Monday, 24 June 2013

And Then Everyone Was A Fascist: Why The British Anti-Islamisation Debate Needs To Drop The Term 'Fascism'


A month ago, a member of the British Army named Lee Rigsby was brutally murdered on Wellington Street, Woolwich by a pair of religiously-motivated madmen. It was only through the efforts of a few extremely brave members of the public that the body count was not any higher. Rigsby was, by all accounts, an extremely nice bloke who did not at all deserve the senseless fate that was delivered to him.

The murder of a soldier at the hands of Islamic militants has had the effect one might have expected.

Namely, a shitstorm has erupted.

On one side we have the Anti-Islamists, represented in its extremes by groups like the English Defence League or parties like the British National Party. They are calling for an end to what they perceive to be the spread of Islam throughout society, and they aren't afraid of using violence to achieve this end. The opposition to this standpoint (let's call them the Anti-Anti-Islamists, because it looks and sounds hilarious) claim that the situation is being massively over-exaggerated and that it is unfair to judge an entire group by its extremes. These guys are represented by groups like Hope Not Hate, and in its extremes by Unite Against Fascism.

Now, I'm going to do my best to remain as on-the-fence on this topic as possible with this post, because it isn't my intention to discuss the relative merits of either side and their arguments. I'm writing this because I take quite a big issue with the language both sides use. And by language, I mean one specific term.

Because seriously, guys, you all need to stop bandying around the word 'fascism'.

Fascism is a term for a very specific form of ultra-right political nationalism, emphasising strong leader figures and the “mass mobilisation of the national community” (cheers Wikipedia). It's a form of rule that rose to prominence in the 20th Century, with countries like Italy being taken over by fascist parties during this time and with small fringe groups like the British Union of Fascists existing in countries like the UK. The most notorious example, of course, is Germany's Nazi state that existed between 1933 and 1945: when people talk of fascism, its this state and all the negative connotations that come with it that springs to mind.

Fascism isn't a buzzword. Fascism isn't all radical-right political theory. Fascism isn't everyone who doesn't think exactly the fucking same as you. It's a proper political term that represents a specific ideology but these days is instead being misused by every man and his dog, regardless of where they sit on the political spectrum.

So let's single out each side in turn and explain to them why they should stop misusing this word.

Dear 'Unite Against Fascism'. You're not opposing fascists, unless Nick Griffin has recently developed an obsession with corporatism whilst I wasn't looking. The days when there were openly-fascist groups and parties operating in the UK have long since ended; even the National Front has since shifted its focus to a brand of ultra-nationalism. Far-right movements? Yes, those you are opposing, but the use of fascism in your very name indicates a complete lack of understanding towards the thing you say you're opposing, which makes you guys look more than a little silly.

Dear Anti-Islamists. There's no such fucking thing as 'left-wing fascism'. That's a paradox that ranks up there with “a very dry rainforest”. If you were to start talking about 'left-wing extremism', then you might well find yourself onto something, because such a thing most certainly exists and I'm sure some of you guys have been the victim of it at times. But tacking 'fascism' on the end of something to try and make a point not only suggests you have absolutely no idea what the hell you're talking about, it just seems childish and unnecessary.

Which bring us to my central point. In debates like the one currently raging about Islamophobia and the Islamisation of Britain, fascism is no longer being used to make a legitimate point. It's being used to stifle discussion, to shut down communication. “Oh, you hold an opposing view-point to me? Well, you're a fucking Nazi, mate” is essentially what people are doing when they bandy the term about.

This discussion's important. It needs to happen, and we need a decent consensus on how to answer it. So tactics such as everyone calling everyone else a fascist is doing nothing but increasing the rhetorical nonsense and ensuring that we take even longer to come up with an answer.

So seriously, guys. Cut that shit out.

Thursday, 6 June 2013

Why Having Religious Friends as an Atheist is Awesome

Standard Atheist/Theist Discussion.

David Hume was not a fan of the ol' faithful.

His controversial stance on religion led him to be very nearly charged with infidelity by the Church of Scotland, and he was a vocal opponent of anything that he deemed to be overly 'clerical' in society. He ripped the Argument from Design into very small chunks with his posthumous Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, and his views led him to be denied a career as an academic, forcing him to make a living as an essayist.

Yet Hume was also a very amicable fellow. His friendly nature and disposition led to him being nicknamed “la bonne David” by his friends in France, many of whom were in fact priests and other religious figures. Where he saw views and issues he was willing to make his argument heard and call out what he disapproved of, but he could also maintain friendships with those who held differing opinions from himself despite this.

Now, Hume was likely not an atheist: philosopher Stewart Sutherland places him on the scale of belief as a sceptic and possible agnostic. But that doesn't mean that we atheistic types cannot learn a thing or two from his stance towards theistic friends and acquaintances. The ability to denounce what we see as wrong or dangerous yet also maintain our candour is something I do feel is lost sometimes on modern atheists: there does seem to be a bit too much of “you're stupid, your opinions are stupid and I don't talk to stupid people” going around, rather than the more amenable “your stance on that issue is pretty fucking stupid I've got to say, and here's why I think so. But hey, how 'bout them Lakers?”

Talking religion with atheist friends when you yourself are an atheist tends to just turn into an echo-chamber; of course no-one's going to disagree or put forth an alternative, you're all on the same wave-length. Introduce a friend who's of a religious persuasion, however, and now you've got yourself a discussion on the go. Nobody learns anything by nodding along and agreeing with each other: we learn through debate, through rational discourse and discussion. You're probably not going to sway many hearts and minds, but it will teach you how to better express your viewpoints, and it could well teach you a thing or two about what you truly think as well.

Being able to defend your ideas under fire really focuses your mind on what those ideas are.

I'm not saying go out and get chummy with a Pentecostal or a Young-Earther (not unless you like a challenge, or rigorous debates with brick walls), but most religious folks aren't of the extremist persuasion: they're just regular people like the rest of humanity who hold beliefs contrary to your own. Misguided beliefs in your mind, sure. Hell, maybe even stupid beliefs. Just remember that you could be wrong, and that they probably think the same of you. Nobody wants an echo-chamber, at the end of the day. Echo-chambers are dull as shit, unless you know a really good ventriloquist.

