Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Dear Rabbi, Leave That Infants Penis Alone

There is an orthodox Jewish circumcision ritual called metzizha b'peh. It involves a rabbi removing the blood from around the freshly butchered penis of an infant male. Health officials have long warned of the risks that this arcane practice poses to babies, yet if the Creator of the universe requires us to hack around with a child's penis then who are we to protest?
Hang on. Isn't this the same Creator that apparently, to quote Christian tradition, knits each human together in their mothers womb? If yes, it rather begs the question as to why if foreskin was so objectionable to him then why did he not just create boys without it?
Let's not dwell. Suffice to say that recently another infant died from the type 1 herpes simplex virus further to being subjected to this ritual. Another entirely preventable death the direct result of people abandoning common sense in the name of religion. Now I happen to think that the average newborn is quite an incredible thing, and slicing its penis with a sharp implement before sucking away the blood via priestly lips somewhat unnecessary. Yet we have not banned the practice. Why? 
Oddly, I find myself angry not just with the Priests who deem such an act as Godly, but also with the oceans of educated believers out there whom sit idly by and let such such barbarity persist. I don't doubt that the majority are unsettled by these stories, but why are they not leading the charge to outlaw these superstitions? I suppose they can simply hand wave the problem away and say that their denomination doesn't practice this particular Jewish rite, which is true, yet all versions of faith are brimming with bizarre notions.
Take for example my former denomination, the Baptists. They believe in speaking in tongues. For those not familiar it means praying in what's called the language of God, an indecipherable jumble of non words which are then interpreted by those nearby. It sounds entertaining as a children's party game, but these are adults, often middle class adults buying into it. 
Fancy another example? How about the "Laying on of hands". This is when believers place hands on the body of the sick or injured and pray that God bring healing and restoration. Whilst this act can have a certain placebo effect, and make the recipient feel genuinely loved and valued, there is simply no evidence to suggest the practice works despite many outrageous claims.
So in summary, whilst some practices are more dangerous and deviant than others, all are the offspring of delusion. And it matters not how clever you are in other areas of your life; if you're holding these views you've rejected reality and should frankly be ashamed. I could go on about how religion corrodes young minds, and infuses often lifelong guilt associations such like and so forth, but you get my point. If you believe ridiculous things then there's an increased chance you'll do ridiculous things. I can't speak plainer than that.

Monday, 25 June 2012

Confessions Of A Realist

The last few days have bought me face to face with my own inadequacies.
Realist that I am, it has been a chastening experience. You see, I'm trying to learn new skills, and thus far the results have been underwhelming. Each day I am being taught something new, and each day I am doing it badly. In fact, it has reached a point somewhere between comedy and absurdity. Such is life out of my comfort zone.
By the way, I'm not melancholy. I'm pragmatic. I never expected to adopt this new skill set easily, and everybody had warned me that this particular course would be amongst the toughest my organisation offers.
Thing is, it doesn't matter how badly I feel I'm doing, it hasn't occurred to me for a second that I won't ever be able to do the job. Fact is, in a few months I'll look back and wonder what all the angst was about. I am going to get proficient at this. I'm going to get good because I have chosen to do so, and Hell will freeze over before I abandoned this hope. This means I've committed my immediate future to many days when I come home feeling as I do now. But I'll tell you what, when I do click into gear it will make the feeling all the sweeter. Without wishing to betray my arrogance, if I choose to pursue a goal I more often than not achieve it. It's going to be the same with my current situation. Today I'm not very good. Tomorrow will be a slightly improved version of the same replete with new errors. Which means I'm going to have to get my head down and push through, reminding myself constantly that to do my job well will likely take a very long time.
The reason for this blog? My way of reminding myself and perhaps others that just because it doesn't come easy doesn't mean we should roll into a ball. For those in similar situations I encourage you to gird your sides, to take a deep breath and keep going. Don't worry if you knock down a few hurdles along the way; that doesn't mean you've failed.
So tomorrow I'll once again turn up and take a further few slices of humble pie. But if you look closely, and squint hard enough, you might also see some clue that there's light at the end of the road.

