April 18, 2011

Things I Like / Things I Don't Like

Here is a swing away from the more serious blog posts that have started infecting this blog. Here is a list of things I like. It's nice to think about things I like.

In no particular order:

  • Diet Coke
  • Chocolate
  • Patterned tights
  • Jeans
  • Glasses that fit my wonky face
  • Alone time
  • Listening to new songs over and over again
  • Arguments that aren't fights
  • Feedback
  • Speaking French
  • Crazy lady-shoes
  • Boobs
  • People dressed flamboyantly
  • The snooze button
  • Hair dyed a completely unnatural colour
  • Go-karting
  • Drawing
  • Writing
  • Being tired and not having to do anything
  • Taking my shoes off at the end of the day
  • Being retweeted
  • Board games
  • Nudity
  • Interesting tattoos
  • Thongs
  • When you're able - just for a moment- to look up and realise how vast the universe is
  • Dead arms
  • Making other people laugh
  • Really sour sweets

And here are some things I don't like:

  • Pineapple
  • Meeting new people
  • Colouring
  • Engaging with celebrities in person
  • Explaining jokes
  • Small talk
  • Last minute invitations
  • Hardcore film violence
  • Feet
  • Having a body that seems to have no comfortable sitting position
  • G-strings
  • People who talk rubbish that you don't know well enough to challenge
  • Injustice beyond my influence
  • Perfume

April 15, 2011

The Road From Damascus

I am an atheist.

I used to be a Christian, in the sense that I believed in God and Jesus and the gospels and some of the other vagueries of the New Testament. My primary school told me New Testament literalism and that all the things that Jesus did were true and that God was love and all of the wibbly-wobbly stuff that the Bible teaches. We did not cover the Old Testament, but I knew the old stories like Noah's Ark and Adam and Eve. We were taught they were metaphors and symbols. And I believed everything I was taught, because when you're a kid, you do. That's how you learn and develop - you look to your elders to guide you and grant you knowledge. If they told me the sky was held up by magnets, I'd believe that and - like with all the religious doctrine - grout over all the logical cracks and holes because I just assumed I was too young or stupid to understand why some things didn't make sense.
The prodigal son. I never understood that. It made no sense to me at all. A loving God who sends people to hell? Didn't understand that. What age will people be in heaven and will we recognise each other, what is there to do in heaven and will we be allowed to do all the naughty, but fun, things we weren't allowed to do on Earth? These were all the kind of questions I thought about from about eight years old but I just thought I was too stupid to understand the solution. In fact, I was too modest to understand that these were probably pretty good questions and that I should have been demanding answers.
I remember I once asked my RE teacher why envy was a sin if God said that He Himself was 'a jealous God' (Deut.). The answer given was that it was 'a different kind of jealous that was subtle and beyond my understanding.'. I totally bought that. What was wrong with me?(1)

I continued to believe in God throughout right up until I was around 23. I stopped going to church in my early teens because I found it a bit boring and irrelevant (though the Vicar was very nice and always remembered my name). I never reall acted out my faith through practice; I had a sense of a God existing somehow in the aether and watching us and my belief was that to be a believer and good person was enough to be a good Christian and get to heaven.
I think the hook that kept me clinging to my faith so long was fear. Now, Britain is a mostly secular country where the vast, vast majority of its population really don't give a crap about religion. They'll have a vague kind of faith and belief but it doesn't dominate their lives or society. Religion wasn't rammed down my throat at all. And yet, the idea of God watching me was very scary. It crept into my mind when I did something wrong, when I questioned my believe, when I considered my own life and how it would look to Jesus when I died. I had these genuine thoughts in my head and believed it was definitely safer to hang on to my faith than to let it go - call it a crude Pascal's Wager.
I remember learning about quantum mechanics in University and the Copenhagen Interpretation of the entangled particle problem (2). I remember distinctly thinking that day, 'ah - there is wiggle room for God here. This is where God must act.'. It was a despereate attempt to god-of-the-gaps myself into maintaining (what I considered to be) a rational belief in God.

