This was the title of a meeting organised by the Bristol University Atheist Agnostic and Secular Society on 1st November. The meeting wasn’t recorded, but here is (more or less) what I said.
I’m not quite sure why I’m here, because the fantasies of religion seem to me much like the fantasies of quack medicine, not only morally offensive, but also simply boring. Fruitless speculations about the existence of gods is about as useful a way to spend time as fruitless speculations about whether there really are fairies at the bottom of your garden.
Of course people are free to believe in any daft thing they want, as long as it doesn’t harm anyone else. The problem is that daft beliefs about religion, just like daft beliefs about medicine, do harm other people. I suppose it’s my job to point out that neither religion nor philosophy are likely to allow you to understand the world, whereas science has, at least, got a chance of doing so. It has made a small start already.
What I like about science is that it is undogmatic. When the facts change you are forced to change your mind. If the facts contradict your theory, then your theory is wrong.
Very often, you have simply to say “I don’t know”. In contrast, religious people virtually never change their minds and very rarely say they “don’t know”. They invent pseudo-explanations, like “god did it”, for just about anything, and justify it with quotations from holy books. The holy books are so inconsistent, often downright weird, that you can pick a citation that justifies whatever your opinion was in the first place. You might as well cite a book of magic spells.
I’d maintain that philosophers of science have contributed very little of substance to the conduct of science, but I’ll miss that bit out because I wrote about it last week,.
Dr Baggini, among others, has claimed that the “new atheists” are too strident, and that they only antagonise moderate atheists (see The New Atheist Movement is destructive, though there is something of a recantation two years later in Religion’s truce with science can’t hold).
I disagree, for two reasons.
Firstly, people like Richard Dawkins are really not very strident. Dawkin’s book, The God Delusion, is quiet and scholarly. It takes each of the arguments put forward by religious people, and dissects them one by one. It’s true that, having done this, he sets forth his conclusions quite bluntly. That seems to me to be a good thing. If your conclusions are stifled by tortuous euphemisms, nobody takes much notice. Just as in science, simple plain words are best.
The second, and more important, reason that I like Dawkin’s approach is that I suspect it’s the only approach that has much effect. There is a direct analogy with my own efforts to stop universities giving BSc degrees in subjects that are not science. Worse, they are actively anti-science. Take for example, homeopathy, the medicine that contains no medicine. I started by writing polite letters to vice chancellors. Usually they didn’t even have the courtesy to reply. All efforts to tackle the problem through the “proper channels” failed. The only thing that has worked was public derision. A combination of internal moles and Freedom of Information Act requests unearthed what was being taught on these courses. Like Westminster’s assertion that “amethysts emit high Yin energy”. Disclosure of such nonsense and headlines like
“Professor Geoffrey Petts of the University of Westminster says they “are not teaching pseudo-science”. The facts show this is not true
are certainly somewhat strident. But they have worked. Forget the proper channels if you want results. Mock what deserves to be mocked.
Religion is often immoral
When a pair of besuited Mormons knock on the front door, there are two reactions. Most people hide under the kitchen table. I don’t. I invite them in. It usually goes something like this. “why don’t you believe in god?”. To which I respond, “I don’t believe in god on moral grounds. All religions that I have encountered teach immorality”
This response is greeted with incredulity and indignation. You may think, is a bit strong, so let’s have some examples. The bible says (amongst many contradictory things)
Deuteronomy , chapters 7 & 20. and Joshua, chapters 6, 8, 10, 11, 14, etc.: After wandering in the desert for four decades, God ordered the Hebrews to invade the "promised land" and totally exterminate "the Hittites, and the Amorites, the Canaanites, and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites"leaving "alive nothing that breathes." They were to fight and kill the soldiers of these groups, and then murder the defenseless elderly, women, youths, children, infants, and newborns. The book of Joshua records the progress of the genocide, city by city:
20. And they shall say unto the elders of his city, This our son is stubborn and rebellious, he will not obey our voice; he is a glutton, and a drunkard.
