The fight against blasphemy laws lumbers on

March 28, 2008

It’s almost been the de-facto rallying cry of the National Secular Society for 140 years, but recently the government and the Lords have voted to abolish the UK common law offense of blasphemous libel. Needless to say that I joined the rest of the National Secular Society in celebrating, but the celebration may be a little muted. Even as the debate was raging, following the attempt of Christian Voice to bring a private prosecution against the BBC, doubts were being expressed over the sincerity of the Church of England in welcoming its abolition.

At the same time the abolition of blasphemous libel was being aired, the church – as part of the government’s, “short sharp consultation” – urged for more laws to protect religious “sensibilities”. Even though he was – rightly – largely ignored at the time, he may still get his wish:

GENEVA — The top U.N. rights body on Thursday passed a resolution proposed by Islamic countries saying it is deeply concerned about the defamation of religions and urging governments to prohibit it.

The first thing that sprung to my mind when reading this were the phrases, “defamation of religions” and “prohibit it”. Which looks, if anything, to be more draconian that the recently abolished blasphemy law. But – at least according to this report – that is not how the EU saw it:

The European Union said the text was one-sided because it primarily focused on Islam

Surely it would be better to say that, “the text is one-sided because it focuses on religion”. If this is an accurate description of the EU’s position on the text, it is truly frightening. Is this to suggest that, if the explicit mention of Islam were removed from the text, the EU would uphold the requirement that countries must adopt censorious laws prohibiting, “defamation” of religion? What is meant by “defamation” in this sense? Well:

“expresses deep concern at attempts to identify Islam with terrorism, violence and human rights violations.”

I don’t even want to examine the question as to whether or not it is right to identify strands of Islam with terrorism or violence. But you have to admit that there’s a huge irony in an group on the UN Human Rights Council drafting a proposal to limit freedom of expression regarding religious matters; and it’s even more ironic when the group is called the “Organisation of Islamic Conference” and is complaining, specifically, that Islam is being related to human rights violations.

Just for the record, the UNHRC is supposed to be upholding the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states (Article 19):

Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers

This organisation has now passed a resolution which effectively says, “except if it’s about religion”.

Blasphemous libel as a common law offense has been abolished in the UK. This is fantastic news, and long, long overdue. But the stupid is still out there, and in high political office. The fight for secularism is still on.


On agnosticism and atheism: opening a can of worms

March 27, 2008

Yesterday, I received a reply to a post, which raised the old question of agnosticism vs atheism (and, by extension, vs. theism). I replied briefly, but I feel that the question should receive a better airing.

Science *doesn’t* object to belief in a deity – although, I suspect, most people, on the basis of moral fortitude would find that organisng a belief in a manner to turn a profit highly objectionable!

This is perfectly almost true. Science doesn’t object to a a person holding a belief in a deity, but science most certainly does object if that belief is bought to the table of scientific enquiry as an explanation. But one thing is certain, the process of scientific enquiry has left the gods of the various religions known to man with vanishingly few places to hide. The question can reasonably raised then; where did these god beliefs come from, and why are they wholly inconsistent about what we now know of natural law?

This question sets the scene.

Science simply finds no basis for argument, in belief, either way. Belief, in a paranormal sense, is based on the existence of God (or a god, or a spiritual world (etc etc), whichever you prefer) and there are *no* grounds for a rational argument in either direction. [my emphasis]

This argument is simply untrue, but like a game of whack-a-mole, nevertheless frequently comes up to be hit on the rhetorical head. It is essentially a re-wording of the statement, “because science – or the scientific method – cannot search everywhere and ultimately disprove the god hypothesis, science cannot disprove the existence of god, therefore god’s existence is as equally likely as its non-existence”. However, this is not how science works, and it is not how rational enquiry works.

Science works on evidence, this much is true. However it emphatically does not work on the basis that a hypothesis should be considered valid until evidence invalidates it. It works in the other direction, on the basis of the null hypothesis: a hypothesis is considered invalid until sufficient evidence is provided to support that hypothesis. That hypothesis, however, does not then suddenly become an insurmountable fact, it is simply a more reasonable hypothesis than it was when the investigation began. As more evidence comes in, it may support or refute that original hypothesis, which may lead to it changing over time to more accurately reflect observations, or it may be discarded.

