Tuesday, 28 February 2012

The Art Of Saying Nothing At All

I really do think that theology falls into this category. I've spent some years listening to the views of various respected theologians, and I'm firmly of the camp that they are guilty of some of the worst excesses of verbosity to ever leave the mouths of men. The penny didn't drop right away, however, and I only began to recognise deficiencies when reading and watching people outside of it who used words with real efficiency and verve. Not for them hiding behind jargon and bluster or mealy mouthed inanity. As soon as some people speak you know what they mean, and the force of their arguments smash home with ram rod power. I contrast this with some word salads I've had the misfortune of wading through. At their worse its like pulling teeth without anaesthesia, a flat drone, constant and sleep inducing.
To write with economy and precision is a real art. When I pen something, the least I expect is that it be understood. I don't worry myself whether you agree with me, but you should at least be able to know what I've said and understand why I've said it.
There's another risk when it comes to the writings of theology. Because it tends to produce works bloated with obscure terms and rhetoric, for the gullible it's too easy to assume that what is being said has merit. Take it from me it ain't always so. In fact I'd argue that theology is the classic example of a naked emperor. Nobody quite has the audacity to suggest that it's not wearing any clothes.
Trust me people it's stark naked. For all it's heady claims about ultimate truth, about Gods ineffable ways it really is quite the exhibitionist, proverbial willy flapping limply in the breeze. And it's ok to say so. In fact it's vital that we do. Who wants to be fooled by this nonsense anyway? Isn't a good dose of truth more liberating?
There's a wider message here. Don't allow yourself to be impressed by people who use obscurity as their primary language. If they can't make themselves plainly understood then I wouldn't waste time imbibing what they have to say.
Sometimes our eyes glaze over for good reason.

Saturday, 25 February 2012

The Miracle Child

I have just watched a video about a baby girl, whom shortly after birth was diagnosed with a swelling on her brain caused by spinal fluid. Doctors confidently told her parents that it would grow no larger, and she was sent home to begin family life. A routine check a short time later revealed that the growth had grown exponentially, and was compressing the brain. Remarkably, this prompted no symptoms, and the girl continued to live normally. The long and the short of it was that surgeons eventually got to work and solved the problem, and presumably this little girl made a full recovery.
Fantastic news. Thing is, during the video the claim is made that God ensured she had no symptoms, which was promptly proclaimed as a miracle by her parents.
Ok then, let's call it a miracle, but let's not forget that the same God allowed this precious infant to be born with a potentially life threatening condition. The same God also stood idly by whilst doctors initially misdiagnosed the severity of the cyst. He then concealed symptoms, effectively masking the growths malevolent trajectory, which arguably made the child's plight worse?
I find myself wondering if this is really worthy of the term miracle at all? I'd actually want to suggest that if God did have some involvement it was of a negative rather than positive variety. Let's give a child a life threatening condition shall we? Let's endanger her life? Let's wait until things get really bad before I allow medical science and the skill of the surgeons to sort out my unholy mess?
By all means call this a miracle if you must. But what a vile nature this God must be if he chooses to use babies in order to show the world just how great he is.
I'm not impressed. I'm repelled. Or rather I would be if there was actually any God to direct my anger towards. In all honesty, what leaps out at me from this video is just how credulous some people are, and how willing they are to believe without the slightest regard for the facts. Truth is, I'm embarrassed for them. 


Sunday, 19 February 2012

It's All Doom And Gloom. Or Is It?

