The empty tomb is bums on seats

Every time there is a wedding or funeral on my Dad’s side of the family, the ceremony takes place at the baptist tabernacle; the church of choice among the majority of my aunts and uncles, cousins and their kids.

It’s a really nice, welcoming place with new facilities and plenty of friendly people; who as the saying goes really would do anything for anyone.

Today we buried my beautiful aunty, Cath. She was an active member of the church, and will be missed by as many of the volunteers there as she will be in our family. They cared for her and loved her very much.

During the service my cousin sang a song which aunty Cath would have loved. My Dad read a poem which was very touching, and obviously difficult for him to read. Cath was the eldest of five kids. She looked after my Dad when he was young, and here he was reading at her funeral, after she suffered a very painful and drawn out battle with cancer — a bastard of a disease, which sucked the life out of her in horrendous ways. If there is one thing which the last few months have taught me, it’s to always give as much as you can to cancer research.

You’d have to be a particularly belligerent and miserable person to take offence at the numerous mentions of Jesus, God and the various ideas of living forever after you’re already dead which were scattered throughout the church service, up until this point. There’s a time and place to pull someone up about something they say in a religious context, and in the middle of a funeral for a very religious woman isn’t one of them. So when “Jesus said…” this and “God did…” that, I reminded myself that I wasn’t there to sell Christopher Hitchens books, but to stand by my parents, comfort my uncles and aunts, and lay a reassuring hand on the shoulder of my cousins; to say goodbye to a sister, aunty and friend we all loved.

Then the youth pastor took to the stage. “If this were a humanist service…”, he said, “Oh oh, here we go”, I thought, “…we wouldn’t be talking about Cath living on forever with Jesus Christ by her side”, he continued. “If this were an atheist funeral, we would be saying ‘that’s it for Cath now, it’s all over’. But as Christians we believe in something more than that, and we offer it up in a way which nothing else can.”

I’m using quotation marks around his words, which are not verbatim, but you get the gist; humanists are uncaring nihilists, but Christians are tip top. It wasn’t only me being particularly sensitive to words which someone else might have let go. My mother, not shy to recite catechism, and start a sentence with “As a Catholic, I believe…”, as if this ends all debate, whenever that sort of conversation crops up, nudged me gently as if to acknowledge the pastor was now firmly in unnecessarily confrontational territory, with his overall tone.

There are exactly two openly atheist members of my family, and I’m one of them. The youth pastor doesn’t know me at all, so it wasn’t likely he was aiming this particular section of his otherwise formulaic funeral gig speech at me. The other openly atheist member of my family is my uncle, who is himself recovering from cancer.

He is the man who welcomed aunty Cath into his home, when she could no longer take care of herself. Suffering a great deal himself, from the effects of chemotherapy which have thankfully now got him back onto the road to recovery, he had a house-full of friends and family almost every day, throughout her long illness, and I’m certain that even in the depths of his own painful battle with serious illness, he wouldn’t have had it any other way.

There was no way Cath was going to die on a sterile hospital ward, surrounded by underpaid staff, bleeping machines, and the unwashed hands of people visiting other terminally ill patients. So Cath died in my uncle’s house, surrounded by family, pets and love.

My uncle was the ideal person, then, for the youth paster to single out as incapable of knowing what the death of a loved one “means”. Who better to score points against, than the man whose own funeral will be a humanist affair? That the pastor did all of this in that well rehearsed and ostensibly genuine tone of voice, which men of the cloth all seem to share; that matter of fact confidence that what they’re saying is controversial only to those who lack faith, made it all the more upsetting. He had no idea how insensitive he was being; and would no doubt be upset if he did.

I said nothing. We placed aunty Cath’s body into the ground, braced our collars against the howling wind and sleet, and trundled back to the church for tea and cake.

Now, sitting with my Dad, I chat politely over a mug of tea with various church volunteers. Whoever made that cake deserves their own TV show, and it was nice to be once again in the same room as the best family in the world. The majority of them being devout Christians has never, not once, got in the way of my relationship with each and every one of them. I’m lucky.

Some people have dick heads for a family. For me, it’s the exact opposite. If anything, I’m the only one who can be a bit of a knob now and then. I once inadvertently upset my cousin by talking about images from the Hubble Space Telescope proving it’s namesake right, in observing distant objects which formed shortly after the big bang, that the universe is expanding at an exponential rate. We know words like ‘proof’ and ‘evidence’ aren’t big with Christians, but the way in which I wove it into proof the bible is “full of shit” could have been phrased a little more diplomatically. But that was a long time ago.

