Hampshire humanists going from strength to strength!

A little over a year ago, my friend Sarah and i decided to start a meetup group for humanists, secularists, atheists and agnostics to get together and chat informally over a cup of coffee. We started meeting on sunday mornings at Green’s Wine Bar, Jewry Street, Winchester.

From a small beginning with nothing but a bit of tweeting and word of mouth, we now have a regular meetup on the first sunday of each month, usually with about 15-20 people attending. It attracts a lovely bunch of people who all enjoy making conversation together. We usually eat breakfast there and spend the whole morning chatting. If one of us is going through a difficult time, the others are there to provide support and practical help. Today one of the group brought cakes to share, to celebrate another person’s birthday! There were 4 kids there today, who played games with each other!

We are planning a humanist picnic, walk and afternoon of music making on saturday 16th june. Contact me if you’re interested in coming along! We also want to do a stargazing night up at Farley Mount in the near future!

In fact, the group is going so well, we’re planning to start another one in Southampton. A lot of us feel that once a month isn’t enough, and we know there are some people in Southampton who would like to come, but find it difficult to get to Winchester. So i’m thinking a mid-month humanist meetup in Southampton would be great! Same informal format: just turn up if you’re interested. Possibly at the Art House, which opens at midday on a sunday. Maybe start in two weeks: on the 20th may? :)

Please follow @hantshumanist on twitter for news and updates!

Where i’m coming from

I recently came across this letter that i wrote to God in January 2006 in one of my attempts to rekindle my faith. I think it had been one of my new years resolutions that year to go to church and read my bible and be A Good Christian again.

It’s clear how confused i was, and how much i wanted to believe, even though i had so many doubts. Nothing made sense to me, but i was somehow sure there was some kind of a god or spirit out there, and i obviously really cared about not offending that being.

I want to post it now, so that you can see where i’ve come from, and why i’m so much happier now that i’ve given up worrying about all this stuff!

Hello God. I’ve been missing you. You know I spent last year pretty much ignoring you, or just being indifferent towards you. I was confused and didn’t know what I believed, so I just chose to ignore you and religion most of the time. And then I was thinking, there’s something missing in my life, and I made a wild guess that perhaps it was you. Well I’ve got so much to be thankful for, and I really have a good life: I’ve got a job that I enjoy (most of the time) and pays me well, I live in a beautiful city and have pretty much everything I need, plus a wonderful partner to share it all with. So if everything’s so good, why do I feel so sad and empty a lot of the time? Is it that ‘God-shaped hole’ that people talk about?

So I thought I’d go back to church again, I’d read my Bible again, I’d pray again. And I mean proper prayers, not my indifferent sort of prayers where I didn’t really care whether you were listening or not. I thought it was time I started up a proper friendship with you again and got to know you like I knew you when I was little. Only I’m not sure whether I ever did, or whether I was just convincing myself. It’s hard to know for certain, you see.

And now I find, you’re not where I left you. You’ve gone somewhere else and I can’t find you where I thought you’d be. Well to tell the truth, I can’t go back to where I used to be. I’ve changed. My childhood beliefs were all based on what other people had told me, and me taking their word for it. I can’t do that anymore, God. Different people say different things, and I don’t know who to believe. Who’s right, who’s wrong? Or is it all relative? Maybe everyone’s right, in their own way. Maybe it’s only with the combination of every belief that we get the full picture. I suspect that any individual view is probably a distorted picture of you …

Can we ever know you completely, or are you un-knowable and un-fathomable? Are you external, somewhere up there looking over us, or are you internal, the still small voice in my heart? Maybe you’re my sub-conscience, or maybe my super-conscience? Are you one God, are you a trinity, or are you many? Could you be different things to different people? Is it up to everyone to find their own truth? Is the truth within us, or can we only access you in one way? Did Jesus have all the answers, or was Mohammed right? Did the Buddha really find enlightenment? Is Jesus really the only way to the Father, like he said?

What if I don’t believe in heaven? Can I still be a Christian if I find that reincarnation seems a more probable theory? Or maybe we’re just deluding ourselves, and we just die and that’s it, game over. Well, that seems unlikely, I like to think that some part of us lives on … but hey, can I just say I don’t know? Shall we just wait and see? Do I have to have any particular belief?

