You’ll Never Be as Radical as This 18th-Century Quaker Dwarf

Benjamin Lay, 18th century Quaker and dwarf

It was September 1738, and Benjamin Lay had walked 20 miles, subsisting on “acorns and peaches,” to reach the Quakers’ Philadelphia Yearly Meeting. Beneath his overcoat he wore a military uniform and a sword — both anathema to Quaker teachings. He also carried a hollowed-out book with a secret compartment, into which he had tucked a tied-off animal bladder filled with bright red pokeberry juice.

When it was Lay’s turn to speak, he rose to address the Quakers, many of whom had grown rich and bought African slaves. He was a dwarf, barely four feet tall, but from his small body came a thunderous voice. God, he intoned, respects all people equally, be they rich or poor, man or woman, white or black.

Throwing his overcoat aside, he spoke his prophecy: “Thus shall God shed the blood of those persons who enslave their fellow creatures.” He raised the book above his head and plunged the sword through it. As the “blood” gushed down his arm, several members of the congregation swooned. He then splattered it on the heads and bodies of the slave keepers. His message was clear: Anyone who failed to heed his call must expect death — of body and soul.

Lay did not resist when his fellow Quakers threw him out of the building. He knew he would be disowned by his beloved community for his performance, but he had made his point. As long as Quakers owned slaves, he would use his body and his words to disrupt their hypocritical routines…

Love Is Love Is Love Is… [cut the mike]

This week, a video of a 12-year-old girl coming out as gay to her Mormon congregation in Eagle Mountain, Utah, went viral — and it’s easy to understand why. Savannah is adorable. She wears a red tie, which is already a statement, since wearing pants to church as a woman can be controversial. She stands in front of a room of adults delivering her testimony about how her Heavenly Parents “did not mess up when they gave me freckles. Or when they made me gay. God loves me just this way because I believe that he loves all of his creations.”

12-year-old girl comes out as gay to her Mormon congregation

The Nontheist Glossary

There’s a word that seems to be being gradually redefined in our collective vocabulary, I was considering recently. That word is “nontheist”. It’s a relatively new word as it is, but in its earliest uses it seems to have been an umbrella term covering a variety of different (and broadly-compatible) theological outlooks.

Here are some of them, in alphabetical order:

agnostic

“It is not possible to know whether God exists.”

Agnostics believe that it is not possible to know whether or not there are any gods. They vary in the strength of their definition of the word “know”, as well as their definition of the word “god”. Like most of these terms, they’re not mutually-exclusive: there exist agnostic atheists, for example (and, of course, there exist agnostic theists, gnostic atheists, and gnostic theists).

antitheist

“Believing in gods is a bad thing.”

Antitheists are opposed to the belief in gods in general, or to the practice of religion. Often, they will believe that the world would be better in the absence of religious faith, to some degree or another. In rarer contexts, the word can also mean an opposition to a specific deity (e.g. “I believe that in God, but I hate Him.”).

apatheist

“If the existence of God could be proven/disproven to me, it would not affect my behaviour.”

An apatheist belives that the existence or non-existence of gods is irrelevant. It is perfectly possible to define oneself as a theist, an atheist, or neither, and still be apathetic about the subject. Most of them are atheists, but not all: there are theists – even theists with a belief in a personal god – who claim that their behaviour would be no different even if you could (hypothetically) disprove the existence of that god, to them.

atheist

“There are no gods.”

As traditionally-defined, atheists deny the existence of either a specific deity, or – more-commonly – any deities at all. Within the last few hundred years, it has also come to mean somebody who rejects that there is any valid evidence for the existence of a god, a subtle difference which tends to separate absolutists from relativists. If you can’t see the difference between this and agnosticism, this blog post might help. Note also that atheism does not always imply materialism or naturalism: there exist atheists for example who believe in ghosts or in the idea of an immortal soul.

deist

“God does not interfere with the Universe.”

Deism is characterised by a belief in a ‘creator’ or ‘architect’ deity which put the universe into motion, but which does has not had any direct impact on it thereafter. Deists may or may not believe that this creator has an interest in humanity (or life at all), and may or may not feel that worship is relevant. Note that deism is nontheistic (and, by some definitions, atheistic) in that it denies the existence of a specific God – a personal God with a concern for human affairs – and so appears on this list even though it’s incompatible with many people’s idea of nontheism.

freethinker

“Science and reason are a stronger basis for decision-making than tradition and authority.”

To be precise, freethought is a philosophical rather than a theological position, but its roots lie in the religious: in the West, the term appeared in the 17th century to describe those who rejected a literalist interpretation of the Bible. It historically had a broad crossover with early pantheism, as science began to find answers (especially in the fields of astronomy and biology) which contradicted the religious orthodoxy. Nowadays, most definitions are functionally synonymous with naturalism and/or rationalism.

humanist

“Human development is furthered by reason and ethics, and rejection of superstition.”

In the secular sense (as opposed to the word’s many other meanings in other fields), humanism posits that ethical and moral behaviour, for the benefit of individual humans and for society in general, can be attained without religion or a deity. It requires that individuals assess viewpoints for themselves and not simply accept them on faith. Note that like much of this list, secular humanism is not incompatible with other viewpoints – even theism: it’s certainly possible to believe in a god but still to feel that society is always best-served by a human-centric (rather than a faith-based) model.

igtheist

“There exists no definition of God for which one can make a claim of theism or atheism.”

One of my favourite nontheistic terms, igtheism (also called ignosticism) holds that words like “god” are not cognitively meaningful and can not be argued for or against. The igtheist holds that the question of whether or not any deities exist is meaningless not because any such deities are uninterested in human affairs (like the deist) or because such a revelation would have no impact upon their life (like the apatheist) but because the terms themselves have no value. The word “god” is either ill-defined, undefinable, or represents an idea that is unfalsifiable.

materialist

“The only reality is matter and energy. All else is an illusion caused by these.”

