Sunday, 30 September 2007

New Amnesty International Campaign

Amnesty International have launched a new campaign against human rights abuses in the so-called war on terror.

They say:

Amnesty International deplores acts of terrorism and acknowledges the right of governments to protect their citizens when they face such hostile challenges and threats. We all value our safety and that of our loved ones after all.
For too long the 'war on terror' has been used to justify acts of torture, 'rendition', discrimination and unlawful detention. Amnesty acknowledges that the perpetrators of terrorism must be brought to justice but believes this should be achieved without eroding the very values we are fighting to defend.
Amnesty are asking anyone who cares about human rights to 'unsubscribe' from the tacit permission that we give our governments to behave in ways of which we disapprove. Get more information at the Amnesty website

Saturday, 29 September 2007

Darwin was right!

At last - evidence that men at least are descended from monkeys...I picked up this late breaking news at Greg's Brain.

Friday, 28 September 2007

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Blogger

I've been feeling rather sorry for myself, mainly because it was the anniversary of the death of the Golfer this week. Most of the time I am fine - being a fully paid up atheist I believe in making the most of every day I have so there isn't much room for self-pity...but there is a little corner reserved for it and I have spent a lot of time there in the last few days.

It's got me thinking about loneliness, aloneness, solitude and isolation and the difference in meaning between these words. I spend most of my time alone - family dead, tadpole hopped out of the pond. I've got used to it, for the most part. Being alone does bring freedom. I've been looking after people since I was 14; now that I have no-one to look after I am enjoying being responsible only to myself for the first time as an adult.

Yet I also get lonely. It's weird. I found this apposite quote from Paul Tillich(a theologian but I won't hold it against him):
Language...has created the word loneliness to express the pain of being alone. And it has created the word solitude to express the glory of being alone.

That very neatly sums up one of the mysteries of the human condition. I have some of my best ideas, my most profound moments when I am alone. Yet, if I couldn't tell anyone about them what would be the point of them?

Montaigne, that most humane of philosophers, retreated to his library at the age of 38 but remained the most affable of men. He felt the same dilemma of being torn between solitude and company:
There is no pleasure to me without communication: there is not so much as a sprightly thought that comes into my mind that it does not grieve me to have produced alone and that I have no one to tell it to.

I wonder if that feeling could apply to we bloggers in particular. I know it describes my feelings very well. I love my own company. But when I have a great idea or a thought, I want to tell someone who will 'get' what I'm on about. Friends and neighbours are all very well but are not necessarily in tune with, or even interested in, what I'm saying. But here on the Internet, there is a direct link to people all over the world who are on the same wavelength.

I may be sitting alone in my library but I can share my sprightly thoughts with anyone who is willing to listen. Better still, I can get into a dialogue, reshape my own ideas, make new friends into the bargain. Montaigne would have approved!

Wednesday, 26 September 2007

Coals to Newcastle

Here's another helpful contribution by the Church to the fight against Aids: the head of the Catholic Church in Mozambique has, according to the BBC, accused European countries of supplying condoms laced with the Aids virus in order to "finish quickly the African people".
I don't really have anything to add - I'm speechless...

Expelled in February

Duck and cover, fellow atheists! Ben Stein - apparently he is an actor who was in Ferris Bueller's Day Off but I regret that I haven't heard of him - is coming. I see on Youtube that there's a movie out in February with the racy-sounding title "Ben Stein - Expelled "

I hardly know where to begin with this one. The movie is, apparently, an attack on the science establishment in the US, where all you horrible atheistic Darwinians - and you know who you are - are ganging up on anyone who dares to suggest that a god might have done it all. The man himself on the official movie blog tells us that
Freedom is not conferred by the state: as our founders said, and as Martin Luther King repeated, freedom is God-given.
In today’s world, at least in America, an Einstein or a Newton or a Galileo would probably not be allowed to receive grants to study or to publish his research.

Strewth! Give me strength!It looks as if he is trying to be a kind of right-wing Michael Moore for the ID-iots. It's going to be an interesting Spring over there. You guys have all the fun!

