Catholic Church calls for dissolution of Monarchy.

April 18, 2011

The Catholic Church has called for the dissolution of the monarchy, and the disestablishment of the Church of England. Okay, not quite but not far off:

Peter Kearney, spokesman for the church in Scotland, claimed existing legislation which bars any Catholic from taking the throne is “nothing but state-sponsored sectarianism” and backed a call from First Minister Alex Salmond to change the “indefensible” law.

Yup, Catholics barred from being the monarch is state-sponsored sectarianism. Peter Kearney is absolutely right here. Protestants barred from being Pope is also state-sponsored sectarianism, of course, but this fact appears to have missed Mr kearney. Whether we like it or not, the monarch is the head of the Church of England. It’s practically what defines the establishment of the CofE, and practically defines the last remaining use of the monarchy.

I’ll cut Kearney a deal. We’ll allow a Catholic monarch when the Catholic church allows a Protestant Pope. This isn’t going to happen, and I have no desire to trade bombs or bullets over the subject, so let’s propose a more modest approach: The monarch dissolves, the CofE becomes disestablished, and in return, the Vatican renounces all claims to statehood.

I like that outcome. Come on Benny-boy, go for it.


AV, and why it matters.

February 18, 2011

Come May 5th, I will be voting “Yes” to Alternative Vote. Let’s get that bit out of the way. For the first time in my life, we have a chance to change the election system and I for one am not letting it pass me by so, on May 5th, I’ll be heading for the polling station and sticking a great big tick next to Yes, with a 2nd preference going to “Fuck Yes”.

You, of course, are free to decide one way or the other. But I want to look at the reasons why the “No to AV” campaign believe you should vote “No”, and why they’re fundamentally wrong.

AV is costly

The No to AV campaign claim that AV will cost “up to an additional £250 million”, and that “local councils would have to waste money on costly electronic vote counting machines”.

Let’s start with the vote counting machines. The May 5th referendum is not a referendum on introducing vote counting machines, and – personally speaking – I really hope the idea of vote counting machines is scrapped. I don’t trust electronic voting machines, and I don’t trust the companies that make them to make reliable, dependable machines with a proper paper audit trail. My reasons for not trusting voting machines, however, have nothing whatsoever to do with whether or not AV or first-past-the-post should be used for general elections in the UK. AV no more requires electronic voting than does first-past-the-post.

This is dishonest. There are arguments to be had for voting either for or against AV, this is not one of them. (As has been pointed out here, the cost also includes the cost of the referendum; this is a “pulled it out of my arse” figure).

AV is complex and unfair

AV isn’t particularly complex, but it is a little more complex than first-past-the-post. The complexity of the system however, is not in voting, but in properly counting. As a voter, all you really need to know is that you put a “1” against your first preference (the person you would normally put a tick against). You may then put a “2” against your second preference, and even a “3” then a “4” against people you may have voted for had the other lot not been in the race. From a voting point of view, AV is no more complex than first-past-the-post.

Whether the voting system is fair or not entirely depends upon what you want from a voting system, and what you consider to be “fair”. Neither AV nor first-past-the-post can be qualitatively described as “fair”, rather they are both systems designed with competing values, and competing end-results. Under first-past-the-post, the winning candidate simply needs to convince more people to vote for him than his nearest competitor; if he or she can do this then they win the election. Is this fair?

Well, doesn’t whether it’s fair depend upon what outcome you want? Picture a common scenario. Candidate A and Candidate B support popular Proposition X. Between them, they manage to get 60% of the vote. Candidate C is against popular Proposition X, but can only gather 31% of the vote. Under first-past-the-post, Candidate C is elected and the hugely popular Proposition X fails. Is this fair? Once again, it depends entirely how you determine “fair”.

Is AV a “losers charter” as the “No to AV” campaign call it? Surely that depends upon what you mean by “winner” and “loser” in an election? In the above scenario, did Candidate C really win? He “won” because he was “first past the post” and the rules say he won, but he didn’t gain a majority of the vote. He simply “won” the game.