Back at the church, the youth pastor appeared. There’s a famous scene in Fawlty Towers, where Basil is so desperate not to mention the war, in front of his German hotel guests, that he goes straight for the goose step, after inadvertently mentioning the invasion of Poland.

The pastor shakes my Dad’s hand, who then introduces me: “This is my son, James. Unfortunately he’s an atheist”. “Unfortunately?!”, I retort, “There’s nothing unfortunate about it, Dad. I’m proud of it, but thanks for the introduction”. This, by the way, is how my Dad is. It’s pointless to get upset at him for it, because it wasn’t done deliberately. If there was an elephant in the middle of the room at a convention of the ‘Elephants don’t exist’ society, he’d be the first to jump on it’s back and ride it around, encouraging it to dip it’s trunk in the tea urn. There’s no bullshit with my Dad. If something needs saying, he says it, even if the only person who thinks it needed saying is my Dad.

“What about the empty tomb?”; an interesting opening gambit, which the pastor thrust forth, as if I was supposed to immediately crumble under such tough questioning. I won’t go into extended details here, on what we did talk about, but needless to say I picked him up on the insensitivity of his speech, during the service, but not before asking him about the history of the bible, which — curiously for a theologian — he seemed completely unaware of.

The jury is out on whether or not he got the message; mostly because he began throwing out so many lines from the big book of “so you’ve decided to win a debate with an atheist”, that I actually started to feel sorry for him. He is a very nice chap — and he does his bit. He’s not there for decoration. The church does ‘outreach’ like no-one’s business. They build schools in Africa; hospitals in war torn places — they are, minus their baffling belief in things which just aren’t true, a brilliant community.

Apart from having to do away with the notion that ‘Richard Dawkins is the atheist Jesus’ for the hundred millionth time; and after he failed to pull me into various semantic word games on consciousness, the meaning of life and “the bigger picture”, it was a fascinating exchange — not for the content of what was discussed, but for the mooted looks of disbelief from those who looked on, as ‘our James’ had the temerity to question the man with ‘all the answers’ — a man who is, if he is good to his word, as I write this, looking up writer Bart D. Ehrman, an author of whom he was previously unaware, and whose work will hopefully cause the pastor to think twice, in the future, about approaching a former Christian like me, with the one about Josephus proving Jesus was the creator of the universe in human form — a staggering non-sequitur he was happy to abide by, even after spending half an hour with me; the recently bereaved humanist, of whom he so ironically described as incapable of understanding Christ, not an hour earlier.

But the ultimate pay off was reserved for my dear Mother. She asked the pastor if he’d ever been to a humanist funeral. “No”, came his reply, to which my Mother — the woman who upon discovering many years ago that not only did her only son no longer consider himself Catholic, but no longer a believer in God — immediately interjected, “You should go to one, they’re very nice. It’s all about the person, and their life — very beautiful”.

I’ve never been more proud; not only because this was from a woman who would have previously considered someone who isn’t a Christian as being one and the same as the devil himself, but that she had realised this was the wrong way to think about humanism, and changed her view accordingly — so much so, that now here she was defending humanism in front of the man who had dismissed it as bereft of meaning, during his sermon.

I helped the pastor pick up his jaw from the ground, placed my hand on his shoulder, and giving him a broad smile delivered the line that you just know he had hoped to lay on me, when this whole conversation began; “I hope I’ve given you something to go away and think about”. He smiled, but before he escaped, I nonchalantly asked one last question while he was off guard. “Does the empty tomb thing bring a lot of people through the door?”. “Oh yes, plenty. We’re doing very well”.

Job done.

EDIT: It’s probably worth pointing out that ‘bums on seats’ used in the title is an English expression for getting plenty of people into a venue, and not ‘bums’ as-in the Americanism for ‘tramps’ or ‘drifters’.

Define the word atheist

Twitter user @PiltdownSupermn asked for a definition of the word atheist. I would have posted the below reply to his blog, but I am making it available here instead because there is a post length limit on blogspot.com comments.

http://stormbringer005.blogspot.com/2011/07/voulez-vous-definir-latheisme-sil-vous.html

An atheist is someone who does not accept the truth claims of any religion, on the grounds that many of them are self-refuting.  This is not, repeat NOT, a claim to know for a fact that there are no gods, merely it is the factual assertion that the truth claims made by the religious, which assert there is a God, are without any basis in fact.

