Monday, October 22, 2007

Slime Culture TV comic

Take a look at this great little comic starring Richard Dawkins.

I love the punchline. (via Pharyngula)

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Russell's Teapot

Some great stuff there.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

a few reasons in brief

  • Not lonely.
  • Not afraid of death.
  • No need for an imaginary friend since I was three.
  • Good answers to a few things beats one pat “answer” for everything.
  • “Appears desirable” is not a synonym for “true”.
Anyway, even if I felt the need, Yahweh really doesn’t look any more true than plenty of others.

X-chromosomes major drivers of speciation

X-chromosomes a hot-spot for genes that prevent sperm production in hybrids.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Three Quotes

Three quotes from Australian comedian, social commentator and master interviewer, Andrew Denton:

(selected from: )

"A poll earlier this year showed that 42 per cent of Americans believe we're in the End Times."
Andrew Denton

"Absolute faith can blind you to the consequences of the actions you allow. It can tell you it's okay to drop bombs on another country, or that it's okay to hate a group of people such as homosexuals."
Andrew Denton

"I have deep respect for people's individual faith, but when faith gets connected to the machinery of state, or the machinery of hate, I find it very confronting."
Andrew Denton

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Are Atheists Angry?

Atheists are often accused of being "angry" or "militant".

To be honest, I don't think they're either.

There are two related things that may give some people that impression.

(i) some believers take straightforward, open, doubt and direct requests for evidence as an attack. As a direct and personal attack. But it's actually no different from skepticism in any other field, but if you choose to see it as an attack, the people involved are obviously going to seem belligerent. Religious belief is used to, and expects to receive, a special place among beliefs. Atheists aren't always keen on giving it that, because they don't see that special reverence as having been earned. If you want an atheist to show religious belief more respect than say belief in astrology, they're obviously going to expect stronger evidence than there is for astrology.

Further, people who are openly atheist tend to hear the same circular arguments and faulty reasoning over and over, so they don't necessarily have a lot of patience with having to deal with it yet again. Some atheists certainly are impatient with poor argument. Some won't revere your beliefs just because you believe them. Even though you might find it shocking to have your beliefs fail to get automatic respect, and even more, have arguments you've never seen challenged before impatiently attacked for being transparently weak, that doesn't make atheists automatically angry or militant. That's a mistaken perception. Get over it.

(ii) Some things do make atheists angry. We sometimes get attacked. Screamed at, insulted, and worse. I've felt in danger of my life on at least one occasion. Fundameltalists (that was a typo, but it's such a good one I'm going to leave it in and claim it as a neologism) in particular seem to see the mere existence of an atheist as a call to crusade, and many of us have been on the other end of a fundy rant. Also, certain people have some sort of compulsion about telling us what we're really thinking. People who have never met you can somehow divine your innermost thoughts, thoughts that you somehow never realised you were having. They're either really amazing or totally deluded.

[My - also atheist - partner of around 25 years shares a lot of my likes and dislikes - to the extent that if she is say choosing a design for our new bathroom, she will reliably choose one that would have been either my first or second choice as well. When we were trying to choose names for our children (in both cases during pregnancy), we generated separate lists that we then brought together to discuss - and those lists overlapped. A lot. We studied the same stuff at university (we both started in the same area and both ended up the same other area, but neither at the same time). She understands me perhaps as well as anyone ever will, but still still often gets it wrong when she thinks she knows what I'm thinking. But some idiot from half a world away just knows what I'm secretly thinking, and insists on telling me at length. Needless to say, they're clueless, wrong, and it's insulting. Gee, how could that make me angry?]

Aside from that kind of stuff, atheists seem to me to be no more or less angry than anyone else in the normal course of events. Some are calm, some are not so calm, just like anyone else. If you don't jump down an atheist's throat the moment you hear of their lack of belief, you might even find a polite one.

Atheists are far from militant. Are they torching churches or throwing rocks through windows? Punching out people carrying bibles? Don't make me laugh. Are they marching in the street? Are they burning bibles? That's being militant. They don't even go around door-knocking for atheism, like many theists do. What have atheists done? They've published a handful of books. They've gone on a few TV and radio shows, written a few articles. Participated in the odd debate. Written some blog posts.

That is, a few atheists are no longer silent. That's what's happened. They're not shutting up. If a handful of atheists willing to say what they think and why is upsetting, I don't think that's really their problem. If you think that makes atheists seem scary and angry, you should examine why you're having that reaction.

