What is your favorite type of extremism?

I consider myself a moderate, but others may see me as an extreme moderate.

I personally find all forms of extremism abhorrent.

Religious extremists (who come in a multitude of varieties) are all dangerous. Those who believe that the word written in any book is the perfect word of their deity, have to ignore all evidence of contradiction as well as the thinking of their own religions historical record of the creation and modification of their books. Blindly following any leader with an archaic costume is always dangerous.

That is not to say that the meditative qualities of group introversion and chanting are all bad. Many people use the concepts taught through their religions as a way of living their lives within a morale code and they enjoy the power of ceremony, cultural memory and ritual to great benefit.

But most of these people do not take the direction of their religious group leaders as absolute, and make personal decisions as to which things to follow and which to not follow. Most people will not cause harm to others just because their religious leaders demand it. Actually most religious leaders won’t even ask their followers to cause harm to others.

But there are a small number of religious leaders who do advocate causing harm to others. Every day we see some of these on the news, be it the leaders of some sects of Islam, leaders of certain mid-western churches, or Hasidic Jewish leaders in Israel who advocate throwing stones at people who drive on the Sabbath. Most of the people who listen to these outlying religious leaders choose not to do what they are being asked. But too many people don’t do enough to act against those who do choose to follow those aggressive points of view.

When a politician is unwilling to take a stand against a fundamentalist view they become part of the problem.

When a republican chooses to not say they accept the theory of evolution as a scientific principle they increase the issue.

When a politician is not willing to denounce an extremist left wing group who have used violence to further their goals they are part of the problem.

When people in a pub playing great music put a coin in the bucket collecting money for those who use violence, they are part of the problem.

The power of billions of people who try to live a moderate life can be countered by just a few who wish to live a extreme violent form of a fundamentalist life, if those billions chose not to stop them.

Actively denouncing extremism in all its forms is a fundamental requirement for the world to be a better place. Does that view sound too extreme?

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Is Marriage a Homonym?

There are many words that have multiple meanings.

I picked up the leaves vs. I hate it when he leaves the seat up.

He rose from his seat vs she was very pleased with the rose he gave her.

They got engaged vs she was very engaged in the conversation.

Words with different meanings are technically called homonyms.

And I think that the fact that the word marriage is used for two very different meanings should also be addressed in the same context.

Religions (all of them) recognize the importance of marriage, as a gate two people take in confirming their relationship to their congregation and to their faith (god, spirit or code). When a religion recognizes a marriage, it is saying that the participants have agreed to abide by the rules and edicts set down by the precepts of that religion.

So why is marriage a homonym?

Well it also turns out that there is a legal contract that can be undertaken between people that is recognized by law. This is very different than the religious term marriage, as it sets out a legal framework that people entering the contract have with each other. This framework extends to taxation, end of life decision-making, and legal confidentiality in cases of giving public witness as well as the disbursement of assets and responsibilities if the marriage were ever to be terminated either by a divorce or death.

Many of the terms of a legal marriage can be decided on between parties in other forms of legal contract, but not all of them. Some of the terms are unique to a legal marriage.

It is possible for people to enter into a legal marriage without entering into a religious marriage, as it is possible for people to enter into a religious marriage without entering into a legal marriage. They are separate forms of the same word.

I fully accept that any religious organization can choose to vilify, ignore or disown anyone or group of people they choose. I personally don’t subscribe to the idea that my religion or any religion is any truer than any other religion, and I prefer to not hate anyone based on any single aspect of his or her makeup (I base any hate I feel on a more complex mix of emotions, attitudes and actions).

If religions choose to limit their religious marriages to any specific sub-group, that is of course their prerogative. But that just proves that the word marriage is a homonym.

When people choose to legally bind themselves under the terms of a legal marriage that is an acceptance OF the legal aspects of society BY those people.

Under the law their can be no discrimination, while religions are free is discriminate as they see fit.

Legal marriage is a great thing for society, and religious marriage is a great thing for religions.

And that is why marriage must always have two meanings and been seen as a homonym.

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Why the afterlife doesn’t matter.