Many apologists use the dictionary definition of the word ‘atheist’, as it is commonly understood to mean, as someone who does not believe in the God of the bible. But the word in fact refers to an active disbelief in all theology from all religions, not merely a disbelief in that which might be described independently of any particular religious truth claim.  This confusion is understandable and has plagued the debate between the religious and non-religious for many decades—hence the accusation on all sides of “playing semantics”.  

To be clear: An atheist is anyone who does not believe there is any evidence of a particular God or gods. By way of example, consider that no Christian believes in the existence of Allah, or Zeus.  They refute the theology of Islam and Greek mythology for the same reason they refute the truth claims of Scientology and Mormonism.  Not believing in the existence of a particular god, by definition, makes you an atheist—that is to say you reject the theology of religion X, hence you are a-theist towards X.

Anyone who argues in favour of a particular religious truth claim, automatically argues against the contradictory truth claims of another religion to which he does not belong.

An individual may base his or her rejection of a particular religious truth claim on the understanding that it is proven by scientific logic to be a false declaration.  But there is nothing inherently “atheistic” about science, per-se.

However, it is repeatedly asserted, by those on the right of this debate, that the atheist has merely swapped a belief in a particular god, for a belief in a particular scientific theory and is therefore as religiously motivated to disprove God as theists and deists are to prove a God exists.  But this is precisely the opposite of how a free thinking individual arrives at knowledge about a particular area of interest—and explaining this fundamental difference in how we know what we know, to certain kinds of religious, is by far and away the least explored aspect to this on-going conversation.

It has its roots in understanding how the religious see the world; which, broadly speaking, says that the profundity of nature is something to be revealed to us, in stages, by an understanding of previously accepted wisdom.  They automatically assume the worldview of the non-religious is also informed in this way; that they seed to the authority of science, in the same way the religious seed to the authority of the church—as if one is interchangeable with the other.

But the major difference between the authority of science and the authority of the church, is that the former is constantly adjusting and shifting its view based upon new evidence, whereas the latter assumes a given set of beliefs are beyond question, whilst simultaneously asserting that anything which challenges that assumption must be presumed incorrect—no matter how compelling the contrary evidence may be. 

Presuppositional Christian apologetics claims that this is a valid position, because human experiences of the numinous, such as love and compassion, cannot be explained by observing the laws of the universe; that physics, biology and chemistry are merely an outline of the mechanics God used to shape the universe, in the beginning, but are insufficient in understanding why or how God chose to do so.

But the fundamental flaw with this idea, is that it relies upon it’s own argument to prove it’s own argument; an infinite loop, known in philosophy as ‘the vicious problem of infinite regress’—referred to in common parlance as ‘circular logic’, e.g., “the bible is true because it says so in the bible” or “creationism is a science, because creationists say it is” and “God exists because you cannot prove he doesn’t”.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Münchhausen_Trilemma

This stands in contrast to the falsifiability principal, which states that something can only be accepted as true if a method can be identified which might prove it is false. In other words, for something to be shown to have a basis in fact, it must demonstrate a mechanism by which it could be proven false. If you cannot layout a set of principals by which something could be proven false, you cannot assume it is therefore true—because you have not defined the boundaries by which something is described.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Karl_Popper

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Falsifiability

Simply appealing to “that which is without a beginning or end” as a description of God, by definition, places God beyond empirical observation and therefore makes an unfalsifiable statement about His existence. This is acknowledge by every Christian apologist worth reading, many of whom, in an attempt to adjust their own demonstrably false position, go on to make the argument that He must therefore be the arbiter of absolute morality—the inner voice which knows the difference between right and wrong—which, ironically, makes the perfect argument in favour of humanism and against their previously stated position.

If this video doesn’t tell you everything you need to know about the mentality of DICK HEAD HOMOPHOBIC FUCKING CHRISTIANS I don’t know what will

When they’re done with gays and lesbians they’ll start on other minority groups until the only people left are rightwing evangelicals just like them. And you know the worst part? They aren’t even ashamed to admit it. That’s what they actually want; a Christian world for Christian people. A flat, 6,000 year old planet populated entirely by magic bread eating, AIDS riddled, hypocritical douchnozzles so busy self-loathing they completely forget to obey the basic teachings of the faith they ram down everyone’s throat.

I say we take off and nuke the site from orbit—it’s the only way to be sure.