Having friends you can properly debate against, though? They're worth having.

Monday, 3 June 2013

Back In The Saddle

Quick update post, guys.

Exams are over, real life is looming menacingly on the horizon, and I'm no longer off visiting Europe, so normal updates to this here blog can resume. Sorry for the wait. I'm looking forward to getting back to it now that life isn't throwing quite so many distractions at me.

In the meantime, here's a sweet video of a particularly awesome thinker and populariser of science, discussing the Big Bang. Miss you, Carl.


Sunday, 26 May 2013

The Sceptic’s Guide To Spotting Bullshit



The internet is packed with bullshit.

There’s a whole range of nonsense to be found, thousands of sites devoted to woo, and entire corners of the web devoted to crack-pottery. In lieu of a more thought-out, extensive post I thought I’d throw together a list of a couple things that can very often be indicators to the fact that the website you’ve stumbled upon is spouting bullshit.

Enjoy.

  1. The writer seems to have a serious fetish for the word ‘truth’ and will use it in everything from the title to each and every post.
  2. The words ‘New World Order’, ‘Illuminati’ and/or ‘Jews’ are used in the same sentence.
  3. Info Wars is linked without any trace of sarcasm.
  4. The reader is frequently exonerated to “wake up”, or posts are ended with a call for America/the world to “open their eyes”.
  5. ‘False Flag Operations’ are mentioned and discussed with reckless abandon.
  6. Crude and blurry images with red lines added in MS Paint make up the bulk of the images posted.
  7. Monsanto is viewed as something akin to the Antichrist.
  8. The phrase “wake up sheeple” is used without irony.
  9. Ghandi’s “first they ignore you…” quote is referenced frequently.
  10. Any Youtube videos linked will always have their titles in all-caps. Because nothing says credible like all-caps.
  11. Any text used in an image must be bright red. Because red is a colour that works on anything.
  12. Alex Jones is cited as an expert.

If you guys have any further points you’d like to add to the list, feel free to mention them in the comments.

Saturday, 18 May 2013

The Thick Skin


The internet is a pretty incredible resource.

Chances are that you, reading this post right now, are hundreds, even thousands of miles away from where I sit typing it. Right now, I could open up Skype and be capable of talking to someone on the opposite side of the world to me in real time. Or else I could open up Netflix and stream movies at a rate that would have been considered nigh-impossible a decade ago.

For every silver-lining, however, there's always the cloud.

Because whilst the internet is pretty incredible, it's also full of assholes.

Write a post about movies, and some guy will emerge to tell you that your opinions suck. Write a post about video games, and another guy will pop out of nowhere to tell you that you're terrible at what you do and you should stop. Write a post about religion from an atheistic standpoint, and you'll find several people jumping out the woodwork to tell you that you're going to hell. Write a post about religion from a theistic standpoint, and I'd wager you'll have plenty of folks telling you that you're an ignorant, Bible-thumping fucktard. Talk about how you think homoeopathy has no evidence for it and you'll get labelled a shill for Big Pharma. Point out the faults in a particular conspiracy theory and someone will be there to declare you a narrow-minded fool who can't see the bigger picture.

In short, if you talk about things on the internet it's basically an inevitability that at some point you will have people stop by just to try and fuck with you.

Don't get me wrong, writing a blog can be a very rewarding experience. I've been writing Damned Already for over a year now, and it's been an awesome way to help me figure out how I think about issues and has put me in touch with some very cool internet folks, too. But you've got to be prepared for the less enjoyable parts of putting your thoughts and ideas out into the ether that is the world wide web.

The ability to look past things and weather abuse, otherwise known as having a thick skin, is pretty vital at times when you're writing a blog. The ability to not be put off by some guy appearing just to tell you how much he thinks you suck can help you not to lose your enjoyment of this whole 'typing out your thoughts and ideas and then sticking then on the internet' thing. At the same time, though, it's important to be able to separate assholery from those dispensing useful, if blunt, constructive criticism. You might not like what they have to say, or the way they say it, but sometimes there's a few gems of useful feedback in amongst the sea of shit being spewed at you.

Posting anything on the internet can suck at times. That doesn't change the fact that it can be an extremely rewarding experience too.

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

The Joys Of Spring

 
 By joys, I mean exams.

Which are not in any way, shape or form joyful.

Yes, it's that time of year again where the University makes sure we student things actually learned something this year by testing us on our modules. So I'm currently buried under revision and last minute preparation, because forward planning has never been my strong suit.

As such, updates might be a little slow in the coming weeks. I'll be aiming to post something at least once a week, but that will probably be it for the rest of the month. Once June rolls around I'm free and clear, however, so it'll be business as usual then.

Until then, however, I best get back to reading about British immigration. A truly riveting and cheery subject. Honest.

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Religious Themes in Video Games: Receiver


Been slacking off on these of late, so here's the next entry in this series on games that cover the often rather difficult topic of religion.

This one's a recent discovery of mine, and drastically different from the previous games I've discussed. Made in a week as part of an indie game challenge by a small studio called Wolfire, Receiver features some truly unique game mechanics and a covers a fascinating topic.

You see, Receiver is a game that allows you to experience what it's like to be in a cult.

Receiver

This is a game that takes a very subtle, minimalist approach to story, and I reckon it benefits from it greatly. You find yourself alone in a series of interconnected buildings and apartments with nothing but a handgun, a tape-player and a set of headphones. Scattered throughout this environment are tapes, telling you that you're special, that you have a great potential waiting to be realised. You see, you're what the beings speaking through the tape (oh, I did mention that they say they're from another dimension, right?) call a 'receiver', someone who is capable of hearing their message and has the chance to break free from the control of the Threat, another extra-dimensional race that has enslaved humanity through “media addiction”.

If you succeed in collecting all the tapes, you will become the first human to transcend to another plane of existence. The Threat isn't keen on this, and has released “kill-bots” into the area to murder you before you succeed.

It took me a bit to catch on to what the developers were trying to say with all this, but when the penny dropped it was a hell of a revelation.

