Friday, November 28, 2014

If you talk to God...

... then you're Religious, and there's nothing particularly wrong with that.

But if you believe God talks back to you, you probably have Psychosis and you need to see a doctor.

Just trying to be helpful ... !

Monday, November 3, 2014

A Lesbian Pope

As you may have gathered, the Church on St. Helena is making a fuss about the possible legalisation of same-sex marriage here.  I came across this picture, from the American campaign, which I like:
But the best comment was from my son, Andrew, who said the other day:
"I won't take the Catholics seriously until they elect a lesbian Pope."

Says it all, really ...

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Is the Bible still useful in the 21st Century?

I don't know.  

But if you consider that it refers to Unicorns four times and Dragons thirty-six times it may be difficult to argue!

Thursday, October 23, 2014

The Bible seems to promote killing

Just out of curiosity I got a .pdf copy of the entire King James Bible and did some scanning.

The phrase "thou shalt not kill" appears in four different places.

The instruction that someone should "be put to death"  appears a total of 57 times.

So please don't try to tell me that Christianity is all peace and love!

Saturday, October 18, 2014

The Bible a definitive source - I think not!

In this week's Sentinel, Pastor Graham Beckett writes in the Faith Matters page:
"I am only interested in what the Bible has to say on the subject, anything else is 'suspect'."

This amused me because I can't imagine a more unreliable source!  Let me explain why.
(I'm going to quote extensively here from the Wikipedia.)

  • There is no single "Bible" and many Bibles with varying contents exist.  Ever heard of the Apocrapha?  These are the books that were rejected by the  Council of Trent in 1545–1563 as being "not correct".  But there is no universal agreement among Christians worldwide as to which of these should be 'in' and which 'out'.  So, depending on which Christian church you belong to, you get a different Bible.
  • There is precious little original text in the Bible.  What we have in the Bible that most Christians on St. Helena would recognize is an English translation from a collection of documents written in a variety of other languages, not one of which is demonstrably attributable to its original author. Take, for example, the Gospel of Matthew.  Supposedly written by one of Jesus' disciples, but apparently not!  "Most scholars believe the Gospel of Matthew was composed between 80 and 90. The anonymous author was probably a highly educated Jew, intimately familiar with the technical aspects of Jewish law, and the disciple Matthew was probably honored within his circle. According to the majority of modern scholars, the author drew on three main sources to compose his gospel: the Gospel of Mark; the hypothetical collection of sayings known as the Q source; and material unique to his own community, called "Special Matthew", or the M source."  The Gospel of Mark is no better. "Most modern scholars reject the tradition which ascribes it to Mark the Evangelist, the companion of Peter, and regard it as the work of an unknown author working with various sources including collections of miracle stories, controversy stories, parables, and a passion narrative." NOTHING was written by anyone who actually knew Jesus, let alone interacted with him!
  • The old testament is no better.  Most of the events it portrays happened many centuries before they were written down.  What we have is based on hearsay - not one word of it would be accepted in court as evidence!
  • When King James I in 1611 set out to create his Authorized Version England was in religious turmoil.  Henry VIII had abandoned Catholicism and set up the Church of England, then his heirs kept switching the country back and forwards between Protestantism (Edward VI), then back to Catholicism (Mary I) and then back to Protestantism (Elizabeth I).  The country was, to say the least, divided.  So what James 'authorized' was based far more on political expediency than it was on any sincere religious belief.  And yet all our modern translations of the bible are based on it.

I could go on but I think I've proved my point.  You could probably argue that the Bahai's are the only ones with demonstrably valid holy texts - their prophet was around in the middle 19th Century so what he said and did was documented at the time and even appeared in newspapers.

Pastor Beckett would probably say that the bible is inspired by God so it must be prefect, but that seems to be a circular argument:

  • I know of God through the bible
  • God created the bible so I could know about him

As Luke 1 puts it: "Forasmuch as many have taken in hand to set forth in order a declaration of those things which are most surely believed among us, even as they delivered them unto us, which from the beginning were eyewitnesses, and ministers of the word; it seemed good to me also, having had perfect understanding of all things from the very first, to write unto thee in order, most excellent Theophilus,  that thou mightest know the certainty of those things, wherein thou hast been instructed."[my emphasis]

The bible isn't an objective document.  It was written by people who believed, to convince others to believe also.  It cannot possibly be considered a definitive source.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Church gets its knickers in a twist over gay marriage

The Anglican Church in St. Helena (or, at least, prominent members of it - I don't know if there have been any official announcements) seems to be getting its knickers in a twist over gay marriage.  More specifically it is apparently opposing the creation of our new Human Rights and Equalities Commission because it believes this will promote gay marriage, same-sex adoption and other sinful practices.

For anyone who spends their Sunday morning on their knees, I've got news for you:
Our Constitution, implemented in 2009, already legalises gay marriage, same-sex adoption, etc.

Part 2 (5) says "every person in St Helena is entitled to the fundamental rights and freedoms of the individual, that is to say, has the right, without distinction of any kind, such as sex, sexual orientation, race, colour, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, association with a national minority, property, age, disability, birth or other status..." [my emphasis]

So if you offer marriage, adoption, etc. to 'straight' couples, you have to offer it to gay ones as well.

And the Constitution is our 'super-law'. If any Ordinance does not agree with the Constitution, that Ordinance must be changed.  So gay marriage and same-sex adoption are already legal in St. Helena.

The only way in which the Human Rights and Equalities Commission would get involved was if our Government denied a gay couple their rights under the Constitution.

So is that a reason o oppose the setting up of the Human Rights and Equalities Commission?  It damn well shouldn't be!

Maybe our Church has other motives?  Maybe they oppose anyone having any rights other than those set out in their bible - a 1,500 year-old document of dubious origins.  Or maybe they're just mad.  Who knows?

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Sh*t happens

People's reasoning sometimes amazes me.  Take this simple piece of logic.  A person believes in God.  The God he believes in is caring and omnipotent (can do anything).  But if so, how come there is evil in the world (defined as "bad things that happen").  Bit of a problem, that one.  If this God is really caring and omnipotent, wouldn't he banish evil?  So is he not caring, or is he not omnipotent?