The existence of a supernatural realm can – and should – be approached in a similar fashion. The supernatural is simply a hypothesis in search of evidence. The question then is simply, what evidence exists for the existence of a supernatural realm? The answer, of course, is none whatsoever. People have claimed to have supernatural powers – whether it’s telekinesis, or mind reading (whether that mind is the mind of another animal, or the mind of the gods), but when those claims are examined they are found wanting.

Now it should be noted that the lack of evidence for the existence of something is not evidence that it doesn’t exist, this much is self-evident: there was no evidence for the existence of planets other than the five classical (naked-eye) planet before the invention of the telescope, but nevertheless they were there. However, the argument at hand is not, “does the supernatural realm definitely not exist”, but, “does science or rational enquiry have a rational basis for stating it almost certainly does not exist”

If you lived before Gallileo’s time and someone had told you that there were not, in fact, five planets but nine eight, it would be perfectly rational to disbelieve them. As it happens you would be factually wrong, but your position would still be rational. This is a problem which is often overlooked; being rational – being properly skeptical – is no guarantee of being right, and the honest skeptic acknowledges this, it is simply saying that a proposition requires evidence before it should be seriously considered, and then should only be considered seriously in light of the strength of the evidence. The rationalist – the skeptic – is, or should be, prepared to change their position in the light of new evidence.

So back to the question of the supernatural. In the absence of sufficient – or sufficiently compelling – evidence it is perfectly rational to state that the likelihood is that there is no supernatural realm. This an entirely reasonable and defensible position. It may be that the theists or supernaturalists are correct, but they lack the evidence to support their hypothesis. Which brings us on to the last bit:

Agnosticism, I think is the word; but I’m sure that as an atheist you’d find that a little too ’sitting on the fence’ for your liking.

I don’t like the agnostic position for the reasons outlined above: in the face of an overwhelming lack of evidence for the existence of the supernatural, I do not find it a reasonable position as it is usually defined. I have to be careful here because, just as atheism is often misrepresented, so to do agnostics hold a wide array of positions. If by agnosticism it is meant, “The supernatural is as equally likely to be true as it is to be false”, I think it ignores the lack of evidence, and is simply sitting on the fence for no good reason.

If, however, it means, “The supernatural is highly unlikely to exist, but we can’t prove it doesn’t”, it appears to me to be saying, “although there is no evidence for X, I don’t want to right it off completely”. I can’t work in that framework. If I concede that this is a good way of reasoning for the supernatural, then why not anything else? Why should this be considered a reasonable perspective? If this is a reasonable perspective to have on the supernatural, then why not other claims with no evidence? But worse, I don’t even think this is an interesting proposition.

I may be wrong about the supernatural. I, of course, based on the overwhelming lack of evidence, don’t think I am. However, my position has been arrived at rationally. Provide me with sufficient evidence for the existence of the supernatural, and I will readily change my position. But remember the saying, “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”. So it had better be good.

Up yours Nisbett: whereupon I lose it.

March 24, 2008

Via Pharyngula I see that Matt Nisbett of Framing Science infamy, has decided that PZ Myers and Dawkins are not fit to present science to the public.

F*ck you Nisbett. You don’t get to decide who speaks for science. You don’t get to decide who discusses science in public and who doesn’t. Science is not a religion. It has no central power. It has no dogma or holy text, and no-one dictates who speaks about it, and you, Nisbett, are not the bloody Pope. Far from it.

I’ve got news for you Nisbett: I’m an atheist largely because books by people like Dawkins showed me I’d been lied to for 20 years. You don’t like that? Well up yours.

I do.

What I don’t like is the fact that people like Ben Steins are lying to people. I don’t like the fact that those lies will penetrate churches, and that people – like myself 13 years ago – who are ill-equipped with the facts to counter those lies will believe those lies. And I really, really, don’t like the fact that people like you, who pretend to support science, are pulling out every rhetorical trick in the book to try to ensure that people – like I was 13 years ago – will not get good science from the mouths of scientists.

Up yours Nisbett.