Receiver isn't so much a commentary as it is an experience, and that's surprisingly rare in video games of this nature; it doesn't judge one way or the other whether the tapes are telling you a crock of shit or whether you really are a person on the brink of ascending to another dimension, instead just feeding you the information and letting you decide for yourself. It provides an insight into the mind of someone drawn in by a cult, the tantalising possibility that you really are unique in the world, that you have a destiny that will allow you to become greater than all others.

The nature of the gameplay helps to drive this idea forwards; you are alone throughout, with nothing but a voice on a tape-player as contact with other people. The enemies in the game are faceless machines, designed by the Threat to kill enlightened beings such as yourself. Just with this simple choice of design Receiver puts you in the mindset of a cult member, cut off and aloof from others, concerning yourself only with the words of your fellow believers.

The mechanics are a stroke of genius in-and-of themselves, but since that's not really the topic of discussion I won't dwell on them too much. Suffice it to say that I've played a lot of games with aspirations towards a “realistic shooting mechanics”, games that have millions of dollars pumped into their development, and Wolfire has topped them all with Receiver.

Cults are one of the scariest aspects of religion and faith, and so a game that can provide a means to understand those drawn in by such things is a valuable thing indeed. You can grab it on Steam or from Wolfire's website for just $4 at the moment, which is a steal as far as I'm concerned.

The gameplay is unforgiving, to say the least, but Receiver is worth playing just for the experience alone.

Tuesday, 7 May 2013

Sylvia Browne Told The Mother Of Amanda Berry Her Daughter Was Dead

Louwana Miller will never know that her daughter is alive

Just a quick update today, guys, as I don't have a huge amount to add to this story; I just want to do what little I can to make sure awareness of this spreads.

Sylvia Browne, self-described “spiritual teacher and psychic”, has a long history of having her predictions turn out to be big, steaming crocks of bullshit. And it seems we can tally up yet another to this very long list, because in 2003 Browne told Louwana Miller, the mother of the woman who has recently been found after her disappearance ten years ago, that her daughter was in fact dead.

You can read the transcript of the event in which she told Louwana Miller this lie here. Head's up, though, it's some depressing shit.

News like Amanda Berry and several other missing women being found is always great to hear, which is why having stuff like this blemish it is always so frustrating. What's worse is the fact that Louwana will never know that her daughter is in fact alive and well even after all this time: she passed away due to a heart-failure in 2006. Browne telling her that her daughter was dead changed her, according to Art McCoy; “from that point on, Ms Miller was never the same”.

I cannot express how much it angers me that Browne added further anguish to the final years of this poor woman's life. That's why this story is so damn important, and why I'm so glad that it's gaining so much media attention.

Charlatans and predators like Sylvia Browne deserve to be held accountable for their failures and wrong-doings. I hope that something good can come out of this extremely sad story.

Sunday, 5 May 2013

This Week in Atheism, Religion and Scepticism – 05/05/2013


THIS WEEK IN ATHEISM AND RELIGION...

It's not often you get to hear good news coming out from the 'ex-gay' movement (the guys who claim that homosexuality is some sort of illness curable by Jesus, or what have you), so this story is one I'm happy to be writing about. John Paulk, the poster boy for this particularly noxious movement and founder of the Love Won Out ministry, has issued a formal statement revealing that he is still gay and denouncing the idea of gay reparative therapy. His statement doesn't pull any punches: Paulk seems keen to distance himself from the movement he was once so closely associated with and is quoted as saying “I do not believe that reparative therapy changes sexual orientation; in fact, it does great harm to many people.”

To come out like this, to admit you were wrong about something you once defined yourself by so strongly, takes a lot of courage, so hats off to Mister Paulk. Gay reparative advocates will be going full damage control on this one, but this revelation has struck a serious blow to their credibility.

Not that they had much to begin with.

-

If only all friends were as awesome as the one featured in this story. Alexis Smith is suing the Northwest Rankin High School on behalf of a friend, whose age means that she has to sue through someone who is legally an adult. The school, through the influence of a large evangelical Baptist Church called Pinelake that has managed to gain a lot of sway in the Rankin County School District, brought about an assembly that What Would JT Do? describes:

“The school did not tell students in advance what the purpose of the assemblies were, nor did it allow them to opt out. All three assemblies consisted of the same Christian video and presentation. The focus of the assembly was how the students could find “hope” in Jesus, since they couldn’t find hope elsewhere... One senior recorded the entire assembly on a cellphone. Faculty and parents stood by the door to the room where the assembly was held, preventing students from leaving. Several students actually did try to leave, and were told to sit back down by the school’s truancy officer. The assemblies all ended with a group prayer.”

Fans of the United States constitution might currently be gesticulating wildly at the First Amendment and making angry noises, and you'd be damn right to do so. Hence why it's awesome that more people are beginning to take a stand on this issue. Religious groups have no grounds to pull this sort of stunt, and so the more people call them out and challenge them on it the less likely they are to attempt it.

Kudos to the unnamed student for raising this important issue, and major kudos to Smith for being so willing to stand by a friend when they need support. This sort of action makes a difference.

THIS WEEK IN SCEPTICISM...

The libel suit against author and scientist Simon Singh by the British Chiropractic Association has become the stuff of legend amongst sceptics the world over; the BCA's attempts to silence criticism through legislation backfired massively and led to a huge surge of support for Singh that ultimately trigger a change in the libel laws of Britain. It was a great example of reason and evidence stepping into the arena with pseudoscience, and even Britain's shitty libel laws couldn't help the proponents of nonsense.

But I don't think everybody realises just how massive a gamble Singh took when he decided to fight this case. Fortunately Nick Cohen of The Spectator does, and he can tell you all about it in this article. It contains extracts from Cohen's You Can't Read This Book, which sums up the whole thing brilliantly so I'll just go ahead and quote it here:

After hearing the judge’s ruling, Singh’s friends, his lawyers and everyone else who had his best interests at heart advised him to get out of the madhouse of the law while he still could. He had already risked £100,000 of his own money. If he fought the case, it would obsess his every waking moment for a year, possibly longer, and he could lose ten times that amount if the verdict went against him. Even if he won, he would still lose, because another peculiarity of the English law is that the victor cannot recoup his full costs. It was as if the judiciary had put Singh in a devil’s version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire?...

