14 April 2011

Blackford on the New Atheism phenomenon

Philosopher and writer Russell Blackford has an excellent two-part (Part 1, Part 2) overview of New Atheism – on its origins and subsequent dissemination in the wider culture, and its luminaries and critics, with a focus on the inter-atheist squabbling that bedevils the otherwise progressive movement.

My own introduction to atheism (or specifically anti-religionism) was Sam Harris’s book The End of Faith. I had already been casually irreligious for many years prior to encountering the ideas put forth in TEOF, but Harris was the first ideologue to make me feel indignant over the harms caused and perpetuated by religion. Then Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion and Christopher Hitchens’s God Is Not Great completed my transformation into a committed atheist.

11 April 2011

Anti-vaccination ads in Times Square

Anti-vaxers are going for the jugular this time. Mercola and the National Vaccine Information Center (or rather MIS-information Center) have launched an anti-vaccination ad campaign on the JumboTron in New York’s Times Square, where it will be seen by millions of locals and visitors. The lies and fearmongering must not go unchallenged.

There’s a petition asking CBS Outdoor, the owners of the JumboTron, to stop running the ads. Please sign it, even if you’re not a New Yorker or an American, and spread the word to all and sundry. Misinformation on health matters affects us all, no matter where we live.

Over at the Skepchick website, Elyse Anders has posted links to stories illustrating the harm caused by a significant drop in vaccination rates. When a certain number of kids in any given population aren’t vaccinated, it compromises the ‘herd immunity’ effect that acts to prevent outbreaks of contagious diseases.

Two trusted medical experts that I know of have written extensively on vaccines and the global anti-vax movement. Dr Ben Goldacre, who is also an investigative journalist, has covered these issues in newspaper articles, interviews, blog posts and his book Bad Science (2009). Dr Steven Novella is a neurologist and educator who has written about the efficacy, safety and necessity of vaccines on his blog NeuroLogica. I highly recommend you read what these two doctors have to say about the vile anti-vax campaign that needlessly puts children at risk of disease and death.

On a lighter note, here’s an awesome poem by the Digital Cuttlefish on the Times Square anti-vax ads.


07 April 2011

Two different activities? Really?

British astronomer Sir Martin Rees is this year’s winner of the lucrative Templeton Prize. Basically, what this means is that an eminent scientist (and an atheist to boot) got co-opted by a religious outfit desperate for credibility in the eyes of the scientific community and the general public. Biologist Jerry Coyne has written a scathing article in The Guardian exposing the duplicity of the Templeton Foundation and the perniciousness of accommodationism.

Professor Rees is a disappointment to many science lovers and rational thinkers. Not only did he gladly accept the Templeton Prize, he also used the ensuing spotlight as an opportunity to wax lyrical about how science and religion need not be in conflict. In an interview with The Guardian’s Ian Sample, Rees had this to say about science and religion:

I think they can co-exist. They are very different activities. Obviously one opposes Creationism and such-like, but it’s fairly clear that there are some scientists for whom religion is important and most of us for whom it isn’t, but again I think they can be co-existent.

06 April 2011

Reading the world

A photograph is not created by a photographer. What they do is just open a little window and capture it. The world then writes itself on the film. The act of the photographer is closer to reading than it is to writing. They are the readers of the world.

- Ferdinando Scianna

About a month ago I came across the work of Italian photographer Ferdinando Scianna. He’s a member of Magnum Photos, that venerable stable of photographers and photojournalists whose numbers include a few of my own aesthetic, if not technical, mentors.

Like a lot of his colleagues, Scianna covered various genres: portraiture, fashion, documentary, still life. Many of his photos were complemented by his writing. Scianna’s images can be witty like Elliott Erwitt’s, dignified like Henri Cartier-Bresson’s, poignant like Robert Doisneau’s, or brooding like Robert Frank’s. He’s not distinctive, but assuming he was influenced to some extent by the more idiosyncratic styles of the masters, I can sympathise.

Scianna’s comment about photography being “closer to reading than it is to writing” however is uniquely his, and it sings to me. Until I read those words, I – like most people presumably – saw photography as a process of authorship. It seemed obvious that photographers took pictures the way painters applied paint or how bakers baked bread. It was an act of creation. Or at least that was how it appeared.

Not to Scianna though. His is a more humble view of the art. To him, the photographer is merely an enabler; he facilitates the artificial expression of the beauty and wonder (and the ugliness and horror) that already exists out there, in the world. He does not make anything new.