It can be very comforting to think about an afterlife, a place where the people we have loved go when their life on this earth is over. A place where we will go when we die, and where we will meet all those we have loved. As a way of dealing with the terrible loss we all feel when those we care most deeply for are no longer with us, the idea of an afterlife can be very helpful.

And as a way of helping those in the despair of grief, this concept can be been seen to be helpful. And those who postulate these ideas do perform a very helpful function for most people at those times of sorrow.

And it can be very helpful to surround those moments with rituals, that can be focused on as a way of creating a shared meditation. We are social creatures and having others sharing in a complex and beautiful ritual alongside us does have a comforting effect.

But we have absolutely no evidence of an afterlife. And without evidence I cannot honestly use this idea, as it gives me no comfort. That is not to say I don’t want there to be an afterlife, I just see it as very unlikely, and so I need a different philosophy to bring me comfort.

The more I learn about the physics of the universe which we are all part of, the more I come to understand the strange nature of time. Time seems to be a dimension that may not truly exist, but is instead a mind-made concept. All of our understanding of the universe is grounded by a reference to time. The speed of light, movement of planets, acceleration, chemical reactions, quantum physics, electricity, the cycle of life all require observations to happen at different points.

Everything we do can be tracked chronologically. But as a dimension it is lacking in its ability to be bidirectional. Every now and again mathematically smart people work out a model that shows how (at miniscule levels) actions in the future can impact actions now or in the past. And the weirdness of the universe is exposed ever so slightly more.

Experimentally sub atomic properties (the spin of paired subatomic particles), have been shown to be linked in ways that defy the speed of light and therefore time.

These little teasers show the edge of a shadow that may one day expose a new way of thinking about everything.

And maybe these ideas will show us another level of the beauty of everything.

These ideas bring me immense comfort, and allow be to think fondly about the amazing nature of life, the universe and everything.

I don’t preclude the idea of an afterlife; I just see it as highly improbable, and not worth wasting my time alive worrying about.

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The discomfort of ignorance

There is an old saying “Ignorance is bliss”. As I’ve learnt more about the world, the more I’ve come to realize that ignorance is the antipathy of bliss. The codification of ignorance as a way of dominating swathes of the world’s population has allowed virtually every terrible thing that has ever happened to take place.

I think there are levels of ignorance.

Level 1 – Your basic “lack of knowledge” type of ignorance.

Level 2 – As you move up the hierarchy you find what I like to call “emu ignorance”, where burying ones head in the sand can make a fact go away.

Level 3 – Then you move up to “abusive ignorance”, where you choose to not tell others facts that would save them from being hurt in some way.

Level 4 – And the pinnacle of ignorance, “controlling ignorance”. This is where people are forced to not learn new things as a way of keeping from improving their lives in ways that could lead to the current ruling class losing some or all of their power.

I can think of many examples of basic ignoramuses, emu ignoramuses, abusive ignoramuses and controlling ignoramuses.

There is an antidote to ignorance, and that is obviously knowledge and the skills to learn and teach.

Anyone who steals power by limiting education is evil.

And the ability to be evil is classless.

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How many generations does it take to change?

My great grandparents and many of their brothers, sisters, cousins and others travelled from villages in Eastern Europe to England and America. They came with their culture and education, and while life was hard for them they worked hard, and made a life for themselves. I say made a life, but by todays standards it was not that great, they lived in rented tiny rooms with no indoor plumbing, but their children (my grandparents) were able to have a better life than they did, even going to school, and some of their children were able to go to university, and all of my generation was able to go to further education. My nieces and nephews will all have the chance to go to university.

Now imagine if things had been different. Imagine of my great grandparents or their parents or their parents didn’t get to bring their culture with them when they came to the western world. Imagine if they were brought over in chains, and were broken up as a family and forced to work on farms or in factories as slaves. Imagine if they were given new names, and had their history driven from them in very possible way. Imagine of their children were automatically going to be treated the same way? How many generations would it take to allow they decedents to get to the same place as my family?

