariest and most upsetting concept I have ever had to contemplate.  Everything else about my christian upbringing can be forgiven and forgotten, but that belief in an afterlife has left a wound that - after ten years or more of atheism - I begin to think is simply never going to heal.

I listened to Celia without saying much, and what I did say was along the lines of "she's out of pain now" and "she's at peace" and "she died knowing she was loved". I can never bring myself to profess belief I don't have in these matters, because it would be not only dishonest but actually very condescending to the person in question - but there are still things like the above that can be said, and people have a fortunate habit of taking silence on matters such as spirits and psychic abilities as assent to their statements. Listening to Celia talk this morning about her belief that her mother is now reunited with Celia's father and brother has left me raw in a way she hasn't realised, and touched on the one single, solitary aspect of religion that can - on rare occasion - make me wish I still had it.

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Another christian who wants to have her cake and eat it...

I've just been having a couple of entertaining and actually relatively intelligent discussions with several believers on facebook, but as is so often the case a rather less reasonable individual has wedged herself in and provided an excellent example of a religious (non)argument I personally find really irritating.

The conversation began with a believer wanting to ask other christians why they felt that "the personal truths of spirituality can be proven matters of universal fact?", and at the same time to ask atheists why they "demand proof of something that cannot be proven in a physical, scientific manner?".  I didn't see an answer to the question addressed to christians, but for what it's worth here's the answer I gave to the part addressed to atheists (much of which had already been said by other atheists):

"[W]hy is it that you demand proof of something that cannot be proven in a physical, scientific manner?" I'm going to answer this in three parts.

1: Science is the closest thing we have to an objective method of assessment and understanding. It's not perfect, but the scientific method has built into it as many safeguards against confirmation bias, false positives/negatives etc etc as we can reasonably manage, and study methods improve all the time.

2: As others have said, the only reason I demand evidence is that people who have these beliefs don't seem willing just to keep them to themselves and let the rest of us get on with it. If I believed there was an invisible dragon in my garage and I did nothing with that belief, imposing it on nobody, it would do no harm to anyone (except possibly me, I suppose). But if I wanted to tell other people what to do and legitimise my demands by referring them to said invisible dragon, people would have every right to demand proof that the dragon existed - particularly if some of the actions I was telling them the dragon demanded were morally abhorrent to them.

3: Your phrasing in this question betrays a trait in believers that - bluntly - I personally find intensely irritating (this is not a personal attack, it's a criticism of a particular style of religious thought). "[T]hat cannot be proven in a physical, scientific manner" is the key phrase. In recent centuries, much of what used to be attributed to gods has been shown to have natural causes. The extent of this knowledge is such at this point that it is increasingly difficult to find room for any deity within this physical universe or conforming to known physical laws... so more and more, religious people have decided their "god" exists in a different realm, or a different dimension, or is so far beyond our comprehension as humans that we cannot hope to seek him/her/it (which is always funny coming from people who reckon they know what God X thinks of gay people, for example).

Over the last few decades, "god" has morphed and changed and adapted so much that the word now has no reliable meaning; when they're telling us what to do, a christian means Jahweh as described in the bible. When they're defending their deity against rational thought, logic and science, a christian frequently resorts to an ineffable, unknowable, undetectable and inscrutable god of the fuzzy amorphous "beyond our ken" variety.

The only reason "God" cannot be proven (or disproven) by scientific methods is that the definition of "God" changes every time you look too closely at it."

There were many of perfectly sensible responses to this, but in amongst them was this (and the person she was claiming to paraphrase was ME!):

"To paraphrase...she explains that science restricts itself to natural cause. It only explains the natural world. The reason why is because the essance of science is testing ideas against the natural world, to hold constant certain variables. If there is an omnipotent force in the universe you cannot hold its actions constant. You cannot test explinations involving supernatural cause because you can't test statements about Gods actions"

And then, in a second comment:

"Lucy, this is the reason why God cannot be proven by scientific methods ^^ "

 Now, I didn't even bother making the point that omnipotence is logically impossible (the ol' "microwaved burrito" argument) and I won't here, but at this point another believer - a christian I already knew from other discussions and posts in the group - weighed in with:

 "Lucy, this is how one dictionary defines the Christian God (since this is what seems to be up for debate) "the incorporeal divine Principle ruling over all as eternal Spirit : infinite Mind" Incorporeal: "Not composed of matter." How can God be a spirit and still be bound by matter? How can God be eternal and still be bound by time? This doesn't make sense. God is the creator of the laws themselves, God is not bound by them. And the Bible clearly tells us that "God is a spirit" living in a spiritual dimension called "heaven." God is not bound by laws and does not dwell in this world. The reason God cannot be proven or disproven by the scientific method is because the scientific method is the study of the natural world, which God isn't a part of. We cannot hold God's actions constant. We can't scientifically study God. We can't put God in a test tube."

... and, I confess, I started to take the piss:

"I love this. In order to make room for god to exist, he/she/it's now got to have no physical mass, no physical properties, exist in a separate dimension and outside of time, and be utterly undetectable within our universe... except by people who "just feel him/her/it", conveniently. This is the perfect example of my point 3 above; carefully adapting the attributes of "god" so as to make him/her/it intrinsically invulnerable to disproof. At what point do you give up and accept that a being with no physical presence in our universe (leaving aside the "god is everywhere" thing, by the way, as well as the "made in his image" bit), no physical properties and no influence on anything we see just isn't there? (If you're struggling with this, by the way, substitute "purple jelly monster" for "god" in my second sentence, and see if it still sounds reasonable to you).

