A Load of Bright
An atheist's views on religion and the supernatural

Sep
15

I haven’t finished my homework, and I don’t even have a dog. I am thoroughly enjoying Julian, but a few things have come up in my personal life which have prevented me from finishing it in time. I have sent my apologies to the Exterminator (who posted his article on Julian today) personally, and offered to cover his kitten burning shifts for the next month. I apologise to my readers and the other members of the Literati, and I promise you this: no matter how long it takes me, I will finish it and post my article.

The same personal issues that have hindered my reading, have also obstructed my writing. I am aware that the blog is lacking its usual drive and energy, but, as I promised, things will be back to normal by October.

On another note, regular readers of my fellow British blogger Nullifidian – who has been AWOL for some time – will be pleased to hear that he’s back and raring to go again.

As Nullifidian is also the founder of Planet Humanism, I’d like to take this opportunity to give another plug to that project. At present, there are 24 blogs listed. I believe that there are many, many more blogs out there that would qualify as having humanist themes. I know people expressed concern about there being a large overlap with Planet Atheism, but as I said at the time, I don’t see it as a problem. Most atheists are humanists too. We tend to think of ourselves as atheists first, which is why we tend to think of our blogs as atheist themed, but in truth, they could just as easily be thought of as humanist. Why shouldn’t we have another place on the internet where our writings can be aggregated? I see PH as a complement to PA, not a threat. So come on, if you haven’t already, please sign up, and urge others too as well.

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Sep
12

Well folks, it’s six months today since A Load of Bright first graced the internet. As I promised, I’ve added the Must-Read Posts section to the sidebar to mark the occasion. At present, they’ve all been voted for by readers, but I may add one or two of my own at some point. (I’m also having a bit of trouble with the spacing at the moment, bear with me!) Please feel free to nominate any post at any time to join the section.

I’d also like to say a big thank you to all my readers and regular commenters for humouring me all this time, and giving me the incentive to keep writing.

Sep
07

The Exterminator at No More Hornets came up with a great idea called The Nonbelieving Literati. I happily signed up, but, as was my tradition throughout my formal education, I am running extremely late with my homework! My copy of Julian arrived the other day and damn! It’s much longer than I expected. And I’ve still not had a chance to start it.

Anyway, this is really just a quick note to say I won’t be writing much, if anything at all, in the next week, because I don’t want to have to tell the Exterminator that the dog ate my assignment. After that I will be preparing to host The Carnival of the Godless on the 30th, so there probably won’t be much of substance here for the last two weeks of the month either.

Normal service will resume in October, my thanks for your patience and understanding.

Sep
04

It is one year today since the tragic, premature passing of Steve Irwin. He was “fatally pierced in the chest with a sting ray barb”. I remember hearing the news on the radio on my way to work that morning. While I would never have called myself a fan, I did admire him greatly, and I was deeply saddened. I could not believe how quickly people made light of it.

I have learned a lot more about Irwin in the year since his death. While some had criticised him claiming that he intruded upon animals in their natural habitat, others say that above all he loved and cared for the animals he knew so well, and always had their well being in mind. Rightly or wrongly, I find myself agreeing with the latter.

What is indisputable, is that Irwin had a wonderfully entertaining, extrovert personality. He oozed confidence, and viewers all over the world warmed to him. It often seemed as if he had no fear.

Considering all of the dangerous beasts he handled so skilfully, it is a heart-rending irony that he was killed by a creature that normally would have posed little threat to him. I heard a lot of comments around the time along the lines of, “well, he had it coming to him” or “if you will keep playing with matches, you’ll eventually get burnt”. How very easy it is to say something like that from the comfort of your own home. Very few people are willing to risk their lives, time and time again, to do what they love. Irwin was one such person, and ultimately his passion cost him his life.

It is not easy for us humans to get close to the animals which Irwin was so at ease around, especially in their own natural environment. His brave work has enabled us to learn a great deal about some of the creatures with whom we share this planet. We are indebted to him for his courage and good humour, and when the world loses such a person, it is a loss to us all. He deserves to be remembered, not with sadness, but with joy, as I’m sure he would have wished. I’ll be raising a glass to Steve’s memory tonight, I hope you’ll join me.

Sep
03

The 74th Carnival of the Godless is now up at Atheist FAQ.

The 7th Humanist Symposium is also available, at Bligbi.

Both include my article Holy Smoke.

Sep
01

I had been planning to post an article on gay marriage some time soon (I’ve also been planning to write an article on procrastination, but I keep putting it off), but I’m glad to say that Ebonmuse has beaten me to it at Daylight Atheism. He’s done a far more thorough and clinical job than I would have done, so it’s my pleasure to direct you to it.

Had I written my thoughts on the matter, though, I would have included Roy Zimmerman’s great song Defenders of Marriage, which I’ve decided to do anyway. Enjoy!

Aug
29

I tried my first cigarette when I was 13, on the back of the school bus. By the time I was 15, I was smoking regularly. I stopped for a year or so when I was 17, but when I started my first full time job at 18, I began to smoke heavily. I continued to smoke around, in fact at least, twenty a day until 16th January 2005 when, after reading Easy Way to Stop Smoking by the late Alan Carr, I stubbed out the last cigarette I will ever smoke.