If you find that hard to follow, try this:!  (Now far did you get? I gave up in the 3rd paragraph.)

To me it's all very simple:
1) there is no God
2) sh*t happens
The end

Why complicate things?

Monday, October 13, 2014

"The Miracle of the Sun" occurred this day in 1917

Check out - so what do YOU think?

I, you will doubtless guess, believe that nothing peculiar happened that can't be explained scientifically.  Get a mob of hyped-up believers together and tell them to expect a miracle and you can bet your last coin that someone will claim they saw something.  And once one starts "seeing something", so do loads of others.  Crowds are like that.

Sorry folks - no miracle.  Just a load of people suffering some kind of mass delusion based purely on what they want to see, not what actually happened.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Myths are fun, as long as you don't confuse them with the truth

"What I can’t understand is why you can’t see the extraordinary beauty of the idea that life started from nothing – that is such a staggering, elegant, beautiful thing, why would you want to clutter it up with something so messy as a God?"

Richard Dawkins, who also said:
"It is absolutely safe to say that if you meet somebody who claims not to believe in evolution, that person is ignorant, stupid or insane (or wicked, but I'd rather not consider that)."
(He later added the category "brainwashed".)

I think we can take it that Richard Dawkins is not a creationist!

He also said:
Don’t ever be lazy enough, defeatist enough, cowardly enough to say “I don't understand it so it must be a miracle - it must be supernatural - God did it”. Say instead, that it’s a puzzle, it’s strange, it’s a challenge that we should rise to. Whether we rise to the challenge by questioning the truth of the observation, or by expanding our science in new and exciting directions - the proper and brave response to any such challenge is to tackle it head-on. And until we've found a proper answer to the mystery, it's perfectly ok simply to say “this is something we don't yet understand - but we're working on it”. It's the only honest thing to do. Miracles, magic and myths, they can be fun. Everybody likes a good story. Myths are fun, as long as you don't confuse them with the truth. The real truth has a magic of its own. The truth is more magical, in the best and most exciting sense of the word, than any myth or made-up mystery or miracle. Science has its own magic - the magic of reality.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

More Than 100 Muslim Clerics Sign Letter Condemning ISIS

BY ROB GARVER, The Fiscal Times September 24, 2014

Top Muslim leaders in the United States on Wednesday released a detailed refutation of claims by the terrorist group ISIS that its actions in Iraq and Syria are in keeping with Islamic law. The letter, signed by 111 prominent clerics from around the world, lists dozens of ways in which the clerics assert that ISIS has consistently violated Islamic law.

It urges ISIS leader and their followers to “Reconsider all your actions; desist from them; repent from them; cease harming others and return to the religion of mercy.”

Nihad Awad, the executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said in a presentation at the National Press Club in Washington that the purpose of the letter is to “debunk and expose the falsity” of the claim that ISIS is operating within the dictates of the Islamic religion.

The letter is written in classical Arabic, but an English translation was provided to reporters. Addressed to ISIS leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi and to “The fighters and followers of the self-declared ‘Islamic State,’” it addresses 24 different statements or actions by ISIS and its members that the signatories say are specific violations of Islamic law. The violations cited stem from the obvious – murder, torture, desecration of corpses, and forced conversions – to more obscure violations, such as the illegal declaration of a caliphate and the issuance of fatwas (binding religious rulings) without the proper authority.

“These are 24 points, and point-by-point, their ideology has been rejected,” said Muzammil H. Siddiqi, chairman of the Fiqh Council of North America, the most senior Islamic jurisprudential body in the U.S.

“This so-called Islamic State is not a state and does not represent anything that is Islamic,” said Oussama Jammal, secretary general of the U.S. Council of Muslim Organizations. “None of their actions pass any litmus test to show that they have a sound understanding of Islamic ideas.”

The list of signatories includes Islamic clerics from around the world, including Sheikh Shawqi Allam, the Grand Mufti of Egypt; Sheikh Mustafa Cagrici, the former Mufti of Istanbul; Sheikh Muhammad Ahmad Hussein, Mufti of Palestine; and dozens of other highly-regarded Islamic clerics.

Awad, of CAIR, said that he believed the American Muslim community “has spoken many times” about its opposition to ISIS, but that “it is time for mainstream Muslims around the world to condemn” the group.


MY COMMENT: we all knew that anyway but it's nice to have it proven!  ISIS is about seizing power - religion is (as always) just the excuse ...

Saturday, September 20, 2014

"It is by teaching a slave the duties of religion that he will learn his duty towards his master"

Quoted from "A History of the Island of St. Helena”, by T. H. Brooke, Esq., published in 1824, page 406 (available through Google Books).

From this we are reminded that religion has always been used by the leaders of society to control the 'lower classes'.  "Never mind that your life is hard", they are told "you will be rewarded in Heaven".  What better excuse for not dealing with the social issues of the day: poverty, health, etc.?

Karl Marx described religion as the "opiate of the people", by which he meant that it calmed them down and prevented them from rising up and overthrowing their oppressors.  I agree with his analysis (though not with his proposed solution - communism).

Monday, September 8, 2014

On the arrogance of man to assume the universe was created for him/her

Imagine a puddle waking up one morning and thinking, "This is an interesting world I find myself in — an interesting hole I find myself in — fits me rather neatly, doesn't it? In fact it fits me staggeringly well, may have been made to have me in it!" 

This is such a powerful idea that as the sun rises in the sky and the air heats up and as, gradually, the puddle gets smaller and smaller, it's still frantically hanging on to the notion that everything's going to be alright, because this world was meant to have him in it, was built to have him in it.

So the moment he disappears catches him rather by surprise.

Douglas Adams (11 March 1952 – 11 May 2001), English author and satirist most famous for his "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" series of radio plays and books

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Conquering ignorance, intolerance, hate and cruelty

I had been given a bagful of books, mostly novels, by friends in Cape Town. Now I fell into languorous hours of reading as I reclined in the cockpit. The books were so biodegradably forgettable that I took a perverse pleasure in tearing out each page read and dropping it over the side until I held an empty cover and it, too, went overboard. Depending on our boat speed at the time, each mile was marked by two or three pages floating in our wake.