I am really pissed off. Nisbett, it would seem, would prefer that christians not be confronted with the realities of science.


Somewhat embarrassing I would think.

March 21, 2008

This is the RSVP form for a film called “Expelled”, a movie claiming that because Intelligent Design isn’t science it should therefore be allowed in science schools. The fact that it’s not is clearly a demonstration that scientists are nazis and communists. (Insert sarcasm as appropriate. Note, opinion based on those journalists that had enough integrity to not sign non-disclosure agreements).

On the RSVP, you will note the requirements, “Once you’re confirmed, your name will be on the list. No cellphones/bags blah blah blah”, but not much beyond that.

And this is the work of a thoroughly dishonest hack called Kevin Miller, who claims that this happened because:

The reason? He wasn’t invited.

Well, strictly speaking he wasn’t invited, but that’s for an extremely good reason: it was not an invitation-only event. Ergo, the reason that PZ Myers was kicked out was not, and could not be, because he wasn’t invited. It was because the producers of Expelled recognised someone who they duped into appearing in the film, but were similarly too stupid to recognise possibly the world’s most famous atheist, and religious critic, Richard Dawkins.

It’s at times like this you wish there was an intelligent designer, just so she could be utterly mortified at creating the morons that comprise the ID movement.

Do Not Want

March 11, 2008

From the BBC

School-leavers should be encouraged to swear an oath of allegiance to Queen and country, says a report commissioned by Gordon Brown on British citizenship.

Do Not Want. Why? Well, three reasons:

1) the Queen. I’m a staunch British republican[note]. I think telling teenagers that they should be encouraged to “swear allegiance” to the Queen is innately abhorrent. It’s high time that the archaic system of heredity monarchy – and that abortion of democracy that is the house of Lords – be abolished as the figure head of state, and it’s position in propping up the church of England as the official religion of the UK.

2) the Country. What does that mean in the UK? Should Scottish teenagers swear allegiance to Scotland, or Britain? What about Welsh? English? Irish? The naivety being demonstrated by suggesting that teenagers should “be encouraged” to pledge allegiance to something that even it’s adult citizen’s can’t agree is a good thing is astonishing.

3) Allegiance to the state. The very principle of pledging allegiance to a state strikes me as an insane idea. That one should consider oneself to be obligated to be loyal to anything other than oneself, and one’s personal moral integrity, is the antithesis of freedom. One should never consider oneself to be obligated to be loyal to the state, for down that road is nothing but trouble.

So it’s a bad idea – a ridiculously ill-thought and ill-conceived idea from a person who one would hope should know better, but consistently shows that he doesn’t. Incidentally, in writing this, in particular in expressing my republican sentiments, it would appear I have committed treason.

(Note to American readers: republican here is used strictly in the British sense of the belief that an elected citizen should be the head of state as opposed to the hereditary monarch, and that the British people should be citizens of the state, as opposed to subjects of the monarch.)[back]

No thanks

March 8, 2008

Via the NSS I cam across this letter in the Times. All I can say is, no thanks:

The atheist could reasonably argue that his sensibilities are offended by the religious symbols he sees all around him, and that there ought to be a law to protect the sensitivities of atheists.

I don’t think the religious should have laws to protect their fragile sensibilities, and I’d like to think that most atheist’s sensibilities are not so fragile as to require the law to protect them. The religious have long demonised atheism and secularism whilst demanding protection for their bigoted and misogynistic sermons, and they should be free to continue to do so. Just as I should be free to call their sermons fanciful, bigoted and misogynistic. Things are much simpler that way.

42 was a JOKE

March 7, 2008

Trust the BBC to ruin a perfectly good joke. 42 was a JOKE. J-O-K-E. JOKE. Or, (testing out my Japanese), shijuuni wa joudan desu yo!

But the other interpretation is that the joke was wise. It shows that seeking numerical answers to questions of meaning is itself the problem. Digits, like a four and a two, can no more do it than a string of digits could represent the poetry of Shakespeare.