Richard Dawkins (for example) is sometimes accused of being cranky. He isn't. When treated reasonably, from everything I've seen, he's a remarkably polite and quietly-spoken man. As described above, his lack of fawning respect for religious belief can make some people think he sounds cranky, and some people's actions can certainly make him angry. That's not the same thing at all. Give the poor guy a break!

A Cranky Atheist!
(Click to enlarge)

Assisted suicide

This news is getting on a bit now, but I still wanted to mark it here.

Study finds no evidence to justify concern about the potential for abuse in physician-assisted suicide.

The concerns people raise don't turn out to be a problem in places where physician-assisted death is legal.

Friday, October 5, 2007

The Agony and the Ecstathy

Let's get it out right up front.

I'm an atheist.

I've been an atheist for several decades now. When I was three I believed in fairies. (Heck, I was for a good while convinced I had spoken with some once, though I couldn’t really understand most of what they were saying.) I believed in Santa Claus. I believed in ghosts (and for many years I was certain I saw one). As a kid growing up in rural Australia, I had regular exposure to mostly fairly mild forms of Christianity and not much else. We didn’t go to church, but it was just part of the culture. I had some religious instruction in school, but it was generally pretty low-key. I sort of picked up some of the beliefs of the society I was in, but even as a kid I was questioning the bits that didn't make sense. I came to stop believing in fairies (though I couldn’t immediately explain the conversation I’d had as a three year old).. I eventually stopped believing in Santa Claus, though I kept it to myself – I didn’t want to interfere with anyone else’s enjoyment. I eventually stopped believing in ghosts.

I did read the bible (we had one at home), but I didn't take most of it at face value, and what little religious instruction I had encouraged me to consider at least parts of it as allegorical.

To be honest, the moment I had started to come to terms with my own mortality (by the time I hit my teens, I guess), I no longer had more that a mild susceptibility to belief in the more common notions of God. I guess you might have described me as a form of deist, though I didn’t know the term. By the time I was about 15 or 16 I described myself as an agnostic. But I still read the bible.

Reading the bible, actually reading it, studying it, comparing part with part, trying to understand what it's actually describing and suggesting, was a fantastic cure for any lingering belief. It had some cool parts, sure enough, and some of the language was poetic, even beautiful (KJV), but it had parts that were pretty horrible.

I knew there were other religions. They couldn’t all be true. Suppose that one religion was in fact true. People almost without exception seemed to follow the religion of their parents. Why would the religion a person was just born into necessarily be that “right” one? That suggested that a certain degree of skepticism of the religion one grew up with was perhaps wise, unless there was evidence to the contrary.

I happened to read of Pacal’s Wager at about this time. There was an immediately obvious flaw, even to my teenage self. The same argument could be applied to any potential religion that offered the same deal – what made the one you just happened to grow up around privileged? I was astonished that Pascal had not seen it himself, since he was apparently a smart guy. (I am less astonished now, since I understand the context he operated in a little better. Oh, and I also see a number of other problems in the reasoning.)

Once I got to university, I looked around at other religions (I read a good chunk of the Koran, I discussed Buddhism with Buddhists, I found out about Hinduism and Wicca), but I never took any of it terribly seriously - it was more a matter of finding out about beliefs than pursuing one of my own. There was stuff in each of them that was pretty good. There was also stuff that was plainly silly.

I guess I would have continued to describe myself as an agnostic until at least my early twenties, but I had long before ceased to have any doubt of significance; I was maintaining a facade of doubt.


Well, unless you've ever expressed significant religious doubt, maybe you've never encountered it, but believers, even seemingly "mild" ones, seem by and large to be incredibly threatened by the mere presence of disbelief. Normally calm people can become quite agitated and upset. It concerns me that someone’s belief can be so fragile that the mere presence of disbelief can be so threatening. I don’t like upsetting people. I never have. So I avoided even admitting to it.

I maintained my less threatening agnostic facade well past its use-by-date simply to avoid offending people. Eventually I came to terms with that, and just said - "well, at least say it out loud to yourself". So I did. I said, quietly, "I am an atheist. To be honest, I really have been for a long time now."

What an incredible relief that was. It was like breathing after holding my breath for years. To stand up and look around at the here and now, and to at last be completely free of the small, petty, closed-in view of things that had turned my face away from the world.

It was a quiet moment of bliss, of ecstasy.

But it was not the end of my journey. I have continued to think, and read, and, listen. I will tell some of my stories here, and discuss some of my thoughts, and point to interesting things others say and write.

I still don't like to upset people, but I have become convinced that it's necessary to speak, and simply accept that people will be upset.

I'm an atheist. I'm mostly very happy. Sometimes I'm ecstatic