We don’t need to imagine this of course, because that is exactly the scientific test that has taken place over the last several hundred years. When slavery was abolished, all of a sudden the ex-slaves didn’t get back their culture. Everyone else didn’t instantly forget his or her prejudices. And the ability of families to support and foster the welfare of their children didn’t instantly become better. It’s very hard work to bring up children teaching them the skills of live and these are skills that are passed from generation to generation.

I’m amazed at how hard it is for a family of color to compete in the US. The culture that has grown over the last couple of hundred years clearly has some excellent attributes. Despite the challenges many families are doing very well. But the deck is still very stacked. The statistics on people with a darker dye under their skin being stopped by the police, or jailed is stunning in the clarity it brings to the discussion. There may be some validity in the police acting this way, but it’s doesn’t change the situation that there is disparity. I’ve personally never been stopped by the police walking or driving (except for a speeding ticket), never been searched (except by the TSA), and never worried about what the police are thinking of me. I cannot imagine any person of color being able to say the same thing.

There is also still very overt racism in play today. I’ve had personal experience of this. I’ve seen people excluded from getting jobs because of their skin color. One terrible boss I once had, had the team I worked in interview a person for a job as the final stage in a hiring process. All other interviews had taken place via the phone and the final interview took place in person. The candidate was ideal, great skills; excellent attitude and we all agreed this was the one. But this boss said no, his words “didn’t you see him, he was (in a whisper) black”. We were all disgusted at this, even reporting this weak human being to the human resources department of the company we worked for. But nothing changed, the great candidate didn’t get the job, the nasty boss wasn’t even reprimanded. Was this because they didn’t want to create a problem, or had the companies “quota” already been met? I don’t know. But it showed me just how broken the world can be. However rare this example may be, it still exists. I personally think it’s prolific, but I have no scientifically valid research to prove this.

Life can be hard for everyone, but if you live with the additional burdens of relatives who have been beaten down a million tiny different ways, and of people who actively dislike you or discriminate against you for how you look, then the deck is stacked against you.

It’s easy to question peoples ability based on overt differences such as accent, skin color, gender, height or weight, we all do it all the time, either consciously or subconsciously. And covert differences such as religion and club memberships play their part. It doesn’t make it acceptable.

I believe we are not even close to a place where the playing field is level.

But I suspect this won’t stop the current make up of the supreme court of the United States deciding that affirmative action has run it’s course.

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An exercise in honest thinking

When I was a child I accepted what I was told without proof. From a very early age I was content to hear the stories of Santa Claus bringing presents, and the tooth fairy replacing a fallen tooth with money. I cannot really say I believed in the existence of these mythical creatures, but instead didn’t have the mental fortitude to question the idea that I was being given nice things in exchange for silly concepts.

From my very first memory of these myths I can honestly say that I knew it was my parents who participated in the adventure, and saw these fairies as a necessary part of the process. They (my parents) talked about themselves in these third person guises and I never saw a reason to not go along with the analogy.

When it came to the idea of religion and God, again I always saw these stories as a necessary mechanism to teach me things. I read the bible (children’s version) with large print and color images at a very early age. In fact I remember asking my parents if I could read the bible, and they bought me the children’s version. I loved the stories, they were well above the level that I could read anywhere else, were both scary and exciting. But I never saw them as more than stories. They clearly were not true. Now I was maybe five or six when I first came to that conclusion, but I saw absolutely no reason to discuss their truthfulness with anyone. These were great exciting stories, and just like any other story it never occurred to me at that age that anyone would think they were literally true.

I still love the power of the biblical stories, and I really do find a lot to learn from the rituals and ideas of religion and myth alike. The only thing that really separates religion and myth for me, is now knowing that some people actually believe that the religious stories are entirely true while myth is known by everyone to be just stories.

It took me until my teenage years to be able to truly articulate to myself a logical discussion that proved the non-existence of God. Before then I knew that God was just a story like all others but I couldn’t explain why.

Here’s what I discovered:

For God to be a fact, several things must be true.

1. God must listen to prayers
2. God must act to improve the universe

Well there are thousands of mutually exclusive versions of God that are prayed to right now on earth. Assuming that god listens to prayers and acts to improve the universe, then surely all but the true believers lives would be in the shitter. Clearly this is not the case, so God doesn’t listen or answer prayers. And thus is not a factor in our lives.

