22 May 2009

Atheism and morality

A big title for a blog post, and you could write several books on the subject. I've been functionally an atheist for all my adult life, for the reason that unless someone can prove the existence of God - or even the logical possibility that something that can be called God exists - there's no reason to believe it. I assume most of my friends are this kind of atheist, and I'm always surprised if one of them turns out to be a believer. But if they are good people and don't try to impose their views on me or other people, I won't try to change their views.

Recently I've been mixing (on the internet) with a lot of more polemical atheists. Part of their claim is that belief and religions are not only wrong but that they have bad effects on the world. I've always thought that the world would be better if we all accepted that the quality of our existence is our responsibility: no other being is going to sort it out for us. But the better believers act as if they accepted that. Instead of praying for relief of famine and the end of nuclear weapons, they organise and campaign for those things, ready to make joint cause with those of other faiths and no faith. Would they do that if they had no faith? Probably, because, I suspect, their actions are a result of their own moral and ethical beliefs, which don't have to be founded on any religion.

When I look at the moral pronouncements of religions, though, that's when I start to worry about the evil effects of religions. I don't know of any religion that doesn't impose duties and restrictions on its adherents. Sometimes these strike me as bizarre and bizarrely trivial, such as the dietary and clothing rules of the Old Testament, which have been richly ridiculed throughout history. Apparently trivial they may be but in Judaism have been the basis for a huge industry of interpretation. To me, these merely discredit the God who is supposedly so upset by these trivialities. A god who worries if you're wearing wool and cotton together isn't a god, because that gives you the power to upset god. (I'm over-simplifying, of course.)

But then there are the bigger pronouncements that significantly affect the lives of followers. It seems to be in the nature of religion to ban homosexuality. I'm sure not all do - the liberal branch of the Church of England is at least ambivalent, for example - but even the beautiful, otherwise tolerant Bahai faith outlaws gay sex.

Of course, opinions on morality can vary. I would find it hard to share any ground with someone who wanted to ban homosexuality, but I have sympathy for advocates of veganism, for example, although not agreeing. To me they are matters of opinion. To the religious they are matters of interpretation of God's will, and so the conclusion is absolute. Adherence to the rules is a sign of belief. Discussion of the rules is only possible within the terms of the debate. So a Muslim or a Christian would always have to reconcile their position with the sacred text.

Science advanced once scientists adopted an empirical method - trusting the results of research rather than established orthodoxy. The codes of morality of the major religions have generally worked well, I'll accept that, but they restrict full and open inquiry into how we should live, just as the cosmology of Catholicism restricted and resisted the understanding of the universe.

I am naive in theology, and no doubt there are holes in this argument. But I have been prompted to write it by the revelations that have just come out of Ireland, where the religious establishment has been shown to preside over an appalling, sickening regime of abuse of children, far worse than even the strongest opponents of the Church could have imagined. The scale of the abuse is shocking enough. What's worse, what must make anyone doubt whether the Church is a benign institution, is the covering-up that went on at the time, and which continues. People who had been known to have abused children were moved from one parish to another. The institutions of the Church only agreed to cooperate with the investigation on an agreement that no individual would be named or prosecuted. The Church did a deal with the Irish government limiting its liability for paying victims compensation to 127 million euros, about a tenth of the compensation that is now considered likely to be paid. The rest will be paid by the Irish government, which means of course it will be paid by the Irish people. Is the Church now rushing forward to admit that this deal is morally wrong? Of course not.

From this side of the Irish Sea, it looks like the Irish Catholic Church is a thoroughly immoral institution.

(I recommend the reporting of this scandal in the Irish Times, a fine newspaper, and this link to a summary of the report. But be warned, it's hard to read even the summary without anger and tears.)

[Hear me read this article]

17 May 2009

Does my MP actually exist?

Because I live in inner London, my MP, Jim Dowd, is untouched by the second homes expenses storm. That's a pity. It might make him slightly interesting. I've just looked at his website to see if he has any comment to make. Nah. On the latest news page there's a generic labour story about what it's doing for the economy. Jim's contribution appears to have been to paste in the words "Bromley and Lewisham". The story isn't really news at all, is it, Jim? Maybe that's why there's no date on it. Let's look at the more general news.

Jim has shown his support for whales. Good for Jim. Again, no clue when this was. Second item: he's visited a day centre in Sydenham. Sometime. Moving down, he's angry with Boris Johnson for scrapping the Tramlink extension to Crystal Palace. He's so angry he says:
[Boris] shows that he has no leadership skills, but then again he is not a Londoner, and the people of South East London can only be truly grateful that he was around when the difficult decisions regarding the extension of the East London Line was made.
Not quite what you meant, Jim, but why bother proof-reading? I can't imagine anyone but me - suffering from early Sunday morning insomnia - ever reads this.

But, as before, not a clue as to when these things happened. Jim could have had a very busy day yesterday, or he could have done nothing for months.

