24 March 2011

A humanist, secularist, skeptic, free-thought group in Malaysia

My heart is gladdened by the recent discovery of a freethinking organisation in my country of birth. Unscientific Malaysia describes itself as a ‘Malaysian community that promotes science, scepticism & free-thought’ and covers ‘issues of science, religion, superstitions, civil rights, supernatural hogwash and other poppycock’.

In a country where Islam is the state religion, where all ethnic Malays are considered Muslims by default, and where sharia courts have jurisdiction over half the nation (Malay-Muslims constitute between 50 to 60 percent of the population), having a group standing up for secular values is both necessary and brave.

Importantly, groups like Unscientific Malaysia demonstrate that critical thinking isn’t just for Western liberals of pallid complexion. They also help to diversify the voices of rationality, and in the process dispel the impression that free-thought is exclusively a ‘white man’s club’. It should be obvious that values like intellectual curiosity and honesty, respect for evidence and reason, and appreciation for universal human rights are values that benefit all people, regardless of ethnicity and nationality.

Free-thought groups everywhere face challenges, the most pertinent being opposition from those who feel threatened by the ideas promoted by such groups. In Malaysia particularly, where religion, superstitious beliefs and poor reasoning skills (partly caused by a lacklustre education system) form a tenacious part of the social fabric, groups like Unscientific Malaysia have their work cut out for them.

One concern though is that these organisations may face legal action if the Malaysian government decides that their advocacy has crossed some imaginary line. In a far-from-secular country, this is a substantive risk. But this only highlights the need for groups like Unscientific Malaysia, and the worthy ideals they serve. I wish them all the best.


HT to Erna Mahyuni for bringing Unscientific Malaysia to my attention.

23 March 2011

We can be friends, but that doesn’t mean you are right

Ophelia Benson has a new post over at Butterflies & Wheels on more ‘nasty atheist’ complaints. Apparently New Atheists are just like those hyperbolic Tea Partiers. Yup, non-belief in a magic sky fairy is just as dangerous to civil society as right-wing hysteria cooked with superstition and bigotry. The resemblance between the two is striking.

Anyway, silly people saying silly things aside, one commenter, Sajanas, mentioned attending Richard Dawkins’s Duke University lecture in October last year. Here’s Sajanas’s comment in full:

I attended the lecture Dawkins gave for his most recent book at Duke University, and for whatever reason, the religious person asking him why he was so mean to religion was the last one. His reply was simply ‘by all means, let’s be friends, but that doesn’t mean that you are right’. And so many people simply won’t be satisfied or friendly unless atheists cave to that desire they have to be fawned over because of their deeply held beliefs, because of how much they go to church, or what not, even though atheists don’t find those things at all impressive. I do think that the many people whose faith motivates them to do good works are very impressive, but I would find it more impressive still if they did these things without disrupting gay rights, women’s health and equality, and science research and education. And the atheists that want to get on the good side of religion (and religious cash) by using the good works to hide the bad can just get a big ole raspberry.

Sajanas makes good points aplenty, but that phrase, “by all means, let’s be friends, but that doesn’t mean that you are right”, jumped out at me. Knowing a few people who are either religious or believers in the supernatural, Dawkins’s statement could come in handy next time someone I know tries to sell me the idea that Jesus saves or that the ancient wisdom of pre-modern, pre-scientific societies is a superior tool for understanding the world, the universe and humanity.

We can be friends, but that doesn’t mean you are right.

By the way, Sajanas’s reference to atheists kissing up to religion and the monetary resources at its disposal is a jab at accommodationism, where smart people who should know better trade their intellectual integrity for cash and kudos from religious-but-pretending-it-isn't organisations like the John Templeton Foundation. Sunny Bains, a journalist and scientist at Imperial College London, has written a report on the Templeton Foundation exposing the lies and misrepresentation it concocts in order to woo scientists and atheists to its oxymoronic cause – the reconcilement of science and religion.


22 March 2011

Two maladies infecting the Japan disasters

Popular perception of the Japanese disasters and the Fukushima nuclear power plant crisis is afflicted with two common maladies: media sensationalism, and anti-modern admonishments against human hubris (because supposedly it was pride in our technological prowess that brought us low). Against these twin poisons, Kenan Malik’s article is the antidote. Malik makes the distinction between two catastrophes: the physical one in Japan, and the mental one fabricated by the media. It is the second ‘catastrophe’ that is infected with the aforementioned maladies.

19 March 2011

Goldacre uncovers more lousy journalism

The Debunker of Disingenuous Drivel, the Nemesis of Newspaper Nonsense, the Scourge of Pseudoscientific Silliness, Ben ‘Quacksbane’ Goldacre, has asked a good question: why don’t journalists link to primary sources?