The laws of the universe do not require a God of any description to be active. Who knows what happened before the big bang. Frankly it makes no sense to assume some bloke with a white beard decided to squirt out everything from nothing and then had absolutely no interaction since then.

It makes much more sense to assume that there is no God, and that existence is the beautiful thing we see around us that has been growing by the mathematical principle of entropy and the logical extension of this, evolution.

Thinking this way means that I treasure every experience I have while these trillions of atoms that were forged in the center of stars hold together in my physical form and create the sentience that is I. I know my time as this sentience is limited and that I need to spend every moment experiencing. This leads me to want to do as much good as I can, smile as much as I can, work as hard as I can, think as deeply as I can, and experience all that I can.

Knowing what I know, makes me want to be honest, ethical and as good a person as I can.

I know time is just a concept that I have been taught and has no true meaning, but I don’t know enough to deal with the universe I see without this concept.

Knowing these things helps me deal with the idea of loved ones who I will never see again.

I cannot explain love, but I can explain hate. I know enough not to hate, and I know enough to treasure love wherever and whenever it can be found.

I know consciously and empirically that there is no God, and this knowledge means I have no excuses. There is no excuse to lie, cheat, kill, steal, hurt or abuse. There is nothing to forgive me, I need to be as good as I can simply because when this life is over there is no second chance. All that comes after of me is the good things I leave in this universe.

I plan to enjoy every moment of my sentience, to bring joy to me, my family, friends and beyond.

Being honest and accepting the simple facts shouldn’t need to have a name, it should be every sentient beings standard state. I don’t believe in anything that I can’t know to be true, so why take one of an infinite number of absurd ideas and put it on a pedestal (the idea of a god).

I can enjoy the warmth of custom, and learn from the stories of many generations without needing to blindly follow things that cause both harm to others and limit thought.

I suspect, this is why Atheists generally don’t start wars, they see the longer game.

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Wars lead to something beyond war – But it’s always painful for everyone involved.

England had a war with France for over a century. It happened between 1337 and 1453AD, and today there is still animosity between the Frogs and the Roast Beefs (their names for each other).

If you ever wondered where “giving the finger” came from it was a French response to the effectiveness of the English Long Bow. The French vowed to cut of the fingers of the longbow men if captured. So the longbow men would wave their fingers in the air as a taunt to the French.

This “longbow salute” has over time been simplified to a single finger. But the French still resent it’s origin.

And while Winston Churchill used the salute as a “V for Victory”, you can be sure that he and those who saw his salute knew of this double meaning.

The Irish Catholics and the Irish Protestants, still fight regularly. Thankfully the bombing campaigns of the IRA have stopped, and at a political level there is discussion of their differences. But children still fight, and men still argue with more than words in pubs and at sporting events.

After the forming of an Independent post-colonial India and the subsequent forming of Pakistan and the murder of the world renowned peaceful leader of that amazing change, we still see aggression between the two sides of that argument who now both own the worlds most destructive weapons.

The simple fact is that when arguments turn violent and people are hurt and killed, then the friends and family of those lost will always put aside logic and reason and look for revenge.

If you want to create crazed people who are likely to join together as a mob, who put the idea of killing their enemies ahead of everything else, including the welfare of their loved ones, then it’s easy just kill their son, brother, mother, father, uncle, aunt, sister or wife.

Is there a way of stopping the madness? Well there has never been found a simple way, but a slow and careful set of actions that embrace religious and ethical influencers and the holders of power has been proven to work to some extent.

The Chinese still hate the Japanese because of the atrocities of world war II. Don’t believe me? then count the Japanese cars on the streets of Beijing, You won’t need many fingers.

If you want to know what it takes to move from fighting to talking, just look at the Irish conflict. It’s not over of course, but has made amazing progress. Have a look at http://www.infoplease.com/spot/northireland1.html

The only way to stop killing is to talk. Initially most of the talking happens through back channels. But eventually each side in a conflict must address why the other side holds the position then do, and some form of compromise must be considered before true open discussions can take place.

