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Category: Australia (page 1 of 7)

Meeting James Randi

There’s really only one person who qualifies as a living legend in skepticism, and it’s James “The Amazing” Randi. For decades, he’s performed magic and taken the hairbrush to spoon-benders, psychics, and faith healers. A bit of background if you’re unfamiliar with his work.

He’s also behind the “Million Dollar Challenge“, in which anyone can walk off with a million bucks if they can do supernatural feats under controlled conditions.

Last week marked Randi’s first visit to Perth as part of his “An Evening With James Randi” tour with Think Inc. Since the UWA Atheist and Skeptic Society was helping with arrangements, five of us took up the invitation to meet Randi at the airport.

Randi is 86 now, but he was in surprisingly good spirits despite what must be a grueling touring schedule. He was wheeled by members of his entourage, which included Richard Saunders of the Skeptic Zone podcast. With luggage collected, we headed to the nearest airport Dome café for some refreshment.

While we were chatting, Richard Saunders took a banknote (Mongolian, I believe he said) and split it up into two perfect squares. With one, he folded an origami pig with wings. Pigasus is his own creation. I hadn’t realised he was an origami expert. Very cool!

Ever the performer, Randi delighted us with some cigarette magic using the rolled-up other half of Richard’s banknote. Pretending to push the roll into his other hand, he palmed it instead, making it seem to disappear when the expected hand was empty.

This is the general idea:

I’ve always loved magic, but I’ve never done the sleight of hand. What I love is how magicians exploit our expectations, and make us realise how bad our assumptions can be. Important lessons for skeptics, to be sure, and probably the reason that magicians are the greatest skeptics.

There was a question on my mind. I asked Randi, “Have things changed? It used to be that in the 70s, we’d be fighting astrology, pyramid power, and Bigfoot. Now, we fight…”

“…pyramid power!” said Richard.

“Yes, exactly,” I said. “But now we also have homeopathy, anti-vaxxers, and Bigfoot. Are things moving?”

Randi thought not; people still believe a lot of the same nonsense they always have. Trying to quote accurately here: “If you go to some of the most backward places on Earth, you find people believing the same things that have since before I was around.”

It’s true. Psychics today use the same techniques they’ve used for a hundred years. It’s all a bit dispiriting. If we’re just confronted with more new nonsense along with the old nonsense, then what keeps us going?

Perhaps if there’s a bright spot, it’s this: We no longer fight alone. There’s now an organised skeptical movement taking on fakes, fools, and folly. And we have James Randi to thank for that.

Talk the Talk: Banned Books Week

We’ve been on quite a civil liberties thing lately, first with Blasphemy Day, and now with Banned Books.

I was all set to read some of Lady Chatterley’s Lover on air, but we didn’t get time. Even so, I think we would have tried it if someone had phoned in requesting it. It would have been good as a kind of readers’ theatre, with Jess as Lady Chatterley, and me as Oliver. On second thought, that might have been awkward.

One-off show: Here
Subscribe via iTunes: Here
Show notes: Here

Australia 2011 Census data: ‘No religion’ makes big gains

Data for the 2011 Australian census is out. I mentioned in a previous post that if ‘no religion’ went higher than 20%, I’d be ecstatic. Well, ecstatic I am, because we’re at 22.3 percent, up from 18.7.

Here’s the graph. Notice the red line, which is the trendline for the data for 1971–2006. The data for 2011 is way above this projection.

This places the “no religion” category in second place among religions (if it were one). It’s the only major group to post gains as a percentage of the population.