OK, Jim may not have his fingers in the till, but he's still being paid an awful lot to turn up and vote as the party tells him. For all I know he may be a very good constituency member, solving constituents' problems brilliantly. But the evidence - on a site that he has total control over - is that he's doing nothing. Either that or he's the world's worst communicator.

And now I'm nearly crying with bitterness and contempt, as I've found a link to New article / blog entry / news. Imagine my anticipation as I clicked on it. Undated, again, here's the full entry:
I spent the morning with members of Perry Vale Safer Neighbourhood Team on a walk about in the ward.
Jim, no-one can be quite this useless. I think the kindest conclusion is that you don't actually exist. Sometime between 1997 and now, you just dwindled away. First, you stopped casting a shadow. Your voice went next. You became blurry around the edges, slightly transparent, and one day - pop! - you just disappeared.

15 May 2009

Freedom of information (2)

I wrote about this subject back in February, comparing evil govt's treatment of itself and of other people.

I don't wish to add another rant to the current round of ranting. The world doesn't need that. But do wish to refer to this brilliant article in today's Guardian. It seems like journalists are now more trustworthy than politicians. (Apart from that Greek bloke, of course.)

09 May 2009

I love Lucy

This is another post about readers' comments on humourous columnists.

I've posted earlier about my liking for the writing of Lucy Mangan, and the link to it is still sitting over there --> (hope this doesn't bugger up any html).

She's recently been given a different brief in the Saturday Guardian. Rather than writing about life with Toryboy, and her overstatedly eccentric (but all too recognisable) family, she is now a kind of postironic agony aunt. I wasn't sure about this, but today's entry is just brilliant. Beginning with a 12 year old's plea, Help! One of my friends is a creationist she spins a wonderful web of language, urging a sceptical patience, while never losing sight of the absurdity of creationism.

To me, it's a brilliant piece of comic writing. But not everyone agrees. Someone called Kepler writes:

There is nothing more condescending than a self righteous Darwinist.

Maybe your fiend has something to teach YOU.

(I love the freudian slip there). Comedy and humour are notoriously subjective, but this guy (let's assume, as always) doesn't seem to realise he's just been offered any. Even stranger, three people (at the time I'm writing) have recommended this.

Oh well, the next post is friendlier. At the time I'm writing six people have recommended it. (Take that, Kepler!) What wit and brilliance in such a few lines! It's almost as if I had written it myself.

(By the way, isn't Kepler a strange alias for someone who appears to be somewhat anti-science?)

07 May 2009

Who'd want to steal *my* identity?

So last night I got a text from Tmobile saying thank you for ordering a new line: this is now set up. Wha?

So today I phoned tmob and after five minutes navigating their menu system - which has never! given me an option that's exactly what I want - found out that someone, pretending to be me, has ordered a Blackberry Curve, which is already on its way to be delivered to my address. And that someone has presumably used my tmob password, and presumably too is confident that they can intercept the delivery. My tmob password isn't very secure* but I can't understand how anyone would have got hold of it. Even the tmob advisers sounded confused how this had happened. I had to explain that, although I've heard of blackberrys I have never heard of a Curve. Well, the tmob people were nice and will send me the return envelope for the unwanted item, but I'm suddenly paranoid, checking my online banking several times a day, and wondering if my postie's a crook (apart from being a redrubberband litterer).

More news on this as it happens. And meanwhile, if anyone wants a cheap Blackberry Curve ...

*six letters, no numbers, no special characters. I've changed it now.

03 May 2009

Charlton 4 Norwich 2

So at least we took someone down with us, and two unfamiliar emotions were aroused. First: sympathy for another set of fans. The Naarj fans were terrific. They'd sold out their allocation and a few undercover canaries were in the west stand among us. For about 10 minutes they were strongly behind the team - responding at last to Delia's 'let's be having you!'. And word clearly went round that Barnsley were losing and the shouts got louder before Charlton's first goal silenced them. By half time Charlton were 3-0 up. Just after halftime should have happened, Norwich got a goal back from a corner, defended in the way that Charlton have built into a trend this season. Second half saw Charlton mentally sitting around the pool after the 3 goal lead had been re-established (Deon Burton getting an implausible hat trick), and a better team than Norwich would have taken advantage. Fortunately, Norwich were only as good as Norwich. The haunted look on the canaries' faces among us was like a mirror.

Second unfamiliar emotion: joy. We'd taken a three goal lead and against all the odds, won. It was probably a very important result for the club, financially. It must have made a few waverers (me included) decide to let hope triumph over experience and renew the season ticket.

Norwich were bookies' favourites to win today, on the basis that when a team really really needs to win they can play better than they've given any evidence of doing all season. So forty quid on Charlton at 5/2 puts a profit of £100 in my betfair account.

All in all, a good day. Now I need something else to blog about. If not, catch up in August.