Will I ever know the truth with absolute certainty? Or do I just have to have ‘faith’? What if blind faith just isn’t cutting it for me at the moment? Can’t I find some answers somewhere? Yet if I do, how can I know that I can trust those answers?

Is the Bible as meaningful to us today as it was when it was written? Should it be updated and re-interpreted to fit today’s world, or does it remain the same for all eternity? Do you have a new word to bring to us today, or is the new word actually just the old word, heard in a new way?

Is there such a thing as a Holy Spirit? Does the Holy Spirit fill me? Has it ever done, or did I just imagine it? Could it have been wishful thinking, getting carried away in the excitement and emotion? If someone prays for the Holy Spirit to fill me, and it doesn’t feel like anything is happening, is that my fault? Am I too cynical, is that what’s preventing me from coming near to you? It’s hard to trust you when I’m feeling so uncertain.

Do you love me at all times, or are there times when you can’t bear to look at me because I’m so sinful? Do I have to earn your favour? Do I have to repent and receive forginevess? Will I be cut off from your love until I do that? Or can I come just as I am to worship you?

Will you help me to be a better person? I don’t really like myself very much at the moment. I want to be a better person, and I’ll do my best to change and become more loving, more tolerating more accepting … and less STRESSED!!! I’d really appreciate your help, if you’d like to help me. But you’ll have to speak a bit louder, God, cos at the moment I honestly just feel like I’m talking to myself. Still, I’m here and I’m willing for you to take me, break me and re-make me, if that’s what you want to do. It’s okay with me.

I’ll try to listen more carefully. Maybe I’m saying “Quiet Lord, thy servant is speaking” when I should be saying “Speak Lord, thy servant is listening”. I’ll make an effort, I promise. We’ll have some quiet time together today, how’s that?

Just let me know, yeah? Just give me a sign or something. Or until you do, I’ll just keep going to church and doing the things that I think might awaken me to you again. At least I know that I want to know you again. Last night I was crying because it felt like you’d abandoned me. But then I thought that’s a good thing – at least I’m showing some sort of emotion, which I guess is better than indifference. I’m coming back to you, God, and I hope you’ll find me.

With love,
January 2006

I can tell that i was heavily influenced by Sara Groves at that time, an artist who i still appreciate. I had also clearly been reading some of the “Conversations With God” books by Neale Donald Walsch books. I’ve no idea why i found reincarnation particularly plausible just then!

Needless to say, i never did really find God again, although i tried hard a few times after this. I even decided at one point to deliberately suspend all rational belief in order to have the blind faith that i thought i needed. It’s funny what cognitive dissonance can do to us, isn’t it?

This explains why i am so passionate about science, reasoning and rational thought these days. That is the place i find true comfort; that’s where things make sense to me.

For more about my current thoughts and beliefs, see:

Isn’t this … enough? Just … this?

I am listening to The Angry Atheist podcast where Reap interviews Dan Rawlings from Travis Air Force Base. I was really inspired by this portion of the conversation.

Reap: I had a cop the other night, i got pulled over and i had a cop say, “So you’re an atheist?” and i said “Yeah!” and so he goes, “So you don’t believe in God”? and i said “I don’t believe there’s any proof that there’s a god.” And he goes, “Well sure there is!” and i said, “Well, what is it?” and he goes, “Well look around you!” And i just wanted to go, “Are you a fricking retard, dude? What the hell do you mean, just look around me? That’s not proof of anything!”

Dan: Yeah, i know. I remember i got online and i was talking to some atheists when i was kinda doing my soul-searching and looking for things. And i remember looking at a leaf from a tree and thinking, “Holy crap! This wasn’t designed! This just became what it is, through millions of years of evolution. There’s a perfectly logical explanation for this. It makes sense. But … HOLY COW! This thing that i took for granted, i’ve just been taking for granted this whole entire time.” You know, look around, look at everything. Alright, well look at the trees. Look at nature. You know what? There’s explanations for it. You don’t have to freaking believe in hocus pocus to see beauty in reality!

Reap: I think it’s more awesome the way that stuff evolved, than a being snapping his fingers and making it.

