31 January 2012

This is also what I think about Islam

Over at Daylight Atheism, Adam Lee clearly states his views on Islam. He is fair, and his post is free of the heated emotion typically found in the writings of anti-Islam polemicists like Maryam Namazie (which isn’t to say that such emotion is unjustified). Lee is essentially arguing for secularism, not atheism per se. I don’t disagree with any of his points, and doubt that any reasonable person, Muslims included, would accuse Lee of bigotry.

Lee further elaborates his views in the comments section:

Although I obviously reject its supernatural claims as false, I don't think Islam is intrinsically worse than any other belief. I think Islam today is more or less where Christianity was about seven hundred years ago, that is to say, the dark ages. Considering that Islam was founded about seven hundred years after Christianity, that's to be expected. Unfortunately, in a world where dark-age minds can grasp 21st-century weapons, we may not have the same luxury of time. Islam badly needs an Enlightenment of its own, but I don't think humanity can afford to wait a few more centuries for it to happen.

A fair and, in my opinion, correct observation.


30 January 2012

Two talks on blasphemy and free speech

Last Saturday the Centre for Inquiry UK held a conference in London on “the criminalization of religious hatred, defamation, and insult under European human rights, and how this functions as a de facto blasphemy law”. The event, aptly named ‘Blasphemy!’, featured two intellectuals who I admire – writer and broadcaster Kenan Malik, and human rights activist Maryam Namazie. They each gave a speech at the conference, and have posted transcripts on their respective blogs. Their talks focused on different issues (though with some overlap) while showing their distinctive communication styles.

Malik talked about, among other things, the connection between the concept of blasphemy and the retention of power by individuals with a vested interest in taking offense when their beliefs and values are challenged or criticised. He laid out in detail the historical, political and social context in which current controversies surrounding blasphemous cartoons and literature are playing out, and argued his case in his usual measured yet sharply critical way.

Namazie spoke passionately on how charges of blasphemy/offense and ‘Islamophobia’ act as “secular fatwas”, their purpose being to silence dissent and curtail free speech. Her talk also touched on the cartoon controversy, with her fierce criticisms mainly directed at the misplaced political correctness of those who sought to censor the cartoons out of ‘respect’ for Muslims. Namazie is more truculent than Malik in her approach, but her arguments are no less valid for that.

I’m with them both on this. Malik’s deep contextual knowledge and Namazie’s righteous anger make a powerful combination. Those of us who treasure freedom of expression and detest religious tyranny are fortunate to have these two champions batting for our team.


27 January 2012

Bad idea, Alain. Bad idea.

I’m a little distressed. An atheist writer who I admire, whose books have played a formative role in my intellectual development, has made a rather silly proposal. Philosopher Alain de Botton wants to build a temple dedicated to atheism. This temple will also serve as a monument to “love, friendship, calm or perspective.”

Face, meet palm.

There are so many things wrong with this idea. Where to even begin? How about with the observation that atheism, by definition, requires no specific place of worship. Or that the money (all one million pounds of it) would be better spent on secular education and science advocacy. Or that buildings dedicated to reason, critical thinking and knowledge already exist (they’re called universities, libraries and laboratories), while places celebrating the natural world and human culture are likewise presently available to inspire the non-religious (they’re called museums, nature reserves, art galleries).

De Botton has written a new book, Religion for Atheists, and gave a TED talk on the central argument of his book: atheists need to borrow a few ideas from religion if they want to make atheism more palatable. De Botton thinks that atheism could benefit from adopting distinctly religious paraphernalia like rituals (including ritual baths!), sermons, and the use of art as a didactic tool.

Jerry Coyne rips apart De Botton’s proposition over at Why Evolution Is True, while the Guardian’s Steve Rose points out the contradiction inherent in the idea of institutionalising atheism:

What De Botton seems to be preaching is his own rather narrow definition of atheism, with its own unified philosophy, set of rules and even architectural brand identity. It feels rather like, er, a religion.

Oh Alain, what were you thinking?


