David Cameron Supports Alpha Course in Prisons

In his Easter message, David Cameron spoke of the importance of Christian faith in the UK. In particular he praised the Alpha Course for the work it does in prisons across the country.

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Most prisons in the UK offer the Alpha Course to their inmates (around 80-85% of them). It doesn’t take a cynic to see the immediate benefits of Alpha attendance for prisoners, or the benefits for Alpha of being in prisons. Prisoners can demonstrate their interest in reforming themselves and the course gets a receptive, captive audience (not even a pun).

While the Alpha Course begins with the focus on the teachings and historicity of Christ, after a few sessions attention moves on to the supernatural claims of Christianity. When I attended my local course in Brighton, I was at first impressed by the apparent desire of attendees and organisers to simply become better, more loving people. This impression faded when the course lurched into the realm of everyday miracles.

The later part of the course explores such things as the power of prayer to physically heal people. We hear testimonies from audience members who claim to have been healed themselves or to have witnessed others being healed. We hear stories of “Words of knowledge” where people literally hear God saying things to them. We were presented with people standing at the front of the church and saying these words out loud to see if they meant anything to the other attendees. For me, this display was indistinguishable from the use of “Barnum Statements” by stage psychics and illusionists. The same could be said when prophetic dreams were discussed, and people were encouraged to describe their previous night’s dreams to see if they predicted events relevant to the audience.

The use of such parlour tricks and anecdotes, I felt, undermined the fine things they had been teaching in the earlier sessions. If the lessons were self-evidently good, there ought to be no need to reinforce the message by using magic tricks to prove that God was present in the room. Like what so many cults do.

During the “Holy Spirit Weekend” – part of which is offered to prisons I witnessed the architect of the Alpha Course, Nicky Gumbel, inducing “manifestations of the Holy Spirit” in an audience of 300 trusting followers. The climax of that evening is the spectacle of “Singing in tongues” which Gumbel encourages by a combination of gentle reassurance and audience manipulation. You can watch it for yourself here, though it stops before the manifestations occur.

How can I be filled with the holy spirit

In Gumbel’s build-up to the tongues climax, which I witnessed, he mentioned that only the previous weekend, someone had starting speaking Russian, despite never having spoken it before. The audience trusts gumbel and takes this claim at face value. But when you look at the official script, you will notice this instruction:

Script extract ARABIC

“Use the text in red or replace with your own example”

This means you should either talk about a previous speaking in tongues episode, or, if you don’t have one, just make it up. I wonder if the example Gumbel gives at 38:00 is a genuine story, or if it’s just the text in red.

Far from being a novel, slightly alien facet of christian proselytisation, the Alpha Course is now central to the Christian church’s struggle to retain a congregation. The Church of England is not normally associated with the use of charismatic displays of God’s presence, but with the election of Nicky Gumbel’s old friend Justin Welby as Archbishop of Canterbury, the use of cynical psychic stage trickery looks to have supplanted the simple word of Christ at the centre of the church’s marketing strategy.

I wonder if David Cameron even realises what he has given his support to.

Decision Time for Sunday Assembly – Guest post at Skeptic Ink

I was kindly invited by Johnathan Pearce @ATipplingPhilo to write a guest blog for his site at Skeptic Ink. He happened to catch me in the middle of writing a book about atheist churches, so this blog post goes over some of the issues have have come up as Sunday Assembly starts to make decisions about what kind of organisation it wants to be.

http://www.skepticink.com/tippling/2014/01/29/decision-time-for-the-sunday-assembly-guest-post-by-simon-clare/

In Defence of Sunday Assembly

It is a common reaction for parents whose child has been criticised to say something along the lines of “oh but she’s a good girl really”. This is easily dismissed as bias, but so be it. The parent thinks that if only the critic really knew their child, they wouldn’t have said such a thing. But then again, if the critic only knew enough to make the criticism then, well, there was still something to criticise. It’s not the responsibility of critics to investigate what was really meant – it’s up to you to show them in the first place.

That is a little how I feel after reading Marianne’s blog post (please do read it yourself). Having heard hundreds of comments, mostly positive but some critical, I’ve learnt to take the rough with the smooth but I found myself dwelling on this one a bit so I thought I’d do a Robin Ince style rambly blog-burst to get it out of my system. I can’t respond on behalf of the London team as I’m only involved in the Brighton one, but criticism of one group does reflect onto other groups so I want to bat for Brighton.

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St Andrew’s Hove, the glorious venue for SA Brighton

I have a lot of respect for Noodlemaz’s opinion so I had been hoping her visit to the London Sunday Assembly the other day was going to result in her being impressed without reservation. That is not how the world works though and the content of her article needs to be faced up to. It would be all too easy to say “oh if you don’t like it you don’t have to go along” and while that is technically true it is not constructive or useful, especially not for an organisation that calls itself “Radically inclusive”. The criticism was valid and deserves a proper response.

Oh God, the Songs…

Many of Marianne’s reservations have been voiced by others before and in my role of “Floor manager” for Sunday Assembly Brighton, I get to hear them all. Some of the points remain matters of personal taste, such as the vexed issue of song choice (our greatest headache at Brighton). We have found this is the most common cause of passionate disagreement among the organising committee and we have had to resort to an actual democratic voting system (the horror!) to avoid strife. This now works pretty well but there is usually at least one song I have to accept despite the pain – the worst was probably when we did the “Friends” theme tune. I still shudder. This week, though, we did Material Girl, Can’t Buy Me Love and 9 to 5 which was a pretty solid set. A song like the ghastly Get Lucky that Marianne had to endure in London would have been unlikely to get through our quality control system. I despise that song with a poisonous fury but my resentment is aimed squarely at society (that’s YOU LOT) for lapping up such a vacuous and cynical un-song with such relish. It sounds like a naff Jamiroquai tribute band and the original Jamiroquai were barely endurable. That’s enough of my useless musical opinion for now.

Things to Address

But some of the observations simply must be addressed.The most serious of which, for me, was Marianne’s observation about the lack of any explanation as to what the collection is for. We must tell people exactly why the collection is needed (as well as assuring them that there is no compulsion whatsoever). This is especially important if money is going towards any side-projects the organisers have in mind; the congregation may give the benefit of the doubt and assume that the collection is for running costs but if the organisers have any other intentions for that money this has to be made crystal clear before the baskets go around.

In Brighton, our collection covers building hire, insurance, tea and coffee gear, the occasional band practice, and hire of projection gear. At Christmas we gave any additional funds raised that month to a local homeless charity and despite being super-conscious of the importance of telling everyone this, I completely forgot about it on the day so we had to announce it afterwards. I still blush at the memory. After running costs, we had £130 left over and that went to the Brighton Housing Trust. We now have about £700 in our account, which we are very fortunate to have. We’ll keep some money for contingencies but pretty soon we’ll have enough to invest, for example, in our own decent projection gear so that we don’t have to hire it any more. This means we won’t have to rely on the hire shop always having the projector we want and would also save a lot of car journeys collecting and dropping it all off. For the first couple of months we were using the South East Skeptics’ projector but it’s not really good enough for a bright white church on a sunny Sunday morning.

The lack of ethnic diversity is very apparent and it’s something we have spoken about from the start. It’s hard to know how to address this, to be honest, and we’re open to ideas. Since before our first show in Brighton, we have talked about the importance of having women speakers and my experience in the skeptic/atheist world shows me that this is something that one can’t afford to ignore. Gender balance can be easily messed up if you are not conscious of it and I’m glad that we’ve found it relatively easy to get it right (in fact, out of all of the on-stage roles since we began, 11 have been performed by men and 13 by women). I have had people comment on how glad they are to see so many women involved in the show and this pleases me greatly. The issue of ethnic diversity is a much tougher nut to crack but it’s not something we’ll shy away from.

If You Like That Sort of Thing

The moment of silence we have is a funny old thing. I think I enjoy it mostly because it is so odd, but there is something uniquely collaborative about a group silence. Everyone plays their part in it. At Brighton we would never suggest that people use the silence to “be thankful”, we just announce the silence and suggest that people think about the content they’ve heard so far. Our services are pretty content-rich, so it actually works out quite well having a couple of minutes to let it sink in. This Sunday the silence came straight after our regular (brilliant) science slot and our second reading, so it was handy to pause for breath for a bit before continuing.