These discussions are taking place all around the world every single day.

But when a politician stands up and says there is a simple and absolute answer to any conflict, what they are really doing is pandering to one part of their electorate, and they don’t expect their words to lead to a resolution, just make it harder for their political opponents. That is a cowardly and destructive act, and should be derided by all peaceful people.

The issue is every single politician does it! And it makes me very Angry…..

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How evolved are we?

Is it actually possible for someone who has read a simple description of evolution supported by experimental evidence or modeled the idea on paper or a computer to seriously question the concept?

And why would someone who has not read a simple description of evolution and has not bothered to review the supporting evidence or modeled the idea think that they have enough information to make a valuable contribution to the discussion?

There in nothing in the concept of evolution that explicitly negates the idea of a supernatural influence on the universe, even though there is nothing in the concept that requires a supernatural influence.

But there is a lot that helps explain the natural world we see, and helps expand the knowledgebase and allow many fields of technology and areas of science to progress.

Why would anyone want a generation to grow up without the skills to work in these fields for the betterment of humanity?

Not teaching evolution is not just irrational, it is frankly abusing children, reducing their ability to understand the world and work in some of the most exciting fields that will appear in their lifetimes.

The Catholic Church (which has been one of the most conservative institutions over many centuries with respect to science) accepts the concept of evolution (even though they have no formal position on how species evolved). Have a look at http://www.catholic.com/tracts/adam-eve-and-evolution

Religion and Science while clearly very different should not fight over proven knowledge. Those who seek knowledge are partners.

Religion cannot decide to use ignorance as a virtue. It is not virtuous; it is plain stupidity leading to fear of the unknown.

People who play with words to try and disprove a concept are just wrong. The word “theory”, means “a coherent group of tested general propositions, commonly regarded as correct, that can be used as principles of explanation and prediction for a class of phenomena”.

If you don’t agree with a theory then show another set of test results that prove its inaccuracy. If you don’t agree with the theory of gravity then show some results of some test you have performed that explain why what we see is what we see.

If you don’t like the theory of evolution then show the results of some test that explain why what we see is the way it is. It is not enough to come up with a fable that makes you feel better if you don’t think about it too much. The evolutionary process has helped people make many advancements in medicine and biology and can be proven in the laboratory. When you think about it, it makes absolute sense.

A slow moving rabbit is much more likely to be eaten by a predator, so the chance of a fast moving rabbit escaping and mating is much higher. This is natural selection, it works and the results we see are exactly what we would expect to see.

We now know how genes and DNA work (at least at a simplistic level) and we can see the vast array of permutations that can be created. It makes sense that over generations desirable attributes are more likely to be successful and will lead to more offspring with those attributes and how over time the best match for a species and its environment will be most successful.

Denying what we can see and explain is a trick from the middle ages.

Great philosophers, great religious thinkers, great scientists, all are willing to have their ideas tested by others, and when they are shown to be wrong, are happy to learn and rethink their ideas.

There was a time when the Muslim world contained the greatest thinkers in the world. There are still pockets of great knowledge there, but it’s clear that when fundamentalists take control of a religion and choose to dominate their people through the propagation of ignorance, no good will ever come.

This should be a lesson to the western world. We cannot allow fundamentalist religious bigots (or any other bigots) to take control, as it will lead to terrible things.

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The beginning of civilization, society and religion.

A couple of decades ago I had the pleasure and honor of being involved with the building of a model that proved how Stonehenge worked. In case you don’t know, Stonehenge is a very ancient stone circle in the south west of England. For a pretty ancient stone circle it’s in quite good condition.

The basic idea of Stonehenge (based on my understanding) was to help compute the position of the earth against the stars, planets, our moon and the sun, and from this information help early farmers to work out exactly when the best times would be plant crops and harvest them.

That might sound rather boring, but at a time when people didn’t know about the movement of the moon around the earth and the earth around the sun, this was a fantastically important set of information to know.

You want your crops to be able to absorb the maximum amount of sunlight so that they grow as healthily as possible. If you plant too early or too late, the crops won’t do well, and if you harvest either too early or too late the crops won’t last as long. It’s really important and really hard to calculate the optimum timing.