A Celebration of Reason: Global Atheist Convention 2012

It was my birthday on Wednesday, and my brother gave me an especially wonderful gift: a ticket to ‘A Celebration of Reason’, the global atheist convention being held in Melbourne this April. I wasn’t going to miss this awesome event, and now thanks to my brother’s generosity it’s going to cost me neither money nor effort to grab a ticket. Epic win!

The GAC 2012 will be a three day mental orgy of intellectual stimulation, provocative discourse and irreverent entertainment. The rock stars of atheism will be there: Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, PZ Myers. One star will be conspicuously absent – Christopher Hitchens was expected to grace the GAC with his eloquence and erudition, but sadly the great man has left us. No doubt the Hitch and his valuable contributions to freethought will be recognised and celebrated at the event.

It makes me feel incredibly proud that my home city is hosting the GAC. I take this as a positive sign that Melbourne is predominantly secular, liberal and progressive, a sign that the world’s most liveable city is indeed worthy of that description. Of course, an atheist convention of the scale of the GAC will ruffle religious feathers. There will be pushback from those who subscribe to various brands of sky-fairyism. While some of that pushback will be hilarious, some of it will also be unpleasant, even threatening. Key speakers like Ayaan Hirsi Ali have received death threats from religious fanatics in the past, so security at the event should be a top priority.

I encourage my fellow Melbournians to attend ‘A Celebration of Reason’, whether you’re an atheist or not. Regardless of your personal beliefs, I assure you that you will come away from the convention with greater knowledge and understanding of the issues affecting society, culture, politics, civil liberties, human rights, ethics, education, science and the humanities. You will leave the GAC a more informed, more enlightened person.


20 January 2012

Angelo Flaccavento featured on The Sartorialist

Awhile ago I posted my thoughts on a fashion article by Angelo Flaccavento, who wrote about wearing a ‘uniform’ i.e. having a deliberately limited choice of clothing that becomes one’s signature style. I didn’t realise when I read his article that I had actually seen photos of Flaccavento before on The Sartorialist blog. True to his credo, he has a distinctive manner of dressing that doesn’t vary to any significant degree, a consistent look that can be summed up as ‘beard + glasses + bow tie + well-fitted suit’. But at the time I didn’t know that the stylish man in the photos was also the articulate man who wrote the ‘uniform dressing’ manifesto that spoke to my own sartorial sensibilities.

Scott Schuman, who runs The Sartorialist and took those photos of Flaccavento, has a recent post where he interviews the dapper, intelligent gent. I especially like Flaccavento’s answer when asked what his “most memorable gift” was.

Good to know the face behind the words.

Photo by Elena Braghieri


16 January 2012

Attention all you tennis fans

The Australian Open starts this week, and tennis fans attending the matches are probably going to see lots of rainbow flags flying at the Margaret Court arena in Melbourne Park. The reason? The arena is named after Australia’s greatest female tennis player, who also happens to be a conservative Christian pastor opposing homosexuality in general and gay marriage in particular. Gay rights activists and their supporters are going to fly their colours proudly at the Open in protest against Margaret Court’s homophobia.

Court’s views on homosexuality and gay rights are informed by her (surprise, surprise) religious beliefs, as she has made clear:

I think I have a right, being a minister of the gospel, to say what it says from a scriptural side. I have been married for 44 years this year and, to me, marriage is something very special, wonderful, ordained by God. I look at the children of our next generation and think of the problems they are having in America with all this – we don’t need it in our nation.

So Court thinks that being well-versed on a man-made collection of history, myths and morality tales gives her the right to discriminate against gays. Chalk that one down as another example of physicist Steven Weinberg’s maxim: religion gives good people a reason to do bad things. Court also implies that Australia needs more religious (i.e. regressive) values, otherwise we’ll end up like those depraved Americans wallowing in godless gayness. Even America isn’t God-fearingly homophobic enough for Court!

Both Tennis Australia and the Women’s Tennis Association have stated that they do not share Margaret Court’s views. Tennis Australia posted the following on its website:

Margaret Court has won more grand slam titles than any other player and has been honoured for her achievements in tennis and she is a legend of the sport. We respect her playing record, it is second to none.