...No one would have blamed him for backing down. There would have been no dishonour in withdrawing from the fray. Thousands of publishers and writers in England and beyond have looked at the cost and biases of the English law and thought surrender the only option. Singh said that if he were a twenty-five-year-old with no money he would have apologised. But his bestselling books had given him financial independence. He resolved to refuse to put his name to a lie by authorising an apology. He knew what his enemies would do with it. Ernst and Singh had spent years investigating alternative medicine. No potential patient would spend more than a few days doing the same. If he apologised, chiropractic therapists would wave his retraction at potential patients, and say that Singh had admitted that their philosophy was not gibberish, and their claims to treat children were not bogus. As shamefully, an apology would also make Singh complicit in silencing other journalists, scientists and editors, who would think hard before challenging alternative therapists after seeing how the law had forced him to retract.”

So Simon Singh fought the case, even with the looming threat of losing and having the pants sued off him by the BCA. And he won; the outpouring of support for his cause and condemnation for the despicable attempts at censorship by the BCA was massive. Their attempts to justify their beliefs were torn apart by bloggers and medical journals. Petitions in support of Singh and against the libel laws were launched. Over 500 separate complaints against chiropractors within one 24-hour period, and that later rose to a quarter of all British chiropractors. In short, it was a catastrofuck for every chiropractor in the UK; as one of them put it, “suing Simon was worse than any Streisand effect and chiropractors know itand can do nothing about it.”

Singh seems like a pretty modest man; from the way Cohen describes it he's not keen to be put on a pedestal. Nonetheless he stood his ground and fought a case most would have run from, and in doing so helped change the laws of Britain for the better, so I agree with Nick Cohen in saying he does deserve all the praise he gets for this case.

That's all for this week in Atheism, Religion and Scepticism, folks. See you next time.

Friday, 3 May 2013

Does Religion Poison Everything?


Let's start with a disclaimer.

I'm a big, big fan of the Hitch.

Books like God Is Not Great were sources of information and inspiration to me when I first came to identify as a non-believer, far more so than any works by Dawkins or even Dennett, so it's safe to say that the late and great Christopher Hitchens remains someone I admire to this day. I'm not keen on hero worship, but he'd be a strong candidate if I was. I sure as shit didn't agree with a lot of his politics, but I greatly respected his willingness to speak up on matters he considered important, and to hold to his beliefs even when they made him unpopular.

So yes, big fan of the Hitch, love his work, miss his insights on matters.

I still cannot help but disagree with him on one of his major arguments, however.

What I'm referring to is this idea put forward in the very subtitle of God Is Not Great, “religion poisons everything” (unless you live in the UK like me, in which case the subtitle had to be changed to “the case against religion”, likely due to the bullshit libel laws of the time). You might say that this was just a catchy little phrasing used to garner attention to the book, but it comes up frequently throughout and is referenced in many of his speeches (which are master-classes in oratory skill, by the by, and you should watch as many as you can get your hands on).

Hitchens liked to cause a stir, to trigger debate and discussion, and this could partly account for what he was trying to achieve with this statement. But I do believe that he thought there was merit in this idea of religion as the source of the world's problems and issues.

Yet the tutor for my dissertation this year (writing on the topic of non-belief in early twentieth century Britain), a man I have come to admire and respect considerably, who has aided me time and time again and provided considerable support with what was a difficult task to complete, is a deeply religious man. He holds convictions that are completely different my own, but this did in no way poison the rapport we built up over the last year or the help me gave to me; if anything my dissertation benefited from it, for he offered a different insight onto the matters being discussed, something that I could never hope to provide.

Religion causes problems, yes. I don't think anyone could look at some of the events occurring across the globe today and come to any other conclusion. Does it cause all the world's problems, though?

No, it doesn't.

Christopher Hitchens was on to something with this idea of religion poisoning everything; I just think he needed to go a step further. Ignorance is what we should all be concerned by, whether we are religious or not, for it is the root cause of many of the world's current predicaments. Religion can indeed be considered an off-shoot of ignorance, but not always. To say that religion has had absolutely nothing of value to contribute to the world would be an over-statement so massive you'd be able to see it from orbit; the great Islamic nations of the Middle Ages helped to preserve texts of antiquity, and anyone who sees nothing beautiful or inspiring about a centuries-old Cathedral, steeped in history and a monument to ages past, needs to have their heads examined.

This isn't a criticism of Hitchens, and I am not another parasite in the guise of a commentator scuttling out from the shadows now that he is unable to retort to leech of his reputation and memory. This is merely a disagreement. I'd like to think that atheists are capable of respectfully disagreeing with one another, of debating matters that are important to us all.

We can disagree about things but still respect one another, and that's exactly how I feel about Hitchens on this topic.

Saturday, 27 April 2013

I Might Be Wrong

I haven't had the chance to use this awesome gorilla image in a while. So it's going here.

“The fundamental cause of the trouble is that in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.”
- Bertrand Russell, The Triumph of Stupidity

I talk about a lot of things on this blog, and it does seem like I've made my mind up about them.

When it comes to matters of religion, you can probably tell that I do not believe there's some omniscient bearded dude watching over us all, who made this world and is now so bored he takes an active interest in every single person currently drawing breath. Nor do I believe in any other manner of deity or deities floating about in the ether. I see no evidence for it, and so to me it makes no sense. Similarly you'll hear me discuss views most would label 'conspiracy theories', and again I don't believe it. They rely too much on logical fallacies and conspiratorial thinking in the place of solid, quantifiable, verifiable evidence, and so I place little value in them.

These conclusions that I have reached about such matters were a long time in coming; I do my best to consider these things as best I can before I make my mind up about them. But make my mind up I did.

I don't believe that god exists, organised religion really isn't for me and I reckon that anyone who starts spouting off about how the Jews were responsible for 9/11 is talking shit.

Here's the thing, though.

I could be wrong about these things.

