Big numbers, small minds

A few years ago I stood outside my tent, at night, in the painted desert. Being a city-dweller, I had never before seen a starry sky like that. It was big. It was unspeakably beautiful. And a bit scary. Although I wasn’t alone that night on the Colorado Plateau, staring at the immense sky I felt lonely, and a bit vulnerable.

I was reminded of this moment by a great article on the fermi paradox. Isn’t it incredible that the awe-inspiring panorama we can see at night, the thousands of visible stars represent only a tiny fraction – much less than a millionth – of the stars of our milky way? And that the milky way is only one in billions of galaxies in the universe?

At the dawn of humanity, our ancestors must have looked up, and realized not just how beautiful the world, but also just how small humans were. Being intelligent, they looked to explain the immensity. Looking for comfort, they invented benevolent gods that sheltered them. People had big minds, but their knowledge was small. It was a natural conclusion that super-human phenomena require super-human explanations.

Today we have immeasurably more knowledge, and we can draw much better conclusions about the world around us. One of the astonishing facts about our universe is that, at a conservative estimate, the universe contains at least 100 earth-like planets for each grain of sand in this world.

For. Each. Grain. Of. Sand.

There is only little scientific controversy about this number – some say it’s a lot higher, some say it’s only half of that. Let’s be even more conservative and say it’s only one. Now go down to the beach, and imagine that for each grain of sand you see there’s an earth-like planet out there.

And now try to reconcile this with the notion that a god made our world – and only this world – special, that after creating earth (and the rest) he now hangs around this one tiny world; to listen to all our thoughts and to judge us based on what we eat, and how and whom we sleep with.

People back then believed it out of necessity: they had big minds, but small knowledge.

People who believe something like that today have small minds, but, unfortunately, big numbers.

The Athorcist

It’s a strange thing. There are many reports of people having become possessed by demons. Yet, when looking into these possessions, a couple of striking coincidences emerge:

1) all who have become ‘possessed’ are religious; or rather, all who report someone as being possessed, are religious.

2) the ‘demon’ or ‘spirit’ in question is always part of the mythology of the ‘soul’ that is possessed. Although we regularly hear reports of the devil possessing a Christian, it has never been reported, for example, that a demon of the Vishnu mythology has possessed a Christian.

3) There have never been reports of an atheist being possessed by a demon. There have – of course – been accusations that atheists are possessed by the devil; but these accusations were always made by religious people, usually with dire consequences to the atheist – as probably intended; see 1).

So, what can we conclude from this? Statistically, these observations are significant. Let us assume demons exist. If there really were demons, they should affect everyone, not just one particular group of people. Possessions only happening within the sphere of one belief, with no cross-over to other beliefs is statistically unlikely to the extreme. Furthermore, attaining complete immunity to possession through not believing in demons should be impossible. You can’t, for example, become immune to influenza simply by not believing in germs. Something is off here.

Well, you do the math.

In related news, the Vatican is increasing the size for their exorcism department, citing high demand. It’s a successful business model, I hear.

May I suggest an easier, much cheaper vaccination against demons?

Militant Stupidity

[please note: a slightly redacted (BHA cultivates a somewhat more polite style than I do) version of this article was published on the British Humanist Association’s blog. You can read it here. I’m of course a great fan of BHA, and thank them for the opportunity to write for them]

If you believe what some politicians would tell you, the UK is developing a new problem; a social evil so menacing that it threatens to eclipse ‘Islamophobia’ any day now: Militant Atheism.

There is a certain progression to be observed: first come accusations of ‘special rights’, then we hear dire warnings of a slippery slope that invariably leads to persecution of religion and death camps for believers, run by – you guessed it – militant atheists.

This calls for some explanation – on more than one account: By and large, ‘militant atheists’ are about as threatening as ‘fundamental hippies’. Coining the phrase is demonstrably an attempt to tarnish a term of non-description (‘atheist’) by combining it with a word evocative of conflict, violence, automatic weapons, scimitars, and death: ‘militant’. And yet, this attempt is about as successful in suggesting lethality as the term ‘combat doe’.
The most ‘militant’ of atheists was Christopher Hitchens. He earned that distinction by publicly assailing men of the cloth with remarks as cutting as ‘you are an idiot!’
The world’s second most ‘militant’ atheist would be Professor Richard Dawkins. Soft-spoken and infuriatingly polite, he’s known for book signings where, on occasion, he brings along a sharp pen.