Actually, scrap that - if your argument is that god is undetectable, unknowable and incomprehensible, I'll settle for an agreement from believers to just stop telling the rest of us what to do and how to think - since you're the ones claiming god is categorically beyond our capabilities to understand."

The point I was trying to make with the title of this entry is that this is a perfect example of a religious person making two mutually exclusive arguments, failing to spot the problem and thus putting forward an argument they would never accept from a believer of any other faith (to demonstrate the spuriousness of this reasoning, I recounted a true story about a conversation I had some time ago with a "medium" who - when I tried to devise an experiment to demonstrate the validity of his belief that the spirits of dead people talked to him - presented precisely the same excuses as justification for the fact that the ghosts he claimed to talk to could not be detected by science).

This person is a christian, who believes - at a minimum - that Yeshua was the son of (and/or a part of) the god Jahweh, a deity whose opinions and demands on various topics are laid out in the bible. This person claims to know that a specific god exists, and that he has various attributes. So far, so normal... but now line that up next to the argument she's making above.

Most of the time, this person professes belief in Yahweh, with all his likes and dislikes and known "history" - and, furthermore, she professes this to be a valid belief. In the above discussion, however, she argues that "God" is systematically and intrinsically unknowable, an entity existing outside of our physical universe and beyond our comprehension.  Why do I argue with these people?! This one's just told me that her own belief in the god of the Bible is invalid!

(Add to which, of course, the additional contradiction in her claim to know that an undetectable and unknowable being is there despite the fact that he's... you know, unknowable.)

Just another example of the double-think to which religious people must submit in order to maintain their faith in the face of fact...

Monday, 17 October 2011

A note about Poes

I keep getting dragged in recently by the admin of  a group n Facebook called "It's a proven fact that atheism is a mental disorder".  I can't work out whether the guy's sincerely out of his mind, or an extremely clever Poe.  If he IS a Poe he's a good one, because he hasn't yet strayed into the territory of just completely making shit up to sound as mental as possible, which is how most Poes give themselves away.  I'm not the only one; the guy must be asked about once a day if he's a Poe, and it seems to really annoy him. Well, you know what I mean - either he gets really annoyed about it or he pretends to.

A point I like to make to believers in these circumstances is that if SO MANY people think they're a Poe, that should worry them.  If your beliefs are so indistinguishable from the insane shit people come up with when pretending to be a psychotic zealot, that's a ma-HU-ssive comment on your beliefs, and one that should make you think for a moment.

Friday, 23 September 2011

Damnit, like physics wasn't weird enough!

Great. I've never been good at physics, but there was one bit of it I thought I got - nothing can move faster than the speed of light. Except now - thank-you-very-much-CERN-superboffins - apparently neutrinos can. Since neutrinos are demonstrably not nothing, this is a problem.

This is probably the bit where I'm supposed to comment on whether I think this will turn out to be a paradigm-shifting discovery or a big fuss about nothing. I would, but I haven't a clue. I'll only comment that it'll be slightly hilarious/worrying if the LHC built on the principles of special relativity turns out to  prove it wrong.

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

... and a reminder of why religion really ISN'T funny. At all.

I don't know why this video - originally posted in July this year - is doing the rounds on facebook etc. now, but this is incredibly hard to watch.  As an atheist, I'm so accustomed to the idea that people believe frigging ridiculous things and occasionally (or not so occasionally) do really nasty things as a result of those beliefs that I sometimes forget how ludicrous the whole idea is. Certainly, an antitheist cannot be outraged about every bad thing done in the name of religion, because it's so absolutely pernicious and pervasive that I'd never get anything else done and I'd be dead from a coronary within a few months... but occasionally something like this breaks through the torpor of familiarity.

This is why religion is so dangerous. I cannot imagine being sure enough about anything to feel justified in burning other people alive. I can't imagine the kind of certainty - rock solid, undoubting, unthinking, unassailable certainty - one must possess to crash a plane into a building or obliterate oneself blowing up a train, either. But religion teaches people to be certain, to believe that they know for a fact what they cannot possibly know, and to shield that certainty from critical or even rational assessment. And this, and horrors like it, are the inevitable result of that kind of fallacious certainty.

#Warning - This is seriously, seriously nasty. You may not want to watch it, or watch beyond the time it takes to establish what's going on.

My new favourite comedian!

It takes a lot to pull me away from Eddie Izzard and Tim Minchin, but Marcus Brigstocke might just make my list!

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Fuck me, a believer more dishonest than Peter Hitchens!

OK, so rather unexpectedly a genuine Cambridge academic has just been elevated to the list - until now mostly composed of pseudoscientists and hand-wringing moral relativists - of people I'd like to punch quite hard in the face if I met them (top is still Alister McGrath. He's no more deluded and dishonest than most of them, but for sheer creepy, smug unloveliness he wins hands down). Roger Scruton holds a PhD from Cambridge in philosophy, and is a prolific author on various related subjects. Ordinarily philosophers don't figure much in my thinking except as the occasional mildly annoying pedant making a living out of complicating beyond all reason what usually turns out to be quite simple... but this evening I finally sat down to watch the 2007 Intelligence Squared debate in its entirety (I know, how behind the times am I? If you haven't seen it either, the link to the first segment is below and you can follow the series through from there) and the guy's just pulled the DIRTIEST bloody trick!