Goldacre’s article lays out three examples of journalistic jabber that didn’t bother to link to (or even understand) their information sources. Result: totally whacky reporting that crosses the border into Bullshitistan.

Hat tip to a commenter on Goldacre’s blog, Simon, who mentioned Julian ‘WikiLeaks’ Assange’s op-ed in The Australian. Assange advocated for what he called ‘scientific journalism’, which is basically what Goldacre’s arguing for: journalists linking to primary sources so that anyone can verify the information for themselves.

Media consumers/producers would be wise to keep in mind Goldacre’s Law:

If you don’t link to primary sources, I just don’t trust you.


14 March 2011

Sci-fi, fantasy, horror novels aren’t ‘literature’

World Book Night was on Saturday 5 March. The BBC had a special program on the Culture Show called ‘The Books We Really Read’, where presenter Sue Perkins surveyed the UK’s literary landscape to see what sort of books have managed to pry Brits away from their HDTVs, interwebs, videogames and MP3s. There’s the usual suspects: contemporary fiction, crime, thriller, romance, chick-lit. But strangely enough, not a single hat tip to the sci-fi, fantasy or horror genre.

This can’t be right. Sci-fi/fantasy/horror may be niche, but to totally omit any mention of the more outlandish members of the literary family – in a national reading survey no less – looks positively conspiratorial.

Sci-fi/fantasy author Stephen Hunt is pretty pissed off about the BBC’s snub. He’s got a petition going to bring this grievance to the attention of those 19th century Russian literature-reading elitists in London. There's also a Guardian article on this cultural fail.

I haven’t read much fiction of any genre, BBC worthy or otherwise, for a few years now (yes, I’ve turned into a philistine). Nowadays non-fiction is more my cup of cognitive kick. But I do sympathise with Hunt and his fellow genre writers. When you belong to a grand tradition that gave the world such indelible otherworlds like Arrakis, Middle-earth and Transylvania, you can be understandably irate when your literary ethnicity is disavowed by your own country’s top broadcaster (and the world's largest, by the way).

Actually, the BBC’s boo-boo does affect me to some extent, since the only fiction I still read is fantasy. Specifically, I’m following George R R Martin’s excellent series of byzantine intrigue, gasp-out-loud twists, complex characters, stirring action and rich world-building, A Song of Ice and Fire. For me, ASOIAF is to modern fantasy what Neon Genesis Evangelion is to modern anime: a game-changer, stereotype-breaker, innovative, revolutionary. After a six-year wait, the latest installment in the series is finally out in July. Plus Martin’s books are being made into a HBO TV series, which looks very promising.

Sci-fi, fantasy and horror novels may be beneath the BBC's notice, but their memes have spread far and wide in the general culture. Writers like Frank Herbert, J R R Tolkien, Bram Stoker and George R R Martin have been tremendously successful, mainly because their imaginative creations are so compelling. Which is why it’s gobsmackingly odd that their work got the silent treatment on the World Book Night program.


HT: Russell Blackford

12 March 2011

Why the f@ck are astrologers being asked for their opinion on Japan’s earthquake?

The UK’s Daily Mail has an article on the Japan earthquake and tsunami filed under ‘Science and Technology’. So to get the facts, naturally they sought out and interviewed seismologists, geologists, science writers, and astrologers. That’s right, astrologers, not astronomers. Because astrology is obviously a scientific discipline, like homeopathy.

In the interest of so-called journalistic objectivity, media factories like the Daily Mail and the ABC engage in ‘he-said-she-said’ reporting regardless of the competence and qualifications of those they choose to interview. This is an all too common media gimmick cynically used to create a ‘debate’ on matters where the facts are already well-established and accepted by all intelligent, informed, rational people (who can be incredibly knowledgeable on the relevant subject). Controversy sells papers and grabs eyeballs. We see this rotten trick being pulled on the evolution-vs-creationism issue, where media outlets give equal time and page space to both legitimate science and religious bollocks. “Teach the controversy” is really a euphemism for “give lies the same consideration as facts”. Ditto for vaccine safety, where the fact-deprived sputterings of anti-vaccination paranoiacs are given the same weight as statements from doctors and medical scientists.

When it comes to separating the wheat from the chaff, the media often prefer not to discriminate. Why, that’s the consumer's job! Too bad if they happen to lack the education or critical thinking skills to tell shit from gold.

