Monday, 29 October 2007

Cool Atheist Music 8 - Bad Religion - God Song

Firstly, apologies for the lack of posts over the last couple of weeks. Turns out this PhD thing takes up a lot of your time! We now return you to your normal blogging service, with a slightly delayed cool atheist music.



This week's cool atheist music is again from Bad Religion - it's a great acoustic version of one of their classics. If you want to hear the original, complete with raging guitar, it's here.

If anyone has any ideas for cool atheist music feel free to contribute, and hopefully this series can become a little more regular! For previous posts in this series, see here.

Friday, 19 October 2007

Wednesday, 17 October 2007

Cool Atheist Music 7 - John Lennon - Imagine



The classic.

If anyone has any ideas for cool atheist music feel free to contribute, and hopefully this series can become a little more regular! For previous posts in this series, see here.

Tuesday, 16 October 2007

A Great Quote

Whilst reading Philip K. Dick's somewhat odd, yet fascinating essay How to Build a Universe That Doesn't Fall Apart Two Days, I came across this great quote:

Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away.
He says it's the best definition he can come up with, and I have to say I can't think of any better. It explains nicely how religion has (in general) moved away from trying to assert its authority by making grand claims about the physical state of the world, and has instead focused on ethical issues such as homosexuality - the world isn't going to go away, it's going to come and bite you in the ass if you believe stupid things about it. However, ethics are simply a human construct, and as such there is no absolute 'reality' that can turn up and show statements to be obviously wrong (You can show the claimed foundations of the ethical structure are wrong, but that's a different story).

Monday, 15 October 2007

New Carnivals Up

The Humanist Symposium #9 and Boneyard #7 are both now up, and feature some of my posts along with a load of other great reading material. Go check them out!

Thursday, 11 October 2007

I thought this type of thing only happened in America?

I'm actually quite shocked by this report from last week's Conservative conference by The Lancashire Secular Humanists:

As John Gummer [Conservative MP for Suffolk Coastal] came upon the British Humanist Association’s campaign stand in the exhibitors gallery at the Winter Gardens this afternoon he was clearly heard to say to his companion “Do you know there is nothing I hate more than these Humanists”.

He then launched into a loud abusive rant in which he complained that The British Humanists Association “had no right to be here” and; with spittle-filled passion he pointed his finger at startled BHA members and declared “The Conservative Party is and always has been a Christian Party” (big emphasis on ‘Christian’) before turning on his heels and storming off without giving those volunteers (me included) an opportunity to respond.
So, there you go - John Gummer: complete raving bigot. That's the way to challenge Tory stereotypes alright :| I'm just hoping he's in a minority of one, and that the Conservatives get rid of him quickly - he's an embarrassment.

There's a discussion of this over at the Suffolk Humanists - apparently he denies everything. What a surprise.

Via Feeding the Fish.

Wednesday, 10 October 2007

More Hypocrisy from Religious Figures: Who'd've thought it?

I notice one of the most strident voices opposing the new offence against incitement to homophobic hatred in the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill is Colin Hart, Director of the conservative evangelical Christian Institute. Here's what he said:

“In a democratic society people must be free to express their beliefs without fear of censure. A homophobic hatred law would be used by those with an axe to grind against Christians to silence them. There has already been high profile cases of the police interfering with free speech and religious liberty regarding sexual ethics. People shouldn’t face prison for expressing their sincerely-held religious beliefs.”
He's really giving the old free speech defence some welly isn't he? Apropos of nothing much, here's Colin Hart back in 2005 on Jerry Springer: The Opera:
"The BBC has a duty to respect the religious beliefs of its viewers... Genuine religious debate and criticism is one thing, but this show is an offensive, spiteful, systematic mockery and wilful denigration of Christian belief."
He then promptly called for a judicial review of its screening. What - use the law to silence something he disagrees with? But he's so keen on free speech! I'll remind you of that quote again: "In a democratic society people must be free to express their beliefs without fear of censure."

That's what makes me so angry about so many religious public figures. They're not actually interested in free speech, or any consistent set of moral principles. What they're interested in is using the law to bully people into not saying anything they don't like, whilst hiding behind the law as soon as anyone says anything nasty about them. "Don't hate us, but it's fine for us to hate you." They're disingenuous, self-interested hypocrites. It's pathetic.

Cool Atheist Music 6 - Nine Inch Nails - Heresy



This week's cool atheist music comes from Nine Inch Nails, and was suggested by esaul17. It should suit those who like their atheism angry, with a shouty chorus.

If anyone has any ideas for cool atheist music feel free to contribute, and hopefully this series can become a little more regular! For previous posts in this series, see here.

Monday, 8 October 2007

Cephalopods, mosasaurs, and Cretaceous parenting


Typical. You go away on holiday, you come back, and it's International Cephalopod Awareness Day. And me with nothing to wear, and shoes that don't match my dress, and a handbag that's so last season... anyway, moving swiftly on, back to the cephalopods.

As any palaeontologist worth his (or her) salt knows, the ultimate cephalopods are ammonoids and nautiloids. Whilst taking my MSci I briefly studied these fantastic beasties, completing a three month research project on predation on ammonoids. During my studies, I came across this fascinating research paper (Kaufmann 2004), detailing a mosasaur attack on a Cretaceous nautiloid. In this paper Kaufmann presents a nautiloid (Argonautilus catarinae) recovered in San Diego county, California (image below).

As you can see the nautiloid has three large puncture marks (indicated AT in the figure), and five smaller ones (indicated JT). From the size and spacing of these puncture marks Kaufmann infers them to be mosasaur bite marks, most likely from Mosasaurus or Platycarpus. The smaller punctures form a separate bite, and precede the larger punctures making up the second bite. This second bite most likely killed the nautiloid and caused it to sink, penetrating the flotation and living chamber. Kaufmann argues that these bites consist of two mosasaurs of the same species, an adult and a juvenile.

