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Some More Quotes

October 2, 2017 Leave a comment

Occasionally I like to discuss some of my favourite quotes, usually from figures from science, history, philosophy, etc whom I admire to some extent. It has been a while since I did one of these, so let’s have a look at a few good quotes I have seen recently…

Here’s the first one. Quote 1: “The greatest tragedy in mankind’s entire history may be the hijacking of morality by religion.” – Arthur C. Clarke.

I don’t think that religion should be totally rejected as a potential source of ideas around morality, in the same way as I would not reject fiction as a source. But the idea that religion is *the* source is absurd, insulting, and dangerous.

It’s absurd because all the main religions of the world have been found to be hopelessly inadequate in their truth claims. it is insulting because very moral people can be shut-down just because they don’t follow a particular religion. And it’s dangerous because people stop thinking about what is really true when they surrender their critical thought processes to a religion.

Additionally, different religions, and even different sects within large religions like Christianity, have quite different ideas on what is moral and what isn’t. The fact that many of these groups feel justified in killing each other over these, sometimes quite trivial, differences indicates that their overall claim to be the guardians of moral standards is questionable.

And religions have given support to many ideas in the past that we would now consider immoral, such as slavery, lack of equality for women, rejection of contraception and abortion, and many others. In fact, even today religions have far too much influence and hold back moral progress when they try to impose their doubtful moral standards on both their own members and others.

Just one last point on this before I move on. The tired old strategy the believers use when they say “how can we have morals without a god to impose them” is totally ridiculous. First, morality could easily be seen as an emergent property of the behaviour of a highly social species. Second, if a god created moral standards we would expect them to be more consistent amongst religions and not to change over time. And third, even if a god was required (one isn’t) how does this relate to the childish fairy stories which are human religions?

On a related subject, I present quote 2: “So it’s not God’s fault for all the evil and bad things? Oh really? I form the light and create darkness, I make peace and create evil. I the Lord, do all these things. (Isaiah 45:7)” – Anonymous

This one relates quite well to a recent debate I had on my blog with a religious believer. He thought his god was justified in torturing good people (like me) with eternal torment in Heil just because we couldn’t believe in the god’s existence. He is a good person, and he didn’t like this “fact”, but he still insisted on worshipping a god who is clearly immoral and evil.

How anyone could think that any religion which included this disgusting belief has any relevance whatsoever to morality is beyond me. And the fact that it is all fantasy and Hell doesn’t exist is irrelevant, because these people would clearly be OK with any real torture for unbelievers as well.

Remember that all of this comes from the New Testament, the alleged teachings of Jesus, who supposedly espoused peace and forgiveness. It might sound very moral on the surface, but dig a bit and it’s the same old crap as every other religion.

So having demonstrated how grossly immoral religion is, let’s move on to how stupidly fictitious it is as well. Here’s quote 3: “Science: Many different people study many different sources and arrive at the same conclusions. Religion: Many different people study the same source and arrive at many different conclusions.” – Anonymous.

Of course, this cannot be taken too literally because there are disagreements in science, even over the same data, and there is some degree of agreement amongst religions, but the general principle is sound.

Science tends to converge on an agreed conclusion, but religion tends to split into more divergent ideas. For example, several theories on the origin of our universe have been tested and found lacking until the Big Bang was developed and is now fairly universally accepted. But at the same time religion has split into a number of mutually exclusive, irrational ideas. Even within Christianity there is a range from Biblical literalism to complete acceptance of science, and everything in between. And none of these are really based on any religious evidence, apart from Creationism of course, which is the one most obviously wrong!

Note that the agreed science, such as the Big Bang, is not always the complete truth, but because it is based on real observations it is always a good approximation to reality. Religion on the other hand rarely has any relevance to anything in the real world at all. It is just completely irrelevant as a source of knowledge.

I have a cartoon in my collection showing a man watching TV news with the following caption (AKA quote 4): “Atheists rioted in the streets worldwide today, reacting to a Danish cartoon depicting nobody with a bomb on top of his head.”