A cursory browse of the news today made for gloomy reading. In England the rivers are drying up, whilst elsewhere bacteria are evolving faster than we can produce antibiotics. We’ve got Iran with increasingly advanced nuclear proficiency, whilst Israel watches on, almost certain to make a pre-emptive strike before uranium can be enriched to weapons grade. And that was just four articles. There’s an economic climate less responsive than a teenager to his/her alarm clock, and a group of republican presidential candidates that don’t appear to have a brain cell between them.
On a positive note, though, at least there’s a new Angry Birds due out soon.
Are we suffering from news overload? And is it good to have so much information flooding our senses day after day after day? On balance I think yes, largely because I’d rather suffer from informed angst than bewildered ignorance. There was a time in my life when I simply accepted what people fed me, which reduced me to a good natured but credulous fool. These days I take nothing on authority, and if I want to figure out fact from fiction I accept that I have to do the hard yards. Concerning those articles above you can be sure that some have more substance than others, but if you want to know the truth you need to do a bit of donkey work. And while you’re at it, it may help to appreciate that you’re not always entitled to good news, or a happy ending. More often than not life is plain indifferent to our moods and needs, and I wonder how many of us truly appreciate that?
And now to the crux; there is so much that we’re not in control of, so many variables and possible outcomes. I think the best we can do is try to love and support each other through the times of discontent, and grasp two handed those periods when the sun shines and the grass is green. As I reflect on my life I have much to be thankful for; an amazing wife, great daughters, a raft of interests and hobbies and relative good health to enjoy them with. I don’t take this for granted. I wouldn’t dare. And I have my blue days. But when all’s said and done we’re in this together, right? Surely we’re going to enjoy the ride more if we’re willing to help and support each other along the road? Yes, there is a lot of bad news, and a lot of it we cause ourselves. But, and this is important, we’re an amazing species, too. Right at this moment we’ve got people working to make our lives longer, richer, more productive. And there’s also a vast ocean of humanity that wants to look beyond itself and make the life of their fellows better. So let’s not be too downhearted, and let’s see whether we can be part of making the whole shebang run just that bit smoother.

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

The Mouldy Coat

Imagine that you are the owner of a very old, very musty coat. Imagine that this coat is, in fact two thousand years old. When it was new it turned heads and seemed to be making a statement, compelling envy in some and admiration in others. As the years passed the coat was redesigned from time to time; bits of it removed whilst other bits, bits not part of the original design were added. Those updating it had come together and decided that these upgrades were necessary amendments, enabling the coat to remain fashionable and capable of attracting attention. As the years passed, the coat was changed and upgraded some more. During some periods of its history it was soaked in the blood of those who didn't agree with the design, or had their own ideas on how the coat should look. All the friction began to take its toll, and it's appearance became less alluring, less capable of turning heads.
A couple of hundred years ago people started being attracted to a different type of coat, due largely to some brilliant designers who were positively brimming with good ideas about how to create a garment capable of withstanding the elements. These enlightenment coats became all the rage, and began to make the old coat look a bit dour and bedraggled. But some people still chose to wear it. Let's call them the faithful. They were resistant to new fashion and daily adorned themselves with the old coat, which by this time was really in quite a state. Mouldy, moth eaten, smelly and frayed. It wasn't very good at keeping out the weather, but some still found it cosy and comforting to wear. Those sporting the newer design were largely tolerant, but did get a bit fed up at being told that the old coat was still fine. You don't need a new coat, they would hear; this one's fit for purpose. The new fashionistas looked on, perplexed, heads tilted oddly as these old timers droned wearily on. Truth was, nobody had much time for the old coat now, because everyone with half decent eyesight could see that it didn't protect the wearer from anything. In fact quite the reverse; it left them exposed to all manner of things that rendered them quite credulous. But they wouldn't remove their coat. They'd had it for too long, and it was too comfortable, so they shambled about their business, looking just a bit peculiar and sad.

Monday, 13 February 2012

Science Works, Bitch

Science works, bitches. I saw that on a t-shirt once. Its one of the most accurate observations you're going to hear and it's worth some reflection.
It works because its central goals are unbiased; namely a desire to figure out how the world really is. It starts with a hypothesis, an idea or body of ideas which then need to be subjected to some kind of tests intended to distinguish good ideas from bad. If these tests confirm the hypothesis, what we're left with is a theory, a body of ideas in need of further confirmation. Now if you want to test your theory the best way is to get lots of different people in lots of different places to run the same tests, along with further tests designed to break the idea. If all these people, despite their best efforts, still achieve the same results you can have a bit more confidence in the initial idea.
Why is this so important? Why is multiple confirmation so critical? Well that's obvious; it gives credibility and robustness to the concept. Now like all theories it should be subject to revision and new information, but the longer it holds, and the more new information that comes aboard to support it, the more confidence we can have.
And so to evolution. You knew I was going to end up here, didn't you? As the philosopher Daniel Dennett observes;

‎"The evidence of evolution pours in, not only from geology, paleontology, biogeography, and anatomy (Darwin's chief sources), but from molecular biology and every other branch of the life sciences. To put it bluntly but fairly, anyone today who doubts that the variety of life on this planet was produced by a process of evolution is simply ignorant - inexcusably ignorant, in a world where three out of four people have learned to read and write. Doubts about the power of Darwin's idea of natural selection to explain this evolutionary process are still intellectually respectable, however, although the burden of proof for such skepticism has become immense."