Perhaps tomorrow some guy claiming to be Jesus will reveal himself to the world, and will be capable of feats that are little outside the laws of reality and that meet old David Hume's definition of miracles. Or perhaps Tim LaHaye's apocalyptic novels will prove to be decidedly non-fictional, and overnight we'll be left in a post-Rapture world (I can't help but think that The Thinking Atheist has a point about the wonders this would do for the globe, but there you go). Maybe tomorrow an alien spacecraft will be sighted floating over a major metropolitan area, and for once the vast number of phones that can record HD footage will come in handy by actually capturing some solid video of the damn thing.

Certainty is a concept I distrust greatly, and so I have to be honest enough with myself that even my most cherish views and beliefs could be false. I can't help but notice that the guys who deal in absolutes? You know, the ones who are totally and completely certain about the things they're espousing?

Yeah, I can't help but notice that they're the sort of folk who scare the shit out of me.

Monday, 22 April 2013

Conspiracy Theory Flowchart of Conspiratorial-ness

I really ought to be getting ready for class tomorrow, but this is just too good not to share.

It's a huge-ass image; be sure to full-size it.

Considerable kudos go to The Reason Stick for putting this together. I hope THEY don't realise you did.

Sunday, 21 April 2013

This Week in Atheism, Religion and Scepticism – 21/04/2013


Been a while since I worked on a consistent weekly segment for this blog, so I thought it was high time I got something started up again.

My idea for the 'Sunday News Round-Up' is for it to pretty much do what it says on the tin: every Sunday I'll post links to some news articles relevant to topics this blog covers, along with a bit of analysis and discussion from me. I'll break them down by topic, articles relating to atheism and religion in one, articles relating to scepticism in the other.

Right then, let's get this show on the road.

THIS WEEK IN ATHEISM AND RELIGION...

Shirley Chaplin, Gary McFarlane and Lillian Ladele are back in the news this week, as they're appealing the decision made by the European Court earlier this year. You might recall these three as the guys who complained that their employers were discriminating against them on religious grounds; Mrs Chaplin is a nurse forbidden to wear a cross at work, whilst Mr McFarlane and Miss Ladele are a relationship and marriage counsellor respectively who refused to work with homosexual couples. The former lost his job over it, whilst the latter is claiming that her employers making her work with gay couples would be discrimination.

All the rulings against them were held up in the European Court of Appeals, but now they're back decrying unfair treatment, double-standards and further discrimination against Christians. I do feel a bit sorry for Mrs Chaplin, I must admit; she had been wearing her cross (not exactly a big deal) for thirty years when she was asked to remove it on health and safety grounds, and she did actually offer to modify it so it did not only for this to be refused. The other two I have no sympathy for, however. We're reaching the stage were gay couples are finally starting to gain the right straight couples have solely enjoyed for far too long, and these kind of people can scream that they're not homophobes until Hell freezes over: if you are refusing to work with such couples based solely on their being gay, that's actual discrimination based upon sexual orientation.

---


Yeah, me neither.

Carla Hale, who had worked at Bishop Watterson High School for nineteen years, had her post terminated because her homosexuality is “a violation of moral law”. No, seriously. That's apparently their reasoning for this bullshit move. I never cease to be astounded by the fact that these people still think they can get away with this sort of thing still. Either way, a shitstorm is brewing, the school is under heavy scrutiny and Hale, who very kindly says that all she wants is her job back, is nonetheless pursuing legal action against the school for it's blatant discrimination against her. She's going to win, there's no doubt about it; the school diocese has no justification for the stunt it's pulled.

---

And finally for this section some news closer to home for me: a poll in Scotland by the Sunday Times and Real Radio Scotland shows a sizeable decrease in the number of people saying they belong to the Christian faith. This stands in stark contrast to an earlier poll in 2001, which had 65% of respondents saying they were Christian; in this new poll it's dropped to 55%, and those stating that they have no belief in god has risen from just 28% to 39%. Good news all round, by my standards. The National Secular Society, whose analysis of these numbers I'm politely pinching, points out that many people tend to overstate their religious tendencies in these polls, so for all we know the changes might be even larger.

The poll results are available online; you can check them out here.

THIS WEEK IN SCEPTICISM...

Anyone remember Andrew Wakefield? The former doctor who kicked off the whole MMR vaccine controversy with his fraudulent 1998 paper that linked the vaccine to autism? Who was using his paper to try and trick the government into using a medical test he had the patent for?

Yeah, well the asshole's back in the news again this week.

In the wake of the reports about Measles spreading in south Wales this month, Wakefield is using this outbreak as an excuse to remind us all that he sadly hasn't stopped breathing and to blame the British government for the whole thing. Yup, the man partly responsible for the deaths of untold numbers of infants because he scared their parents away from vaccines is once again trying to redirect the blame on everyone but himself. Professor Andrew Finn, a specialist in childhood vaccines and an actually credible source of information on these matters, has denounced Wakefield's statements as, and I do quote, “balderdash”:

“His proposal for single vaccines was not based on any observations in his published paper. It came straight out of his head. There has never been any evidence it would have made any difference.”

Wakefield has been struck from the medical record and has fled to the USA, where he continues to perpetrate his particularly noxious brand of bullshit.

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If you follow vjack's blog Atheist Revolution, you might remember a post about how you should really reconsider using the Huffington Post as a reliable source of information. Well, please allow me to further stress this point by looking at another article in which HuffPo gives credence to pseudoscience and nonsense over critical thinking.

Specifically this one, in which it gives a soapbox to a group led by New Age woo-peddlar Deepak Chopra who are complaining about TEDx removing pseudoscientific videos from its blog.

Please note that TEDx is not the actual Technology, Entertainment and Design conference; parapsychologists like Rupert Sheldrake, the removal of whose talk Chopra and his friends are protesting, would never manage to get a platform there, due to them actually having standards. TEDx conferences are third-party conferences that license the TED brand in order to gain more attention, but they often don't have the standard of entry their parent group does. Nonetheless, the misuse of the brand can have negative effects on the parent company, and nothing damages ones credibility as a solid source for science than allowing a herd of quantum woo-types to use your name to add much-needed credibility to their ideas.

