Denial is a terrible (but amusing) thing

This whole Haggard thing is just too funny to pass up, starting with:

“After undergoing three weeks of therapy, disgraced U.S. evangelist Ted Haggard is convinced he is not gay, an official with the ex-preacher’s church told the Denver Post on Tuesday.”


“Referring to Haggard’s treatment, the Rev. Tim Ralph, a member of the New Life oversight board, told the Denver Post: ‘He is completely heterosexual. That is something he discovered. It was the acting-out situations where things took place.'”

Thanks, Tim, but who are you? Because:

“Members of the oversight board and officials from New Life Church could not be immediately reached for comment.”

They were probably too busy acting-out situations elsewhere.

Ethics for young atheists

Bringing up children to be moral, decent people who care about humanity is a challenge. There’s no need to make it any harder on yourself by bringing religion into it.

It’s funny that some otherwise healthy, godless people turn to their childhood religion when raising their own family. They’ve done well enough without it for years, and yet they dredge it all up again to imprint a new generation. I don’t get it, I mean: Why feed something to your children that you wouldn’t eat yourself? Maybe it’s just because they can’t think of anything else to do to instil ethical behaviour in their kids.

But it doesn’t seem too hard to come up with an ethical code that even very young children can understand and which grows with the child as he or she gets older. When our children were small, I started teaching them two simple points:

  1. pay attention
  2. be good

Even when they were two, this made sense. As they grew a bit older, I expanded on the points to explain what these things mean, but I always kept it to two main points, so there was never any doubt what ethical behaviour was. Under “pay attention”, I said this means both “be aware of what’s going on around you” and “mind what you are doing and how it affects other people”. Essentially coaxing children to live consciously, this covers an enormous variety of situations.

For the second point, I go with the ethic of reciprocity which, although it has been taken up by all of the big religions over time, is almost certainly older than all of them and clearly requires no belief in the supernatural. There’s a basic fundamental of human interaction in “the Golden Rule”, upon which all social action is possible, encompassing both respect for others as equal beings and empathy with the suffering of others. Ask a kid, “How would you feel if you were that person?” and you are helping that child build up his or her own ethical standards on a very firm basis.

So far, for my children, these two ethical points — pay attention and be good — are working very well. The kids don’t steal, they don’t fight with other children, they are polite to others, they want to help people in need when they see them, and they generally listen to their parents when we make reasonable requests. What more could anyone ask for? And all that without filling their heads with dated myths that fly in the face of the evidence of their own eyes and ears.

Bleak indeed

Regarding Jeff Jacoby’s “Atheists’ bleak alternative”, all I can say is that I really cannot believe such a foolish article can be published in one modern newspaper, let alone two. I know “tis the season to have a cultural debate over religious symbols shown in public”, but really, this defence of mythology as truth is disheartening for any rational mind.

“Judeo-Christian monotheism — is society’s best bet for restraining our worst moral impulses and encouraging our best ones.”

Oh, right. So, we’ll just ignore all the historical evidence of sectarian violence, anti-Semitism, slavery, genocide and every other horrific crime religion has been used to justify in the past, shall we?

And what is this “atheist zealotry” he finds so “alarming”? That a tiny handful of learned people have written a few books saying in plain English that, despite popular belief, things that you can’t see are — surprise, surprise — not there?

If the only reason a person can find to act decently towards fellow human beings is fear of punishment in an imaginary afterlife, then I think that person has a pretty bleak outlook on life indeed. Thankfuly, even the author doesn’t believe his own argument, as he says:

“Obviously this doesn’t mean that religious people are always good, or that religion itself cannot lead to cruelty. Nor does it mean that atheists cannot be beautiful, ethical human beings.”

Not all blogs are good ideas

This is not exactly in keeping with the theme here, but I do find it tremendously funny. Just proves that blogging is not for everyone.

Faith or trust?

(Just wrote this on the WWGHA Forum, but I liked it, so I’m reposting it here.)

I wonder if faith is really nothing more than trust in other people: one’s family and one’s community. A believer surely only thinks of his holy book, “this is the word of god”, because other people told him so — people he trusts. He cannot possibly have learned it from another souce, obvioulsy, because all words are ultimately a human creation. The believer’s faith is really just an expression of his trust in those closest to him — too much trust, to be sure, if you are believing what people tell you over what you can see with your own eyes, but it is trust in people all the same.

Trust between people is a vital for any society, and certainly caries a selective evolutionary advantage for the group/family that possesses the gene given its group-bonding function. And then religion, as one aspect of necessary social bonding, is a natural phenomenon. Perhaps it could be considered a hyper-response of normal human trust, because excessive trust can also be dangerous for a group of humans, as the dishonest take advantage of the dupes.

Darwin as a terrorist in Turkey

Lest anyone believe creationists are some US aberration — as you might think from watching too much British television, for example — have a look at this Reuters article on the phenomenon in Turkey. I actually saw a shop with these “lavishly illustrated” books just around up the street from Hagia Sofia in Istanbul last year. Signs outside proclaimed Darwin a terrorist among other things. It made me laugh and cry at the same time: the way all crippling ignorance does.

My favourite lines from the article are, first this:

Creationism is so widely accepted here that Turkey placed last in a recent survey of public acceptance of evolution in 34 countries — just behind the United States.

“Just behind the United States” — that is, the US placed almost last in a set of surveys gauging public acceptance of the very foundation of biological science. Only Turkey was less rational.

And then this:

In the early 1990s, leading U.S. creationists came to speak at several anti-evolution conferences in Turkey.