The materialist perspective holds that the physical universe is as it appears to be: an effectively-infinite quantity of matter and energy, traveling through time. It’s incompatible with many forms of theism and spiritual beliefs, but not necessarily with some deistic and pantheistic outlooks: in many ways, it’s more of a philosophical stance than a nontheistic position. It grew out of the philosophy of physicalism, and sharply contrasts the idealist or solipsist thinking.

naturalist

“Everything can be potentially explained in terms of naturally-occurring phenomena.”

A closely-related position to that of materialism is that of naturalism. The naturalist, like the materialist, claims that there can be, by definition, no supernatural occurrences in our natural universe, and as such is similarly incompatible with many forms of theism. Its difference, depending on who you ask, tends to be described as being that naturalism does not seek to assume that there is not possibly more to the universe than we could even theoretically be capable of observing, but that does not make such things “unnatural”, much less “divine”. However, in practice, the terms naturalism and materialism are (in the area of nontheism) used interchangeably. The two are also similar to some definitions of the related term, “rationalism”.

pantheist

“The Universe and God are one and the same.”

The pantheist believes that it is impossible to distinguish between God and the University itself. This belief is nontheistic because it typically denies the possibility of a personal deity. There’s an interesting crossover between deists and pantheists: a subset of nontheists, sometimes calling themselves “pandeists”, who believe that the Universe and the divine are one and the same, having come into existence of its own accord and running according to laws of its own design. A related but even-less-common concept is panentheism, the belief that the Universe is only a part of an even-greater god.

secularist

“Human activities, and especially corporate activities, should be separated from religious teaching.”

The secularist viewpoint is that religion and spiritual thought, while not necessarily harmful (depending on the secularist), is not to be used as the basis for imposing upon humans the a particular way of life. Secularism, therefore, tends to claim that religion should be separated from politics, education, and justice. The reasons for secularism are diverse: some secularists are antitheistic and would prefer that religion was unacceptable in general; others take a libertarian approach, and feel that it is unfair for one person to impose their beliefs upon another; still others simply feel that religion is something to be “kept in the home” and not to be involved in public life.

skeptic

“Religious authority does not intrinsically imply correctness.”

Religious skeptics, as implied by their name, doubt the legitimacy of religious teaching as a mechanism to determine the truth. It’s a somewhat old-fashioned term, dating back to an era in which religious skepticism – questioning the authority of priests, for example – was in itself heretical: something which in the West is far rarer than it once was.

transtheist

“I neither accept nor reject the notion of a deity, but find a greater truth beyond both possibilities.”

The notion of transtheism, a form of post-theism, is that there exists a religious philosophy that exists both outside and beyond that of both theism and atheism. Differentiating between this and deism, or apatheism, is not always easy, but it’s a similar concept to Jain “transcendence”: the idea that there may or may not exist things which may be called “godlike”, but the ultimate state of being goes beyond this. It can be nontheistic, because it rejects the idea that a god plays a part in human lives, but is not necessarily atheistic.

However, I’ve observed that the word “nontheist” seems to be finding a new definition, quite apart from the umbrella description above.

In recent years, a number of books have been published on the subject of atheism, some of which – and especially The God Delusion – carry a significant antitheistic undertone. This has helped to inspire the idea that atheism and antitheism are the same thing (which for many atheists, and a tiny minority of antitheists, simply isn’t true), and has lead some people who might otherwise have described themselves as one or several of the terms above to instead use the word “nontheist” as a category of its own.

This “new nontheist” definition is still very much in its infancy, but I’ve heard it described as “areligious, but spiritual”, or “atheistic, but not antitheistic”.

Personally, I don’t like this kind of redefinition. It’s already hard enough to have a reasonable theological debate – having to stop and define your terms every step of the way is quite tiresome! – without people whipping your language out from underneath you right when you were standing on it. I can see how those people who are, for example, “atheistic, but not antitheistic” might want to distance themselves from the (alliterative) antitheistic atheist authors, but can’t they pick a different word?

After all: there’s plenty of terms going spare, above, to define any combination of nontheistic belief, and enough redundancy that you can form a pile of words higher than any Tower of Babel. Then… perhaps… we can talk about religion without stopping to fight over which dictionary is the true word.

Marmite

This blog post is about Marmite. I apologise if it makes you hungry, nauseous, or confused.

Your mate. Marmite.

My partner enjoys Marmite. This isn’t a surprise: I’ve known it for years. Some weekend mornings I’ve seen her enthusiastically scoff down some Marmite on toast, and I’ve known times that she’s been feeling run-down and hungry and the prospect of a bit of Marmite is exactly what she needs to get her motor running again. She doesn’t eat it all the time, but she likes to keep a jar around in anticipation: Marmite lasts pretty much forever, so there’s no hurry.

It’s only since living with her, though, that I’ve seen so much of the strange sticky substance as I have. That’s not her doing, I’ll stress: she’s always respectful of the fact that I seem to just be one of those people who’s just never going to be a Marmite-eater, and she doesn’t surprise me with Marmite-infused foodstuffs. In exchange, I try not to complain whenever I can smell that the jar is open.

Her husband enjoys Marmite too. Sometimes she makes Marmite whirls, pastry spirals with a sharp taste of Marmite, and I think she does so mostly because she knows that he enjoys them so much. I honestly don’t know how often he eats the stuff other than when she serves it: occasionally, I guess.

Marmite whirls. You love them, or you hate them, or you go round and round and round them like an escaped rollercoaster.