One of the most common criticisms we get from atheists is that they find it a bit churchy, or a bit too reminiscent of traditional religious worship. It is undeniable that the format is based essentially on a Church of England service and it is to be expected that atheists will be uncomfortable with that. I was sceptical about it myself when SA first started up, having been a loud-mouthed critic of religion for as long as I can remember. It is natural to associate the church-service format closely with religions – that is how we all came to know the format after all. Religions have for centuries known that one thing humans tend to do is gather in order to mark events, have feasts or to burn witches. Those religions have made this tendency their own and have harnessed the psychology of groups to push their own agenda. They have taken an activity that was human and made it indistinguishable from an activity that is religious. I think it’s high time that humanity reclaimed such activities for itself.

For our generation, gathering together to listen to interesting talks, sing songs and share silence might “feel a bit churchy” but unless secular humanity claims such gatherings for itself, future generations will see it as a religious activitity too. By providing a godless, high-quality alternative to the religious hijacking of this human trait, we show that we can still congregate on a Sunday morning (if we want to) and find the gathering enjoyable in its own right, without any involvement from the supernatural or the interference of those who claim to know the mind of God.

“Enjoyable” does not have to mean jumping around and waving one’s hands in the air and at Brighton I think we’ve done a pretty good job of gauging the preferences of the audience in that respect. Of course, no matter how thoroughly we ditch the happy-clappyness it is still true that many people just don’t like the idea of gathering together or singing songs and that is absolutely fine – I wouldn’t want to live in a world where everyone enjoyed it. But I do hope that people who end up disliking it do so because they simply don’t like it and not just because it feels a bit too churchy.

 

Do check out our website to see what we have coming up in Brighton http://brighton.sundayassembly.com/

As it’s the Brighton Science Festival in February, we are putting on not one but TWO science-themed Sunday Assemblies. On the 23rd of February we have Dr Adam Rutherford giving the main talk and on the 2nd of March we host Professor Jim Al-Khalili.

Horsham Mind, Body, Spirit (woo) Fayre


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“So what problems can these necklaces treat?”

“Everything”

Everything.

Just Another Local Woo Fayre

I was at Horsham’s Drill Hall for a Mind, Body and Spirit Fayre. It was only 15 minutes walk away from my flat and £2 to get in, so despite my determination to stay in bed all day I went along. Horsham is one of many towns that is blessed with a Skeptics in the Pub group, so it just seemed right that there should be a skeptical presence at the show. My mum had never been to this kind of event before so I invited her along too. First-timers are always amazed at what they find at these things. Normally I like to ask a few awkward questions but I thought on this occasion I would just try to get on well with everyone, more like a Louis Theroux than the irritating know-all I usually am.

The necklace to cure all ills was just the most egregious of the panaceas on offer at the show. I asked how the Energetix magnet-necklace worked and was told:

“We have created an electrical smog with all the electrics and computers and things that are all around us. They stop us from feeling the natural magnetic field of the Earth and we have come to need that natural magnetism. The magnets in our bracelets help get 15% more oxygen into your cells and they make the blood alkaline which is the blood’s healing mode. When blood is acidic it isn’t healing but when it’s alkaline it will heal. The magnets stop the blood from being sticky too; we all need iron and chromium but without the natural magnetic forces it all clumps together in our blood so although it’s there, our body isn’t using it fully.”

I was shown some before and after photos of blood cells,displaying a string of cells all stuck together. After a magnet had been applied all the cells separated! To back this up, I was shown a badly drawn picture of a blood vessel, clogged with “sticky” blood cells. Next to this was a magnet with blue lines emanating from it, releasing the little flecks of iron that had been stuck together and allowing the blood cells to drift apart.

So why don’t hospitals and doctors use this? Well apparently that’s because the drug companies and doctors wouldn’t make any money from it.

“Goodness me, really? That’s awful. But how come we haven’t evolved, like, magnetic bones if magnets are that good for us?”

“We have evolved to need the magnetic field of the earth but the electric smog blocks it out”

“Oh right, I see”

After I had satisfied her that I was fascinated and that I had lots of friends who would be really interested, she suggested that I might like to consider becoming a fellow merchant, selling the products myself. I’m sure I could could make a few quid if I bought into the franchise, but you know what? [expletive deleted] off.

This conversation was the low point of an otherwise rather pleasant trip. There is always one stall that gives me the distinct feeling that they are deliberately taking advantage of vulnerable people. These stalls are the ones that make me keep going back.

How Angels Can Help You Make Art

Earlier in the afternoon, as soon as we had arrived, we went into a side room to see a demonstration of Angelic Drawing. Before we went in, my mum asked me

“How do you keep a straight face?”

“Practice”

We joined twenty or so people to listen to “Justine” tell us about how angels help her produce paintings. I had seen a similar demonstration earlier last year where the artwork was unbearably naff. Thankfully Justine’s paintings were actually rather lovely; moody, shadowy impressions of feminine figures in swirls of starry smoke. Justine had been told throughout school that she could not draw, but once she found out how to harness the power of angels, she discovered that she had a real gift.

Pens and postcards were distributed so we could all call upon our angels to guide our hands to make some art.

We were told to close our eyes and call out to our angels, repeating the phrase “I am beautiful and I can really draw”. Once we were in touch with our angels, we were to repeat “I am that guardian angel and I am beautiful”. We then opened our eyes and Justine showed us all how to draw an eye. We formed them by drawing a trapezium and then adding the other components line by line. Once the eye was finished we could add whatever we felt needed to be added.

The terrifying eye what I drew (with scribbled blog notes):

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The reason we drew eyes, she told us, was that “Eyes are the window to the soul.” I was hoping she wouldn’t say that, but she did.

I am moved; Justine is Cool

A selection of our eyes were displayed by Justine and she started to comment on what the eyes meant. She was quickly interrupted by a lady in the audience who said “I’ve learnt, doing this, that it’s okay to make mistakes”. Justine listened and agreed earnestly. The lady went on “When I was little I always used to scribble out all the mistakes until you couldn’t see any of it at all but now I feel like it’s alright to get it wrong”. I had to deliberately stop a tear at this point. The woman didn’t sound like someone who had benefited much from school. I could just imagine her as a child, scribbling out anything she thought would be wrong instead of being given the space to express her unique self. I wasn’t expecting to encounter anything so sad and profound. Maybe it was just me.

More of our eyes were shown to the group, and Justine praised all of them in a way that made people really glow. They were all encouraged to feel proud of their unique pieces of art. She started suggesting that some of the eyes looked more like animal eyes. Returning to the woman who had made the comment about mistakes, she told her that her eye actually looked to Justine like a shark’s eye. The Shark, she said, was a very strong and powerful spirit and it was clearly there in this eye.

I wanted to applaud Justine at this point; in so very few sentences she made this woman feel like her individuality was worth something, that she had created real art (she had) and that she should be proud of it. Wonderful stuff. Could I have made her feel like that by blathering on about the discoveries of science? Nope.

Holding up another eye drawn by a quiet lady to my right, Justine said it was “really good” and that the proportions were just right and even gorgeous. She asked the quiet lady “Does anyone ever tell you that you’re good?”

“No”.

“Well you ought to know we all think this is good”

I like Justine.

The remainder of the session was Justine talking about her approach to life, it was all pretty harmless, positive stuff (not too wishy-washy) and I suspect that some of the people in that room would never have heard such concepts uttered out loud before.

Finally, Justine told us a story of how she had been rescued from an assault in South Africa by a kindly baker lady. Justine returned the next day to thank her but it turned out that no women worked at the bakery at all. Justine is certain it was an angel. She told us how one of her friends was saved by a samurai warrior with a glowing blue sword. This, she tells us, was the archangel Michael. There were gasps in the audience.

Past Life Regression

I wandered over to a gigantic bearded man who was giving tarot readings at £20 a pop. I wasn’t about to part with that sort of money but I had a chat with him anyway. As well as the tarot, he had cards for his hypnotherapy and past- life regression business. I asked him if there was a connection was between tarot and hypnotherapy and he said there wasn’t. He does tarot at shows like this but he is primarily a professional hypnotherapist specialising in past-life regression. Apparently all hypnotherapists are capable of inducing past-life regression

I asked if the mechanics of how we live a sequence of lives were similar to how it worked in Buddhism and if there was an end goal or purpose to this sequence or if it was eternal. He told me that you just keep living lives until you have learnt all there is to know and then you never enter the physical world again. So yes, sounds quite buddhismy to me. He said he couldn’t comment on that as he didn’t really know about Buddhism.

