Wednesday, 28 March 2012

A Question Of Respect

Ever heard the Christian mantra "Love the sinner, hate the sin?"
I favour an alternative. "Love the Christian, hate the Christianity"
I have to confess that this is the best I can do. I regard faith of all kinds as merely a personality quirk. I consider it akin to other compulsions such as smoking or cross dressing or Morris dancing. It's just something that certain people feel the need to do.
Here's my quandary, though. It's actually very difficult to be critical of faith without causing offence to the believer, for the simple reason that faith is all pervasive in some people. It informs every aspect of their lives from how they think to who they have sex with and under what circumstances. I view religion as a kind of bloated tapeworm, feeding off the life experience of its  adherents and making itself more powerful and tougher to budge. From my perspective I know that I've offended a good many with my outspoken anti religious perspective, and I might as well admit that this isn't going to cease any time soon. I plan to continue to help faith addicts shed their skin whenever possible, whilst also lending my knowledge to those who remain on the fence. Above all, I want to be a voice that says simply, "You don't have to believe this stuff." 
I think the last bit is incredibly important. Guilt is such a strong characteristic of faith. And let's not forget that the heart of its message is that we need to be saved, that we've done some terrible wrong and simply cannot rid ourselves of the stench of condemnation. I will stand before all comers and illuminate this false self loathing for what it is. Of course we're imperfect; of course we make mistakes and our motives are frequently mixed. But adding a God to the mix as some kind of solution is really no solution at all. It's down to us to learn from error, to respond to new evidence and life experience. It's for us and our fellow travellers to weigh and measure our words and actions. If we seek absolution in the form of some unseen, unproven entity all we do is project our inadequacy into the ether. I happen to think we need to own our failings, to look them squarely and soberly in the eye and acknowledge that we're capable of more.
Perhaps you're one of those I have mauled down the years? If so then I'm afraid I'm unapologetic. I challenge you because I really want to know whether you believe half the stuff you claim to? And on what evidence?
You see, I strongly suspect you're guilty of a scurrilous disregard for reason. More than that, I think when pressed you'll flounder when asked to explain why you hold the faith you do. I expect you'll feel a vague awkwardness when the subject of religion is broached, and that you will strain heroically to muster any kind of coherent defence. You may, as most do, decide that a change of subject or other avoidance strategies are required. I expect I'll hear you talk about how we're going to have to agree to disagree. Please note that this won't cause me to relent. You see, I really do think your religion is daft. Sheer comedy, in point of fact. And I really do assert that one of us is wrong about the nature of reality, and I claim that this person isn't me. 

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

My Thoughts On Abortion

How do you feel about a ban on abortion? 
This is a question I have thought about a lot, and an issue which I find very difficult. As always, let's ground our discussion in some non controversial data. Those nations that ban the practice have no evidence to demonstrate that it reduces the numbers of terminations. The sad reality is that they have limited facts full stop by virtue of having lost visibility on the scale of the issue. 
Conversely, those nations with the lowest figures are those with a sensible and mature attitude towards sexuality. Parents foster strong bonds with their kids, meaning that the avenues of communication remain open, combined with school education policies that provide robust guidance on the issue in a matter of fact environment.
Note one similarity with both examples; neither can boast a figure of zero abortions. I suggest we keep this fact front and centre, because it is pivotal to the rest of my thought process.
So, accepting that whichever route taken doesn't eradicate the problem of abortion, which fork in the road are we to take? Well for me I'm fully with option two. Good child/parent relationships coupled with a robust educational system, all undergirded by a healthcare system that provides access to a range of options.
Here's another uncontroversial fact. If people practice safe sex, or abstain from sex, there's less chance of unwanted pregnancy. And this invariably means a reduction in the number of terminations, which everybody wants to see. Compare this with an alternative strategy; let's introduce a wholesale ban on adoption and limit access to healthcare and education. What are your expectations that this will yield the desired reduction in unwanted pregnancy? Is it likely that it would mean fewer abortions than the more progressive strategy employed by nations such as the Netherlands?
An important caveat; I dislike abortion. I consider it a failure on the part of society to grapple with issues of human sexuality in a sensible and mature way. Despite this I cannot seriously entertain the idea of a ban. It has never been shown to work, and it appears to expose young women to unnecessary risk when they seek out covert terminations. Let's be clear about one thing; the abortion figures are too high. And frankly the upper threshold for terminations is a disgrace. Make no mistake that late term abortions destroy what are essentially young children, which sickens and chills me. If you doubt this browse any book on pregnancy and see what you're destroying.
I recognise that I cannot hope to capture the complexities of this issue in a short blog entry. I recognise also that others have a different perspective. I reject any suggestion that due to being a man I'm excluded from the conversation, however. I'm as capable of considering social issues as you are despite the absence of a vagina.
To conclude, let's admit society has a problem. Let's build strong relationships with our kids and discuss issues of sexuality in an open and non threatening way. Lets ensure our education system is equally pragmatic and that our healthcare system offers maximum support. And let's quit finger pointing and work together to lessen this difficult social issue.