So it’s not by their actions that militant atheists have gained the ‘militant’ epithet; there is a decided lack of streets overflowing with blood, no posters yelling ‘massacre those who insult atheism’, and to my knowledge no atheist has yet blown up a church on the grounds of advancing atheism.

So, for better understanding, we need to turn to the source. Recently, a number of British exponents have complained about the exploits of militant atheism:

In a highly publicized BBC-produced episode of The Big Questions (and a same-day publication on their web page), Voice For Justice UK speaker Lynda Rose raised awareness about the alarming fact that militant atheism is the reason why Christians are now persecuted in the UK.

A few days later, UK Minister of Faith (an Office I have difficulty mentioning while keeping a straight face – it’s way too Monty Phythonesque; in my mind it’s always the ‘Ministry of Silly Thought’) Baroness Warsi voiced similar sentiments.
Shortly thereafter, UK’s Prime Cameron went on record saying that living in a religious country was easier for people of competing faiths than in a country run by (presumably militant) seculars.
And just a few days after that, former MP Anne Widdecombe – in a strangely preemptive evocation of Godwin’s Law – bemoaned the fact that today Christians have it more difficult to live in the UK than Nazis.

What is going on here? From a rational thinker’s point of view it surely seems as if they left a lot of lead in the pipes that feed the drinking fountains down at Westminster Palace. Let’s take a closer look.

VFJUK’s Lynda Rose complained :

But now, apparently, the newly claimed sexual rights of a minority are being prioritised over all other traditional rights, to the extent that ‘religious’ rights are now being assigned a separate, and seemingly subsidiary, category.

It’s a bit disconcerting that Lynda – who is a lawyer – makes this mistake: there are no ‘rights of a minority’. She was referring to a couple in the UK who had their existing right to sexuality enforced. Lynda not only makes it sound as if a sexual minority (gay people) have special rights; she then asserts that there is something called ‘traditional rights’. First, of course, there are no special rights – everyone has the same rights. Further, no civilized country in the world recognizes ‘traditional rights’: once it is determined that something is unethical (e.g. slavery, or the right to discipline your disobedient wife), it is done away with, all ‘tradition’ be damned. ‘Traditional’ never trumps ‘just’. Most importantly, though, there are no longer religious rights – i.e. special rights attained only through adherence to a particular religion – in the UK. Today it is one law for all. Or it should be, anyway.

What we do see here – and we’ll see this again – is the feeling of entitlement: people are loath to give up privileges that they used to have. Here it is the privilege of imposing one’s own view of sexuality on others, something that Christianity has enjoyed for over two millennia, but now has been curtailed.

We next turn our attention to Minister of Faith, Baroness Warsi. Now, a Minister of Faith can’t be expected to be the sharpest knife in the drawer, so we may need to cut her some slack. Trying to make Sharia Law more acceptable in the UK, Warsi first remarked that

There is no doubt that the word ‘sharia’ carries huge challenges in relation to public relations. If you talk about anything [related to] ‘sharia’, the first vision people get is chopping off of people’s hands, having four wives and all sorts of unusual practices which, in today’s world, are not compatible with the values which we live by.

Above is an astute observation. The word ‘Sharia’ has a bad reputation, just as the words ‘Apartheid’ and ‘Spanish Inquisition’ have. I believe that this is well deserved, on all accounts.

Now, Warsi, for reasons fully understood, complains that acceptance of ill-reputed Sharia law into UK’s courts is impeded by secular fundamentalists :

The most aggressive post I get is [sic] from people who are secular fundamentalists.

Of course atheists are vehemently opposed to these ideas, ideas that would introduce superstition and medieval morals into present-day jurisdiction – but I would submit that vehement opposition is to be expected not only from ‘militant atheists’, but from everyone who can count to eleven without having to remove a sock.

Warsi’s efforts to impose her preferred version of law are frustrated by people who do not share her ideology. She believes that she is entitled to bring Sharia law into UK’s courts, and spots the enemy among what she believes to be militant atheists – those people who publish so many ‘aggressive post[s]’.

