Archive for January, 2010



I love the way some people employ their creativity.  Enjoy!

This video comes via Erich Vieth from Dangerous Intersection.

Is it okay to mock religion?


This is another one from the vaults: I started it, shelved it, and then forgot about it. The article I link to below is rather old, but it is as relevant now as it was last year.

Greta Christina has an article on her blog about the right and the wrong place for humour and mockery in the discussion of ideas. It’s an insightful and well-considered examination of the question, “When is it appropriate to use humour and/or mockery when talking about other people’s beliefs?”

It’s a great examination of the proper (and improper) use of humour, from a writer who often focusses her sharp wit on religion.

On the one hand, some ideas naturally evoke laughter from us.  Some ideas are ridiculous, and the most natural response when confronted by people who seriously believe them seems to be laughter.

On the other hand, laughter and mockery are not rational arguments, and can tend rather to derail than to advance reasonable discussion.

Greta Christina does a great job of looking at exactly what makes for the appropriate use of humour when discussing religious ideas (or indeed any idea).  I’d be curious what my religious readers think of her article.  Before you follow the link, I should warn you – she is a sex writer, so there are some graphics (mostly book covers) on her site of a very sexually suggestive nature.  Here is the link.


Cosmic birthday: HE 1523-0901


I would like to make a confession.  I am beginning to feel some of the symptoms of age.  Not old age, so much.  Just age.  Exercise is becoming something I need to consciously undertake, no longer something that simply happens among all the stuff I do in the week.  Lifting my daughter is no longer as effortless as it was a year ago.  (Okay, so that’s more a sign of her age than mine.)  Sleep is becoming a welcome goal at the end of the day, instead of an unwelcome necessity getting in the way of things I’d rather be doing.

But I have the perfect way to avoid falling into worry about my aging:  I think about HE 1523-0901. Here’s a picture of her with a few of her sisters:

Let's call her "Nan"

Yes, HE 1523-0901 is a star.  But not just any star.  She is the oldest observed object in the Milky Way.  Astronomers have estimated her age at 13.2 billion years (though, being a lady, she’s not acknowledging the estimate).  On the Cosmic Calendar, that’s today, the 14th of January.  Happy birthday, HE 1523-0901!

Keep in mind, when considering her age (born only 500 million years after the Big Bang), that the Milky Way itself is not thought to have come together in the form we now know until (at the earliest) 10.1 billion years ago – by which time HE 1523-0901 was already over three billion years old.

She is a slim star, weighing in at (forgive me, my lady) about 0.8 times the mass of our own sun.  She is a red giant, and is found about 7500 light years away in the direction of Libra.  She is apparently difficult to find from as far north as I am, so I will have to content myself with images like the above one, taken by the professional paparazzi to the stars.

I invite you to look up more about this lovely Grand Dame of our galactic family.  It certainly helps me to put my aging worries in perspective.

Finally, a note to any astronomers reading this:  she needs a better name!  I vote we call her “Nan”, after my granny.  Before you think that this is a rather backhanded way to honour my maternal forbear, let me explain.  My granny is now … well, somewhat less than 13.2 billion years old, but old enough to have three great-grandchildren.  She can still out-walk folks my age when she goes hiking around the Essex countryside.  So, just as Granny doesn’t seem to let the years touch her, I propose we honour our long-lasting stellar neighbour.  May she live another 13.2 billion years!

Photo credit:

Photo of HE 1523-0901 (Nan) from the gallery of Anthony Ayiomamitis.  (Copyrighted but assuming fair use.  Go check out his collection of amazing and educational astronomical photos!)

Redundancy note:

I’ve mentioned HE 1523-0901 before, but that’s the beauty of birthdays:  you can celebrate them anew each year.

New Atheists?


I often wonder just what is meant by the phrase “The New Atheists”. I think it depends on the speaker – it generally seems to mean something like “atheists who are prominent in the public sphere (unlike the good-ol’ days)” or “atheists who are more aggressive/irritating than they used to be”.

But prominent, assertive, active atheism is by no means new. Consider these quotes from Robert Green Ingersoll:

I will not attack your doctrines nor your creeds if they accord liberty to me. If they hold thought to be dangerous – if they aver that doubt is a crime, then I attack them one and all, because they enslave the minds of men.

Religion has not civilized man — man has civilized religion. God improves as man advances.

If a man would follow, today, the teachings of the Old Testament, he would be a criminal. If he would follow strictly the teachings of the New, he would be insane.

Ignorance is the soil in which belief in miracles grows.

In fact, listen to the podcast of his works.

Sound familiar? Now, Ingersoll was no minor figure. According to Tom Flynn (interviewed on Point of Inquiry), he was a very well-known public lecturer in America, as well as a campaigner for the Republican party. That’s over 100 years ago.

In fact, public atheism is millennia old, and the irritation it provides to entrenched religious beliefs is just as old. Consider Socrates, who was executed for spreading ideas considered harmful to the youth of the day. (It may be difficult to disentangle the religious from the political motivations for his prosecution – but I’ve no doubt that his enemies used religion in their arguments against him.)

In fact, I suspect that the main reason many people use the label “new” is that they people would like to consider this latest upswing of vocal religious dissent to be a flash-in-the-pan. They want it to be a fad which, like bell bottoms and mullets, will soon be a thing of the past.