So what changed me? It's cliché time: Richard Dawkins. Now people give Richard Dawkins a lot of bad stick. Based on the criticism of him I've observed, the bile towards him seems to be based on a straw man charicature of him set up by hyperbolic religious defenders. He really isn't shrill or militant at all. He has a kind of Latin-teacher-esque, old school, hardened personality but he's not angrily shouting down religion, puffing his cheeks red and trying to destroy everyone's right to be religious. He's actually very calm and gentle. But, I digress.
I picked up The God Delusion not actually knowing what it was. I had just seen a poster for it saying it was a great read. I actually thought the title was a metaphor and didn't realise it was about religion at all until partway through the first chapter. I found it incredibly interesting. It delved into the parts of the Bible that church and school ignored; it addressed the very questions I had been asking myself and made me feel less of a fool for thinking that way; it laid out very clear, very calm arguments for it's position. It allowed me to let go, without fear or foolishnes, of theism.
And that's when I indulged in skepticism (3).

Skepticism suited me to a T. My mind approaches things pretty logically and I am very keen to understand why something is the way it is. Why have people come to this conclusion? Why do people do things this way and not that way? Why is the sky blue? Give me a good reason.
The interesting thing is, most people are swayed by a good narrative. This is how British Newspapers operate - they will sell you an emotional hook and pummel you with it to get you on their side. They won't give you a hook reason for their shouty headlines, they will panic the shit out of you or fill you with rage, or love, or empathy or xenophobia. Because that's how people operate - humans are 'designed' to respond to stories (4); we are social beings and it allows us to work together and fight together.
I like stories and I respond to an angry editorial like anyone else. But following my move into skepticism I now ask 'why'. What is the evidence to back up your opnion, Ms. Editorialist? Show me your working. If I'm going to stop giving my kids vaccines, you better give me a bloody compelling argument, I don't care how loud you yell at me.

And thus we return to religion. The ultimate emotional hook. God made the world - isn't it pretty and wondrous and magical? The whole concept of being alive among amazing flora and fauna - it's so divine and wonderful. The idea of a super-ultra-mega-Dad that loves you so hard he will always be with you is a tremendous comfort (even though you know you stil can't stand in front of a moving bus). Not only that, he's going to send to to an even more amazing place when you die with everything you ever wanted and you will live forever. But also, if you're not good and if you don't follow these complicated and vague rules you will burn and be tortured forever in Hell. So play by the rules.

1) This is horrible. This is what you do to children to keep them quiet: 'be good and you'll get a sweetie; be naughty and you'll get a smacked ankle. Except it's not just to keep kids quiet for half and hour, it's to keep entire societies quiet forever.
2) Why, why, why do you believe this? There isn't any reason to believe it. An old book is not good enough.
3) You can make truly horrendous decision based on bad reasoning. Look at the horrors the are following the vaccine scare. Children are dying of preventable diseases because a bad study scared the hell out of parents.

I am an atheist because these is no reason to believe in God or spirituality. I am an antitheist because religion can cause tremendous harm to both people and society, directly and indirectly. It's a bad, archaic foundation from which to make potentially life-changing decisions.
I don't want to restrict people's beliefs. I want people to have to freedom to worship and pray and take part in whatever beliefs and rituals they want. But while I respect their freedom to believe, I don't respect their beliefs. Their beliefs are nonsense, as magical and wonderful and imaginative as they may be. Keep it to fiction.

(1) - Answer: I was young and naive and accepting of adults' wisdom
(2) - tl;dr, but the idea behind CI is that properties of two 'twin' particles are not actually set until they are observed. At the point they are observed, both particles instantaneously gain their fundamental properties, not matter how far away from each other they are.
(3) I spell it with a "k" because skepticism as a movement and society seemed to have universally adopted to "k" spelling, though it means exactly the same thing as "scepticism" really.
(4) Hence why I am currently writing skeptical fairy tales.