Monday, 24 March 2008

The Pagan Atheist

I mentioned early-on in this blog that I might one day address my own personal beliefs, and this is where I'll be doing so. It's only after reading this post at Skepchick that I really feel like I've got it straight in my own head; in it, Judaism is discussed as being both a religion and a culture. It seems clear that people are able to be part of the latter without accepting even the most core tenets of the former, thus making it possible to have a secular Jew, or Jewish atheist, without contradiction. It's all about heritage.

So it is with me. I define myself as pagan (or sometimes heathen because I like the word), but don't believe there are supreme supernatural entities interfering with life on earth. I don't believe in an afterlife, or reincarnation, or precognition. I don't attend any sort of temple, and don't recognise the authority of any high priests or priestesses. I don't indulge in arcane rites, dance around a fire skyclad, or trust a deity to cure my ills.

So what is paganism to me? Well, as I alluded to above, I immerse myself in the culture of paganism - the history of the pagan people, the mythology, the values. In particular, those of the Scandinavian cultures; something that goes sadly unnoticed by most of my fellow Britons is just how much of a role the "North-men" have played in our island's history. Most will not, for instance, know that the Norman invasion of 1066 (as in the battle of Hastings) was carried out not by the French but by Scandinavian people who had settled in what is now northern France.

I wear a Mjollnir (Thor's Hammer) pendant at all times, I read the ancient Icelandic sagas (e.g. Njalssaga, Volsungasaga), and I'm educating myself wherever possible about all aspects of the culture. I find their values to be the closest to my own, and one of the most important things in the world to me is a sense of honour - something largely seen as an anachronism in today's society. It's one of those subjects on which I'm liable to talk for hours.

I became pagan as an anti-conformist teenager thing, I'll admit. I was educated to the age of 11 in what was (though not explicitly advertised as such) a Church of England primary school, with hymns in assemblies and subtle indoctrination. I never believed a word of it, probably because the questioning and sceptical mindset of my parents informed my own; it's hardly surprising that I went looking for alternatives as soon as I was able. I ate up every scrap of information I could on Britain's and Europe's pre-Christian culture, and even today I never miss an opportunity to remind people what our Christian holidays are based on and why. It probably annoys those closest to me, but they put up with it bless them.

So this is me. The pagan atheist, the atheistic pagan, the secular pagan, the pagan humanist - whatever you want to call it. It's a cultural thing.

Wednesday, 19 March 2008

A Call To Arms?

Upon reading through my RSS feed as I am wont to do of a morning, I happened across a post at The Frame Problem. It concerns the apparent silence on the part of other atheist bloggers regarding the Church of Industrial-Strength Crazy Scientology. Some of the big names in atheist blogging are accused of "letting the bully win", sort of an "evil triumphs when good men do nothing" deal.

While I concede the point to some degree (you don't often hear about the Co$ on many mainstream atheist blogs), I wouldn't call it a silence - in fact, the only reason I myself don't blog more often on the matter is because it gets so much coverage elsewhere. Doing a quick search in my news aggregator, I'm presented with a few examples of blogs which regularly mention the Co$: The Rogues' Gallery, the blog of The Skeptic's Guide To The Universe, has 2 posts in the last 4 days; Skepchick and The Angry Skeptics are two others that deal with the subject.

Maybe the campaign of Anonymous, and the misdeeds of $cientology in general, should be getting more attention in the more visible atheist blogs. But I'd hardly say there was a silence on the subject.

Sunday, 16 March 2008

What's in a name?

As someone to whom etymology is endlessly fascinating, I've often wondered at the misnomers inherent in the distinction between "astronomy" and "astrology". I understand it's a leftover from the times when astrology really was the "authority" on the stars, but I think it's doing a great disservice to the hugely successful science that studies the cosmos. What these people do is so far beyond "naming the stars" it's untrue.

If such things were possible, I'd suggest swapping the names around - the study of the stars should be known as such, and the nature of the pursuit which is hardly more than naming them likewise should be reflected in its title. I can't help but think it's giving them undeserved legitimacy to refer to their delusions as an "-ology", a study. Not that astrology is alone in this, of course.

Is it just me, or does this hint at the possibility of a wider "reclamation" campaign in scepticism and science? Already we have Professor Ken Miller arguing for science to reclaim the "design" terminology so widely used by proponents of creationism. One might be forgiven for thinking these to be relatively trivial matters; certainly a scientific mind would not usually consider the terminology to be a defining characteristic of whatever pursuit might be in question, but rather the methods, aims and results. However, this overlooks the increasingly important question of public perception.

One of the greatest challenges for science and scepticism is essentially public relations. Richard Dawkins is a very well-known proponent of atheism and science (and rightly so, he doesn't hold the Charles Simonyi Chair for the Public Understanding of Science for nothing); but despite his great successes like the bestselling The God Delusion, he is sometimes - perhaps typically - seen as a negative force, only denying what others believe and attacking sources of comfort. As legitimate as this endeavour may be, it doesn't help the general public's perception of science and scepticism.