Among the new books that came aboard was the Koran, which a Muslim devotee in Durban had thrust at me “for spiritual guidance.” I read it through in a day and a night before it also went over the side somewhere in mid-ocean alongside the other fiction. If only all medieval zealots could so easily be cast out of the world. “There is no conqueror, but Allah,” it said. Perhaps, but could not Allah's disciples put more emphasis on conquering ignorance, intolerance, hate and cruelty, than stoning women and putting infidels to the sword?

Thursday, August 14, 2014

A triumph of faith over common sense

I hadn’t realised it until today but the Anglican Church here on St. Helena has a piece of the “true cross” on which Jesus was crucified.

Oh, really?

I found this quote from one of their priests:

A few years ago Monsignor McPartland very kindly gave a tiny fragment of the True Cross to the Diocese of Saint Helena. It is kept in a relatively simple brass reliquary in Arabia, the Bishop’s Chapel at Bishopsholme. Each year on Good Friday it is taken to the Cathedral and it is taken to Saint Helena and the Cross on Saint Helena Day. Can we be sure these tiny fragments really are parts of the cross on which Jesus died? No, there is no way of proving it. But we can be sure that it is part of that relic in Santa Croce and dates back over a thousand years. More importantly we know it is part of that wood which millions of Christians over many hundreds of years have used in their devotions reminding them of Jesus’s death for us on the Cross.

OK, let’s apply some cold hard logic to this.

Let’s assume that Jesus actually existed, even though there is no independent evidence to prove it (all the stories about him were written by his followers…)

Let’s also assume he upset somebody and got himself crucified. The Romans didn’t record doing so, but then as far as they were concerned he was a common criminal. They crucified loads of people in Palestine in the relevant period and Jesus would have been nobody special to them.

OK, so they nail him onto the cross and wait till he dies.  Then they take the cross down, remove the body and then use it again!  

St. Helena retrieving the True Cross
These things were not disposable. They were re-used until they fell apart.  So the cross on which Jesus was crucified was not newly made for him, and would have been reused and reused, maybe for as long as the Masada revolt in 70ad.  And then when it eventually fell to bits it would have been used for firewood.  It could not possibly have survived.

The idea that St. Helena could come along in 328ad (300 years later) and dig it up – intact! – is just beyond belief.

In the early 1990s my brother (and many others) were making money selling bits of concrete that were supposedly fragments of the Berlin Wall. He did once admit to me that, in all probability, if you joined all the bits of ‘genuine’ Berlin Wall back together you’d end up with a wall that would reach to the moon. I wonder how big the True Cross would be if you rejoined all the bits?

But then if you re-read Father Fred’s text more carefully, he neatly evades the question of whether this fragment that is locked in a safe box on St. Helena is actually part of Jesus’ cross.  He says “..we can be sure that it is part of that relic in Santa Croce and dates back over a thousand years..” 

So what they have is a bit of old wood.  That’s all.  

To believe otherwise is a triumph of faith over common sense.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Prayer and Indiana Jones

It has been pointed out that the character Indiana Jones, in the film Raiders of the Lost Ark, is completely irrelevant to the development of the plot.  To put it more simply, if Indiana Jones had not been in the film the Nazis would still have discovered the Ark and opened it and died as a result and it would have ended up in the hands of the US government.  Indiana Jones contributes nothing at all to the basic plot development.

To me this sounds like prayer.  

I’ll explain …

You decide you want something to change - anything from an end to global hunger to getting your neighbour’s cat to stop crapping in your garden - whatever it is you want.  So you get down on your knees and pray for it.  And then one of two things happens.  Either God decides that your prayer aligns with his plans for the universe, in which case he does what you ask, or he decides it doesn’t and he doesn’t.

Please could someone tell me what difference you praying made? 

If there was a problem, surely an omniscient God didn’t need you to point it out to him before he could fix it?  And he only does what he wanted to do anyway (try praying for something that God wouldn’t want – like an end to all religions – and see what happens) so why did you need to pray?

From this we see that prayer is as irrelevant as Indiana Jones.  And also a lot less fun to watch.

If I'm missing something please let me know ...

Thursday, June 26, 2014

You can't criticise religion in India - by law!

An Indian man who made his name exposing the "miraculous" feats of holy men as tricks has fled the country after being accused of blasphemy. Now in self-imposed exile in Finland, he fears jail - or even assassination - if he returns.

When a Hindu fakir declared on live television that he could kill anybody with tantric chanting, Sanal Edamaruku simply had to take him up on the challenge.

As both were guests in the studio, the fakir was put to the test immediately.

The channel cancelled all subsequent programming and he began chanting on the spot. But as the hours passed a note of desperation crept into his raspy mantras. For his part, Edamaruku, president of the Indian Rationalist Association, showed no sign of discomfort, let alone death. He merely chortled his way through this unconventional (and unsuccessful) attempt on his life.

He has spent his life as a prominent member of India's small band of miracle-busters, men who dedicate their life to traversing the country demystifying certain beliefs.

It's a nation often associated with profound spirituality, but rationalists see their country as a breeding ground for superstition.

In the 1990s Edamaruku visited hundreds of villages replicating the apparently fabulous feats some self-proclaimed holy men became renowned for - the materialisations of watches or "holy" ash - exposing them as mere sleight of hand.

As a campaigner determined to drill home his point, sometimes with an air of goading bemusement, he has attracted critics.

He readily admits he took advantage of the explosion in Indian television channels which discovered an audience fascinated with tales of the extraordinary.

"I was campaigning in villages for so long before the television came," he says. "But some people do not like me to be going on television and reaching out to millions of people."

But in 2012, four years after his televised encounter with the fakir, a steady drip of water from the toe of a statue of Christ genuinely did, he believes, put his life in danger.

Immediately hailed as a miracle, hundreds of Catholic devotees and other curious residents flocked to the shrine in a nondescript Mumbai suburb to watch the hypnotic drip. Some even drank the droplets.

Edamaruku was challenged to investigate and so he went to the site with an engineer friend and traced the source of the drip backwards. Moisture on the wall the statue was mounted on seemed to come from an overflowing drain, which was in turn fed by a pipe that issued from a nearby toilet.

The "miracle" was simply bad plumbing, he said.

