31 July 2011

Australian National School Chaplaincy Program to be challenged in the High Court

I’ve previously written about how the National School Chaplaincy Program is little more than a covert proselytising operation by evangelical Christians, who view the program as a “God-given open door” to “take the Christian faith into our schools and share it”. This clear breach of state secularism has alarmed many Australian parents who aren’t keen to have their children’s psychological welfare left in the hands of unqualified volunteers with religious biases.

One of those concerned parents, Ron Williams, has mounted a legal challenge to the NSCP, and his case will be heard in the High Court from August 9. Here’s a video that Williams produced to explain why he is challenging the NSCP in court, and to appeal for financial support:

If you believe that taxpayer funds should not be used to pay for unqualified religious volunteers to look after children’s emotional and psychological welfare, then please consider helping out with Ron Williams’s legal costs. You can donate to this important cause at the High Court Challenge website.

NSCP chaplains may be well-meaning people, but in the context of providing counseling to schoolchildren, good intentions are not enough. Counselors also need proper job qualifications and should abide by Australia’s constitutional secularism, even if religionists oppose it.


HT: Martin

Why I am an atheist

Earlier this year journalist Andrew Zak Williams interviewed about 30 public figures who believed in God. Their explanations for their belief were published in a New Statesman article. Now Williams has followed up his earlier piece with another NS article, this time presenting the reasons given by prominent atheists for why they don't believe in God.

As for me, my answer has been covered by many of the NS atheist respondents, with greater eloquence. But for what it's worth, here's why I am an atheist:

Lack of evidence for gods and the supernatural, the obvious human-centric (usually male) artificiality of religion, the correlation between levels of poverty, education and security and levels of religiosity that suggests a mundane - not divine - explanation for religion, the evidently indifferent, amoral universe of randomness, accident and chance, and a personal preference for reason over faith.


25 July 2011

This is what your soul looks like

This image was in the August 2011 issue of National Geographic magazine. It shows the “color-coded depiction of routes created by a brain’s neural pathways”, made possible by cutting-edge 3D imaging technology. From the accompanying text:

We like to brag about our gray matter, linking smarts to brain cells. But for neuroscientists, it’s also about white matter, the spaghetti-like tangle of nerve fibers, and the networks that carry information between regions of the brain. Who we are — our memories, thoughts, emotions — derives from these wiring connections. The problem was no devices existed to see and decode the neural maze in live subjects. That’s now changing.

Advances in neuroscience and psychology increasingly prove that our minds – constituted of our memories, thoughts, dreams, emotions, decisions – have a physical basis in our brains. As this knowledge becomes more widely spread and accepted, it will revolutionise the way human beings perceive themselves and others. The ramifications for culture, society, law, religion and politics are immense.

For thousands of years people have, to varying degrees, believed in a soul or self that isn’t bound to the physical body, nevermind the specific lump of matter in our skulls. This dualism is apparent in religion, pop psychology, the cultural products we manufacture, even our language – as when we exhort someone to ‘follow your heart’, meaning to trust their ‘gut’ feeling that is supposedly distinct from their brain-derived thinking. I don’t know about you, but all my heart does is pump blood around my cardiovascular system. I do my feeling with my amygdala and my rationalising with my frontal lobes.

The popular conception of the soul or self is becoming untenable. Like the geocentric universe, bloodletting, bodily humours, phlogiston and much of pre-Darwinian biology, mind-brain dualism will eventually end up in the rubbish bin of false ideas. The only thing keeping it from being immediately thrown out is the ubiquitous triumvirate of social inertia, ignorance, and fear.

Those who still believe in immaterial souls and ghosts in machines are on the wrong side of history.


Image by Van Wedeen

A terrorist by any other name

I watched the BBC’s live coverage of the Oslo bombing just minutes after it happened. It wasn’t long before reporters and interviewed commenters mentioned the ‘I’ word. Despite the paucity of facts at the time, there were knee-jerk assumptions that the Oslo bombing was carried out by Islamist terrorists. I confess that I had the same assumption. Now we know that the bombing and the subsequent mass murder of people at a youth camp were all the work of one white, Christian, Islamophobic, right wing extremist Norwegian.

Waleed Aly has written an eloquent essay that spotlights our post-9/11 tendency to associate the word ‘terrorist’ almost strictly with Islamists. When non-Muslims like Anders Behring Breivik, or white supremacists, or violent environmentalists commit politically motivated atrocities targeting innocents, they’re usually described as insane, or slapped with epithets like ‘lone gunman’. They may eventually be (correctly) called terrorists. But when Muslims commit similarly terrible acts, charges of terrorism come with greater alacrity.

Waleed writes:

Today's domestic terrorists are a broad bunch, as the FBI notes: “From hate-filled white supremacists… to highly destructive eco-terrorists… to violence-prone anti-government extremists… to radical separatist groups.” And that is to say nothing of anti-abortion violence, which is quite common. These attacks don't get international headlines, or blanket domestic coverage. As a consequence, they don't generate the broad fear that Islamist terrorism does. But when they succeed, and they do, the dead are just as dead.