So what to make of those of deny it? What of the incessant campaigns to get Creationism and Intelligent Design taught in the classrooms of America? Well you can be sure that most attempts are driven by the religious convictions of those who oppose the facts. For some, the idea that we may have emerged from a long process, and from much simpler organisms is unacceptable. The Bible asserts that we're special, unique, set apart from all other creatures. To learn we're just another animal sharing the same genetic material erodes the central Biblical message that we have a unique place in the cosmos.
Well I'm sorry, but the universe doesn't owe you any special privilege. It doesn't care about your anxiety, your raised sense of self importance, or your fear of death. And your willingness to deny facts in order to cling onto your worldview is nothing short of a disgrace, one made all the worse by your continued efforts to get your religious convictions taught as part of the science curriculum.
Time after time the courts defeat you. Time after time the facts crush your half baked ideas. Yet still you come, still you lurch like a drunken moron lurches into yet another bar, expecting to get service. Well sorry but no; we're not serving you here. In fact, we suggest you book yourself a motel for the night in order to sober up. The kind of ideas you've got cooking in that head of yours are no better than the ravings of some inebriated loon, one who's drunk too much for too long at the bar of self deceit.
Go home, Creationist fool. Go sober up. And come back when you've stopped slurring and are able to talk some sense.

Sunday, 12 February 2012

Why I Just Don't Want Them To Shut Up

You can be pretty sure that whenever anybody tries to silence you for daring to criticise their ideas, it is because those ideas aren't very good. That's the primary message to take from this. Remember it the next time a Muslim tries to object to a critique of their holy texts, or a Christian demands respect for their deeply held beliefs. Bet every last dollar you have on the fact that what they believe, and what they want you to believe is grade one, undiluted horse manure.
Which is why I don't want them to stop.
In fact, I want them to keep talking. I want them to speak up, to tell the world what they're for? So stand up radical cleric, and mount that soapbox of yours. Clear your throat and broadcast the message; I want the whole darn world to understand.
Christian friends, so wonderfully kind and decent; tell us all about how a corpse reanimated, or about the time when a donkey talked, or a virgin gave birth, or a snake told a girl in a garden to steal some fruit. Stand up and give a full account, and let us know what you stand for? Say what you believe; no more metaphor or treading around the edges.
Are you receiving this transmission? I'm giving you a soapbox, asking you to speak up and emerge from cover. Because every time you do it let's us all have a closer look. And the closer we look the more we see the cracks, the contradictions, the sheer inanity of the ideas you've embedded in your mind.
Please don't be offended. And don't just demand respect, or gripe when people dare to fire back. If your ideas are that sound, your theology so robust, your faith so cast iron, then really you've nothing to fear.
A final suggestion, dear believer. Delivered in the spirit of direct language. We know how very good you are at agreeing among yourselves. Your church, or that Mosque is full of like minded souls; and it's just so easy to convince yourself that there's more to your convictions than hope. I'm inviting you to prove it, cordially encouraging you to emerge from safety, from the soft embrace of the like minded and put your ideas where it hurts.
Then, and only then, are you worthy of any real respect.

Saturday, 11 February 2012

In Support Of Prayer

There's a bit of fuss brewing over a high court ruling forbidding the saying of prayers prior to the start of meetings at Bideford town council. Whilst I understand that on a technical level the judge ruled correctly, it all seems a bit daft. On a personal level I'm not in the least offended if a person or a group wishes to pray in public. I just tune out. It's easy. Why then, have we seen this outcome, which may have wider ramifications?
First, the facts. Nobody is prohibiting private prayer. The ruling forbids public prayer in one parish in Devon. Absurdly, the council had already voted democratically to allow the utterance of prayer, so I just don't understand why it could not have been left at that? 
Now don't misunderstand me, I'm no fan of religious belief, but people's freedom of expression has to cut both ways. If you want to pray into thin air in the belief that there's somebody on the other end then crack on. I don't care. Have a ball, fella. My objections only begin when your beliefs begin to impinge upon mine. I don't see why there has to be a problem with people of faith and those without living together; we just need a mutual tolerance. Incidentally, this doesn't mean we cannot be critical. In fact I enjoy giving the teachings of all the major religions a good hand bagging because I suspect them to be based on central falsehoods. So yes, I'm going to be critical, and if you're inclined to attempt to evangelise me then you can, rest assured, look forward to becoming my intellectual chew toy. And I don't drop my chew toy for anybody. But come on, people, we can disagree without getting all uppity, can't we? We can disagree without having to spend vast sums on court cases that appear to achieve nothing of any worth? People need to have freedom of belief to the same extent that that they need freedom from belief. To be sure we're going to get up each others noses on occasion, but surely we're big enough and ugly enough to manage?