Not being outdone by amateurs, David Cameron enters the fray asserting that

it is easier to be Jewish or Muslim in Britain than in a secular country.

The reason? Militant atheists, of course. He goes on to extol the virtues of a religious society – blithely ignoring that each and every social advance during the past two hundred years came at the cost of lives among the humanists, and at the strongest opposition from the Church. Cameron feels he needs to build up a straw man and defend religion for one reason only: because the devout in his constituency are starting to grumble that their privileges are being taken away; that they can no longer tell the fags what to do.

More frighteningly, though, Cameron concludes his speech with this:

Greater confidence in our Christianity can also inspire a stronger belief that we can get out there and actually change people’s lives, and improve both the spiritual, physical, and moral state of our country, and even the world.

I guess it does take a pesky militant atheist to point out that if you replace ‘Christianity’ with ‘Islam’, Cameron would be saying exactly what the Taliban and Boko Haram are saying: they, too, believe that by stronger adherence to belief, that by following scripture more closely, this world will become a better place. The Taliban in particular are quite explicit about this; they state that their intent is to improve this world by changing the way people behave: by making them stronger believers.
Changing people’s lives based on faith is a terrible idea. Ask any woman in Pakistan or Saudi Arabia. When we talk about ‘improvements’ based on religion, we almost always talk about restrictions: no gay marriages, no abortions, no women’s education, no blaspheming, no work on the holy day, etc. The more confidence people have in their religion, the more likely they are to impose their religious ideology on others. Ironically, there is only one group who can’t do that: (militant) atheists – who, by definition, don’t have a religion.

Ann Widdecombe’s rant takes the cake, though :

Christians now have quite a lot of problems, whether it’s that you can’t display even very discreet small symbols of your faith at work, that you can’t say ‘God bless you’, you can’t offer to pray for somebody, if it’s an even bigger stance on conscience that you’re taking, some of the equality laws can actually bring you to the attention of the police themselves.
So I think it is a very difficult country now, unlike when I was growing up, in which to be a Christian, an active Christian at any rate.

As a former MP, Ann has unfortunately developed a distinct habit of being economical with the truth. She did so when during the ‘Intelligence Squared’ debate she claimed that everyone who joined the Waffen-SS had to sign away their religion. The exact opposite is a documented fact; people who joined the SS had to sign a paper stating that they were ‘gottgläubig’ – believers in God – and affirmed that they were not atheists.

Widdecombe does it again here when she claims people can no longer wear religiously-themed jewelry, say endearing well-wishes, or promise piety to other people.
In reality Ann is angry at another fact: she has lost the privilege of an automatic religious bonus. People now openly scoff when someone offers prayer as ‘help’, and do not look impressed when someone openly wears a crucifix, crescent, or Star of David. Her importance and status as an openly devout believer have diminished – which is what irks her. In short, she’s angry that she’s become unpopular, and wants to assign blame.

That, in short, is what ‘militant atheism’ is all about: a scapegoat for one’s own misgivings and shortcomings, a scapegoat for the perceived injustice of privileges revoked, a scapegoat for being called upon one’s own moral failings.
Well, at least the believers are staying true to form – if there ever was an Abrahamic ritual it’s the scapegoat.

Is it really that simple? Are politicians really trying to shift the blame from them to a minority? After all, much of what was said is monumentally stupid. Wouldn’t the political elite be more careful to avoid putting their foot into their collective mouth? Obviously, no. The reason for that, though, can be explained:

As we know, any sufficiently advanced stupidity is virtually indistinguishable from religion. That is what is tripping up politicians: they are increasingly coming down on the wrong side when they try to decide: ‘Is this still stupid or already religion?’

And then they do something ‘militantly’ stupid.

Angry Atheists

Increasingly, atheists are being asked: “Why are you so angry?”

It’s not that difficult to explain. A few days ago, I read the heart-breaking report of adorable little 3-years-old Victoria Wilcher, who a few weeks ago was attacked by three pitbulls. The attack broke her upper and lower jaws, nose, cheek bones, and right eye socket. Victoria completely lost her right eye. Last week, on the way back from a doctor’s appointment, Victoria and her grandmother stopped at a KFC to eat.