Thus TED, a private organisation that is free to add or remove whatever it wishes from its blogs, removed their links to several videos of such talks from their site. The videos are still available; they've not been wiped from the internet, so any claims of censorship or a cover-up is nonsense. Chopra and his ilk just seem to get upset when people try to hold their claims up to the same standards as everyone else in the scientific community, and Ariana Huffington is only too happy to offer him a highly visible spot to complain about it from.

That's this week in Atheism, Religion and Scepticism, folks. See you next time.

Thursday, 18 April 2013

Four Reasons Why The Boston Crisis Actors Theory Makes No Sense




Responses to the attacks in Boston that occurred this week are already pouring in, and it’s genuinely heart-warming to see the vast majority of people united in support of the victims of this event. We search for answers, for an explanation for this seemingly unexplainable act of violence upon innocent lives.

But there’s a small but vocal minority who say they’ve already got the answer.

It’s our old friends, the Crisis Actor Theory espousers. And they’re saying the Boston attacks were faked.

If you’ve not yet heard of this particular conspiracy theory (you lucky bastard, you) then let me give you a quick rundown. It tends to pop up in the wake of attacks like Boston or Sandy Hook, proclaiming that the event was staged and the apparent victims are in fact actors hired by the guv’mint/Jews/aliens/New World Order (delete as appropriate). Advocates tend to pour over the many images of these events, grabbing the occasional one where a person in it looks vaguely similar to someone else before proclaiming “LOOK, LOOK THEY’RE AN ACTOR! THEY’RE LYING TO US, GUIZ!”

DallasGoldBug, founder of conspiracy website Wellaware1 and big fan of this blog (going by his comments on this post, anyway), has already been hard at work pouring over images of this tragic event in a desperate attempt to compartmentalise it into his world view of ‘every accident or attack that happens ever is the work of some conspiracy’. I don’t wish to single him out, however, for he’s not the only proponent of this theory out there. Thus rather than make this post an attack piece on one single conspiracy theorist, which just seems petty and more than a little mean, I’d like to instead provide four responses to the theory as a whole in an attempt to demonstrate why it really doesn’t make any sense.

So strap your bullshit protection masks on, guys, and let’s wade neck-deep into this malarkey.

1. They would not hire easily-recognisable public figures
I have several friends who are aspiring actors. You’ve never heard of them: the few things they’ve been in are student productions or small theatrical performances during the Edinburgh Fringe. Nonetheless, they’re extremely talented and have a lot of experience with their chosen vocation. It’s just that they’ve never managed to find their ‘big break’ yet.

The scene is very similar across the pond; Los Angeles is filled to the brim with would-be actors and stars, people desperate for a chance at fame and prestige. The life of a starving artist is a difficult one, however. Paying bills and living expenses when you have little frequent sources of income is hard, and I’d imagine there’s plenty of these very talented but unknown actors desperate enough to take whatever work is offered to them.

What I’m saying is, if I were in charge of a conspiracy that stages hoax tragedies, I’d hire people you’ve never seen before. It just makes sense.

Why, then, do the actors listed by crisis actor theorists all tend to be the well known ones?

If these theoretical people have the skill and ingenuity to organise a hoax on this scale, they wouldn’t hire actors you and I can recognise. That’s beyond stupid, given the umpteen thousands of unknowns who could be utilised instead. On a related note, why would these famous figures even consent to work for such an operation in the first place? These are guys who are doing pretty well for themselves, who have a lot to lose.

And the revelation that they helped stage an attack or accident wouldn’t exactly do wonders for their careers.

2. No-one could cover up something this massive
Stop and think, just for a moment, about how large a conspiracy would have to be in order to pull off a hoax this massive. Think about how many people would need to be in on this conspiracy, from the guys at the top to the first responders, eye-witnesses, the police, the fire and ambulance services, and the actual actors themselves.

That’s a lot of people.

That’s a very large margin for error.

Even assuming you could get all of these people to play ball with this hoax, even assuming that they were all in place at the right time, even assuming none of them had a twinge of guilt and blew the whistle on the whole thing (and that, to put it mildly, is a lot of assuming), people still manage to fuck things up on a scarily regular basis. Humans are not perfect, and we make mistakes. For a hoax of this scale, all of those aforementioned people (who likely number in the hundreds) would have to do their jobs without making a mistake.

That’s a level of competence you just don’t see these days.

The US government couldn’t cover up Watergate. British politicians leave briefcases containing national secrets on public transport. The possibility for things to go wrong on a conspiracy of this scale is just too high for it to succeed.

3. We are pattern-seeking animals
Human beings are exceptionally good at recognising and registering the faces of others.

This is something we learn from a very early age, and it stays with us all through our lives. We can tell very quickly if there is something off about a face that looks not quite human enough, and viewing such a face can disturb us quite deeply. Let me give you an example:

 
You can tell immediately in this photo which one is Professor Hiroshi Ishiguro and which one is his almost-realistic robot counterpart, Geminoid HI-1. One registers with us as a face, the other is instantly recognised as fake. In short, we’re really pretty good at recognising faces.

Perhaps a bit too good.

Michael Shermer has quite rightly pointed out before that human beings are “pattern-seeking story-telling animals”. We’re so adept at spotting human faces that we can very easily see them in non-human objects and items. This is a psychological phenomenon known as Pareidolia, and if you don’t believe me check out the following:

If you're having a hard time seeing the shapes, just click the image to see the full size.
 
Those images are little more than a mishmash of shapes and squares, yet with each one our brains manage to interpret these random images into human faces. That’s how hard-wired our brains are to see similar shapes in the form of faces; we do it to the point where we can see faces where none exist.

This is why we notice consistencies in the faces of certain people, such as this painting of a nineteenth century French actor and Keanu Reeves. This is why crisis actor theorists are able to notice similarities between the faces of victims and the faces of people who are apparently actors posing as these victims. It’s similar to the reason why people see images of Jesus in pieces of toast, or why this bird looks a hell of a lot like Nicolas Cage.

Fuck. Maybe that bird’s an actor, too.

4. This is all conjecture, not evidence
Conjecture, according to the Oxford Dictionary of English, is “an opinion or conclusion formed on the basis of incomplete information”.