I’ve only recently kept Marmite in my cupboard: it’s a new addition to my food supply. Are my partner and husband responsible for this? No… well, only insofar as that they once reminded me that they keep Marmite in the house: “We keep our Marmite in this cupboard,” they said, and that was that. (sometimes they disagree on which shelf the Marmite belongs on, but more often than not they’re in agreement)

But now there’s Marmite in my cupboard. I’m not sure why I keep it there. I still don’t really like Marmite, although I think that with experience I’ve learned to appreciate what others see in its flavour, even if it doesn’t sit comfortably in me.

I look at the jar of Marmite in my cupboard. “Why are you there?” I ask it, “What am I supposed to do with you?” It doesn’t answer. It is, of course, only Marmite. I realise that I’m standing alone in the kitchen, talking to my shelf, and I feel a little stupid. But it’s a puzzle that I can’t solve: how did the Marmite even get into my cupboard? I certainly didn’t buy it. Did it… put itself there?

Time for some buttered toast.

This blog post is not about Marmite. My apology still stands.

Halloumi & Mushroom Skewers

Last week, I was invited to a barbeque with Oxford’s Young Friends. Despite being neither a Friend (in their “capital-F” meaning of the word: a Quaker) nor young (at least; not so young as I was, whatever that means), I went along and showed off my barbecue skills. It also gave me an excuse to make use of my Firestick – a contemporary tinderbox – to generally feel butch and manly, perhaps in an effort to compensate for the other week.

Anyway: this is how I discovered halloumi and mushroom skewers. Which may now have become my favourite barbeque foodstuff. Wow. Maybe it’s just the lack of mushrooms in my diet (we operate a cooking rota on Earth, but Paul doesn’t like mushrooms so I usually only get them when he or I happen to be eating elsewhere), but these things are just about the most delicious thing that you can pull off hot coals.

Aside from meat, of course.

Update: we just had some at the Three Rings Code Week, and they were almost as delicious once again, despite being hampered by a biting wind, frozen mushrooms, and a dodgy barbeque.

Showing Some Pride

Paul and I seem to be featured in today’s Oxford Mail.

"Gay Pride March Ends City Celebration", in the Oxford Mail

From the article –

Friends Dan Q and Paul Mann, of Kennington, decided to mark the [superheroes] theme by dressing as characters from the silver age of comic book heroes, the Flash and Kickass, far left.

Mr Q, 30, said: “We wanted to take part in the march because first of all it’s an excuse to dress up, and also to show that Oxford is home to gay, lesbian, and bisexual people and they should be represented.”

Apart from the obvious fault with the age of our characters – Kick-Ass (here correctly hyphenated) is a very new comic book character, designed in from only 2008 – which could have been corrected with a quick Wikipedia search, the article’s not bad. I’m reasonably pleased with my soundbite quotation, there: the journalist we spoke to caught me off-guard so I just reeled off the first thing I thought of, but it’s not bad, at least.

Ruth managed to carefully avoid appearing in any press photographs, but I think she’ll have been hard-pressed to avoid all of the shots my the Pride photographer, who ran around enthusiastically in a pink day-glow jacket, snapping away.

Dan and Paul.

The Oxford Pride parade was fun, with the exception of the Catholic protest on Cornmarket, with their calls to “repent” from our “sinful lives”, and it was nice to lounge on the grass at Oxpens and listen to the music at the fair. Paul came second, by my estimation, in the fancy dress competition, and then I leapt around on a bouncy-castle/slide-thingy and sent all of the alcohol in my bloodstream rushing to my head.

Later, it rained, and I was too drunk to care.

Manifold Greatness

Earlier this week, I went along one lunchtime to a free exhibition hosted by my new employer, entitled Manifold Greatness, dedicated to the history of the translation of the bible into English.

A Wycliffite Bible on display at the Bodleian Library.

Of particular interest are the (never-before publicly exhibited) translation documents used by the actual translators who wrote the 1611 King James Bible, probably the most influential and significant English-language biblical translation projects ever undertaken. The exhibition includes the only known copy of a Bishops’ Bible (the earlier authorized text of the Church of England) with handwritten notes by the translation committees who were at that time writing what was to become the King James Bible. It’s quite fascinating to see the corrections they chose to make after consulting with earlier Greek texts.

Visitors at the Manifold Greatness exhibition.

They’re also showing off an original copy of the Wicked Bible in remarkably good condition (most were destroyed): this book, probably owing to industrial sabotage at the printers’ works at which it was produced, misses out the word “not” in the seventh commandment, “Thou shalt not commit adultery.” If you’re going to commit industrial sabotage, it’s nice to do so with a sense of humour.

If you want to go and see the exhibition – and I’d recommend it; and I’m not just saying that because I work here – you’ve got until 4th September.

Four Things That Evolution Isn’t

I read this Chick Tract comic, recently. I’d seen them before, but for some reason it was this week, and this particular article, that riled me so much. I can honestly say I don’t think I’ve ever before been quite so agitated by something as harmless as a comic.

In the comic, an arrogant and obnoxious biology professor argues in front of a class with a Christian student on the topic of evolution. By a combination of bad science, straw man arguments, a veiled ad hominem attack (the lecturer really is a model of intolerance) and the ultimate false dichotomy – that the only alternative to the theory of evolution involves the implication that Christ must have died for our sins – the student persuades his teacher that his acceptance of evolution is incorrect.

It’s a weekend for pet hates, for me, and I suspect that the thing that really got my goat with this comic was this particular panel:

In this panel, the student makes the premise that there are “six basic concepts of evolution”, and the professor agrees, listing them. But most of the concepts have nothing to do with evolution at all!