This is a reference to the Danish Muslim cartoons which caused riots and at least 200 deaths worldwide in 2005. The point is that it takes a strong belief system for people to become so irrationally violent over something so trivial. As an atheist I just have a bit of a laugh at any cartoon mocking atheism, although I might feel compelled to point out why it’s wrong.

I know that today most religions might protest any perceived insult, but would not generally indulge in violence. It’s usually Islam which uses violence in these situations today, but Christianity was at least as bad in the past. But the point is that if you don’t believe in fairy tales you won’t feel so inclined towards violence to defend them.

Here’s quote 5: “The difference between a cult and a religion: In a cult there is a person at the top who knows it’s a scam. In a religion, that person is dead.” – Anon

All religions are scams because that is a requirement for a religion to survive. Unless a belief system has a mechanism to ensure its proliferation it will die out. That’s why many people compare religion to a virus of the mind. It’s like a living organism feeding off a host to ensure its own survival.

Then there’s quote 6, which is another cartoon which shows a sign outside of a church with the following text: “Gather together to shout down your doubts. Sunday 10-11.”

I really think this is true. Most belief systems require some sort of reinforcement over time to ensure their followers remain loyal. Regular meetings with like-minded people must be a significant element in keeping people trapped.

Finally, here’s quote 7. I saw this on Twitter, and it’s a tweet from God, who says: “Stop praying. I’m clearly not listening.” – God

Now I do have to admit that this probably isn’t really God, but he makes a good point I think. I have another quote which says “nothing fails like prayer” and it’s true. Imagine all the people in poor countries who have signed up to the religions (especially Christianity) introduced by European invaders over the past few hundred years. These people are often afflicted by natural and man-made disasters and they must offer a lot of prayers for help. And what do they get? Nothing. Or at least nothing beyond what the normal laws of chance would dictate. No, apparently God really isn’t listening.

So those are my quotes for this post. They prove nothing in themselves, but I think they are effective ways to communicate the bigger truth behind the simple facades. That truth is that religion is just immoral, irrational BS.

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Categories: religion

Facts, Logic, Morality

September 18, 2017 2 comments

I recently spent some time with a colleague discussing how to deal with a fundamentalist Christian’s irrational ideas that he had recently become aware of. I have to say that this fundy keeps his crazy ideas pretty much to himself and is otherwise a perfectly pleasant and reasonable person, so there was no real need to try to “convert” him, but sometimes the need to try arises – such as in a debate situation – so I thought I might describe my technique here.

I have had varying degrees of success with this in the past, from complete rejection (because some people are never going to change their views) to moderate success (for example, a person admitting to changing his opinions, or one who was on the road to enlightenment: that is, believing the same thing as me, and I am fully aware of how arrogant that sounds).

But where I have had some successes it has never been using just one technique. In addition, it is never easy to tell which method of persuasion is likely to be effective for a particular individual, so I have created a three step process which formalises by debating technique…

Step 1. Use facts.

My first instinct when debating controversial issues is to use facts. In general the issues I support can be easily supported with good evidence. But most people who believe in irrational ideas didn’t get to that point by following the facts, because there never are many supporting them. So it often follows that they can’t be moved by using facts either.

In addition there are always facts on both sides. Sometimes the “facts” on one side are barely facts at all (hence the quotes) but many people will believe an extremely doubtful or weak fact if it supports what they want to believe, even if there are a hundred which are much more certain against them.

Step 2. Use logic.

When step 1 fails it is often useful to try a process of logic. A complex idea can be broken down into a series of steps which logically follow and are difficult to deny. There doesn’t necessarily have to be any facts involved in this because logic usually transcends facts.

Step 3. Use morality.

If both facts and logic fail a good backup strategy, depending on the actual subject under discussion, is to use a moral or ethical argument. While morals vary from one person to another to some extent, there are common concepts shared by most people, including fairness, non-violence, and freedom.