They were asked to leave because Victoria’s injuries upset the other customers.

Victoria square 100

Image Credit: Facebook

If you now feel shock and anger, you are not alone. Few people would not get angry when learning about such cruel, hurtful treatment. Rightly so. Little Victoria deserves better, and that is obvious to most.

So why am I telling you this? Because that is exactly how atheists feel about a lot of other things that are happening around the world. Yes, many atheists are angry. But we are not angry at how we are being treated – in most countries, we now can take care of ourselves. Nor are we angry because some god or fairy betrayed us. We are angry at the cruel, hurtful way religious people treat other (mostly) religious people: When women are treated as if they were dreck; when homosexuals are humiliated and killed for being what they are; when religious people callously deny help, or feel they are entitled to tell others what they may, or may not do; when religious people intentionally injure or kill other people.

Unlike the perpetrators and their religious peers, we feel the hurt, anguish and pain inflicted upon helpless individuals, and we are angry at those who inflict it; we are outraged at the ‘justifications’ that believers proffer for their actions: that a god wants it so.

So yes, many atheists are angry. At religious people. But, unlike religious people who feel offended and are angry at us for telling them off, we have legitimate reasons.

Titans of Theology

Pope Francis recently got his knickers in a twist over the fact that Tycoon Richard “Virgin” Branson (the “virgin” part refers to his company, definitely not a biblical character, nor his procreational status) pays very little taxes.

The Telegraph rightly deconstructed Francis’ outburst. Strangely enough, though, the Telegraph’s Allister Heath needlessly employs some subtle sophistry himself:

There can be no doubt that Pope Francis is a devoted and selfless man […]. A phenomenal theologian, he abhors war and poverty and is an inspiration to hundreds of millions of believers.

There are two items remarkable with above quote:

  • I’m sure it’s meant as a compliment, but complimenting someone on being a phenomenal theologian is very much like calling someone a phenomenal astrologer or alchemist. Theology is no science. When each and every argument can be ended with ‘because God wants it so’ and every contradiction can be resolved ‘because god is mysterious’, there simply is no space for rational, scientific discourse. Plus, someone like Francis pretty much presupposes the conclusion that the Christian God exists, making even that discussion a moot point. If your discussions only revolve around magical beings someone has written about, you might as well discuss who will win: Starship Enterprise or a Star Destroyer. And even I found that somewhat silly back when I went to school.
  • Heath makes it sound as if Francis’ dislike for poverty and war is a result of his being a theologian. Unlike the Pope’s grasp of finance, his dislike of war and poverty is in spite of being a theologian. 

Francis’ attack on capitalism was not only stupid, it was entirely misguided. Unlike Heath, who ignores the elephant in the room, I’d like to point out that rather salient fact: Francis is outraged that Branson doesn’t pay taxes. Yet the Pope ignores the fact that his church is not only exempt from paying taxes in most countries – it receives significant amounts of tax payer’s money in those countries.

Only titans of theology can expect to get away with so much hypocrisy.

Because it is expected of them.

MP’s race to IQ bottom

Former british MP Ann Widdecombe is upset. After some semi-intellectual rhetorical stunts she claims that Christians are persecuted and militant atheists are the reason for her stupidity. You may recall that Widdecombe is the Minister who converted to Catholicism because the Church of England allowed the ordination of women as priests. So she has some serious fundamentalistic street cred to call her own. In a somewhat less endearing continuation of her public performance from the ‘Intelligence Squared’ debate (with Hitchens and Fry in 2009), she begins her rant with a number of astonishing assertions:

Christians now have quite a lot of problems, whether it’s that you can’t display even very discreet small symbols of your faith at work, that you can’t say ‘God bless you’, you can’t offer to pray for somebody, if it’s an even bigger stance on conscience that you’re taking, some of the equality laws can actually bring you to the attention of the police themselves

Not to put too fine a point on this: Widdecombe is lying through her teeth. You can wear a crucifix to work, you can say ‘god bless you’, you can offer to pray. Now, what people think of you if you do one of those things is another thing.
If you are brought to the police’s attention, you may have violated a law – a law that was passed to protect someone: so yes – if you, for example, openly call for discrimination of gays, the police will come knocking on your door. Thank God!

