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Category: skepticism (page 2 of 3)

Terry Jones would “think twice” about satirising religion today

I’m always up for a bit of Monty Python, so I read this interview with Terry Jones with interest.

The Life Of Brian star says he never believed the 1979 comedy about Jesus would be as controversial as it was at the time. He certainly never expected people still to be discussing it now.

Jones, 69, says he and his fellow comics were able to make the film only because, at the time, religion “seemed to be on the back burner”.

He said: “I never thought it would be as controversial as it turned out, although I remember saying when we were writing it that some religious nutcase may take pot shots at us, and everyone replied, ‘No’.

“I took the view it wasn’t blasphemous,” he tells Radio Times. “At the time religion seemed to be on the back burner and it felt like kicking a dead donkey.” But he says: “It’s come back with a vengeance and we’d think twice about making it now.

It’s true that religion has come roaring back since the secular 70s, and we’re still feeling it now. But why would he think twice about making Life of Brian now? Python usually dealt out their surrealism with a light touch, but they certainly didn’t shy away from institutional targets. It wasn’t all kicking dead donkeys. (Usually it was dead parrots.) I hope it was an off-the-cuff remark.

Asked if he would make a satirical film about Muslims now, he replied, “Probably not – looking at Salman Rushdie. I suppose people would be frightened.”

I can’t tell you how disappointing I find this comment. I guess our heroes don’t stay young and argumentative forever. But it shows me that we really can slip backwards. Religions, more today than ever, take themselves too seriously, and try to claim for themselves a respect that’s way out of proportion to their truthfulness. The antidote is blasphemy and satire — the kind Monty Python was so good at. Thankfully, a new wave of skeptical satirists has arisen, and we can now enjoy Ricky Gervais, Tim Minchin, Sue Ann Post, Eddie Izzard, Julia Sweeney…

I’m missing people. Who’s on your list of funny atheists?

Three Card Monte

Everybody knows not to play Three Card Monte, right? It’s an old scam that relies on a little sleight of hand and a lot of psychology.


It’s not just one operator, but a whole team, including confederates who make winning look easy, and blockers who separate you from your more sensible friends. And if you do manage to pick the Ace, a shill will bet more on the wrong card so the dealer will take their fake bet instead. There will even be some ‘muscle’ on hand to give you a few broken ribs if you make trouble.

It’s fascinating to watch, but it’s a dangerous game, and you always lose. Don’t play.

Better hurry and watch this.

Here’s a presentation I made last week for the UWA Atheist and Skeptic Society. It’s called “End of the World… Again” and it’s about the Family Radio 21 May Non-Rapture. If you’re one of the saved, you’ll need to hurry and watch it before you go up, but I guess you won’t really need it. If you’re one of the doomed souls, then you get about five months.

Unfortunately, the video didn’t come through on the feed. All you get is the sound.

The End of the World… Again (Audio) from UWA Atheist & Skeptic Society on Vimeo.

So play the audio, and while that’s going, sort through this PDF for the slides. It’s a bit more work, but what did you expect during the Tribulation?

By the way, what are we going to call this failed prophecy? How about ‘Apocalypse Not’?

UPDATE: I muffed that scripture. It didn’t say ‘Two women will be in a bed.’ It said ‘Two women shall be grinding together’. Which I suppose you could take how you wanted.

What atheism means to me

Reverberations are still being felt from PZ’s blog post last week. He complained about “dictionary atheists” who were overly specific about the definition of atheism. Singled out for his annoyance was something I’ve said many times:

Atheism is not a belief. It is a lack of belief.

Or when I’m feeling like breaking out the first order predicate calculus:

Atheism is not a “belief” in “no gods”. It’s “no belief” in “gods”. As such, atheism doesn’t make any claims. It’s a reaction to the claims of theists.

And so on.