The event that we are discussing right now is still the subject of an ongoing investigation; the authorities are still piecing together the answers, so you can bet that Joe Public does not yet have all the information available to him yet. As such, any views are being expressed right now are not being made with all the potential information.

In short, the advocates of the crisis actor theory are making half-baked speculation based on limited evidence, then calling it proof. This really isn't the case. Fuzzy, out-of-focus images placed alongside fuzzy, out-of-focus images doesn’t constitute proof.

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, as the saying goes.

And the advocates of this particular conspiracy theory don’t have any.

So that, ladies and gentlemen, is the Boston Crisis Actors Theory. Hell, you could take the points I've outlined here and use them with any version of the crisis actors theory if you like. In the wake of tragedies such as the events of Boston recently it's only natural that we all want answers, that we desire an explanation for this senseless act of violence.

This need for a truth to bring answers to tragedy can lead us into the territory of conspiracy theory, however, and so if you're reading this whilst still uncertain as to what to think of all this I urge you to stick to the facts. We don't know everything about what has transpired yet, but with a bit of patience and adherence to the principles of scepticism we can hopefully come to a conclusion that explains what has happened.

Keep the victims in your hearts, for they were real people: they had families and friends, hopes and dreams. Thank the heroes who risked their lives on that day for the sake of others, who threw themselves into harm's way for the sake of their fellow man. Such individuals, be they police officer, paramedic or just a bystander who stepped up to the challenge, can remind us that even in the darkest of times people have the capacity to be amazing.

And don't listen to those who would tell you that none of this ever happened, that it was all faked. Such people spit on the memories of those who were killed and bring further grief to an already tragic event.

Sunday, 14 April 2013

On the 'Redefinition of Marriage'


Of late this blog has been taking more of a sceptical bent, intermixed with a bit of light-hearted discussion of religious themes in media and the like.

So it really is high time I gave the religious hornet's nest a good boot and see what stirs up in response.

Let's talk gay marriage.

As vjack pointed out recently, we do seem to be reaching an apotheosis in modern culture when it finally starts to dawn upon people that marriage should be something people have a right to irregardless of their sexuality. Recently Uruguay's congress passed a bill legalising gay marriage in their country with over two-thirds of their lower chamber in support, and just yesterday France's upper house of parliament approved a similar bill. Times are indeed a-changing, with similar legislation all across the globe being proposed and debated.

Now I'm sure that somewhere there exists a non-religious person who is against gay marriage. These things do happen, after all. It's just that I can only think of one individual who fits this description; overwhelmingly, those who oppose the right of a gay couple to get married do so on religious grounds. That's not to say that everyone of a religious mind is against this issue, since some of the most passionate supporters for this cause that I know are also very religious.

All manner of arguments and reasoning are fired back and forth when it comes to this subject, from advocates stating its a civil right to opponents denouncing it as unnatural. There's a whole range of shitty reasoning and logical fallacies being peddled in this debate, and sadly I don't have time to go over them all here. Instead I'd like to focus in on one particular argument being used against gay marriage. It's one of the arguments I hear most frequently when this subject comes up, both in conversation with others and in speeches by government figures.

I'd like to focus on the idea that supporting this movement is to support a “redefinition of marriage”.

Now commonly on my side of the debate (hazard a guess as to which this might be) the response to this assertion is that allowing gay marriage is not a redefinition, but I'm going to take a different approach. Let's say, for a moment, that allowing gay people to get married is indeed redefining the way in which marriage is outlined in law.

Now please explain to me why this is a bad thing?

As society changes, so do the laws. So does the language. As our concepts of morality and fairness change, the way in which we legislate such matters adapts accordingly, as does the way in which we speak. Forty years ago women were viewed only as housekeepers and other notions we'd find extremely outdated now. Sixty years ago and the idea of civil rights would have been laughed at.

Laws change. And to say that in allowing gay people to get married we'd be “redefining it” is to ignore the fact that marriage has been redefined many times before.

Christians themselves will tell you that the Bible does not actually define marriage as “one man, one woman”; that seems to be something we've added more recently. In the past, it's worth noting, marriage was a political thing as well, a means of securing alliances between families and extending one's influence. Love didn't really factor into it all until far more recently. Thus this notion of marriage as a bond between a loving couple (in this instance, one male and one female) is just one more change a long list of edits and revisions to how we define the concept of marriage.

So perhaps opponents of this movement are right in saying that we are attempting to redefine marriage (I'm not saying for certain they are, let me stress; this post is more of a thought exercise than anything else). I fail to see what the issue with this is. Laws and language are redefined every single day, and that's a good thing. If these things do not change with the times they will become stagnant and outdated, no longer relevant to the times, which is something the laws our society is governed by can never afford to be.

At the end of the day, it will forever baffle me why this issue matters so much to people. You don't want gay marriage? Don't fucking get one, then. Marriage is a civil right, and there's no religious monopoly on it.

Why the hell should one group get to decide for everyone who can and cannot get married? That doesn't strike me as terribly fair.

Sunday, 7 April 2013

Religious Themes in Video Games: Dante's Inferno

And here we are for part three in this series on video games that discuss religious themes. You probably know the drill by now; head's up about potential spoilers and so on.

So let's get stuck in.

Dante's Inferno



Publishers don't often like to take risks with their big-budget releases; the amount of money that goes into a Triple-A title means that there's a lot to lose if sales don't go to plan, so often they prefer to stick to what they know works. Electronic Arts is particularly guilty for this approach, along with numerous other shitty business practices which have earned it the dubious title of 'Worst Company in America' in 2012 (and they're all set to retake their title again this year).

This is why it still surprises me that EA actually published Visceral Game's 2010 game, Dante's Inferno.

If that name sounds familiar, that's because it is; Dante's Inferno is a re-imaging of the first part of Dante Alighieri's Divine Comedy. Visceral have taken a few liberties with the story, admittedly; Dante is no longer a poet, instead depicted as a Templar knight who's sins during the Third Crusade have damned his beloved Beatrice to Hell, forcing him to descend into the many circles to save her
as a Templar knight who's sins during the Third Crusade have damned his beloved Beatrice to Hell, forcing him to descend into the many circles to save her.