He recommended a book called “Many Lives, Many Masters”. I had mentioned I was agnostic about life after death (I lied!) and he thought this would be the best book I could read if I wanted to know it was real. Apparently, when we are between lives, we exist in a realm that is governed by “The Masters”. It is these beings that decide which life we find ourselves in each time we are reincarnated. They are rather like angels, but he added that we can’t ever know for sure what the truth is when it comes to this stuff. I agreed and gave a brief summary of my humanist motivations for trying to affect the lives of those around me positively to the best of my judgement and ability. I managed somehow to shut myself up and moved to the next stall.

I Try Reiki and I Like Reiki

Reiki. I said hello to the chap on the stall and pretended that I always get reflexology and reiki mixed up. I asked him what it was all about. He gave me a vague answer about energy, spirituality and healing but said that the only way to understand this kind of energy was to feel it. Fair enough. So I paid him £8 for a 15 minute reiki session.

This was the hands-on type of reiki; often you’ll see demos where they don’t even touch the participant and you wonder what the hell is actually happening. He briefed me carefully so that I knew he would be touching my head, face, shoulders, knees and feet and asked if I had any particular health problems. I told him I’ve suffered with migraines all my life but that I wasn’t expecting this session to heal them. My more acute problem right at that moment was personal-space-awkwardness but as that is incurable I said “exhaustion” instead. He silently  prepared himself for the treatment.

When he was ready, he touched my shoulders and I closed my eyes. He placed his hands carefully onto the top of my head and stayed like that for about 5 minutes. I tried to relax by using some meditation techniques and eventually I found myself feeling pretty calm. He then moved his hands to the side of my head, covering my ears while his fingers hovered over my eyes. I was happily drifting through the colours on the inside of my eyelids when he lifted his hands and moved them to my shoulders. The sudden change in the light coming into my eyes, along with the increased volume as he uncovered my ears made me feel like someone had flipped a switch in my head. Bear in mind that by this point I had been sitting motionless for 10 minutes, relaxing myself deliberately. It was as if something bright and cool had been poured over my head.

He then spent 5 more minutes on my knees and feet before quietly telling me the session was over and that I could open my eyes when I felt like it. I was offered a glass of water while I told him about how I felt; deeply calm. He told me he got a lot of heat into his hands from my head and suspected that my exhaustion was due to something going on in there. He’s not wrong, I suppose but I think his hands were hot before he started. Still, that was lovely.

The Sussex Dowsers

I spoke briefly to most of the stallholders and finally came to the Sussex Dowsers’ stand. I saw he had a crystal pendulum setup as well as information about dowsing with rods. Feigning ignorance again ( I am good at this now) I asked what the difference was between dowsing for water and dowsing for answers. My dead-pan acting prowess was rewarded with a one to one personalised demonstration and explanation of dowsing in all its forms.

He said that the dowsing device is only there to enhance the natural twitches and tightenings of your own muscles; you are a sophisticated detector and the rods or the crystals just amplify your abilities. He showed me that you can program yourself to see answers in whichever way suits you best; you can have a clockwise rotating crystal meaning either yes or no as long as you are sure which is which at the outset. He uses clockwise to mean yes, anticlockwise no. To demonstrate this, he asked if his name was Michael and the crystal swung anticlockwise, for he is named David. It bloody worked. I saw that with my own eyes. Amazing.

He went on to say how energy leaks out of the earth through fractures in the same way it leaks out of injuries. If we have a broken bone for instance, energy will leak from it and he will see it as a yellow colour.

My picture1099

This was new to me, and he delighted in telling me how he can use his third eye to visualise the colours of energies and that this was all tied in to how dowsing works. When we close our eyes, he said, the colours we see are the colours of energy. Yellow or red energies signify something broken or wrong whereas blue energies are what things look like when they are perfect. To heal ourselves, we just will the injured limb to have blue energy. Easy.

Not a Test 

I asked if the leaking energy of long since healed broken bones would still be visible and he  said they could. Since we were getting on quite well I asked him if he would mind telling me which of my hands I had broken while playing drums some years ago.

“It’s not a test!” I laughed. It was definitely a test.

While I was thinking about making this challenge, I was careful to make sure I held both my hands in the same position and tried to avoid giving any cues about which hand I was thinking of. I didn’t look at either of them and tried to wave them around equally while I spoke.

He closed his eyes and checked my right hand, saying there was a red line in the energy near the wrist but he didn’t declare that this was the broken one. He then passed to my left hand and after some considerable period of silence (and a lot of people looking at us like we were having a wizard-flavoured arm-wrestle) said the energies seemed a little weaker there, especially in my left little finger.

Now, my right hand was actually the one that had been broken, so when he mentioned the left little finger I made a little sound “uh”.It’s hard to do it justice in writing, but I tried to disguise the meaning behind this little utterance. It would have normally sounded like a “Hmm” but as I was highly conscious of every sign I was giving him it came out as a “heh”. He immediately said “Judging by the “uh” I’d say it was the left hand that you broke”. I was surprised that he actually used those words – admitting outright that his judgement was based on my reaction rather than on his powers – but I was pleased to have tricked him so politely.

Finally, he showed me how to unblock the energy in my right hand. This was important if I want to avoid arthritis in the future, he said. He told me to imagine that I was firing bright blue energy out of my fingertips, generating it in my body and channelling it along my arms. I fired it at the nearby wall, next to a doorway.

“Do you feel a tingling in your fingers?”

“Oh yeah!” (no)

He looked really happy with the effect it was having on me. I mean, it was quite good fun standing there while a grown man encouraged me to pretend I was the Emperor at the end of Return of the Jedi, blasting blue energy at the wall.

A woman walked through the door next to where I was aiming.

“Careful!” he said.

I laughed. He didn’t.

Reasons for Believing: Are They So Hard to Understand?

The marvellous Sara Mayhew asked a question on twitter earlier today:

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Judging by her next response I will assume the question was rhetorical, as I think Hayley Stevens gave her a perfectly good answer given the restrictions of twitter :

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sMayhew 21

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I like the way Sara Mayhew thinks and speaks (and of course she was just letting off steam on twitter like we all do but please indulge me for a little while) but in this case her response made me wince a little. It is a fairly typical example of how frustrated atheists will approach that sort of question; we already know the answer to it. This blinds us to valuable insights that we could really do with. Insights that would help our cause, I believe.

The answer given to Sara was not special pleading, it was a twitter version of Daniel Dennett’s book Breaking the Spell in which he explores religion as the natural phenomenon it is. The kind of religious faith some humans have really is a product of the environment and culture they grow up in.

In this book he gives many versions of Hayley’s twitter answer as he carefully looks at all of the facets of religion’s influence on human minds. Here is just one:

What apparently grounds the widespread respect in which religions of all kinds are held is the sense that those who are religious are well-intentioned, trying to lead morally good lives, earnest in their desire not to do evil, and to make amends for their transgressions.

There seems to be far more to consider when answering the question “Why do people believe in God?” than when answering “Why do people believe in ghosts?” (In western society, anyway). When religion has a cultural presence that matches Dennett’s  description, it will have a great many paths available through which it can infiltrate minds and then nestle safely within them, protected there forever by walls of culture.

To turn Sara’s question on its head, imagine we lived in a world where for two millennia people have attributed incidents in their lives to the influence of the mischievous ghosts that created the universe and who hold our eternal destiny in their hazy, capricious hands. Ancient books give examples of supposedly eyewitness accounts of orbs of coloured light drifting over the land, making floors creak and whispering prophecies into the ears of psychic mediums. In that world, those things were accepted as fact for centuries, taught to us in schools and churches and by our parents too.

In such a world Sara might ask “Why do ghost-believing skeptics believe in ghosts but not in the ridiculous sky-god of christianity?” And the answer would be the same: Culture. Personal experiences. This is just a statement of a fact; not a request for special pleading on behalf of Christians.

Elsewhere in the book, Dennett says:

People who study religion often do so with an ax to grind. They either want to defend their favourite religion from its critics or want to demonstrate the irrationality and futility of religion, and this tends to infect their methods with bias.

The glib assertions that we atheists make about religion betray a certain insincerity when it comes to our pursuit of truth. We all lose our patience and lash out from time to time, but lashing out with clumsy bias is not the way to convince the faithful of the value of skepticism. We can do better.

When we hear reasons for believing, it is easy to throw our hands in the air, exclaiming “I just don’t understand” when the truth is that we either reject the validity of the given reason or we have no sympathy for it. Our understanding of the concept goes without saying. If we really are expressing a lack of understanding, that is not something that fans of intellectual pursuits should be proud of. Such an apparent inability to understand demonstrates either that we are just too damn stupid (to coin a phrase atheists use against believers all the time) or that we are too lacking in empathy.

Which is it? Are we too stupid to understand simple reasons or are we just devoid of empathy?