(if anybody thinks it’s strange that the thing that annoyed me about this piece of propaganda wasn’t it’s conclusion but one of it’s premises, they could stand to know me a little better – I have no objection to a belief in whatever you like, so long as it doesn’t tread on my toes… but I’m not keen on people mis-representing one another’s positions)

The first four of the six basic concepts of evolution expressed in the comic are:

  1. Cosmic Evolution – the Big Bang making hydrogen. The theory of evolution has nothing whatsoever to say about the appearance of the Universe and all of the time, space and matter therein. The author seems to have confused the theory of evolution with, perhaps the big bang theory and and other cosmogenic theories.
  2. Chemical Evolution – the appearance of higher [heavier] elements. Again, the theory of evolution has nothing to say about the fact that there’s more than just hydrogen and helium in the Universe. On the other hand, nuclear fusion it’s reasonably well-understood physics by now: we can do it in a lab, and we have strong, experimentally-backed theories about how it happens in stars and the like.
  3. Evolution of stars and planets from gas – yet again, the theory of evolution has no statement to make on the formation of heavenly bodies (a term I use with no irony whatsoever). This time the author’s gotten confused, probably, with the nebular hypothesis, the most popular contemporary explanation of the development of solar systems and galaxies. It must be admitted: the hypothesis isn’t without it’s faults (to do with stuff like the conservation of angular momentum in accretion disks, and other stuff you don’t want to have to think about without either a degree in space physics or, at least, a pint in front of you). But it’s still got nothing to do with evolution.
  4. Organic Evolution – as it’s put so crudely in the comic, “life from rocks”. This still doesn’t have anything to do with the theory of evolution, which only describes mechanisms by which organisms can change (with the potential to form new species as well as to produce adaptation within a species). This time around, the author seems to be getting the theory of evolution mixed up with theories of abiogenesis, of which there several, and of which many are mutually-compatible (i.e. two of them could, perhaps, both be factual).

Only the last two concepts – macro-evolution and micro-evolution (which are only generally described in separate terms for the benefit of those who would argue that one is possible while the other is not: in scientific circles, it’s virtually unheard-of to discuss the two as if they were separate ideas, as they are in fact the same idea based upon the same scientific understanding).

I could spend time picking apart the rest of the comic, but it wouldn’t achieve anything: all I really wanted to do is to point out that there are a number of very different and unrelated theories that seem to be often misunderstood – sometimes by both sides – in debates on the subject of creationism, and in debates on the subject of atheism.

I’ve come across it a lot myself, as an atheist: people have told me that, as an atheist, I must believe in certain things, and then proceeded to attack those things, when these premises may well be flawed (especially if they’re coupled with a misunderstanding of what those premises actually mean, as was the case in this comic).

  • Yes, I’m an atheist – which to me means that I have observed no compelling evidence for the existence of any deities (as defined by any non-naturalistic, non-pantheistic explanation, on the subject of which I’m ignostic). I’m also agnostic – which means that I believe that I do not know for certain, which I maintain is a perfectly rational position and is perfectly compatible with atheism. Don’t agree? This is the diagram I’m working from. While I find the concept of the existence of a deity ludicrous and implausible, it’s impossible to disprove, just like Russel’s teapot.
  • I also happen to accept the theory of evolution, because it’s a strong model with a lot of compelling evidence for it, and I haven’t yet seen a stronger one, although I’m open to the possibility that one exists – Lamarkism, an alternative theory that could describe some of the evidence we’ve seen so far, is probably due a comeback.
  • I accept that abiogenesis has almost certainly occurred (that there was a point at which there was no life, and now – ta-da – there is!). I don’t know enough about molecular biology to make a statement in any direction about which of the competing theories is the strongest; however, all of the scientific explanations I’ve heard have always appeared to be stronger, to me, than any of the superstitious ones. I accept in principle the notion of a biogenetic start to life on Earth (life from elsewhere), but haven’t seen any evidence for it that is not speculative.
  • Despite great strides in cosmogenesis in recreating theoretical early-Universe conditions that form functional and consistent models, I – like, I believe, every other human – do not know “what happened before that?” (or even if such a question is valid at all). I’ve always had a personal fondness for the cyclic model, although I appreciate that it’s riddled with faults and, in fact, raises as many questions as it resolves – I just like it for it’s almost-poetic completeness. I gather that it’s hard to accept modern understanding of the cyclic model without also accepting loop quantum gravity, which I don’t even understand, but as a model, it still makes me feel comfortable. Regardless: fundamentally, I don’t know “what happened first,” and I dispute that anybody else does, either.

My point is, though, that all of these things can be taken independently, and I think it’s important that people understand and accept that. I’ve met evolutionist theists, biogenetic anti-evolutionists, and even folks who believe that while a creator deity exists, created the universe, set life in motion, and then ceased to exist – they’re atheist abiogenetic creationists. And that’s fine. I think they’re all wrong, and they probably think I am too, but that’s not a problem: we’ve a right to be wrong.

So next time somebody tells you what they believe about the existence or non-existence of a god or gods, their acceptance or not of the theory of evolution, their idea about the initial appearance of life, of their belief in the quintessential beginnings of the universe, please don’t assume that you can guess the rest: there are some surprising folks out there with whom you might have more in common than you think.

(and look, I managed to avoid mentioning my thoughts on ethics and morality and on determinism entirely!)

QMoon Virtual Postcard #2

We arrived in Rome last night to find a city teeming with life. There’s a buzz everywhere, and a crowd whereever you look. Roma Termini, the central station, stretches for miles and is bustling with commuters and tourists, fighting their way through ticket office queues or met.ro (the underground train system) gates.

Not quite sure how to make things like the ticket gates work, we stood back for a few minutes to watch the locals, first. When in Rome, we quite literally had to “do as the Romans do!”

Our hotel, right on the met.ro line, is fabulous. Big rooms, WiFi, and staff that were kind enough to lend me an electrical adapter after the one my dad had given to us turned out not to fit Italian sockets. So now my phone’s charged, which is nice, because it doubles as my palmtop (for blogging, e-mail etc.), camera (for taking photos of everything in a “hey look, I’m a tourist,” way), alarm clock, and so on. I’m half-tempted to “forget” to return it when we go to Napoli tomorrow. There’s a great pizza place just around the corner from the hotel where we went for a couple of slices of *excellent* Rome-style (thin, crispy) pizza and a beer before we went out to see the sights last night.