As if in response, PZ says:

Dictionary Atheists. Boy, I really do hate these guys. You’ve got a discussion going, talking about why you’re an atheist, or what atheism should mean to the community, or some such topic that is dealing with our ideas and society, and some smug wanker comes along and announces that “Atheism means you lack a belief in gods. Nothing more. Quit trying to add meaning to the term.” As if atheism can only be some platonic ideal floating in virtual space with no connections to anything else; as if atheists are people who have attained a zen-like ideal, their minds a void, containing nothing but atheism, which itself is nothing. Dumbasses.

But but but!

I worried that PZ was getting away from good reasoning. The dictionary definition of atheism is very useful, if only for rhetorical purposes. Not advancing a claim means you don’t have to provide evidence, which is very handy for me. And in the case of gods, the burden of evidence really does belong to their claimants. Which puts the atheist on safe ground.

True, sometimes I do find myself speaking of “atheism qua movement” as being more than just lack of belief. For me, becoming an atheist and rejecting gods and supernaturalism — provisionally, of course — has been the gateway to a new way of thinking that has made my life better.

But how did a non-position do that? Since atheism is not of itself a philosophy or set of principles or anything like that, what kind of positive value does it impart? How can it help humanity or advance human knowledge, or really, do anything if it doesn’t of itself put forth any claims or do any of the things a philosophy usually does?

Let me use my subjective experience to untangle this.

My deconversion only became possible because I decided that I cared what was true more than I cared for my religion of origin. In the years leading to my deconversion, I learned more about how to think critically, and how to be skeptical about claims. Though my religion taught that I was to discount reason — sorry, “man’s reason” — I decided that it was better than the selective and convenient reasoning that people at church engaged in. And I learned more about the scientific method. Once those were in place, it was just a matter of time before I saw the claims of religion for what they were.

What I’m saying is that atheism didn’t get me to atheism — these other things did. Atheism was the result.

Which puts me where PZ already is: Atheism is not a philosophy — it’s a conclusion.

In that Montreal talk, I explained that there is more to my atheism than simple denial of one claim; it’s actually based on a scientific attitude that values evidence and reason, that rejects claims resting solely on authority, and that encourages deeper exploration of the world. My atheism is not solely a negative claim about gods, but is based on a whole set of positive values that I will emphasize when talking about atheism. That denial of god thing? It’s a consequence, not a cause.

What got me to that consequence — and what I’ve worked into my life since — are a number of positive -isms.

  • Secularism — I think people shouldn’t be allowed to use their god-belief as a way of controlling the behaviour of others, particularly children and those who don’t believe in the religion. A secular society means that everyone’s religion gets treated the same. That’s fair.
  • Rationalism — Having a commitment to using reason as a guide.
  • Skepticism — Being critical of claims. Asking for evidence. Asking “How do you know?”
  • Humanism — I’ve held off on calling myself a humanist so far, but if someone mistook me for one, I wouldn’t mind. I think it has much to recommend itself. The humanist slogan “Good Without God” is one that stirs this godless heart.
  • And of course, the scientific method — using publicly available observation and evidence confirmed by multiple sources to separate fact from fantasy.

These positive values are bound up in my atheism, and that of others whose stories I’ve read. So is it right to say that atheism is separate from these values? Well, they’re not all the same thing. Not every skeptic is an atheist. And atheists are not necessarily rationalists. So while these -isms are not synonymous with atheism (unfortunately), they do tend to cluster around atheism, to the extent that they get associated with atheism, even though they are not atheism themselves.

I think people use “atheism” as a kind of shorthand for these other positive values. Our minds work like that. We make little logical leaps all the time without noticing. So if I speak of atheism as a positive value, I hope you’ll understand what I’m doing. I’m leaving behind a strict dictionary defition of atheism, and using it as a way of talking about all the positive things.

So I get what PZ is on about. Hang the dictionary definition of atheism! Enough of arguing with the careful tweezers! These tools are our spaceship, and atheism is the rocket fuel!

Well, it’s not really rocket fuel, but I hope you know what I mean.

Can you prove that a god doesn’t exist?