All the speakers take turns to make their arguments for or against the motion "the world would be better off without religion". I won't go into the details except to say that the pro-religious side - predictably - found admirably imaginative ways to miss the point, traded entirely in non sequiturs and outraged sensibilities, redefined "religion" every thirty seconds to suit whatever pithy defense they were trying to make, and sidestepped every attempt to ask them a question; they lost, anyway. Presumably by chance, Scruton was the last of all the speakers, and after a rather lacklustre and pithy performance throughout the debate he seized this advantage in the most shameless manner to try and play on the ignorance of his audience in an attempt to claw a few extra last minutes votes. Hitch - who'd been interrupting, contradicting and generally irritating his opposition throughout - was not on camera at the time, but I can just imagine his outraged indignation at the cowardly and dishonest move!

Basically, as you'll be able to see in part seventeen of the series as linked below, Scruton has the final closing statement, the last word.  After saying nothing much of any note through the entire debate (except for a couple of bizarrely venomous and apparently unprovoked attacks on Dawkins) , he waits until he knows his opponents cannot correct him and says:

"I don't think anybody here has wished to deny the atrocities committed in the name of faith, though if we are to reduce this argument to that kind of - er, headcounting, we ought at least to acknowledge the atrocities committed in the name of atheism, in the last century especially. Er, Mao Tse-Tung, er, Stalin, Lenin, Hitler and a few others are pretty impressive on this - in this regard. But these are very vulgar and - er, unimportant arguments for us, we know that nobody in this room is remotely tempted in that direction."

Now, I'm not even going to address the phenomenal stupidity with which one must condescendingly credit one's audience in order to try the old "say an argument's beneath you twelve seconds after you've used it" trick, but this guy, with his fantastic education, must know - must know - that the crimes of the Nazis were inspired in part by religious hatred. For everything else that's wrong with the whole "atheists atrocities" argument (and reason suggests he's probably well aware of these too), see my recent post here:

For someone of this man's academic calibre to debase himself in this petty, cowardly, dishonest manner is only indicative of the fact that religion has no better crutch upon which to rest. If this man, of all people, is reduced to simple lies to defend religion... well, doesn't that tell you all you need to know about its validity and value?

Monday, 19 September 2011

Bloody GOOD

There's an article in the Guardian today about a petition by several distinguished scientists who want to stop creatards and IDiots from presenting their ludicrously unscientific fairy-tales as "fact" in British schools.  Possibly this is a new one, but I'm almost certain I've heard about this petition before and it's not terribly new - that's not the point though, it's still a good thing that it's happening, and I think the more real scientists are willing to stand up and tell the world that "creation science" and "intelligent design" are complete fabrications with no grounding whatsoever in fact, the better and the more people will come to realise that creationism really ISN'T a legitimate belief.

I only learned quite recently that evolution is not a mandatory part of the national curriculum, and the fact's terrifying because it means that state-funded "faith" schools are free to promote creationism alone, with no obligation to tell the kids that it's utter bollocks and that there's a legitimate scientifically verified alternative.  The BHA have launched an e-petition to the government to correct this; I've signed already, but I'd like to encourage anyone reading this who doesn't want creationism to continue to rise as it is now to sign it too - it only takes about ninety seconds.

Atheism and the family - the need to come out.

Sunday dinner at my folks' this evening, as my brother's visiting.  Mum sent me a message on facebook earlier recommending a video with Frank Skinner and Rowan Williams and asking "no chance of you reconsidering your policy of upsetting every religious loony on the planet?". She doesn't say much about it, but I was reprimanded earlier this year for being "a very intolerant atheist".  Nothing direct was said at dinner tonight, but I got a bit of a disapproving frown when my restraint cracked during a conversation about security for the Pope's visit last year (we got there via the illness of a friend who organised the choir for part of the tour) and I laughed and said something like "nothing says "I trust The Lord" like four inches of bulletproof glass".

Mum and I haven't discussed religion much since I was in my early teens; as far as I know she's still vaguely a believer, but I don't know how much of her dislike of my antitheism is born of her belief itself, and how much is just discomfort at my open contempt for that which has historically commanded so much unwarranted respect.  I also don't know how to take the smile with which she delivers her occasional reprimands; I have a feeling it's one of those things where you try to sound like you're joking to avoid sounding too critical but actually you're totally not joking. Basically, I'm not sure how much she objects to atheism itself, but mum definitely isn't keen on me taking the piss out of religion.

This has got me thinking about how irreligion affects the relationships people have with their families. As it happens, I don't confront my mum about the whole religion thing because I don't want to hurt her, and however flawed I consider her reasoning where faith is concerned I love and respect her tremendously. But I'm one of the lucky ones, because the fact is that if I wanted to I could say whatever the hell I liked about it all to my family and my brothers, and whether they agreed with me or not (I know one brother does, I suspect my dad does, and I don't think the other brother cares much one way or the other) they'd still love me - I don't think there's anything I could do, with respect to religion or otherwise, that could make my family turn their backs on me.  Among atheists worldwide, however, things are not so rosy.  I know people who are lucky enough to be in situations similar to mine, but I also know people who have become estranged from their families after coming out as atheists. Many of you may be familiar with the story of Damon Fowler, a teenager from Louisiana who was thrown out of home by his mother and forced out of town after his teacher outed him for privately asking that an illegal prayer be omitted from his graduation ceremony. In some parts of the world, atheists have little choice but to stay in the closet because they risk ostracism, persecution, in some cases even physical injury and death if they come out.