We are neither. Of course we technically understand how faith in God comes about, it is not hard to grasp. And of course we will readily empathise; Empathy is at the heart of our godless morality. We need to show people this whenever we can.

It is almost as if we are embarrassed to admit that we comprehend reasons for faith. Comprehending something does not mean we agree with it. Understanding things is easy if we are sincere in our desire to understand the world. Apparently that is what we do best, so let’s embrace that ability – make it our very own – and speak as if we are pleased about it.

Response to Phil Playfoot’s Comment re: Atheist “Church”

This was supposed to be a response to a comment on the previous post “A Godless Church for Horsham?” but it’s a bit too long so I will post it here instead.

Here is the original comment from Phil Playfoot of King’s Church Horsham:

Hi Simon. Before I respond to your proposal, can I just say that Skeptics (American) is spelt Sceptics in the UK or is ‘Horsham Skeptics’ an American export?
I find it strange that there seems to be a huge amount of energy being expended to promote what you don’t believe in and criticise those who do believe in God! presumably the question about communal singing is in relation to singing songs at the atheist “church” about the god you don’t believe exists.
As has alreday been pointed out there are multiple orgainsations that have no basis of belief in God through which Christians and those who aren’t Christians already serve the community. Why create a specific organisation to enable those who don’t believe in God to work for the community unless you feel threatened by the impact of what the churches have done for hundreds of years?
There is already a church for atheists in Horsham called Kings Church Horsham and you are very welcome to attend and explore life’s big questions with us. You can even join us in serving the community in multiple ways. We really don’t mind and to the person who is “subversely volunteering”, you are very welcome as well and you don’t have to be anonymous! Phil Playfoot

Hello Phil, thanks for stopping by. I’ll respond to each of your points in turn.

Horsham Skeptics in the Pub is not an American export – not that it would matter if it was, of course. The first SitP was set up in London in 1999 and from those beginnings it has spread right across the country and is starting to spread internationally too.

We often have people point out to us that the UK spelling is “Sceptics” and indeed some SitP groups do use this version, such as the newly established group in Eastbourne. The main reason for the use of the K is to differentiate the kind of scientific scepticism promoted by SitP from other common uses of the word.

As you are no doubt aware, the word “sceptic” has several meanings. We most frequently encounter it when someone expresses doubt about something, or even disapproval. People often say “I’m sceptical of that” meaning they are opposed to something rather than being open to evidence. Scientific scepticism, whereby judgements are deemed to be provisional and subject to new evidence, is what we are referring to at Horsham Skeptics in the Pub. The K is a useful way of differentiating what type of scepticism is being referred to, but of course it only works in the written form. I use the C version when writing about classical scepticism or about the negative, contrarian use of the word. I use the K version when I write about scientific skepticism.

Your next sentence makes me wonder if you are referring to something I have written or to something you have wrongly attributed to me. You make a couple of assumptions which I must address before continuing.

I find it strange that there seems to be a huge amount of energy being expended to promote what you don’t believe in and criticise those who do believe in God! presumably the question about communal singing is in relation to singing songs at the atheist “church” about the god you don’t believe exists.

Firstly, the role of religion in the affairs of our species is like a hobby for me, just like fossil-hunting and writing. I suppose I do spend a fair bit of energy on all of my hobbies but don’t we all? If it seems strange to you that I spend energy on things that interest me then I accept that.

Secondly, you say I spend this energy to promote what I don’t believe in and criticise those that do believe in God. I do enjoy discussing religions and faith but I wouldn’t regard my activities as promoting religion and faith. Sure, I’ll readily admit that I am promoting what I do believe but there isn’t anything inherently wrong with that is there? In publicly stating something, I am inviting responses as I like to have my beliefs challenged. Another one of my hobbies is to actively seek to have my mind changed.

When you say I criticise those that believe in God, I am not sure what you are referring to. Of course I criticise religions or the religious when I feel they cause pain, injustice or sadness  but then I criticise atheists and humanists for the same reasons too. I don’t discriminate when it comes to expressing my opinion. I have friends who are believers in various religions and I don’t criticise them for their faith. If you think that I do criticise people because of their faith then you are mistaken.

I’m not sure about the point you make about communal singing. The reason I asked the question in the survey was that I was interested in whether those people who were enthusiastic about a non-religious “church”-style service would be interested in having singing at such an event. I was interested because I had heard atheists both in favour of and opposed to singing at these services and I wanted to find out more rather than making assumptions about it.As I am not a fan of communal singing, it would be very tempting to create a service where no singing occurred, but as I am sincere about creating something that the greater community would enjoy it is important that it reflects the wishes of potential attendees and not just my own tastes.

Whilst it is unlikely such a service would feature “songs about the God you don’t believe in” there are thousands of other songs we could choose from if we wish to sing together.

Please correct me if I am wrong but you seem to presume that an atheist “church” would be actively opposed to religious churches and that it would be actively anti-religious. This is not what we are talking about here. I have never heard anyone say they would like to set up a church where they talk about how horrid religions are or sing about how god doesn’t exist. Who would go to that sort of thing regularly? That’s why they have rallies in London and atheist conferences; one-off expressions of dissent from religion.

A regular church-style service would need to have far more going for it that just an anti-religion sentiment. The reasons for investigating the possibility of setting up such an event are wholly positive.
I’ll quote you here as I think this is important.

You say:

“Why create a specific organisation to enable those who don’t believe in God to work for the community unless you feel threatened by the impact of what the churches have done for hundreds of years?”

This is actually two questions rolled into one and to which you kindly provide what you think is the answer. Let me be very clear so that you don’t have to make similar assumptions in future.

Firstly, rest assured that I do not feel threatened by the impact of what churches have done for hundreds of years. I don’t deny that churches provide some fabulous things for their communities and I would not wish to stop them doing good works for whatever reason they choose. As I have told you before, I am a good secularist; I do not seek the destruction of religions and indeed I believe that secularism itself has a responsibility to guarantee the unhindered expression of religious beliefs, so long as those expressions do not interfere with anybody’s human rights. I take this principle very seriously.

So, why create this specific organisation at all? I want to provide people with a choice. Today, cohesive grassroots communities for non-believers do not exist, whereas they do exist for believers. From within those communities – groups of people united only by their faith – some good things emerge. Not only the visible things like feeding the homeless, but the more personal things, such as the sense of being part of a community itself and the everyday security of feeling that you are supported by like-minded, sympathetic people.

It is perfectly valid for a group of people who share a faith in the same version of God to decide to work more closely together, for the good of their community. It is equally valid for people who do not have faith in any god to decide to work more closely together, for the good of their community.

So the question really is why not? Can you tell me why godless people should not unite and work more closely together for the good of the community?

I do not want to impose some flash-in-the-pan publicity stunt on Horsham, just to prove a point that non-religious people can achieve the same things that church congregations do. I want a community united only by its rejection of religious dogma to exist as a real option for future generations. I want there to be a choice for those who want to be part of a community but that cannot make themselves believe in any of the gods.

You could say that lack of belief in gods is a flimsy basis for a community, but I think that basing a community on ancient mythology is flimsy too. In a world dominated by religion for millennia, the rejection of religious moral authority is not such a hollow cause to unite behind.

Finally, I have seen you make the tongue-in-cheek comment about King’s Church already being a church for atheists a few times now. Whilst it is easy for you to say those words, the reality is that last time I was at your church, I heard you give a long talk in which you painted a decidedly uncharitable and incomplete picture of atheists’ capacity to behave morally. An atheist church would inform people exactly how they can indeed apply ethics and morality to life without the need for reference to a deity. Secular humanists have so much more to offer a congregation than denigration of the faithful.

You run King’s Church for the good of its congregation and for the wider community, I am sure. A godless equivalent (in whatever eventual form its participants would like to see) would exist for the good of its congregation and for the wider community too. I think this is a principle enough people could support though I would of course like to hear good reasons why we should not try.

A Godless Church for Horsham?

I wanted to find out a bit more about Horsham’s thoughts on the idea of a church for atheists, along the lines of the Sunday Assembly up in London. I was on BBC Surrey & Sussex last Sunday morning to discuss the idea with the creators of the London atheist church, so I thought it was worth seeing what Horsham really thought. I shared a short questionnaire on Horsham’s lively facebook page and through the Horsham Skeptics network. The results are rather interesting.

I’m being deliberately vague about what I mean by an atheist church, as I think that if such a thing is to work, it must emerge naturally form the community, reflecting it rather than steering it.