Wednesday, 21 March 2012


I once had a PE teacher called Mr Gordon. He didn't really like it that his nickname was Flash. I vividly recall him confronting me in the corridor one day and asserting that I was a nasty piece of work who would never amount to anything. Based on what he knew at the time it was probably a reasonable, albeit excessive statement. I mean, people change, don't they? How many of us look back in time and see a person almost alien to us? And why should this ever come as a surprise?
If life doesn't change us then what will? If experience doesn't morph and remould our personalities then what are we in this for? I'm comfortable looking back and acknowledging that I was a less than impressive teenager. It would be dishonest to do otherwise. Yet I've always felt strongly that what we are isn't necessarily what we're always going to be. All the same, some things can be hard to shake.
For me the words of Mr Gordon often return when I'm facing certain academic or professional challenges. By way of example consider the following; I've just completed a three day course, the first in a trio designed to give me a basic skill set to carry out my new job which starts in May. During each of these courses there will be assessments to test what I've learned and how well the knowledge has embedded. Let it be known that very few things in life phase me; yet mention the word assessment and I break into a cold sweat and default to drama queen mode. Fortunately I haven't lost control of my bodily functions but there where times today when it was close.
These tests, which everybody else seems to breeze through, are an ordeal and a horror to me. I think this is to do with a fear of failure. I'm reminded of the past, of those days when I had no qualifications and very few live options. Nobody expected me to succeed and I just never seemed to fit into a conventional educational box.
My wife Joy, who ironically is a former teacher, says that I'm not designed for the education system. I don't learn conventionally; the knowledge all piles up in my head like landfill being emptied from a dust cart. It goes in but it takes a while to organise into the necessary patterns. This is why I always finish last in tests, why I wade through them like I'm plodding through treacle. I'm inept at demonstrating my ability under controlled conditions; it just kind of leaks out over time. If there's any purpose to this blog entry, and I'm not sure there is, it would be to admit to myself that I do fear failure, and yes I do learn slowly, and that conventional learning is an ordeal for me. It's just another quirk in my already oblique personality. And frankly one I would gladly swap out.

Saturday, 17 March 2012

Don't Bash The Bish!!

I've a bit of a soft spot for Rowan Williams, our outgoing Archbishop. He's always seemed a perfectly lovely man, and I bet nobody can drink as much tea as he can. And he looks marvellous in all his finery, although it must be a bit disconcerting walking around with a comedy shark fin on one's head.
But who's going to step into the breach? And what qualities should we expect from any future candidate?
Well here's what I'm looking for. I'd want them to put truth front and centre, and demonstrate a desire to value reason and evidence. I would want them to be really honest about we now know. Its ok to promote evolution, and ok to honestly admit that vast amounts of the Bible have been changed and added to down the years. Christians deserve to know the history of their faith, so why not tell them that prior to the 4th century it just juddered along doing nothing of any importance. They should know that Constantine, under considerable influence, was the one who elevated it from being just another death cult into the religion of the empire. And why not be honest about the Gospels, too? It's acknowledged that nobody knows who wrote them, or where, or when. Given that many build lives around their contents do we not not owe these people the undiluted facts?
I'd love to see compassion as the cornerstone, too. Let's reach out to the needy, feed the hungry and educate the uneducated. And let's stop obsessing about who does what to who in the bedroom. The world won't end if a vagina get's too close to another vagina, or a penis enters someones  bum. Rest assured, the Earth will keep spinning and no puppies or kittens will spontaneously self combust.
What I'm trying to spell out is our need to give reality and common sense presidency over myth and medieval fear-mongering. So no more talk about Hell, or eternal separation from God. And above, let's dare to be brutally honest and admit that we don't know what happens when we spring our mortal coil. In the unlikely event that there's something out there in the ether lets shrug and acknowledge that none of us know a darn thing about it. So in light of that let's use everything we've learned as a species to make this planet a kinder place, a more beautiful place, and one that we care for and steward and have at least an ounce of respect for.
Here endeth the lesson. Is the kettle on? I'm dying for a cuppa.