So now I should give an example. Obviously I’m not going into details because half my readers won’t have even got this far and are unlikely to want to read 20 pages on the subject, but I will use a very condensed version of how I would handle the issue. So here’s an imaginary debate between me and a fundamentalist Christian…

Fundy: The Bible says that God created humans, so evolution cannot be true, and following events described there it makes it obvious the world is only 6000 years old. The Bible also says that it is the inerrant word of God and that the devil is always trying to find ways to deceive us with false truths. Without the Bible to guide us we will have no moral compass and there will be increased violence and evil around the world.

Me: You say that evolution cannot be true yet almost every expert in the world has concluded it is. Also there are many lines of evidence which anyone can understand which show evolution is an accurate theory to describe the variety of life on Earth. The age of the world cannot possibly be that short and I can show you evidence from geology, biology, astronomy, physics, chemistry, and many other areas of science to show it is almost 14 billion years. The time light has spent travelling from distance galaxies shows this, for example. Let’s get these fact-based claims out of the way before we move on to the other stuff.

Fundy: But the Bible has been shown to be accurate, so how can it be wrong? Also there are many scientists who don’t believe in evolution or an old Earth. Here is a list of URLs for you to look at. Not following the Bible leads to you rejecting God’s offer of salvation and you just don’t want to admit his authority.

Me: The Bible is full of errors if you are prepared to accept scientific and historical evidence. For example, there is no evidence at all of major stories like Genesis, the Flood, Exodus, etc. These so-called scientists you cite are not publishing in scientific journals so I would say they are not practicing scientists. In fact most of them work at Answers in Genesis. If they are only looking in one place they will never be able to look at all the evidence. Let’s keep to facts and forget about God’s salvation for now.

Fundy: You have your facts and I have mine. Many serious researchers are religious and you cannot reject their research so easily. Also science changes all the time. Who can tell when a new theory might come along and contradict the Big Bang or evolution? You say yourself that science can never prove anything with 100% certainty, so why are you so sure that science is right and religion is wrong?

Me: Instead of just offering an opinion on who is doing science and who isn’t, we should look at a standard which is widely accepted. People who are engaged in science publish in reputable journals. Anyone who isn’t doing that isn’t really doing science. They might still be right, but based on past experience the scientific consensus is far more reliable than anything else. And you are right, we can never be 100% certain of anything, but it is still reasonable to accept a theory which is 99% likely to be at least a good approximation to the truth (like evolution), instead of one we can be 99% certain is wrong (like creation).

Fundy: You may say that but because you have no moral basis for your views they are really arbitrary. Without God to guide you and tell right from wrong, how can your views be taken seriously?

Me: Well this gets back to an old question in philosophy regarding the goodness of god. But first, let me say that using a god who probably doesn’t even exist as the basis of your morality seems worse than admitting that we really don’t even have a basis. And even if we pretend that your god does exist, how do we know he is good? Is it because he says so? And if your god is good, is he good because he’s god, or is he god because he’s good? In other words if we know he’s good then there must be some external criterion to judge that against, in which case why do we need a god anyway? And if whatever he does is good because he’s god then that seems a dangerous view to take because any dictator could make that claim.

Fundy: Wait, what? We know God is good because that’s one of the reasons we know he’s the one true God. Can you not see the logic in this?

Me: All I can see is a circular argument: God is good because he’s God. How do we know he’s God? Because he’s good. How do we know he’s good? Because he’s God.

Fundy: You know, that is a ridiculous simplification of a position that theologians have been debating for centuries. Do you really believe you have the answer to such a deep and meaningful problem?

Me: Well, yes. I think it really is that simple. The only reason it becomes complex is because many people want to reach a conclusion that supports the existence of a god. If they just followed the evidence they would see that it’s really quite simple: that there is no good reason to believe a god exists.

Fundy: The Bible talks about people like you who use false logic to try to lead believers away from the truth. You do realise that you are risking eternal damnation for your excessive pride and inability to accept the authority of God, don’t you?

