Forget the unicorn


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


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.
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Books do furnish an MP’s room


Some years ago I wrote a piece in which I suggested a new form of swearing-in of a new Prime Minister of Australia, which included a choice of books on which the newly elected best and brightest could swear the oath instead of the bible – Origin of Species, Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, 1984, Catch-22.

This week I remembered those suggestions as the revelations of rorting of parliamentary allowances by Liberal MPs belatedly (ie safely after the election) came to light. Among the rorts were thousands of dollars worth of books purchased.
…Read more

Field of dreams


Odd moment during the recent announcement and garbled discussion of education reforms in Australia. Chief Minister of the ACT, Katy Gallagher, was asked by parochial reporters, essentially, “what’s in it for Canberra?”

She said, perhaps bemused by the stupid question, that because most if not all Canberra students were already receiving support above what was being proposed, there actually wasn’t anything “in it” for the ACT.

In hunter-gatherer societies all children are educated equally – it would be suicidal for the society to do anything else. Same with the early agricultural societies. In both cases gifted individuals may specialise in particular areas of expertise later, but all will be educated.

We lost this equality of opportunity as the accumulation of wealth by a few created a situation where better education could be purchased, and that has remained the case, and been strengthened, ever since.

Indeed in Australia the Right, themselves, one and all, the products of the best education money could buy, decided they could do better as old boys (or girls) than merely denoting a few tax deductible dollars to the alma mater. They could, they realised, get their name up on the honour roll by getting the people of Australia to pay big bucks to schools already overflowing with swimming pools and polo ponies and acres of rolling playing fields. And they could lock in such payments permanently with a clever mathematical formula which achieved bias while appearing objective. A simple formula, always applied by conservatives, and always effective = The Rich get Richer. Genius eh?

So, it’s time for a reversal of fortunes. A simple formula = To each according to his needs. Identify the poorest public schools, give them more money to build up their resources to the level of the richer public schools. And then, whisper who dare, onwards to the levels of the private schools. Oh, sorry, getting a bit carried away there. Never mind, let’s get all students onto as level a playing field, playing fields, as possible. Cry havoc and let loose the dogs of class war.

But wait, there’s more. The other conservative legacy also affects equality of educational opportunity – religion. Separation of church and state? Yeah, whatever, but separation of church and school just as important. Yet John Howard unleashed the dogs of sectarianism. Loony tunes religious schools proliferated. Students taught curriculums in which garbage like creationism can be included, because religious freedom. “The more religion, the lower the quality of education” – write that on the blackboard 100 times Mr Howard

But worse is that schooling, meant to broaden horizons, introduce new ideas, allow children to mix widely, teach the ability to think and evaluate, to see a world beyond the walls of their home, has been narrowed. Religious fanatics have been allowed to carry out home-schooling in bulk. Allowed to make sure that no child raised in the closed little worlds of religious fundamentalism is allowed to discover that there is another real world outside.

So, equality of opportunity for all students? Absolutely, stuff of dreams. But understand that it involves more than just money. I have a dream of getting all students onto the playing field of secular education.

What’s in it for Australia? Only the next generation.

The Old Astronomer*


Look, there’s a lot of different careers I could have had. Hell, had three different ones, three and a half, as it was. But if I ever manage to decide what I want to do with my life (and yes, that is a winged chariot you hear), astronomy is right up there as a possibility.

Oh, not really a possibility, with my lack of physics and mathematics abilities. I suppose my wishful thinking was always based on Herschel, hell Galileo, staring at the mysterious skies through a telescope and seeing, things never seen before, heavenly messengers.

We are of course, long past the time when amateurs could point a telescope from their backyard and make discoveries in the cosmos. Although, that said, it is from a backyard not a million parsecs from mine that a chap does keep making discoveries, most recently of bits of a comet crashing into Jupiter.

But my old eyes are too old anyway, these days, astronomy a young person’s game, these days. Besides, had my academic careers, working in zoology and archaeology. But it’s all the same thing, really, archaeology being part of zoology, and zoology a subsection of astronomy.