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

When The Children Fall Silent

So, twenty two children dead in a horrific coach crash in Switzerland. Hundreds, perhaps thousands of lives altered for those left behind. Abyssal grief, hand wringing; and empty spaces that can never be filled.
I am a father to two beautiful daughters. The thought of losing them is the thing I fear most. I cannot imagine what the parents of those lost children must be feeling right now.
Funny, but I find myself thinking about my own worldview at this point, and specifically my lack of religious convictions. To me when terrible things happen they do not come with some deeper, eternal meaning. They are simply terrible, and that is all that can be said. I do not believe that the universe owes me an explanation for such misfortune; it doesn't seem to care. The suffering of vast swathes of humanity is met only by indifference from a mute and empty void.
If, however, you have a faith it occurs to me that you have to make several rather uneasy concessions. If you grant the existence of a loving God I think legitimate questions can and should be asked about events that take the lives of twenty two children. A typical Christian response may take the following forms; 1. God loves us so much that he allows us free will to make decisions both good and bad, which explains why we have suffering. 2. God always has morally sufficient reasons for allowing terrible things to happen, It's just that from our perspective we cannot hope to understand them.
I have big problems with both explanations. The free will defence is on rocky ground because it now appears that free will itself is an illusion. It has been demonstrated that our our brains make choices sometimes long before we consciously become aware of them. Functional magnetic resonance imaging techniques have been used to show this, which is a fact I find more than a bit creepy. That last sentence I wrote; my brain had chosen its composition before I became consciously aware of it. What does this mean? How do we live in the light of this new knowledge?
Moving to the question of God having morally sufficient reasons, this to me seems a perfect abdication of any attempt to understand the problem of human suffering. We humans operate in the here and now; we're wired to seek understanding and explanation now, and when I hear well meaning Christians claim that there are some things we just cannot understand I regard it as a failure to engage with the real world.
And it gets worse for the believer. Those very same people who play the divine mystery card in one sentence will confidently proclaim direct divine intervention the next. Those children you longed for are suddenly a gift from heaven, or that job, or relationship, or car park space. This is the absurd double standard. When the good times roll the Creator of the universe is steering the ship, yet when the same ship sinks to the bottom of the ocean the Captain is mysteriously absent, strangely mute, oddly unresponsive.
Ask yourself simply what is the more likely reality here; that God is a fickle cherry picker answering some prayers whilst ignoring terrible disasters, or that the events we behold are simply natural phenomena in a natural world?
It seems to me plain that option two is the more sensible. Not necessarily the most comforting, and perhaps not even the reality we would choose. But at the end of the day pain and anguish and suffering have always been with us, and it's for us as a species to stand beside each other and offer the support and the love and practical support to those stricken with suffering and loss.
Today my thoughts are with the parents, siblings, and extended family of those lost twenty two dear children. I weep for them. My heart aches for them. This is a dark and terrible day.