It’s true, isn’t it? This world is amazing. It’s beautiful. I’m getting into photography a lot more these days, and i find myself seeking beauty in nature, and appreciating it so much. Knowing that there’s a process of continual adaptation and natural selection is fascinating and magnificent. Understanding how it works does not make it any less wonderful.

focus on / focus off

I have been thinking recently how glad i am that i gave up my beliefs in God. I used to care very much what God thought about me, and i trusted in God’s plan for my life. I depended on God to make everything alright for me. I don’t do that anymore. I make my own life. I became confident to love myself the way that i am. I feel in control of my destiny. Understanding that this is probably the only life i’ll have, i feel an urgency to make it the very best i can.

If i’m outspoken about my atheism, it’s not because i want to convert anyone else. I don’t think i can anyway. Plenty of people tried to convert me but i wasn’t ready for it. I came to it in my own time. I’m outspoken only because losing my belief has had a profoundly positive impact on my life.

People tell me that being an atheist is too much mental effort. That God is irrelevant and not worth even thinking about. I totally understand that because i feel the same apathetic irrelevance for every god except one. There is one particular god that i used to believe in and now i don’t. I think it’s accurate to say that my atheism is somewhat proportional to my former belief.

There was another part of the interview that i really liked. Here are Dan’s parting words:

Dan: I didn’t do anything particularly amazing. I just stood up at the right time and at the right place. I’d like to emphasise that. These armchair atheists or these armchair people who want to make a difference … well … do it! There’s something somewhere. No matter how small it is. If somebody expresses that they are skeptical about this, or they’re skeptical about that, say, “You know what, so am i!” And just that small little effort, just that small little bit is going to be the thing. It’s everybody doing a small little thing that’s going to create this movement, it’s going to create this change in our society.

And i think, getting online, being active … come on. Get off your butt, go do something. You’re in the right place at the right time. It’s just a lot of people just don’t want to do it. They’re too busy. So stop being too busy and make it a priority if it’s a priority for you. If not, you don’t have to, but you can’t bitch and whine and complain about it later.

So that’s why i wanted to write this post tonight. That’s my little bit.

I wear my “Born again atheist” badge and my “Happy humanist” badge and i am confident to say that i don’t believe in gods, or ghosts, or mediums, or psychics, or homeopathy, or acupuncture, or chiropractic, or conspiracy theories, or alien abductions, or any fantastic claims that don’t have equally fantastic evidence.

I think that what we know to be true is far more impressive and we can be more than content with just that.

The quote i used for the title of this blog post comes from Tim Minchin’s “Storm”. Well worth a watch.

Isn’t this enough? Just this world? Just this beautiful, complex wonderfully unfathomable world? How does it so fail to hold our attention that we have to diminish it with the invention of cheap, man-made Myths and Monsters?
– Tim Minchin

Yes, i have irrational beliefs!

Moments after writing my previous post about the human brain and its tendency to hold irrational beliefs, i discovered one of my own irrational beliefs.

I am making a pumpkin risotto (yes, right now! cooking and blogging, ftw!) and i realised that we don’t have any white wine. My partner suggested using red wine instead and i immediately stated that it wouldn’t work. Why? Do i have an irrational belief that you can only use white wine in risotto?

I have no scientific data that says white wine is better than red wine. The best i can come up with is: “it feels wrong”. I have an Availability Bias that every risotto recipe i can remember has always used white wine.

We all have irrational beliefs, and most of them are harmless. The point at which irrational beliefs become something to worry about is when they wish injustice, suffering or death upon other people. Or when they indoctrinate children to fear their natural impulses and feel guilt and shame for just being who they are. Or when they make people stop taking necessary medicine and get sick and die. Or when they make people repeat information which has been proved to be false, which misleads other people.

I’m glad to have discovered one of my irrational beliefs, and i’ll be looking out for more of them in the future. I’ll be happy if i find that all of them are just as harmless. I’m also eager to test my bias now that i’ve found it, so i’m about to put red wine into my pumpkin risotto. I’ll let you know how that works out! :)

Pumpkin risotto


It worked out really well! i even think i prefer it with red wine! Hooray for discarding irrational beliefs! :D

The human brain and its tendency to believe irrational things

The last two interviews on the Angry Atheist podcast have got me thinking a lot about whether the human brain is predisposed to believe in religion, conspiracy theories, alternative medicine, etc.