For now I’ll give you the bare bones of the numbers so you can ponder on what they might mean. As well as the answers to the yes/no questions, I received a lot of comments and suggestions and I want to address those but for now I am out of time.

97 People filled in the questionnaire (Thank you!).

  • Of those 97, 85 said they were from Horsham so that’s 88%.

I’ll stick to percentages for the rest of the post. Oh and those of you that don’t like pie charts might want to take this sentence as a trigger warning.

 

Question 2: Do you practice a religion?

q2a

Yes 23%
No 77%

  • This does not mean all of these people who said NO are atheist, just that they do not practice a religion. The 77% I will refer to as “The godless” but I appreciate that it’s a broad category.

 

Question 3:  Would you like to see non-religious groups doing more for their communities, in the same way that many church congregations do?

q3Yes 88%
No 12%

  • Rather good support for the idea of non-religious groups doing more for their communities. This ratio held true whether they answered either yes or no to question 2.

 

Question 4: Do you participate in any voluntary community work that has been organised by a religious organisation?
q4Yes 20%
No 80%

  • Of those who do not practice a religion, 4% said they carried out voluntary work for a religious organisation, while 96% do not. Of course, of this 96%, some may do voluntary work for non-religious organisations

 

Question 5: Would you participate in voluntary community work as part of a non-religious group?

q5Yes 79%
No 21%

  • Of those who said they did not do voluntary work for any religious group, 79% said they would do such work for a non-religious group.
  • Of all the godless, 83% said they would volunteer for such work for a non-religious organisation, while 68% of the religious respondents said they would work with a non-religious organisation.

 

Question 6: Would you like the opportunity to explore life’s big questions with a group of people?

Yes 63%
No 27%

  • Of the godless, 65% said yes to this question so no real difference between believers and non-believers in this instance.
  • Bear in mind that only 22 of the respondents said they practice a religion so we can only extrapolate very tentatively from this sample.

 

Question 7: Would you attend Church-style services if they did not talk about God?
q7Yes 31%
No 69%

Again, the definition of church-style services is fairly broad but at this stage we don’t have any specifics on what such a service would include. This survey is about how people feel about their own hypothetical atheist church-style service.

  • Out of the godless respondents, 39% said they would attend such a service.
  • Out of the religious respondents, 5% said they would attend.

 

Question 8: Do you think a godless, church-style Sunday service would benefit the local community?
q8Yes 47%
No 53%

  • Of the godless, 55% thought such a service would benefit the community.
  • Of the religious, 23% thought it would benefit the community.
  • Of those who said they would volunteer for community work for a non-religious organisation, 55% thought a Sunday service would benefit the community but only 40% of those people said they would attend.

 

Question 9: Do you like participating in communal singing?

Yes 48%
No 52%

  • Of those who would attend an atheist, church-style Sunday service, 60% said they like participating in communal singing.
  • Of all the godless respondents, 40% said they liked participating in communal singing.
  • Of the religious respondents, 76% said they did like communal singing.

 

Question 10 was “ What would you like to see a godless congregation doing in the community or in their church-services?

There were 55 responses to this question and as you might imagine they covered the entire spectrum from “It really does disgust me” right through to some good suggestions about the kind of thing such a group should or should not do. I will respond to every single one of the comments from this poll and from the Horsham facebook discussion in my next blog post.

At this stage, no plans are being made for an atheist church but the one that started in London got me thinking. It appears from the results that there is not overwhelming appetite for Sunday services in Horsham (though some would like it) but I was surprised at the appetite for participating in community works as part of a non-religious organisation. It seems to me that there is an untapped resource of community spirit which would be realised if only there were more non-religious opportunities to put it into practise.

Could it be that the religious monopoly on “good works” actually stops more people from  doing such works than it enables to do so? Amongst Horsham’s godless, it looks like this might be the case. Interesting. (More research required).

“What About Teh Menz?” asked Socrates

In this lengthy post, I want to defend myself against the charge that in referring to men’s problems during a conversation about women’s problems I am diminishing the importance of the woman’s problem or that I therefore think men’s problems are more important. The attitude I am opposing is neatly summed up in this cartoon:

“Somewhere out there is a conversation that isn’t about dude problems, yet”

In Plato’s Gorgias, Socrates questions people in such a way that they end up providing the very answers that refute their opinions. At every stage of these exchanges, Socrates could be shown to be wrong if any of the answers to his questions did not go his way. The conversations went something like this:

Person: I think Z is true
Socrates: But do you agree that X is true?
Person: Yes
Socrates: If X is true then you would agree that Y is therefore True?
Person: Yes
Socrates: If Y is true then how can Z be true?
Person: Ah yes

Socrates would get people to change their minds of their own accord, rather than just asserting that he was right and that anyone that disagreed was stupid or evil. Socrates doesn’t seem to have been interested in being right as a way of showing his superiority. He wanted people to think things through so that together they could approach a better, more complete understanding of reality. By using questions to do this, Socrates gave the other person numerous opportunities to show that his assumptions were wrong.

Here’s part of his exchange with Polus, from Gorgias

Polus: You’re a hard man to get the better of, Socrates, but even a child could prove that you are mistaken here.
Socrates: Then I shall be very grateful to the child, and equally so to you, if you will show me my mistake and cure me of my silliness. Don’t be backward in doing a kindness to a friend. Prove me wrong.

His technique is almost passive and completely enriched with sincere humility at every stage.

Over the years, I have had a lot of conversations and arguments about sexism, feminism and gender. Many of these conversations have resulted in me realising I had been seriously mistaken in my views, especially about gender and transgender issues (my opinions on transgender stuff had been well meaning but simplistic and frankly stupid). I sincerely love it when I am forced to change my mind on a subject as I feel that my understanding of the world is improved each time it happens. However, the vast majority of my conversations on these subjects end when the arguments become intractable or where one or other of us storms off in a huff.

I Despise Sexism

I usually enter these conversations from the position of an equality fundamentalist; I believe strongly that men and women have equal potential in everything, apart from the obvious physical restrictions. I am animated and enthusiastic in my opposition to sexism and I always try to tackle it wherever I encounter it. I feel that we live in a culture that is addicted to emphasising the differences between men and women. We allow crude generalisations about the the genders to dominate our perception.

(To be clear, when I refer to men and women, that includes trans men and women too)

Although much of my opposition to sexism manifests itself as arguments against the anti-woman type of sexism, I have been surprised at how many arguments I have ended up having in order to oppose anti-men sexism too. My own hypothesis is that anti-woman and anti-man sexism are not separate phenomena. I think that treating them as separate problems is to miss a deeper cause of the sexist behaviour. My view is that sexism of all types emerges from an underlying ignorance and lack of empathy in people and can happen for many reasons.

So, those are my views on sexism. I wanted to make that all clear before getting on to the next bit.

Using the Right Tools to Combat Sexism

As well as understanding the causes of sexist behaviour, I think it is equally important to be accurate about what constitutes an act of sexism in every case. This is for the simple reason that sexism is already important enough and common enough for its existence to be beyond doubt. I think there are enough instances of sexism to fully occupy our finite resources of time and energy in combating it. When we identify a sexist incident, we engage our finely-tuned, intellectual, anti-sexism machinery against it – it is certainly the best machinery for that job. When we see an incident of racism, we engage our anti-racism machinery to combat that; for it is the best tool we have for doing so. We would not deploy our anti-racism machinery to combat an incident of sexism because there are better tools available to do the job i.e. our anti-sexism machinery.

If a man drunkenly punches a man down the pub and then comes home and drunkenly punches his wife and then his son, we would not identify this as an incident of sexism. We would deploy our anti-alcohol abuse machinery to most effectively combat the man’s problem. If we deployed our anti-sexism machinery to deal with it, we would clearly be missing the underlying problem which had led to his assault of his wife, son and bloke down the pub.

(This could be said for problems that are attributed to patriarchy too.We still need to be certain that patriarchy was the cause of the incident before we use our anti-patriarchy tools to fight it. If it was patriarchy, then lets get after it. If it was not patriarchy, the sooner we determine that the sooner we can get after the real cause.)

Misidentifying an incident as one of sexism when it is not and deploying our finite anti-sexism resources to combat it, results in two things:

Firstly, instances of actual sexism are not being combated while our machinery is dealing with the non-sexism problem. Real fires rage on while fire engines are called to faulty fire alarms and cats up trees.

Secondly, when it emerges that the incident was not caused by sexism, anti-sexist people will be less inclined to divert their resources to tackling future incidents reported by the same source in case it turns out that those too are false alarms. The existence of misidentified sexism and patriarchy dilutes the potency of our response to actual sexism and patriarchy.