Me: I know that according to the narrative of the New Testament your god prefers to inflict people who refuse to accept his dominance with eternal torture. This is the same god who is advertised as being the “God of love” and who has a prophet (Jesus) who preaches understanding and acceptance. This seems somewhat contradictory to me.

Fundy: God gives you the choice of believing in him or not. If you don’t accept his offer you deserve all you get. He sacrificed his son so that you could have this hope of salvation, yet you refuse to take it.

Me: It’s not a choice I make. I simply cannot believe your god exists. Should I pretend to believe when I really don’t? Would God not know that I’m not being honest with him? And if your god wants me to believe in him why doesn’t he make his presence more obvious? Why do I have to rely on faith which I cannot force myself to do that?

Fundy: His presence is obvious to most of us. Why do you think that most people in the world are Christians?

Me: Actually, they’re not. Only a third of the population identify as Christians and even then that is purely a matter of their societal norms. You are a Christian because that is the history of the country you were born in. If you were born in India you would almost certainly be a Hindu. If you were born in Iraq you would be a Muslim. It seems that the god you follow depends on your culture, not on which (if any) god really exists.

Fundy: Well you seem to have convinced yourself that these false beliefs are true. I have tried to show you the truth but your pride prevents you from accepting it. Don’t complain when you end up in Hell.

Me: Am I a bad person? Have I been guilty of any terrible crimes? I donate to charities, I am a productive member of my society, I don’t harm any other people. Why do I deserve eternal damnation from this “loving God” of yours?

Fundy: God is just, and he is only doing what you deserve. It is not for me or you to judge whether he is right or wrong – he is God and can do whatever he likes.

Me: So a person who spends his whole life torturing, killing, etc and then accepts Jesus as his saviour shortly before dying goes to heaven, but a person who spends his life doing good, but cannot accept the teaching of your religion because there is no evidence, suffers forever. If that is how your god works then, even if he did exist, I would not accept him.

Fundy: And there’s the proof that you are evil.

Me: OK, let’s leave it there. Thanks for the discussion.

As you can see, in the fictitious example above (but one based on real experience) the fundy isn’t converted on the spot, but I would hope that amongst the points I made: that the evidence is against him, that logic is against him, and that an understanding of basic fairness and morality is against him; there might be something to make him a little bit less certain than he was.

Or, maybe, he might exhibit the backfire effect and just “double-down” on his beliefs because they are shown to be probably untrue. But the three pronged attack makes that less likely because I have found that the final argument (the unfairness of God’s punishment) often gets through to people when the more rational points don’t.

Whatever the end effect is, debating this way is fun, and any progress – no matter how small – is OK with me.

Don’t Fool Yourself

July 3, 2017 Leave a comment

I recently started listening to Sam Harris’ podcast, “Waking Up”. It’s an interesting mixture of stuff which varies from the somewhat odd (his ideas on the use of drugs and meditation) to extremely perceptive and compelling.

Harris is a well known “militant atheist” and critic of religion, especially Islam, so his ideas fit in well with a lot of mine. That doesn’t mean that I agree with everything he says, or accept every point, just because it reinforces my own ideas of course, but it does mean his style of thinking and debating matches mine.

The topic of a recent podcast – featuring evolutionary scientist and writer Jerry Coyne – which I want to comment on here is whether science and religion are compatible.

Many people would say they are, first because (they claim) that science and religion have different purposes and are used to achieve different goals, second because many scientists are also religious, and third because the two use different methodologies to achieve similar ends. These all seem fairly reasonable at first, but are they really?

Well no, they’re not. I don’t think science and religion are compatible at all, and I’ll explain why.

What about the claim that the two seek to examine completely different areas of knowledge? Traditionally the view, which goes back to 1920s, is that science is concerned with the general conditions regulating the physical universe, and religion examines moral and aesthetic values. This is wrong on two counts.

First, almost every religion makes truth claims about the physical universe. They tend to have creation myths, for example, which undoubtedly conflict with science. Not every believer takes these stories seriously, but a lot of them do, and until the stories were shown to be wrong everyone believed them. They are definitely an important part of religion. So that’s one obvious source of conflict.