Evidence from the pattern of bite marks in ammonites implies a learned mosasaur behavior pattern of blind-side attack of the prey first, followed by positioning bites using both the stabbing and pterygoid teeth, followed by one or more bites across the living chamber of the ammonite designed to rip the prey animal out of the shell to consume it. Combining these two lines of evidence, Kaufmann paints a picture of a mother mosasaur teaching the child the best way to tackle this food source. So from this specimen (and with only minor speculation!) we have inferred not only part of an ecosystem, but part of a mode of life, and maybe part of the parent-child dynamic also.

And that's what's so fascinating about palaeontology. This vignette played itself out millions of years ago - not only are its individual actors long dead, but so are their entire species. And yet from a small fragment of rock we can reconstruct so much of their lives. From that rock, just for a moment, we too can swim in the Cretaceous seas, can envisage a life far removed from our own, infer its dramas and imbibe of its wonder.

Amazing.

References:

KAUFFMAN, ERLE G. Mosasaur Predation on Upper Cretaceous Nautiloids and Ammonites from the United States Pacific Coast Palaios 2004 19: 96-100

Normal blogging service is resumed

I got back from holiday yesterday, and started* my PhD today, so things have been hectic. But I'm back now, and thanks for your patience in putting up with the week's break (And if you didn't, well, you won't be reading this, so, um, hahaha, you smell.). I've got some cool pictures of a snake I nearly stood on, and of what happens when flying ants decide to combine their yearly emergence and search for a new home with high tide whilst living on a beach (It's not pretty). Sadly what I do not currently appear to have is a camera lead to transfer these pictures, but when I do I'll post them up. And with that rambling over, we return you to your normal viewing.

* For a given value** of 'started'.
** The value that means 'The stupid registry claimed they didn't have my references even though they were e-mailed months ago and so I had to go home at lunch to sort it out and so got nothing done.'***
*** Sigh.

Friday, 28 September 2007

A brief blogging break

I'm off on holiday until next weekend, so there'll be no updates for the next week. Until then, treat this blog as your own, browse through the back archives, submit posts to Digg :), etc. See you in a week.

A Pleasant Surprise

Whilst reading an article by Simon Barnes in the Times about the problems facing Test cricket, I was pleasantly surprised by the following paragraph:

But let’s not talk about evolution. That only confuses things. The use of Darwinian theory to explain and justify changes in human society is one of the greatest misunderstandings in philosophical history. Evolution is not a march of progress, it does not reach a goal of perfection and, for the record, neither humankind nor a single certain human race is the crown of creation.
And that's why he's my favourite sports writer.

Thursday, 27 September 2007

Cool Atheist Music 5 - Bad Religion - God's Love


This week's cool atheist music comes from Bad Religion. I was going to pick their track "Materialist" off the Process of Belief, which is more of a positive view of naturalism and atheism, but it appears that it hasn't been uploaded to the interwebs yet. So here's "God's Love" off the Empire Strikes First, on the problem of evil.

Incidentally, there were about 20 or 30 Bad Religion songs I could have picked - if you like punk rock and atheism, you really should check them out. And their lead singer (Greg Graffin) has a PhD in evolutionary biology. Amazing.

If anyone has any ideas for cool atheist music feel free to contribute, and hopefully this series can become a little more regular! For previous posts in this series, see here.

70th Skeptic's Circle now up

The 70th Skeptic's Circle is now up over at The Conspiracy Factory, and it appears I'm scheduled for elimination because I know too much. Seems like I'd better start checking under my car for explosive devices...

Oh wait, I don't have a car. That's alright then. They'll never get me!

Wednesday, 26 September 2007

The Atheist Blogroll, and Bookmarking

I've decided to jump on the atheist blogroll posting bandwagon, and post the Atheist Blogroll to give our collective authority a boost (thanks to jwhaws at The Atheocracy for showing me how).

I've also decided to add a bookmarking button to the bottom of every post. Now, if you like a post you can click on the button and tell the social bookmarking service of your choice how great it is. Go on, you know you want to!