AV is a politician’s fix

This is an interesting claim, especially given that it has traditionally only been the Liberal Democrats that have supported a change in the voting system, with both Labour and the Tories lending their weight to the status-quo. If anything has been a politician’s fix, it’s been the first-past-the-post system we’ve had all this time.

There is an interesting argument here though, and it’s the one where I think the “No to AV” and “Yes to AV” both really need to get their act together: that AV leads to more hung parliaments.

Not only is this claim almost certainly true, it should be utterly central to whether or not AV become the new system governing our elections. Because at it’s heart this is the central question of the referendum: how should our governments be formed? Should a government voted for by a minority of the people be permitted to run a majority of the parliament, as currently happens, or should a government be representative of the views of the people that elected it?

It’s easy to use words like “strong parliament” when discussing our current voting system, because we have seen successive governments that can safely ignore the people, and ignore complaints and opposition because it does not matter. There is no need for “back-room deals” when you can force legislation through parliament; legislation that most people did not vote for, and oppose. It’s also easy to look at the current LibDem-Conservative coalition and say “See! This is what happens under AV!”, and see this as the future of governments under AV.

But let’s be quite clear here: the current parliament, and the current government, was not formed under an AV voting system. Promises made (often remarkably foolish promises; and yes, I’m looking at you Clegg) were made under the first-past-the-post system, where the “winner” has traditionally been able to force through whatever legislation they wish. Promises were made to the electorate because they were made under the understanding that it only takes a minority of the vote to utterly control parliament.

So yes, AV almost certainly means more hung parliaments. It means politicians will have to argue, cajole and persuade. It means compromises will have to happen. It means it will be very hard for a single party to entirely get its way, unless that party has genuinely persuaded a majority of people that they’re right.

And election fought under AV will not be fought in the same way. AV will force politicians to engage with their electorate. It will not be enough for the politicians to pander to their traditional voters, safe in the knowledge that there is really no practical way to oust them under the current system. The politicians will need to learn to start listening to a broader range of voices; they will – heaven forbid – actually have to represent their constituency, and not just their supporters. And I think this is why – far from being “a politician’s fix” – AV scares the crap out of many politicians, because these politicians have only ever had to play at party politics, and have never had to listen to a constituent outside their party in their whole political careers, and I think AV will change that.

Scare the crap out of a politician on May 5th. Vote Yes to AV.


“Sincerely held religious belief”

January 26, 2011

There’s some interesting commentary going on at the moment with regard to the Christian hoteliers who banned two married people from staying in their hotel because they weren’t, to coin a phrase, the right type of married. The couple weren’t banned because the hoteliers were Catholics and believed – with a deeply held conviction – that one of the partners was a divorcee and divorcees can’t remarry, they were banned because neither of the partners in the marriage happened to be a woman.

After the couple took the hoteliers to court for discrimination on the grounds that one of them was a divorcee they were gay, the court found in favour of the couple. This is the correct decision as far as I’m concerned. It is no more right to deny a public service to a gay couple than it is right to deny that same public service to a couple where one partner happens to be a divorcee.

What I don’t understand is the subsequent eruption of fury denouncing this judgement as starting a conflict between religious conviction and the law. Religion has been at conflict with the law for a long time, and religion has always been on the loosing side. If one accepts that the hoteliers “sincerely held religious belief” is enough to let them off the hook for denying accommodation to a gay couple, then one must accept an innumerable number of monstrous sincerely held religious beliefs. If it is enough that a law can be ignored because the person ignoring it sincerely believes it is wrong, then why have any law?

LGBT rights have been hard fought for, and they clearly have a way to go if the hoteliers in this case can freely appeal the ruling against them. But why is “I am a Christian, and I believe homosexuality is wrong” even considered a reasonable excuse for blatant bigotry?

Look at this from another point of view: The Anglican church does not have women bishops. The Catholic church does not have women bishops. Both churches refuse to even consider the idea of women being permitted to attain positions of power. Imagine if the Catholic Church owned IBM, or the Anglican Church owned Sainsburys. Imagine, for a moment, those churches, in those positions, stated – as they do within their own communion – that women cannot, by virtue of being women, hold positions of power in Sainsbury or IBM.