Clearly, this is wrong; it results from the continuing prejudice against atheists, a disgraceful form of discrimination that seems to be largely overlooked in modern society. It is this discrimination, more than anything else, that makes me feel that those of us lucky enough to be able to declare our atheism in safety ought to do it. The more people come out as atheists, and the more we're willing to talk about it, the more accepted atheism will become - eventually, I hope that atheists even in the most religious nations will be able to express themselves without fear of persecution. That time is a way off, and I wouldn't want to try and guess how long it will be before atheism is universally accepted... but I do know that we can speed the process by being open.

Friday, 16 September 2011

Atheist Atrocities

Sigh. Once again, what was a relatively sensible and civil discussion between a couple of believers and a couple of atheists has been disrupted and sidelined by an embarrassing attempt to attribute some of the worst atrocities of the twentieth century - including the holocaust, of course - to atheism. Honestly, even believers are embarrassed by this one. There are several reasons this is complete rubbish, so let me lay out a few of the basics:

1: Hitler was a Roman Catholic. No, really - look it up. He made several references to his faith in Mein Kampf, and the first international treaty of the Nazi Party, the Reichskonkordat, was with the Vatican - the details can be seen here: Even if Hitler himself had not been a believer, most of his followers were; their lifelong conditioning to hate Jews as the killers of Christ was instrumental in creating backing for Hitler's party and policies. So let's drop the whole "Hitler was an atheist" thing, shall we?

2: Niceness does not determine correctness, nor does being nasty make one wrong. It would not matter if every atheist on the planet was an absolute arsehole; that would not in itself make us wrong.

3: Do you reeeeeaaally want to get into a slagging match about crimes committed by believers versus crimes committed by atheists anyway?  Really?

4: This is the point that even  many atheists seem to miss; it is not logical or even possible to commit crimes in the name of an UNbelief.  If you want to tell me that I as a non-believer in gods am a bad person because Stalin was also a non-believer in gods, it is perfectly reasonable for me to reply using the same logic that YOU are a bad person as a non-believer in dragons because Stalin was also a non-believer in dragons.  Stalin didn't believe in the Easter Bunny, therefore aEasterBunnyism is responsible for his regime.  Mao didn't believe in Santa Claus, therefore aKrisKringlism has killed millions. Kim Jong-il doesn't believe in an invisible squid monster called Bob circling Alpha Centauri, therefore you, as a fellow aBobist, are evil too.  Getting the point?

And for anyone reading this who wants to bleat "OK, so those evil men didn't do what they did in the name of atheism, but if they'd believed in gods they'd've had morals and they wouldn't have done it"... pick up a history book, I'm begging you.

A video I WISH I'd seen as a kid

Just a quick plug for the brilliant NonStampCollector's channel on youtube; the below is a video I particularly love, and one that I sincerely wish I had seen as a child because I think it would have reduced the time I spent not quite daring to think Jebus wasn't all that after all (well... youtube would have had to exist when I was a child for that to work, but wishing by its nature tends to be impractical). It sounds silly to say it now, but even seeing this video in my twenties, it came as a bit of a jolt; of all the problems with religion I'd identified for myself, I'd completely overlooked the trivial and unimpressive nature of the "miracles". I'd like to say that was something to do with the fact that I was examining religion from the outside and was therefore not too concerned with the minutiae of its internal tenets, but given how much time I spend mocking believers specifically using the minutiae of their religion's internal tenets, I don't think I even buy that myself. Yup - just missed it.

Anyway, I wholeheartedly recommend this video and NonStampCollector's videos in general; his "Special Investigation" videos are very funny too.  Take a look!

Thursday, 15 September 2011

A bid to reclaim the word "tolerance".

I've been hearing a lot recently about atheists wanting "tolerance" from believers, both from the atheists who're requesting it and from believers who are granting or denying it.

Now, this pisses me off.  "Tolerance" in this sense may be defined in loose terms as "the ability and/or willingness to endure and/or accept something unpleasant or disliked". So let's look at this more closely. What precisely is there about atheism that warrants or requires "tolerance"? What is it about atheists that is so unpleasant or disagreeable that we ourselves are effectively saying mea culpa by respectfully asking people to put up with us, unlovely and nasty as we are?!

This misuse of the word "tolerance" in relation to atheists is by no means unique to us; long before the rise of the New Atheists (go team!) we were being told that we should "tolerate" - among others - black people and gay people. Now, I find the term just as offensive towards black people and gay people as it is to me as an atheist; what the hell is there about being black or being gay that requires "tolerance" from anyone?!  What aspect of being black is so offensive that we must exercise "tolerance" towards black people?! And how precisely do the private activities of two consenting adults (of any damn gender!) affect you in such a way that you must flare your nostrils, fold your arms and benevolently agree not to be offended by them?!  It's the most condescending attitude imaginable!  Someone being black does not affect you in any way. Someone being gay does not affect you in any way. And my being an atheist does not affect you in any way... except, apparently, that you don't like me being different from you. Well you know what?  I'm doing absolutely nothing wrong by being an atheist - in fact there are many sound arguments for my being morally better than you as a believer - and I'm not going to be grateful to you for putting up with my existence.