As to numbers:
2006: 3,706,553 people answered “No religion”, or 18.7%.
2011: 4,796,787 people answered “No religion”, or 22.3%.
For perspective, this means we have more people than the Uniting Church, Presbyterians, Eastern Orthodox, Baptists, Lutherans, Pentecostals, Buddhism, Muslims, Hindus, and Jews combined.
That’s over 1 million people who either dumped their religion since the last census, or came out as ‘No religion’ for the first time. So if it seems like small potatoes that we only got a 3.6% gain over the whole population, just remember that we’ve had a 29% increase in our numbers. We gained more than the entire population of the Uniting Church, in just the last five years.
The ‘No religion’ group does not include people who did not answer the religion question. This latter group has shrunk since 2006, so we’re likely pulling some people from there. I’ll bet the AFA’s “No Religion” campaign had some influence on this.
What does this mean for us atheists? Well, we have to be careful about these numbers — people who put down ‘no religion’ may not be atheists. There may be a sizeable proportion of ‘spiritual but not religious’ people in that figure. We don’t have (or I couldn’t find) specific breakdowns for ‘Atheist’ or ‘Agnostic’ categories. I’ll be looking forward to those (as well as smaller Christian categories like ‘Mormon’ or ‘Jehovah’s Witness’).
But this does mean that one in five of us has no religion, and it’s getting close to one in four. Doubtless some of those are newly deconverted, and they’re going to need support. If you’re one of the ‘old guard’ who’s been an atheist for a while now, get involved and get with a group or start your own, whether online or IRL.
It’s taken a while to get here, and it’s going to take a while longer to reduce religion to a minority, but the social trends are moving in our direction. This is great news! Now is the time to celebrate, but also time to keep up the pressure on religion by staying visible.
The next challenge will be to encourage critical thinking among the populace. We all know people who have deconverted from a religion, but who maybe haven’t made the move to skeptical rationalism. This means they’re still vulnerable to proto-religions like New Age woo, or other delusions like altMed. Critical thinking doesn’t happen automatically, and it’s something even atheists aren’t always good at. I’d like to encourage everyone to get informed, and get skeptical.

High Court Challenge to the chaplaincy upheld!

Great news — the Australian High Court has upheld Ron Williams’ challenge to the National School Chaplaincy Program.

Backstory for international readers: Back in 2006, then-Prime-Minister John Howard started the NCSP in an effort to funnel federal money to churches and give religionists unfettered access to kids in public schools. Unbelievably, the supposedly atheist Julia Gillard voted to expand the scheme.

The High Court has smacked the chaplaincy program down, but perhaps not for the best reasons. They rejected the notion that the NCSP violated the separate of church and state, but they upheld the complaint that the government shouldn’t fund it. Which is almost as good — starve the beast, right?

This is a great win for secularism and democracy and a huge fuck you to Julia Gillard, Tony Abbott, and Peter Garrett. And of course, for all the unqualified evangelical pastors suddenly robbed of their audience, who will be crying in their beer tonight. A huge finger to them all.

How about throwing some dough to Ron Williams’ legal fund, eh?

Coming soon: “No religion” in the 2011 Australian census

Data for the 2011 Australian census is coming out on Thursday, and I’m like a kid on Christmas Eve. I can’t wait to see what percentage of people listed themselves as ‘No Religion’.

Why do I care? Am I insecure in my atheism, and I need backup to feel validated? Not really; it’s just that we’re on the brink of a moment in history here. More and more of us are coming out as ‘not religious’, and it’s cool to see it grow. Sure, Thursday’s data dump gives us more numbers to crunch, but the numbers represent the stories of people who have walked away from religion (and in some cases but not all, gods and supernaturalism). This weakens the hold of religion in our society, and provides an ever-larger pool of people that could be turned on to skepticism, humanism, and other positive values.

So what should we expect the numbers to do for 2011? I grabbed the “no religion” numbers from the Australian Bureau of Statistics website, and did some plotting.

The Numbers application will give you trendlines, but it doesn’t let you extrapolate beyond the data. (Boo.) So I took the linear trendline, and laid a longer red line over it. That’s kind of bodgy; sorry about that.
Anyway, if you enlarge, you’ll find that the line crosses the 2011 axis just over 20 percent. So that’s my prediction — a little over 20%; anything more is gravy. Maybe the AFA’s “No Religion” campaign did its work, and we’ll see 22 or 23. I’d be ecstatic with 23, but I think that’s a bit high.
Place your bets in comments. More on Thursday.

Global Atheist Con: Eugenie Scott

Eugenie Scott is the Executive Director of the National Centre for Science Education. Her talk was “Reason and Creationism”.

I’ve disagreed with Scott and the NCSE over the years because of the stand she’s taken on the ‘accommodationist’ side of the science and atheism divide. It’s not because of her reluctance to fly the ‘atheist’ flag; I’m happy for the NCSE to appeal to a larger audience of possibly religious folks who would otherwise be put off by the ‘atheist’ label (see also Neil deGrasse Tyson). I also understand that the NCSE is in the business of teaching about evolution, not atheism. And so Scott has avoided the conflict. That would be okay, if she didn’t set herself against the New Atheists who want to take creationists down to the mat. New Atheists want to force the conflict between creationism and reality because they know it’s a debate they can win; accommodationists would be happy if they could fool creationists into thinking that there is no conflict between evolution and faith long enough for biology teachers could get on with their work.