Now, look at the picture opposite. Matt Lucas is gay as the day is long. He plays gay in just about every role he does. He’s a brilliant comedian and funny precisely because he’s unashamedly camp as a row of tents. I’ve laughed at him endlessly since the days when he started on the Paramount comedy channel at 2 in the morning doing weird little vignette sketches which eventually became the huge comedy sensation ‘Little Britain’.

But at no time, in his long as successful career, have I ever looked at him and thought, “you know, I think I’ll take up the cock to be more like Matt Lucas”. I have never, for example, looked at him in his “only gay in the village” outfit and thought, “You know, to be popular with all my mates, I really should get into man love”. And there’s a very good reason for that. I’m not gay. I wasn’t born gay. Matt, on the other hand, was. And for that single difference between him and me, apparently, he deserves to die at the hands of the state.

No consideration for the kind of person he might be or the goodness in his heart. No accounting for the quiet dignity he showed when his partner, who lost his life to drugs, had his image splashed across the tabloids day after day. No recognition of his worth as person at all, on any level. He’s just “a gay”—who therefore deserves to die.

The anti-intellectual hatred of these fucking morons sickens every fibre of my being.

http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=121605529
http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/04/world/africa/04uganda.html
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scott_Lively
http://www.defendthefamily.com/

On former atheists

I commented on an article over at scitascienda.wordpress.com and ended up expanding the whole thing into a rather longer piece than I’d anticipated. I thought I’d include it here by way of informing everyone that the infamous Todd’s comments on the whole thing have resulted in him being banned again, this time for good.

C.L. Dyck’s original article is interesting and you might like to read it first and then give feedback on it either over there or on my reply to it here.

Happy Humanist.JPGAn atheist is not an atheist because she doesn’t understand Christianity, or for that matter any other religion. Not understanding something, perhaps even to the point of refusing to find out, is the exact opposite of a mind content with reality–the key characteristic of free thinking secular humanism.

So when I hear of “former atheists” becoming Christians, I am often compelled to enquire of the neophyte, if it might be that, in fact, they were once merely a confused agnostic. This is descriptive of a great many people in the modern world, who if asked would, perhaps, use the word ‘atheist’ to describe themselves above ‘agnostic’, because of an almost cult-like definition these words have accrued in recent years. Unfortunately this brand of so-called “new atheism” has little in common with the philosophy of positive atheism espoused by Bertrand Russell, Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, Mark Twain, Voltaire and so on. It should be noted that these prominent thinkers and commentators on the subject of religious faith, did so at a time when free speech was constrained by heavily enforced blasphemy laws and when to make a point in defence of rationalism required some considerable riposte.

An indicator as to the level of commitment the convert once showed to their apparently now lost atheism, resides in a few very important differences between questions an agnostic might ask and that which is of interest to a positive atheist. For example, an agnostic, in her inquisitiveness, might become concerned with the truth-claims of a particular religion, let’s say Christianity. This leads her to ask what Jesus is said to have said about such and such, or what St. Paul is said to have written in his letters to the Corinthians and so on–and without any concern for what prominent figures in other religions might have said along similar lines on similar subjects, which in fact contradict Christian teaching. This is a very important point to note, as the ultimate claim of many religions is that they are the one true faith, while other religions are more or less false.

This may seem a harsh comparison, but one only needs to look at the recent bloody history in Northern Ireland, where Catholics only differ from Protestants in their belief that in the sacrament of communion, the unleavened bread literally becomes the body of Christ, whereas religions not based upon the 11th century edict of transubstantiation make no such claim.

Atheists, on the other hand, are not concerned with the in’s and out’s of any one particular religion, as much as they are concerned with what can be proven to be true through an observance of reality, where the least assumptions are made about the nature of a given phenomena the better. This immediately poses a problem in the case of Christianity, because the very fact that the bible itself contains the kind of contradictions so blatantly the result of poor translation, which can not be resolved from a folkloristic point of view, let alone from empirical data sets, that it immediately discredits itself as a historical reference point, because it is the very article which must be verified for any of Christianity’s other truth-claims to withstand rational criticism. It should be noted, that this does not stop the vast majority of Christians contenting themselves with the notion that the bible is nevertheless the inerrant, perfect word of God, precisely because it says so in the bible. In the military this is known as scenario completion syndrome. In psychology and cognitive science, it is known as confirmation bias.

A common claim that many “former atheists” make to validate their conversion, is that they were touched by something beyond their comprehension. This should be treated with an additional degree of incredulity, if chief among their reasons for this new found belief, the convert describes the soul as distinct from the mind. The externalisation of the ego which the mind is responsible for, when religionists project catch-all, arbitrary meanings upon words like “God” and “Spirituality”, produces exactly the kind of bias confirmation we should expect to see in someone as agnostic towards the importance cognitive framing plays in forming our views, as they are the existence or otherwise of Russell’s teapot.