Firstly Craig James, author of The Religion Virus, talked about religion in terms of evolution, explaining how religions have adapted and progressed, and the strongest strains survive because of their ability to take hold in our brains. Our brains are the ecosphere in which these ideas live. Craig explained that the ideas that survive are the ones that appeal to us (someone is looking out for us, you’ll get to meet your dead relatives in heaven and be happy forever) as well as things that people are afraid of (fear of making God angry, eternity in hell, for example).

It made me start to wonder: what has atheism really got to offer? There’s no attractive warm fluffy appeal or fear factor to make it stick in people’s head. I guess it only really appeals on an intellectual level. Craig mentioned that most people don’t tend to continue to believe something once they realise that it’s not right, which could be an advantage for atheism. It also means that the anti-gay churches are going to struggle in the future as more and more people are realising that homophobia is not right. Those churches will either need to adapt or die.

The other interview was with DPRJones, youtube broadcaster and host of The Magic Sandwich chat show. Part of what DPRJones talked about was the question of why people buy into religion. A lot of it comes down to how we are brought up, which is interesting, but more interesting for me is the connection to the evolution of the human brain.

Homo Sapiens are very good communicators, and we understand that the evolution of large frontal lobes has something to do with that. DPRJones points out that we have the advantage of being able to imagine conversations with people before we have them. We can also imagine conversations with people who are dead, or don’t even exist. 50% of 4-year-olds have an imaginary friend who they talk to. It’s no wonder that, when children are told there is a God they can’t see who cares about them, they accept it without question. DPRJones also mentioned that 9-year-olds questioned about dead animals mostly had the notion that the animal, while it no longer needs food or drink, still has desires of some sort. It seems natural for us to believe in life continuing after death.

I’ve read similar ideas before. Richard Dawkins explains some elements of religion as a by-products of evolution. For example, most of us are inclined to obey authority. It is an evolutionary advantage for us, when told not to do dangerous things, to obey. Disobedience sometimes causes death. This evolutionary advantage “misfires” when we feel we must please and obey a God, much like moths who fly towards artificial lights because they evolved to navigate by the light of the moon.

These things help me to understand why i so naturally believed that Christianity was right, and why some of my beliefs continue to persist unnecessarily. If something goes wrong, my first thought is still to wonder if i’m being “punished” by God for some wrongdoing, until i remember that it’s an irrational thing to believe and then i feel liberated to find a solution to the problem.

Sometimes i still wonder though, whether i am really any better off now as a non-believer than i was as a believer. I still suffer the common faults in human thought patterns. I am not free of confirmation bias, of self-consistency bias, of herd mentality, of assuming that i am right. Isn’t it funny that everyone, no matter what they believe, thinks that they are right? Even when writing this post, i’ve had to try to stop myself from implying that atheism is the obvious conclusion to logical thought. I can picture myself ten years ago and know that i definitely would not have agreed!

I don’t think i believe in anything irrational now, but i only need to follow the patterns of the human psyche and extrapolate to realise that i probably do. It scares me that i have no idea what those things are.

The Good Atheist on gay rights and equality

I’ve been listening to a lot of good podcasts recently, and one of my favourites is The Good Atheist where Ryan Harkness and Jacob Fortin discuss current affairs and what’s wrong with the world, specifically to do with religion.

It’s often very funny, often insightful and sometimes shocking. The episode i heard today, they were discussing some stupid PDF by a religious sect, listing 77 reasons why atheists should be against gay marriage. They laughed about the absurd nonsense supposed logic behind a few of the points in the PDF, and then they talked about how good it is that religion is going to lose on this one. It’ll take time, but people are mostly growing up these days knowing that being gay is not a big deal. I love Jacob’s rants, and this one was an exceptionally good one …

Jacob: The population is getting older, and older people are more religious. But if you’re putting all your faith in them, i got news for you: they’re all gonna die, man! That’s why whenever you look at reports saying, by 2030 (or even earlier than that) many countries, even Canada is included in this, will no longer be considered religious … and that has almost everything to do with the fact that the elderly are the ones that hold on to this. And, unsurprisingly, they’re also the ones who just, overwhelmingly did not like gay people. Because they weren’t part of a culture that saw that as no fucking big deal. They saw it, in fact, as a very giant big deal!

Think about throughout the history of The West, if you want, think about how long gays have had the shitty end of the sexual orientation stick. Hmm? How long has that been going on? This is probably the best time for them, and it’s not even that great! Think about the suicide rates for young gay men, it’s just ridiculously high, right? Cos all they’re told is that they’re fucking giant pieces of shit – and – that’s – better than it used to be. That’s as good as it’s been. That’s fucked up! That is fucked up.

