Friday, February 26, 2010

The sinister voice of Richard Dawkins...

It really is sinister. New Symphony of Science song out.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Some people complain; NZ Bus fold

A few months ago it was announced that New Zealand would have an "atheist bus" campaign, as other places in the world have. Well, they say all publicity is good publicity, and if that is true then the opponents of the campaign have helped it by complaining enough for NZ Bus to decide they won't allow the ads after all. Very conveniently, this gets the campaign back in the news (an appearance from the thoroughly mediocre spokesman on Breakfast; on,in newspapers...)

I don't know about the legality of this, and so I won't say much about that. What I will say is that, when the campaign was first announced, the same utterly mediocre spokesman was on Sunrise, where he ummed and ahhed around a question which plenty of people would think - "do we really need this in New Zealand? Religion's not that big here anyway." The fact that this campaign has been blocked demonstrates that, yes, we do need this in New Zealand. For the majority of New Zealanders, religion is an irrelevance; but there are enough for whom it isn't; people who are so pious and dogmatic about religion that they somehow get offended by a simple, plain statement that there are people who disagree with them. It really shouldn't be a surprise - look at Family First, remember Destiny Church's "Enough is Enough" march (in fact, just remember the Destiny Church, and you'll realise that, yes, the forces of fundamentalism are there, and they taking a stand against equality and freedom). Not to mention, down at Union Lawn at the Uni here, where about a fifth of the stands are for various campus Christian groups (I have already got given a Gideon's Bible!)

No, religion in New Zealand isn't quite as all-pervading as in America, but it is there, the full spectrum from the largely inoffensive Anglicans (who are helping sell my old textbooks this week), all the way through to the sexism and homophobia of the Destiny Church - and every level in between. There are people trapped in the cycle of the fundamentalist religions, and they barely realise that there are people who identify as atheists. Those people will sit up and notice when they see a sign saying "There's probably no God." They already have, before the signs have even gone up! That's why they complained, and the fact that they complained is evidence that, yes, the target audience is out there, somewhere.

I just finished reading a book, Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali. It's her memoir, of growing up in fundamentalist Islam in Somalia and breaking free, to become a controversial Dutch politician. One moment in the book really stood out - when she a teenager, talking to a boy she quite liked. She finds out that, not only was he not a Muslim, but he didn't believe in anything at all - he was an atheist. This is shocking, and she knows straight away that it is over with him - but what really stands out is that she didn't know there was such a thing. Eventually, she becomes one herself, because she asks questions. There is great ignorance among the religious about what exists outside of religion. People need to have the seed planted, not so much to turn them into atheists, nice though that would be, but just so that they are informed, so that they know such a thing exists. I have nothing against the fact that some people do, and will, make the choice to believe in weird religious ideas - that is what should happen. What offends me is that many people don't know it's a choice - they are slaves to their beliefs.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

In Dunedin... quick update

So, I'm now officially in Dunedin, settling into the flat. We don't have internet yet, hopefully we'll get that soon; the flat is going to be cold in the winter but I'll survive, cos I'm tough. It's already starting to feel like home, though it's quite a mess in my room because I don't have any drawers yet. Big game of football this Sunday, National Men's Youth League (me the man in the middle!) at Carisbrook. Yikes.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Book "review": The Mind of God

I got this book for Christmas, and I feel I should briefly discuss my thoughts regarding it. It's reasonably old (1992), not that well known. The title refers to the famous finish to Hawking's A Brief History of Time:

If we do discover a complete theory, it should in time be understandable in broad principle by everyone, not just a few scientists. Then we shall all, philosophers, scientists, and just ordinary people, be able to take part in the discussion of why it is that we and the universe exist. If we find the answer to that, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason - for then we would truly know the mind of God.

The Mind of God is written to be a "scientific search for the meaning of the universe." Davies spends a fair amount of time talking about religion; as would be expected from the title; he is not particularly critical or uncritical of it, merely interested; religion is after all very important, historically at least, in the search for meaning in the universe. He would be described as pantheistic or deistic; so basically he is sympathetic to religious ideas so long as they are kept abstract and un-dogmatic.

I found Davies' writing strange; it seems paradoxically personal and impersonal. He lays out certain ideas, makes most of them seem plausible, and then, if he has one, tells you what his opinion is without ever justifying why that opinion is better than the alternatives. Hence it is a tentative book - which was what I expected.

Ultimately, there's one argument Davies is making: his final sentence is "We are truly meant to be here. I don't think he's argued very strongly for it; all he has done throughout the book is taken a look at certain aspects of science and carved a very rough path towards this conclusion. He provides no compulsion for why one should actually follow such a path - all he has said is that it seems to be there.

According to the blurb, he is "seeking to provide a glimpse at the meaning of it all." I don't believe he comes close to achieving this. The core argument is more that such a meaning exists at all, rather than that is is X or Y or whatever; the most that could be said is that he speculates a little on where one might look to "glimpse at the meaning of it all."

Look, it's an interesting read. There's some quality writing in here, and the ideas presented are interesting. I enjoyed it; but I would say that one definitely should not expect too much out of it. There's little real substance to it; it is a collection of interesting ideas lightly strung together (with the occasional bit of solid science) into a plausible but not overly convincing argument for an abstract philosophical idea. That is all, really. Three stars, perhaps.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Ignorance kills

People have all sorts of diverse opinions. That's how it's supposed to be; this is what democracy is about. The marketplace of ideas.

But not all opinions are equally valid. Some opinions are wrong, and dangerously so. People put great importance on their opinions, people are stubborn. Or, alternatively, some people don't have an opinion at all. They just don't care.

A combination of people clinging to pre-formed opinions and desperately trying to rationalise them so as to sell their ignorance to others, and other people just plain not giving a toss, means that there are some places, even in the First World, where vaccination rates are not high enough. Diseases that should barely exist anymore do, because of a lack of herd immunity in populations.

It kills people. A baby in Australia, Dana Elizabeth McCaffery, would have turned one today. But not enough people in her area were vaccinated against whooping cough. She was too young to be vaccinated. She was a month old. Her parents are now fighting for the vaccination cause, and won an emotion-laden award at the Australian Skeptic's Convention last year for their bravery.

Whooping cough is not pretty; I know, I've had it, as did my brother and sister (at the same time). Fortunately, we were old enough. The coughing sounded, and felt, just awful; my mother described it as sounding like we were dying. I cannot imagine how bad it would sound when your one month old old baby girl is battling for her life in hospital.

Ignorance kills. It's that simple. When a person chooses not to receive a vaccination, they aren't just putting themselves at danger (that is their own problem). They are putting other people in danger. Listen to the doctors and the scientists when they say vaccinations work, they are professionals. Get angry at the ignorant fools who are against vaccination. Vaccination is a moral obligation.