It was then that the situation turned ugly.

He presented his case in a febrile live television debate with representatives of Catholic lobby groups, while outside the studio a threatening crowd bearing sticks had gathered. He claims they were hired thugs.

For some Catholics the veracity of the miracle is no longer the point. Edamaruku, they say, insulted the Catholic church, by alleging the church manufactured the miracle to make money, by claiming the church was anti-science and even casting doubt over the miracle that ensured Mother Theresa's sainthood.

In the following weeks, three police stations in Mumbai took up blasphemy cases filed against him by Catholic groups under the notorious Section 295a of India's colonial-era penal code.

Section 295a was enacted in 1927 to curb hate speech in a restless colony bristling with religious and communal tensions. It makes "deliberate and malicious" speech insulting to religion punishable with up to three years in prison and a fine. However, some say it is frequently abused to suppress free speech.

"Under this law a policeman can simply arrest me even though there has been no investigation... they can just arrest me without a warrant and keep me in prison for a long time… That risk I do not want to take," says Edamaruku.

He applied for anticipatory bail, which would prevent police taking him into custody before any investigation - but this was rejected. At the same time, he says, he was getting threatening phone calls from policemen proclaiming their intention to arrest him and telling him that unless he apologised the complaint would never be withdrawn.

Threatening comments were posted on an online forum, he says, and contacts in Mumbai told him they had heard talk of somebody being hired to beat him in jail. Catholic groups say they aren't behind any threats Mr Edamaruku may have received.

He decided to leave early for a European lecture tour. Finland was the first country to give him a visa and he had friends on the Finnish humanist scene willing to help.

He arrived in Helsinki on a summer afternoon two years ago, the endless hours of sunlight saturating both day and night. He thought he would only stay for a couple of weeks until the furore he left behind in India had died down.

But the furore has not died down - the Catholic Secular Forum (CSF), one of the groups that made the initial complaint, still insists it will press for prosecution should he ever return.

Two years on, he is angry, bitter and defiant. Living in a small flat on the eastern edge of Helsinki, he has forced himself to adjust to an alien landscape. After the crowded hustle of Delhi, more than 3,000 miles away, he can now walk mile upon lonely mile without seeing a single person.

His closest friend here - the founder of the Finnish humanist society Pekka Elo - died late last year.

"I miss a lot of people… That I cannot meet them is something that saddens me," he says.

Since he left India, his daughter has had a child, and his mother has died.

He conducts board meetings of the Indian Rationalist Association by Skype and every morning colleagues update him on the latest tales of the supernatural and fraudulent holy men. He plots their downfall. This routine is crucial to him.

Cardinal Oswald Gracias of Mumbai tried to broker a solution by calling upon Edamaruku to apologise and on Catholic groups to drop their case in return.

But Edamaruku staunchly refuses to compromise on what he sees as his freedom of expression.

"I don't regret anything I said," he says. "I feel that I have full right to express my views... I am open for discussion and correction but I am not willing to accept anybody's bullying, change my views or submit to their pressure to apologise."

Some legal analysts think he could risk returning. The courts recognise that Section 295a is regularly misused, they point out. Writers, activists and others have been arrested and imprisoned even before charge - but most were released on bail.

But Edamaruku fears for his safety, pointing to the fate of his friend, anti-black-magic campaigner Narendra Dabholkar.

"Narendra Dabholkar… suggested that if I come to Mumbai he and his friends would be able to protect me. I was considering his proposal," Edamaruku recalls, referring to a conversation last summer.

But four days later he was murdered, a crime which many believe was linked to his campaign against magic.

So Edamaruku spends his time trudging the arresting, bleak forests of Helsinki, sometimes remembering his unconventional childhood in Kerala.

His father, born a Christian, grew up to become a rebel who was excommunicated. His mother gave birth to him in the pouring rain having fled her in-laws' Christian home because they pressured her to convert. But the family always managed to reconcile its differences. The bishops and Hindu priests among his relatives could be found sitting around one dinner table laughing at their own beliefs.

He insists he has no regrets.

"I would do it again. Because any miracle which has enormous clout at one moment, is simply gone once explained. It's like a bubble. You prick it and it is finished."

The statue still stands in that sleepy suburb of Mumbai, but it no longer drips.

India's 'blasphemy' law

India's colonial era Penal Code prohibits hate speech - section 295a says:

"Whoever, with deliberate and malicious intention of outraging the religious feelings of any class of [citizens of India]... shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to [three years], or with fine, or with both."

Key cases include:

1957: Ramji Lal Modi published a cartoon and article deemed offensive to Muslims - he was fined and imprisoned for 12 months

1996: Artist MF Husain faced a prolonged legal campaign over his images of Hindu figures - higher courts dismissed most cases but as more were registered he took Qatari citizenship

2008: IT worker Lakshmana Kailash spent 50 days in jail after being arrested on suspicion of posting offensive images online - police had mistakenly identified him and he was released

2013: Writer Yogesh Master was arrested over his book about the Hindu god Ganesh and got bail a day later

Full story, including more pictures at

Monday, June 23, 2014

Somewhat oversimplified ...

but amusing anyway.

I may be wrong (and I'm sure I will be corrected if I am) but I think miracles ended when investigative journalism began (i.e. around the end of the 19th Century).

POST THOUGHTS: The more I think about it the more sure I become that investigative journalism was the end of miracles. Today, weeping/bleeding statues get investigated - and found to be fraudulent. Not that this stops people worshiping them, but then faith is all about not caring what's really true...

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Where did I come from?

Salvation for dummies

Actually the picture makes a serious point.  Religion tells us that if we don't worship God we will go to hell - a place presumably created by God (well he created everything else ...) specifically to punish those that don't worship him.

And they say we have free will?

Religion does not encourage thinking for oneself.  Blind obedience - that's what religion demands.  Just like human dictators ...

Monday, May 26, 2014

Does religion do harm?

As an atheist I’m surrounded by people with religious beliefs.  What should be my attitude to them?  Should I simply shrug my shoulders and allow them to continue in their beliefs, however illogical these may seem to me?  Should I try to ‘convert’ them?  Should I actively campaign for the end of religion?