What was the question? Oh, you think I need to defend those suggestions? Well, if I must, it’s your blog.

“The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of starstuff.” Carl Sagan of course, in a rather wonderful thought. We don’t need to go out to the stars, they have come to us. And not just to humans, but every living being on the planet, and the very structure of the planet we live on.

The other rather wonderful thought is that we, you and I dear reader, are related to every other human being currently on the planet, and all those who came before. And if that isn’t a wonderful enough thought, we, you and I, are also related to every other living being, animal and plant, on the planet. How good is that eh?

And not just related in the literal, direct genetic sense, but in an ecological one. As the first of the apes that would become human walked across the African savannah they began to adapt to different habitats to their nearest relatives, and to make use of different plants and animals in their diet. Their hunting will have subtly altered species compositions among their prey and plant foods. And eventually, as some groups shifted towards agriculture or pastoralism, their interactions with other species actually affected evolution, in a process we call domestication.

We study early humans in exactly the same way we study their relatives, through palaeontology, studying not only their bony remains, but, where possible, diet and behaviour. As we reach the creation of stone and other tools we call this branch of palaeontology “archaeology”, but it’s all one thing. And palaeontology is of course just one aspect of zoology.

Convinced yet?

But wait, there’s more. For a long time another branch of zoology (well, biochemistry, but really I’m in an imperial mood) has investigated the origins of life. Plenty of ideas, successful experiments in forming organic molecules in conditions approximating early Earth in terms of water, heat, electrical discharge, low oxygen, clay minerals etc. But all with the deliberately built-in, assumed requirement that organic had to come from an original inorganic chemistry on Earth. [This is, was, a necessary assumption. The nonsense from Hoyle and Wickramasinghe about life forms arriving on Earth from comet tails or whatever was not only mad-brained, but didn't affect the study of the origin of life, merely shifted the location to somewhere else where, obviously, organic must have still been derived from inorganic, and on a surface of some kind].

But the young lads and lasses of modern astronomy have shown in effect (and I never thought I’d find myself writing this phrase) that Fred and Chandra were sort of right. No, no, not in the sense of showers of frogs or beetles or bacteria from outer space, I haven’t lost my wits totally (nor my sarcasm). But what recent years of observation have shown us is that organic molecules of various kinds are common in space. Are produced, as I understand it, from dust clouds and the radiation from evolving and exploding stars. That it isn’t necessary to start from scratch to form life on this planet (and quite possibly also on Mars and moons like Titan and Enceladus), but that various organic molecules will provide a kind of kick start for electrical discharges, water, heat, clay substrates to go to work and develop the kind of self-reproducing complex organic molecules we call “life”. [This also, incidentally, makes it absolutely certain that many other millions of the planets the young astronomers are now also able to observe will also have life].

So, not just star stuff to build bones etc, but the very materials that can, in the right conditions, form life, come from out there. There is no gap between us and all the other life forms on this planet, and none between our organics and those spread throughout this awfully big universe. Another rather wonderful thought.

Oh, and of course no longer any need to distinguish between astronomy, zoology, and archaeology. And no need for me to plan (thank goodness) another end of life career – I always was an astronomer really, it turns out, just one studying the bits of the universe that happened to sit on this planet.

Not now, sadly though, a young astronomer but an old astronomer. Almost as old as the universe, I can feel it in my bones.

*see poem “The Old Astronomer” by Sarah Williams about a third of the way through my “Values” section, click tag above or

Political Gene-ius


I often think it’s comical
How Nature always does contrive 
That every boy and every gal,
That’s born into the world alive,
Is either a little Liberal,
Or else a little Conservative!
(WS Gilbert “Iolanthe”)

When I, aged 30, first met my Father we didn’t discuss cricket, and I have no idea whether he was a fan or not. But then I had no idea he was a Shakespeare fan until I learned he had somehow carried a volume of the Collected Works in his army kitbag all through the Middle East and New Guinea in World War 2, so perhaps he did love cricket.