Of course, we're up against some pretty stiff competition in this area - religions and other delusions like astrology have been practicing manipulation on an enormous scale for thousands of years. Reason is still a bit of a newcomer in this field. I think one of the first steps we need to take in this pursuit is to counter some of the tactics of the opposition - particularly their clever use of misleading language. This is why I'm in favour of Ken Miller's stance, and also why I cringe every time I consider the meaning of the word "astrology", and the use to which it is put.

Tuesday, 11 March 2008


Today's 8-bit Theatre amused me, as it often does. This one's about one of the best characters, Mad King Steve, and what happens when an explosion in the sky is not predicted by his royal astrologer.

Let that be a lesson to you. You can't dispute evidence given by both tea leaves and birds' wings.

Monday, 10 March 2008

Appeal to Common Practice

It is strange that in the world's first secular republic, it is as necessary to be christian in order to become president as it is for a British royal to be Anglican in order to become our monarch.

While this thought has been on my mind for many years, and more so recently due to the ongoing presidential primaries, what sparked this blog post was a report of an interview that Senator Clinton gave in June of 2007 (full transcript here). The quote that was taken for the article was:

Reporter: Can I ask you theologically, do you believe that the resurrection of Jesus actually happened, that it actually historically did happen?

Clinton: Yes, I do.

Oh dear. Why is it that candidates for high-level political office in the United States of America are expected to answer these questions in this way? It makes as much sense to say "I believe in zombies", but of course someone saying that would do tremendous political damage to themselves and any campaign they might be promoting at the time. Why? Because it's what everyone else believes. This is the only thing separating the stories of the Bible from the stories of a Flying Spaghetti Monster - that millions of people believe in one, whereas only a few thousand (probably) believe in the other. I don't count the argument from history (that the Bible has been around for thousands of years) because this would not make the claims of Pastafarianism valid after the same amount of time. It is simply that it is a popular superstition.

Why do we need people with imaginary friends running our superpowers, just because a lot of other people have the same imaginary friend?

Friday, 7 March 2008

An Atheist's Creed

Courtesy of PZ Myers, here's a nice little piece which seeks to state all that's positive about atheism, in the face of blatant ignorance of those who believe it's an empty nihilistic view:

An atheist's creed

I believe in time,
matter, and energy,
which make up the whole of the world.

I believe in reason, evidence and the human mind,
the only tools we have;
they are the product of natural forces
in a majestic but impersonal universe,
grander and richer than we can imagine,
a source of endless opportunities for discovery.

I believe in the power of doubt;
I do not seek out reassurances,
but embrace the question,
and strive to challenge my own beliefs.

I accept human mortality.

We have but one life,
brief and full of struggle,
leavened with love and community,
learning and exploration,
beauty and the creation of
new life, new art, and new ideas.

I rejoice in this life that I have,
and in the grandeur of a world that preceded me,
and an earth that will abide without me.

Hopefully I'll write some content for my blog sometime soon, when the Master's degree isn't hogging all my free time.

Monday, 3 March 2008

An Oversight, I feel

The wonderful website "What's The Harm?" has been getting widespread acclaim from sceptical blogs for the last month or two, and rightly so. As I mentioned briefly in a previous post, it's an ongoing catalogue of the actual harm done by pseudoscience, bogus medical claims, religion and other delusions.

While I realise that that site is still in its infancy, it does seem to me to have a major flaw in being overly anthropocentric. Nowhere does it take into account the terrible toll that certain deluded practices have on the wildlife in the world - a toll which is still terribly heavy, particularly on tiger and rhinoceros.

The worst offender in this regard would almost certainly have to be the voodoo that is traditional Chinese medicine, which creates great demand for tiger and rhino carcasses to treat ailments which are just as treatable (in fact more so) with so-called "Western medicine". While information campaigns and the increasing cosmopolitanism of China has meant that these practices are on the decline, it's getting close to being too late for the tiger and rhino.

For some pretty shocking facts on man's effect on the world's animals, head over to this page from the always-superb David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation. The most relevant to oriental medicine is this one:

Tiger products are still widely and legally on sale in 6 out of 10 pharmacies and 'virility product' shops in Japan and the going rate for a tiger penis in Hong Kong is £110.

A complete tiger carcass is worth around $30,000. Granted I can understand people valuing an animal life slightly lower than they value the life of a human (though I don't share this view myself); but the life of an entire species? Do we really value the life of a species over the "financial cost" of pseudoscience (et al) to the gullible fools it dupes?

Of course, crazy beliefs about the powers of tiger parts is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to man's damage to the creatures with whom we share this Pale Blue Dot, but it's the area with the most relevance to scepticism. When we argue about the real cost of pseudoscience, we should at least include a nod in the direction of the destruction of some of the world's most precious resources.