To answer this question I decided to apply a test.  Does religion do harm?  (I don’t mean harm to those who profess it, because that is really none of my concern; I mean harm to society at large and, of course, to me.)  If religion does no harm then I will ignore it.  But if I decide that it does harm I must actively oppose it, or at least must campaign to change it so that it no longer does harm.

So does religion do harm?

My first question was: in what ways might religion do harm?  I came up with four areas:

My thoughts on each are set out below.

1.      Cost

Religions usually require places of worship and some kind of infrastructure to make them work.  Christians have churches and then, depending on the flavour of Christianity, some kind of central body to tell the faithful what to believe[1].  Muslims have mosques.  Jews have Temples.  Even primitive tribes put aside resources for worship.  And all of this needs to be paid for, not just by the believers who make ‘donations’ but also by the tax-paying population at large – religions usually get preferential tax treatment, so if they pay less it means the rest of us have to pay more?

If the religion didn’t exist, surely that means there would be more money available for good causes, like medical research for example?

Well, actually, I doubt it.  People find myriad ways to spend their money.  If it wasn’t given to the church, who is to say what else it would be spent on?  Would these destinations be more useful?  And who’s to say what is a useful destination anyway?  If someone wills their estate to the local cat’s home, who am I to say that is right or wrong?

When I hear that some religious Americans spent $27 million on setting up a museum of creationism, where the earth was created by a deity in about 8,000 BC and all the scientific evidence to the contrary is either ignored or trashed, I may think that was an atrocious waste of money that could have been better spent; but then I ask myself: on what?  It probably costs more than that each year to stage the Superbowl contest, which to my mind is an equally scandalous waste, but millions of Americans would not agree.

I think, on balance, this line of thinking cannot conclude that religion causes harm.

2.      Prayer

All religions I know about have the concept of prayer.  This is where you plead with your chosen deity to take some action that you think is important; anything from ending world hunger to stopping next door’s cat from peeing in your petunias.  There is, of course, no scientific evidence that prayer actually changes anything (if there were I wouldn’t be an atheist) but it is considered an important part of all the religions I know about.  And how can that be harmful?  Useless, maybe, but harmful?

In general I don’t think prayer is harmful.  It may not even be a total waste of time - for most of us our lives are so busy that maybe setting aside some time every day for quiet contemplation isn’t such a bad thing.

What worries me is when people pray about something; and then use that as an excuse to do nothing practical about it.  We can pray to end world hunger but wouldn’t it also be helpful to give some money to a hunger relief charity?  Or write to a politician and ask them to diverts some of the billions spent on armaments and perhaps send a million or two to famine aid?  Or start a charity?

I’m told there is a photograph taken after the Asian Tsunami in 2004 of a group of people digging frantically in the hope of recovering survivors, and one chap standing there, bible in hand, praying[2].  Wouldn’t he have been more use helping with the digging?

But in reality, as far as I can tell this is rare.  Most religious people I know have a very strong social conscience and take practical actions as well as offering prayers.  There may be a few for whom praying salves their conscience about doing nothing, but I think they are a small minority.

I think, on balance, this line of thinking too cannot conclude that religion causes harm.

3.      Bigotry

It is often alleged that religion promotes bigotry and hatred.  TV clips of Muslims screaming “Death to America”, the 9/11 attacks, Christians saying that homosexuals should be slaughtered, they all support this view.  It is, I think by definition, the case that if my religion tells me X and you say Y then you are automatically in the wrong (because my religion was defined by my God and my God is always right.)

But then these things are, in the global scheme of things, rare.  We call the people who advocate these violent solutions “fanatics”, which the Wikipedia defines as people with “a belief or behavior involving uncritical zeal or with an obsessive enthusiasm for a pastime or hobby.”  The vast majority of Muslims are not suicide bombers and Islam does not say they should be (unless you wilfully misinterpret the Quran[3]).  Most Christians do not want to burn homosexuals and many openly support gay rights and same-sex marriage.  Most Jews would be quite happy to live peacefully alongside their Palestinian neighbours (and vice versa).  The Catholic Church no longer burns heretics.  And yet, within every religion there seem to be a few who take things to extremes.

But then, outside religion the same is true.  The majority of politics, for example, is relatively centred between left and right.  Some emphasis on personal freedom and financial stringency (right) but also social welfare and inclusiveness (left).  And yet we do get extremists.  Margaret Thatcher pushed monetarism probably further than the UK people were willing to go.  Harold Wilson’s preceding government did the same with socialism.  Most people won’t support the far-right British National Party., but they still exist and do get votes.  Does this mean the whole of politics is bad?

There are fanatics in everything.  Most people who choose to do so collect stamps as a rewarding and fulfilling hobby; just a few allow it to take over their lives.  The worst you can say for fanatics is that they are on the edge of the spectrum of what we can call human.

So does the presence of a few fanatics mean that we should ban all religions?  I’m sure you can guess my answer.  We need to keep pressure on the world’s religious leaders to keep their fanatics under control, but I think, on balance, this line of thinking really cannot conclude that religion causes harm.

4.      Your Rights, My Rights

What happens when the majority in a particular country or jurisdiction are of the same religion?  Democracy says the majority should get its way, so does that mean the laws of that jurisdiction can be aligned with the rules of the religion?

This is interesting.  If the majority are Baptists, and Baptists are anti-alcohol, then should alcohol be illegal in that state?  What about the rights of the non-Baptists, who want to quietly enjoy a bottle of wine with dinner?  If the majority are Jews must everything close on Saturday?  If the majority are Muslims and everyone who is not a Muslim is automatically an unbeliever then what should the state do with these unbelievers?

The issue here strikes at the heart of Democracy.  In the UK, the Murder (Abolition of Death Penalty) Act 1965 suspended the death penalty and in 1969 it was formally abolished.  The UK parliament held a vote during each subsequent parliament until 1997 to restore the death penalty and this motion was always defeated.  And yet polling consistently showed that a majority of British people were, and probably still are, in favour of the restoration of the death penalty.  Even in a democracy, the majority does not always get its way.

