Forget the unicorn

27

A classic atheist response to the incredulity of religious believers is -”I contend that we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours “

A variation of this might also help. All children believe in many imaginary creatures – Santa Claus, Easter Bunny, Tooth Fairy, God, Imaginary Friends, Wizards, Dragons, Fairies at the bottom of the garden, Batman, Bogeyman, Abominable Snowman, Aliens, Unicorns – but as they grow up these fall away one by one as a child understands they are made up, not real.

So, religious believer, we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer imaginary friend than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible imaginary unbeings as you grow up, you will understand why I dismiss yours.

Ties that bind

12

People have always done odd things to their bodies, modifying them like petrol heads modify cars. Seems to be hardly a part of the body that some group at some time hasn’t chopped, or pierced, or removed, or tattooed. Done in the interests of group solidarity or distinction, or individual difference or status. At times done at the imaginary demand of imaginary sky beings, not infrequently involving some way of subjugating women.
…Read more

Mappa Mundi

7

OK, this is just between you, Dear Reader, and me, agreed? You are not to mention this to anyone or all my intellectual atheism street cred (yes, yes I do) is gone. Ready?

pope

The chap without the fancy clothes is our John McCarthy, Ambassador to the Vatican, recently presenting my map of “Aboriginal Australia” to the mediaeval gentleman on the right. When he picked up a copy of the map in Canberra, Mr McCarthy said “he was keen to hang the Aboriginal Languages Map in the Vatican and mentioned that he will present a copy to His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI to show what Australia looked like before European arrival”. Um ok John, good stuff, but it isn’t a languages map. Never mind.

Anyway, feel balanced now. Some years ago, on his visit to Australia, the Dalai Lama was also presented with a copy of the Map. As was Bill Clinton. I didn’t actually meet any of these gentlemen, the handing over being done by others, but it remains kinda nice to think of my map going off to all corners of the globe.

Oh, and then there was this:

Good chap Imants Tillers. I did meet him, bumping into him by a fluke, having discovered by chance that the work had been done and was part of an exhibition of Tillers’ work at the National Gallery of Australia. Had walked around a corner and there it was. My work of art turned into another work of art. I sat in front of it for some time. May have been a tear in my eye, may not have been.

Wonder how the Pope will feel, seeing it on his wall?

The man who was Thursday

55

When I was a teenager I used to love Gilbert Keith Chesterton. His novels (“The man who was Thursday”, “The Club of Queer Trades”, the Father Brown series) seemed to me so unique as to be works of a quirky genius; his essays revealed a smart and well-read man. But I grew out of him in adulthood, eventually finding his picture of Merrie Olde England sickly and cloying, and his constant defence of Christianity (he was High Anglican before converting to Catholicism) vastly irritating. [although, doing research for this piece, I came across more quotes from him which made me rethink a bit. Try: "Journalism is popular, but it is popular mainly as fiction". "Life is one world, and life seen in the newspapers is another." "'My country, right or wrong' is a thing no patriot would ever think of saying except in a desperate case. It is like saying 'My mother, drunk or sober.'" "The poor have sometimes objected to being governed badly; the rich have always objected to being governed at all." "The only defensible war is a war of defense. "]

Anyway, I thought about him the other day because of Mars (bear with me, we’ll get to it). The Mars story made me think of what is perhaps Chesterton’s most famous aphorism: “When a Man stops believing in God he doesn’t then believe in nothing, he believes anything.”

Curiosity led me to check on where this quote came from, and I was in for a surprise. Chesterton never said it, never wrote it. Instead it seems to have come from a writer who inadvertently combined two other quotes – “It’s the first effect of not believing in God that you lose your common sense.” and
“You hard-shelled materialists were all balanced on the very edge of belief–of belief in almost anything.”

There, that’s a surprise eh, somebody misquoted to produce a widely known but wrong quote (play it again Sam). But to be fair the mangled quote does give the essence of Chesterton’s belief – if you don’t have an imaginary friend in the sky then you start believing in other imaginary things.