Terrorism is terrorism is terrorism. We may have been conditioned by the media’s biased reporting to immediately link brutal, indiscriminate, politically motivated violence with Islamists, but this Pavlovian response is inappropriate, even dangerously complacent. Terrorism risks becoming something that the alien Other engages in, but not ‘us’, however ‘us’ is defined. But any “fear-inducing violence by a non-state actor in the service of a political cause”, according to Waleed, is a “textbook case of terrorism”, regardless of the ethnicity or beliefs of the perpetrator. The ideology and actions of both Al-Qaeda and Anders Behring Breivik are equally despicable. Our language should reflect this.


UPDATE: ABC News has an article criticising the media for quickly jumping to the conclusion that the Oslo bombing was carried out by Muslim terrorists. Waleed Aly was interviewed for this piece, where he expands on a few points he made in his essay.

21 July 2011

Skepticism, the internet, and Google filters

The Amazing Meeting – an annual conference for skeptics, mythbusters and truthseekers held in Las Vegas – had its ninth gathering last week. A lot of prominent skeptics attended the event, and came away feeling inspired and challenged by the topics discussed. PZ Myers and Daniel Loxton each had their own take on the topic of skeptic outreach: Myers mainly agreed with the gist of one discussion (that skeptics need to focus on the effective communication of their message), but had reservations as to whether the suggested ‘gentle approach’ is the best, or only, way to promote skepticism (I commented on this in a previous post). Loxton seemed more on side with the argument that successful communication requires sensitivity, compassion and respect towards the intended audience. And Steven Novella had some thoughts on the connection between the internet and the growth of the skeptic movement.

I’m going to focus on Novella’s post, because it raises an important, if tangential, point. Novella observes that since the internet allows people to access an unprecedentedly huge amount of information, skepticism gets a boost because people are able to look up the facts on any contentious issue. He’s right about that. To demonstrate his point, Novella ran a Google search on a few skeptic hot words like ‘homeopathy’, ‘intelligent design’ and ‘do vaccines cause autism’. Almost all had a skeptical link on the first results page.

18 July 2011

Is there a ‘correct’ way to promote skepticism and atheism?

PZ Myers has written a slightly anxious post articulating his thoughts on how to best communicate ideas relating to godless skepticism. Whether it’s politics, or religion, or ‘alternative’ medicine and pseudoscientific woo in general, there’s a lot of really lousy thinking and patently false ideas being propagated, to the detriment of many. Those involved in the movement to combat nonsense are often caught up in internal arguments over matters of strategy: do we try to gently persuade our opponents of the error of their ways, or do we firmly call a spade a spade and unreservedly attack their ridiculous, harmful, wrong ideas?

In the skeptic/atheist movement, you’ll find different flavours of communication tactics, depending on the person’s temperament - from Phil ‘Don’t be a dick’ Plait’s conciliatory approach to Richard Dawkins’s famously stern and implacable style. To an observer, it can look as if the movement’s leaders, like Tokugawa-era samurai swordmasters, have their respective coterie of disciples sympathetic to their particular method of skepticism/atheism advocacy. One could be a student of the School of Unsparing Criticism, or of the Soft Touch Style, or perhaps the Way of Water, adapting as circumstance requires.

15 July 2011

Fukuyama’s new book

I’ve just started reading Francis Fukuyama’s latest book The Origins of Political Order. It’s the first of two volumes, and deals with the development of political institutions across varying cultures and eras from prehistoric times to the 18th century (the second volume will pick up where the first left off and continue the analysis up to the present time). Some have called it Fukuyama’s magnum opus. The books are certainly ambitious in both scope and intended theoretical application.

Fukuyama is often associated with American neoconservatism, but apparently he no longer supports that rather bellicose ideology. A passage from chapter one of TOoPO (‘The Necessity of Politics’) shows his more centrist stance:

There is in fact a curious blindness to the importance of political institutions that has affected many people over the years, people who dream about a world in which we will somehow transcend politics. This particular fantasy is not the special province of either the Left or the Right; both have had their versions of it.

And the political scientist who signed a post-9/11 letter to President Bush urging him to remove Saddam Hussein from power by any means necessary later became a critic of the Iraq War. In TOoPO Fukuyama writes:

The degree to which people in developed countries take political institutions for granted was very much evident in the way the United States planned, or failed to plan, for the aftermath of its 2003 invasion of Iraq. The U.S. administration seemed to think that democracy and a market economy were default conditions to which the country would automatically revert once Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship was removed, and seemed genuinely surprised when the Iraqi state itself collapsed in an orgy of looting and civil conflict.

Fukuyama’s centrist, perhaps even realist, ideas appeal to me. As someone who flirted with far Leftism many years ago (I was a member of an Australian socialist group), my present self actually feels a tad embarrassed over having been seduced by romantic ideas that often took leave of the realities of society, human nature and economics. I think my acquired respect for rationality, evidence and critical thinking played a big part in my move towards the political centre (though upon a thorough accounting perhaps more of my values lie towards the liberal, progressive left). Maybe it’s an inevitable transition, as per Winston Churchill’s curt remark:

If you're not a liberal at twenty you have no heart, if you're not a conservative at forty you have no brain.