The accommodationist view has always struck me as weak and disingenuous. When Scott says that she does not see a “dichotomy between science and religion or evolution and religion,” well, that’s just wrong, at least for Abrahamic religions that take their doctrine seriously. They make claims about the origin of the world, claims which many of their members take seriously, and those members reject evolution because of those claims. And every time she says that science is somehow powerless to evaluate supernatural claims, I scream. Science tells us exactly what to do with supernatural claims; bin them until they’re supported by evidence. Oh, they can’t be, because they’re not verifiable? Then that’s a problem for the believers to sort out. They need to do the work of defining what they mean by ‘god’ and backing up their claims, but they never seem to get around to it because they’re too busy preaching the word, brother.

Simply getting religious people to sign off on evolution is not the ultimate goal — the goal is getting people to reason without superstition. Non-acceptance of evolution is just a part of this larger problem, and if we don’t work on this, irrationality will pop up in other ways (e.g. climate change denialism, which the NCSE is now also fighting). And trying to do this by claiming that there’s no conflict is just fooling people, and I don’t think that even the religious will be fooled by it.

Gnu Atheists want to tell the truth. And they’re arguing from an advantageous position; when you have the facts on your side, why not argue from facts?

Well, this is an old argument, and once I get to this part, I usually regain some perspective, and remember that Scott and the NCSE aren’t the bad guys. They’re out there teaching the facts about evolution, and climate change. In fact, the NCSE news feed looks to be a good resource for evolution news. The NCSE deserve some love, even if their approach bugs the shit out of me, and even if Scott undermines her own work by saying wrong things.

To the talk.

Scott started not with biology, but with geology. There are two principles that help geologists figure out the age of a rock formation.

  • The principle of horizontality states that layers are layed down horizontally.
  • The principle of superposition tells us that lower layers are older.
But this makes life hard for a Young Earth Creationist because the earth as we see it takes longer than the 6,000 years they posit from their reading of some book or other. They allege that there hasn’t been enough time to lay all that rock down, and so they say silly things, like the Grand Canyon was laid down in a year. The geology of Coconino County, Arizona poses a special challenge for YECs because they have alternating wind-lain and water-lain layers, and that’s hard to do in a short period of time. But they take up the challenge, and try to get their work past geology editors.

Scott says that creationists see themselves as the good guys in a culture war. They reject the idea that you can be good without a god, (says Scott: “I don’t know about you, but I haven’t killed anyone in weeks!”) and see the world as a struggle between their god and materialism. But this is a linguist trick, explains Scott. Materialism has two senses that creationists conflate:

  • Methodological materialism refers to the practice of using natural explanations for the phenomena we observe, and
  • Philosophical materialism is the view that matter is all there is.

(I suppose we should add to these the idea of acquisitive materialism, concerned with getting and having the latest, which really can be destructive, IMO.)

Fighting materialism, says Scott, is a strong motivator for their attacks on science, as they try to pave the way for Christian theism. Scott has no doubt that creationists believe their schtick, but their typical modus operandi is to bypass the process of communicating with the scientific community and take their arguments directly to an undiscerning public, as in high schools and even very young children. That’s because their fight is a political and cultural one, not a scientific one.

The Three Horsemen: Act 2

Setting: A very long book-signing queue

Dramatis personae:
Richard Dawkins (RD): A scientist. A public intellectual. A colossus among men.
Daniel Midgley (DM): A Daniel Midgley

Curtain rises.

DM: Hello again!
RD: (peers at DM as if for the first time, appears to recognise) Oh, hello.
DM: (hands over a copy of ‘The Magic of Reality’) This is the copy of your book that I read to my son.
RD: I’m glad! (Signs)
DM: Do you think that disgust was the mechanism for our evolved sense of morality?
RD: Yes. I do. (Hands back books)
DM: Thank you! (exit)

End of Act II

Global Atheist Con: Richard Dawkins

Richard Dawkins is Richard Dawkins. His talk was entitled “Now Praise Intelligent Design”.

Intelligent design gets a bad rap, you know. The term’s been sullied to the point where it’s been described as ‘creationism in a cheap suit‘. But all of us rely on intelligently designed things to make our lives easier. Even Dawkins believes in intelligent design — for man-made objects, as he’s explained on Colbert.

But back to the talk. Dawkins wants us to take back intelligent design, the better to design our future intelligently. In fact, Dawkins suggests a few terms we should be taking back:

  • Morality
  • Pro-life. You know who the real pro-lifers are? Médecins Sans Frontières, that’s who.
  • Spirituality. The feeling of transcendence at seeing the night sky is available for all of us. (Personally, I never use the term ‘spirituality’ because it’s so vague and easy to misunderstand, and I don’t want to dignify it with anything important, but that’s me.)
  • Christmas. Christians are only the latest to put their stamp on the set of pagan festivals surrounding the Winter Solstice.