Utter nonsense of course. Chesterton was a very smart man with a huge blind spot of fundamentalist christian belief. Atheists are people who become skeptical about religious claims, then, examining all the evidence, find that there is none supporting the existence of a god. Do you seriously suggest, GK, that they suddenly abandon this skeptical approach in relation to other extraordinary claims? Christians (and members of other religions) have this covered – the less evidence the more faith, so a total lack of evidence requires absolute faith and therefore being perfectly at one with the religion concerned. Do you reckon, Gilbert, that they abandon this trusting belief system when faced with claims about events no more plausible than those in the Bible?

If you believe in religious relics, communion, saints, miracles, life after death, Noah’s Ark, creationism, then I submit, Gilbert, you have been primed to believe anything. Take this, for example, happening right now in 2012, in the sophisticated capital of one of the most advanced countries in the world. Note this little gem of rational thought:
“The saint died in 1552, but his forearm was not removed from his body until 1614, chosen as an object of devotion because he used it to bless and baptise thousands of people in Asia.”

Incidentally, one of the disturbing things about the story is the matter-of-fact way it is reported. As if such a loony tunes procedure was the most natural thing in the world. Would have been nice to have the reporter say “you batshit crazy loons WTF are you on about?” and return to the newsroom, story unwritten.

But, to reiterate, if you can believe that a 500-year-old pickled arm has mysterious powers, you can believe anything. Possibly you might believe, as some did recently that a small, vaguely pyramidal-shaped rock seen by Curiosity on Mars had been carved by Martians (or, as a few years ago, that an outcrop of rocks on Mars, illuminated at one time of day, was a giant carved face. Bit reminiscent really of finding the face of Jesus on a piece of burnt toast, or visions of the “virgin Mary” in a row of fence posts or stains on a wall). What do you think, GK, it was atheists who believed such rubbish?

Or, in your own beloved England, just the other day, were they atheists who thought that bright lights in the sky was a UFO, not space junk re-entering the atmosphere or a large meteorite? Is it atheists who believe in homeopathy, aliens, ghosts (when was that “exorcism” I read about?), telepathy, naturopathy,  paranormal, mediums who talk to the dead? Or is it the people who believe water turned into wine, a virgin gave birth, a burning bush spoke, the Red Sea parted, or some chap returned to life after dying and spoke to a couple of people?

Well, Mr Chesterton, your extraordinary evidence for the claim?

My way or the highway

17

We pride ourselves as Australians on being open, happy with diversity, respecting other opinions, fair go, all that. But it is an illusion, the freedom only applies to those who repeat the standard memes, follow the party line, accept the Australian mythology about who and what we are. Deviate from that and the gatekeepers will come down on you like a ton of bricks.

Express a belief that the environment must have some protections and a shock jock newspaper columnist will call for you to be strung up from lamp posts. Point out the scientific evidence for climate change and receive hate mail and death threats prompted by the shock jocks. Have a long ago family background in communism like Senator Lee Rhiannon and you will be subject to constant vile attacks.

Oppose some actions by religious organisations and fundamentalist pastors will call for your head on a platter. As they will if you support marriage equality, or abortion, or admit to being an Atheist. Question the economic orthodoxy of continuous growth, austerity, public asset sales, removal of workplace regulation, and growing gap between rich and poor, and neoconservative editorial writers will abuse you for living in the past.

Question Australia’s military record, and its American links, and be prepared for accusations of unAustralianess. Same will happen if you suggest Australians are just a teeny bit racist. And if you suggest farming has contributed not insignificantly to Australian environmental problems. And if you dare to question whether the “War on Drugs” might be a little counterproductive. And if you dare to ask why so many guns in society.

Ask why the government funds private schools, why billionaires don’t pay more tax, why the coal industry gets massive subsidies, and you will be treated with contempt and scorn by the mainstream media. Question the role of vicious shock jocks in coarsening political debate and they will turn on you in a second screaming “free speech”.

In short. You are free to say whatever you like, of course you are. March along the broad highway constructed by Murdoch and friends and they will cheer you on like a winning football team. Dare to investigate side roads, bush tracks, little diversions under bridges, and the opinion muggers will beat you up and leave you bleeding by the roadside.