I’m sure in the future, we won’t be part of that future, but i think it will be a great future when we can look at that and finally be ashamed of ourselves, and just put that behind us. Not forget it, but say, “We’re not going to be like this anymore. That’s not going to be us. We’re not going to look at a person’s sexual orientation and say, you don’t deserve to have the same rights as everybody else”.

Ryan: It’s going to take another generation to get the influence of the elderly bigots out of –

Jacob: Yeah, but that’s just here. I mean, how much work do we have to do in Uganda? How much work do we have to do in the rest of Africa, in Asia? You know, in the Middle East. It’s a nightmare! We’re looking at probably another fucking hundred years of this bullshit for everyone to catch up.

But you gotta be that shining city on the hill. You know what i mean? To some degree, you gotta be a beacon of fucking hope for people. Cos the whole world’s not all gonna fall at the same time but goddammit, we can definitely say that we’re on that top. We are the shining motherfucking city on the hill because we’re not the ones going around saying “Oh! If other people have the same rights as me it’ll ruin everything”.

So very well said. These things are important. We have a right to get angry about these issues. I don’t get angry about a lot of things, but equality is a big issue for me, and people who try to deny it make me angry. I’m actually glad that Jacob made such a good rant and i hope nobody minds me transcribing it, because it echoes my own thoughts so clearly.

We have come a long way, we still have a long way to go. We must make a big noise against anyone who is trying to make us go backwards. It gets better. It must get better. It needs to get much better throughout the whole world.

If you like this, subscribe to the podcast: The Good Atheist. It’s great.

Did Jesus actually exist?

I’m always learning new things. Even though i’ve been an atheist for several years, i’ve always had the opinion that Jesus probably existed. I’ve heard people claim that Jesus did not exist but i never really heard any good reasons to back up their claims. I kind of thought, “Oh, that’s taking it a bit too far, isn’t it?”

I was happy to accept that sure, maybe Jesus existed. Maybe Jesus said some really inspiring things, and maybe some really horrific things. Maybe a lot of the stories were elaborated and embellished over time. But surely Jesus existed, right? I mean there’s historical evidence outside of the bible, right?

Turns out, not so much. Actually, the most celebrated reference to Jesus outside of the bible was probably fabricated, and even provides quite a strong hint that Jesus did not exist at all. It’s this passage from the Jewish historian Josephus:

About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one ought to call him a man. For he was one who performed surprising deeds and was a teacher of such people as accept the truth gladly. He won over many Jews and many of the Greeks. He was the Messiah. And when, upon the accusation of the principal men among us, Pilate had condemned him to a cross, those who had first come to love him did not cease. He appeared to them spending a third day restored to life, for the prophets of God had foretold these things and a thousand other marvels about him. And the tribe of the Christians, so called after him, has still to this day not disappeared.

– Jewish Antiquities 18.3.3

Oh, i remember Nicky Gumbel in the Alpha Course placing great significance on this passage as part of the evidence that we can be sure Jesus existed. But hold on, what’s this? The passage was supposedly written 93 years after the birth of Jesus, yet it was not referenced by any Christian historian or scholar for over 200 years after that. It was first referenced by church historian Eusebius in 325 CE. Other copies of Jewish Antiquities existed that did not contain this passage. The writing style does not match the rest of Josephus’ writings. This passage comes out of context to the surrounding passages.

What are we to assume? It seems very likely that Eusebius inserted this passage. I mean, it’s perfect for any Christian who wants reassurance that Jesus is mentioned outside of the bible. It’s actually too perfect: Jesus’ works, teachings, being accepted as the Messiah, death, resurrection, fulfilment of prophecies.

And here’s the thing: that’s it! You take that passage on its own and it looks great for Jesus. But when you understand that Josephus wrote at length about many other people at the time, but said no more than this about the supposed saviour of mankind, Jesus Christ, it’s starting to look very much as if Jesus did not actually exist at all.

Then you find out that at the time of Jesus there were already many mythological stories about sun gods who were born to a virgin (often on December 25th), dying and being reborn. It was a common meme. Apparently, Christians have tried to explain that Satan went back in time to create these stories to make it look as though the story of Jesus was based upon them!