Imagine now that they said “and no gays either”. Religion is not an excuse for bigotry. Religion is just the cover that bigots use when they discover they’re not longer wanted.


Protests and tone

September 21, 2010

I went to the Protest the Pope march in London on Saturday. Never having been to a political protest I really had no idea what to expect. Would we have a riot? Would we be looting shops and burning cars? Of course we didn’t; we walked a set route with some banners – some amusing, some serious, some…odd – and had some fun with the odd chant (“Get your rosaries off my ovaries” was a popular one, although, not having any ovaries, I felt a bit odd chanting that. “Your priest/pope may be gay that’s okay” sung to “London bridge is falling down” was another favourite). At the end of the march we listened to some speeches (occasionally straining to hear what was said over the incessant sound of a police helicopter), cheered in the appropriate places, then went to the pub, then went home.

All in all a fun time with a serious message. So I have been absolutely staggered by the outcry amongst some people over the march. One person has “had it with Dawkins“, expressing

Disappointment at the way he failed utterly to use reason, or logic, or rationality in his speech, preferring instead emotive platitudes and fallacious diatribes. Alarm at the crowd of protesters cheering his every sentence, reserving their loudest jeering for his portrayals of the Pope as ‘an enemy’, and for his characterisation of ‘them’ as running scared from ‘us’.

and

Brewing anger at the way the name ‘atheist’, which I have identified with ever since I first heard it, has been dragged through the mud over the last weekend by both the Pope’s ridiculous taunting and by Dawkins’ brawling mob of ‘secular humanists’ or whatever it is they’re calling themselves now.

Another writer on Twitter, also complaining about tone, points to these pictures of banners saying

Check out the tone of 6, 16, 17, 21, 24, 26 and 30.

In order, these banners say:

  • “Fuck the pope, but use a condom” (The pope opposes condom use, has blamed condoms for the spread of HIV/AIDS in Africa, and under Canon Law considers condom use on a par with child rape. I am not joking.)
  • “Do you fancy baby Jesus” (Do I really need to say that “Jesus loves you” and “Do you love Jesus” are both common refrains in all forms of Christianity, yet the Pope considers homosexuality a sin. The Pope is implicated in the scandal of the cover-up of pedophile priests. The joke practically writes itself. I personally found this sign poignant)
  • “I’d rather touch myself than a little child” (Believe it or not, the Pope actually opposes masturbation, and places it as the same kind of sin as child rape.)
  • “Be Afraid. Be Very Afraid (with a picture of the pope kissing a child)” (This one may be considered in bad taste if you are utterly devoid of compassion or humour. But only because the Pope himself has not been accused of molesting or raping children. He is “only” accused of ensuring more children would be molested and raped under his command of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith [the successor to the Inquisition] where he protected pedophile priests from exposure, and – it is alleged – took every measure to ensure they would not face justice)
  • “By the way, I wanked this morning. Must be genocide if abortion is murder” (This is simply the logical conclusion of the position of the church on contraception and masturbation.)
  • “2 4 6 8 You don’t need a cock to transubstantiate” (I cannot for the life of me figure out how this one is even remotely offensive. The pope does not recognise the ordination of women – indeed, he now considers the ordination of women as the same class of offense as pedophilia. The only difference is that a pedophile priest will not be excommunicated, whilst a priest ordaining a woman will be. As will the ordained woman.)
  • “If I was a billionaire paedophile, I’d make my car look like an Ice Cream van” (Again, the only thing here that could be remotely offensive is the accusation that the pope is a paedophile. His car does look like an Ice Cream van.)

Seriously. This is bad tone? Fuck that! What did people expect the banners to say? “Excuse me Pope, if you don’t mind, would you possibly – in your own time of course – perhaps reconsider your position on condoms? They’re really not that bad really, and the scientific consesus is that they don’t actually cause AIDS, but no rush you understand”? Or, perhaps, “Dear Pope, when you have a moment, could you look in to the issue of the church’s cover-up of child abuse while you were head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith. If it’s not too much trouble of course”.