Thursday, 8 March 2012

Opening My Eyes

I’m trying to get into a new habit. Each morning when I get up I’m reminding myself of how little I know, of how much I have left to learn. I’m doing this because I don’t want to become some arrogant arse.
And my position is supported by the facts. Sure, I know a lot more than I used to, but compared with all knowledge out there I’m a midget in intellectual terms. I never want to reach a point where I’m no longer open to new information, where my views are so stultified and fixed that I can no longer see beyond them. That to me would be truly horrible, to have a mindset so dimmed and blinkered and hermetically sealed.
I carry in me a fear. I fear being fooled again. I know this stems from my religious days, and I know that this same anxiety can sometimes cause me to speak with undue harshness. I have a genuine love and respect for those I left behind in the wild woods of Christianity and wish them nothing but happiness and good times. Yet I also feel a burden to challenge many of the ideas that ground this worldview. Beyond this there are many other areas where I can confess only to ignorance, moral and social and political issues where I perceive, as they say, through a glass darkly. Its not that I expect to know it all; but I do want to protect myself from the sins of my past. I allowed myself to be driven not by the pursuit of truth but by a need to satisfy my own desires that the world conformed to my hopes.
It doesn’t. How could it? What was I thinking?
Actually, my thoughts were no different to many. We all want to create a safe haven around ourselves, to insulate ourselves from the things we find unpalatable and hard. At the end of the day I completely understand why anybody should want to make their stay on Earth as comfortable and stress free as possible, and I get totally why some of us adopt views and beliefs that achieve this goal.
The world is harsh. Yet it’s astonishing, too. There’s beauty and warmth and hope and real wonder to behold if we’d just open our hearts and minds to it.
Whenever I look up at the stars I’m awed. I know the atoms that formed me came from such long dead celestial giants. Whenever I appraise a sweeping landscape I understand in my core that I am connected to every living thing before my gaze.
Is this not wondrous? Does this not inspire you? If not then what possibly could? And if not then perhaps you’re one of those people whose eyes are open yet whom see precisely nothing. Do yourself a favour and starting using the senses you’re equipped with. Look and see, listen and behold. Breath in, taste, drink in the beauty of it all.
At least, that’s my humble advice.

Do You Really Hate The Truth That Much?

Do you want to know what is true? What is real? If you're sincere in that commitment there's nothing stopping you. In fact you're probably the main obstacle on the path to real truth, and perhaps some of you need to face up to that.
You see, we come with all these hopes and fears and desires, and sometimes these stop us seeing clearly.  Sometimes, we end up believing things despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. And we do this for many reasons, none of them noble but some at least more understandable than others. Take for example the indoctrinated child, that tiny creature raised in a religious home and taught all manner of lies and distortions by well meaning but deluded parents. The thing to note here is that these parents aren't evil, but instead just a bit credulous and were probably also taught similar falsehoods when they were growing up.
Make no mistake, if you addle a child's mind early enough you can cause it real harm. And isn't religion a kind of brain damage when you stop to think about it? How often does it cause grown adults to hold views we might find quaint in children, yet in mature people seem silly and infantile and absurd? This is why I give religion no respect, and why nobody else should. It's an unnecessary hurdle in the way of real knowledge, a great big boulder on the highway. And here's the really odd thing; those most avidly infected often claim insight into some ultimate truth, yet in reality the views they hold suggest that truth, if we're to use the term meaningfully, is something they actively reject. I'd even go further; I'd suggest that all religious believers are truth averse. I'd suggest they despise truth, shrink from it. Why else would they refuse to allow the light of reason to illuminate the way?
 I value truth above all else, and my pursuit of it is as impassioned as ever. So to extend respect to those who revile it to me is wrong. That's not to say that people shouldn't be free to hold whatever beliefs they choose; but it should be made plain that infantile beliefs should be treated in adults as we treat them in children. A pat on the head, a gentle smile, and loving instruction for them to go and play with the other infants.
I want to know how the world is. I wanted to be wiser tomorrow than I was today. And I intend to stand against any and all who would get in the way of that.