But her personal views are her own, and are definitely not shared by Tennis Australia. Like the [Women’s Tennis Association], we believe that everyone should be treated equally and fairly. We concur wholeheartedly with the WTA who stated that “all human beings, regardless of gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation or otherwise, should be treated equally. This is a fundamental right and principle, including within the world of sport. Anyone advocating otherwise is advocating against fundamental and essential rights.”

TA does not support any view that contravenes these basic human rights.

Every year Court is invited to the Australian Open as a guest of honour. Her presence at the tournament this year will be more... exciting than in previous years. Those of you who are going to the Open may want to bring along a rainbow flag to add to the festive, even gay, atmosphere.

HT: Martin


11 January 2012

Signs of quackery and woo

This is a useful guide to recognising bogus ‘medicine’ and dubious health claims.

(Click to enlarge)

HT: Philosophy Monkey


10 January 2012

Only men may talk about vaginas

You’re probably feeling all happy and encouraged after watching that amazing flash mob dance by the women and girls of Beit Shemeth. So it pains me greatly to throw cold water on your warm, joyful glow with this piece of news. A conference on gynaecology being held in Jerusalem today is allowing only male speakers. From The Globe and Mail:

The conference on “Innovations in Gynecology/Obstetrics and Halacha [Jewish law]” is being held by the Puah Institute this Wednesday in Jerusalem. It will include such topics as “ovary implants,” “how to choose a suitable contraceptive pill” and “intimacy during rocket attacks,” in which there are many qualified female professionals, but none will be permitted to speak, at least not from the podium.

Women are allowed in the audience, in a section separate from men.

The conference is a private event, but the Puah Institute receives funding from the Israeli Health Ministry. The Israeli government is increasingly being strong-armed by religious conservatives into sanctioning sexist, discriminatory policies. Whether it’s Judaism, or Islam, or Christianity, fundamentalists from these patriarchal monotheisms are a scourge of women wherever their vile (and usually male) influence is felt.


This is all kinds of awesome

The Haredi are an ultra-conservative sect of Judaism, and they’re making their chauvinistic presence known in Beit Shemesh, a city in Israel’s Jerusalem district. From verbally and physically assaulting schoolgirls for dressing ‘indecently’ to imposing gender segregation on public buses, Haredi zealots (invariably men) are bent on making women and girls feel like second-class citizens in their own city.

But the feisty females of Beit Shemesh are not going to let the Haredi men’s sexism go unchallenged. The Haredi want them to be silent and unseen. So these women organised a flash mob instead to dance and sing loudly to Queen’s Don’t Stop Me Now, in full view of possibly the same men who seek to oppress them.

Epic win.

HT: Rebecca Watson at Skepchick


09 January 2012

Small victory for Australian secularism

The Canberra Times reports that 208 schools around Australia have decided to replace religious chaplains with secular welfare workers instead under the National School Chaplaincy Program (NSCP). That’s awesome news. The not-so-awesome bit however is that 2236 schools, or 89 percent of schools, are sticking with religious chaplains in their reapplication for NSCP funding.

It looks like the government has considered the “strong feedback” (read “criticism”) on the NSCP’s religious bias, so they have extended the program to include qualified secular welfare workers. This is something that secularists should celebrate, even if the initial uptake of secular welfare workers in schools is modest. In my home state of Victoria only 16 percent of schools with government-funded chaplains have said they would prefer to have secular welfare workers. There’s definitely room for improvement.

While we should welcome the inclusion of secular welfare workers in the NSCP, the point remains that religion should not receive special government favour. Taxpayers should not be forced to fund ideologies that make supernatural, unsubstantiated claims, that reject science, that encourage divisiveness and cultural insularity, and that in their more toxic forms promote prejudice and bigotry. In fact, forcing Australian citizens to indirectly support the religious indoctrination of schoolchildren may be unconstitutional. One such citizen, Ron Williams, took legal action against the NSCP last year, a case that went to the High Court where it still awaits a decision.