It should be noted that varying degrees of cognitive dissonance, when it comes to truth-claims made, despite no reasonable basis upon which to make those assertions, for example, often underpin a world-view based upon scientific naturalism–which is, to a certain extent, similarly reliant upon mathematical axioms, or arithmetic equations at the heart of scientific theories. That which is assumed to be correct as participial to a theorem is done so for purposes of efficiency, rather than because it has not been or can not be correctly calculated.

This is not, however, a perfect analogy, and you’d have to be pretty stubborn (bordering on pedantic) to cite mathematical axioms as the central basis of an argument which might attempt to equate their use in scientific naturalism with religious faith in Christian apologetics, but there is an element of trust inherent to very exacting orders of logical axioms, nevertheless. However, this is an entirely different level of assumption based thinking, because it is one which operates within margins of error. It is therefore not the sum total which collapses without an individual mathematician having faith in calculus, for example; merely that the degree to which the equation can be said to be absolutely accurate depends upon yet to be deduced factors which may later influence the outcome, but which at the time of operand are unknown.

In Christian apologetics, however, the margin of error analogy is an order of magnitude more wide-reaching than the common or garden variety of Alpha course Christianity might admit to, or even be aware of. Most believers in belief are not wilfully dishonest with themselves or anyone else about the gulf between their extraordinary beliefs and a lack of extraordinary evidence upon which to assert their claims. But this is precisely why it is such a pressing problem for “former atheists” to expand upon this paradox, since so many of the underlying principals of their apparently new-found allegiances reside in a fundamental miscomprehension of that which they claim to have once maintained a firm grasp.

The disagreements even within different tracts of Christian apologetics, as to how much emphasis is to be placed upon which interpretation of which book of which chapter in which codex is troubling enough. Let alone to what degree theology as a whole should be informed by scientifically obtained postulates which in many cases lead to full blown falsifiable theories, that completely discredit early philosophical attempts at describing the very natural phenomena upon which so much theology is based–such as the Adam and Eve or Genesis creation myths, for example.

If someone who once claimed to be an atheist now looks to these myths not as parables, but as literal descriptions of “how God did it”, she has immediately made a whole slew of assumptions from which no degree of an appeal to reason can dissuade her; or as is commonly accredited to Ben Goldacre, “You can not reason someone out of a position they did not reason themselves into”. This is not a commentary on someone’s faith, it is a commentary on their commitment to failed cognition–and that is anathema to the truth journey all religions are ostensibly charged with mapping, but few orienteer.

For identifying this paradigm, while in many ways displaying qualities of it, atheism is often described by those who understand it the least, as a religion without a deity. This and because a certain kind of highly motivated atheist will accrue a great deal of knowledge about both material reality and meta-physical ontology, while facing a great frustration at being accused of ignorance about the poetry in Psalms, for example, ironically means that, oftentimes, a well-read atheist will have a much greater appreciation for biblical narratives than those who claim to live their lives by them, while exhibiting much behaviour to the contrary.

There is no doubting the bible’s historical worth in human history. It is the assertions of those who claim to know it so intimately, while describing it as the absolute arbiter of morality, which anyone who has actually read Leviticus and Deuteronomy should quickly find insulting and false. This crucial difference between faith and free thinking, being the first of the reasons why atheism is so unlike a religion, should perhaps make a compelling enough reason to doubt the clarity with which “former atheists” are operating, quite obvious–although some will no-doubt still insist upon more compelling reasons to question someone’s beliefs than merely the semantic perception of doubt residing on the negative side of where faith rests on the positive.

What should be certainly very clear, is that an emotional commitment to theistic truth-claims is not proof that those claims are true. Many Christians, who insist that their subjective experiences do, in fact, constitute evidence of a spiritual aspect, beyond observable reality, are immediately faced with the question of why this realm is unavailable to those who refuse to suspend their critical faculties in order to tap into that which they may already be in possession of, without necessarily ascribing it to the supernatural.