21. And all the men of his city shall stone him with stones, that he die: so shalt thou put evil away from among you; and all Israel shall hear, and fear.
and the Koran says
“The woman and the man guilty of adultery or fornication—flog each of them with hundred stripes: Let no compassion move you in their case, in a matter prescribed by God, if ye believe in God and the last day.”[Quran 24:2] “
If these aren’t deeply immoral, I don’t know what is. This gratuitous cruelty isn’t just Old Testament either. This is what persuaded me that religion is bad.
When I was about 15 I went to a summer camp which turned out to be run by christian evangelists (my parents swore they didn’t realise that it was a brain-washing camp). I was converted and became rather earnest. Then, at 18, I met a nurse. Being on Merseyside, she was Irish. And being 18, I was rather interested in sex. The price of sex was to go with her to mass, so of course I went. It was Easter and they were doing the Twelve Stations of the Cross. I still recall watching this, with mounting horror. The priests were just enjoying it too much. It was almost like a sado-masochistic orgy. The priests seemed to be almost masturbating. It was simply sick. Quite revolting.
Once, after walking in the Dolomites, I wrote to the Italian Tourist Authority to complain that my holiday was spoiled because every time I got to the top of a mountain, I was greeted with a scene of graphic torture (a crucifix). It is very offensive to any normal human.
Of course, since then, it’s turned out that a large number of priests were not just enjoying the torture in their heads, but had been acting out their nasty fantasies through rape of real children. And that the Church (including the present pope) had gone to great lengths to conceal their activities from m the public and from the police.
The constant emphasis on guilt is horrible for adults. But telling happy young children that they are guilty sinners is obnoxious. It is a form of child abuse. And catholic schools that decorate classrooms with scenes of torture corrupt young minds. Indoctrinating children in one particular sect of one religion are not part of a civilized society. It promotes misunderstanding and prejudice between one child and another. This sort of divisive brainwashing is ghastly.
Ludicrously, when you pass 18, the law reverses itself. Up to the age of 18 you are encouraged by moral politicians (you know, like Blair and Gove) to promote religious segregation but once you pass 18, that sort of behaviour would, very properly, be illegal. The Universities Tests Act (1871) made it illegal for a university discriminate on grounds of religion, as governments actively encourage schools to do. (The Act was passed, of course, to bring Oxford and Cambridge up to the standards set by UCL in 1826.)
Then, of course, there is the church’s contribution to the spread of AIDS, by telling direct lies about condoms. The list goes on and on.
And these people want to tell us about morals? You must be joking.
When Napoleon mentioned to the great mathematician, Laplace, that God is not mentioned in the Me’chanique ce’leste, Laplace replied, " Sire, I did not need that hypothesis." When Napoleon later reported this reply to Lagrange, the latter remarked, "Ah, but that is a fine hypothesis. It explains so many things."
History doesn’t relate whether Lagrange’s comment was deeply ironical, but I like to think it was. It hits the nub of the problem. Religion explains nothing whatsoever, just muddles the ideas, and replaces one unknown with another.
At the time of the Reformation, Sir Thomas More was fond of burning heretics at the stake (merely possessing a bible in English was enough to get you tortured to death). .The protestants were no better, of course: they eventually decapitated More. But it won’t do to say that these things happened in the 16th century. In the 20th Century the pope declared the heretic-burner to be saint (one of the curious bits of make-believe that catholics seem to enjoy). Worse still, in 2000, Pope John Paul II declared Thomas More to be the “heavenly patron of statesmen and politicians” (whatever that means).
And of course it still goes on. Catholics and protestants kill each other. Sunnis and Shias kill each other. It’s characteristic of organisations whose beliefs are based on myths to be deeply aggrieved by people whose myths differ in some trivial detail. It happens in alternative medicine too. It’s all summed up in the "religious joke of the year".
I was walking across a bridge one day, and I saw a man standing on the edge, about to jump. I ran over and said: "Stop. Don’t do it."
"Why shouldn’t I?" he asked.
"Well, there’s so much to live for!"
"Are you religious?"
He said, "Yes."
I said, "Me too. Are you Christian or Buddhist?"
"Me too. Are you Catholic or Protestant?"
"Me too. Are you Episcopalian or Baptist?"
"Wow. Me too. Are you Baptist Church of God or Baptist Church of the Lord?"