Overall, this perhaps isn’t the best news for Australian secularism. But at least the Gillard government is taking criticisms of the NSCP into consideration. Hopefully those percentage figures of schools opting for secular welfare workers over chaplains will continue to rise.


08 January 2012

Such a lame argument, even a cat can refute it

Religionists have a thing for projection. They try to oppress others with their backward ideology, but then claim to be the oppressed ones when they meet fierce resistance. They accuse non-believers of immorality, wickedness and sin, but then commit immoral, wicked and – by their own lights – sinful acts. They promote prejudice and bigotry, but then whine that their opponents are the ones being prejudiced and bigoted. Finally, they cling to their unsubstantiated beliefs for no other reason than faith, but then charge scientists with ‘scientism’ – of having blind faith in science.

One Rabbi Moshe Averick, certified creationist, took leave of his rational faculties and made this last all-too-common fallacious argument. He thinks that a scientist’s “belief” in a naturalistic explanation for reality has “no rational basis”, just like Averick’s own belief in a supernatural explanation for reality has no rational basis. Ergo, scientists are just like religionists.

Higgs the cat aptly demonstrates the epicness of the rabbi’s argument fail (bold emphasis mine):

I’d also like to call attention to your misleading use of the word “faith” to describe the thinking of [biologist and Nobel Laureate Dr. Jack Szostak] as well as [biologist] Dr. Jerry Coyne. Neither of them ever said they believed science would answer everything. We don’t know which questions will be answered by science in our lifetimes, which will be answered in the future, and which will never be answered. The physicist Richard Feynman has remarked that we don’t know if science will ever get to the bottom of things or just keep peeling back layers of an endless onion. That didn’t stop him from peeling back a quite substantial layer.

Furthermore, science works because scientists don’t apply a religions-type faith to their theories. They get in big trouble when they do. Scientists either change their minds when the evidence turns against them or they risk going down in history as defenders of a wrong or outdated idea. Think of cold fusion.

Some people argue that scientists have faith in the process of science, but this type of faith is not a religious leap but a logical extension of our experience. The scientific method has worked in the past many times. Therefore it’s quite rational to think it will continue to work in the future.

Rabbi Averick just got pussy-whipped.

Your argoomint iz invalid.

HT: Jerry Coyne


06 January 2012

Lanvin makes Dwarven bling

So much jewellery is naturalistic in form – Art Nouveauesque in its resemblance to plants, flowers, animals. Bling for Tolkienian Elves, basically. Fashion house Lanvin’s Autumn/Winter 2011 range of accessories contains a welcome departure from delicate gold-wrought leaves and silver filigree. There are still a few pieces of gracefully undulating metalwork in the collection, even some ‘Elven’ designs, but it’s the chunky, square-cut precious stones set in straight-edged heavy metal that stand out. Bling for Dwarves.

Click on the images for a larger and clearer picture.

Some pieces don’t even focus on the stones, being pure celebrations of metal and geometry.

And these really impressed me – a Dwarven take on flowers.

I can imagine the Dwarf ladies (and men too) of Khazad-dûm adorning themselves with Lanvin’s creations as they went about their daily business, back in those happier times before a certain fiery demon took up residence. Lanvin-like jewellery would have also been worn by the mysterious Dwemer of Tamriel, and can be found lying around in their long-abandoned mountain holds.

Kudos to the Lanvin designers and craftspeople for giving us a delightfully fresh perspective on the jeweller’s art.


05 January 2012

Dear religious right, cancer is a health issue, not a moral one

Turns out that Vogue magazine isn’t just about semi-glossed pages of beautiful (if often overpriced) clothes on beautiful (if often emaciated) women. There’s also intelligent, provocative writing to be found tucked between all those perfume ads and sparkly bling. The December 2011 issue has a feature on the controversial HPV vaccine (‘Calling the Shots’); writer Ayelet Waldman tells her story about being infected with HPV, and condemns the moralism of American politicians like Michele Bachmann who oppose the HPV vaccine.