Both of these reasons are why I think it is very important that sexism is correctly identified. And I will repeat; I am very strongly opposed to sexism. It just takes more than an assertion to convince me that something is true.

Wasting Happiness Because of False Perceptions

A further reason for sexism to be correctly identified is this: If the perception of a threat is greater than the actual extent of that threat, lives are affected by a misplaced sense of fear. I want us to wring as much happiness out of this world as we possibly can, but if the perception of a danger is greater than its actual extent, we are wasting valuable peace of mind, causing fear that otherwise would not exist. Of course, we must not deny the existence of such problems and we must not underestimate their effect either. Whichever way you get it wrong, there are consequences, so let’s strive for accuracy.

The general perception of the extent of sexism in our society is spread culturally, through what we hear and what we read. We are all too aware that when the fear of a problem outgrows the problem itself, people make mistakes and those mistakes spread culturally – particularly if the stakes are high.

Take the MMR vaccine controversy as an example. At the time, we heard that there was something seriously wrong with the jab; that there was a real threat to the health of our children if they were vaccinated. The perception of this threat was of course far, far greater than the reality of it but real lives were affected by the decisions people made while under its influence. Not only was our protection against preventable diseases diminished but people lost their trust in their doctors and in conventional, mainstream medicine. Many people still live in the belief that they were lied to or that there is a conspiracy or cover up over the whole affair. Their children are still in danger because of this perception error.

Such real life effects of wrongly perceived problems are commonplace. We know that humans are prone to such errors of judgement and that these errors materially diminish our total happiness.

The same goes for social issues too. Take the common perception that immigration to the UK is a burden on the economy when in fact it provides a nett contribution to it. This perception has real-life effects on politics, culture and on the lives of individuals. The perception is accepted as fact. Decisions are made as if the perception were correct. The battle is lost. No social issue is immune to the overstatement of a problem and its subsequent cost in terms of happiness. That includes the perception of the extent of sexism or misogyny.

My fear is that when the perception of a problem such as anti-woman sexism is greater than the problem itself, this perception will be accepted as fact. Lives will be lived as if it were fact and this will influence the culture, seeping into the minds of more and more people until the perception replaces the reality and becomes a greater problem in itself. The problem grows to fill the intellectual space cleared as the perception inflates into our culture.

Why Do I Challenge Assumptions of Sexism/Patriarchy?

I have seen many, many cases where the motivation for someone’s awful behaviour towards a woman was wrongly attributed to sexism. Sometimes these instances are clear and sometimes they are not. When one has doubts that a problem was caused by sexism, I think it is our responsibility to raise our concern. If we remain silent, despite suspecting sexism was not the cause, then we allow the perception of sexism to grow to be a little bit larger than sexism itself. Our fear of sexism is then based on that perception rather than on the reality. Some peace of mind is wasted. Note that raising a doubt about an assumed sexist motive does not mean one is denying the existence of sexism.

As someone who cares deeply about the issue of sexism, and who makes a real effort to tackle it wherever I see it, I find it very upsetting when I am told that my contribution is not welcome to the conversation because I am a man, or because I am privileged. I am saddened when people whose side I am on dismiss me because they think that in asking a question about how this incident would be perceived if it happened to a man, that I am diverting attention from their important issue, or even trying to diminish the importance of the incident. I am not casting doubt on the importance of the victims experience, I just want to be certain that we are not attributing sexism where there was no sexism; that we are not diluting our efforts to combat sexism by tilting at misogynist windmills.

If it turns out that the victims experience was not due to sexism but to a lack of empathy, it is still an important issue but we will tackle it with our lack-of-empathy fighting equipment, which is the best thing for the job. This will make it more likely that the issue will be addressed efficiently and less likely that the perception of sexism will be falsely inflated.

I ask the question because I want an answer and whatever the answer is will determine either my next question or my conclusion. When I substitute a man for a woman in a theoretical case of sexism, I do so because I want to see if it would still be called sexism if a man were the victim, and if not why not. Surely these answers are worth obtaining?

All this is not to even mention my dismay when intelligent people say:

“Boo hoo what about teh menz! I really feel sorry for the poor, oppressed men!”
-actual quote

Why should one’s gender determine whether you are shown compassion or not? Such responses are why I feel that “Humanist” is a better description of my views than “Feminist”.

I am saddened that women face sexism. I am also saddened that many women see the problem as being bigger than it is; that they would even interpret my behaviour as anti-woman, when it is not. I am allowed to defend myself against this assumption but I fear in doing so I will be labelled as sexist, ignorant, privileged and maybe even misogynist.

I hope I have shown why I think it is important for us to accurately identify the causes of problems and not just to settle for the first plausible theory that enters our heads. We are all subject to the effects of confirmation bias. We are all prone to believe plausible theories that support our existing views more readily than those that do not.

Comparing Apples and Oranges or Comparing Fruit?

When it comes to comparing the experiences of humans so that we can more deeply analyse them, we don’t have many options. If something happens to a man we can compare it to a situation that affected another man, or we can compare it to a situation that affected a woman if it is relevant. There aren’t any other options because the experiences of other species are not usually comparable. People don’t often complain when examples of incidents affecting someone of the same gender are used as a comparison, like this.

Typical conversation:

Person 1: My boss treats me like a slave. I think it is  because I am a woman.

Person 2: I know another woman at your company who is treated like a slave by him too

Person 1: See, sexism is very common.

You don’t see this:

Person 1: My boss treats me like a slave. I think it is  because I am a woman.

Person 2: I know another woman at your company who is treated like a slave by him too

Person 1: I thought we were talking about my problem, not hers!

But you do see this:

Person 1: My boss treats me like a slave. I think it is  because I am a woman.

Person 2: I know a man at your company who is treated like a slave by him too

Person 1: Boohoohoo what about teh menz?

I wonder what I can do to avoid this response. My own belief in absolute equality does not seem to be enough. Declaring explicitly that I am pro-equality is not enough. When I do my little bit to help the pro-equality people by trying to see if there are any flaws in our assumptions, I am dismissed as someone who thinks men’s problems are more important and should be discussed instead of women’s problems. So the only ways I can show that I am on the pro-equality side are to either declare that I agree with them or to say nothing at all.

You can imagine how frustrating and demoralising it can be when people whose side you are on see you as an opponent. Why don’t these people want me to be their ally? I think we’d be a better anti-sexism team if we got together.

Back Off, Man. I’m an Engineer.

Part of my job as a civil engineer is to identify problems accurately so that the right solution can be implemented. This is a ruthless process but it is one that brings us closest to the best solution as quickly as possible. I can’t afford to just accept another engineer’s interpretation of a problem if I have doubts – it is my responsibility to challenge their interpretation so that we can quickly determine where the truth lies. Sometimes it turns out they were right, sometimes it turns out that I was right. Either way, our knowledge of the problem is sharpened and our proposed solution will be all the more robust.

If a building is being flooded, seemingly by a nearby river, it is important that we check this assumption before implementing a solution. If we accept the assumption that the flooding is caused by the river but don’t check to see if the building’s drains are blocked, we risk implementing the wrong solution. We could end up widening the river to stop it ever overflowing, but if the drains remain blocked the building will just flood next time it rains.

We have to ask the question; are we sure the water is coming from the river or is something else happening? Whatever the answer is the important thing is that we explore the possibilities.

I find the the simplest way to establish if something was motivated by sexism or patriarchy is to ask “would this have been judged to be sexism if it was directed against the other gender?”. I don’t mind what the answer is, I just want us all to end up being less wrong about stuff.

The point of this little blog post is not to claim that I am always right or that my questions will always show my opponents to be wrong. I want to defend myself against the accusation that in introducing man problems to the conversation I am belittling the experience of victims. I want to help the victims too and the only way I know I can help is in asking these irritating questions. We ask such questions all the time, in our arguments against religion, against quack medical claims and even in civil engineering. My reasons for asking these questions in those fields are entirely honourable. Please don’t assume that when I ask them in relation to sexism and feminism that my reasons are dishonourable.

Thomas à Kempis – A Humanist Response

[Edit: In response to this, Christian blogger The Alethiophile has read and reviewed one of my favourite humanist books. Do have a look.]

I often find it more rewarding to read books I disagree with than books I do agree with. It helps me to clarify and sharpen exactly what I believe. Testing our own beliefs is best done by putting them up against the best that our opponents have to offer, otherwise we may just be picking the low hanging fruit and remaining ignorant of the better arguments against us. If your faithlessness has only ever been pitted against the weakest arguments, how can you be sure that it will withstand the challenge from the far greater religious thinkers that exist? If you only ever read books you agree with, are you not just wasting your time?