For example, musicians often cite moments of bliss, within an ensemble, during improvisation; where a communication between the players and the audience transcends anything which could be pre-arranged, but which is nevertheless sympathetic to the overall arrangement. While a mathematical analysis into why in a given key, a certain range of notes in the scale are available, might technically describe why a given chordal passage is harmonious and melodic, it tells us nothing about why the emotional reaction of an audience might range from mild pleasure to floods of uncontrollable weeping and mania on a grand scale. This speaks to the emotional investment listeners to that band of musicians have in a form of non-verbal communication far in advance of anything found in other forms of artistic expression. Aficionados of Gauguin do not spend 24 hours queuing for tickets to a muddy field, where they will stand miles away from the revealed canvases, with a topless girl on their shoulders, enthusiastically yelling, “The Spirit of the Dead Keep Watch!”

However, in both kitchen table apologetics and in the full-blown glossolalia of an evangelical rally, this is exactly what is happening. It is true to say that this entirely normal capacity for humans to profoundly influence each other’s emotions through unspoken and seemingly instinctive, if exaggerated and impulsive behaviour, remains such an easily exploited facet of prescribed faith, to confuse confusion with revelation, that in feeling as if they have been touched by something profound, the believer would rather assign an artificially inflated meaning upon that experience, than explore an honest description of the phenomena to which they have actually succumb.

Readers might be interested to know that I forwarded a copy of the above to this blog’s favourite saved and therefore righteous Todd, who regularly regurgitates hate theology in the comments. It elicited the following response, for which he was permanently banned…

“I take back any reference to my being a former atheist, as there’s no such thing (or confused agnostics, for that matter), only those who suppress the truth of God in unrighteousness. That was me…then God turned the Jesus light switch on, thankfully. It sure wasn’t my doing.

You’re an evil man, Jim – serving Beelzebub like a good obedient minion. God’s been trying to get your attention and save you from the king of this world, but you refuse to respond. Your Satan-induced-narcissism today is going to yield huge dividends in your eternal afterlife unless you repent of your sins and respond to God’s grace through faith in His Son Jesus.

Otherwise, your eternal suffering is going to be well-earned and, dare I submit, “of the worst kind possbible.” When I think of what’s possible from God, I absolutely shudder for you.”

The Golden Compass

goldencompass-posterfinalLast night I watched the 2007 movie The Golden Compass and thought I would share my review of it I wrote for the internet movie database.

The underlying theme of both the Philip Pullman book which inspired this adaptation and the Chris Weitz screenplay itself, have come under fire from religious groups for having an atheist humanist agenda. Keen to understand this argument better I watched with an open mind and, to my delight, discovered within the opening lines of the film that, unlike so many CGI for the sake of it fantasy flicks, The Golden Compass is in fact a highly intelligent take on what is known in physics and cosmology as the anthropic principal.

Simply put, Pullman weaves the story of a gifted child, Lyra, around the mathematical probabilities which arise when, in an infinite universe within and without of our own dimension, a parallel Earth-like world to our own might also contain both that which is familiar and that which is alien to ourselves, alongside a creepy mirror image of our society and how it is shaped by the dogmatic superstitions of darker times in human history.

Given the occasionally controversial and complex nature of this debate, the biggest surprise from a film-making point of view is that there is no attempt to ease the audience over what can occasionally feel like a whole chapter from the original text has been summarised into a single line of dialogue, by simply using a voice-over of the events being described. This would have perhaps also better served the less familiar in the audience with the philosophical dichotomies between deism and theism as set against critical thinking and secularism.

Lyra Belacqua, excellently played by Dakota Blue Richards, is every child who ever looked up at a sky full of stars and found the wonder of it all a far more powerful experience than the simple explanations of a faith school education. To guide her in her quest to free the minds of other children less fortunate than herself, she is helped along by a one of a kind clockwork compass which, rather like the scientific process of deductive logic, gives the reader open to its methodologies, a truthful answer to any question asked of it.

Mrs. Coulter, played by Nicole Kidman, Lyra’s well meaning but ultimately manipulative and greedy nemesis, believes she has discovered a way to protect children from discovering these truths about the universe, as revealed by The Alethiometer, by subjecting her experimental catch of gypsy children to a process which removes from them their inquisitive young minds inherent ability to know right from wrong and seed this authority instead to the entrenched but fading authority of the magisterium.

The Golden Compass cast is a who’s who of acting talent. Sadly, some of the bigger names who overshadow the far superior supporting cast in the credits, give a phoned-in delivery. Nicole Kidman seems to have mistaken whispering to a silence for dynamic range and Sir Ian McKellen’s CGI presence as the talking bear Iorek Byrnison felt disjointed and unfinished.

On the up side, Dakota Blue Richards delivers a brilliantly well rounded character and her on- screen relationship with the rest of the cast is genuine and warm.