It was very shortly afterwards, a matter of weeks, that I took my first steps towards scepticism and atheism. Since then, it has often occurred to me that there are many similarities between religion and smoking. I’d like to detail some of them here. Before anyone lynches me, I’d like to point out that I realise the analogy only goes so far (as is the case with all analogies). I’m not saying they are completely the same, I acknowledge that there are also differences. Please consider this carefully before commenting.

For people who are not raised with religion and find it as an adolescent or adult, I think there is something seductive about it that can also be seen with smoking. With smoking, it worked on me. Perhaps it was an image thing, or an element of peer pressure. I think there is a strong element of this with religion too. Potential converts are strongly encouraged to join the religion with promises of fulfilment and eternal life, and when they join there is great celebration. In contrast, leaving the religion is always strongly discouraged and, ironically, when you’re trying to quit smoking, other smokers are often not very supportive, and sometimes even brazen in their attempts to sabotage your efforts. In the absence of critical thinking skills, I can definitely understand someone wanting to ‘fit in’.

And the lack of critical thinking skills is something that both religion and smoking look for in their targets. No rationally thinking person would consider the evidence for and against the pros and cons of smoking, and then make an informed decision to take it up. Equally, a person without any religious upbringing or indoctrination is unlikely to rationally conclude that the claims of a religion are true. Both prey on the weak, particularly the young. I started off just having the odd drag of someone else’s cigarette. Then I’d start having a half at a time. This quickly lead to scrounging whole cigarettes. “You’re always scrounging ciggies”, my friends would say, “but you’ve never got any of your own”. I would tell them that was because I didn’t smoke. “Could have fooled me! Buy your own.” So then I bought a pack, just so that I could pay back the cigarettes I had borrowed from other people. I was hooked before I even knew it. With new converts to religion, I think something similar happens, slowly and gradually being taken in. Alan Carr used an analogy of a fly greedily drinking the sweet sap on the surface of a plant, without realising that it is in fact about to be eaten itself. The harm caused by both smoking and religion can be battled with critical thinking.

And what great harm both have caused, and continue to cause. Both religion and smoking have the blood of millions of innocent people on their hands. Both have caused an unimaginable amount of needless suffering. Also, both are capable of harming others. Just as, for example, acts of religiously motivated terrorism can cause pain, suffering and death to non-believers, so passive smoke can cause death and great harm to non-smokers. They are both a danger to society. Just as religion leads to division and segregation, so the social drawbacks of smoking have similar effects. Smokers take breaks together at work. Non smokers normally end up sitting at different tables in restaurants, or suffering the second hand effects. Meanwhile, the children of Catholic and Protestant parents go to separate schools.

Both religion and smoking demand investment in the form of money, time and emotion. They are both expensive lifestyles to maintain for the victims, and both line the pockets of already wealthy people in the process. Endless hours are spent worshipping and praying in church, and many hours are spent smoking, all of which add up to great quantities of time over the years which could have been better spent. And just as religious believers feel emotionally attached to God and their religion, smokers often feel emotionally vulnerable and lacking confidence without their cigarettes.

In both cases, with religion and smoking, the world would be far better off without them and, in both cases, while there is progress, it is slow and unlikely to lead to any dramatic shifts in the foreseeable future. Mankind has come to realise, just in relatively recent (slightly more so for smoking) history, the great dangers that both can cause. Both have reached a point of enlightenment, where awareness of their threats has increased and continues to do so, after centuries of ignorance and darkness.

One question that is often asked of atheists is, “how are you going to replace religion? People need religion. If you take it away, what are you going to put in its place?” Many atheists answer this question on face value, normally with an outline of secular humanism. This is correct in a sense, but the question is actually heavily loaded. It assumes that people need religion. Do they really?

I used to think I needed cigarettes like I needed food. At times, when I was broke in university, I would scrape pennies from the floor of my car and the backs of couches to buy cigarettes while my cupboards were bare. “I need a cigarette”, I’d tell my bemused housemates, “I need one”. When you smoke, you are imbibing poison into your body. If there is one thing that, by definition, your body never needs, it is poison. I didn’t need a cigarette. I needed food. If you don’t eat, you die. If you don’t smoke, not only do you not die, you live longer! It’s easy for me to say that now, but at the time I was convinced that it was an essential.

Just as we are all born atheists, we are all born non-smokers. Do people really need religion, or do they just not know any better? Obviously, not all people need religion – the existence of happy atheists proves that. So why would some people need it and not others?

The essential idea behind Alan Carr’s book, which helped me quit smoking, is that the need for tobacco is an illusion which is created by… …smoking tobacco! Each cigarette creates the need for the next one, and it is only by breaking that chain that you can free yourself from the illusion. When I quit smoking, not only did I realise that I had never needed cigarettes, I felt truly liberated from the illusion. This is exactly what many people who were convinced that they needed religion feel like when they deconvert.