And what of Richard Dawkins speech? What was so bad about Richard Dawkins speech?  The video of the speech he gave at the rally is on YouTube. This was a necessarily condensed version of the speech he wanted to give, the full text of which can be found on Richard Dawkin’s site here. What was it that Stuart Sharpe found so offensive that he found the word atheist “dragged through the mud”? Well,

he’s hell-bent on proving to you that Hitler not only wasn’t an atheist, Hitler was a Catholic.

Bollocks! (How’s that for tone?). Pure and utter bollocks. There is no need to prove that Hitler was a Catholic, it is a well established historical fact that Hitler was a Catholic. Dawkins was not proving Hitler was a Catholic. He was protesting. He was protesting the fact that the Pope chose, in his very first speech, to blame the rise on Nazism on atheists, and then later to warn agains the rise of “aggressive secularism” – which, incidentally, was not referring to placards on protest banners.

What the fuck is wrong here? What is so wrong about Richard Dawkins – at a protest the pope march – protesting about the pope’s absurd, deluded – and unfortunately all too common within religious circles – accusation that atheists were to blame for the rise of Nazism?  Maybe Sharpe is happy to laugh the accusation off, but you know what: I’m not. This isn’t some random nutjob in some back-water Facebook forum blaming Hitler on the atheists, this is the fucking Pope on a fucking state-visit, paid for by me, to insult me, and to call me – an atheist, a liberal and a secularist – “Nazi”, “immoral”, and “evil” in that order. Just what fucking response do people expect?

Fuck the Pope.

But wear a condom.


Just how “terrifying” is Islam?

August 17, 2010

The proposed Islamic cultural centre and mosque in New York has recently been drawing a lot of press, and a lot of fire, apparently because of it’s nearness to the September 11th ‘Ground-Zero’. The usual thuggish language has been employed by the usual suspects, and quite honestly, I don’t think it’s really worth commenting on them.  But what is interesting is some of the discussion from people I wouldn’t normally consider “The Usual Suspects”.

Of all the major religions, I find Islam—in its bellicosity, its subjugation of women, its reliance on texts filled with hate and horror (and yes, I know the Old Testament has its gruesome parts and vengeful God), and the desire of many adherents to install Islamic law in their countries—the most repugnant.

The above quote is not from the Daily Mail, or from Sarah Palin, but from Jerry Coyne, author of “Why Evolution Is True”, a man whose blog I enjoy immensely and whose views I generally agree with (to the extent a British leftie like me can agree with an American, anyway). Reading his discussion on the New York mosque, however, this quote jarred quite significantly.

In his discussion he’d already mentioned Sam Harris’ take on the New York mosque, quoting:

And honest reasoning declares that there is much that is objectionable—and, frankly, terrifying—about the religion of Islam and about the state of discourse among Muslims living in the West, and it is decidedly inconvenient that discussing these facts publicly is considered a sign of “intolerance” by well-intentioned liberals, in part because such criticism resonates with the actual bigotry of not-so-well-intentioned conservatives. I can see no remedy for this, however, apart from simply ramming the crucial points home, again and again.

As a “well-intentioned liberal”, an atheist, and a person with no like of religion in general, I would kindly request that Sam Harris take a long run off of a short pier, if he would be so kind.

Jerry Coyne and Sam Harris (and other self-declared liberal-lefts) are wrong. Islam is not the religion as portrayed in Western media. Islam is not monolithic. Islam is not out to destroy you, eat your babies or chop your hands off. Islam is different. The various forms that Islam take incorporate various practices that are – on the surface at least – rather alien to Western culture. But this does not make “Islam” “the most repugnant” of religions, nor is it terrifying.

I will be the first to admit that I don’t fully understand Islam. I do, however, understand Christianity. I understand that the Christian Bible has some god-awful things in it, but I understand that Christians do not believe that mass slaughter is moral because it is in the Old Testament. They don’t believe that children should be stoned to death if they disobey their parents, they don’t believe that rape victims should be forced to marry rapists under penalty of death. That these issues are screwed up in the Bible make amusing rejoinders to the question of religion and morality, but most honest atheists would recognise that Christians don’t do that. Similarly, most atheists would recognise that Stephen Green of the Christian Voice does not speak for most British Christians, that Fred Phelps does not speak for most American Christians, and that – for that matter – the Pope really does not speak for most Catholic Christians.