The usual justification for this is that those stories aren’t “real religion”. For some reason Stephen Jay Gould held this view, for example, but surely this is a case of the “no true Scotsman” fallacy, and even most theologians reject it.

Additionally the second part of the claim is untrue. I don’t believe that the purpose of religion is to examine moral and aesthetic values. That is philosophy’s role, surely. So religion really has no purpose because it tries to usurp science’s role in truth-based areas and philosophy’s in others!

Moving on to the fact that many scientists are religious. Francis Collins is often given an example, who is a well respected geneticist but also an evangelical Christian. Surely if he exists in both the scientific and religious worlds like that they must be compatible?

Not necessarily. Many people compartmentalise their lives and live almost as if they have two personalities. I have heard Collins try to justify his religious beliefs in rational terms and to be perfectly honest it was pathetic. Clearly that aspect of his life is completely separate from his science. I’m fairly sure, for example, that he has never written a paper justifying a scientific discovery because Jesus told him something in a dream or that it says so in the Bible.

Equally I’m fairly sure he has doesn’t use scientific logic and rationality in the religious component of his life (as I said above, the interviews with him on that topic make that abundantly clear).

Coyne compare it with the Catholic church. It’s like saying that Catholicism and pedophilia are compatible because some members of the church practice both. If they want to use that logic to associate religion with positive things like science, then they have to use it to associate it with bad stuff too. Oddly enough, it usually doesn’t seem to work that way!

There’s one other point here too. That is that religious belief becomes less as people become more senior in science. Also, according to surveys I have seen recently, even though a large fraction of scientists identify as Christians, only a small number think a personal god exists. You really have to wonder whether most of them are “real Christians” or just use the label through habit or to avoid the difficulties that non-religious people face in some countries.

Finally I will tackle the idea of different methodologies. Broadly science uses observation and experiment and religion uses faith and revelation. It’s no secret that I think that the very idea of religion’s epistemology is completely absurd and I can’t see how any intelligent person could give it even a moment of serious consideration. But the point is, that even if you can take it seriously, it is completely contrary to what science uses so surely this counts as a point of conflict.

On that subject I need to mention Richard Feynman, who is possibly my favourite scientist of all time, and who said this about science: “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool.” Clearly that doesn’t apply to most areas outside of science.

So it seems totally indisputable to me: religion and science aren’t just incompatible, they are practically opposites. Anyone who disagrees is apparently not following Feynman’s advice!

A Ticket to Heaven

May 23, 2017 Leave a comment

When my wife arrived at her cafe a few days ago she found a whole pile of “tickets” stuffed under the door. Regrettably they weren’t tickets to the Ed Sheeran concert here next year (not a fan myself, but she seems to be) but they were for something even better: heaven!

According to the ticket: “Entry to Heaven requires that you have lived a perfect life and never broken one of the Ten Commandments. Have you ever told a lie? Or stolen anything (regardless of value)? If so, you will end up in Hell.”

This seems rather harsh, especially for people who have no idea what the 10 Commandments even are (less than half the world are Christians), but reading further it seems there is a certain amount of wriggle room, because “But God in His mercy provided a way for ALL sins to be forgiven. He sent His Son to take your punishment: God commended His love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”

There seems to be a few odd aspects to this system. First, if God is so mercifull why didn’t he just forgive us instead of allowing His Son to be tortured and killed? In fact, God didn’t just allow it, he required it, or there would have been no sacrifice. After all, who requires the forgiveness? God does. So in order to allow that he needed Jesus to be horribly tortured. Very strange when you look at it logically, isn’t it?

But it gets a lot worse than that. It says here that anyone who sins (and since no one has a perfect life that would mean everyone) will definitely go to Hell, no matter how minor the sin. But everyone can be forgiven their sins, no matter how bad, if they make some sort of commitment to Jesus. Later on, the ticket recommends prayer to God listing your sins (that would be a long prayer for some people), stating that you put your trust in Jesus Christ as your Lord and Saviour, and requesting forgiveness and everlasting life. After the prayer you must read the Bible every day and follow what it says.