And, of course, intelligent design. Dawkins explained that brains and computers are the only things capable of intelligent design, and they have origins that we know and understand. It used to be that people thought that if something looked designed, it was designed. Then Darwin showed how evolution by natural selection could create things that were apparently designed. Dawkins calls this ‘neo-design’, and differentiates it from ‘paleo-design’. Evolution (paleo-design) created us, and now we create things (neo-design).

Unfortunately, says Dawkins, paleo-design is often bad design, as evidenced by the recurrent laryngeal nerve in giraffes. This nerve takes a long path down the neck, only to connect a few centimetres from where it started. The long trip was necessary because that nerve had to work in every giraffe throughout generations of evolution, so as necks got longer, the nerve had to stretch. No intelligent designer would design a giraffe this way (nor would it give us back-to-front retinas), but evolution would. It has no plan for the future. Neo-design does, but even then we can hit problem when designing big things like a society — we sometimes lack the political unanimity to carry out a solution.

Can our morality be designed and if so, how do we design it? Dawkins seemed to relish this part, as he threw out some (perhaps half-warmed) red meat to the crowd. The idea that we should get our morality from the Bible is, in Dawkins’ words, “a sick joke”. It says “Thou shalt not kill” (which anyone could work on their own), but then Moses kills 3,000 people. The New Testament isn’t much better: God couldn’t think of a better plan than to come down as his alter ego to be horrifically tortured and killed to atone for the sin of Adam (who never existed) so that he could forgive himself.

And yet, for many people, morality and religion have a very strong mental link. When the RDF commissioned a survey into people’s responses on the census, they asked people why they’d ticked the “Christian” box (that’s 54% of the total), and many responded “Because I like to think of myself as a good person.” Yet when asked “When faced with a moral dilemma, do you turn to your religion?”, only one tenth of the 54% said yes. The bulk of the 54% said they looked to their innate moral sense. Even this doesn’t tell the whole story. Inescapably, we get our morals from the time in which we live. Darwin and Huxley were oppsed to slavery, but they would have been considered reactionary and racist by today’s standards.

Dawkins then launched into a discussion of some gray areas of morality. What about euthanasia? An absolutist might offer a blanket condemnation, but a consequentialist could point out that, if prolonging life is the goal, then legal euthanasia might prolong life. How? A number of people kill themselves while they’re able to, knowing that when they become incapacitated, they wouldn’t be able to, and no doctor would be allowed to help them.

What about eugenics? asked Dawkins, and I detected a tension in the audience. After all, eugenics is something religious people hurl at us when we talk about designing our own morality. So what about it? Yes, we condemn the idea of manipulating genes to engineer ‘superior’ humans, but most people are okay with negative eugenics, that is, testing a cell for a bad gene. What’s the difference between this and positive eugenics, say, for having a blue-eyed child, or a child who is a great musician? Even Dawkins said this was farther than he wanted to go, but then pointed out that most people mould children by non-genetic means — not by manipulating genes, but by forcing the child to practice the piano for hours a day. It’s anyone’s guess as to which is more cruel, thinks I, glibly.

Dawkins finished with a discussion of how religions evolve and survive. What’s the mechanism?

1. Is it that religious people are healthier, and this helps regions to propagate?
Dawkins says the evidence for this is sketchy, and that he only mentioned it for completeness.

2. Does religion spread by piggybacking on useful things?
For example, children are susceptible to indoctrination, and that’s a good thing because accepting things that adults say gives children knowledge that helps them to survive. Religion, however, exploits this feature of childhood in parasitic fashion.

3. Does religion help groups survive?
Dawkins describes group selection as ‘silly’, but allows that some groups might have attributes that help them survive better than others. Even so, says Dawkins, that’s not proper group selection.

4. Could the question have a memetic answer?
Memes (or ideas) spread quickly throughout a population, and remain robust despite opposition. As an illustration, Dawkins showed this graphic of the London tiger rumour as it progressed through time, all tracked through Twitter. Click to go to the interactive graphic — it’s really interesting. It’s like doing an epidemiology of rumours.

Overall, good talk, with a lot of diverse foci. I’m interested to see what he gets into next.

Global Atheist Con: Ayaan Hirsi Ali

Ayaan Hirsi Ali is the author of ‘Infidel’. Her talk was entitled “The Arab Spring”.