Waldman was infected with the human papillomavirus, which can cause various cancers, despite being in a long-term monogamous relationship, putting paid to the conservative lie that HPV is the (deserved) price for promiscuity. Michele Bachmann displayed this odious self-righteousness in her opposition to the HPV vaccine, going so far as to criticising Texas governor and fellow God-botherer Rick Perry for issuing an executive order mandating HPV vaccination for girls in sixth grade. Here’s Waldman on the really spiteful motivation behind Bachmann’s anti-vaccine position (emphasis mine):

Perry’s strategic mistake was in treating a vaccine that protects children against a potentially fatal disease as a health issue. The state of Texas mandates vaccinations for polio, for chicken pox, for nine different illnesses, only a few of which are as potentially deadly as the cervical, anal, and oral cancers caused by HPV, but Bachmann took no issue with those. She attacked HPV because unlike, say, rubella and mumps, it’s sexually communicable. For people like Bachmann, HPV isn’t a disease; it’s a punishment, a penalty for promiscuity, and to require a young girl to get the vaccine is to expect, even to condone, her sin.

Religious zealots like Bachmann are obsessed with sexual propriety. It’s like they’re wearing special glasses that lets them only see the religio-moral spectrum when they look at any issue of public concern. To them, the HPV vaccine issue isn’t about stopping girls from getting cancer; it’s about encouraging girls to fuck a lot. Prominent skeptic and feminist Rebecca Watson took on Bachmann during last year’s Skepticon, wittily exposing Bachmann’s logic fail:

Michele Bachmann is also against fire extinguishers, because they’ll just encourage everybody to set shit on fire.

Waldman received some negative pushback from her Twitter followers when she tweeted about her HPV infection in what many thought to be overly graphic detail. To her critics, Waldman responds:

The concept of [Too Much Information] is composed of a combination of prudishness, squeamishness, and censoriousness. It’s the last part that bothers me the most. You’re a prude? Fine. You’re uncomfortable with your body? That’s your problem. But when you try to shame others out of speaking out or taking action, then you’re engaging in a hip, digital form of the worst kind of demagoguery. Then you’re Michele Bachmann. The opposing principle of TMI is embodied by the phrase “Silence = Death”. Remember back in the height of the AIDS crisis, when HIV was considered a disease of promiscuous gay men and drug addicts, something decent people neither suffered from nor talked about? It took a pink triangle and a slogan to remind us of the dangers of conflating public health and morality. It’s time to do the same for HPV.

Hear, hear.


03 January 2012

Not cool, Turkey. Not. Cool.

Oh Turkey, what’s happened to you? From a staunchly secular republic (ok, perhaps too staunch at times) that also has a mostly Muslim citizenry, you’ve gradually degenerated into an Islamist state that seeks to impose religious ideology in place of secular values and science.

So I hear you want to ban any mention of Charles Darwin and the theory of evolution. That you want to protect children’s innocent minds from ideas supposedly comparable to images of naked humans slapping their genitals together. So now you’re playing the ‘think of the children’ card too?

I know you don’t much like those obnoxious, trigger happy Americans. So why do you insist on copying one of their least admirable traits? In the eyes of scientifically literate people everywhere, you Turks and Americans are like bosom buddies in God-infused ignorance. Your bromance is obvious from the flattering way Turkish creationists like Adnan Oktar adopt wholesale the Christian concept of Intelligent Design popular with American fundamentalists.

Children of Ataturk, you were supposed to be a secular exemplar of the Muslim world. You were supposed to persuade us faithless heathens that Islam was compatible with liberty, democracy, progress and science. You were supposed to be a political, social and economic example for other Muslim countries to emulate for the better. Now they’re going to emulate you for the worse.

Turkey, I am disappoint.

CORRECTION: I have just learned that the Turkish creationist Adnan Oktar aka Harun Yahya explicitly rejects Intelligent Design (Win!). This is because he thinks that ID proponents are either contemptible Westerners or treacherous Western sympathisers who haven't got the balls to declare that "Allah created the entire universe and everything in it, living and non-living" (Epic fail!).