Hellmut’s recent comment on ontology was so good that I think it deserved a new post. We have a distinct lack of evidence that dogs can’t fly. But can we prove it? Hellmut explains:

Actually, you can’t prove that dogs can’t fly. Somewhere in the space-time continuum, there might be a dog that can fly.

The precedence for that insight was Francis Bacon’s famous statement about white swans. Since every swan anyone had ever seen had been white, Bacon concluded that all swans are white.

Then we discovered black swans in Australia.

Logically, we cannot prove universal statements, i.e. claims about anything that is supposed to always be true.

Likewise, we cannot disprove existential statements because somewhere, sometime beyond the current reach of our senses, there might be a purple cat with five eyes and seven legs.

It’s the old adage: You can’t prove a negative. And in fact, I wouldn’t try. I’m an atheist because I find the claims of theism lacking in evidence, not because I’ve proven the non-existence of a god.

But this is only partly true. Some negatives can be proven. I can say for certain that there are no square circles. I can also say that there are no married bachelors. (Not unless we redefine those words beyond conventional recognition.) The existence of these things would entail a contradiction in terms, and that’s not allowed.

What about a god? Well, the concept of god is defined so poorly that I can’t be sure that there isn’t one lurking around in this big universe of ours. But I can be quite sure that the Christian god does not exist. According to the claims of its believers, such a being would entail some logical contradictions:

  • He would be all-loving, yet condemn people to suffer eternal punishment.
  • He would know the future before we do it, yet allow free will.
  • He would be able to do anything, and yet not. (Ever hear the one about god making a stone so big that he can’t lift it? Oh, you have.)
  • He’d be all-good, yet allow unspeakable evil to occur.
  • Wouldn’t being all-good and all-powerful make him powerless to do evil things?
  • I suppose that’s not a problem for the biblical god, who does evil things all the time, but then that raises omnibenevolence issues.
  • And he would be perfect, yet somehow need to be worshipped.

There’s nothing new about these contradictions, and people have tried to resolve them with varying degrees of success for a long time. Yet they persist.

It’s all very easy for me as a ‘weak atheist‘ to sit back and demand evidence, especially when believers refuse to provide it. Having done that for a while, I’m now feeling an urge to assail the problem on its own turf and make some claims of my own. Consider this, then, a tentative exploration of the boundary between weak and strong atheism, and a possible avenue for the disproof of a particular deity, even if it’s not a blanket denial of all possible gods in the universe.

Required viewing:

Extraordinary Claims

Love the look of this website — Extraordinary Claims — by the Centre for Inquiry Canada. Love the content too. It’s a rundown of a whole crop of bogus ideas, from Allah to Xenu.

From the blog:

Why is belief in Bigfoot dismissed as delusional while belief in Allah and Christ is respected and revered? All of these claims are equally extraordinary and demand critical examination.

At CFI Canada we challenge ideas and ask tough questions to promote reason, science, secularism and freedom of inquiry.

I think I could read this all afternoon. There goes today’s productivity.

And if you’ve read the website, why not ride the bus? Only catch is, you have to be in Toronto.

The atheist group behind last year’s controversial bus ads suggesting “there’s probably no God” is rolling out a provocative new set of posters on buses across the country that places Allah beside Big Foot and Christ beside psychics.

They will hit Toronto streetcars in January, pending final approval from the Toronto Transit Commission, said Justin Trottier, national executive director of the Centre for Inquiry, an atheist organization. After the Toronto debut, the organization plans to post the ads to buses in Calgary, Vancouver, Ottawa, Saskatoon and Montreal.

The rest of us can but hope to have such liberal-minded bus advertisers.

Supernatural thinking can be deadly

A horrible story from France reminds us yet again why it’s always a bad idea to jump to supernatural conclusions.

Thirteen people were watching TV in a flat, when one of the men heard the baby crying. So he got up to get a bottle for the baby. Apparently he wasn’t wearing any clothes at the time.

“The man got up to prepare a bottle for the baby when his wife, seeing him, screamed ‘It’s the devil, it’s the devil’,” she explained.