Isn’t if funny how only smokers crave cigarettes? Non-smokers don’t come out of a stressful meeting with a customer and say “I’m so stressed, I need to unwind. If only I smoked!”. Only smokers think they need to smoke, and only people who are religious think they need religion. In both cases, great harm and suffering is caused, or at least always potentially possible, while the perceived enjoyment and benefit is cheap and shallow. I don’t think people need religion. Personally, I think people are better than that.

Religion, as Evanescent has pointed out, works on a principle of telling you you’ve got a disease and then offering you a cure, when in fact, you’re perfectly healthy. In a perverse way, smoking does the same thing. It creates an addiction that you can only satisfy by taking more of the substance you’re addicted to. Both religion and smoking could be compared to someone kicking you in the leg and then offering you a crutch. Once you’re holding it you think you always need it – you don’t! Alan Carr’s book is strongly opposed to ‘replacement’ techniques for quitting smoking, such as chewing sweets. He argued that smoking doesn’t need replacing, and I think he was right. I think this applies to religion too. I believe that every human being, when made properly aware of the facts, is capable of living a happy, moral, fulfilling life without religion. You don’t need to look for miracles, your very existence is a miracle. Throw away your crutches, and walk.

At a recent conference in 2006, an anthropologist and prize-specimen of ‘I’m-an-atheist-buttery’ quoted Golda Meir when asked whether she believed in God, “I believe in the Jewish people, and the Jewish people believe in God”. Our anthropologist substituted his own version, “I believe in people, and people believe in God”. I prefer to say that I believe in people, and people, when given the right encouragement to think for themselves, about all the information now available, very often turn out not to believe in God, and to lead fulfilled and satisfied, indeed liberated, lives.

Richard Dawkins

Aug
25

Often in a discussion, whether in person or online, the person I am talking to will declare, “let’s just agree to disagree”. Sometimes I accept this and let the debate end there, and sometimes I get a bit annoyed and try to press my point. When I do the latter, I am told that I’m a bad sport, or I’m accused of suffering from an obsession to force people to agree with me.

Let me explain how I decide my course of action when I hear those familiar words. If there is a genuine stalemate, that is, if there are key issues to the discussion that simply cannot be resolved through objective, rational means, if our views clearly cannot be reconciled through progressive, evidence based discussion, then I have absolutely no problem agreeing to disagree. I may even suggest it myself.

What really presses my buttons, is someone hiding behind “let’s just agree to disagree” to save face while retreating from an argument that they know they have lost. Imagine, if you will, a football (soccer) match where one team is enjoying a triumphant 6-0 score-line, but with two minutes left to play, the losing side picks up the ball and marches off the field saying, “well, let’s just call it a draw (tie)”. That is how some people use the “agree to disagree” excuse. Sometimes I can even see it coming. I watch as they summarise each of their points just one last time, just to check that they can’t argue any of them any further, before they say it.

So, who’s the bad sport? This is exactly the point where they should be conceding defeat. Now, coming out of one discussion badly doesn’t mean that you’re wrong all together, or that you have to change your beliefs on the spot. However, I’m reminded of a face to face discussion I had at work last Christmas with a fundamentalist Christian. After nearly an hour of intense but amicable discussion, he told me, “I can’t answer your points. I’ll have to go and think about what you’ve said and look into the arguments you’ve made more closely”, after which he held out his hand and shook mine warmly. Now, that’s sportsmanship.

I aspire to do the same. If I genuinely can’t refute someone’s arguments, I try to have the intellectual honesty to accept it, and the courtesy to acknowledge it.

I have noticed this during discussions with a wide range of people on a wide range of topics, but I tend to find it more so with Christians. To be fair, that could be because I debate with Christians more than any other group. But I do often find the same thought occurring to me after long discussions with the followers of Christ – defeating them in a debate is easy, but getting them to realise or admit that defeat, that’s the real challenge.

Aug
23

In a few weeks time I will be celebrating (as, I’m sure, will you) six months of writing A Load of Bright. As I now have a respectably large reader base (including some people who are not even related to me) and a reasonably substantial archive, I have decided to mark the occasion by introducing a section of ‘Must-Read’ posts, as voted for by you, the reader. (I do currently have a ‘Top Posts’ section, but it is arranged automatically based on traffic, and is annoyingly fickle. The new ‘Must-Read’ posts section will replace this.)

So, I would like to invite you all to browse the archives and nominate any posts I have written that you think would be suitable. You can nominate just one, or as many as you like. It may be something you found insightful or thought-provoking, perhaps something that moved you emotionally, or it could even be something that you think was so bad that you would want new visitors to read it first and flee for their lives, ensuring that they waste no more of their precious time.

I do have one or two in mind myself, but I don’t want to prompt anyone – I’m curious to see what you all have to say. I’m very bad at predicting the reaction an article will get before I post it, so I’d like to see how the poll plays out with readers looking back. I’m also hoping that some of my readers who don’t normally comment may make themselves known, and that readers who have discovered this site more recently will have an incentive to look back at some of my earlier work.

Please feel free to comment, email me or even write your own blog post if you really want to make your vote public. I will introduce the new section with a post on September 12th.

Aug
20

The 73rd Carnival of the Godless is now up at In Defence of Reason, and includes my article The More the Merrier.