"Baptist Church of God."
"Me too. Are you original Baptist Church of God, or are you Reformed Baptist Church of God?"
"Reformed Baptist Church of God."
"Me too. Are you Reformed Baptist Church of God, Reformation of 1879, or Reformed Baptist Church of God, Reformation of 1915?"
He said: "Reformed Baptist Church of God, Reformation of 1915."
I said: "Die, heretic scum," and pushed him off.
In a nutshell, my objection to religion is that, with occasional honourable exceptions, it spreads immorality and violence.
Of course non-religious people can be just as immoral and violent, but, in the words of Stephen Weinberg:
"for good people to do evil things, it takes religion."
Is there hope for something better?
It’s pretty clear that as education spreads, religion dies. The process is well-advanced in the west, in every country apart from the USA, but in the USA religion is just another business, devoted to extracting money, mostly from the poor, and supporting the extreme right wing parties and military adventurism.
We shouldn’t be too smug about Islam either. Admittedly I was slightly taken aback when a second year undergraduate, on duty at an Islamic exhibition at UCL, told me that "when Islam came to power in the UK I would be executed" (and then asked for my name). But it’s little more than 100 years since we stopped whipping people and people were still being hanged in my lifetime. My guess is that in another few hundred years, Islam will catch up. It will become gradually less cruel and women will, bit by bit, come to be treated as human beings. But once that happens, Islam will start to die out altogether, just as Christianity has (almost) done in the West.
So, in the words of the atheist bus campaign.
"There is probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life."
In the questions after the talk, I was spurred into saying
Religion is what we had before the enlightenment
One member of parliament, above all others, has championed reason for the last 13 years, But Evan Harris was not re-elected in Oxford West and Abingdon. On May 6th he got 23,730 votes, a mere 176 votes fewer than his conservative rival.
Click picture to see hero movie (be patient) (or right click to download mpg file)
Let me declare an interest. Evan Harris is one of the most principled men I have ever had the pleasure to meet. His stands on human rights, civil rights and libel law reform have been exemplary. He is also one of the few (and now fewer) members of parliament who understands how science works and its importance for the future of the UK. He has been a tireless advocate for the idea that policy should be based on evidence (as opposed to guesswork)..
Harris is also an atheist, something that one would not expect to be very relevant in a country where the influence of religion has declined progressively for many years. It would not be relevant if it were not for the fact that his defeat was brought about by poisonous lies propagated by, ahem, evangelical christians. I’m an atheist too, but I have met some good christians, I think they are wrong about their sky fairies, but I also think they should be free to believe in them if they want. Some of them do good things as a result of their beliefs. But not in Oxford West and Abingdon.
The (just) winner was conservative Nicola Blackwood. She is a member of the Conservative Christian Fellowship. But curiously a search of her web site for ‘christian’ shows not a single result. Shouldn’t voters know about your beliefs? It seems distinctly dishonest not to admit that your views come from an old book as interpreted by old men, The voter should know your motives.
Her profile at the Conservative Christian Fellowship says
“Along with many Christians, she is concerned that right to freedom of religion is being undermined without proper understanding of the potential consequences for faith groups or the wider community. In particular, she fears that the voice of Christians and people of other faiths on key issues of conscience is too readily dismissed in public debate.”
But what did Nicola Blackwood know about the smear leaflets?
Nicola Blackwood’s web site not only doesn’t mention the word ‘christian. It says very little about policies of any sort, There is no
mention of euthanasia or any of the other questions raised in pamphlets that were distributed throughout the constituency. There is a well hidden disclaimer
"Nicola has distanced the Conservative Party from literature distributed by private individuals and special interest and pressure groups attacking her opponent".
That is a pretty weak response to the poisonous and inaccurate leaflets that were circulated (they can be seen here). The worst stuff came form two sources
The Reverend Lynda Rose.
Lynda Rose is an Anglican minister who seems to think it appropriate to call a good man "Dr Death" because of her religious ‘principles’. Here is part of her leaflet
Lynda Rose has extreme "pro-life" views, more like those of the pope than of the average anglican. She seems not unlike the extreme right wing fundamentalist religious groups found in the USA. Harris told the Oxford Mail that
“It is a pity that, instead of putting up a candidate to contest the election, an anonymous group, using money from no-one knows where, is distributing an inaccurate personal attack leaflet in this constituency for the first time ever.