In the confusion following this apparent case of mistaken identity, the naked man’s sister-in-law stabbed him in the hand and he was ejected through the front door of the flat. When he attempted to get back in, panic erupted.

“The other occupants of the flat fled by jumping out of the window,” Faivre said. According to police, one man jumped with the two-year-old in his arms and crawled two blocks away to hide in bushes, screaming: “I had to defend myself.”

The two-year-old died in hospital, another victim of superstition.

If you’re trying to explain something, you can go with natural explanations or supernatural ones. Natural explanations are always better. For one thing, you can check them out. And if you have two natural explanations for something, it’s possible to figure out which one is better experimentally. But how do you distinguish between two supernatural explanations? Who made the world, Elohim or Zeus? Or perhaps the Flying Spaghetti Monster?

But supernatural explanations are extremely tempting. They’re easy to come up with and they don’t require understanding anything at all. Saying that a god made the world is easier than understanding biology and cosmology.

In my Mom’s final days, she would sometimes call out the names of deceased family members. My family tended to favour a supernatural explanation for this: the spirits of these people were in the room, waiting to take Mom to a heavenly world. (That they were waiting to take her to Hell didn’t seem to occur to them. Observation: People only arrive at supernatural conclusions that support whatever narrative they buy into.) But there are many natural reasons why she might have called out names. Perhaps she was seeing hallucinations. Perhaps she was calling out lots of names at random, and we only noticed those that were dead. I noticed that she also called out the names of living people, as well as the names of people not in the family. (There was ‘Warren’ — we don’t know a Warren — as well as Charlemagne.) It took a bit of thought and knowledge to come up with these natural explanations, but in general my family liked the supernatural ones better.

The idea of spirits is a very pervasive one, but imagine the implications. There are unseen beings which could possibly be all around you. They might be watching you (yes, even in the bathroom), listening to you, and forming opinions on the things you’re doing. It would be easy to see how this belief could lead to a kind of paranoia. How could it do otherwise? Why wouldn’t you jump out of a window to avoid an evil supernatural enemy?

Supernatural thinking does nothing to advance our understanding. It’s the kind of thinking that kills people.

The Medium Challenge

Many thanks to everyone who has responded to the news of my mother’s death. I’ve appreciated everyone’s comments, and I was especially intrigued by this one from a long-time commenter.

I would love you to meet my good friend, I’ve spoken of her before, the clairvoyant one.

I would like you to test her objectively, with your atheistic views intact. Ask her to get in touch with your mother.

I should add (for the religious minded amongst your readers) she is a pure Catholic – purest of pure hearts. And I should also add I am almost an expert on the biblical views on visionaries, prophets, and the like. So no-one can argue badly against her without my intervention!

She is likely to get some wisdom and advice from your mother – you can test it for yourself.

I’m challenging you to a duel of sorts, on belief.

Now, I don’t think spirits exist, since no one’s yet presented evidence for them. And the idea of having a medium contact dead relatives is silly. If my Mom’s going to go to the trouble of crossing boundaries of time, space, and matter to give me a message, then I think she’d come to me, and not someone who has to fish around for information, saying “I’m getting the colour red; what does that mean to you?”

I don’t like what psychics and mediums do. I think they’re either fooling themselves into thinking they can communicate with spirits, or they’re vultures, preying on the grief and desperation of the bereaved. Their techniques are well-known — cold reading is something that you can learn to do. You throw out a lot of suggestions, wait for the subject to feed you information, take credit for the hits, and hope they forget all the misses.

In short, I’m with this guy.

It’s the whole problem of rigour. Going to a medium wouldn’t be a good test for me, since I’m as capable of fooling myself as anyone else. (And maudlin emotionalism, too. After Dad died, I cried watching Blades of Glory, for Pete’s sake. On a plane! It doesn’t take much when you’re in a state.)

With all that in mind, I think the Medium Challenge is a great idea. Even though I don’t believe in spirits and psychic phenomena, I could be wrong, and if we don’t do the experiment, we won’t learn anything new. So I’d like to run the experiment. But it’s going to be a controlled experiment. I want to get not one, but three clairvoyants, psychics, mediums, what have you. As a control, I’ll also need three non-mediums — people who don’t believe in psychic power or readings — doing their best at their own readings.