So a person who told one small lie (even one which was for the good of the person being lied to) and didn’t pray would go to Hell, but someone who spent a life murdering, stealing, etc, then prayed just before his death would be fine. What kind of messed up god is this? This is not a ticket to Heaven, it’s a “get out of jail free” card – or should that be “get out of Hell free”.

There’s a URL (www.2besaved.com) on the ticket which leads to a web site which is one of the ugliest I have seen in recent times. Apparently God doesn’t believe in hiring good web designers. At the site you can “CLICK HERE IF YOU NEED TO BE SAVED” (I didn’t feel the need) or “CLICK HERE IF YOU’RE A CHRISTIAN” (I’m not) or “CLICK HERE FOR FURTHER STUDY” (that sounded like me). By the way, sorry about the all caps, it’s just that kind of site.

The further study was a bit disappointing though, because even the bizarre ticket made more sense than the material in that section. There was a complicated argument about which day is the sabbath, an even worse discussion on how to pronounce God’s name (Yahweh), and a rather alarming essay on the correct way to eat meat (hint: it’s best not to).

But I’m not even sure why all of this detail is so important, because I can do whatever I want, then get forgiveness from God later.

Now you might have noticed a rather flippant, facetious tone to this post so far. That is because the whole things is just so silly that it’s hard to take seriously. But many people do, and that’s why I like to write these “anti-religion rants”.

Many atheists, even really “strident” ones, like Richard Dawkins (I don’t really believe he is strident, of course), seem to back away from criticising the New Testament and the alleged teachings of Jesus in particular.

There’s a certain amount of sense in this because the New Testament undoubtedly has a more forgiving, accepting, and positive tone than the Old. But there is one thing about it which is at least as damaging and negative as anything in the Old Testament: the mythology regarding Hell.

Because in the OT, Hell is just a place with no particular function of punishment. In fact both the righteous and unrighteous go there (to two separate areas) and it is best thought of as “the underworld”.

It is only in the NT, with the teachings of “kind, forgiving, loving Jesus” that the idea of Hell as a place of eternal torment is introduced. And that place is reserved for whom? Is it morally corrupt people like murderers? No, it is for people who fail to accept Jesus as their “saviour”. So Jesus seems to offer salvation but only from a hideous torture that he himself introduced. And not only that, salvation is not given to those of high moral standing but to those who are prepared to become slaves of his particular movement.

If any other leader of any kind resorted to these tactics would we celebrate him as a wise and loving leader or as a hideous despot? I think we all know the answer to that.

So I think it is fair to label Jesus (let’s just assume he actually existed for the purpose of this discussion) in that negative way, but we should also have some balance and admit that there is a lot of good stuff in his alleged thoughts too. In the end, he’s just like anyone else: a mixture of good and bad. And the New Testament is just like any other book of mythology/philosophy/theology: a mixture of good and bad.

The key thing is that the good doesn’t come from the religion. What good is there is recognised because humans, as a social species, have moral standards which are more or less consistent, although they vary to some extent across cultures and across time. We don’t get a ticket to heaven through mindless servility to a deity. We get that (metaphorically, because heaven doesn’t really exist) through doing the right thing.

The Opium of the People

January 13, 2017 Leave a comment

In this blog I have often portrayed the advantages I see in being an atheist compared with following a religion. But like all worldviews, atheism has some disadvantages as well. Religious people have three advantages over atheists, as I see it: they have a church which provides a benefit to their social life, they tend to donate more to charity, and they are happier.

All of these factors are documented in fairly credible studies so I don’t think they can easily be explained away. But, of course, I am going to try!

First, the social aspects of religion. There is no doubt that attending church helps bond people and gives them a group they feel they can belong to, get support from, and generally identify with.

Of course, there’s nothing stopping non-religious people from forming groups based on their shared values or interests, such as skeptics in the pub, atheist outreach, or groups based on any other activities (amateur astronomy, computer users, stamp collecting), but there is no doubt that church groups just seem to have an extra element the others lack.