Of course many of the unspeakable opinions above are specific to Australia, but others apply more generally, and individual countries will have other additions related to history, culture, religion.

I suspect everywhere, to greater and lesser degrees, freedom of expression is really the freedom to conform.

The sphere of private life

40

When theocracy comes back to western civilisation it might begin with three young women protesting in a church and being jailed for two years. Or it will ride in on a wagon outlawing same-sex marriage. Perhaps it will come from small fundamentalist religious schools keeping their students isolated from any other thoughts, including Darwin’s dangerous idea. Or maybe it will come from leaders who pray to an imaginary being for guidance before making decisions on war.

Maybe “witches” being burnt will provide a spark. Or the loud voices demanding that women cover up their bodies, and art work be destroyed which depicts nakedness. Could it be hiding under the cloak of those who called a young Olympic runner a “prostitute”? Or of those who are certain that women must never be allowed to preach to men?

Perhaps it’s coming in that mob of wild-eyed young men brandishing AK 47s in the air and screaming “god is great” in triumph at having slaughtered other young men. Or in the ones screaming abuse about homosexuality at people attending soldier’s funerals. Or in the hands of the ones screaming at young women attending family planning clinics, or blowing them up or shooting “abortion doctors”. Or maybe it’ll be riding in a plane being flown into a tall building, or a truckload of explosives smashing into a girl’s school.

Maybe theocracy will begin on old battlefield sites being labelled as “sacred ground”. Or on pieces of burnt toast with an imaginary face. Or in a row of fence posts imagined as a woman’s figure. Or in the ancient monuments blown up as impure. Or perhaps in those places where gullible sick people are prayed upon and preyed upon by those promising miracle cures in return for a little money.

Its arrival will be speeded up by those determined to smash science. By those who preach the dominion of man over nature. By the tax exemptions for religious institutions. By the prayers at the start of parliamentary sessions. By the growing role of religious cadres in schools, in hospitals, in military memorial ceremonies, in political lobby groups. By the politicians flaunting their religious beliefs as an incentive to vote for them. By the preachers blaming a drought or a tornado on people behaving “sinfully”.

It will come from the children indoctrinated, and sometimes mutilated, at ages far too young to give consent. It will come from cults shielded from scrutiny by threats of legal action, shielded from criticism by laws limiting free speech. Will come from the poor devils refusing medical treatment in favour of prayer. Will come from big businesses with religious fundamentalist owners using their power. Will come from fearful people, made afraid by shock jocks serving political masters. Will come from the deliberate conflating of religion and race by unscrupulous leaders. Will come from words written by deluded people hundreds, thousands of years ago, believed by deluded people now to have come from one imaginary being or another.

It is enabled every time the media calls it a “miracle” when someone is saved by the full application of five centuries of western science and medicine. Every time tv channels run “serious” programs about “psychics” or “near death experiences” or “ghosts”. Every time someone is said to have “passed” instead of died. Every time someone says they will “pray for you to get better” and you don’t say “how about donating to medical research instead?” Every time someone wears a “power band” or a “healing crystal”, or recommends homeopathy.

Brought nearer every time someone says “Oh, those New Atheists, so aggressive and rude, they really should respect the beliefs of religious people”.

The bible will arrive, everywhere, wrapped in the flag and carrying a gun. Theocracy is coming to a country near you, soon, and it will take you back to the Dark Ages. The only thing needed for religion to triumph is for good people to do nothing.

“Things have come to a pretty pass when religion is allowed to invade the sphere of private life” (William Lamb, on hearing an evangelical sermon)

Dick Tracy’s Watch

8

Things I never thought I’d see in 2012

America becoming a Theocracy
Russia become a mafia state
England voting in a Conservative govt
People allowing planet to be destroyed
Novel 1984 used as manual in west
Fundamentalism on rise everywhere
Arctic icecap disappearing
Marine fish species going extinct
Such detailed astronomy
Misogyny increasing again
Racism increasing again
Monarchy still viable
Increasing communication decreasing information
War as a first resort
Coal-fired power stations
Very concept of Human Rights attacked
World population increasing
Whaling
Creationism
Cigarettes

So, Dear Reader, what things do you see, when you look around, that you didn’t think you’d be seeing?