Saturday, 23 June 2012

What Lies Beneath

I have a bit of a reputation for plain speaking. I'm told I say the things that people think yet won't articulate. This either means I'm brave or just have a social skills deficit. Take your pick.
Sadly, I spend a lot of my time having to be critical of people who are, by most reasonable standards, very nice. Trust me when I say I don't do this to be vindictive, or to oppress, or to bully. I do so because I feel it's the right thing to do. You see, when I write I try to be authentic, and to speak without sentiment. For example, I've blogged on issues of obesity and why I feel it usually occurs as a consequence of personal lack of self control. Might this be hard for an obese person to hear? Well yes. Is my observation correct? More often than not. I've also been known to be hard on benefits scroungers, many of whom number among the less fortunate and deprived members of society. Might this be hard to hear if you're playing the benefits system or refusing to work because the idea doesn't appeal? Again yes. And finally, the recipients that always get both rhetorical guns are the religious. How unkind of me to rob others of comfort? Good people, decent people, active and courageous individuals who do so much to make society fairer and kinder. What a terrible thing?
Ok then, ask yourself how kind it is to allow people to humiliate and mentally enslave themselves day after day, year after year? How kind is it to allow a person to actively deny themselves so much in this world in anticipation of an eternal one? I happen to think I'd be guilty of a greater evil were I not to speak against falsehood and delusion. Perhaps you disagree? Perhaps you take the line that false beliefs do no real harm? To say this is an affront to the pursuit of truth, and truth is our greatest weapon as humanity seeks to overcome the challenges of this century. It's never been more important to get people thinking clearly, thinking honestly, and accepting life for all it's precious transience.
Along the way I have and will continue to cause offence. This is the unavoidable by product of not giving an inch to delusion in whatever shape or form it takes. If it makes you feel any better I often struggle to face reality with fortitude. I get scared and feel vulnerable and am dogged by a continual fear of failure. I, like so many want to see  "happy ever after" at the end of each trauma, but I cannot kid myself into believing it. The best I can do is work at my character flaws and see what can be done about them. In some ways I'm a less pleasant man than when I held my former beliefs. I'm less tolerant, more direct, and sometimes more dismissive. Yet as hard as these faults are to accept, they manifest because I have, at the very core of my being the desire to put reality first. 
Several years ago I wrote a monologue called "Am I the man that God made me?" and even now I can remember several lines.
"It isn't always pleasant, it isn't always good, I often don't behave in the manner that I should."
Everybody knows that this observation still holds. Yet even more incisive is a line that comes later, at a point when I admit to myself that I often put on a face that's conceals the real me. It reads simply, "But you can't see the darkness, and you can't see the gloom, and you can't see the anger that's inside this whitewashed tomb"
So you see, I don't speak from a pedestal, or pretend to be perfect or the lone voice of reason. I'm the same old messy me in practically every way. It's just that I'm honest enough to admit that if any of that's to change its going to have to come from within.

The 38,000 Club

It occurs to me that the Creator of the Universe is not lacking in bandwidth. By all accounts he is communicating daily with followers all over the planet.
Thing is, I'm apt to wonder whether the comms are quite as clear cut as we might hope for? For example just dwell on the following statistic; there are 38,000 denominations within Christianity alone. Let that one settle for a moment if you will. The Lord appears to revealing his "absolute truth" in a variety of ways, many of which appear to differ from the "absolute truth" revealed to other Christian sects.
In some cases disagreements in doctrine are minor, whilst in others there is a vast gulf in ideas that have given us such delights as the crusades and the inquisition. A modern day example of division could be the 7 day Creationists vilifying the "Intelligent Design" movement, the latter believing that God used evolution to shape humanity. There are differences over the acceptance of Gays, of female clergy, of theology, and these have real effects in the real world.
Now rewind for just a moment. 38,000 variety's of the same faith is a lot of disagreement. Point is, what is the more likely here; is God deliberately giving mutually contradictory "truths" to different denominations, or is it more likely that each and every person who has ever claimed to have received divine revelation has simply received their message from somewhere inside their brains?
I can see arms being flung into the air as I type. No! God has spoken to me! I can feel his presence, he guides me daily. The message is from beyond rather than within.
Really? Really? What makes you so sure? Where's your evidence?
Let me guess; certain things have happened that could only have been from God? A job at the right time perhaps? A healing from some malignancy? Some sign or other just at the perfect moment?
Here's my take. Humans are pattern seeking mammals. We have a facility called hyperactive agency detection, which is simply to say we actively seek to detect patterns in our own experience. So if you're a Christian and you get that job it was a gift from God; read the same for that car parking space, or the time you found your wedding ring after praying etc. What I'm suggesting is that if we we already believe something we are more inclined to go on believing it and find ways to do so.
So back to the question of 38,000 distinct revelations. Taking the above into account what is the more likely. That a God has deliberately infused confusion amidst his faithful followers, or that certain cultures merely imbibed a basic message and then began installing there own "truths"?
In computer terms it's called a software update. You add stuff on. It doesn't mean for a second that the basic message has any truth to it; merely that you've run with an idea and now you're decorating it with your own personality.