I think i can see now why some people consider it unlikely that Jesus ever existed, just like Horus never existed.

As a post-script, here is something i learned a long time ago, but i can’t vouch for whether or not it is true. Apparently, the three stars in Orion’s belt form a line that points down to Sirius, the brightest star in the sky. If you extend this line down to the horizon, it points to the exact point where the sun rises, but only on one day of the year. Guess which day? December 25th. The three kings followed the star to find the son.

Quick update on my coming out

I mentioned it on twitter, but for the benefit of those who didn’t see …

I traveled to visit my parents today. It was a bit of a surprise for them, heheh! I said i had something to tell them.

I sat down with my dad and stepmum and told them i am an atheist. I explained pretty much the entire contents of my letter that i wrote earlier (that was my preparation to decide what i wanted to say).

They took it extremely well. They listened calmly and kindly. They did not try to change my mind. The only cringeworthy bit was my dad saying, “Even if you don’t believe in God, God still believes in you!”

They both seemed to appreciate my honesty in telling them, and agreed that it’s better that i should admit my lack of belief, rather than try to force myself to believe something that doesn’t make sense to me.

I was even asked, “So what is humanism?” and i think i answered it well.

I have a new respect for my parents, and a sense of relief in myself. Suddenly being an atheist doesn’t seem like a big thing anymore. It’s not something i have to hide or feel ashamed of. It just a word that describes something about me.

I think this will change how i view my non-belief. It’s as if … previously i was christian by default and constantly fighting that: “No! No! I’m not a christian! I am an atheist!” Somehow i feel i can go forwards from this point accepting that my atheism is normal for me.

Thanks to everyone who has given me support and encouragement in this!

A letter to my dad

Dear Dad,

I like to think we’ve always been a pretty honest family; we tend to share our thoughts and feelings with each other and don’t keep much hidden. I’m not very good at keeping secrets; i prefer to talk about things, even if i know those things aren’t what you want to hear, or if those things could cause us pain.

I’ve been keeping a secret from you for a few years, and i don’t want to anymore. I think you might have guessed, or suspected. You know i don’t go to church anymore, and you know i love to learn about science. We don’t tend to talk a lot about religion anymore. Maybe i avoid the subject when it comes up, or maybe you don’t ask because you think you might not want to hear my answer.

I am an atheist. I don’t know for a fact that God doesn’t exist – for all i know maybe there is a God. I will happily say i don’t know. However, with the lack of any reasonable evidence i have concluded that, even though i don’t know for sure, i believe it’s unlikely. Hence i don’t believe in God. I certainly do not believe in a God who takes an ongoing interest in human life on planet Earth, a God who can be offended by what we do, a God who is perfect and omnipotent but is unable to forgive sin without sending a son to be brutally murdered.

The stories of Christianity stopped making sense to me long before i gave up my faith. I actually stopped believing in the devil years before i stopped believing in God. Looking back at them now, they seem like curious mystical stories, almost as unbelievable to me as any of the mythological stories of other religions. The only reason Christian stories have any resonance with me now is because i was brought up to believe them. I believed them because you did, and it was unfathomable to me that you could be wrong.

I want you to know that i am happy in my unbelief. I have found comfort in science, in fact, logic and reason. I have found explanations that do away with the need for a God to explain the things we can’t understand. God of the gaps has shrunk and become so small as the gaps have been replaced by science that i am happy to do away with God altogether. Even though there are things i still don’t know, like “What caused the big bang?” I am happy to say “I don’t know”. I don’t need to conclude that “God did it!” and anyway that would still leave me with further questions. If the universe needed a creator, and God was that creator, then God must have needed a creator too. You’ll tell me that God was outside of time and has always existed, but that’s not a good enough answer. I would rather stick to “I don’t know”.

There are things about church that i miss. I miss collective worship. I went back to church at one point for the music; i loved the feeling of singing together, and the moving effect of music. I tried to join the band there but they wouldn’t let me because they sensed my doubt.

I miss the feeling of community. As a Christian you automatically have friends who care for you and look out for you. I missed it so much that i created my own community: i started a Humanist group in Winchester. I have made good friends who meet on a monthly basis for tea and a chat. We keep in touch through email and text message, and on twitter. We meet up individually for coffee and have meals at each others houses sometimes. We recognise that morality doesn’t just come from religion, nor from law. I believe most human beings are basically good people automatically, capable of making up their own minds about what is right and wrong.