2 Intellectual Atheists
A Daily Dose of Doubt
A Human Mind
A Load of Bright
A Night on the Tiles
A Veritable Plethora
A Whore in the Temple of Reason
A-Deistic
AA
Aardvarchaeology
AASAUF
About: Agnosticism / Atheism
Abstract Nonsense
Aces Full of Links
acrylic.
Action Skeptics
AEsahaettr
After Faith
Agnostic Atheism
aidan maconachy blog
Ain’t Christian
Al-Kafir Akbar!
Alien Atheist
Am I mad, or is the world?
Amused Muse
An Enlightened Observer
Angels Depart
Angry Astronomer
Arcis Logos
Ateistbloggen
Atheism is the Rational Response
Atheism Online
atheism | simra.net
Atheism: Proving The Negative
Atheist Blogs Aggregated
Atheist Ethicist
Atheist Ethics
Atheist Father
Atheist Girl
Atheist Housewife
Atheist Hussy
Atheist Movies
Atheist Revolution
Atheist Says What
Atheist Self
Atheisthought
atheistperspective.com
AtheisTube
Austin Atheist Anonymous
Author of Confusion
Axis of Jared
Aye!
Ayrshire Blog
Babble, bullshit, blasphemy and being.
Bay of Fundie
Beaman’s World
Beep! Beep! It’s Me.
Ben’s Place
Bert’s Blog
Bible Study for Atheists
biblioblography
Bill’s View
Bitchasaurus
bits of starstuff
Bjorn & Jeannette’s Blog
Black Sun Journal
Bligbi
Blogue de Mathieu Demers
blurp
Bob Kowalski
Born Again Atheist
brainstorms
brokencats
Buridan’s Ass
By The Book Comics
Can’t make a difference
CaroLINES
CHADMAC Speaks
Christian Follies
CHRISTIAN PWNAGE 101
Church of Integrity
Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster
Circular Reasoning
Cogita Tute - Think For Yourself
Coming Out Godless
Complete Materialist
Confessions of an Anonymous Coward
Cosmic Variance
Crazy Christian Chain Emails
Culture for all
Daily Atheist
DAILY BBG
Dark Christianity
Dark Side of Mars
Darwin’s Dagger
Daylight Atheism
Debunking Christianity
Deep Thoughts
Deeply Blasphemous
Desperately Seeking Ethics and Reason
Deus ex Absurdum
DEVOUT Atheist Godless Grief
Die Eigenheit
Dime a dozen
disambiguation
discernible chaos
Disgusted Beyond Belief
Dispatches from the Culture Wars
do not read this blog
Dr. Joan Bushwell’s Chimpanzee Refuge
Drunken Tune
Dubito Ergo Sum
Duplicitous Primates
Dwindling In Unbelief
Edifying Spectacle
Edward T. Babinski
Elaine Vigneault
EnoNomi
evanescent
Everyday Atheism
Everyday Humanist
Everything Is Pointless
Evolution
EvolutionBlog
ExChristian.Net
Expired Convictions
Explicit Atheist
Feersum Endjinn
Fish Wars on Cars
Five Public Opinions
Flex Your Head
Flumadiddle
Free Mind Joe
FreeThought by a FreeThinker
Freethought vs. Friel-Thought
Freethought Weekly
Friendly Atheist
FVThinker
Genesis-fel
Geoff Arnold
Gimme Back My God!
God is for Suckers!
God is Pretend
godisajoke.com
Godless Kiwi
Godless on the Wasatch Front
godlessgeek
goldbricker
Goosing the Antithesis
Gospel of Reason
Gratuitous Common Sense
Greg Hartnett
Happy Jihad’s House of Pancakes
Hayleys Paranormal Blog
Hellbound Alleee
hell’s handmaiden
High Maintenance Hags
Honjii’s Harangues
Human Psyche of J.D. Crow
Ice Station Tango
In Defence Of Reason
Incessant Expressions
INFIDELIS MAXIMUS
Infophilia
Inkblot Icon
Interesting
Irked off
Jewish Atheist
Judith’s thought-provoking hard-hitting journal
K H A L A S !
Kill The Afterlife
King Aardvark
Lary Crews
Le Contestataire
le tiers monde
leaping rabbit/lapin sauteur
Leicester Secularist
Let There Be Light
Letters from a broad
Life & Otherwise
Life is an adventure
Life Without Faith
Life, the Universe and Everything
Lifecruiser
Living with Missy and other thoughts
LOL god
Look at the Bright’s Side
Lord J-Bar For Democracy, Not Theocracy
louis’ blog
Love the Nimbu
Lubab No More
lynn’s daughter, thinking
Masala Skeptic
Matt’s Notepad
Mechanical Crowds
mediawatchwatch.org.uk
Meet An Atheist
Memoirs of a (G)a(y)theist
Memoirs of an ex-Christian
Midwest Atheist
Migrations
Mike’s Weekly Skeptic Rant
mindcore
MINISTER OF RANTS
Misc. Musing
mister jebs blog
Modern Agnostic
Modern Atheist
My Case Against God
My Elemental Muse
My Life Thinly Disguised as Groove
Nanovirus
Naturalistic Atheism
Neural Gourmet
New Humanist Blog
NewAthei.st
Nicest Girl and Destroyer of Planets
No Double Standards
No More Hornets
No more Mr. Nice Guy!
NoGodBlog.com
Non Credo Deus
Non-Prophet
North Alabama Rant
Nothing Is Sacred
Nullifidian
olio
One Fewer God
onegoodmove
Onion Breath
Onwards and Forwards
Open Parachute
Outchurched
Oz Atheis’s Weblog
parenthetical remarks
Pharyngula
Philosophers’ Playground
physicshead
Pink Prozac
Pinoy Atheist
Planet Atheism
Pooflingers Anonymous
Primordial Blog
Principles of Parsimony
Prose Justice
Psychodiva’s Mutterings
QuarkScrew
Quintessential Rambling
Ramblings of an Atheist Undergrad
Random Intelligence
Rank Atheism
Re-imagine Ritual
Reeding and Writing
Religion is Bullshit !
REV. ART’S ATHEIST PIN-UPS!
Rev. BigDumbChimp
Richard Carrier Blogs
Rideo ergo sum
Robert’s Thought’s
Ron’s Rants
Rupture the Rapture
Russell’s Teapot
RWANDAN ATHEIST
Saint Gasoline
Salient
Sans God
Scientia Natura
SDARI
Sean the Blogonaut
Secular Humanism with a human face
See For Yourself
Shared Difference
Silly Humans
Skeptic Rant
Skeptical Personal Development
Skeptico
Skepticum
So long, and thanks for all the guilt!
Son Shines Zee 365
Southern Atheist
Stardust Musings and Thoughts for the Freethinker
Staring At Empty Pages
stereoroid.com
Steven Carr’s Blog
Strange Land
Strappado
Summer Squirrel
Talk Reason
Talking to Theists
Tangled Up In Blue Guy
Tarpan’s Blog
Televangelists with Toupees
Terahertz - From Physics to Life
Thank God I’m An Atheist
The Affable Atheist
The Allen Zone
The Angry Atheist
The Anonymous Atheist
The Apostate
The Ateist Endeavor
the atheist chronicles
The Atheist Effect
The Atheist Experience
The Atheist Jew
The Atheist Mama
The Atheist Resistance
The Atheocracy
The Atheologist
The Bach
The Blasphemous
The Blog of M’Gath
The Cat Ranch
The Chronicles of Gorthos
The Conscious Earth
The Daily Cat Chase
The Eternal Gaijin
The Flying Bagpiper
The Flying Trilobite
The Fundy Post
The Gay Black Jew
The Godless Grief
The Good Atheist
The Great Realization
The Greenbelt
The Happy, Religion Free Family
The Homeless Atheist
The Honest Doubter
The Humanist Observer
The Incomer
The Jesus Myth
The Jewish Atheist
The Labour Humanist
The Libertarian Defender
The Lippard Blog
the LITTLE things
The Mary Blog
The Nate and Di Show
The Natural Skeptic
The New Atheist
The New Horizon
The O Project
The One With Aldacron
The Pagan Prattle Online
The Panda’s Thumb
The People’s Republic Of Newport
the post-bicameral mind
The Questionable Authority
The Rad Guy Blog
The Raving Atheist
the right of reason
the Science Ethicist
The Science Pundit
The Second Mouses Guide to Life
The Second Oldest Question
The Secular Outpost
The Secular-Man Blog (An Oasis of Clear Thinking)
The Serenity of Reason
The shadows of an open mind
The Skeptic Review
the skeptical alchemist
The Strong Atheist
The Thermal Vent
The Uncredible Hallq
The Underground Unbeliever
The Uninformed Suburban Housewife
The Uninspired Manifesto
The Zen Of G
These Twisted Times
They Promised Us Jetpacks and We Got Blogs
Thought Theater
toomanytribbles
Toxic thought waste site
UberKuh
Uncouth.net
Ungodly Cynic
Unscrewing The Inscrutable
Uri Kalish - Urikalization
Vast Left-Wing Conspiracy
Vetenskap & F?rnuft
View From Earth
Villa Nandes
Wanderin’ Weeta
Way of the Mind
Why Dont You Blog?
Wild-Eyed Atheist Boy
Without Gods
WORKS WITHOUT FAITH
Writer Philosopher Culture Warrior
Yet Another Blog
You Made Me Say It
Young Earth Creationists Anonymous
Zeemy’s Paradigm
Zen Curmudgeon
zenbullets
“Atheism Sucks” sucks