There are many instances in which the use of the word "tolerance" IS appropriate - for example:

We tolerate Islam despite the fact that some Muslims blow up buildings, mutilate women and commit genocide in the name of Islam, because most Muslims are good people.

We tolerate Christianity despite the fact that some Christians shoot doctors, persecute gay people, and actively promote the spread of HIV/Aids in the world's poorest countries, because most Christians are good people.

We tolerate atheism despite the fact that some atheists...

... well, what? Talk about it? Publish books and blogs? Gather to form humanist groups? Take the piss out of believers? Again, what precisely is it that we do that needs to be "tolerated"?

I would like to see the word "tolerance" dropped in relation to atheism, because it's an admission of guilt or wrong-doing that simply isn't there.

OK, it's time for a rant.

I was asked a short while ago to pray for the nephew of a friend who was applying for a job he really wanted. Naturally I did nothing of the kind, and I thought nothing more about it until this morning - when I got a message (which assumed to my irritation that I had prayed) saying that the young man in question had got the job. The message thanked me for my prayers, and thanked "God" (the christian one, in this case) for his goodness in helping him secure the job. This was offered as proof that "God" is all loving and answers the prayers of those in need.

O, rly?!

Now, as anyone who knows me might have gathered, there are many things about christianity and about religion in general that piss me off.  But if I had to pick one particular aspect of each major religion that I find especially contemptible, the list would go as follows:

Islam: The oppression, degradation, abuse and murder of women and girls for no better reason than that they are women and girls.
Judaism: The exploitation of the world's sympathy to establish Israel making tens of thousands destitute, and the fact that it is impossible to criticise Israel when it acts like a bigoted psychotic bully without being branded antisemitic.
Hinduism: The caste system, which means millions of children are born into poverty and misery and can have no hope of ever bettering their lot.
Aaaand... Christianity: The conceited, selfish, irresponsible and simply sickening dismissal of the problems of the world as "God's plan" or "the result of free will" or "the result of lack of faith".

In parts of Africa, christianity accounts for as much as 95% of the population, and in the continent as a whole it is rivaled only by Islam. Africa is also one of the poorest and most violent places on earth, where rates of disease, murder, infant mortality and brutal crime stand at levels almost incomprehensible to us in the privileged world. How many people in Africa, right now, do you think are praying fervently to Jahweh to save their starving child, to cure them of disease, to protect their loved ones and bring them home in safety?  And how many children in Africa will die today as a result of violence, disease or simple starvation? How many people will die of Aids and other diseases? How many will meet with violence, and how many loved ones will NOT come home?

This aspect of christianity, more than any other, sickens me, makes me feel that some people are genuinely less than human. These are people who will thank Jahweh for trivial successes and pieces of good fortune in their own lives, but will look at a photo of a sick and starving child and say simply that "it's all part of God's plan" or "punishment for sin". You know what that is?  That's disgusting. It's a cop-out. It's a morally revolting excuse to ignore what is happening to people less fortunate than you, who were not lucky enough to be born in a wealthy country. There is NO FUCKING EXCUSE for thinking that way if you are a sentient human being.

So you know what? Next time you're sitting in your living room surrounded by your possessions, well-fed, comfortable, free from pain and disease, and you see a film or a photograph of people who are starving, sick and in pain... pick up the phone or go on line and do something to fucking help them. And no, praying does NOT count as "helping" - they've tried that because it's all they can do and it hasn't worked. YOU have other options, so use them.

I am comparatively poor compared to many people in the privileged world, but I am wealthy beyond imagining to people in parts of Africa and other countries of the world. For this reason, I give some of the little disposable income I have each month to charities, including:
Medicines sans Frontieres
Save the Children.

So next time you experience something for which you are grateful, by all means be grateful - even be grateful to a deity, if that's your kick.  But don't deny the reality than millions of people all over the world have little or nothing for which to be grateful, and don't write them off as if their pain and suffering don't matter.  Next time you feel fortunate or "blessed" (which should really be practically all the time if you live in a privileged society) pay it forward - pass on just a little of your good fortune or your "blessing" to help someone who hasn't any way of helping themselves.

Rant over. Fuck.

Saturday, 10 September 2011

The most important anniversary of my generation.

Tomorrow, the world will remember the events of September 11th 2001.

It's possible that my age at the time - I was seventeen, on the cusp of adulthood - accentuates the effect, but for me the terror attacks of 9/11 are vivid in my memory almost as much for how much the world changed in the space of a few hours as for the horror of the death and destruction itself. By seventeen, I had been an atheist for many years but had always maintained that I did not have the right to show disrespect for faith in other people; it took a while to crystallise, but 9/11 was the start of a change in my thinking just as it was the start of shattering changes in the zeitgeist of the Western world.

On 9/11, I was at my sixth form college and the first I heard of it was on the way out of my last lesson for the day (I had an early finish), when the college was alive with incredulous and excited whispers that there'd been an accident in New York, that someone had crashed a plane into the World Trade Centre.  At that stage, of course, the world still thought there had been a terrible accident.