There are negative aspects to this too, because being part of an in-group means that others are the out-group. So strongly bonded church groups do create a sort of “us and them” mentality. I have heard many members of one particular Christian sect ridiculing other Christians just because they belong to a slightly different group with almost indistinguishable beliefs. And their opinion of other religions and the non-religious can be even more extreme.

Another problem with these groups is that it discourages receptiveness to new ideas. If a person socialises with others who believe the same thing – however ridiculous those beliefs might be – they are unlikely to expand their horizons to encompass anything new. So a church group is like a trap which is hard to escape from.

What about charity? There are stats which indicate religious people do donate more than others. Unfortunately the stats don’t distinguish between donations which go to genuine charities and those which just go towards the church they belong to. Looking at the money involved in running some churches and the lavish lifestyles of some of the church leaders I would say that a lot of that charitable giving is wasted.

So now the big one: happiness. Research indicates that religious people are often happier. This observation is complicated by the fact that the most happy societies are those which exist in the least religious countries (Denmark, Sweden, Netherlands, Australia, New Zealand, etc). What’s going on here? Well it seems thet religion gives some individuals greater happiness but it reduces the happiness of society as a whole.

Why are religious people happy? Research indicates it is almost entirely due to the social cohesion they get from belonging to a group, but surely some of it must also relate to blissful ignorance!

So religious happiness might be a bit like the state of euphoria some people get from taking drugs. It’s not real, but it’s good while it lasts. And also like using drugs or alcohol, some people become happy and good natured and others turn bad.

As Karl Marx said: “religion is the opium of the people”. He realised the good and bad aspects of religion. Here is the full paragraph containing that quote: “Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.” And following that: “The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness.”

So the analogy of religion as a drug leads to the idea that by being a “user” of religion the person avoids confronting real problems of the world and possibly improving the world to the point where real happiness is possible. Certainly denial seems a common attitude amongst religious people. And that is where the problem really arises.

But real happiness seems very difficult to achieve, so maybe the fake version provided by the opium of religion is the best alternative we can hope for. But that’s a rather unhappy thought!

Is Islam a Cancer?

December 1, 2016 10 comments

According to a recent news item I read, Donald Trump’s new national security adviser, Michael Flynn, has called Islam a “cancer”. It’s an interesting claim, and one which most people would either agree or disagree with depending on their political persuasion, without really thinking about it.

But at this blog I like to think about a claim before passing judgement on it, so let’s have a look at the idea to see if it has any merit.

First of all, I don’t think anyone thinks this claim should be taken literally. I mean, obviously Islam isn’t actually a cancer, because a cancer is “a disease caused by an uncontrolled division of abnormal cells in a part of the body” according to the Oxford Dictionary. But there is a more metaphorical sense, which is “an evil or destructive practice or phenomenon that is hard to contain or eradicate”. Clearly, this sense is more interesting.

The next problem is what do we mean by “Islam”? Are we referring to the religion, or the political view, or the group of people who follow certain beliefs? And are we referring to the whole of those phenomena or just the extremes, or more literal parts? I’m guessing we mean the religious belief system based on the ideas attributed to Mohammed in the Koran, and supplemented by material in the Hadith, and to all parts of that worldview apart from where the ideas have been so liberalised that they are virtually unrecognisable.

So is the traditional form of Islam (the religion) an evil or destructive practice or phenomenon that is hard to contain or eradicate? I think a very good case could be made to say that this is true, although I probably wouldn’t use the word “evil” because it has too many religious connotations, but surely destructive isn’t over-stating the case.

The next question is, do the good parts of Islam (because every belief system has good and bad parts) outweigh the bad? That is difficult to evaluate because as an atheist from a country which has a small number of Muslims it’s hard to get a fair idea of what the good parts are. Clearly many people find it compelling because they base their lives around it, and in the past Islamic scholars have made huge contributions to the world, but whether that is enough is debatable.