Where I despair that people can think the Catholic Church a force for good in the world

The BBC reports that the head of the Catholic Church in Mozambique has claimed that some European-made condoms are infected with HIV deliberately.

"Condoms are not sure because I know that there are two countries in Europe, they are making condoms with the virus on purpose. They want to finish with the African people. This is the programme. They want to colonise until up to now. If we are not careful we will finish in one century's time." - Archbishop Chimoio
Is there any lie they won't tell in their vendetta against small pieces of latex?

Dicing with Death

Not until now did I realise how close to death I came in my days punting in Cambridge. The BBC report that viruses sourced from the River Cam may be useful in treating antibiotic resistant diseases:

A "cocktail" of special viruses which kill bacteria were sourced from the river and shown to treat bacterial stomach infections in mice.
That's right - the River Cam: so nasty, even the bacteria can't cut it. Still, at least at Cambridge we never broke our legs when we jumped in, unlike at Oxford...

via The Ethical Palaeontologist

Tuesday, 25 September 2007

The Meaning of Life. Or, do theists ever even talk to atheists?


The above video is an advert for the Alpha Course (A course taught by churches that aims to introduce people to Christianity), that has recently been showing on UK television. It features a man and a woman traveling along a conveyor belt from birth to death, and ends abruptly with their being buried in a coffin. A tag line of "Is there more to life than this?" appears, with the obvious implication that no, this isn't all there is - come along and we'll tell you about all this other great stuff that will add meaning and joy to your life.

This has always been something that's confused me about theists - the view that without God there can be no meaning, and its corollary that all atheists go around in a perpetual depressed state, despairing at the pointlessness of existence, and wishing there was some way to add meaning to their lives. Where do they get this idea from? Have they ever actually talked to any atheists about this? I don't know a single atheist who has such a depressing view of life. The view that a life without God is pointless seems to only be held, funnily enough, by those who hold that God is the point of life.

So this argument cannot be taken directly from their experience of atheists, but where does it come from? It seems to me that there are two main strands of reasoning theists use to come to this conclusion. The first is that God, as an absolute omnipotent being, is the only source of an absolute meaning for the universe, and by his action our lives are given meaning. What meaning? Well, whatever he wants - to 'give greater glory to God' seems to be a fairly standard Christian answer when confronted with the question of meaning. This view, that meaning can only ever be imposed from the outside, seems to me to be a pessimistic, limiting, and (dare I say it) depressing conclusion. We make our own meaning in this life - we can choose what we are here for, and I find this far more worthy of celebrating than the forced imposal of another's will on our life. I certainly do not find it depressing. Look on it as a choice between admiring the works of another painter, or being given an easel, a canvas and a palette and told to paint what you want - I know which I would find the more liberating.

The second argument concerns death, and follows the lines of "Well, if you're just going to die at the end and that's it, what's the point of doing anything anyway?". I've been in churches where the preacher has stated he can't "understand why atheists grieve when someone dies, if that's all there is to life?". This approach confuses me even more. I cannot understand why theists can't realise that if once you die, you are gone completely, then that is even more of a reason to a) mourn someone's passing, and b) value both your and other people's lives more while you and they can live them, as opposed to how you would feel if you treated life as just a rest stop on the way to eternal bliss. The second part of the argument appears to be based on the assertion that if life has no permanence, then nothing we do can last, and things that do not last are worthless. I find this statement frankly bizarre. What has permanence to do with meaning, with emotion, with joy? I'll leave it to Tennyson to sum up my objections to this one:

I hold it true, whate'er befall;
I feel it, when I sorrow most;
'Tis better to have loved and lost
Than never to have loved at all.

-Alfred Lord Tennyson. In Memoriam, 1850
Thanks Alf.

Finally, and on the subject of death, I'd like to give another great 19th century figure, Thomas Huxley, the final word and reproduce an extract from his letter to Charles Kingsley, written 147 years ago, almost to the day, after the death of his son from scarlet fever. Before theists start preaching on the meaningless and nihilism of atheism, this passage at least should be required reading - I defy you to read this extract and tell me that it requires God to feel sorrow and joy, and to give life meaning. Over to Huxley:
As I stood behind the coffin of my little son the other day, with my mind bent on anything but disputation, the officiating minister read, as a part of his duty, the words, "If the dead rise not again, let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die." I cannot tell you how inexpressibly they shocked me. Paul had neither wife nor child, or he must have known that his alternative involved a blasphemy against all that was best and noblest in human nature. I could have laughed with scorn. What! because I am face to face with irreparable loss, because I have given back to the source from whence it came, the cause of a great happiness, still retaining through all my life the blessings which have sprung and will spring from that cause, I am to renounce my manhood, and, howling, grovel in bestiality ? Why, the very apes know better, and if you shoot their young, the poor brutes grieve their grief out and do not immediately seek distraction in a gorge.