I lived a little way from my college, and as it was a lovely day in early Autumn I was in no rush to get home. As I approached my house, though, I gradually realised that everything was a lot quieter than it would usually have been. There were very few cars on the roads, no people pottering in their gardens; even the pubs I passed were near-silent.  I didn't associate any of this with the "accident" I'd heard about at college, but when I got home and turned on the TV (I had the house to myself for a couple of hours) I quickly realised what was going on.

In between my leaving college and getting home, the second plane had hit; we knew, now, that this was not an accident but a deliberate and premeditated act of evil on a scale that was just incomprehensible at the time.

I live in the UK, and grew up in an era when the threat of terrorism and violence was much reduced from the seventies but nevertheless still present. My own father had two near escapes from bombings by the IRA, in Birmingham ten years before I was born and again in Manchester when I was in primary school. What I'm getting at is that Britain had grown used to a level of tension; the attacks of the seventies were still very much in the nation's consciousness, and the nineties saw another elevation in tensions - as a small child I didn't know the details, but just grew up aware that there were some people who wanted to kill innocent people to make a political point. But although one cannot possibly justify one act of terrorism by comparing it to another, there was still nothing in our experience tthat could have prepared us for the scale of the destruction that was wreaked on the 11th of September 2001.

Again, this may be related to my age at the time and my ignorance of world politics, but to me the attacks on the World Trade Centre came completely out of the blue.  I was used to the idea that because of the situation in Ireland - which was attributable in part to a conflict in religious beliefs - there were many people who wanted to make changes and a small minority who would use violence to create pressure for those changes. And again, I'm not saying that an act of terrorism can be justified in relation to another act of terrorism, but this idea that there was a group of people who were not remotely interested in discussion, compromise or negotiation, and whose simple aim was to kill as many Westerners as possible and to destroy our culture because their religion conditioned them to see us as subhuman... again, there was just nothing in my experience that could provide any frame of reference for this idea.

9/11 ushered in a new age of fear, and gave rise both to a terrifying increase in religious extremism - particularly in the USA - and to what is now being termed the "New Atheists", which latter is a group to which I am proud to say I belong. Since the events of that day, everything has felt... I don't know, brittle, fragile, balanced on a knife edge. We have become accustomed to the notion that there is a large and powerful religious group in our world whose medieval values make them ideologically opposed to everything about Western society and culture, people who have no interest whatsoever in sharing our planet amicably and who repay our societies' liberal attitudes by at once enjoying the freedoms we offer and hating us for offering it.

Below is a piece I wrote some time ago in a forum dealing with fundamentalist religion, in which most contributors were religious people lamenting the actions carried out in the name of the religion they personally interpret to be loving and benevolent. What shocked me was that several people in the group - far from denouncing fundamentalist atrocities for their simple evil - were outraged at the fundamentalists for exposing their religion to negative press.  The below is my own opinion on the matter, and in a world where fundamentalist christianity has been on the rise just as rapidly as fundamentalist islam and has contributed to many more times more deaths than the event which gave rise to it (George Dubya's ability to inextricably tangle religiosity, patriotism and national loyalty in the minds of the voters is one of very few achievements that led me to think he might not have been a complete moron after all), I stand by my assertion that the only way to counter fundamentalism is to counter religion; and the only way to do that is to drop this ridiculous notion that fundamentalists are somehow less representative of their religion than do-gooders.

"I get sick to the back teeth, every time the world tries to object to a religiously-motivated crime or atrocity, of people saying "don't judge a religion by its extremists".  After the 7/7 bombings in London, muslims were vehemently assuring us that those actions did not represent ordinary muslims, that they were repellent, misguided, blah blah blah. When that doctor was murdered by a fundamentalist christian in the States, the god-squad were wringing their hands, saying isn't it awful, of COURSE he's not a typical christian, it's not fair to judge us all by him...

Total codswallop, and it makes me livid that we seem to accept such a transparently stupid argument.

Where did that murderer LEARN to be a christian?! Where did those bombers LEARN to be muslims?! Did they develop their superstitions spontaneously?! NO - THEY LEARNED THEM FROM THOSE SAME HAND-WRINGING, APOLOGIST CHRISTIANS AND MUSLIMS WHO ARE TRYING TO DENY ALL RESPONSIBILITY FOR THEIR ACTIONS!

If I bring up a child to believe homosexuality is wrong and disgusting, it is MY FAULT if that child grows up to think it's OK to murder gay people.  If I bring up a child to believe abortion is wrong and sinful, it is MY FAULT if that child grows up to murder a doctor because he provided abortions. If I bring up a child to believe implicitly in the qur'an, it is MY FAULT if that child grows up to obey that bit of the qur'an instructing him to murder non-muslims.

So the only way to do away with religious fundamentalists? STOP affording religious belief this ridiculous, exalted position of being above question, above reproach, inherently worthy of respect.  It is a superstition, nothing more; we KNOW who is responsible for religious fundamentalism, and we need to stop letting them off the hook for it."

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

How religion appears to outsiders like me.

I originally wrote this back in 2010, but I want to reproduce it here as it's the only piece I've ever written that really did - I believe, based on reactions - help a couple of believers to understand how their beliefs (and religious belief in general) appear to a person who simply does not have them. Having said that, the believers whose responses were equivalent to "huh - OK, that sort of makes sense and I hadn't thought about it like that before" were the decided minority; I got many more responses along the lines of "but belief in God X is DIFFERENT!" and the usual screams of "DISRESPECT!!!". One aspect that did amuse me was that even though I'd deliberately and explicitly been at pains to draw parallels and form analogies that could be applied to any of the "big three" Abrahamic religions, each and every respondent who reacted badly had interpreted what I wrote as a direct attack on their particular belief system.