I’m not going to dignify the astrologers’ delusional ravings about earthquake-causing ‘supermoons’ with a critique. For gold, not shit, read Evelyn Mervine’s highly informative Skepchick post on what really causes earthquakes, and why Japan gets so many of them. It’s even got pretty pictures and colourful maps. The best bit: not one mention of a fucking supermoon.


Hat tip to Martin at Furious Purpose.

11 March 2011

Hitchens on what breaks heroes and idealists

I should read more of Christopher Hitchen’s stuff. He’s a contributing editor and columnist for Vanity Fair, but apart from the occasional browse, I’m not a VF regular. If I hadn’t known that Hitchens wrote for the magazine, I wouldn’t have made it past the April 2011 issue’s cover photo of Robert ‘Twilight’ Pattinson molesting an alligator. I’m glad I braved that salacious image of reptilian abuse (though I suspect some minor psychic trauma was sustained), because the Hitch’s article on the Egyptian revolution (‘What I Don’t See at the Revolution’) contained a standout line, a poetic observation that captured the reason why social change is so bloody difficult, frustrating and, in many cases, nigh impossible.

But first, some context. Hitchens wrote the article before Hosni Mubarak abdicated the Egyptian Presidency. Hence its partly speculative character as Hitchens pondered on the possible outcome(s) of the protests in Tahrir Square. And he was not optimistic.

I was a small-time eye-witness to those “bliss was it in that dawn” episodes, having been in Lisbon in 1974, South Korea in 1985, Czechoslovakia in 1988, Hungary and Romania in 1989, and Chile and Poland and Spain at various points along the [revolutionary] transition. I also watched some of the early stages of the historic eruption in South Africa. And in Egypt, alas – except for the common factor of human spontaneity and irrepressible dignity, what Saul Bellow called the “universal eligibility to be noble” – I can’t find any parallels, models, or precedents at all. […] This really is a new language: the language of civil society, in which the Arab world is almost completely unlettered and unversed.

Referring to Karl Marx’s definition of revolution as “the midwife by whom the new society is born from the body of the old”, Hitchens believed that while Egypt’s “old body may be racked with pangs, and even attended by quite a few would-be midwives, it’s very difficult to find the pulse of the embryo.”

With the perfect vision afforded by hindsight, we now see that Hitchens’s misgivings about the Egyptian people’s ability and resolve are largely undue. The revolution happened, even if new challenges await the freshly emancipated country.

Now for that standout line. Appropriately, it sits within a paragraph on Iran. A textbook example of an aborted revolution, the Green Movement’s courageous efforts have been stymied by both state thuggery and, as Hitchens points out, something else equally pernicious, which I’ve highlighted below.

As we sadly remember, the Ahmadinejad crew in Iran was also able to retain power in the face of popular (mainly urban) democratic insurrection. It, too, was ruthless in the use of force and able to rely on the passivity of a large and fairly pious rural population, itself dependent in turn on state subsidy. Heroism breaks its heart, and idealism its back, on the intransigence of the credulous and the mediocre, manipulated by the cynical and the corrupt.

And that is why social change can end up stillborn.


10 March 2011

More unsurprising theocratic illiberalism in Iran

We’re a bit slow here in Melbourne to get some of the latest magazines, so I’ve only just got the October/November 2010 issue of Philosophy Now. In the ‘News’ section the editors have published a letter sent to them by an anonymous reader in Iran. While the actions described in the letter are distressing, they are sadly expected of a theocratic regime that seems bent on cutting off Iran from the modern world.

The letter:

After last year’s disputed election in Iran, the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic [Ayatollah Ali Khamenei] blamed philosophy as the root of the problem. Sadeq Larijani, the head of the judicial system of Iran, followed in his footsteps to blame Western philosophy for corrupting the morals of the Muslim youth. Saeed Hajjarian, Iranian intellectual, journalist, university lecturer and reformist who was in jail for 3 months was brought on National TV to condemn, against his beliefs, philosophy, especially humanism, as corrupt. This show was particularly hard to watch since due to a failed assassination attempt 10 years ago Mr Hajjarian is unable to speak with a clear voice, is still using a wheelchair and is dependent on the constant care of doctors and family.

This was enough for over 40,000 students and professors in philosophy departments of Iranian universities to worry for their future. Now many professors and students are in jail and the Office of Higher Education has announced that the universities will stop accepting students in humanities [subjects] including philosophy, psychology, sociology, political science, social science, law and arts.

Kamran Daneshjoo, the Minister of Science, said that any university that goes against Islamic values should be demolished and his Secretary said that we do not need humanities to be taught in universities anymore. It is also worth noting that the publication of many books, especially philosophy books, which grew noticeably during Mohammad Khatami’s presidency, is now banned.