“It is offensive and I would say profoundly unchristian to use the term Dr Death – associated with Nazi murderer Joseph Mengele or mass-murderer Harold Shipman – to describe any politician.”
The Reverend Rose replied to the this in a letter to the Oxford Mail (April 26th) that is reproduced on the web site Anglican
Mainstream ("Anglo-catholic, Evangelical, Orthodox, Charismatic, Mainstream"). There is not a word of apology for vilely defamatory use of “Dr Death”, but merely a huffy defence of Hansard’s voting records.
That takes some beating as uncharitable, intolerant, inaccurate (and defamatory) comment. But there is even worse to come.
Keith Mann was another candidate in the same election. In 1994 Mann was sentenced to 14 years in jail, reduced to 11 years on appeal, for 21 offences including possession of explosives, incitement, criminal damage, and escape from custody (from Wikipedia). His leaflets were even worse than those of the Reverend Lynda Rose.
This vile calumny, full of inaccurate allegations and written by someone wth a serious criminal record, was aimed at a deeply-principled man. No doubt helped Nicola Blackwood to scrape in, but I can find no direct denunciation of it from Ms Blackwood. Christians don’t seem to be fussy about their allies.
Then there were the newspapers, in particular the Daily Telegraph.
Cristina Odone was editor of the Catholic Herald from 1991 to 1996. She is another ‘good christian’ who wrote an abominably nasty piece in the Daily Telegraph on April 19th. The Lib Dems are a Jekyll and Hyde party. Forget nice Mr Clegg. What about ‘Dr Death’? It is worth looking at it as a prime example of inaccurate, ad hominem, nastiness. It is also worth looking at for the comments: there were a lot of comments (thanks to an alert via Twitter) and most of them were along the lines of this of one of the first, from the redoubtable skepchick
"Thanks for the heads up, Cristina! Now I know to cheer for the LibDems. I want to know that if I end up in a vegetative state, I’m given a peaceful death rather than my own Telegraph column."
Most importantly, read the calm, diginified and polite response from Evan Harris himself.
I have never said that that the current abortion rate is not of import (you just made that up Christina!) and indeed have argued for more effective sex and relationships education as other countries manage and which also delays first sexual intercourse. And for better access to effective contraception. We can disagree on that too but best to have a rational discussion rather than a distortion.
I have never said “God is bad, his followers mad”. You made that up again Christina! I respect the religious view actually but believe that the state should be neutral on religion and it should not be privileged by the state above other beliefs.
My own comment took a while because of the Telegraph’s clunky registration system.
“This truly vile piece of writing shows all the tolerance of an Ayatollah who advocates rule by religious dogma (well actually, of course, by his own opinions). There could hardly be a worse moment to seek to impose catholic values on the rest of society. That church, including its head, has been seem to fail to report to the police the most vile crimes. It is in deep disgrace precisely because of its lack of moral principles.
One thing was very clear: she doesn’t understand the web. Her follow-up article seemed to think that the response was organised by Lib Den HQ! The Lib Dems’ spooky posse of internet pests. Sorry, Ms Odone, but these days concerned individuals can speak up.
The Reverand Goerge Pitcher, anglican minister at St Bride’s church, Fleet Street, was the next priest to bring disgrace on christianity with another incredibly nasty piece, again in the Telegraph, The best result of the election: Let’s rejoice that Lib Dem Evan Harris has lost his seat.
Again there were many hostile comments, including quite a lot from christians.
“Speaking as a Christian, I find it amazing how many Christians are capable of being thoroughly nasty about people they dislike. I have made a mental note that if I ever find myself seeking a church in central London, I shall avoid St Brides, Fleet St like the plague.”
and from ex-christians
“Dr Evan Harris is more of a doctor than either you or Nadine Dorris are “human beings”. You are both spiteful, evil people, and you are exactly the sort of person that drove me to reject the Catholic Church, and ask for an official notice of my defection to be placed in the baptismal register of my parish.”