Since I’m neither twenty nor forty, it’s only fitting that I be a moderate, thus retaining both heart and brain. Which is why I also liked Joseph Heath’s Filthy Lucre: Economics for People Who Hate Capitalism (2009), where a left-leaning philosophy professor debunks common economic myths believed by the Left and the Right. This sort of equal opportunity reality check isn’t so much a case of “the truth lies somewhere in the middle” (an argument prone to the false compromise fallacy), but rather a case of the facts being indifferent to ideology. Just like in science.

It’s going to take me a while to get through volume one of The Origins of Political Order, especially since my distraction by other reading material is basically guaranteed. Hopefully by the time I reach the cliffhanger chapter on the French Revolution, volume two will already be out. I swear, Fukuyama better not do a George R R Martin.


12 July 2011

We can’t always trust our brains

Neurologist Steven Novella has written an illuminating post on sleep paralysis. He describes this often frightening experience, then explains its neurobiological causes.

One striking thing about this post (and the comments on it) is how grateful and relieved sufferers of sleep paralysis are once they know and understand the mechanism behind their scary experiences. A lot of people – usually romantic types – accuse science of cruelly taking away their cherished illusions, of robbing life of its mystery by driving away the soft shadows with the harsh, bright light of rationality and knowledge. Yet in the case of sleep paralysis we have a clear example of science giving comfort to people, by reassuring them that they weren’t going mad, or being molested by evil spirits or inquisitive aliens.

Another take-home point from Novella’s post is that our brains are prone to misreading reality, even creating delusions of their own. This is why subjective claims to truth and knowledge made by anyone have to be taken with a pinch of salt. Unless those claims have passed through a rigorous screening process (scientific methodology, fact checking and corroboration, tests), they cannot be vouched for. It’s probably fair to say that gullible people do not adequately appreciate how flawed the human brain is. They assume that the brain and the senses are unfailingly accurate interpreters of the world and its happenings, which biases them towards accepting unproven or far-fetched claims as being plausible, if not true.

Dr Novella said it best:

Our brains are capable of distorting, filtering, and interpreting sensory input, of altering memories and even generating false memories, and of generating false experiences. While it is good enough for everyday activity, our brains have many flaws. We cannot rely upon our memories of our experiences to understand the world, especially when those experiences are unexpected or unusual. We need external verification, objective measurement, and careful recording of data.

In other words – we need science and skepticism to compensate for the flaws and pitfalls of our neurobiology.


10 July 2011

International Day Against Stoning

Today is the International Day Against Stoning. Many of you will know of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, the Iranian woman who was sentenced to death by stoning in 2006 on the unsubstantiated charge of murdering her husband. Thanks to global condemnation of such barbarism, the Iranian government avoided carrying out Ashtiani’s execution, but she is still in prison, reportedly under horrible conditions.

Human rights activist Maryam Namazie is collecting statements in support of Ashtiani and the International Day Against Stoning. There is also a Facebook page that shows how you can contribute to this important cause. Please be one of those who stand against a cruel practice that has no place in a modern, egalitarian and just society.


CORRECTION: Ashtiani was sentenced to death by stoning for the crime of adultery. For the alleged murder of her husband, she was initially sentenced to death by hanging, but that sentence was then reduced to jail time. This only highlights how seriously fucked up the Iranian legal system is, that adultery is punished more severely than murder.

Image by Stephen Hughes

01 July 2011

Australian Census 2011 - If you’re godless, say so!

The Australian census is being carried out this year on 9 August. Australian atheist and humanist groups are conducting a campaign to encourage non-religious Aussies to tick the ‘No religion’ box on their census forms. A similar campaign in the UK earlier this year by the British Humanist Association was a great success, with the message “Not religious? In this year’s census say so” getting national publicity. When the official data is released, the percentage of British people who are not religious should be a more accurate (and possibly higher) number than that recorded in the last census.

Let’s achieve the same thing in this Australian census! If you’re not religious, please seriously consider ticking ‘No religion’ on your form. If you intend to put down a joke religion like Jedi, Church of the FSM and such, I urge you to reconsider your decision. As the Atheist Foundation of Australia puts it:

[If you write down a joke religion] it gets counted as 'Not Defined' and is not placed in the 'No religion' category. This takes away from the 'No religion' numbers and therefore advantages the religion count. It was funny to write Jedi once, now it is a serious mistake to do so.

Since the census results are used for funding and decision making purposes by state and federal governments, it is vital that the interests of non-religious Aussies are properly represented. Statistics indicating a substantial number of non-religious citizens will bolster Australian secularism against attempts by religious groups to enact policies that unduly privilege them, or that unfairly disadvantage those who don’t subscribe to their ideology.

Come August, religious folks will be doing the right thing according to their convictions – ticking the box of their particular faith. We infidels should be just as sincere with our unbelief.