Most enlightened democracies these days separate church and state.  They do not have an official religion.  All the religions in the state, together with all of those who follow no religion, have an equal voice in proposing laws.  So if Christians oppose same-sex marriage and want to ban it in their churches that’s up to them, but secular same-sex marriages should go ahead.  If Jews want to abstain from eating pork then that’s for them to decide but that doesn’t mean that pork and pig products will be unavailable to those for whom life would not be complete without the occasional bacon sandwich.

States where there is an established religion and where the demands of that religion are allowed to dominate politics are a problem.  But they are becoming fewer and more marginalised.  And UN Treaties are increasingly making inroads into them.

So does the presence in the world of a few states that still think with their prayer books instead of their heads mean we should say religion does harm?  I think on balance this line of thinking really cannot conclude that religion causes harm.

So the conclusion is …

Having considered it carefully, I have concluded that religion, in general, does no harm, and that therefore my attitude to it should be ‘live and let live’. 

I am irked by the fact that St. Helena’s Constitution describes it as a “Christian Country”, but I have no immediate plans to campaign for change.  It annoys me that Iran denies its population basic human rights, but I’m sure that is more to do with the people who hold power than their professed religion (if they followed the Quran they would give their people human rights).  I wish Israel would stop trying to exterminate the Palestinians but I blame that on a stupid decision by the United Nations in 1947 (to create Israel) rather than on the Jewish religion.  And I’d like to see an end to people blowing themselves (and, of course, others) to pieces in order to get to sleep with 75 virgins[4] but I blame the fanatics who have perverted the religion rather than the religion itself.  I object to subsidising the Anglican Church here through its many tax breaks (it pays less so the rest of us must pay more) but there is an awful lot of tax policy I don’t agree with and this is a drop in the ocean.

So don’t expect me to start campaigning for the end of religion.  I think people can lead better lives by abandoning religion; but then I also prefer cats to dogs but I have no plans to ban dogs or dissuade dog lovers from keeping them.  If anyone asks me what I believe (don’t believe) and why I will happily tell them, but not otherwise.

Live and let live.

[1] Tell the faithful what to believe?  Surely the prophet that started the religion did that, didn’t he (it’s invariably a he)?  Well, no.  If you don’t believe me search the BBC website ( for an excellent article by William Kremer entitled “How religions change their mind”.
[2] Andrew found the photo on the Internet for a school research project but can’t now remember where – if you know the photo and can direct me to it, or send me a copy, I’d be very grateful.
[3] Physical struggle is only permitted “against persecution and oppression” – read the Wikipedia page
[4] I don’t see the point.  75 virgins would, at best, last you 75 nights – about 2.5 months.  What happens then?  Do you end up with 75 wives?  And this is heaven?

Saturday, May 24, 2014

The Flying Spaghetti Monster

The "Flying Spaghetti Monster" was first described in a satirical open letter written by Bobby Henderson in January 2005 to protest against the Kansas State Board of Education's decision to permit teaching intelligent design as an alternative to evolution in public school science classes. In that letter, Henderson satirized creationism by professing his belief that whenever a scientist carbon-dates an object, a supernatural creator that closely resembles spaghetti and meatballs is there "changing the results with His Noodly Appendage". Henderson argued that his beliefs were just as valid as intelligent design, and called for equal time in science classrooms alongside intelligent design and evolution. After Henderson published the letter on his website, the Flying Spaghetti Monster rapidly became an Internet phenomenon and a symbol of opposition to the teaching of intelligent design in public schools.

The central belief is that an invisible and undetectable Flying Spaghetti Monster created the universe. According to Henderson, since the intelligent design movement uses ambiguous references to a designer, any conceivable entity may fulfill that role, including a Flying Spaghetti Monster.

In May 2005, having received no reply from the Kansas State Board of Education, Henderson posted the letter on his website, gaining significant public interest. Shortly thereafter, Pastafarianism became an Internet phenomenon. Henderson published the responses he then received from board members. Three board members, all of whom opposed the curriculum amendments, responded positively; a fourth board member responded with the comment "It is a serious offense to mock God". Henderson has also published the significant amount of hate mail, including death threats, that he has received. Within one year of sending the open letter, Henderson received thousands of emails on the Flying Spaghetti Monster, eventually totaling over 60,000, of which he has said that "about 95 percent have been supportive, while the other five percent have said I am going to hell". During that time, his site garnered tens of millions of hits.

To learn more check out the Website of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster and read Henderson's letter.  For $20 you could become a Pastafarian minister ...

Permission to eat insects

Leviticus 11, verses 20-23, say:

"All flying insects that walk on all fours are to be regarded as unclean by you. 21 There are, however, some flying insects that walk on all fours that you may eat: those that have jointed legs for hopping on the ground. 22 Of these you may eat any kind of locust, katydid, cricket or grasshopper. 23 But all other flying insects that have four legs you are to regard as unclean."

Now I went to school and I know that insects have six legs.  It's kinda how insects are defined!  So does that mean I can eat all insects because none of them "walk on all fours"?

Honestly!  Who writes this rubbish!

What a waste ...

If you go to Petersburg, Kentucky, USA you might want to visit the Creation Museum.  The objective of the museum is to promote a Young Earth creationist explanation of the origins of the universe based on a literal interpretation of the Genesis creation narrative. Spread over 60,000-square-feet (5,600 m2) the museum's exhibits depict the coexistence of humans and dinosaurs, maintain that the Earth is approximately 6,000 years old, and dispute the idea that life arose via the process of biological evolution.

Why do I mention this stupid piece of nonsense?

Well the estimated cost of creating this fallacy was $27 million (about £17 million).  In addition, the museum employs about 160 people with another 140 working at the attached Answers in Genesis headquarters.  I estimate the annual salary bill at around $9 million (£5.5 million), plus all the other costs like electricity and water.

What a disgraceful waste of resources!  All to promote a viewpoint that no thinking person could possibly support.

Imagine how much medical aid that money could have bought.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Requesting clarity

On her radio show, Dr Laura Schlesinger said that, as an observant Orthodox Jew, homosexuality is an abomination according to Leviticus 18:22, and cannot be condoned under any circumstance. The following response is an open letter to Dr. Laura, penned by a US resident, which was posted on the Internet. It’s funny, as well as informative:

Dear Dr. Laura:

Thank you for doing so much to educate people regarding God’s Law. I have learned a great deal from your show, and try to share that knowledge with as many people as I can. When someone tries to defend the homosexual lifestyle, for example, I simply remind them that Leviticus 18:22 clearly states it to be an abomination… End of debate.