Short and stout

55

Bertrand Russell famously said that if he stated that there was a teapot circling the Sun, nobody could prove him wrong, and that this was exactly the same as saying, without proof, that a god existed:

“Many orthodox people speak as though it were the business of sceptics to disprove received dogmas rather than of dogmatists to prove them. This is, of course, a mistake. If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes. But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense. If, however, the existence of such a teapot were affirmed in ancient books, taught as the sacred truth every Sunday, and instilled into the minds of children at school, hesitation to believe in its existence would become a mark of eccentricity and entitle the doubter to the attentions of the psychiatrist in an enlightened age or of the Inquisitor in an earlier time”

Or as Carl Sagan put it more succinctly “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”.

Note that Russell was writing exactly 60 years ago, and so could happily include in his argument that the teapot was “too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes”. Sixty years on and we have massively stronger telescopes. Well, ok, he could certainly still say that the telescopes wouldn’t see a small teapot wandering through space between Earth and Mars, but a medium-sized teapot?

Telescopes can see almost back to the Big Bang, see the earliest stars and galaxies that formed. Can see the tiniest perturbations in the rings of Saturn, tiny colour differences on Mercury, changing seasons on Titan. Billions of galaxies can be seen, black holes in abundance, nebulae, distant planets circling different stars, every phenomenon of the universe. Can see every small rock and sandstorm on the surface of Mars, can see where the ice melts in Summer. Can look at details of the surface of asteroids, of comets, of lumps of rock that whizz past Earth. Can do experiments on our own Moon and see the results. Can analyse in detail the surface of the Sun, describe the history of other stars.

Telescopes can view the universe not just in the visible light spectrum, but in infrared, UV, XRay, radio waves. Can see where the “dark matter” is, can “weigh” galaxies, estimate the size of black holes. Can see the echoes of the big bang in the cosmic background radiation. Can see the arrangement of the universe in local groups of galaxies and in the super groupings.

The detail in our description of the universe is now quite astonishing. And nowhere in all that is there a sign of a teapot. Not a big one or a little one. Oh, and no sign of a fellow with a white beard and flowing robes either. Nor tall skinny gods or short stout ones. Nor any of the other imaginary elephants or buddhas or rainbow serpents. No imaginary figures, unless of course they are hiding in a sunken cave on Mars, or under the frozen surface of Titan, or shyly peeping from behind the dust clouds in a nebula, or popping in and out of a black hole in the middle of a galaxy, or, well, you get the idea. No one out there.

For the religious, like homeopaths, the less you can see the greater the proof, until the point where absolute zero evidence equals absolute certainty. So I guess they have it now – whatever the size of the telescope, or all the other devices with which we see the universe, the evidence for teapots, sorry, gods, is zero, zip, zilch, nada, nothing. Them gods ain’t nowhere man.

Nor is the teapot.

Faith Less

16

The other day I saw a sign advertising something called “Catholic Education Week”. While thinking, snarkily, they had mis-spelled the third word, I saw the slogan – “Faith in every child”. I paused, briefly, as I am sure you have, to admire the cleverness, nay genius, in that play-on words. Then I got a bit cross, and I thought I’d share my crossness with you.

Not, I hasten to add, crossness merely with the Catholic “educators”. For all I know there is also a “Jewish Education Week”, a “Muslim Education Week”, a “Evangelical Education Week”, and a “Scientology Education Week”, all of whom could use exactly the same slogan.

Instilling “faith” in children is indeed what religion is about, but is precisely the opposite of what education is (or should be) about. Here are some alternative education slogans for you:
“Curiosity in every child”
“Inquiry in every child”
“Confidence in every child”
“Ambition in every child”
“Caring in every child”
“Achievement in every child”
“Balance in every child”
“Happiness in every child”

I invite you to add some more.

Tell you what, keep “faith” away from a child until it is seven, and I’ll give you an educated and rational adult.