Maybe these same people will attend Mr Ahmedinejad’s upcoming conference in neighbouring Iran, which will set out a case to deny the Holocaust. Hey, if you’re going to reject reality and erase history, you might as well go all out, eh?

My first tip-off on this whole religion scam

My parents tried to bring me up in a Presbyterian (protestant Christian) tradition. I always sensed they were never really into it that much: they certainly didn’t go to church every Sunday or ever quote passages from the Bible or anything. But they did send me to Sunday school every week. Perhaps the subtle hypocrisy in that formed an early rejectionist sentiment in me — who knows? — but there is one event I can remember where the whole idea of religion came crashing down for me.

I was attending some evening church class, probably on a Sunday after church service earlier in the day. I can’t recall how old I was exactly, but eight or nine, I guess. The instructors were two twenty-something-year-old seminary students, slightly too hippie happy-clappy for our congregation, so we naturally warmed to them a bit. The lesson was the Christmas story, so everyone pretty much knew the material.

One of the instructors referred to Jesus at one point as, “the Son of God”, and I jumped in with something like, “aha, so Joseph, Mary’s husband who goes with her to Bethlehem, must be God.” (Nevermind for now, please, that I didn’t suspect God could have been Mary herself — I was brought up in a patriarchal society.)

The instructors tried to correct me, explaining Immaculate Conception and virgin birth, and — I remember this really very clearly — I just thought, these people are dumber than I am, because I know it takes a daddy and a mommy to make a baby. So, there was a bit of discussion after that, but I didn’t give it much fight, because I had already decided I wasn’t going to listen to people who were dumber than I was. Even if — maybe especially if — they were adults and I was eight.

I guess pretty much every serious encounter I had with religious individuals from that point onward was grounded in that initial awakening. I just cannot take anyone seriously who professes something that simply flies in the face of all common sense and daily-reinforced evidence.

Just what was I thinking, exactly?

At one point early on in life, I never honestly thought I would ever meet a religious person younger than me. Religion was obviously on the way out, and this was not only true where I was growing up in the West, but also in large parts of the developing world, where secular governments usually of a socialist and/or post-colonial tilt had been promising a step-change away from tradition, superstition and ignorance towards science, development and progress. When I was at university, I expected that by the time I got to the age I am now, creeping up on 40, the only religious people would be some old folks barely able to keep the church lawn mowed.

Of course, you can say I was a fool — that as far as the Muslim world was concerned especially, the forces of Westernisation were in corruption-fuelled decline by the 80s, and a religious revival was already in vigorous full swing. One could hardly fail to notice both the home-grown variety, as in Iran, and the kind developed deliberately with huge outside financial and political support, like the mujahadeen in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

But also in the Christian world, there were signs of renewed religious fervour in the 80s, some very near to me: the strengthening anti-abortion movement in the US, for example. Still, despite their proximity and volume, they seemed like desperate last-ditch efforts of anti-electricity types to me — inasmuch as I gave them any thought at all, they appeared as the last of a dying breed. When some lunatic drove a bus into a local cinema because he didn’t like the way the film being shown portrayed Jesus, everyone I knew and everyone they knew just put it down to one lone nutter, not the tip of a trend.

So, I got it wrong, obviously. Today, I don’t really think the Enlightenment is dead, but I certainly no longer believe that progress — specifically, progress toward a more rational world — is in anyway inevitable. The last five years in particular have seen such a revival of religious tension internationally, that “clash of civilisations” has somehow gone from pure book-jacket marketing malarkey to tragic self-fulfilling prophesy. The kind of tribal thinking brought on by war has forced communities to take sides all over the world, with fear of the other tribe rising and a “conflict mentality” settling in the US just as much as anywhere else.

And it’s not just that there are a few lone lunatics out there willing to drive vehicles into buildings; it’s that there are a huge number of “moderates” willing to justify the actions of the extremists of their religious side, as Sam Harris and others have pointed out. So, we get radical, religiously biased public speech, even in the op-ed pages of the LA Times.

Honestly, this is not the world I thought my children would grow up in.

When I was in university, I studied evolutionary biology. I enjoyed it a lot, but I was interested in public affairs and making a difference in the world, and it seemed evolution was a battle long ago won by the good guys, by the forces of rationalism. Fighting with creationists seemed about as challenging as taking on flat-earthers. Really, there will be no public discussion about this in a few years, I thought.

And yet, there is, still, in 2006. I don’t think creationism — or ID as it’s now packaged — is accepted by everyone in the US, or even a majority for that matter, but I do think there are huge numbers of coreligionists unwilling to reject the irrational extremists in their midst, and there are another significant number of agnostics unwilling to challenge them for fear of being labelled intolerant to others’ beliefs — even when those beliefs are completely unprovable and no more scientific than astrology. It is the same with other religions, of course.

I’ve been meaning to get some of these thoughts down for a while and even jump into some of the online discussion, but for various reasons, I’ve been holding off. I was, however, inspired this week by the website “Why won’t god heal amputees?” So, here I go, back into the fray.

Maybe it’s too late. Maybe I should have never foolishly taken rational progress for granted. But I really thought my generation would be one of the last to contain any religious people at all, and the idea that anyone younger than I was would be religious sounded impossible. (Of course, I also found it strange when I first encountered a policeman younger than me, but that was more an unwillingness to admit I’m getting older.) Today, I see 20-somethings and younger people far more religious than their parents, and I think: what a loss of a generation.