Huh? I must have missed that in the book. No; it was a joke. A play on words. Read the whole thing, then wonder who writes this stuff. The author is one Mark Vernon who, as an agnostic, has this little quiz, which is a bit silly. I looked at it, and a couple of questions showed that the results are likely to be somewhat skewed:

1. Whether you think God exists or not, would you say you hold your position:(a) as a matter of personal belief; (b) because it is the most likely; (c) as a matter of scientific fact?

Okay, so I’d go with ‘b’. It is overwhelmingly unlikely that any form of supernaturalism exists. (You’ll note the bias, incidentally, in the question: you think God exists. Capital ‘G’, singular).  That’s a perfectly reasonable question, with a suitable answer provided. So why, when you get to question 6, are you confronted with:

4. Why do you think people do not believe in God? Is it:(a) because of churches and people in religious authority; (b) because science has disproved God; (c) because of the way they were brought up?

Erm. 42? I can’t answer that question honestly with any of the options provided! Yet in the first question, a perfectly reasonable answer was there that could also answer this question: Because it is most unlikely! Whilst I dislike churches and religious authorities it is nonsense to assume that one does not believe in gods simply because of the people and institutions who run the god business. And it is equally nonsense that science has “disproved” gods; it has simply given them vanishingly few places to hide.

Take a look at the test, then be prepared to submit your answers for a lesson in pop-philosophy at its worst. If you answered question 5 (what is science) as “reductionist” (remembering that this is from three answers where you can only provide one):

The problem is that the whole is so often more than the sum of its parts. Something is, therefore, always lost in the reductive approach, supremely so in the case of life which, like a dissection, cannot be reassembled when dismembered. Incidentally, science is also circular and mechanistic!

No shit Sherlock. But you posed a question, then provided three mutually exclusive answers that you then admit aren’t mutually exclusive, then assume that I didn’t know that they’re not mutually exclusive. Way to insult your readers.  Of course, if you then factor in that science is not purely reductionist, but is also mechanistic and circular, his objection vanishes in a puff of pure logic! 

And the answer to question 6? I tried both evolution and the big-bang. For evolution, I got:

Continuing the spiritual exploration of science, you next said that the origin of life by evolution is the best of the three theories. Actually, it is the worst. Evolutionary theory is silent on the origin of life.

Once again Vernon is being insanely presumptive in assuming that I – not being a professional philosopher – don’t understand the difference between abiogenesis and evolution-as-the-origin-of-species. The problem is that Vernon is wrong: abiogenesis is an evolutionary process, as PZMyers points out. Evolution is both the theory of the origin of species, and the theory of the origin of life.

If I answered question 6 as big-bang, I get:

This is not a bad theory at all. But it does beg that question, what caused the big bang? The best answer is random quantum fluctuations – something sprang out of nothing – which is, of course, to say nothing about why that something sprang.

Which demonstrates that Vernon is no more a cosmologist than he is a biologist. The “best answer” is NOT that “something sprang out of nothing”. Perhaps Vernon should look into Brane theory, and what exactly is likely to have existed at the singularity at the time of the big bang. (Hint a massive amount of energy is not, “nothing”. Remember: E=mc2). Amusingly, I got 82/100 if I answered “big-bang”, but only 80 if I answered evolution. I can’t bring myself to answer, “something sprang out of nothing”, although – according to Vernon – I already did. Twice.

Mark also didn’t like my answer to question 12, “Is science a religion” (hint: I answered, “no”):

Science does depend upon belief, in a certain way. Science seeks evidence for its theories.

Can you say, “equivocation”? Science seeks evidence, ergo it is a belief. Huh? I almost can’t parse that sentence! His reasoning?

However, that evidence can, in general, only show a theory to be more likely than not. In other words, science depends upon the belief that what is most probably right is true in reality.

No, no, NO! Science looks at the available evidence, and chooses the theory that best matches the evidence, until a better theory comes along. But that new-and-improved theory had damned well better be able to explain the existing body of evidence, as well as make predictions about future bodies of evidence or it is useless. It does not say, “this is therefore true in reality”, and it gets a lot of flak from people wanting to deny science (creationists, Mark Vernon) for this very admission.

No wonder this man can take a joke and twist it out of all proportion, whilst not even getting the original context right.  It’s almost enough to drive a man to Vogon poetry.