Many critics of the time wrote this game off as a "God of War ripoff", and whilst this seems a little overly dismissive one can see where they're coming from; Dante's Inferno takes a lot of it's cues from the popular hack and slash title, and I'm by no means trying to claim that it's a great game.

What it most certainly is, however, is interesting, largely through the design and style Visceral imbued it with.

Dante's Inferno offers an unflinching and brutal look at the Catholic interpretation of Hell, and the art department behind this game deserve all their dues for not pulling any punches with it. Each circle is given its own uniquely fucked up aesthetic, and each is populated by a variety of infernal creatures that live up to the name of the circle they exist within. Blood, bile despair and all manner of messed up things are ever-present in this game, which really drives home the idea of the Christian Hell as a vicious and terrifying place.


Video games have the ability to bring to life some of the disturbing aspects of religion, and Dante's Inferno demonstrates this well.

As I said, however, there are still flaws to this particular depiction of religion. There's little discussion of the subject matter, no commentary; Dante simply hacks and slashes his way further down into the Circles of Hell, and whilst visually impressive it's a shame that more thought was not put into it.

A note to developers and publishers; when advertising a video game that covers religious themes, don't do this.

Publishing a game about the descent into Hell is a serious undertaking and requires a considerable amount of tact and maturity, things that EA sadly was incapable of supplying. Their marketing department's decision to run ridiculous hoaxes like fake religious protests about the game are baffling; I'm not sure whether 'juvenile', 'idiotic' or 'outright offensive' summarises the whole thing best, but whoever dreamed this stupidity up is in dire need of a slapping.

Nonetheless, Dante's Inferno remains an interesting game, willing to dive head first into subject matter most developers avoid like the plague. Visceral deserve praise for being willing to make such a game, and EA deserves credit for taking the risk of publishing it.

Friday, 5 April 2013

Religious Themes in Video Games: BioShock


And we're back for round two of this series on video games that discuss religious themes, chums. Just as a reminder these posts do contain some spoilers, so if you're not wanting anything revealed about these games I would recommend not reading further.

Otherwise, let's get started.

BioShock



BioShock is widely considered to be one of the greatest games of the last decade or so, and easily ranks up there as one of the best games period. A claustrophobic, creepy and extremely clever first-person shooter, it's a game that isn't afraid to be about something, to tackle big themes and issues in a mature, thoughtful and fascinating way that only an interactive experience can provide.

For those of you who've not heard of it, BioShock is for the most part a thinly-veiled satire and criticism of Ayn Rand's 'Objectivist' philosophy, which means that, for the most part, it's a game about philosophy and politics. Set in the Atlantic Ocean during 1960, it takes place in an underwater city created by a man named Andrew Ryan (like I said, thinly-veiled) as an Objectivist paradise. Ryan pursued this dream to the letter, aiming for a city where “the great would not be constrained by the small.”

All good on paper, but by the time the player arrives in this city, it's all gone to shit.

Oh, and the city is called 'Rapture'. Here's where religious elements come into play.

BioShock covers the topic of religion on several levels. On the surface there's the usual name-dropping and references; the name of the city itself is an obvious one, and the Biblical creation myth is referenced with ADAM, a plasmid that allows the residents of Rapture to perform superhuman feats... but is also highly addictive and the cause of many being transformed into monstrous beings called 'Splicers'. These Splicers, in addition to being creepy as all hell, can often be heard reciting biblical passages and singing hymns as they stalk the flooded halls of the dying city.

But this is just surface-level commentary, and BioShock isn't content just to stop there. It seeks an active, deeper discussion about religion and its many aspects, something one rarely finds in video games. Andrew Ryan is an atheist who seeks an Objectivist utopia, and it is made clear that he considers religion, particularly organised religion, an obstacle to this; in his introduction to Rapture he names the Vatican specifically as an enemy of his cause, depicting it as a thieving entity out to steal the toils of hard-working men in the name of god.

As such, religion is an unwelcome concept in Rapture, with holy books like the Bible banned. Yet despite its lofty ambitions, things don't quite go to plan; a two-tiered society begins to emerge in Rapture, the privileged with access to the incredible discoveries found below the sea, free to pursue their dreams and ambitions without oversight or restraint, and the less-privileged; the underclass who toil away to ensure the city continues to function, and who are repeatedly fucked over by Ryan's laissez-faire attitudes and desire for a society resembling an individualist's wet dream.



Blocked from gaining access to many commodities through legal means, a culture of smuggling flourishes amongst Rapture's underclass, and it becomes apparent that one of the items most commonly smuggled into the city are bibles; one can find them strewn around the city, particularly in the slum regions, and several audio recordings discuss them being brought in illegally. Ryan, naturally, is incensed, bringing in the death penalty against such smugglers whilst declaring that “any contact with the surface exposes Rapture to the very Parasites we fled from”, once again showing his vitriol towards religion and the religious institutions existing on the surface above (amongst other things, admittedly; Ryan has a major bone to pick with the US government and also the Soviets).

Here we see the game discussing issues such as religious persecution, and there's some deeper sub-text to all this that we can interpret. In Rapture, Andrew Ryan and his cohorts sought to create their vision of a perfect society, free from oppression and religion. In this, they failed; faith and religion found a way into the city despite their best efforts, as it provided solace and meaning to an underclass of the population they had failed. Attempts to stop this spread led to Ryan becoming the architect of religious persecution, executing those who smuggled Bibles and other religious idols into the city.

What this game has to say about religion, then, is that it is an intrinsic aspect of society whether one likes it or not; you can take it out of society, but you cannot take away some members of society's need for it.

I consider BioShock to be one of the best games I've ever had the chance to play through, ranking right up there with things like the Half Life series (give us Episode 3, Gabe), and if anything that I've just written sounds at all intriguing to you I urge you to pick up a copy and play it. It's easily acquired for a small price these days, what with two sequels on the market as well now, and I've only scratched the surface with this post in terms of what this game has to say.

It never ceases to amaze me that the game we shall be looking at next was ever even attempted, never mind published. A re-interpretation of a classic religious text, it's by no means the best game in the world but it certainly can be considered interesting.

Until next time, folks.