This really only works if you can consider it dispassionately, and in fact in the original post I suggested that any believers reading it might mull it over in relation to a religion other than their own in the first instance.  Anyway, for what it's worth here it is; as with my previous post, it's been subject to minor cosmetic amendments:

"Imagine to yourself that you go to visit an old and dear friend, someone you've known for years. After you've gone through the usual pleasantries and made a cup of tea, your friend eagerly shows you a book he got out of the library a little while ago; Aesop's Fables. You know a little bit about it, that it's a very old book of stories that are designed to teach lessons, but as your friend talks you're surprised to find that he seems to be taking them as fact – even though most of them deal with talking animals and can't possibly be true.

As you probe the subject, you discover that the Librarian suggested the book to your friend and told him that Aesop is not dead but all around us, ever present, ever watchful, and knows everything that everyone in the world does, says or even thinks. The Librarian told your friend that the book of Aesop's Fables – the divinely inspired word of Aesop – is proof of this, and that your friend would suffer misery in Hades for all eternity after his death if he didn't believe in the absolute truth and sanctity of the Aesop's Fables and live his life according to His lessons.

Your friend is eager to show you the book and encourages you to have a read through it. It contains hundreds of lessons on different subjects, but the Librarian has told your friend which are the important ones, such as:

“Don't do to other people things you wouldn't like them to do to you.” (The Fox and the Stork)
“Pursue pleasure only after your work is done.” (The Ant and the Grasshopper)
“Be grateful for what you have.” (The Plane Tree)
“Gentleness achieves more than force.” (The North Wind and the Sun)

Some of these you consider to be reasonably sound lessons, although you wonder why your friend feels he needs an ancient storybook to teach him these things. Some of the Fables, on the other hand, strike you as out-of-touch and even dangerous:

The Fox and the Monkey, which teaches that it's acceptable to physically hurt somebody in order to make a point.
The Man and the Serpent, which teaches us both that an enemy's transgressions may never be forgiven and that violence should be met with violence.
The Bat, the Bird and the Beasts, from which the moral is “that which is neither one thing nor the other shall be unloved”.

Your friend assures you that he knows these lessons are dubious and says that common sense must be applied. This puzzles you, and you ask him how – given that all the fables are the infallible Word of Aesop – he is able to reconcile the total faith Aesop demands with choosing to ignore some of His commands. Surely if Aesop, in His divine and infallible wisdom, gave His followers these lessons it is very presumptuous for His followers to amend or abridge His sacred Truth? Your friend tries to explain that cultural context for the Fables has changed since they were written, and that what is morally abhorrent to us was perfectly acceptable when the Fables were written more than two thousand years ago. You think about this, and then ask your friend how he knows, while acknowledging that some of the lessons are wrong, that the rest are correct and divinely inspired. You want to know, in fact, why – if some of Aesop's teachings can be disregarded in favour of personal ethics and values – your friend does not feel free to take it one step further and live according to his own ethical choices without reference to Aesop at all.

Your friend's answer to this baffles you; he states that without Literary-mandated laws to tell us right from wrong, humanity would have no morals and would descend into Sin and chaos. When you point out that humanity had justice and ethical values long before Aesop's Fables were penned – that the ancient Egyptians, for example, had courts of law and condemned and punished theft and murder – your friend answers that Aesop gave the ancient Egyptians consciences. This, of course, raises more questions for you; if Aesop created the conscience so that humanity could tell right from wrong, why then does that conscience disagree with some of the Fables that also come from Aesop? Why are some acts morally acceptable in some cultures but not in others? Why, in fact, did Aesop need to write down His lessons at all if He'd effectively built them into us? Your friend answers that Aesop loves His children and will not force us to believe or to do his will; for that reason, some people stray from Aesop's will and need the Fables to guide them and save them from eternal misery in Hades after death. You, of course, reflect that giving people a choice between obedience or eternal suffering is not really giving them free will at all, but your friend's only response to that is that Aesop is a loving Storyteller but that He works in mysterious ways man is not meant to understand.

This becomes a bit of theme as the conversation continues; you find that when you ask your friend a question that he cannot answer, you are very likely to be told either that man cannot comprehend Aesop's divine plan, or that something's metaphorical, or that you have closed your mind to Aesop, or even simply that you will be go to Hades if you don't believe – this latter is particularly confusing when it seems you are supposed to simultaneously believe two things that contradict each other. When you point out that you yourself fulfill many of Aesop's demands even though you don't believe in Him, your friend tells you that you've missed the point. It is not enough just to live a good life – you must do so because you are following the teachings of Aesop, or you will suffer for eternity anyway. Even more confusingly, it comes out that a believer in the Fables who lives an evil life can still be taken up to the Elysian Fields – as long as he repents and apologises to Aesop – where a non-believer can't no matter how good person he may be. It occurs to you that this means no one in the whole history of humanity could have made it to the Elysian Fields before the Fables were written – which seems a little wasteful, not to say utterly unfair - but by this time you're beginning to see that logic has no place in your friend's thought processes.