Monday, 24 September 2007

Pat Condell unplugged

Love this guy's intelligence and humour -

Being special

Yes, it's true - the Special One has left the building. Jose Mourinho, the manager of one of the best and certainly the most expensive football teams in Britain, has departed Chelsea Football Club. Female football watchers everywhere will weep. (But you can always console yourselves with
these pictures. For those of you who aren't in the know, the Portuguese Mourinho is famous for, in his first interview on arriving at Chelsea, referring to himself as "the Special One". And we loved him for it. The Premier League will be duller without him.

But this got me wondering about being special and thinking yourself special. As so often happens, I was struck by something else I'd seen on the internet this week that seemed to fit together with this story to make a new idea - in this case, Sherri Shepherd - not talking about flat earths this time thank goodness but instead thanking viewers and God for getting her the job on
The View. This struck me as a classic piece of preposterous god-thanking, especially as thousands, apparently, of her fans wrote to the network to try to get her the job.

More to the point, though, is the ridiculous notion that one woman could think that she was special enough to get God's intervention just to get her a job an daytime TV. I don't want to pick on Sherri in particular - I'm sure she's very nice - but it was a timely example of what must be one of the chief attractions of Christianity. You get to be special. You have a direct line to God and can ask him for anything that you fancy - from better hair to the life of a child. This gives individual Christians a highly inflated sense of their own worth yet, at the same time, it robs them of their self-determination. Everything, good or bad, happens by God's will. If something nice happens, you are one of the chosen; if something bad happens, you just didn't pray hard enough. Many Christians appear to truly believe that they deserve the good things in life because they are special - becasue "they're worth it."

Atheists, on the other hand, are modest. You have to be. You've seen the future and you know there is none! You know that the human race is not special, except insofar as what evolution has given us - big brains and opposable thumbs - and you know that there is nothing special about you as an individual, any more than any other human alive or dead. Ian McEwan expresses it well here

and in the same piece, Richard Dawkins sums it up beautifully when he says that we who are going to die are the lucky ones because most 'people' are never born - all those gene combinations, all those unused sperm and eggs. He ends by saying
We are privileged to be alive and we should make the most of our time on this world.
- couldn't have put it better myself

Friday, 21 September 2007

I wanna live forever - but it ain't gonna happen

Those two premium bloggers, toomanytribbles and pharyngula, put up interesting posts this week - Who's morally pernicious? and Flat earth-creationist stupidity . Unfortunately the video from the second link has been removed from Youtube but it was a group of women on a programme called The View talking about evolution. There's been a lot of chatter on the internet about the stupidity of one of the women - I'm told her name is Sherri Shepherd. She not only would have nothing to do with evolution but also, when challenged by Whoopi Goldberg, would not even agree that the world was round. She said that she it was of no interest to her whether the world was round or flat, she had been focussed on feeding her children, or words to that effect. There's a whole load of chat about it too on Sherri's own site. A debate then ensued amongst the women.

In the other link, from pharyngula, Mary Midgley, the well-known philosopher said
People are not going to accept scientific fact if they think it is morally pernicious. When people are asked why they are persuaded by intelligent design, they often say that it's the only alternative to scientific atheism and Darwinism which are pernicious moral doctrines; they see it as the only refuge from this anti-human bloody-mindedness. It's at the level of attitudes to life that these choices are made. (my emphasis).

I think Dr Midgley has hit the nail on the head. Whether we atheists like it or not, most people want to have it both ways: they might want to embrace new scientific discoveries but they also want the comfort and certainty of their own particular brand of religion. The fact that we know atheism is not "morally pernicious" is no help. Timothy Reeves in this comment on the Sherri event compared the behaviour of people like Sherri to the Luddites who smashed up the latest textile machinery because they couldn't cope with the onslaught of progress. Dr Midgley says much the same

I have seen this at first hand. My late husband - the Golfer - was an intelligent man and a physicist. When we got married he was the one who didn't want us to marry in church (I hadn't made up my mind at this time); having been brought up on the fringes of one of the more extreme churches here, he hated religion of any kind. But like lots of people, he thought there was something - he thought that after we died, we continued in some way.

When I became convinced that there was nothing - no god, no life after death, no soul - I talked to him about it. I was excited at all the new things I had learned and thought he would be interested too, being a scientist. But I had to stop. Very quickly it became apparent that he was almost physically uncomfortable with the discussion. It was most disconcerting and, I have to admit, I was disappointed in him. Later, once he'd calmed down, he said that he didn't dare believe that this life was all there was because then all the work was worth nothing, he might as well chuck his job in and just live for the day - he couldn't afford to give the notion house room.