The position of the stones in the circle actually allow for complex calculations to be made that deal with the fact that the earth wobbles on its axis over a multi-decade cycle. These stones were the culmination of hundreds of years of observation, many generations of early scientists, keeping careful records.

If you ever go to see Stonehenge or any of the myriad of other stone circles around Europe, you will notice that many of the stones have notches on the sides near the top. This talks to the extensive time they were used for. Because the star field we see from earth does change over the decades, and so the exact position of the stars as measured on the marks on the stones deals with this change. It’s small but really significant.

If you calculate the position of the star fields as they would have been thousands of years ago, you can calculate the exact time that the stone circle was originally erected and from the notches of the side exactly how long there were used for.

These calculations match up with the carbon dating results gathered from remains found under the circle. So are as close to perfect proof for the reasons for the stone circles as has ever been found.

If you accept this idea, then the following makes sense.

Imagine for a second how life was ten thousand or more years ago. The (relatively) few people who roamed the earth were nomadic hunters, who would forage the land for food. Life was hard and lifespans were short. Some families fed up with this life, tried to corral animals and farm crops. Some of these people were more successful than others. And through experience the most successful ones were able to tell their children how to farm and over the millennia these families started to live longer and grow more numerous. With each generation knowledge on how to farm was passed down. And it was noticed by some that the best times to plant crops were when the sun rose over a particular branch of a tree, and the best time to harvest was when the moon fell over another branch of another tree. It wasn’t a perfect system, but the small difference this knowledge made year after year, meant that these families become healthier, longer lived and grew larger.

Over time they noticed that the cycle of the earth was more complex and so they started to record (over years) more and more cyclic details, by measuring the positions of the stars, planets, the moon and the sun. And the more accurate they could calculate the seasons the better the crops would become.

Of course this meant that some people were spending all of their time doing these calculations, and not working the fields or looking after animals. This meant that they needed a series of rules about who would do what, so that as a team (or tribe) they could all achieve.

Other tribes would want this knowledge, so trade was needed to allow them to get what they needed without having to replicate the complex calculations. And fortifications and security was needed to ensure that the other tribes didn’t just come and take it by force.

So the basics of society as we know it today was formed with social roles, trade laws, police and armies, barter, education and knowledge sharing.

As the calculations being performed became more complex and the devices used grew from tree limbs, to wooden circles to eventually stone circles. The operators of these early computers took on priest-like importance to the people. And the payment to these priests became seen as gifts to the gods.

You can imagine how god-like the information being shared must have seen to the people of the time. Generation after generation these complex procedures were passed down on how to calculate the seasons. And even the operators of these stone computers would have seen this knowledge as divine.

Over thousands of years, complex mythologies were formed, where elements of the sky and earth were considered powerful as they imparted such complex and critical knowledge.

So while we look today at these ancient stone circles and think of the religious significance they had to the people who lived at that time what we are really seeing is science and society being formed.

People built an amazing amount of knowledge and applied it to better society.

Is any religion today really that different?

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Picking and Choosing Ethics

When I was a child at school, we were forced to take a class in religious education, where we studied the world’s major religions, and learnt how to use a condom. Yep it may seem like a strange combination, but as it was the local bucked toothed stuttering church of England middle aged priest who was asked to teach the kids sex education, so it was added to the RE class.

What I came away from my years of religious education classes was a firm understanding that all religions are mutually exclusive, and as such have a flaw so deep as to prove their worthlessness as truth.

But in the process I did learn quite a lot about four of five of the worlds most followed religions, and noticed that each one seemed to have something valuable to add.

One of the most fascinating concepts of the major religions to me has always been the Sikh idea of the saint-soldier, particularly the part about defending everyone’s rights irrespective of their religion, color, creed, sex or caste.

It’s incredible and wonderful (to me) that these hairy, turbaned people (who look just like Muslims to the average global citizen), have such a beautiful forward-looking ideal. If there was one idea in the world today that typifies the highest hope of the modern age, it is this.

And to think that it’s been central to the Sikh culture for five hundred years.

There is a tremendous amount to learn. (73)

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