Now, I don’t know if they had mullets in Socrates’ time, and “bell-bottom togas” seems redundant, but the “new” atheism is no passing fad. The only thing new about it, in fact, is probably that it’s the first time many of these individuals have been confronted with confident assertions of atheist belief. So the next time someone uses the phrase “new atheism”, I’ll think “new-to-you, maybe”.

For anyone interested in sampling the long tradition of atheist thought, I recommend the Humanist Anthology, edited by Margaret Knight and revised by Jim Herrick. I was given a copy for my birthday this last year, and have been discovering and rediscovering many beautiful nuggets of humanist compassion and reson, from the ancient Greek and Chinese philosophers to modern atheist writers.

A new blog home


This is just a quick welcome to this blog’s new home.  It is now hosted by WordPress, and sits on its own domain:

I’m quite busy at work these days, so it may be a while before things settle in with all the usual sidebar items.  I will still aim for at least a weekly post.

As this is a time of change, it would be an ideal time to point out what you have liked or not liked about the blog in the past – what you would like to read more of, what you could do without.

Here’s to another great year in the blogosphere!

On moral obligation


One complaint levelled against entirely naturalistic worldviews is this:

What is the basis of morality? By what right can you expect anyone to follow moral rules, if there is no transcendent reality to ground them in?

I have had a very engaging discussion of this (and related issues) with Ken Brown and other commenters on his blog, and have posted some of my own thoughts here. Ken and colleagues are coming specifically from a Christian perspective. (I have yet to see them give a satisfactory justification for how a “transcendent reality” solves the problem – but that’s a topic for another time. As is the whole burden of actually demonstrating that such a reality exists – which would seem to be a prerequisite if one is to pin one’s entire moral philosophy on it.)

I thought I might pick out the key points of my answer here.

First, I come back to a very pragmatic position: most of the key elements of morality (love, fairness, honesty, nonviolence, etc) are built into most humans. (This fact has very interesting naturalistic explanations in the context of evolution as a social species, but that too, is a topic for another time.) So we have a useful basis for discussing moral issues without either an esoteric knowledge of the philosophical underpinnings of morality or a belief in a transcendent basis for moral claims.
This is the basis of secular government: we build our society on the foundations we all share.

Second and more important, how I can derive another’s obligation from my “relativist” moral stance? Very cautiously and humbly. For most cases where someone says “there ought to be a law”, there probably oughtn’t. Law – the formal, coercive expression of our shared moral principles – is a blunt instrument that should not be used to solve all problems.

But even aside from the law, I do expect people to act morally, and I reserve the right to hold them accountable when they don’t. How do I do this? What gives me, a relativist with no ultimate explanation for right and wrong, the right to project my moral judgments on others? Why should someone else do the right thing rather than some other thing? The most honest answer I can give is very simple:

People should do the right thing, because it’s the right thing to do.

I know that’s not very philosophical or subtle. But, so long as we all share a basic sense of right and wrong, it’s sufficient for the vast majority of life’s decisions.

And for those issues where we don’t instinctively agree on the right answer – abortion, euthanasia, drug control, etc – pretending that a hypothetical transcendent realm holds the answer does not seem to solve things. It may give some people a sense of self-righteousness to bolster their support of one position, but it is useless in seeking a practical solution or persuading people who believe in a different hypothetical set of transcendent moral truths (or folks like me who doubt such a set exists at all). In these cases, we have to fall back on the nasty, brutish, fallible strategy of using rhetoric and reason to pursue the best solution and persuade each other of it.

Photo credits:

Justice statue on Old Bailey, London: from Wikipedia, shared by user Erasoft24 under Creative Commons Attribution licence 2.5.

Foundation Beyond Belief


I am delighted to announce the launch of a new humanist-driven charity initiative, the Foundation Beyond Belief. Go to the site itself for full details, and to sign up.

I’m just going to point out some of the things about the Foundation that I find particularly awesome:

  • Though it is explicitly modelled on humanist values, religious individuals are explicitly invited to participate.
  • Social networking will be a key part of the Foundation’s interaction with members – this is not just a conduit for money, but a place to build community around shared values and actions.
  • Members can choose where their donations are spent, among ten categories (education, peace, health care, environment, and others).
  • Charities will be selected not just on the values they profess, but on efficiency and effectiveness as well.
  • Religious charities are not explicitly ruled out, but charities that use their funds for proselytizing are (regardless of the worldview they promote).
  • Though based in the US, the Foundation explicitly looks to support charities with an international reach.
  • Two of the key people involved in the Foundation – Dale McGowan and Hemant Mehta – were instrumental in my decision to become a blogger (though I have yet to meet either of them in person).

I look forward to seeing the Foundation help people around the world, and I’m excited to participate in it. I’ll close with words from the Foundation itself: a mission statement, a launch blurb, and a video:

Mission statement:

To demonstrate humanism at its best by supporting efforts to improve this world and this life; to challenge humanists to embody the highest principles of humanism, including mutual care and responsibility; and to help and encourage humanist parents to raise confident children with open minds and compassionate hearts.

Launch blurb:

Beginning on January 1, 2010, Foundation Beyond Belief will highlight ten charitable organizations per quarter — one in each of ten categories. Among other considerations, beneficiaries will be chosen for efficiency, effectiveness, moderate size (annual budget <$10M), compatibility with humanist focus on mutual care of this world and this life, no direct promotion or proselytizing of a particular worldview, and geographical diversity.