Now, before you all start screaming at your monitors, I agree with you. I know that he was talking nonsense; that atheism does not equal hedonism; that a finite life is still worth living; that people who do not believe in an afterlife still make sacrifices for other people. But the point is that the Golfer was the cleverest man I knew and he couldn't face the thought of a life without an afterlife. If he, with his mighty brain couldn't, what hope is there that other people without his science background will?

I have no answer. But I think that we atheists have to understand that it isn't easy for everyone to give up their faiths - those comforts that get them through their lives - any more than it's easy to give up cigarettes or eating too much - IT'S A COMFORT IN A DIFFICULT WORLD. When I watched the Golfer die I knew he wasn't going to a better place and I knew I wasn't going to see him again. That isn't easy to accept. It's much more comforting to pretend to yourself that he is and you will.

Wednesday, 19 September 2007

The Ballad of The Existentialist (Original Song)

Had to post this when I saw the title...nice song too!

Tuesday, 18 September 2007

Red is Dead, What about the Fish?

I've been thinking about the reality of being an atheist recently. I wrote a bit about it in this post and got some interesting and varied responses, with even one Christian crossing the floor to say hi. But I'm not sure that I am much further forward in my thinking about how aggressive I should be as an atheist to put my point across. One should not have to describe oneself in terms of belief or disbelief in religion at all as Greg says in an interesting post, any more than I should have to take a position on whether the Loch Ness monster exists. Whether Nessie is real or not is irrelevant to me and I would object strongly if I was expected to define myself as a Nessian or an Anessian.

I used to feel this was a rather petulant attitude. Christianity and other religions had been around for a very long time. Even supposing my views were correct, was it fair of me to expect society to change instantly from a nominally religious one to a non-religious? Didn't they deserve some respect? But there has been a recent example of a doctrine that was around for a long time that is now all but dead and gone and which lost its position and power almost overnight - Soviet communism. (It's not a perfect analogy but go with me on it.)

Here is an example of a long-standing belief system that was imposed on people for many years. Now it's gone and society feels no need to be respectful of its memory, just because it was around for a long time. That has given me confidence that the big religions are not so unique after all, just because they've been around a long time and have subjugated generations of people.

I think of Shostakovich, who had to compose music that was acceptable to the Soviet apparatus, and had to shape his creativity to the last of Soviet ideals, and he doesn't seem so far from the painters and composers of the Middle Ages who were only permitted to create religious works - they too could only express themselves within the limits imposed on them. And now the Soviet Union is gone...

I think watching the Soviet Union disappear without trace made me realise that any apparently all-powerful organisation can crumble overnight - that just because it's been around a long time and has bullied people into obeisance doesn't mean it has a right to be in charge. And I guess that's where I have a problem now. I'm a nice polite, peaceable kind of girl and don't want to deprive anyone of their own belief, if it gives them comfort. And yet, if the beliefs come from an organisation that has been frightening and bullying people for centuries, that is not tolerant of people outwith its circle, and has no right to that power, why should I accord it a status that it doesn't deserve, any more than communism did?

Monday, 17 September 2007

Me and Bob Dylan

Thanks to toomanytribbles for this great find. Here's my version:


Click to play

A haiku for SETI

Feeling more depressed than usual at the lunacy that passes for humanity these days, I wrote a haiku, that most constipated of poems but nice and short, dedicated to Seti

Giving up on Earth,

the search for intelligence

moves out to the stars.

Just thought I'd share that with you!

Thursday, 13 September 2007

Dance, monkey, dance!

I Stumbled upon -

Dance, monkeys, dance

- best thing I've seen in ages, quite made my day.

You can see the original posting here:

Science Hero of the Week

As long as there has been religion there have been dissenters but for hundreds of years all that atheists had to support their views were questions - gaps in the theology. But as we began to understand better the world around us, through science, we could see that there were alternative creation stories that could be written - ones that did not require divine intervention.