We ended up sat outside a gay bar a stone’s throw away from the Collesseum (yes, THE Collesseum – the speed with which we got here, coupled with the fact that, a few days ago, we didn’t know we were going to Italy at all, means that we’re still going “look… THE $monumentname” every time we see one), sharing a litre of wine and bits of desserts.

Today we woke up late, owing perhaps to a little bit of a late night last night… uhm… making the most of our honeymoon. Ahem. In any case, we took the train over to Vatican City, and, after buying Claire a cloth to cover her shoulders with (heaven forbid that God see a woman’s shoulders!) from a nearby trader, went into the Vatican museums.

I’ve now recieved my lifetime dosage of looking-at-painted-ceilings. Yes, the Sistine Chapel really IS quite beautiful, and so are the other hundred painted ceilings in Vatican City, but there’s only so much staring upwards you can do before you start feeling woozy, and it’s not helped by being caught in a crowd of people. The Vatican was really quite stunning, though, and I’d always wanted to see it, even though Claire and I *did* have to make two major compromises to go there: firstly, we had to pay the Catholic church €26 for the privilege of looking at various artefacts that they stole while promoting various crusades, which I’m not sure I approve of them making money out of (I suppose it’s no worse than most of the exhibits in the badly-named British Museum in London, but at least they don’t charge admission). Secondly, we had to stop playing our Rome-oriented variation on the Yellow Car Game, which we call Spot The Nun, because it was getting too painful as we got close to the centre of the Catholic world.

Also, I was disappointed to find that Vatican City doesn’t have a bar. Although it did make up for it with the uniforms that the Swiss Guard wear: with their floppy blue berets and silly sailor outfits they are, without a doubt, the campest army ever.

It’s been a stinking hot day today, and because the Vatican museum was so big we were exhausted before we could get to the Pantheon, which was this afternoon’s plan. Instead, we’re now waiting for the temperature outdoors to go down before going monument-spotting again. It’s really true that in Rome you can just “trip over” bits of ancient history without even trying, in a “whoops; a column!” way. Here, at what was once the capital city of Europe, “old” is a word that isn’t done justice by any building made since the year 1000. There are times when you’d be forgiven for thinking you’re in Paris or London, and moments later, you can feel like you’ve been catapulted back in time. It’s quite amazing.

Tomorrow we’re off to Napoli! I’ll post more from there!

Carbon Neutrality

Recently, Kit wrote about carbon offsetting, calling it wishful thinking at best – at worst, greenwash. In particular, he was looking at tree planting as a method of offsetting carbon emissions, because it’s the most popular method by far. Just this morning I passed a truck making deliveries to a shop around the corner from me, proudly proclaiming in letters on the back that were almost as big as the company name, "We are a carbon neutral company."

This got me thinking about the mathematics of carbon neutrality. As I understood it, every year your company assesses it’s CO2 production, estimating how much carbon it’s flinging into the atmosphere, and pays another company to plant trees that will "offset" the carbon emitted by absorbing the gas in that way that plants do – through photosynthesis. I found myself wondering how long this process takes – for instance, if I produced X tonnes of CO2 last year, so I need to buy Y trees to counteract that… how long will it take those Y trees to absorb X tonnes of CO2. The missing variable, T, doesn’t seem to be widely publicised – and there’s a huge difference between this year’s emissions being absorbed in one year than being absorbed in 40 years.

It turns out, thanks to  some research this morning, that this is actually accounted for. T is one year: therefore, in theory at least, your purchase of a certain number of trees will offset the production of – for example – the carbon emissions of a particular motor vehicle for the rest of it’s lifespan. It’s a very wooly theory, of course – the vehicle will become less efficient with age, for instance; some species of trees do not produce a net reduction in their local CO2 levels for the first eight years of their lives; maintaining a sustainable forest makes significantly less impact on CO2 than planting new forests; and as forests reach maturity (30-60 years, depending on the species) they become less efficient at impacting CO2 again. There are lots of factors that aren’t taken into account, but at least my "missing variable" is.

It turns out that factoring in time isn’t a problem, because tree planting is really quite cheap. A hundred pounds or so shelled out when buying a new petrol-driven car (that’ll see pretty average use) pays for enough trees to be planted that – assuming that they are left alone during the entire working lifespan of the car and are not cut down or (worse yet) burned – the carbon emissions of that car are "neutralised." Good for you. You can feel a happy feeling about yourself.

As an optional aside:
I’m somewhat reminded of the Catholic Church’s practice of indulgences. It is the belief of Catholics that sins must be confessed to be forgiven, but that because humans are such naughty, sinful creatures, it’s pretty likely that they’ll have unabsolved sins at the time of their death. Mortal sins (the really serious kind) and concious rejection of God have you sent straight to Hell, but if you’ve merely got a few venial sins (the not-quite-so-serious kind) under your belt when you die, you’ll have to go to a place called Purgatory where you’ll be punished… er… I mean cleansed… of your remaining sins so that you’re pure when you finally get to enter Heaven. Catholocism also teaches that the time that you (or somebody else – even somebody already dead) need to spend in Purgatory can be reduced (let’s call it "offsetting") through penitential acts: usually prayer, but in the past, deliberately bringing punishment on oneself was perhaps almost as popular (fasting, wearing uncomfortable clothing, etc.). Prior to 1567, if you’d committed a sin – and you had the money – you could even buy your way out of it, purchasing an indulgence from your priest that offset, for example, several hundred days worth of penitential prayer without ever getting down on your knees or picking up a rosary. Some divisions of the Catholic Church still approve of giving money to charity as an act of penance, but "buying your way out of penance" by giving to God is now seen as wrong (I wonder how many "sinners" asked for their money back after being told that their indulgences, purchased before 1567, were no longer valid?).