I do need some advice from you, however, regarding some other elements of God’s Laws and how to follow them.

1. Leviticus 25:44 states that I may possess slaves, both male and female, provided they are purchased from neighboring nations. A friend of mine claims that this applies to Mexicans, but not Canadians. Can you clarify? Why can’t I own Canadians?

2. I would like to sell my daughter into slavery, as sanctioned in Exodus 21:7. In this day and age, what do you think would be a fair price for her?

3. I know that I am allowed no contact with a woman while she is in her period of menstrual uncleanliness – Lev.15: 19-24. The problem is how do I tell? I have tried asking, but most women take offense.

4. When I burn a bull on the altar as a sacrifice, I know it creates a pleasing odor for the Lord – Lev.1:9. The problem is, my neighbors. They claim the odor is not pleasing to them. Should I smite them?

5. I have a neighbor who insists on working on the Sabbath. Exodus 35:2. clearly states he should be put to death. Am I morally obligated to kill him myself, or should I ask the police to do it?

6. A friend of mine feels that even though eating shellfish is an abomination – Lev. 11:10, it is a lesser abomination than homosexuality. I don’t agree. Can you settle this? Are there ‘degrees’ of abomination?

7. Lev. 21:20 states that I may not approach the altar of God if I have a defect in my sight. I have to admit that I wear reading glasses. Does my vision have to be 20/20, or is there some wiggle- room here?

8. Most of my male friends get their hair trimmed, including the hair around their temples, even though this is expressly forbidden by Lev. 19:27. How should they die?

9. I know from Lev. 11:6-8 that touching the skin of a dead pig makes me unclean, but may I still play football if I wear gloves?

10. My uncle has a farm. He violates Lev.19:19 by planting two different crops in the same field, as does his wife by wearing garments made of two different kinds of thread (cotton/polyester blend). He also tends to curse and blaspheme a lot. Is it really necessary that we go to all the trouble of getting the whole town together to stone them? Lev.24:10-16. Couldn’t we just burn them to death at a private family affair, like we do with people who sleep with their in-laws? (Lev. 20:14)

I know you have studied these things extensively and thus enjoy considerable expertise in such matters, so I am confident you can help. Thank you again for reminding us that God’s word is eternal and unchanging.

Your adoring fan.
James M. Kauffman, Ed.D. Professor Emeritus Dept. of Curriculum,
Instruction, and Special Education University of Virginia


What the Bible says about clothing and fashions

What does the "manual for life" say about clothing and fashions?

Skeptics Annotated Bible makes fascinating reading, and also covers Islam and the Book of Mormon (such an easy target...)

Women may not wear men's clothing or vice versa -- it's an "abomination unto the Lord."

"The woman shall not wear that which pertaineth unto a man, neither shall a man put on a woman's garment: for all that do so are abomination unto the LORD thy God." -- Deuteronomy 22:5

Women may not braid their hair, wear gold, pearls, or expensive clothing.

"Women adorn themselves in modest apparel, with shamefacedness and sobriety; not with braided hair, or gold, or pearls, or costly array." -- 1 Timothy 2:9

"Whose adorning let it not be that outward adorning of plaiting the hair, and of wearing of gold, or of putting on of apparel." -- 1 Peter 3:3

Don't wear garments with wool and linen blended together.

"Thou shalt not wear a garment of divers sorts, as of woollen and linen together." -- Deuteronomy 22:11

A man's hair should be short, and a woman's long.

"Doth not even nature itself teach you, that, if a man have long hair, it is a shame unto him? But if a woman have long hair, it is a glory to her: for her hair is given her for a covering." -- 1 Corinthians 11:14-15

God will punish those who wear strange clothes.

"I will punish ... all such as are clothed with strange apparel." -- Zephaniah 1:8

Priests must wear linen, not wool, and may not wear any garment that makes them sweat.

"But the priests ... shall be clothed with linen garments; and no wool shall come upon them. They shall have linen bonnets upon their heads, and shall have linen breeches upon their loins; they shall not gird themselves with any thing that causeth sweat." -- Ezekiel 44:15-18

Friday, May 16, 2014

Other quotes

"If you could argue with religious people, there would be no religious people."
Dr. Gregory House

"The further the spiritual evolution of mankind advances, the more certain it seems to me that the path to genuine religiosity does not lie through the fear of life, and the fear of death, and blind faith, but through striving after rational knowledge."
Albert Einstein

"Scriptures (n.): The sacred books of our holy religion, as distinguished from the false and profane writings on which all other faiths are based."
Ambrose Bierce

"The Christian view that all intercourse outside marriage is immoral was, as we see in the above passages from St. Paul, based upon the view that all sexual intercourse, even within marriage, is regrettable. A view of this sort, which goes against biological facts, can only be regarded by sane people as a morbid aberration. The fact that it is embedded in Christian ethics has made Christianity throughout its whole history a force tending towards mental disorders and unwholesome views of life."
Bertrand Russell

"When the missionaries came to Africa they had the Bible and we had the land. They said "Let us pray." We closed our eyes. When we opened them, we had the Bible and they had the land."
(Archbishop!) Desmond Tutu

Epicurus proposed the following questions to test the existence of God:
"Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is impotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?"