It's easy to build a case for atheism these days, largely due to the development of our understanding of evolution and cosmology. Together, they provide an elegant and satisfying description of how we and the universe got this way. Early man's explanation - that a god did it - was the best fit he could find with the evidence he had. We have rather more material to work with now, and it is learning about these new facts that led me to declare myself an atheist. Many great scientists provided us with these pieces of evidence and I would like to highlight their achievements here, beginning with Edwin Hubble.

Yes, he is the guy after whom the Hubble Telescope is named. He was an astronomer in the early 20th century and he advanced our knowledge of the universe in two astounding ways. He made the discovery that there was more to the universe than our own Milky Way galaxy. He demonstrated that the fuzzy blob in the sky that had been called, until that point, the Andromeda nebula was in fact a galaxy . This discovery overnight made the known universe a whole lot bigger.

Further research by Hubble and others found more and more galaxies and he developed a classification scheme for them - known as the Hubble Tuning Fork . After ten years of observing galaxies and determining their speeds, using their redshift , he demonstrated that the universe was expanding .

After these discoveries, we would never think of ourselves and the world around us in the same way. What a contribution! What a brain!

He should have won a Nobel Prize for his work but in those days astronomy was not counted as physics and so he was not eligible. But his name has now been immortalised in the Hubble Space Telescope, which for seventeen years has been taking spectacular photographs of deep space and adding immeasurably to our knowledge of the cosmos. Hubble has taken many fabulous and beautiful images but the most amazing must be the recently taken Ultra Deep Field which covers a tiny patch of sky but contains 10,000 galaxies - mind-boggling. See the image for yourselves below.

Tuesday, 11 September 2007

September 11th

Reasonable Robinson posted this - another of his perceptive comments today. His post linked up with something I saw last night and I thought it would make an interesting contrast.

Fahrenheit 9/11 was on the telly last night and, having never seen it, I thought it was time I saw it. It was a better programme than I expected. It is clearly a polemic but even taking that into account I found it interesting and, at least in part, persuasive and with the ring of truth.

I don't want to get all political here so I'll just focus on that contrast I was talking about. One of the most intelligent things Moore did was, gently and politely, to offer Congressmen the opportunity to sign up their children for the Forces so that they too could serve their country on the front line in Iraq and Afghanistan. At first I thought - "don't be so crass. That's a really cheap hit". But when I thought about it, it seemed to me the most memorable and well-made point in the whole film and, indeed, an excellent rule-of-thumb that every President, Prime Minister, politician and voter could follow:

"Is this cause so important to me, my family, my country or the world that I would encourage my son or daughter to fight on the front line?"

How many wars would still be fought if people followed that thought? RR's observation of the scene in Al Qaida's HQ, with the bloke in the big chair, is the other side of the same coin - people in power gulling the young and/or the poor into dying when he has no intention of putting himself or his own in harm's way

Saturday, 8 September 2007

Not Being Militant

Okay, after all the fun and games - quizzes and games of tag, it's time to get back down to some serious work.

One of the biggest dilemmas I find I face on a regular basis is how much to ally myself with the atheism movement. It's not so much a dilemma, I suppose, as a sliding scale. I know what my position is but where does it place me in the greater community? I've noticed this problem particularly since I began blogging, although it's always been there - should I join the National Secular Society , am I brave enough to wear an atheist tshirt , should I try to persuade people of my point of view?

Now, don't get me wrong. I am absolutely an atheist: the theory of evolution and the advances in our understanding of the universe , coupled with my own life experience have convinced me that the simplest and most logical explanation of life on earth does not require the intervention of a deity. But that's the point. If I hadn't done that philosophy course and learned about the theory of evolution; if I hadn't developed a passion for all things spacey and seen the Hubble pictures of all those galaxies and, crucially, if my life hadn't taken the path it did then I might not now be an atheist. Even then, it wasn't until I was in my forties that all those bits of my life came together and built the case for me.

So I find it difficult to give other people a hard time just because they haven't reached my level of enlightenment. I admire Richard Dawkins, Jonathan Miller et al but I am not comfortable always with the aggressive stance taken by some famous atheists. I understand the frustration with the increasingly strident creationists, especially in America, but I also feel that people have to find their own way in their own time.