I want to like Ayaan Hirsi Ali, but I’ve always been wary of her. I find her admirable because of what she’s been through, and her strong stand against Islam. So why the discomfort?

It’s like this: There are two ways to be anti-Islam. You can be a secularist, or you can be a racist. (No, Islam’s not a race, but people in this group conflate the two.) And while I don’t think she’s a racist, I think she got in with a lot of the very worrying anti-immigrant crowd during her time in the Netherlands, and I think she holds a lot of right-wing views, especially about support for Israel. Maybe the best way to say it is that she’s a hero that I sometimes disagree with, much like Christopher Hitchens (whose place she has stepped into). So I attended her talk ready to be convinced, and was encouraged by much of what I heard.

She started by relating the events of the Arab Spring of 2010. What would a secular spring mean to Northern Africa? Her list:

  • An end to human rights violations
  • Freedom of speech
  • Freedom of press
  • Freedom of conscience
  • Women’s rights
  • Work
  • Voting
  • Protection from violence
  • Economic growth
  • Peace with Israel
  • End to Islamic terrorism
  • Youth would develop a confidence in life before death, instead of a life after death.

However, says Hirsi Ali, what we’re seeing is not a secular spring, but rather a Muslim winter, as old repression is being replaced by religious repression.

There are, however, signs of hope.

1. Voting patterns. Secular parties aren’t winning, but they do exist.
2. The Iran uprising of 2009, which saw citizens protesting against theocrats.
3. The Muslim Diaspora: Ex-Muslims are growing, writing, and communicating with each other.
4. Freedom of expression is increasing. For example, Hamsa Kashgari, a 23 year old Saudi journalist, tweeted an imaginary meeting with Muhammad that was thought to be blasphemous. He fled Saudi Arabia, but was returned, and forced to apologise. Once you start having thoughts like these, says Hirsi, Ali, you do not go back, even if you are forced to apologise.

Hirsi Ali was especially critical of liberals in the West, who were failing to protect secularists in the Arab world. Why is this so? Her view is that these liberals are falling victim to a version of romantic primitivism. Particularly galling were middle-class Western women who convert to Islam and cover themselves. She also thinks ‘white guilt’ may apply.

Most troubling to me was Hirsi Ali’s assertion that conservatives and Christians were the ones who really comprehend the threat that Islam poses, particularly with regard to nuclear proliferation. I assume that means the people that used to be the cheering section for Team Bush, starting wars of choice with the wrong countries. Methinks most Christian conservatives don’t care much for people who look like Ayaan Hirsi Ali.

So what can be done to encourage a true Secular Spring in the Middle East? Her suggestions:

  • Develop a secular liberal narrative in the Middle East
  • Have policy training for people in these countries
  • Defeat radical Islam, which threatens our thinking. 
She mentioned that gatherings like the GAC with speeches and comedy were good, but that we need to place change on our agenda, not just gather to listen and laugh.

Global Atheist Con: Lawrence Krauss

Laurence Krauss is a physicist. His talk was titled “A Universe from Nothing”, which by no small coincidence in the title of his book.

“A Universe from Nothing” is also the title of this video he gave in 2009.

It would probably be a good idea to watch this video, rather than reading what I’m writing about it. I’m not a physicist, so I’m very likely to get it wrong. Krauss explains the origins and fate of our universe in a clear style which even Cardinal Pell would understand. (“Though he’s never thought about anything deeply in his life!” snipes Krauss.) This feeling of understanding ends immediately after the talk, leaving you with pages of notes full of gibberish. Perhaps my gibberish will make sense if you watch the talk first.

Here are some thoughts that I’m sure I got right.

• People ask, “Why is there something rather than nothing?” But nothing isn’t as nothing as we used to think it is. ‘Nothing’ has energy. Empty space is actually a brew of particles that pop in and out of existence on tiny timescales. These particles have an impact on the mass of our bodies. Gravity plus quantum mechanics allows space itself to appear from nothing. So a universe from nothing is not only plausible, but likely.

• It was once thought that the universe was slowing down, and would end in a ‘big crunch’. (I remember hearing that back in the 70s.) But now that appears to be wrong. (Krauss: “Was the data wrong? It often is. The first set of data is always wrong.”) It now appears that we live in a ‘flat’ universe that will keep expanding forever, but more and more slowly. Krauss says that only a flat universe could arise from “nothing” and keep existing long enough for us to be here.

• “The best state to be in if you’re a scientist in to be confused. And I am.”

• “The real universe is more inspiring than any fairy tale.”

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