My latest attempt at challenging my godlessness was to read The Inner Life, an abridged version of the works of Thomas à Kempis. This book is part of Penguin’s “Great Ideas” series, which I am slowly working my way through. Here is the book’s blurb:

The counsels of Thomas à Kempis have offered spiritual guidance to millions, with their eloquent reflections on the virtues of humility and the profound power of faith

This was enough to entice me and I read it over a few days, although at first I wondered if I would make it through. The opening few chapters seemed to be an essay on the virtue of ignorance. We are told that

The more complete and excellent your knowledge, the more severe will be God’s judgement on you, unless your life be the more holy.

I had to read these passages a few times and allow my anger to subside, before I was able to see a more meaningful underlying message.

A humble countryman is more pleasing to Him than a conceited intellectual who knows the course of the stars, but neglects his own soul

It is not the acquisition of knowledge that à Kempis discourages here, but the acquisition of knowledge as a substitute for improving one’s soul, or as I would say, trying to become the best person you can be. Of course, à Kempis believes that the best person you can be – the best soul you can have – is one that has absolute faith and trust in God above all else.

The Moral Iguanodon

There is wisdom in this book, but it is buried beneath so many layers of worshipful junk that by the time you unearth it, filtering out references to God, eternal life and Christ’s desires, all we are left with is a big pile of platitudes. There is a lot of work to do before meaningful wisdom can be formed out of them. So much work, I’d say, that you’d might as well have just started from scratch.

Thomas à Kempis has assembled his interpretation of scripture into a beast that, for him, resembles the good life.

Iguanodons_crystal_palace_email

This is what we used to think Iguanodon looked like.

Using the same bones we would today build a different beast.

Iguanodon_Dinopark

This is what we now think Iguanodon looked like

The difference between à Kempis’ moral Iguanodon and our moral Iguanodon is that his is based on a sincere best guess and ours is based on all the knowledge that we have acquired since those best guesses. This sounds rather conceited but it is true. Despite the insistence of the devout, we do not need the idea of God to prop up morality or goodness. In the centuries since Thomas à Kempis wrote, we have learned a great deal about reality and developed many approaches to the problem of why we should bother trying to act virtuously.

There are good reasons why religion was seen as the keeper of morality, especially in a world where nobody knew any better. Today we do know better. God was a practical mechanism for compelling people to behave themselves but it was far from perfect. One could argue that we have taken the morality that religion protected for all those centuries and we have refined it so that it stands on its own two feet. Human morality no longer requires artificial support.

A child born in the 15th Century would not have had an alternative to the teachings of the church if they were interested the question of how to be the best person possible. Today there are many alternatives to the church. We no longer need bribery (eternal life) or threats (hell) to influence people’s behaviour. We can simply be taught well and allowed to be motivated by whatever suits us individually.

Do This. Just Do It.

I love a good discussion about religious faith. Some of its symbolism is helpful for visualising what it is that I do or don’t think. C.S. Lewis gets a tough time from his critics and though I don’t subscribe to any of his beliefs I must admit that I love the way he writes about his faith. I find it emotionally moving and aesthetically vivid. If I based my beliefs on imagery and emotion I would have been seduced by him years ago. Lewis at least tries to seduce you into sharing his belief. With Thomas à Kempis there is no such seduction. We must forsake the world because that is what he says God wants us to do. We must give ourselves entirely to God because it is what he says God wants us to do. Aside from the promise of eternal life, there is no attempt to entice the reader, only to compel them.

In this way the first part of this book is reminiscent of the Qur’an; a long list of commandments and assertions with little scope for people to use their free will. God wants this, so you must choose it. Having given you free will, the least you can do is obey His every wish. That is, the wishes that the church assures you are His wishes.

If the first part of the book seems Quranic, the later part of the book is Buddhist. We are repeatedly told that forsaking the material world and its temptations is the only way to achieve true wisdom; the right sort of wisdom. Buddhist scripture does not command you so much as let you know that this is the only way to reach Nirvana, should you want to pursue it. The Inner Life tells us that we simply must detach ourselves utterly from the world and our families for this is the only way we can clear enough space in our hearts to give Christ the love he demands.

In the chapter entitled “That our Peace Cannot Depend on Man” the Christ character says

You should be so mortified in your affection towards loved ones that, for your part, you would forego all human companionship. Man draws the nearer to God as he withdraws further from the consolations of the world. And the deeper he descends into himself and the lower he regards himself, the higher he ascends towards God.

A similar message is found in Buddhist Scripture

As a mountain peak is inaccessible, so is Nirvana inaccessible to all the passions. As no seeds can grow on a mountain peak, so the seeds of all the passions cannot grow in Nirvana. And finally as a mountain peak is free from all desire to please or displease, so is Nirvana.

-The questions of King Millinda 100 BCE

Much of the wisdom in the latter part of The Inner Life bears this similarity to Buddhist teachings, but with an added splash of compulsion. Buddhism encourages the pursuit of wisdom and sees detachment from the world as a step towards attaining it. The Christian message is one where the pursuit of wisdom is secondary to your obligations to Christ.

How You Should…

The titles of many chapters begin with “How to…” but after reading them I often wondered where the instructions were. There were no detailed descriptions of “How we should not believe all we hear” (chapter 45) or “How we should bless god in all trouble” (Chapter 29) It just says that we should.

Many people dislike being told what to do – just on principle; they won’t be preached to thank you very much. I don’t object to being told what I should do, because I am completely free to reject the advice. Anyone who says you should behave in a certain way must understand that in making such an assertion, they are very likely indeed to be told “no thanks” unless they bother to do us the courtesy of giving us reasons. In the Inner Life, the “should” statements are not backed up with anything except the interpreted desire of God.

Nature vs. Grace

One chapter I did enjoy (after the usual mental filtering-out of the supernatural stuff) was the one entitled “On the Contrary Workings of Nature and Grace”. I thought it captured beautifully what it is that is special about humans. We are animals and we emerged from nature, so we have inherited all the natural appetites that we needed in order to get this far. However, we also have consciousness, a sense of empathy and free will (or as much free will as it is possible to have anyway). This is what I interpret as “grace”. It is the human capacity for choosing to be wonderful in the face of our natural inclination to be not-so-wonderful. Humanity struggles to rise above its appetites and desires and this allows us to inch towards a more objectively fair world where our behaviour is not dictated by our natural impulses. We are able to weigh up the implications of decisions and choose options that might not immediately benefit us (or our genes) but from which a greater good can flow.

Thomas à Kempis couches all this in the pious terms of the devout but the wisdom is under there somewhere.

Nature works for her own interest, and estimates what profit she may derive from others. Grace does not consider what may be useful or convenient to herself, but only what may be to the good of many.

Indeed, it is almost as if this chapter was written by someone else, lacking as it does the otherwise ubiquitous authoritarian commandments.

If à Kempis’ religious description led to more people learning about what makes Homo sapiens special, then I am grateful to him. As I said before, such insight no longer needs the artificial support of religion.

Based on my reading of this abridged version of his works, they seem primarily to act as a buttress to the faith of the already-faithful. If your intuition is that the Christian God exists, then these prayers and consolations will support and justify that faith. If you do not believe in the Christian God, I see nothing in this book that would change your mind.

What Would Jesus Say to Dawkins? King’s Church Horsham

I was recently invited to a meeting of King’s Church, Horsham (KCH) entitled “What would Jesus say to Richard Dawkins?” [Video]  “It’s not what you think”, the invitation card promised. The talk was to take place after their regular Sunday service in a sports hall at a school in Horsham. My 12 year old daughter was with me for that weekend and I was told by email that she was welcome to either listen to the talk or join the “L-Attitude” session which was aimed at 11-14 year-olds. She said she’d rather stay with me for this one.

We arrived at the school and followed the stream of people to the basketball hall. As we walked we were greeted in turn by several stewards, who made a point of saying hello to everybody. We entered the hall and took seats high up on the bleachers at the back. There were already around 200 people in the hall and by the time the service began there were over 250 of them. The stage consisted of large projector screens on each side of a live band setup; drum kit behind a shield, guitar amps, microphones.

Within one minute of sitting down, we were approached by a friendly woman who welcomed us and asked if it was our first time there. We said it was and she went to get us a welcome pack.