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

To Do Another Harm

Thought experiment. I'm asking myself what it would take to compel me to violence? You see, I am generally incredibly laid back; not prone to road rage, or smarting when somebody queue jumps, and I've not the least inclination to raise my fists to anyone.
I blame my father. Docile fellow. Took an awful lot to rouse him, and even when he was it seemed an effort. So it's in my genes, I suppose, and I'm really pleased about this. I've always found myself perplexed at the women who lurch from one abusive male to the next; never seeming able to recognise the plug hole of self respect down which they plunge. And the men themselves, the guys who impose themselves by physical force or coercion? Is that really strength? What did I miss? Seems very much the opposite to me? In fact as far as weakness goes I'm hard pressed to conceive of a creature more pitiful? So then, is aggression really a quality you find alluring? Ok then; just understand that you've chosen a pretty feeble expression of it.
Anyway, about me and violence. What would it take? I expect my evolved instincts would hold sway; I'd die for my children, for my wife, and certainly stand in the way of harm if a deeply felt principle such as my right to free speech was placed at risk. In terms of how much harm I'd be prepared to cause I just don't know; I've no inclination to expose myself or others to the kind of risk required to measure it. Besides, when we use terms such as courage what do we actually mean? To defend others, to protect freedom, to ensure the highest good for the largest number? I have not been to war for my country and admire greatly those young service people who've done so on my behalf. I respect them so much. In contrast, what are we to make of those who compel us to fight wars in the first place? Surely all war is a tacit admission that we have let ourselves down as a species? That we've allowed our failings to gain a magnitude that shames us? Oh heck, I'm no politician and I'm not a wise man. But as Sam Harris famously observed, no society ever destroyed itself when it attempted to be too reasonable.

Sunday, 5 February 2012

A Half Baked Wintery Rant

There. Said it. I loath the cold, the wet, the deadness of winter. I cannot abide the dark mornings, the grim evenings, and the having to wear additional layers in an effort to keep the elements at bay. I dislike the cold bathroom, the continual damp ground when one ventures out. Slush sucks, snow causes havoc, and teenage idiots use it as an excuse to hassle those around them. 
I am not, repeat not designed for a cold climate. It's a bit like putting a penguin in a sauna; I just don't belong there. I suppose I should be grateful that I wasn't born in Siberia, or that I'm not a seal, but that doesn't mean I can't grumble at those months in every year when I yearn for those better days when the sun rises at four and deserts us at ten. When the blossom comes and the lambs are born, when the trees grow verdant and the skies give warmth. Don't misunderstand me, I'm good at taking pleasure in whatever life has to offer, and I'm rarely lacking ideas as to how to entertain myself or others. It's just that the spring and the summer provide so many additional options, which is why I'm ranting, why I'm throwing my toys out of the pram. Overnight we've had a few centimetres of snow, not enough to get the sledge out, but more than enough to soak everything and turn the ground underfoot to mush. This combined with the cold; that biting incessant numbing cold. I have no idea why Dickens loved his winter landscapes so much. Oh Ok, I suppose I can grudgingly admit that it is beautiful, in a barren and bleak kind of way. Out in the countryside things seems so silent and still, perhaps the occasional glimpse of a hare exploding across a field, or a cluster or bored cows stood idly at the edge of a field. Everything is so frigid and quiet, the sound travelling for miles, black crows circling around distant structures or perched watchfully upon power cables.
Bugger. Now that I describe it I'm forced to admit that it does have an appeal of sorts. It's a time of quiet regeneration, of stasis, the calm before life explodes once more in full raiment. If I frame it like that I can grudgingly admit to a certain appreciation, but don't think for a second that I'd trade those balmy summer days for the slow endless toil of January and February. That would be a bridge too far.