I guess i’m telling you this because i want you to be proud of me for who i am. I haven’t told you for so long because i am afraid of your disappointment. I told myself that you didn’t need to know, that it would just upset you, that it would cause you to waste your time praying for me to be converted back. But these were just excuses.

If your faith is as strong as i think it is, you will believe that i am going to end up in hell and it is your responsibility to do everything you can to save me. That’s hard, i know. I wish you could just let me take my own responsibility for that, but i know you can’t. I appreciate that you love me so much that you’ll want to save me from what you perceive as my certain doom. I can’t expect you not to try.

My personal belief is that when i die the most likely thing that happens is that i will simply cease to exist and have no consciousness. That doesn’t upset me at all, just as it doesn’t upset me that i had no consciousness before my birth. All it does is makes me more eager to enjoy this one life that by some remarkable fluke of probability i have the pleasure of experiencing. It leads me to want to make the world a better place than it currently is. I would love to leave this world better than i found it, and i know i only have a limited time in which to make my mark.

These days, i’m just being true to myself. I believe in things that make sense to me. I can’t force myself to believe there is a God and an afterlife when i think it’s very unlikely. I tried that for a while – i tried to take on trust the things that other people told me, but it didn’t work for long. In the end it just made my beliefs more shaky, so that once i doubted one thing, the rest just came tumbling down.

I love you and i respect you and i hope we remain close as a family, maybe becoming closer than before now that i have been able to be honest with you.

aimee xxx

An evening with Professor Stuart Burgess

Last night i went to a talk given by Professor Stuart Burgess on biblical creationism. It was a public event at Winchester Guildhall, organised by the Hyde Street Chapel, our local congregation of hard-core young-earth creationists. Since anybody is welcome, seven atheists/humanists decided to go along. We weren’t there to cause a fuss, just to ask some questions.

Burgess is a professor of Engineering Design at Bristol university. If you read British Centre for Science Education summary of Stuart Burgess you might get a clue on why we wanted to be there. This guy has some seriously scary beliefs, and uses force and scare tactics to try to make other people believe them too.

The infiltration

After a quick drink and snack at the nearby pub, we went in separately and distributed ourselves throughout the audience. I sat next to a retired minister from Kent and immediately had something to talk about: my dad is a minister and my mum lives in Kent! :) I am sure the minister fully believed i was a Christian. Which meant i was privy to overhearing some interesting pre-talk discussions next to me, chuckling about how anyone could be so stupid to dismiss the beauty of creation. Yup, this crowd was hooked in from the start.

Someone took to the stage to welcome us and introduce the speaker. I smiled as i received a “special welcome to anyone who is here for the first time – we trust you’ll feel at home”.

The talk

Professor Stuart Burgess opened the talk: The Design Argument. Burgess outlined that design reveals a designer. As it does in mechanics, so it does in nature too.

The first slide was a technical diagram of an aeroplane, accompanied by the statement that an aeroplane is designed. We switched to a picture of a bird, then the bone structure. I think Burgess pointed out some kind of a similarity between the bird and the plane and instantly concluded that if an aeroplane is designed, then a bird must be too.

I don’t want to debunk everything, or this will get really long. But feel free to smash any of Burgess’ arguments to pieces in the comments below! :)

You don’t need a PhD to understand the design argument, even a child can understand it.

This quote is interesting in context of later comments that insulted the audience’s intelligence and claimed that you DO need a PhD to understand pretty much anything else.

On the day of judgement there will be no excuses. It’s no good saying that you listened to Dawkins.

Here we get a hint towards Burgess’ real soap box (judgement day) and an introduction to the nemesis of the talk, Richard Dawkins.

Dawkins knows nothing about design.

We were repeatedly told throughout the talk that Dawkins has no qualification to speak about design, never having designed anything. There was a lot of bragging that Burgess tried to cover up with modesty “I don’t really want to bring this up but … I’m a professor of engineering design and Dawkins isn’t” sort of thing.

You often hear from Dawkins, “That giraffe just evolved a long neck and it wasn’t very difficult”.

I don’t know Dawkins’ work well enough to comment, but i suspect this is a gross misrepresentation, a flippant throw-away comment to try and discredit Dawkins.