To make sure I’m not feeding the mediums information, some tight controls will have to be in place. I will be obscured from view by a screen, so the readers won’t be able to read my actions. (It should be all the same to the spirits.) I will only respond to direct questions, and I will only say “yes” and “no”. Other than that, I’ll be very helpful, truthful, and accommodating. The test will be whether the mediums are able to get hits with any greater frequency than the non-mediums, or random chance.

I’d like to video this and turn it into a programme — YouTube at the least, possibly more. Full recordings of all the sessions will be made available via the Internet. And — this is important to me — I’ll be publishing the results no matter what they are, even if they run counter to my current belief. (Or those of the psychics.)

The test needs to be blind, so I won’t know who the mediums or non-mediums are. For this reason, Maureen has kindly agreed to assist in lining up the readings for various nights in November or thereabouts. So if you would like to volunteer as a medium or a non-medium (you-know-who, your friend has priority), please contact her at

I still need to work out the particulars of the experiment, so watch this space for the full list of rules and conditions here in comments.

Mobile phones and cancer

A study shows that mobile phone towers do not cause cancer. Good to know.

British scientists who conducted the largest study yet into cell phone masts and childhood cancers say that living close to a mast does not increase the risk of a pregnant woman’s baby developing cancer.

In a study looking at almost 7,000 children and patterns of early childhood cancers across Britain, the researchers found that those who developed cancer before the age of five were no more likely to have been born close to a mast than their peers.

And in this article, Bernard Leikind explains why mobile phones themselves cannot cause cancer.

One watt (the amount of energy emitted from mobile phones) is much smaller than many other natural energy flows that no one suspects might cause cancer. In my Skeptic paper, I show that the average energy production in my body as I go about my life is about 100 Watts. I also show that while I jog on my local gym’s treadmill for half an hour, I produce 1100 or 1200 Watts. This energy, produced in my leg muscles, travels throughout my body including my brain, and I sweat a lot. My body’s temperature does not change much. No one believes that my frequent treadmill sessions cause cancer. If the cell phone’s less than 1 Watt causes cancers, then why doesn’t my exercise session’s more than 1000 Watts cause cancer?

Perhaps if people hear this enough times, they will start to believe it. We live in hope.

Amcal experts?

Here’s the new ad for Amcal, a pharmacy chain. I caught this ad last night in a rare spate of TV watching.

So I popped down to my local Amcal chemist. Along with perfumes, diapers, and magazines, here’s what I found.

Lots and lots of homeopathy. The message is starting to get out that homeopathy doesn’t work, but it seems the chemists are either clueless, or they can’t resist all the tasty tasty money that it brings.

Bach flower essences are also popular, but just as dodgy. “Traditionally used to relieve feelings of stress”, it says.

This is a bottle of some patent medicine. If you look closely, it says, “With creosote.” That’s not a warning; I think it’s meant to be a selling point.

This is supposed to be for migraines. It’s mostly just lavender oil.

And lots of ear candles. Everybody knows these are bogus, right? A brochure says that in addition to sucking the wax out of your ears, they can restore your harmonic energy balance. I asked, if they don’t restore my harmonic energy balance, do I get my money back? They said no.

And check it out — colloidal silver, ffs.

I don’t think my local chemist is atypical. Chemists around here have real medicine that works, but they don’t mind selling a bit of the fake stuff on the side. So if you walk into a chemist expecting expert advice, you might get it, or you might shell out good money for a lot of crap.

People look to pharmacies as places where they can get accurate information about health and drugs. Maybe pharmacists don’t ask for this reputation, and it’s an expectation that the public has created. Which would let the pharmacists off the hook.

But now that Amcal is embracing its image that their people are ‘experts’ (and trading off of this image), then they have a responsibility to provide expert advice and educate the public, and not supply fake cures just because the unwary will pay for it.

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