Kicked into the world a boy without guide or training, or with worse than none, I confess to my shame that few men have drunk deeper of all kinds of sin than I. Happily, my course was arrested in time–before I had earned absolute destruction – and for long years I have been slowly and painfully climbing, with many a fall, towards better things. And when I look back, what do I find to have been the agents of my redemption? The hope of immortality or of future reward? I can honestly say that for these fourteen years such a consideration has not entered my head. No, I can tell you exactly what has been at work. Sartor Resartus led me to know that a deep sense of religion was compatible with the entire absence of theology. Secondly, science and her methods gave me a resting-place independent of authority and tradition. Thirdly, love opened up to me a view of the sanctity of human nature, and impressed me with a deep sense of responsibility.

If at this moment I am not a worn-out, debauched, useless carcass of a man, if it has been or will be my fate to advance the cause of science, if I feel that I have a shadow of a claim on the love of those about me, if in the supreme moment when I looked down into my boy's grave my sorrow was full of submission and without bitterness, it is because these agencies have worked upon me, and not because I have ever cared whether my poor personality shall remain distinct for ever from the All from whence it came and whither it goes.

And thus, my dear Kingsley, you will understand what my position is. I may be quite wrong, and in that case I know I shall have to pay the penalty for being wrong. But I can only say with Luther, "Gott helfe mir, Ich kann nichts anders."

I know right well that 99 out of 100 of my fellows would call me atheist, infidel, and all the other usual hard names. As our laws stand, if the lowest thief steals my coat, my evidence (my opinions being known) would not be received against him. But I cannot help it. One thing people shall not call me with justice and that is – a liar. As you say of yourself, I too feel that I lack courage; but if ever the occasion arises when I am bound to speak, I will not shame my boy.

- Thomas Huxley, September 23rd, 1860

Should've got the mark


You really feel he should've got the mark. However, my inner English teacher would like to note that 'hopeful' was spelled incorrectly, and 'live' is not, in fact, the opposite of death. 3/5, must try harder.

via god snot, where god's not

Monday, 24 September 2007

UK Government still against freedom from religion in schools

PZ points out a Guardian report on a UK headteacher who wanted to establish a completely secular school, only to be informed by senior government officials that it would be a 'political impossibility'. There is still a legal requirement in all state schools for pupils to take part in a daily act of worship of a broadly Christian nature, and Dr. Paul Kelley was informed this would be impossible to change:

One senior figure at the then Department for Education and Skills, told Kelley that bishops in the House of Lords and ministers would block the plans. Religion, they added, was 'technically embedded' in many aspects of education.
Now I was lucky enough to complete most of my education in an international school abroad, but I returned to the UK for my A-Levels. I must admit that apart from a hymn or two once a month in assembly I can't recall any other of the trappings of religion intruding into my life, much less a 'daily act of worship' - I suspect this is something more honoured in the breach than in the observance. Of course, this doesn't change the fact that this is a ludicrous rule, and that it can't be changed highlights how ludicrous the system of having Bishops in the House of Lords is. That wasn't what really irritated me though. I'd like to pick out a couple of points from the article:
Dr Paul Kelley... wanted to challenge the legal requirement in all state schools for pupils to take part in a daily act of worship of a broadly Christian nature. There are only a handful of exceptions at faith schools where the daily worship can be based on a different religion.
(My emphasis). I see. So basically, it doesn't matter which magical sky god you may want to praise, as long as you are praising some magical sky god. Because obviously, it's just the general praising that's important. Dear god (ha), won't someone think of the children! More seriously, this seems to be another case of 'believing in belief' - a general indication that all religious belief is good and that a life without it is morally deficient. Surely there must be some way of challenging this blatant discrimination against atheists?

The second point:
A spokesman for the Church of England said: 'If he is arguing for a way for individual schools to opt out of those bits of the act he does not like that is not something we would support. Either overtly or by default, this country is still a Christian one.'
(Again, my emphasis.) What nonsense. Let's look at the stats shall we? Using the Tearfund survey (A Christian organisation, so if there is any bias it should be towards a more positive portrayal of the prevalence of Christianity), we see that whilst 53% of the UK identifies themselves as Christian, only 10% attend church weekly, with a further 5% attending monthly. Given that only 6% of the remaining 38% who claim to be Christian indicate they would consider attending church in the future, I think we can consider 21% as the upper bound for people with an active Christian belief. On the other hand, 39% of people identify themselves as having no religion. Now from those numbers, I don't think we can consider the UK 'overtly Christian'. What the Church of England means by 'by default' I don't know, but if they mean 'in name only' perhaps I agree with them - a slight majority of the UK would tick the box marked Christian if asked about religious affiliation, but that would be the only time the majority of them even thought about it. This seems quite a strange thing to be proud of however. In my view the UK is a secular nation with an unfortunate hangover from its religious past, as evidenced by it having a state religion that hardly anybody attends (2.8% of the UK attend a CoE church, according to the latest stats), but which still gets 26 seats in the House of Lords, and attempts to use this to bully anyone with a view it doesn't like out the way. We'll leave Dr. Kelley to sum it up:
'[enforced religious worship] is not, in my view, fair to a child and it is not offering them the opportunity to choose freely. The problem we are left with is a 19th-century architecture of education in a 21st-century environment.'
And, I would add, the same in government.

UPDATE: I notice Feeding the Fish has also blogged about this here.

Sunday, 23 September 2007

1 Month Old, and the Brights Equinox fund appeal

Today this blog is 1 month and a day old (I forgot it was a month old yesterday, okay?). It's had 2042 visits so far, thanks in no small part to some linkage from Pharyngula. Thanks PZ! Hopefully I can keep thinking up enough interesting content to keep these viewing figures up. Thanks to everyone who's already come along to visit, and feel free to stop by and comment anytime!

In other news, the Brights Equinox Fund Drive appeal is now on. If you fancy supporting an organisation pushing for wider acceptance of a naturalistic worldview, click here to donate. Alternatively, if you feel you meet the Bright criteria,

* A bright is a person who has a naturalistic worldview
* A bright's worldview is free of supernatural and mystical elements
* The ethics and actions of a bright are based on a naturalistic worldview
and want to be part of a like-minded internet constituency of people, why not join The Brights today?