George Bernard Shaw:

  • "All great truths begin as blasphemies."
  • "No public man ever believes that the Bible means what it says: he is always convinced that it says what he means"
  • "No sooner had Jesus knocked over the dragon of superstition than Paul boldly set it on its legs again in the name of Jesus"
"Faith is not wanting to know what is true."
Friedrich Nietzsche

"There is a rumour going around that I have found God. I think this is unlikely because I have enough difficulty finding my keys, and there is empirical evidence that they exist."
Terry Pratchett

"Science knows it doesn't know everything; otherwise, it'd stop. But just because science doesn't know everything doesn't mean you can fill in the gaps with whatever fairy tale most appeals to you."
Dara O' Briain

"We are allowed to question people about their politics or ethics and expect them to defend their beliefs, or at least hold their own in any other important matter by recourse to evidence, yet somehow on the massive subject of God and how he might have us behave, all rational discussion must stop the moment we hear 'I believe'."
Derren Brown

Sam Harris:

  • "The difference between science and religion is the difference between a willingness to dispassionately consider new evidence and new arguments, and a passionate unwillingness to do so.!
  • "The problem with faith, is that it really is a conversation stopper. Faith is a declaration of immunity to the powers of conversation. It is a reason, why you do not have to give reasons, for what you believe."
  • "No culture in human history ever suffered because its people became too reasonable."
  • "If religion were the only durable foundation for morality you would suspect atheists to be really badly behaved. You would go to a group like the National Academy of Sciences. These are the most elite scientists, 93 percent of whom reject the idea of God. You would expect these guys to be raping and killing and stealing with abandon."
  • "Let’s just grant the possibility that there is a Creator God, who’s omniscient, who occasionally authors books. And he’s gonna give us a book – the most useful book. He’s a loving God, he’s a compassionate God, and he’s gonna give us a guide to life. He’s got a scribe, the scribe’s gonna write it down. What’s gonna be in that book? I mean just think of how good a book would be if it were authored by an omniscient deity. I mean, there is not a single line in the Bible or the Koran that could not have been authored by a first century person. There is not one reference to anything – there are pages and pages about how to sacrifice animals, and keep slaves, and who to kill and why. There’s nothing about electricity, there’s nothing about DNA, there’s nothing about infectious disease, the principles of infectious disease. There’s nothing particularly useful, and there’s a lot of iron age barbarism in there, and superstition. This is not a candidate book."
  • "If premarital sex is a sin, who is the victim?"

Says it all ...

Quotes from H. L. Mencken

To read about him go to the Wikipedia: H. L. Mencken

On religion

  • Faith may be defined briefly as an illogical belief in the occurrence of the improbable.
  • Religion, after all, is nothing but an hypothesis framed to account for what is evidentially unaccounted for.
  • A man full of faith is simply one who has lost (or never had) the capacity for clear and realistic thought.
  • It is the natural tendency of the ignorant to believe what is not true.
  • The final test of truth is ridicule. Very few dogmas have ever faced it and survived

On politics

  • The fact is that the average man's love of liberty is nine-tenths imaginary, exactly like his love of sense, justice and truth.
  • No one in this world has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people. Nor has anyone ever lost public office thereby.
  • A professional politician is a professionally dishonorable man. In order to get anywhere near high office he has to make so many compromises and submit to so many humiliations that he becomes indistinguishable from a streetwalker.
  • The government consists of a gang of men exactly like you and me. They have no special talent for the business of government; they have only a talent for getting and holding office.
  • The most dangerous man to any government is the man who is able to think things out for himself, without regard to the prevailing superstitions and taboos.

On life in general

  • Bachelors know more about women than married men. If they didn't they'd be married, too.
  • It is the dull man who is always sure, and the sure man who is always dull.
  • I do not object to being denounced, but I can't abide being schoolmastered, especially by men I regard as imbeciles.
  • Conscience is the inner voice that warns us somebody may be looking.
  • A man may be a fool and not know it — but not if he is married.
  • A newspaper is a device for making the ignorant more ignorant and the crazy crazier.

I am not a Campaigning Atheist

To see what I mean by "Campaigning Atheist" have a look at the website for the American Atheists.

America, it seems, has issues.  Some see it as a Christian country (which, I can only assume, means that Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, etc. are less welcome?)  Other want it to be a secular society, with freedom to worship (or not worship) whoever and whatever you choose but no compulsion to do so.  The arguments are complex, I'm sure, but I don't want to get involved (not the least because I'm not an American).

True, the Constitution of St. Helena says we are a "Christian Country".  Maybe that explains why there are so few of any other faith here?  Apart from a few beleaguered Baha'is everyone else is (officially, at least) Christian - except me and probable a few others who don't believe a word of any of it.  But it doesn't bother me if they want to declare St. Helena a "Christian Country" if it makes them feel better - at least as long as it doesn't interfere with my right to ignore it.

If anyone starts telling me what I must believe, or criticising me (or discriminating against me) because I'm not one of the flock(*) THEN I'll start speaking up.  Who knows, I might even form St. Helena Atheists(**).

(*) why do people want to make themselves like sheep?  Sheep are stupid creatures and exceedingly dull!  If they want to separate the sheep from the goats, put me with the goats any time!

(**) How about St. Helena Atheists Group (SHAG) for a title ...

Church Rules

The local church (Anglican, of course) has a fascinating way of increasing membership!

People like to have their babies Christened in church (don't ask me why, but they do).  To have a baby christened you need Godparents.  And the church here insists that all godparents must be Confirmed (which is a ceremony that makes you officially an Anglican).  Not only that, living-together parents AND Godparents are put under pressure to get married, as well!

Now to my mind the Church has the status of a private club, and if you want to join the club you have to abide by it's rules, however onerous they may be.  So I have no objection to this rather extreme ruling.  But having got these people to formalise themselves as Anglicans, does anyone really believe it will make them Christians?  I seriously doubt it.  All it does is swell the paper numbers and provide numerical evidence that the priests are doing a good job by converting people, which I suppose is the underlying purpose of the ruling.

Fortunately I have no plans to be anybody's Godparent.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Religious people have sometimes asked me "what do you do with your life?"

Stupid question!

I do all the thing normal* people do.  I work  (at Burgh House and at the Moonbeams Shop), I have a family (see the Turner Family website), I read books, watch TV (at least, I watch DVDs because the broadcast TV on St. Helena is expensive rubbish), eat, sleep, campaign (e.g. for Freedom of Information), etc. (don't ask about the 'etc.' - this is not an Adult blog).

But if I understand their question, it's because God is such a large part of their lives (and takes up such a lot of their time) that they can't imagine what they would do with all the extra hours they would save.  I think that's rather sad - for them.

*by 'normal' I mean most people, i.e. the 90% of Britons (80% of Americans) who don't bother with church and who would put themselves down on a form as "C of E" but wouldn't dream of setting foot in a church except perhaps to get married and buried.