There is a tender charm to this self-abnegation. Scianna’s gentle photographer does not seek artistic glory. He does not presume to be the author of reality. He is only a keen, and grateful, reader.

As someone who avoids excessive manipulation and artifice in my image-making, I feel closer to Scianna’s photographer-as-reader than to, say, the sort of creative types populating ad agencies and marketing departments. I could be happy just being a reader. In fact, my own peregrinations have yielded a few photographs that require literal reading.


05 April 2011

A Bible for secular humanists

Philosopher A C Grayling’s new book purports to be nothing less than a secular humanist Bible. A bold claim indeed. But knowing Grayling’s erudition, ethical acumen and delightful yet thought-provoking prose, if anyone can get away with writing the secular humanist equivalent of a holy book, it would be him.

Accusations of pretentiousness are expected. But in their eagerness to paint Grayling as a self-appointed giver of the Humanist Law, his critics are going to (predictably) misrepresent both his motives and the book’s actual purpose. While Grayling openly admits to modeling The Good Book: A Secular Bible on the King James Bible, right down to the layout of short chapters and aphoristic verses in a formal language, he does not claim that his book should serve as an authoritative source of ethics.

People will be offended, without even having read it. They will see it as a terrible act of arrogance. It absolutely isn't at all. Without being all Uriah Heep about it, it is modestly offered as a contribution to the conversation of mankind.

The Center for Inquiry website has an announcement promoting Grayling’s upcoming lecture in Washington DC, where he will be discussing The Good Book. CFI describes it as a book that draws from “the wealth of secular literature and philosophy in both Western and Eastern traditions, using the same techniques of editing, redaction, and adaptation that produced the holy books of the Judaeo-Christian and Islamic religions.” In place of the Ten Commandments, Grayling has these humanist alternatives:

  • Love well
  • Seek the good in all things
  • Harm no others
  • Help the needy
  • Think for yourself
  • Take responsibility
  • Respect nature
  • Do your utmost
  • Be informed
  • Be courageous

Without reference to a god or gods, Grayling instead presents the ethical ideas of mere humans like Herodotus and Lucretius, Confucius and Mencius, Seneca and Cicero, Montaigne and Bacon. The reader is then invited to reflect on their ideas concerning how to live a good life.

The humanistic view of ethics is that no one is in a position to tell others how to live. You can give advice, and exhort them to think about their moral lives, but not in a goody-two-shoes, Mary Whitehouse way.

I’m an admirer of Grayling. Having read almost all of his books, I will certainly be getting a copy of The Good Book when it debuts at my local bookstore. Detractors may scoff at the seemingly religious nature of it all, when ardent secular humanists flock to own a copy of Prophet Grayling’s Holy Book. They are welcome to their misconceptions. Those of us who will be purchasing The Good Book have no illusions about the infallibility of its words. For all of Grayling’s intelligence, wisdom and literary skills, The Good Book is simply a man-made guide to living the considered life, with all the limitations and subjectivity this entails.

One thing’s for sure – secular humanists and other thoughtful readers of Grayling's book won’t be killing, torturing or persecuting heretics and infidels under its auspices.


04 April 2011

Apparently it isn’t Islam’s fault

I can understand why there are some who think it necessary to point out that the murder and mutilation of UN staff in Afghanistan isn’t entirely the fault of Islam. Political correctness isn’t always a pejorative label; it can simply refer to the admirable impulse for fairness and truth. And these people are right. Islam isn’t the only cause of violent acts where innocent people are killed simply for being perceived as somehow connected to an incident in a faraway country that insulted the Muslim faith.

But it’s a cause nonetheless.

Referring to the murders in Afghanistan, the Heresiarch reminds us that “such events occur when several factors come together in a largely unpredictable way, and are usually connected with local politics and personalities on the ground.” That is certainly correct, but he also claims that the barbaric killings were “not the fault of Islam.” Now this is political correctness of the pejorative sort. How can it not be the fault of Islam – among other factors – that a group of people feel sufficiently moved to commit murder because of the burning of a book? How can it not be the fault of Islam when it is this religion that asserts the sacredness and infallibility of that very book, thus turning it into an object beyond reproach, much less physical insult? How can it not be the fault of Islam when it is its mortal spokespeople who, claiming to speak on behalf of a deity as manifested in Islamic ideology, incite their fellow religionists to kill?