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.