So why is there this automatic assumption that Islam is any different from Christianity? Why does Jerry Coyne feel comfortable writing “and yes, I know the Old Testament has its gruesome parts and vengeful God” when excoriating Islam? Why does the Christian Bible get a free-pass in this instance, yet Islam is slammed as “the most repugnant”?

If you read the press, you’d think the answer was obvious. It was Muslims that hijacked four planes on September 11th. It was Muslims that blew up bombs on July 7th. It was Muslims in Madrid. Muslims wear face veils. Muslim clerics have said some outrageous things. Blah blah blah.

So What?

It was Christians that spent decades trying to blow each other up over Ireland. It was Christians who assassinated abortion doctors. The Pope is a bloody Christian. The Bishop of Rochester is a bloody Christian. For that matter, Stalin almost certainly was an atheist. Do the Atheists who so freely condemn Islam really want to go down that road? After years of atheists saying “Oh no, Stalin may have been an atheist, but it wasn’t atheism that made him a mass-murderer”, do they really want to assert that what they read in the newspapers must be indicative of Western Muslim moral thought in general? Seriously?

As I said earlier; I don’t understand Islam. I don’t know what it is like to grow up as a Muslim, or to live as a Muslim in the West. I do not have the knowledge to separate the hyperbolic bullshit from the facts. But then I suspect neither do Jerry Coyne or Sam Harris. So I’ve decided I’m going to do something about this. I want to learn about Islam as it is actually practiced in the West. I have no idea how to do this, but I’d like to try. This seems like a good starting point.


“Only 4%”

March 16, 2010

I’m sure you’re already well aware of the fun and games currently being played out by the Vatican over the fact that a large number of children were abused by the very people entrusted with their care.  I’m sure you’re already equally aware that when the abuse of these kids was discovered by the Catholic authorities they bought their concerns to the police, as they are a moral and upright organsiation covered the whole fucking thing up and let their peadophile priests continue to work with and abuse young children.

If you’re a moral person, you might be a little bit indignant about the whole affair.  You may even be horrified.  You might be tempted to look at the Catholic Church, and it’s position and influence in so many countries in the world and think, “WTF?”.  Well, you’re wrong.

I know you’re wrong, because the official Vatican newspaper has corrected this misguided opinion stating:

For the love of truth, the number of incidents involving clergy is very small.”

See?  See how wrong you were to be even slightly perturbed?  If not, I direct you to the Guardian, where we are politely told that

The Catholic figures show that between about 4% of priests and deacons serving in the US between 1950 and 2002 had been accused of sexual abuse of someone under 18. In this country, the figure was a 10th of that: 0.4% But whereas the victims in the general population are overwhelmingly female, the pattern among American Catholic priests was quite different. Four out of five of their victims were male. Most were adolescents: two out of five were 14 or over; 15% were under 10.

So that’s clearly alright then. Only 4% of US priests and deacons were assaulting and raping children in their care.  Only 1 in 20-ish priests and deacons  in the US wilfully abused their position of trust. It is, of course, taken on trust that these figures from the Catholic church are accurate – it would take a particularly cynical approach to the Catholic church to assume that an international organisation that has persistently lied and obstructed might massage the figures a little.

But hang on. When it come to religion I am cynical. Let’s do some back-of-a-fag-packet calculations. According to the Catholic News Agency there are just over 400,000 priests in the world.  Let’s crunch some basic numbers.  I can’t get a reliable indication of how many priests there are in the US vs. in the UK, but let’s crunch some random numbers.

Let’s take the lowest figure – 0.4% – as the number of priests who have abused children in their care worldwide.  The maths is simple: that’s 1,600 children, as an absolute minimum, who have been abused by the Catholic church, and whose abuse was known about and was covered up by the Catholic church.  That’s the absolute minimum.

At 4% that number becomes 16,000 as an absolute minimum.

We know from the various investigations that have happened, however, that these priests didn’t just abuse one child.  They frequently sexually assaulted many more thanks to the Catholic church attempting to defend its reputation by moving these people around where they were free to assault again, and frequently again and again.