That diversion aside: my research isn’t all fun and games, though. While initial evidence seems to indicate that carbon offsetting through tree planting genuinely can, done right, theoretically, kind-of reduce atmospheric CO2 by an equivilent volume to that output by the sinner… er, I mean, offender (wow; it’s easy to accidently take a metaphor too far, isn’t it), the bigger question for many people is: what about global warming?

And that’s where it all falls down. All the studies seem to indicate that while tropical forests (you know, like the ones in Brazil that we just keep felling) cause a global cooling effect, forests in temperate areas have no net effect on global temperatures. It turns out that despite them removing carbon compounds from the air, they also provide a dark and (of course) light-absorbing surface which actually helps to trap heat close to the planet’s surface. Worse yet, evergreen trees (of the kind that are so popular in European tree farms) and plantations in cold areas have an even worse effect, absorbing the sun’s heat that would otherwise be reflected – at least some of the year – by snow.

We’re going to have to see a lot more long-term studies on carbon offsetting before we get a consensus on what it’s actually doing for us as a species, but it should be evident that it certainly doesn’t do everything it claims to do, or at least that it isn’t so clear-cut as it could be. As a way to make yourself feel less guilty for polluting the atmosphere, though, it certainly works a treat, and modern carbon offset companies help to make it a lot less effort than repeated Hail Marys or reducing emissions in the first place.

If that’s all a bit serious for my blog, take a look at CheatNeutral. CheatNeutral apply the carbon offset model to relationships – if you’ve cheated on your partner, pay CheatNeutral £2.50 and they’ll give you a certificate with which to apologise to your partner. They promise to invest your money in helping to ensure that other people don’t cheat on their partner – either by keeping them single or by keeping them faithful, so you can relieve the guilt of cheating by knowing that you’re helping to ensure that other people don’t get cheated on too.

A Determinist Atheist’s Story

I find it amazing that people look at the chaos and the beauty of the world and somehow come to the conclusion that there is a god. I know that sounds like it’s backwards, but I mean it. The other day I was watching a spectacular sunset. The sun hung low in the sky and painted a picture of orange, pink, and red across the wispy clouds, and I found myself thinking, “Wow; that’s absolutely beautiful. How cool is it that we’ve evolved to be able to appreciate that?” People have been appreciating the colours of sunsets for thousands of years, of course, and it’s no less amazing since we came to the realisation that the Earth is not the centre of the universe (what a stir that kicked up amongst the devout!), that the picture painted by a sunset is just a result of atmospheric effects, and that our ability to enjoy things which are aesthetically pleasing is the result of a long line of evolutionary changes in our long-distant history. I didn’t need to think about any of those things to enjoy that uncommonly pleasing moment during my walk home from work. Most folks don’t . You could probably just about put a man on the moon without thinking about the relativistic implications of non-geocentrism, never mind the living of your day-to-day-life.

A friend of mine wrote a post in her blog (sorry; she’s protected it, most of you can’t read it) a little while ago about how she’d come, over the course of her life, to her current beliefs. This kicked off a few dozen comments including one from me, promising that I’d write something similar in the near future. This is it.

My upbringing, for the most part, was very much secular. My parents seemed to be careful not to try to overly influence me or my sisters in any particular religious direction, giving us a childhood which was, to all intents and purposes, agnostic, with as little bias as they could manage. This is best expressed, I think, through an anecdote: I remember quite vividly a discussion that took place between one of my sisters – quite young at the time – and my mum. My sister came into the kitchen where my mum and I were sat and asked, “Where do rabbits come from?”

“Well,” said my mum, in her most matter-of-fact way, “Do you remember how we were talking about how mummies and daddies make babies?” At this point, she had assumed that this was going to be an elaboration of the “birds and bees” talk they’d had some time ago. Except about rabbits and… er… rabbits.

“No, no, no,” my sister replied, “I know all that. I mean: where did the first rabbits come from?” This was, of course, a whole different topic.

“Where did the first rabbits come from?” my mum repeated, “We’re not completely sure; but there are two main schools of thought about it. Some people think that rabbits came from other animals which were a lot like rabbits, but not quite; and they came from animals that were not quite like them, and so on, until eventually; a long long time ago, every animal came from tiny little animals that were a lot like germs. Some other people think that rabbits – and everything else; even people – were created on purpose by someone super-powerful, who they call ‘God’.”

I was impressed. This was a basic summary of the widest possible views of many evolutionist and creationist philosophies, summarised into a couple of sentences that a precocious primary school child could comprehend. My mum had successfully condensed the beliefs of over 90% of the world’s population into something that made sense on any level; and, better yet, she’d done so without needing to superimpose her own beliefs on the top.

My sister, evidently, was also impressed. She stood quite still for some time, contemplating what she’d been told and visibly going over these two concepts in her mind. Eventually, she piped up, “I think that rabbits came down from the sky like bogies from God.” And that was that: she’d been given the space to make up her own beliefs from the evidence given. Undoubtedly these beliefs have changed over her years (I’m pretty sure she no longer subscribes to “Mucusism”), as she’s had the chance to be exposed to more evidence from both these major camps, and probably from some systems of belief that don’t directly agree with either one or the other. I’m sure if she’d asked my mum what she believed, she’d have got an honest and reasoned answer. As it happens, it’s rather irrelevant.