Friday, 21 September 2007

Cool Atheist Music 4 - Red Hot Chilli Peppers - Shallow Be Thy Game

This week's slightly delayed (blame my Master's viva) cool atheist music comes from the Red Hot Chilli Peppers, off their album One Hot Minute. Enjoy.

Wednesday, 19 September 2007

Know Your Militants!


With all this talk of the new, 'militant' atheism, I've begun to worry that people will get the many different militant strands of religion confused. As such, I've devised this picture to enable you to tell the difference. So next time you're confronted by a rabid, frothing at the mouth, hate-speech spewing militant, just refer to this handy picture to tell exactly which brand of fundamentalist nut you're talking to.

No need for thanks, this has been a public service announcement.

UPDATE: Cat's Staff has suggested to me that the Dawkins picture with him wearing an 'Atheists for Jesus' picture would work better. I've decided Cat's Staff is right, so I've updated the picture. Thanks!

Tuesday, 18 September 2007

The 'New Atheism' and PETA

Chad Orzel at Uncertain Principles has a post up comparing the 'New Atheists' (a terrible term, but it seems to have stuck) with PETA. Except there isn't actually a comparison, just a series of things he finds objectionable about PETA, and a blanket assertion that this makes them analogous to the 'New Atheism'.

You know, I'd take these 'Old Atheists' (if they're the opposite to the New Atheists I guess that must be what they're called, right?) a lot more seriously if they ever actually had any facts in their arguments.

The Volcano Tungurahua

On the subject of pretty pictures, this one of the volcano Tungurahua erupting over at Astronomy Picture of the Day is pretty amazing. There's another one from the same series (all taken by Patrick Taschler) here, with the Pleiades in the background.

via All of My Faults Are Stress Related

Monday, 17 September 2007

The world's most beautiful libraries


As someone whose lifetime ambition is to own a library, all I can say is, well, wow.

Check out this collection of photos of the world's most beautiful libraries over at Curious Expeditions.

Sunday, 16 September 2007

The Tyrannosaurus and the Lettuce: a parable

Genesis 1:29-30

29 And God said, “See, I have given you every herb that yields seed which is on the face of all the earth, and every tree whose fruit yields seed; to you it shall be for food. 30 Also, to every beast of the earth, to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, in which there is life, I have given every green herb for food”; and it was so.

The Tyrannosaurus roared. A primitive, bestial sound, echoing across the clearing. It charged out the trees, birds scattering before its headlong rush. It tensed, then pounced, its claws rending, its incredible jaws tearing, a superbly adapted killing machine doing what it does best. As pieces of its prey covered the ground around it, it threw back its head, prepared to issue an atavistic scream of triumph - but stopped, and instead slumped forwards dejectedly.

"It's just not the same," it said. "Not with lettuce." A stray leaf fluttered to the ground next to it. "I ask you, I didn't spend umpteen million years evolving into the ultimate predator to hang around here giving some brassicas the mauling of their lives. I could cry, I really could." He slumped to the floor.

Just then, a passing snaked piped up.

"You want to be careful you do," it said. "Throwing the e-word around like that. The big G doesn't like it you know".

"What e-word?"

The snake flinched and looked round. "Oh for - look, evolution ok, but you didn't hear it from me, never head of it. Personally, I spent millions of years just hanging round conserving the old genome. Ha! Evolve? No, you wouldn't catch me doing that!"

"Oh yeah," the Tyrannosaurus said hurriedly. "Me too. Hohoho, evolve? No chance! 100% created, that's me, all the way." It paused reflectively. “Mmm, coconuts.”

"And don't you forget it. Just between us two though, I'm getting fed up to the back teeth with the whole thing too - not that I have any of course, just these twin venom injecting fangs - they paralyse the cabbages a treat I can tell you - and this fantastic dislocatable jaw. Why I swallowed a marrow whole yesterday. That was a laugh. ‘Course I had to, not being able to process its tough vegetable fibres with my jaw muscles only fit for swift predatory bites, though that's neither here nor there. And then to top it all off, I didn't have the correct kind of stomach to digest the bugger either, and that wasn't an enjoyable toilet trip, let me tell you, but can't complain, eh? It’s not everyday you get to live in Paradise."

"Actually, it is you know. Every sodding day."

"Yeah." said the snake gloomily. "But you know what? It's my legs that really get me down. I mean, why design an animal fantastically adapted to getting around sans ambulatory movement, and then give it legs? Poxy little things."

"Shocking the way they manage things round here isn't it."

"Yeah".

They subsided into a subdued silence.


Why yes, science can rule on whether your god exists: the backlash

Olvlzl posted a long comment criticizing my post Why yes, science can prove whether your god exists.... I started replying in the comments but my reply reached a silly length, so I thought I'd take the liberty of replying with a new post instead. I'm going to take his reply by parts. Here we go.

So, what is your research protocol to show that God does or doesn't exist, if it's so doable? You must have one if you can make such a categorical statement that it can be done
You seem to have missed the point of the post. My point is that as soon as a statement is made that puts God into contact with the Universe, we have a hypothesis we can test. If the test is failed, then we have ruled out a god who works in that particular way. The onus is on believers to indicate what their god can do, which can then be tested.
and that those who say it cannot, including the eminent physicist and atheist Lawrence Krauss, by the way,

“The Earth isn’t 6,000 years old,” he said. “The Kennewick man was not a Umatilla Indian.” But whether there really is some kind of supernatural being - Dr. Krauss said he was a nonbeliever* - is a question unanswerable by theology, philosophy or even science. “Science does not make it impossible to believe in God,” Dr. Krauss insisted. “We should recognize that fact and live with it and stop being so pompous about it.”