At this point you give up on making sense of the Fables themselves, and gently remind your friend that many of the tales attributed to Aesop are believed to have been written by other people, or even to be simple folk-tales that eventually got written down. In fact, you point out, many scholars have questioned whether Aesop – as a single, historical figure – ever existed at all. Your friend gets very angry at this comment, and tells you you're being very disrespectful to question his belief in Aesop and His teachings. In response you explain that you've got nothing against Aesop in particular, and in fact that there are also discrepancies in the stories attributed to Homer, for example, and Shakespeare too. Weirdly your friend is quite happy to acknowledge flaws in historical accounts of other Storytellers, but remains adamant that Aesop is somehow, by His very nature, different and above question.

Your friend has a young son, and you ask your friend if he's been allowed to read the Fables too. You find that in fact the son has been actively encouraged to read the Fables and to understand that they are the divine Word of Aesop. He asked a lot of questions at first, but once your friend explained to his son that if he asked too many questions or didn't believe everything the Fables have to say he would spend eternity in Hades away from his mother and father, that stopped and his son is now very devout. In fact, he reads passages from the Fables every night! Your friend's wife is an unbeliever and that troubles your friend, but he tries to explain to her why she's wrong and in any case he's made sure their son knows he's right and she's wrong, so the son knows to believe him.

A momentary expression of concern crosses your friend's face as he tells you that his son has interpreted the Fable of the Bat, the Bird and the Beasts to mean that people of mixed race are unloved of Aesop, and that therefore people of different races shouldn't mix. In fact, he also stood up in his sex-education class and told the teacher that bisexuality is a Sin under Aesop and should be punished; your friend is a little uncomfortable with these values, but very proud of the level of faith they demonstrate. He certainly wouldn't want you to think that all Fablists hold such values, and feels he can hardly be responsible for his son's somewhat fundamentalist approach just because he was the one who taught him to believe unquestioningly in Aesop and His teachings.

* * *

I hope you've been able to read all that calmly and without feeling like I'm picking on you or your specific religion; what I've written above is just an analogy to help you understand how religious belief appears to people who are on the outside and it doesn't target any religion in particular - hopefully you've been able to set aside your own convictions long enough to understand the point I'm trying to make with this story. But you may be thinking – quite reasonably – that the beliefs held by the friend in this story, while certainly odd, are harming no one; after all, he seems to be a moderate in his beliefs, and able to set aside the bits of Fablism that aren't compatible with what we now consider reasonable behaviour.

But I want you to take it a stage further, and join me in imagining a society in which Fablism has grown steadily over several hundred years until it has reached the point at which many people are followers of Aesop...

In this society, the influence of Fablism is so pervasive that bisexual people are ostracised, regarded as freaks and perverts, and many feel unable to be honest about their sexuality even to their friends and families. Fablists are powerful enough to make interracial marriage illegal as it's seen as a sin against Aesop; purists even insist that their children be educated at Fablist schools where children are segregated by race to remove the temptation to sin. Some parents object to their children being taught that animals cannot speak, and the Fablist versions of natural history and biology are already taught exclusively in some schools. Snakes, as agents of Aesop's wrath, are revered and there have been several cases of fundamentalist Fablists refusing antivenoms when they or their children have been bitten.

Fablists have split into many groups and factions over the centuries and decades, but they still unite to ridicule and even attack other faiths like Just-Soism, Bozism and the Shakespearians which, despite their many similarities to Fablism, are just obviously and undeniably wrong. Over the centuries, some of the worst wars in history have come about because of people's beliefs in different Storytellers, and even today more atrocities are committed in the names of the various Storytellers than for any other reason. In fact, because the faithful have been so strenuous for so long in demanding respect for their beliefs, the faiths have become a convenient excuse for all sorts of actions – every years acts of war and terrorism are committed with Storytellers as the justification. Many Fablists are uncomfortable with these acts, but ultimately they believe in the same Fables as do the terrorists and war-mongerers, and have little argument to make when a fundamentalist refers them to the Fable of the Man and the Serpent.

Please try to think about this as calmly as you can, and to understand that none of this – NONE – is a specific attack on any one religion; I have been careful not to say anything that cannot be applied to more than one faith. I have some questions for you now, and I would like you to consider them honestly:

Does the fact that the Fablist faith now has millions of followers make its basic tenets any less bizarre?

Would you be willing to accept that the Fables are true for no better reason than that someone told you they're true?

In my story, the friend has discovered Fablism as an adult. This was deliberate, and designed to provoke incredulity as it is rare for an adult to spontaneously become religious. But this incredulity prompts two important questions: firstly, does the fact that the son – unlike his father – was taught about Fablism from a young age make his beliefs in themselves any more rational? And secondly, if you are a religious person and were taught your beliefs in childhood, what does your skepticism about a person becoming a believer in adulthood suggest about the source of your own convictions?

Is it acceptable that children are segregated by race because of a 2,500-year-old book?

Is it acceptable that bisexual people are denied equality and basic rights because of a 2,500-year-old book?

Is it OK to commit acts of war and terrorism on non-Fablists in the name of a 2,500-year-old book?

Is it right that Fablists should have such power in society when they cannot prove that anything contained in their book came from a Storyteller, or even that there is a Storyteller?

Is it reasonable that Fablists should expect your compliance when they want to restrict your freedoms?

Would you stand in silence if your life, and the world as a whole, was being adversely affected by Fablism?"