Next we must evaluate whether other religions are just as bad, which might indicate that Islam is being unfairly singled out from the others. Interestingly there are a wide variety of opinions on this. Only a small fraction of violence in the US is initialed by Muslims, but if you look at the list of international terrorist incidents on Wikipedia the vast majority have a direct link with Islam (although I sometimes suspect that if Islam is involved in an act of violence it is more likely to be categorised as terror, therefore this isn’t entirely fair).

And not only do Islamic groups cause a large number of incidents, they also seem to be responsible for the most horrendous and violent acts. Groups like Boko Haram, ISIS, al-Qaeda, Abu Sayyaf, Jundallah, Al-Shabaab, Taliban, and others, are not only mindless killers, they are also sadistic torturers of innocent people.

It seems very clear at this point that Islam is the source of far more problems than any other religion. I agree that it has not always been like that and may not be that way in the future, but it is now.

So I think that any religion – when taken too seriously – could be thought of as a sickness. But it is better to say what we really think, without the shortcuts, or memorable sound bites. Let’s say this: “any irrational belief, including religion, when taken to extremes, is clearly bad for both the individual and society as a whole.”

It’s not quite as catchy as calling a whole belief system a cancer, but it’s a lot more accurate.

Sinner or Saint?

September 7, 2016 Leave a comment

Giving a blog post a title like “sinner or saint” might seem a bit odd for someone like myself who thinks neither really exists, but I think in this case it is appropriate because the person I am posing the question about is Mother Teresa, or “Saint Teresa of Calcutta” as she will be known in future.

Recently Pope Francis (who, as fas as Popes are concerned, I quite like) canonised Mother Teresa (who died in 1997) after a process started by his predecessor. Was this justified? Many people just naturally believe that she was a great person who helped the sick and poor, but she also has some very vocal critics, one of whom was Christopher Hitchens, a person who I really admired (and who we unfortunately lost to cancer in 2011).

So which is it: sinner or saint? Well I think it was a bit of both.

First, let’s get the silly idea of her literally being a saint out of the way. A saint must have been involved with a miracle (specifically a prayer to her after her death must have resulted in a miraculous cure) and this must be checked by a special group from the church. Needless to say, the supposed miracle is totally absurd and no sensible person would take it seriously.

But the miracle is largely irrelevant. Was her well known work with the poor and sick in India genuine? Well fundamentally it seems that she did set up hospitals to treat the sick and organisations to help the poor. And she raised a lot of money to help fund these missions.

So that sounds quite good. Maybe she was a saint in some way, even if she wasn’t in the strictly religious sense. Well yes, maybe, but there was the dark side to her activities as well.

First, the miracle. The claim is that a Bengali woman, Monica Besra, saw a beam of light emerge from a picture of Mother Teresa and cure a cancerous tumor. But the woman’s doctor had a slightly different story, because there was no cancer. The problem was a tubercular cyst which was cured by a course of prescription medicine. But the church’s team didn’t even talk to the doctor, so it is not surprising they reached the wrong conclusion. Of course, if they thoroughly investigated every case there would be no saints.

Second, the money. A lot of the funding she gained was from very corrupt sources and it is quite unclear where a lot of it went. There were no good records of spending so this could not be investigated properly.

Third, the standard of care. Standards in the centers where the sick were treated were very poor, with stories such as syringes being re-used and other poor health practices being common.

Finally, her attitude. The ultimate motivation for her work seemed to be more conversion to Catholicism than anything else. And she did not support women’s rights, birth control, or other progressive changes India really needed.

Would the world have been a better place if Mother Teresa hadn’t existed? I don’t know. I’m tempted to be generous here and say that at least she made some positive difference, despite the clear problems. And maybe calling her a saint is OK too, but why not just make people saints when they do good in the world and forget the ridiculous pretence of these silly alleged miracles?

Mother Teresa was a human being like the rest of us. Not a sinner or a saint. Just a flawed person who did some good things but probably did a lot of bad things as well.