I can guarantee you, Ben that if you can come up with the experiment that can answer this question once and for all, you will have made your name for all time.
Hmm. An appeal to authority, with a quote containing nothing more than an assertion that that viewpoint is right. I find this quite ironic in the light of your closing remarks that
Vigorous assertion isn't the same thing as rigorous investigation or reasoning.
I agree, so don't do it...
How can you disprove the existence of a God who is held to be "Invisible, unknowable, indescribable, without beginning and without end"? I'll throw in almighty, since that is generally part of the formula too? Almighty would include the ability to overcome any logical barrier we might imagine and the ability to overcome paradoxes. Or it wouldn't be "almighty".
Okay, I don't think any of that actually means anything. It definitely doesn't describe anything that God actually does (even the almighty part is meaningless without something for God to be almighty whilst doing). So no, science can't rule out a God with solely those attributes. But that God is a pretty pathetic God who can't actually do anything. And as soon as you make a statement as to what God can do, then we have a testable hypothesis.
And, just to make it even more interesting, there are several schools of Jewish and Islamic mysticism that holds that "God doesn't exist", while believing in God.
Look, this is just silly. Nobody actually believes that God exists whilst simultaneously believing he doesn't. That's not possible. And if they do, then they've just proved every statement possible, as you can prove anything from a contradiction. Silly.
I'm not going to bother with the problems those "prayer studies" have except to say, did God sign a consent form and promise to not cheat and cure people in the control group?
I've covered this in a previous comment. A god who feels the need to hide from studies whilst feeling free to, for example, condemn people to hell for not believing in him is frankly an evil god. Science cannot rule out that such a deceitful god exists, but I doubt many people actually believe in such a god. Except for maybe gnostics. But I think the Christians killed all of those.
Did they make absolutely certain that no one in the world was praying for the controls?
A better point. Assuming people were praying for all of the controls, the experiment would at least rule out prayer being dose dependent. However, I would assume that at least some of the controls weren't being prayed for, whereas all of the rest of the study were, so you would see an effect that way. In any case, this isn't an indication that prayer cannot be studied, just a methodological detail that could easily be corrected.
Vigorous assertion isn't the same thing as rigorous investigation or reasoning.
We've covered this already.

"God and his monkey army" fiasco latest

So apparently now the two Archaeological Survey directors who prepared the court affidavit have been suspended, and the Culture Minister is offering to resign. Sigh.

(Original story here.)

Saturday, 15 September 2007

Calling all entomologists...


Does anyone have any idea what species of beetle this is? The photo was taken whilst walking in the Lake District if it makes identification any easier...

(click on the photo for a bigger picture.)

New Carnival of the Godless

The new Carnival of the Godless is up over at Ain't Christian. And I'm in it! Yay.

Go check it out.

Friday, 14 September 2007

'Hey, maybe it wasn't God and his monkey army' hypothesis withdrawn from court

The Indian government has withdrawn a report on a shipping canal project that questioned whether a land bridge was indeed made by the Hindu god Ram and his army of monkeys (it pointed to the hypothesis that, you know, just maybe it was a natural formation of sand and stones), after the opposition stated they were questioning the 'faith of a million'. And the US thinks it has it bad when it comes to people interpreting their religious literature literally?

Someone, please make the madness stop.

Thursday, 13 September 2007

Why yes, science can rule on whether your god exists...

Okay, this is going to be a bit of a rant. Bear with me.

Shut up already. Just shut up. Now. Seriously. I'm sick and tired of people saying "Science cannot prove or disprove God." Just shut up okay? You're talking rubbish. Actually, I should qualify myself here. If your conception of god is a rather pathetic, useless being who can't actually interact with his creation in any way - hey, maybe he set the whole thing up and then wandered off and left it alone to see how it went (yes, i'm looking at you, deists) - then I'm absolutely fine with that statement. Science has nothing to say about that whatsoever. There's still as much evidence for your god as there is for the proverbial teapot in an inner Mars orbit, but there's no evidence against him either. And let's face it, he's a pretty useless god anyway. But science is quiet on the subject.

However, as soon as you say one thing that your god can do to interact with creation - as soon as you define god in one way that say, a cheese sandwich couldn't fulfill - then you have formed a hypothesis. And the thing about hypotheses is - they can be tested. So, say you inform me that no, your god is not a cheese sandwich. He is very different from a cheese sandwich, and he is different in this way: he answers prayers. I will turn to you and say "Great! Let's look into it." We will go off and collect some data, and lo and behold, it turns out that hey, it doesn't look like prayer cuts the mustard. Sorry, but science has given your 'god who answers prayers' hypothesis the big thumbs down. And it's the same for anything you might care to think of that lets god interact with the universe - anything that actually makes him a meaningful god. If god interacts with the universe, we have a hypothesis. If we have a hypothesis we can test it. For any meaningful god, science can, and will, be able to rule on its existence. So go on believing in god if you want to. Or, alternatively, go on assuring your religious friends that their viewpoint is just as valid - just don't tell them that science can't have a say on a question. Because unless you fancy having a god who doesn't have one attribute that couldn't be replicated in a cheese sandwich, science will be able to have a say on whether that god is real. And you probably won't like the answer.

(This goes double for agnostics. Come off that fence and stop saying there's no evidence either way. Unless you're willing to take the position that you'll believe science when it tells you the ether is not real, but if it tries to test the god hypothesis then you're going to put your hands over your ears and shout "la la la" very loudly. And you know that's a ridiculous position.)

Ted Haggard: pining for the fjords?



If you haven't seen this yet, it's brilliant. Have you ever wondered what the conversation between Richard Dawkins and Ted "Oh no I'm a gay meth-user oh no wait I prayed for a bit I'm not" Haggard would've been like, if only they'd been members of Monty Python doing a sketch about a dead parrot? Wonder no more.

(Hat-tip Aardvarchaeology)

Wednesday, 12 September 2007

No True Archbishop...

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, has used September 11th to defend religion against claims that it causes violence.

Dr Williams called for the place in society of “authentic” religion that did not compete for influence or power or resort to violence.
Ah yes, no true Scotsman...

Cool Atheist Music 3 - MC Hawking - What We Need More Of Is Science

This week's cool atheist music comes from MC Hawking. That's right, the Hawkman is kickin' it old skool about the importance of SCIENCE. Word.