This is an organisation whose head wants to come to Britain to give ‘moral guidance‘. Presumably this “moral guidance” will be, “It’s not so bad. We’re not all rapists. We just don’t want our rapists to be prosecuted. That would be bad for our image.”

That, you see, is religious morality.


A long explanation of a damned fine joke.

April 15, 2009

Here’s a good joke:

“Why do programmers always mix up Christmas and Halloween.  Because Dec 25 is Oct  31”

Get it?  If you do, then you should probably stop reading here because this is likely to be old news to you.  If you’d like to know why it’s so damned funny, and learn a little computing basics for good measure, read on!

If you’re not a programmer, you (hopefully!) recognise the abbreviations for December 25th (Dec 25) and October 31st (Oct 31), and (hopefully!!) recognise them as Christmas and Halloween.  So far, so good, but not very funny – even to a programmer.

To a programmer, the abbreviations ‘Dec 25’ and ‘Oct 31’ can also mean something entirely different.  Dec 25 is an abbreviation for “Decimal 25” and “Oct 31” is an abbreviation for “Octal 31”, and for reasons that I’d like to explain, these are exactly the same thing.

To see why, let’s start at looking at the normal decimal number system – the number system we use in day-to-day life.  Decimal is simply a way of counting – or more precisely, of representing, numbers – in blocks of ten.  In day-to-day use we use the arabic numerals 0 through to 9 to represent the English numbers “zero” through to “nine”.  After nine, we start counting in units of ten, so ten is 10, eleven is 11, twelve is 12 and so forth.  After ninety-nine, we start with another block of 10, so hundred is 100, one-hundred and one is 101 and so on and so forth.

This is, of course, fairly elementary stuff – it’s the kind of thing we’re all taught in primary school.  As an aside, this, unfortunately, is also one of those things that everyone knows so instinctively that they stop thinking about how numbers work.  10 is ten. 12 is twelve, and that’s all there is to it.  It’s so ingrained that it’s easy to forget what an inspiration the arabic numbering system actually is and how out of kilter with our actual counting system it is.

Okay, so when we say “twenty five”, we write out the arabic numerals 2 and 5, representing 2 x 10 + 5.  When we say “thirty one”, we do the same thing: 3 x 10 + 1.

But why stop at 10?  Why should the arabic numerals ’31’ necessarily represent the number thirty-one.  What if – for reasons that I will shortly explain – I want each column to represent a multiple of a different number?  What if I wanted each column to represent multiples of 8?

There is absolutely nothing stopping us from doing that, and that is precisely what Octal is.  In Octal, the numbers zero through to seven are represented in the normal way: 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7.  When we get to eight though, things get slightly skewed.  Eight in Octal is represented by the arabic numerals 10.  Remember, each column is representing multiples of eight, not multiples of ten; so 10 is Octal is 1 x 8 + 0 – Eight.  And we carry on from there: nine is 11, ten is 12, eleven is 13, and so forth 20 is sixteen, and 31 is 3 x 8, which is 24, plus 1 which gives us twenty five.

(Incidentally, I bet you’re reading that and your mind is reading it as, “so ten is [twelve], eleven is [thirteen] and so forth.  Try to think of each arabic numeral as an independent figure: “so ten is [one, two], eleven is [one, three]”)
So that’s the joke in a nutshell:  to a programmer, the number represented by the arabic numerals ’25’ (two, five) in decimal is the same as the number represented by the arabic numerals ’31’ (three, one) in octal, because 2 x 10 + 5 is the same as 3 x 8 + 1.  It’s simply an amusing coincidence that, to the programmer, Dec can mean both “December” and “Decimal”, and Oct can mean both “October” and “Octal”; and that Dec 25 is just happily, and coincidentally, Oct 31.

But that’s not a truly satisfying answer; the obvious question is why would anybody want to do that?  What’s the point? If 10 is “ten”, then why would anyone find any use in 10 being “eight”?  We all have ten fingers, it’s easy to count in tens, so why change things and count in eights?

The answer lies in how computers store numbers.  Computers, you see, don’t count in tens.  Computers count in “on” and “off”.

This will be the subject of part II :)


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