We’re all born atheists: we have no concept (or the mental faculties to comprehend) of deities, and therefore we have no belief in them. Later; at the first point we discuss religion, or question the possibility of a supernatural creator, we become momentarily agnostic, and then start to form a set of religious beliefs of our own. This is based on the evidence we are presented with, and our young and malleable minds can easily be shaped by well-meaning individuals like our parents and teachers. My primary school was typical of others in our area and at that time: we sang hymns, had prayers, even had “scripture” lessons (which were later replaced by religious education when the school adopted a more secularist attitude), and were exposed to other elements of Christian mythology. Like most rational people of any age, I came to understand children’s’ stories like Noah’s ark to be exaggerated (at best), and probably just metaphorical or entirely imaginary. However, primary school did expose me to a peer group laden with children already indoctrinated into a belief system that I found to be complicated, confusing, and un-necessary. Arguments for the existence of a supreme being, woven into stories and songs, challenged me with questions that I didn’t yet have the philosophical depth-of-thought to be able to contradict. Simply put; I wasn’t sure what to believe. And that’s just fine.

There’s no problem with agnosticism, especially amongst children (who, lets face it, are given a simplified model of the world in all senses anyway – a necessity for their survival and a means to provide them with valuable information without having to resort to unanswerable questions). But amongst a group of 10-year-olds who haven’t yet learned to question the “facts” given to them by their evangelistic parents, it’s difficult to be the one to say, “I can’t see any reason that God has to exist at all.” Many of the most popular arguments for the existence of God are so simple that a child can explain them, and the reason for that is simple: they’re not very good arguments (it’s sad that so many theists continue to use these flawed arguments into the adulthood, unwilling to listen to their faults). Nonetheless, it’s not easy to defend an agnostic viewpoint when you’re unready for the kinds of arguments you’ll come up against. In hindsight, these (rare) playground discussions would have been easier had my parents brought me up as an atheist, rather than simply areligious. However, that – I think – wouldn’t have given me the open-mindedness to actually investigate these beliefs that others held, which, in turn, has ultimately made me surer of my current beliefs.

By the time I was 14 I’d formulated a well thought-out set of philosophies in my mind; primarily an atheistic one, with sufficient unanswered questions and seemingly equally-viable explanations to be agnostic on particular issues. It was at about this point that I realised that the idea of an omnipotent, omniscient deity that is concerned with human behaviour was completely ludicrous to me. I had no difficulty seeing the similarities between belief in a god and belief in, say, Santa Claus, or with the fact that while neither is entirely disprovable, this does not mean that existence and non-existence are equally likely. It’s about this point that I became particularly fascinated with religion in general. I tried to learn as much as possible about as many as possible, and I began to love hearing about what people believed and why. Content with my own model of the world – with its few unanswered questions themselves not requiring God (and certainly not the God described by any religion I’d ever come across, with all their hypocrisies and illogical arguments) to fill in the blanks – I turned to trying to understand others.

I read a lot about religion and about philosophy. I became familiar with the major arguments used by theists for their beliefs, and by atheists for their disbelief (although I’ve always found the latter to be less necessary, just as arguments against the existence of anything are less necessary by scientific theory – the burden of proof comes from the hypothesis of existence). And everything I read confirmed more and more for me how illogical and unnecessary this image of a god was, most of all a god anything like those that the major religions subscribe to. And, gradually, over the coming years, I came to iron out many of the other quirks in my beliefs (by, for example, finding myself a determinist without tripping over any of the usual, often theistic in nature, arguments against it).

The only significant change to my religious views of late has been a reduction of my tolerance for the activities of others as a result of their religion. While I’ve previously been very open to other people’s beliefs, not caring what other people believe (however wrong I think they are), I’ve more recently begun to see how dangerous religion can be when used as an excuse for some awful things. While I don’t believe it’s true to say that most wars are started over religion, it is true to say that religion provides an excuse for such behaviour. And somehow, lately, religion has become something that’s taboo to argue against.

In a legal case a few years ago by a San Diego student against his school – who had banned him from wearing a t-shirt that carried an anti-homosexual message at school – the student made his case not on the grounds of freedom of expression but on the grounds of freedom of religion. Had he tried under the former, he would undoubtedly have failed, because while it’s okay to express whatever opinions you like, the court would have said, it’s also okay for schools to maintain order and a civil atmosphere. But under an argument of religion, he was far more likely to be untouchable – in the current socio-political climate, no judge wants to be seen to infringe upon somebody’s religious views. Small cases like these help to enshrine (hah!) religion into a status where it can’t even be criticised, even where it’s used as justification for some of the most disgusting acts of genocide, war, hatred, and terrorism. It’s a big scary world, and while it might still be as big and scary without the fundamentalist theists, at least we’d have removed from people an irrational excuse for their actions. And meanwhile, the majority of people still brainwash children with disputable beliefs that they haven’t got the cognitive abilities to question.

I’m grateful to my parents for giving me the chance to be whoever I wanted to be.

So; there’s a 10-minute summary of how I came to the beliefs I currently hold. Perhaps in another couple of decades I’ll write it again. In the meantime, I’ll happily argue the non-existence of God with any of you until the sun goes down, but I’d still prefer to hear what it is that you believe, because, for the time being, religion still interests me far more than fighting over it does.

Further Reading

Some stuff other people have written, that I think you should read:

Dinosaur Adventure Land

ON DINOSAUR ADVENTURE LAND

This is the strangest thing I’ve seen so far this week, and I’m a diggdot reader. Dinosaur Adventure Land (site navigation requires JavaScript) is a dinosaur-themed education park with all the usual things – fossils, a “back in time” ride, huge plastic dinosaurs: you get the idea – that you’d expect a theme park with it’s name to have. But there’s a twist.

Dinosaur Adventure Land is run by Kent E. Hovind. Mr.Hovind (I shan’t call him “Dr.” until he gets a real doctorate) believes the world to be less than six thousand years old. He believes this because it’s what he interprets the bible as telling him.

At his theme park, having learned about how different dinosaurs lived and hunted, he reveals to his guests that dinosaurs and humans at one point lived alongside one another. The mass extinctions evidently didn’t affect humans too badly, in his mind, but he also claims that some dinosaurs continued to live amongst us well into the 20th century. This explains, he says, occurances like bigfoot and the Loch Ness monster.