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Me And My Cave

Ask me a question about evolution, or about the historicity of the Gospels, or human morality, or how stars provide the ingredients that make life possible and I could entertain or bore you for hours. Ask me how I am, however, and you're liable to get radio silence. How weird is that? Why do I find it so hard to express myself in this way? Frankly I wish I could answer that. I'm beginning to wonder whether I project myself to avoid the up close and personal stuff? I just don't know how to articulate myself when asked questions that most field routinely every day. I think half the time I don't actually know how I am because I don't monitor the minute to minute micro transactions that keep my synapses busy. Ok, that's my way of saying I don't think about it much. Only then I do;  I just can't verbalise it.
I'm confusing myself. No idea whether I'm making  sense? Am I alone in this problem? Somehow I expect not. I suspect at the moment I'm carrying some tension over some personal issues, trying to chart a path between doing the right thing, and saying the hell with it and going my own way. As a guy I often feel very trapped by circumstance; that's not to say I'm ungrateful for the hand I've been dealt. It's just that everything I do needs to factor in the effect my actions have on those around me. I, like most men, just occasionally like the idea of saying fuck it, I'm doing it anyway. Only I can't. I have responsibility, and I've made choices to commit to a certain set of life circumstances. There are times, periods like the last couple of weeks, when I really want my own space, to disappear into my cave and live my life on my terms.
Selfish? Self seeking? Self gratifying? All those things. But come on, let's opt for a bit of brute honesty here, shall we? The grass is always greener.
It isn't. I know it isn't. The grass is greener when you water it. Only right know I can't be bothered to water it. I can't be bothered to commit the emotional energy to the whole enterprise.
You guessed it. I'm in my cave. And I'm not very good at letting others in.

Saturday, 3 March 2012

The Coming Gay-pocalypse!!!

For the last month or so I have been in a discussion with a number of people over at the evangelical website The subject has been whether same sex couples should be allowed to marry and enjoy equal status as traditional marital partners. And boy, I've learned a thing or two about unfounded fear. To listen to some of my evangelical opponents one could be forgiven for thinking that to allow same sex marriage would be to herald the onset of the apocalypse, or if you like the Gay-pocalypse. Before we know it marriage could mean anything, they argue. What's to stop a polygamist demanding the same treatment? Or adult-child marriage? Oh my, what's to stop some Apache transvestite pitching up in Vegas and demanding he be able to marry his horse?
Ok, I made the last one up, but the levels of hysteria appear to be distinctly disproportionate. There's a deep rooted fear that any such initiative would undermine traditional marriage and lead to societal decay.
Fine. Where's the evidence to support this?
Silence. The sound of tumbleweed drifting through a frontier ghost town.
You see, this is the thing. There is no evidence to suggest that the States that already permit same sex marriage are any less moral, or boast higher levels of dysfunction. The fears aren't grounded in any measurable, real world sense.
In fact, allow me to speculate what does ground this mass evangelical angst;
It's the simple fact that God doesn't like it when arses and genitals get too cosy with one another. It's about sex, about who is doing what with whom. If you doubt this annex the following thought; let's assume that it is perfectly permissible for men to form deep emotional connections with other men, and women with other women. Let's assume that this is a point of agreement and an uncontroversial brute fact. So it can't be the emotional aspect that bothers the faithful. So what does this leave? Well it leaves arses, and penises, and vagina's and the free expression of sexuality. The Bible frowns over homosexuality and describes it as an abomination, and it's practitioners can expect an extended stay in a fiery hell for their impulses. Well ok, so if we're going to describe being gay as unnatural could somebody explain to me why we have examples of over 1500 species within the animal kingdom forming same sex bonds and demonstrating established courting rituals? More than that, just ask yourself how many things you do on any given day that are unnatural? Is riding a bike natural? Watching television, having a shave? The list is impressive. And no I'm not being glib; I'm encouraging you to think about how you use the term natural. You'll recognise quickly that there's no consistency on your part.
As a heterosexual male I can honestly see no legal or moral impediment to denying a certain group within society the same benefits that the majority of us enjoy. The courts are clear that it's a violation, and there's simply no evidence to support the idea that same sex marriage leads to a slippery slope.
So, based on my forays into this thorny issue, what emerges is that the fears are wholly religiously motivated, and strangely lacking in empirical support. Perhaps Christians want to look to a three thousand year old book for moral guidance, but I feel no such obligation. We need to have a 21st century conversation about this.