All in all, if you like bear fighting, flying robot poison insects and plenty of swashbuckling action adventure, refreshingly free of bad language and tactless sexual references which often feel crow-barred into a script in a vein attempt to attract an older audience to what is essentially a younger person’s film, The Golden Compass is a brilliant bit of fun for all the family, with a teasing ending that more in the franchise is yet to come. I can’t wait!

Something for the weekend: A free chapter from my book

To celebrate the launch of a new Atheist bus campaign, this time in Chicago and with the excellent slogan, “In the begining, Man created God”, I thought I’d leave you all some gentle reading for the weekend.

This extract from my book is in the section on secular humanism and how to research evidence for yourself. Enjoy!!

When All Else Fails, Cheat

The last resort of the religious is an appeal to the power of prayer. There is nothing quite as embarrassing and desperate as watching someone silently contemplate their repeated failures to channel either God himself or his offspring, immediate relations and their minions. These acts of prostration are rarely rivalled by anything the terminally religious might allow to come out of their mouth, in what must be a difficult life of feeling such abandonment, loss and disappointed—no-doubt felt ever more deeply in the deafening silence where even a gentle whisper of a reply would embolden already extraordinarily high levels of credulity.

Perhaps the deep embarrassment which must be felt in these private moments of clarity, offers some kind of explanation for why a certain breed of hook, line and sinker Christian can detach themselves from frontal lobe reasoning so completely, as to deal with this emptiness by a game of self-distraction, which some get drawn into far more than others. Donning the persona of a super-converter, literally evangelising to easy targets who, more resilient to (or entirely ignorant of) the apostate rationale, are more likely to absorb something of what is being peddled. This certainly goes a way towards explaining the extroverted affectations predominant in evangelical Christianity, such as talking in tongues, excessive arm waving and the open hand held aloft praise-stance, sometimes accompanied by other physical movement such as violent shaking, yelling, sweating and deliberate inducement of trance-like states—highly visible beta personalities masquerading alpha qualities—or little man syndrome transposed upon look at me, child-like playacting.

It doesn’t even matter, to the Christian activist, that what counts as a hit in the pursuit of lost souls with this behaviour is only of any real significance to those who abide by a certain set of entirely arbitrary rules. Fellow believers, already on-board, as well as those don’t rock the boat enablers, within a general society largely defined by sleeper-cell social Christianity. Those who barely set foot in a church between the forceps and the stone, but who nevertheless consider themselves under the all seeing eye of “something” and who are, perhaps because of reaching a certain age, more likely to respond to the enlightenment by numbers given so energetically in a charismatic church service, punctuated with Hallmark moment one-liners, lifted from some work of Christian apologetics.

These modernised tokens go a long way towards smoothing the way towards what Christian worker-drones refer to as witnessing—the deliberate act of targeting their proselytisation methods at someone with a number of tactics—such as starting conversations on religious topics with random strangers at the bus stop as well as perhaps deeper conversations about doubt and wonder at the majesty of the cosmos, with friends and family. The goal, regardless of the topic, is to plant insecurities in the mind, with the hope that an artificial kind of anxiety will germinate and bring another lost soul (hopefully one with a large wallet) through those temple gates, come Sunday morning, seeking artificial answers—of which there is an abundance.

The religious equivalent of Nigerian e-mail spam, witnessing is both as transparently obvious as a tactic for recruitment, as it is a great insight into how the hive-mind of the religious works its syrupy magic upon a world eager for false comforts and saccharine statements of intent—even if it is rather blatantly obvious to those of us immune to and outside of that spherical way of non-thinking, which I like to call the Cliff Richard school of Christian apologetics. What happens as a result of these occasionally brazen sales tactics, is both entertaining when it occasionally works on the gullible (who are immediately held aloft as proof that His word is mighty) as well as being a tremendously powerful way to show-up the top of the pyramid salesmen for what they really are—because the next step, following the initial success of bringing a new soul into the fold, requires two further blatant give-aways to then take place.