Thursday, 14 June 2012

The Milk Of Human Kindness

Apparently, according to one Islamic scholar, the Polio vaccine is Un-Islamic. Apparently it is part of a Western conspiracy to render young Muslims impotent. 
This is weapons grade stupidity. But then, weapons grade stupidity is the beating heart of religion itself. It has been suggested that when a single person claims to have heard the voice of God he is a madman, yet if an entire group of people claim likewise we call it a religion. Now I know that there are many bright and capable persons of faith in the world and I don't mean to be rude. However, your benign and harmless belief lends a shroud of credibility to an undercurrent of real loons out there that believe in absurdity as evidenced above. In short, whilst the majority of believers are good and kindly citizens, they tacitly fuel the mania that lurks in the deeper reaches of faith.
I don't object to you going to church or a mosque. I encourage you in your desire to live decent and caring and productive lives (qualities that shouldn't require religious adherence anyway). What I object to is when your beliefs impinge upon the welfare and wellbeing and freedoms of your fellow denizens.
Our deranged Muslim scholar is but one example. Another might be the Church's position on gay marriage, or perhaps if you are American the corruption of education by zealous fools seeking to teach Creationism in class rooms.
These are the facts, which can be applied to ALL religions. First, none have a shred of evidence to support them. Second, none of the Holy books say anything moral that hasn't been said better elsewhere. Third, religion has been and continues to be a stumbling block and an active obstacle to scientific progress and reason. In short, you have NOTHING to bring to the table.
If you want to be kind, to reach out and help the disadvantaged you can do so without believing ridiculous things about the nature of reality. The milk of human kindness doesn't exist under a cross or a crescent, but amidst the shared experience of our species. Your claims about eternal life, as appealing as they may sound, are mere wish thinking when confronted by the spectre of our mortality. If believing the unbelievable gets you through the day so be it, but don't expect credit or praise for your abundance of faith.
To conclude, it remains as vital as ever that delusion is challenged and outed. When people make claims about reality they need to back these up with evidence that can be tested. As I've joked before, religion is a bit like cross dressing. All well and good behind closed doors, but more often than not looks a bit daft when paraded in public.

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Man vs Food

I caught this program for the first time recently, and it elicited mixed feelings.
For the uninitiated, Man vs Food is an American show where the host travels from food joint to food joint sampling the biggest and most over the top dishes.
I'm talking huge here; massive multi level burgers dripping with extras, mountains of Nachos and cheese, a grotesque excess of chow purpose built to satisfy the most enormous appetite. It's the kind of show Americans do really well, bursting at the seams with high fives and whoop whoops as good old Mr and Mrs USA get their five minutes of cotton picking fame.
And now for my guilty confession. I love the idea of trying those food challenges. Stick a five level burger and a stack of fries before me and my eyes would flash and I expect I'd drool. I'd happily stuff my face until my stomach expanded to the size of a small African nation. I'd eat until I physically couldn't manage another morsel. In short, my inner (potentially outer) fatty would wallow in the excess of it all.
You see, I've always traversed that fine line between just right and obese. I could easily let myself go and morph into a hellishly overweight blimp of a man.
I just about reign it in. Just. It's a constant battle for me and people don't believe me when I mention it
Anyhow's, back to Man vs Food, and specifically my primary objection. Now I recognise it's just light entertainment, a bit of fun for the masses, yet in the back of my mind I see images of starving African children, failed crops, dwindling water supplies. I see a dust bowl and cattle formed of skin and bone, I see the skeletal remains of creatures barely visible amidst a heat haze.
In short, I see the difference.
I understand that there will likely always be poverty. Always an imbalance, although we can do more to bridge the gap. So when I see these humongous dishes being wheeled out in front of slavering Americans I cringe and wonder how we've allowed such an imbalance? Some of those "Big eats" could feed a family for days. It seems profane to me that we see such a contrast in fortune. Which is why I can't quite enjoy Man vs Food as much as I would secretly like to. I see the bigger picture, the gulf between Western excess and third world poverty. It's a horror to me, a cause for personal and demographic shame.
In 2012, surely we can do more to spread what we have around? Does so much have to go into our already overfed bellies? Are we so blind to the needs of others?