So I think it is a very difficult country now, unlike when I was growing up, in which to be a Christian, an active Christian at any rate.

What she is actually bemoaning is her loss of privilege to insult and shame religious dissenters, something she is trying right now with her outcry of false injury. It’s not difficult to be a Christian in the UK. It’s only become harder to be adored on the grounds of just be a Christian. Today people also look at what you do and judge you by your actions. Being pious alone doesn’t cut it any more. Hurting others because of your beliefs is no longer tolerated. That’s a good thing, Ann.

a concern about “political correctness” meant people were reluctant to express their faith to others because “they think strong belief offends them”.

So that is what bothers her. She’s furious that the empty phrase “I’ll pray for you” no longer engenders respect, but a look of concerned pity instead. She’s angry that it becomes more difficult to get people to admire her, to inflate her ego with vacant pious gestures or meaningless acclamations of faith (like, for example, converting to hard-core Catholicism because women were being ordained as priest).

In short, she blames atheists for the fact that she’s become afraid to say what she really thinks – because people would think she’s an ass.

Well, the reason people think that is not because of militant atheists – it’s because people increasingly employ common sense and reason. People becoming atheists is merely a result of that.

Fifty Percent

In Ireland, the Roman Catholic Church rules. In 2014, abortion – even after rape – is illegal, and prosecuted. The church claims that this is done to save the life of the unborn. Last week, from a ‘Home for Unmarried Mothers and their Children’, the world witnessed first hand the dark, sinister side of this ‘protection’ and what adherence to Christian moral can result in.

Before we go on, we must recall that between 1930 and 1960 – not only in Ireland, but especially there – Mothers who birthed children out of wedlock were called ‘fallen women’ and were ostracized; with them, their babies:

The children of these women were denied baptism and segregated from others at school. If they died at such facilities, they were also denied a Christian burial.

These women and their children were forced to live in these church-run ‘homes’, where they were constantly shamed, humiliated and degraded, spat upon and punished for their ‘sins’. Harrowing accounts from many independent sources, children who grew up at the same time alongside the outcasts, support their stories:

One woman, who deeply regrets her actions today, recounts how, when she was in second grade, she

wrapped a tiny stone in a bright candy wrapper and gave it to a Home Baby as a gift. When the child opened it, she saw she’d been fooled.

It was a cruel prank, and everyone but the victim laughed heartily. They didn’t know they were cruel; the children of unmarried mothers were scum. Why? Because the Church said so.

Mistreating the ‘Home Babies’ was generally accepted, and pervasive. In what appears to be the tip of the iceberg, a more or less open secret has been dragged into light last week:

Research into the undocumented deaths of some 800 children from 1930 to 60 revealed some shameful results. All deceased were ‘Home Babies’; all died from neglect. The story became notorious when a journalist alleged that the bodies where found in the remains of a septic tank. The authorities knew about this: Child mortality rate among Home Babies was reported as high as 50% and more – much higher than average.

Some people try to defend the neglect as a result of the Nuns who ran the Home being overwhelmed by the sheer number of unmarried mothers and their babies. Perhaps; I don’t want to point an accusing finger at the nuns. But the fact remains that the problem was entirely created by the Church and their doctrine of sin. That nuns perpetrated these atrocities out of their desire to help is tragic. And it certainly does not justify the contempt and injustice these mothers and their children had to endure.

This double standard still persists today. Catherine Corless, a local historian, published her research into the deaths of 796 children at the Tuam Home in a local journal in 2012. This was largely ignored. It was only a few weeks ago when the world started to take notice, and only after it was sensationalized throught the addition of the (probably untrue) septic tank detail. Yet, mirroring the developments around the systematic rape of children by priests, official reaction was slow and hesitant. If anyone except the Church were implicated, the whole area would have been cordoned off immediately and would be swarming with forensic experts. So far, the Irish Government has announced that it was putting together a group to investigate.

Yet, indeed, there is no rush. We all know why these children died: because the majority of the population adhered to a perverse morality, founded entirely on religion.