The first is an immediate scaling back upon what the new recruit can realistically expect by way of results, until they have been fully induced. With most Christian religions, this gradual back peddling, from earlier made big promises (such as the healing of serious ailments or reconciliation with a deceased loved one) takes place in the lead-up to the mark first confessing their sins, then partaking in holy communion and adult baptism—where, in the case of evangelical Protestant churches, the person is now pronounced, born again. This training period leading up to the landmark sacraments should take a sufficiently long enough time period to fully complete that the mark has invested enough of their emotional energy into the various books on the meaning and tradition behind this ritual and that sacrament, to make them feel as if tuning back to their old life would impact upon their spiritual aspirations to such an extent, that even serious doubts they may have about the verisimilitude of some of what is being claimed, such as miraculous assertions like the apparition of Mary to Bernadette at the grotto in Lourdes, or the resurrection of Lazarus, for example, cannot override the now almost entirely suppressed instinct to silhouette their teaching with rational enquiry.

The second tactical follow-up, and the fourth stage in the proselytisation, recruitment, apologetics phased model of religious indoctrination, is to make clear what happens to those who reject Christ—despite having been given the opportunity to embrace his perfect word; the might of His wrath upon those who reject His love and instead embrace the eternal fires of hell. This is the theological equivalent of zero-sum game theory—the tic-tac-toe illusion of participating in a game designed to appear fair, but in which the only winners are those who cheat.

In logic, the Nash Equilibrium, named after it’s architect the genius mathematician John Forbes Nash, was used to understand strategic situations in the development of the RAND corporation’s economic models, which transformed the post-war European and North American systems of governance, from being quasi-autonomous democracies, into the tightly meshed, market driven, capitalist economies they are today. What Nash’s equations show is that no matter how much two rivals in a competitive game might want to trust that their opponent will play fair, once they realise that by cheating they stand to gain more than they do by being honest, the chances of their opponent also thinking the same way becomes not only more likely, it makes cheating the only way to be certain of a decisive win. In economic theory, the killer cheat is that this somehow makes things, if not fair, at least balanced—when in reality, of course, Nash allows for no accounting of human desires, such as the want to play fair and act with altruism and compassion.

With religion, the killer cheat is that His wrath upon the unbeliever is real. This is often underlined by non sequitur and ad hominem, which narrow the rationalisation against His existence down to articles of faith; that all you must do to see the evidence of His mighty wrath is look at the world around you. Religion has no choice but to point to things like man-made and natural catastrophes in this way, as so-called proof that His anger is great and his judgement swift, because the alternative to admitting that such events are explained by natural, unguided, unflinching phenomena, is a logic call antithesis to unquestioning blind faith. It is better for religion to alienate anyone capable of rational criticism, and play along with the deceit that He is real and capable of actively intervening in Earthly affairs, than it is for it to play fair and admit that sceptical enquiry and logical calculative reasoning have done more to enlighten humanity in the last 100 years than Rick Warren style fan fiction dating back thousands of years has ever done and could ever hope to do—even if that was the aim—which to anyone who has ever read such works, it should be obvious it most certainly is not.

Indeed the definition of fair, in the analogy of game theory, would be for religion to yawn a breath of intellectual honesty from its lungs which deists are by definition incapable of exhaling; that scientific methodologies have achieved things that, despite having a two thousand year head-start, God has utterly and completely failed to come close to besting. Having rejected everything from the work of Galileo Galilei, to Dr. Anthony Atala, the religious are unlikely to awaken to this reality any time soon, but just as it was later discovered that there were flaws in Nash’s equations, which failed to take into account variables such as human emotion (Nash suffered from a persecution complex) so too must secular humanists be reminded that while playing dirty may be the tactic of the fatally wounded; David’s last ditch attempt at eye-gouging the Goliath of scientific reality, so to speak—there is nothing more likely to fan the embers of the burned out bush, than the smug satisfaction of I told you so intellectualised retribution, stooping to the same level of immoral dishonesty, largely unique to religious dogma.

There is no danger of the rather happy prospect of what to do with the formerly religious, occurring any time soon, however. Those who once released from the bondage of externalised paranoid delusions, deserving nothing but the best psychological post traumatic care, are a health service expenditure the exchequer can be 99.9% sure aren’t about to burden the tax payer any time soon. It took, after-all, almost 400 hundred years for the Vatican to accept that, far from being a heretic, Maria Barbara Carillo was burned at the stake for no other reason than her physical appearance, being as she was 96 years old—and not, in fact, a young woman excessively wizened by witchcraft.

Imagine how much longer, then, it’ll take for the Pat Roberson’s of this world to wake up to their okser miserable existence and accept that there is a more profound beauty and light of truth in an understanding of the natural world, than anything which the misogynistic Burka of greed and hatred has pulled over the eyes of blind faith for far too long.

“Because you’re afraid of what you’ve learned, you’re afraid to learn.” – Todd Rundgren