And it's a sweet video too.

Tuesday, 11 September 2007

Censorship and incoherence: the classy way to lose an argument

So, I happened to wander back over to zenbullets' post denying evolution (previously covered here and here) and I noticed that several comments had disappeared. I posted a comment asking what had happened - it disappeared. I posted a comment asking if he was deleting comments. That also disappeared, and I got an e-mail saying that some comments had been 'selected out', but not to worry as none of mine had. Well, I'm flattered, but I'm guessing the people whose comments have been summarily removed without any form of explanation are going to be a bit pissed off, and with good reason. He also informed me a paragraph had been added to the original post clarifying his argument (again with no indication that anything had been changed - time for a blogger ethics course perhaps?). When I tell you that his clarification of the argument has the line

He calls Evolution a science, but this is a common misconception. It is a faith.
followed by
Darwin’s great theory is most probably right on the mark, there is a lot for evidence for it.
you'll probably have some kind of idea of the incisive logic that has led him to take his position. Anyway, the new paragraph consists of something of a climbdown, starting off with the aforementioned acknowledgement that hey, maybe there is some evidence for this evolution thing after all. It then continues with a classic creationist defence, a la Answers in Genesis:
But Evolution is not the kind of theory that can be conclusively proved in the same way gravity, heliocentricism, or a round earth can be proved. You cannot make a prediction of a state that can be measured after time t, which can then be tested at time t to see if it meets the prediction. The fossil record is very incomplete (representing less than 1% of all species who have lived on our planet), so if you were to look at time t for a fossil, it is very unlikely you would find it there.
You hear that, all you geologists, palaeontologists and biologists? You should probably just disband your departments now, hand your grant money back and shuffle out the door nice and quietly. Historical science is just not science any more guys. Alternatively, possibly someone should read some more philosophy of science.

Monday, 10 September 2007

Hilarious science joke of the week

Did you hear about the homeopath who forgot to take their medicine?
They died of an overdose.

In other news: Final Masters project handed in: w00t! Roll on the PhD!

Thursday, 6 September 2007

Alien: it walks (well, swims) among us

Okay, I'm not ashamed to admit it - this thing petrifies me. Moray eels have a second set of protractable jaws in their throat that they use to drag prey in. I'm just waiting for confirmation they have acid blood... For more, see Pharyngula and Neurophilosophy.

The Meaning of Life? Or, Why Definitions Are Important...

Larry Moran points to a new article by Carl Zimmer that's up over at Seed, on the search for definitions of life. A lot of space in it is devoted to Carol Cleland, a philosopher, and Christopher Chyba, an astronomer, who argue that

the search for a definition of life is beyond problematic, and we should simply stop looking for one. The quest could either be impossible or scientifically trivial.
They compare the search for definitions of life to alchemy in the middle ages:
Cleland and Chyba also determined that there was an even bigger problem with the pursuit of a definition of life—one that lies in the nature of definitions themselves. "If you really understand what a definition is," says Chyba, "it's not up to handling the problem... ...scientists who try to define life today make the same mistake that alchemists did in the Middle Ages. Alchemists tried to define substances by their properties, without any understanding of the underlying chemistry. Water, for example, was defined according to its ability to dissolve different solids. This definition led alchemists into confusion. Since ice couldn't dissolve anything, it couldn't be water. Alchemists gave the name "water" to things that we know now are nothing of the sort. They called nitric acid aqua fortis, or strong water, because it could dissolve most metals. Aqua regia, or noble water, was actually a mixture of hydrochloric acid and nitric acid that was powerful enough to dissolve even gold and platinum, the so-called noble metals.

Searching for a better definition of water would have not gotten alchemists out of this mire. A solution only came in the 18th century, as scientists formulated a theory of chemistry. The behavior of water and other substances suddenly makes a lot of sense when you realize that they are all composed of atoms, which are in turn composed of smaller particles. Chemists can now say water is H2O. However, "'Water is H2O' isn't a definition," says Cleland. "It's a discovery."

So what's the remedy? To forget about definitions and build a 'theory' of life, apparently. How will we do that?
For Cleland, the most promising way to build a theory of life is to look for alien life. In 2013, the European Space Agency plans to put a rover back on Mars. Called Exomars, it will drill into the Martian crust to seek out signs of life. NASA has plans of its own on the drawing board, including one possible mission that would bring Martian soil back to Earth for intense study. Meanwhile, other promising habitats for life, such as some of the moons of Jupiter and Saturn, beckon. Cleland argues that finding alien life would allow us to start figuring out what is truly universal about life, rather than just generalizing from life as we know it. Only when we have more data, she reasons, will we have a basis for comparison. As it stands now, says Cleland, "we have no grist for the theoretical mill."
I agree more data is vital, but to me their trivialising of the need for a definition is entirely the wrong way round. Looking for alien life to gather more information on what life is is all well and good, but it presumes that we will be able to recognise it as life. And how will we do that? Either we will simply look at it and say 'That's life', in which case we already have an implicit definition, or we will have an explicit definition we compare it to to decide whether it is life or not. And this is where their analogy with the discovery of H20 falls down. Alchemists had another 'alien' form of water right in front of them: ice. They couldn't recognise it, however, as their definition of water was faulty - they had defined it as something that could dissolve things. How was progress made? Well, they looked further into the matter and realised everything is composed of atoms - they then applied this knowledge to water as defined by the old definition, realised ice was identical to it and subsumed both substances within a new definition referring to H20.

I submit that science progresses by defining things, examining them, applying this new knowledge to the old definition to make a better definition, and so on, ad infinitum - a 'virtuous circle', if you will. But the vital point is to make any headway, you need to kick start the circle - you need some kind of definition, no matter how bad, to decide what it is you're actually talking about. So to say 'the whole definition project is worthless.' is far from the truth. The definition project is of imperative importance: however, we don't need to have a perfect definition at the first try. Let's not agonise for ages for it. Let's just grab the most reasonable one we have now off the shelf, plug it in to science's 'virtuous circle', and sit back and admire the results.