Random 8

My first tagging! Greg kindly tagged me with the Random 8 meme. Apparently this is what I have to do:

The rules of this tag

1. Link to your tagger and post these rules.
2. List eight (8) random facts about yourself.
3. Tag eight people at the end of your post and list their names (linking to them). 4. Let them know they’ve been tagged by leaving a comment on their blogs.

Okay, I've done item 1. Now, the witty and amusing eight facts...this could be a tad harder.

1. I am not really a puddock.

2. A puddock is Scots for a frog

3. I am not an amphibian of any kind

4. I like frogs though...and toads...and newts

5. Not so keen on midges ticks and leeches though ( When Midges Attack )

6. Sometimes the pond dries out

7. Occasionally a dragonfly darts across

8. What the hell's a meme anyway?

Well, that wasn't very witty was it? I'm hoping I'll be tagged again some day and then I'll be much wittier...

Okay, so who to tag? Here we go - don't think it'll be eight but...

Dorid at

Wild Flora at

Reasonable Robinson at

paintgranny at

Michelle at

and Best Bear at

That's as many as I can cope with for now

Thursday, 6 September 2007


Oh dear

I knew I was spending a lot of time blogging but, hey, I can give it up any time I choose. Addicted? Me? Nah...

65%How Addicted to Blogging Are You?

Oh's cheaper than drugs and it's more uplifting than Eastenders.

How addicted are you?

Tuesday, 4 September 2007

An Existential Poem

With it being September now, I don't know about you but I begin to get all reflective - I mean I think more, not that I become all shiny - and I find that, after spending the summer in the garden, my mind turns back to my books.

I thought I'd share with you a verse from a poem that not only means a lot to me, because I had it read at the Golfer's funeral, but is also as good a summing up of how I feel about my existence as I've read in verse.

I'm a bit worried about copyright but I've only reproduced one verse and I've given a link to both the publisher's page and to the book on Amazon, so I think it'll be okay. Here's the verse:
If I were other than I find I am,
not atoms with this body and this face,
but scattered particles, part of the land,
the sea, the air, having left no trace
of what I was before, or who, or why,
as I shall be when I am turned to dust,
then I'd not be afraid to sleep or die,
trusting that of all gods Nature knows best.
If she gives me to winds, flames, streams and mud,
my dreams will bear fruit, my ideas come to bud.

This is the first verse from If Nature by Sarah Wardle. Incredibly, this was her first collection of verse - find out more here: Bloodaxe Books

Monday, 3 September 2007

Other People's Blogs

I've seen some great posts on other people's blogs this last week.

First is from Henry on Evolution Space on the Peppered Moths evidence for evolution in progress: Peppered Moths

Next we have a great piece on objectivity, Plato and chairs from
Greg's Brain: I Object That I Can Be Objective

Now one of many posts I could have included from the fabulous Too Many Tribbles blog. This one links to a video of Carl Sagan talking about starstuff

And finally for today, this is fresh in from Pharyngula Becoming atheist

Oo, oo, and one more - I found it on the Neurophilosophy blog. Made me smile. Hope it does the same for you...Pinky and the Brain do neuroanatomy

Saturday, 1 September 2007

Pale Blue Dot video

Hear Carl Sagan speak the words to accompany that famous image taken by Voyager 1 as it headed out of the Solar System back in 1990

Not just isms - pale blue dots too...

I've found myself talking mainly about isms since I started this blog and I guess that isn't surprising because atheism, existentialism etc are convenient wrappers for a set of conclusions one has come to. But, as the comments on a recent post suggest (with thanks to Me and Reasonable Robinson) labels can also be unhelpful, distracting from what you are actually trying to say. Thus it has been with me.

So I thought I'd get away from the philosophical arguments for a while and talk about some of the other stuff that got me to where my brain's at today. Mainly sciencey things - evolution and cosmology. Both of these areas of knowledge put humanity in its real place in the universe. The theory of evolution is amazing. The more you find out, the more interesting it gets - I'll save that for another post. Cosmology is jaw-droppingly exciting at the moment; the images coming back from Hubble and other space telescopes are expanding our knowledge of the universe all the time. Once you have grasped the immensity of the universe; once you have seen for yourself the latest possible explanations for how the universe came into being, you will never thinkof yourself, or of humanity, in the same way again. This quote from the late Carl Sagan sums it up perfectly:

Look again at that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar," every "supreme leader," every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there--on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.