My grandfather (yes, the one in the photo top right) certainly did play, and love, cricket, and was, apparently, a very handy fast bowler, even up to being in his Forties. I once proudly owned, and wore, his cricket cap from when he played in the County Durham competition, 100 years ago, but lost it in circumstances which remain painful.

He died not long after I turned seven. Before I was old enough to seriously appreciate cricket, and long before television, let alone direct tv broadcasts of Test Matches, came to Perth. Cricket could be followed, from England, on the radio in the early 1950s, and that was that. One of my many regrets about his early death was never being able to watch cricket with him. Both of us would have relished the experience.

But with no direct transmission from either father or grandfather, how did I get my love of cricket?

What used to be called the “lower vertebrates”, fish, amphibians, reptiles, generally speaking, fertilise eggs, lay them somewhere appropriate, and then piss off. Consequently the young, when born, are equipped to completely fend for themselves. All of their behaviour patterns are encoded in their DNA, and on hatching they simply seek shelter, food, and eventually mates in ways that were innate, not learned. [It's worth noting though that some species in all these groups have separately evolved live births, and others, after laying eggs, guard them until hatching, and then guard the young for a while. In such species it is possible the young do learn some behaviour associated with, say, feeding, from the male or female parent].

The “higher vertebrates”, birds and mammals, show considerable variation. All the birds (and three of the mammals) lay eggs of course. But there are some, the cuckoo species, that dump their eggs into the nests of other species to raise. There are some, all ground living types (emus, chickens, ducks etc), who have “precocial” young, with down cover, born ready to move off with their mother. Most others have young born naked and totally helpless, needing total care in nest from parents until their feathers develop and they can fly (and even then care continues). They therefore have a mixture of innate behaviours and learned (or at least modified) behaviours

Mammals also vary. Some, notably the herd/flock species, are up and moving within a few hours of birth and following the mother in the rest of the mob. Others are born completely helpless, and remain so for long periods, weeks, months, even years. The ones who develop quickly have less chance (and need) to learn from parents (though they will learn a great deal), those (notably the apes, including us, learn a great deal from the parents and have fewer purely innate components (though far more than we realise).

Well, in brief, we are into the nitty gritty of the “nature-nurture” debate – what part of a species, say Homo sapiens sapiens, behaviours are genetic, inherited, what part are learnt? Not simple, as the evolutionary history above shows. Certainly there are fundamental things – eating, drinking, danger, comfort, athleticism – that are strongly genetically based. Then there are superficial things – religion, taste in music and art, social unit structures, political beliefs, and, yes, sport preferences – that are strongly based on the context in which you are raised.

But, on the one hand the genetic ones are modified by upbringing (eg particular food preferences, response to dangers, how fit you are), and on the other, even some of the superficial socio-culturally-based ones have some genetic basis it has been found. Studies of twins raised separately for example show some tendency for them to be similar in their strength of religious belief (though the form strictly related to household raised in). Musical abilities are well-known to often “run in families”. And more recently (for example) studies show tendency towards respectively right and left-wing political beliefs have some genetic component (though again, the particular form this might take being related to up-bringing). Wonder if the otherwise inexplicable gun love in the US is part of this inheritance?

Interestingly, though not surprisingly perhaps, both the religious and political tendencies are related to serotonin production and the brain’s response, and since music also causes serotonin reactions, it may well be that is also related to the abilities of, say, the sons of JS Bach.

Anyway, all of that may help to explain (though of course there would be many other factors), why a religious believer might suddenly appear from an atheist household, or a fervent Young Republican from a Democratic one, or a genius musician from a non-musical family. May also explain why musical ability is rare, why the irrational belief in religion persists to damage societies, and why roughly half of the voters in most countries keep voting for conservative parties that will damage their interests.

Oh, and it might just explain why I am watching a cricket match on tv while I write this! There being more things in heaven an earth than are dreamed of in our philosophy, or made a fault in our stars.

The man who was Thursday


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


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


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)