The welcome pack came in a plastic wallet and included a KCH branded notepad and pen and I used these to take notes on the talk. The rest of the pack consists of information about KCH and details of all of their activities. [I might pinch this idea for the Horsham Skeptics in the  Pub group] There are specific weekly events for children of various age groups; 0-2 years, 3-5 years, 5-10  and 11-14. They also host an Alpha course, relationship courses and a few other things that I will describe more in a later blog post. Looking at some of the forthcoming events on their website, I have a feeling I will be writing about KCH a fair bit. Especially now I have returned to live in Horsham.

God Story

After about 25 minutes of worship, which consisted mostly of modern Christian songs and some brief prayers, we were told that before the main talk we would hear a “God Story”. A lady told us about her step father who had contracted a severe bout of pneumonia and had subsequently gone into cardiac arrest. It was a moving story and many tears were shed in the audience as her step-dad took the stage to complete his story. The account was given as evidence that prayers work but as is so often sadly the case their definition of evidence was rather different to mine. Heartless as it may seem, I attribute this man’s amazing recovery to modern medicine and not to their preferred deity.

Union of Militant Atheists

The Sermon Begins

Phil Playfoot then took the stage and after a brief introduction and a general invitation to chat with him afterwards he began his talk with these words:

“Militant atheism is on the march in the Western world and there is a concerted effort by some individuals to galvanise this belief system with others and actively fight any expression of belief in God especially in the public realm and at the forefront is Richard Dawkins, the former professor of the public understanding of science”

This set the tone for his portrayal of the Dawkins version of atheism. It was a disappointingly inaccurate, straw-man version of Dawkins’ views and I did a great deal of head-shaking throughout his talk, much to the amusement of my daughter. I am not going to spend too much time responding to all his misrepresentations as there were far too many. These boring arguments have been repeated several billion times already and they boil down to the fact that he believes some things that I do not. You can look online for Christian criticism of Dawkins and you will see every single one of the angles explored in this talk. Nothing new here, at all.

Playfoot presented the talk as if it was going to be a genuinely fair account of what Jesus might say to Dawkins, but this promise did not translate into reality. What we heard was a rather clumsy regurgitation of the standard, glib straw men, along with his own speculation about what Jesus might say.

The disappointing lack of honesty is the thing I want to focus on here.

Dishonesty?

There were over 250 people in that room and Phil Playfoot is clearly a prominent, senior member of their community. Indeed, the New Frontiers Church (of which KCH is part) uses the quaint name “Elders” for their clergy. I assume that the members of that audience trust Mr. Playfoot, so that if he were to claim that he is giving a fair account, they will believe him. For me, the fact that someone in Mr. Playfoot’s position would so readily resort to such gross misrepresentation was troubling. He may not deliberately have mislead the congregation; he might genuinely think he portrayed the views of atheists accurately. If this is the case then he didn’t pay much attention when he read the God Delusion and has neglected to make himself aware of the variety of atheist views that exist. In the same way that Christians each have their own unique views about their faith, atheists have their own unique views on their lack of it. I had hoped that the debate had moved on from such pointless generalisation. Many atheists and Christians have indeed moved on from this position. I wonder why this charismatic evangelical church would wish to perpetuate such myths.

In my previous dealings with Christians I have found the vast majority of them to be honourable, honest people, motivated by a genuine desire to do good and to be good people as far as they possibly can be. Only in a very few instances have I encountered deliberately dishonest or manipulative Christians. It saddens me to see such a potentially joyful group torturing themselves about how atheists are out to get them.

At one point, in a relatively mild example of presenting a skewed version of reality as fact, he says that atheists call themselves “The Brights” as if it is a widely accepted term that atheists use. It is not. It was a bad idea that has pretty much died a well-deserved death. There have always been atheists who winced in pain each time one of their number used the term. It has been rejected on the whole for various obvious reasons; atheists know we do not have a monopoly on intelligence and the fact is that many atheists aren’t bright at all. Not to mention that calling oneself a Bright is somewhat arrogant. Yes, there are arrogant atheists out there and you know what? I don’t like them either. You don’t have to be Christian to see how awful this name is.

In addition to the reporting of old news as if it were new, Mr Playfoot went over all the standard Alpha-course level theological arguments in support of his faith. The last fifteen minutes was a refresher course in what Christians are supposed to believe and as usual the bible was cited as a solid historical source:

51:00
“hundreds of people saw Jesus after his resurrection. The disciples and over 500 others subsequently met with Christ in different places and at different times. And they were able to give a first hand, consistent report of this. This was not mass hallucination. The legal expert professor Sir Norman Anderson wrote this: “The empty tomb then forms a veritable rock on which all rationalistic theories of the resurrection dash themselves in vain.” And I think the silence of Richard Dawkins and the other new atheists on this matter tells its own story. They’ve dismissed it, but actually it’s changed history.”

This is a great example of how to sound like you are presenting a solid case when in fact you are not. Reference to the “first hand, consistent report” is deceptive. It is widely acknowledged that the Gospels and the Acts were not first hand accounts. To be charitable, one could say they are accounts of first hand accounts, but what that actually makes them is second hand accounts. There is a clear and important difference. An account of an account does not qualify as a first hand account, by definition.

Another rhetorical stroke is to say that the silence of the new atheists tells its own story. I was not aware of any silence on this subject. In fact a quick google search will bring up these instances of atheists being decidedly non-silent about this exact subject.

A full length talk by Richard Carrier

Resurrection debunked in one page

These are in addition to many many references to the resurrection in talks and written works by people such as Hitchens, Dawkins and the rest of them. I assure Mr Playfoot, we atheists talk about the resurrection a lot. If you think we’re being deliberately silent then I can only apologise and we’ll try harder so you might hear us.

Mr Playfoot’s cherry-picking of quotations ranges from the boring and predictable to the downright outrageous. He used Sam Harris as an example of how atheists are potentially murderous in their quest to stamp out religion. It sounds like I am exaggerating or caricaturing him but here is what Mr Playfoot said:

33:50
“Rather chillingly, another new atheist, a man called Sam Harris, a personal friend of Richard Dawkins said this. He said “Some propositions are so dangerous that it may be even ethical to kill people for believing them.” And who will be those who decide what a dangerous position is? Why, the new atheists. And who do they think is dangerous? People like me and other followers of Christ. Has chilling echoes, doesn’t it, of the 20th century.”

Closely followed by Dostoyevsky’s “If God does not exist, everything is permissible”

Restraining myself from responding angrily, I will make only a couple of short points.
One does not have to be a professor of philosophy to see the logical leaps Mr Playfoot makes in his effort to portray atheists as essentially evil. I can barely bring myself to say it as it’s so banal, but honestly, you do not have to believe in God to find reasons to avoid murder. Seriously. This is why I always come away form these exchanges feeling grubby; I am compelled to engage in this kind of tedious tit-for-tat argument. Here’s another tedious argument: if you are only preventing yourself from murdering people because God says so, does that make you a good person really? I don’t believe in God yet I choose not to kill people mainly out of my own sense of empathy. Do Christians not need empathy then? Or do they have it but not need to use it?

You can read Sam Harris’ own detailed refutation of these gross misrepresentations here

I have met more deceitful Christians (about two) than I have met atheists who take the Dostoyevsky quote seriously (about zero). Please for the love of all the gods stop pretending that atheists follow this line as if it is some kind of moral compass for us!

More of the same from Mr Playfoot here:

32:46
“You simply cannot get around the link between atheism and historical atrocities and the evidence of where the human heart can go when there is no belief in God”

I’ll let you think of your own response to that as I have had enough of this for now. I no longer take pleasure in engaging in these arguments. All they achieve is the mutual reinforcement of each side’s initial premise. I only engage in them in response to the gratuitous liberties that people such as Mr Playfoot take when they speak to their trusting flocks on behalf atheists.

I am genuinely surprised that he didn’t accuse atheists of eating babies.

These old intractable arguments have been done to death now and it’s time to focus on our shared humanity if we really want to make progress. I believe good Christians are employing common human empathy, just like me. I think they deserve the credit for not constantly killing people, not God. If they wish to give God the credit then that’s fine. I graciously concede that they are free to believe whatever they like. I would ask only that they graciously accept that those of us that do not believe in God are quite capable of being good people too. Thanks.

Here’s a recent conversation between Dawkins and Ricky Gervais. Have a listen and see if what they say matches Mr Playfoot’s description of atheism.

It may be the case that I have sampled a particularly bad example of a KCH sermon. I did only speak to a couple of people afterwards and I don’t know if other people felt the same as I did about it. I don’t know if the sermons are usually of a higher quality. There’s only one way to find out.

[EDIT - here is a link to a more comprehensive response from the West Sussex Humanists]