That’s right, it’s because of Satanic Western philosophy that Iran’s theocrats have to protect their good and pure vassals from being tainted by evil ideas like individual liberty, feminism, freedom of thought and speech, separation of religion and state, and universal human rights.

If all this wasn’t bad enough, there’s been news of the arrest and imprisonment of two liberal opposition leaders, Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, in late February. Mousavi, one of the leaders of Iran’s Green Movement, has apparently returned home but is now under house arrest. Anti-liberal ministers have called Mousavi and Karroubi traitors and demanded their execution.

The recent Arab revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt may have reignited protests against the Iranian regime, which first began in 2009. But the Green Movement faces greater obstacles than its Arab counterparts, one being the more brutal methods employed by the Ahmadinejad government to crush any opposition, and another being a perpetual media lockdown that hampers activist organising and foreign press reporting.

Given Iran’s oppressive theocracy, it’s no surprise that its despots would view Western philosophical ideas as a threat to their power. After all, it’s an Endarkening that serves their interests, not an Enlightenment.


08 March 2011

UK Census 2011: Tick ‘No Religion’ if you’re not religious

This month the UK is carrying out its 2011 census. The British Humanist Association (BHA) is running a campaign encouraging non-religious residents to tick the ‘No Religion’ box on the census form. Although answering the ‘religion’ part is optional, the BHA campaign aims to raise awareness of why it’s important to tick ‘No Religion’ if one does not follow a religion.

From the BHA website:

Apart from the inaccuracy of the data collected on religious affiliation, there are real, practical problems with the use of such data. The Census data on religion says nothing about the actual religious practice, involvement, belief or belonging of the population. However, both central and local government use such data in resource allocation and for targeting equality initiatives.

04 March 2011

Pick me, Mr Stangroom, pick me!

Jeremy ‘Snark Hunter’ Stangroom has embarked on a rather ambitious pet project. He intends to hunt down examples of atheist incivility as part of his crusade to ‘name and shame’ atheists behaving badly. The Great Snark Hunter first went after Russell Blackford (who subsequently granted Stangroom his impressive title), not just once, but twice and thrice. He then set his snark-sights on Richard Dawkins and most recently, PZ Myers and Jerry Coyne.

In the spirit of fraternity, many atheists have been eager to contribute to the Snark Hunter’s piteously small collection of godless rudeness. Adam Lee is one such atheist who has generously emailed a collated sample of his snarkiness to Stangroom, in the hope of furthering the Snark Hunter’s noble cause. Strangely though, in response to Lee’s heartfelt gift, the Snark Hunter simply had this to say:

Don’t be an idiot.

Perhaps the Snark Hunter was just being hiply ironic.

I would hate to be the only godless heathen who hasn’t got anything to offer Mr Stangroom. Why, he might mistake me for a lily-livered, conflict-averse surrender monkey kind of atheist! So I’ve taken the trouble to comb through my archive (with a meticulousness worthy of the Snark Hunter himself) and dig up some examples of my own bald meanness and spite. Well, maybe more like the odd bit of mildly pointed language (ok, so I’m not a foul-mouthed bastard. Got a problem with that, you empty headed animal food trough wiper?)

Anyway, here’s what I found:

While the star of the progressive Greens is waxing, especially in the state of Victoria, reactionary politicians like Steve Fielding and his Family First ilk (who share his knack for making idiotic comments) are losing power and influence. (Good riddance to religious rubbish)


Of course, some Christians will spout their mantra of “loving the sinner, hating the sin”, which for all its rhythmic poetry is perhaps a disingenuous evasion of this simple truth: they just don’t feel comfortable with the idea of a man tenderly pistoning his tumescent love-muscle into the welcoming rosebud of another man. ("Eeeww!": Disgust and morality)


If well-meaning senators and lawmakers are to be consistent in their efforts to attenuate the harm caused by cults, they would have to apply any new anti-cult law to all cults, including the long-established ones that prefer to call themselves ‘religions’. (The irony of anti-cult laws)


The atheist, secularist, humanist or naturalist who calls religion to task demonstrates the courage that the religious believer lacks. For a people who supposedly venerate truth and are dedicated to its promulgation, believers are positively terrified of the stuff when it is presented to them naked, uncovered by dogma and unadorned with superstition. In their terror they show just how gutless they really are. (A tragic courage)


I’ll say it: religious believers tend not to be sophisticated thinkers. (Religion and its conceits)

It’s a meager harvest, I admit, but I hope the Great Snark Hunter will find it acceptable.

UPDATE: The good professor Myers has become aware of Mr Stangroom's disapproving gaze, and has responded appropriately.