Father Raymond Blake is another cleric who thinks you should vote according to his interpretation of the bible. His web site is as political as that of the christian taleban of the southern USA,
and just about as charitable. He too uses the "Dr Death" abuse, with no consideration of what Harris actually advocates.
How is it that christians (and homeopaths) can be quite so unpleasant?
Religious people, and those with other belief systems that resemble religions are supposed, traditionally, to be warm, caring people, charitable, forgiving and selfless, That, at least is the image they like to cultivate. Of course it has never been quite as simple as that. Just think of the inquisition, the warring catholics and protestants and, right now, the sordid disgrace of child rape, and its cover up by the highest officials of the vatican.
Last easter, I added a bit to the 2008 diary section of this blog about why I’m not a christian It seems to be worth repeating here.
"When I was about 15 I went to a Summer camp which turned out to be run by christian evangelists (my parents swore they didn’t realise that it was a brain-washing camp). I was converted and became rather earnest. Then, at 18, I met a nurse. Being on Merseyside, she was Irish. And being 18, I was rather interested in sex. The price of sex was to go with her to mass, so of course I went. It was Easter and they were doing the Twelve Stations of the Cross. I still recall watching this, with mounting horror. The priests were just enjoying it too much. It was almost like a sado-masochistic orgy. The priests seemed to be almost masturbating. It was simply sick."
I was reminded of this streak of cruelty that runs through christianity by the comment made by an aide to Tony Blair who said
“I couldn’t help feeling TB was rather relishing his first blooding as PM, sending the boys into action. Despite all the necessary stuff about taking action ‘with a heavy heart’, I think he feels it is part of his coming of age as a leader.”
His enthusiasm for a war that has killed over 100,000 people (and cost a small fortune) seems sadly consistent with his catholicism,
Despite all this, some individual religious people have done good for humankind.
Likewise proponents of magic medicine are proud of their individual caring approach and this may indeed be helpful in eliciting a good placebo response.
The problem seems to be that neither group can tolerate criticism. They aren’t interesting in discussing anything, because they just know they are right. And if anyone tries to express an opinion that differs from their own, the niceness vanishes like the snow in spring.
The quotations above show the downright nasty vindictiveness of religious people towards an honourable man who happens to hold somewhat different views to their own.
Likewise the cuddly homeopaths show astonishing abusive nastiness to anyone who doesn’t believe in their magic. I allow them to say what they want on this blog but they routinely delete comments. Along with most of my scientific friends, I’ve been subject to abuse and utterly incorrect allegations. I don’t enjoy it, but if its the price of free speech, so be it.
I fear that these things represent the incursion into UK politics of the extreme polarisation seen in the USA. a place where religious people seem to think it is moral to shoot doctors who do abortions.
Some morality. Thank you Tony Blair.
Some other blogs on this topic
Tessera wrote Playing dirty politics. Attacks on Dr Evan Harris
A liberal Dose (Neil Fawcett) wrote Extremists to the left of me, fundies to the right.
Richard Dawkins wrote Evan Harris: Is this why he lost his seat?
Ophelia Benson wrote three good posts (via comment from Swiss Frank)
http://www.butterfliesandwheels.org/2010/peculiar-george/and, via Butterflies and Wheels,
Clifford Longley has trenchant comment on Platitude of the Day
Texas schools board rewrites US history with lessons promoting God and guns. Chris McGreal, in the Guardian writes about the sort of thing that the clerics mentioned here might love.
“US Christian conservatives drop references to slave trade and sideline Thomas Jefferson who backed church-state separation”
“Several changes include sidelining Thomas Jefferson, who favoured separation of church and state, while introducing a new focus on the “significant contributions” of pro-slavery Confederate leaders during the civil war.”
“The new curriculum asserts that “the right to keep and bear arms” is an important element of a democratic society. Study of Sir Isaac Newton is dropped in favour of examining scientific advances through military technology.
There is also a suggestion that the anti-communist witch-hunt by Senator Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s may have been justified.
The education board has dropped references to the slave trade in favour of calling it the more innocuous “Atlantic triangular trade”, and recasts the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as driven by Islamic fundamentalism.”