You can read Mr. Hovind’s theories for yourself, if you can’t be bothered to get his DVD (although I might – it’s uncopyrighted so perhaps I can download a copy). Here are some of my favourite crackpot theories from his mind:

  • Continental drift is a myth. Despite heaps of evidence to the contrary, including modern-day observations of plate techtonics, Mr. Hovind attempts to refute the existence of continental drift. If you point out to him that the continents are an awfully convenient shape, then, he’ll point out that “what the geologists don’t tell you is that very similar fossils are found on opposite sides of the ocean, suggesting a world-wide flood.” He fails to spot that this could also be evidence that the continents were joined when the life forms died and fossils formed, and later seperated.
  • The Earth’s magnetic field is static. Magnetic anomolies among the continental ridges, while provide evidence for geomagnetic reversal (a theory almost universally-accepted by geologists), do not exist or are insignificant, he claims.
  • All of the mammoths were killed almost instantly. Hovind teaches us that we’ve found many deceased mammoths, all standing up and with evidence that they died very quickly, and claims that this is evidence for his “great flood” theory (which I’ll mention later). He’s wrong, by the way – we’ve not found many intact mammoths and I can’t find any evidence that any were found standing up (the one he usually mentions, the Berezovka Mammoth, may well have died from drowning, but certainly wasn’t standing up). He also carefully skirts around the fact that dinosaurs’ (which, according to his theories, would have lived at the same time as mammoths) bones are found buried in a way (different depths, carbon dating, etc.) that would suggest that they lived over a huge period of time and did not all die out in an instant.
  • So what killed all these extinct species? A great flood! And not just any great flood: a comet hit the Earth, we’re told. A huge comet entered the solar system and (for some reason he doesn’t really clarify) began to break apart. Lots of chunks of water ice (recent evidence from probes like Deep Impact suggest that comets contain far less water ice than was previously thought, containing far more dust and rock and ices of other gases, like methane). The craters on the moon, Mars and other planets were caused by this immense icy meteor, as were the rings around Jupiter, Uranus and Neptune (wow; this really is a huge comet). The comet seperated further in the Earth’s atmosphere, and fell as snow… curiously, the ice particles became statically charged in the Earth’s atmosphere which caused them to be attracted towards the Earth’s magnetic poles, which is why they are icier today than other parts of the Earth – which makes no sense whatsoever. The melting snow created filled in the huge valleys that are now the oceans (presumabley there wasn’t very much water on Earth before this happened).
  • More evidence for a great flood! Mr. Hovind takes pretty much every bit of evidence for an “old Earth” and twists it with a huge dose of imagination in order to attempt to turn it into evidence for his “young Earth.” Fossils of sea creatures found in the Himalayas have been accepted (through biological analysis, carbon dating, and the techtonic record) to have been pushed up there when the Indian techtonic plate crashed (very slowly, but it’s very heavy!) into South Asia. Mr. Hovind, however, explains that the only way you could possibly get seashells up Everest would be with a great flood “washing” them up there. He uses the bible to demonstrate the infallability of the bible a few times to help demonstrate the correctness of his theory.

He goes on to “disprove” coal formation, which is also amusing reading, but the whole thing remains kind-of alarming to me when I think about the fact that people genuinely believe this stuff.

ON MENTAL MODELS AND STAGNATION

When we are confronted by evidence that contradicts our model of the way things are, we are confused. We can amalgamate this new evidence and relieve the confusion in one of two ways. The first way, which is the most comfortable, is to assume that our existing model (what we already believe) is correct and take the extra evidence as an exception to the rule. The second way, which is harder, is to adapt the model to fit the new evidence. Which one is more correct depends upon the situation, but something that is certainly true is that it is far more difficult to retrospectively adapt a model (where your model has been hard-set by, for example, years of belief in it) than it is to adapt a model which is less-strongly held.

Let’s have a simple example: a woman has a son who, on a particular occassion, gets into trouble at school. Her mental model includes predicates like “My son is a good boy,” and so this new evidence challenges that belief. Odds are good that she will extend her model with an exception, such as “…except when he plays with [scapegoat],” or even “…except that one time.” This is probably correct, and her model is refined with this “bolt-on” extra clause. If she continues to be bombarded by evidence, she is likely to have to change her model to accomodate it, eventually changing her original ideas: “My son is not a good boy.”

Retrospectively changing ideas is very hard: the human brain doesn’t seem to feel as comfortable with it. Suppose you had firmly believed that there was a deity who cared about you and would grant you a place in it’s heaven if you lived your life in accordance with a certain set of rules and traditions. Then suppose something somehow managed to persuade you that this deity probably didn’t exist at all. Changing your mental model to something new, contradicting yourself, and saying “I have been wrong for the last 20 years,” or whatever, isn’t an easy thing to do, so people don’t like to do it.

What people will sometimes do is to maintain their model with an ever-growing string of complicated and intertwined exceptions, making themselves into an apologetic for their cause. “God doesn’t condone homosexuality, because Leviticus 18:22 and Deuteronomy 23:17-18 forbid it! Oh; but don’t mind Leviticus 11:12 and Deuteronomy 14:10 – of course God doesn’t mind us eating shellfish in this day and age.”

Everybody does this: not just the theists. But it scares me that we seem to be seeing an increase in this kind of thinking from theists worldwide, and while it’s probably better than them taking their thousands-of-years-old holy books as literal and following them to the letter, it sets a bad precedent. If they can justify making exceptions to the rules they don’t like, it follows that they will eventually adapt their models, internally, to say “It is okay to change our models to fit our needs and still believe that we aren’t hypocrites.” It’s happening now to many people all over the world, and it disappoints me.