Having been told what a useless n00b Dawkins is, it was time for us to be impressed by some of Burgess’ designs. Cue complicated technical diagrams and mathematical equations along with casually insulting the intelligence of the audience.

This is something i invented and designed. I don’t expect you to understand it.

I would be very offended if anyone told me that something like that could evolve. It took me many months of hard work to design it.

I really wish Richard Dawkins would take my first year engineering course in design. He would learn that it doesn’t happen by chance.

We were treated to a video of Envisat (Environmental Satellite) going into orbit in 2002. Burgess contributed to the design of the auto-expanding solar array, and paused the video at a few points to draw our attention to its magnificent design. There was a wry quip that some people thought it was called Envisat because they were envious of it.

I am saddened so often to hear Dawkins say that design and creation is easy, that it just happens.

We moved on to another of Burgess’ favourite topics: the irreducible complexity of the human knee joint. This is mostly from a paper written in 1999 that has been heavily criticised. Bristol university list Burgess’ other publications, but omit this one.

It was made clear that we shouldn’t expect to understand any of it. A diagram showed two bones and four ligaments. It looked pretty simple to me, but apparently you’d have to be in your final year at university to appreciate it. I forget whether Burgess said you’d have to be studying biology or engineering.

Burgess tried to simplify it for us by demonstrating how 4 pieces of Meccano move when connected together. We were specifically told that the 4-bar compact hinge knee joint “cannot evolve”. It was on the slide and everything. It is Burgess’ belief that the elbow joint could evolve, but the knee joint cannot.

The human knee joint is too wonderful for Richard Dawkins to understand. He will just say it evolved because he thinks everything did.

Burgess successfully omitted all the criticisms of the last twelve years that explain how multiple characteristics can develop simultaneously, and still sticks to the misguided belief that evolution says characteristics develop one at a time.

We were shown a few slides that demonstrate 4-bar mechanisms in birds, fish and dragonflies. It seems that Burgess encourages engineering students to search for these marvellous 4-bar mechanisms in animals.

Burgess made a few more comments disregarding evolution but did not dwell on them. Some sarcastic remark about “evolutionary breakthroughs” triggered a sympathetic chuckle from the audience, who apparently were lapping it all up.

Everywhere i look, i see optimal design. Everything is optimal.

Even the human eye? Our nose and throat connection? The laryngeal nerve? Our sex organs right next to our waste disposal system? One hole for eating, drinking, talking and breathing? You’re telling us these are all optimal design?

All species of bird ALL have optimal wings, and that is true if you look back in the fossil records. Complete optimal design.

As one of my twitter followers pointed out: “Tell that to a penguin.”

Now we moved on to added beauty. A round column can hold up a building, but architects add features such as ridges and elaboration that add to the beauty without providing additional functionality. Apparently we see the same thing happening in nature.

Evolution cannot explain birdsong or the beauty of peacocks.

I know what Burgess is getting at: evolutionary theory has something in it about unnecessary features being lost. I suppose the answer to this lies in competition. The peahen chooses the most attractive peacock to mate with, and that’s how the genes for beauty get preserved and enhanced. I’m guessing here; i should look into this in more detail.

And then we were told we would need a degree in music to understand the beauty of bird song! This whole thing relies on me being too stupid to understand anything, therefore I have to rely on experts to tell me what to believe.

Sadly, millions of people read Dawkins’ books.

This triggered a reminder in me: when i was a Christian i was too scared to read anything by Dawkins. I think we were discouraged from it, though i can’t remember explicitly being told not to. It was more likely from comments like this. Personally, i think i was scared that i might learn something that would cause me to have doubts, and doubts are bad. You must always just believe.

Funnily enough, not knowing anything about Dawkins, i still had an opinion. I remember once, as a Christian, walking into a bookshop with another christian, seeing The God Delusion on promotion and commenting “I feel so sorry for Richard Dawkins”.

Burgess made a smug comparison of credentials in engineering and mechanical design. A table on screen listed Burgess’ credibility: over 100 publications, 30 years experience in the field, 10 years teaching experience and so on. Next to Burgess were Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, with great big triumphant zeroes in their columns. All this was covered with a lot of feigned embarrassment: “I apologise for comparing myself to Dawkins and Dennett … I didn’t really want to show you this …”

The table was carefully constrained to make Burgess look great, and make Dawkins and Dennett look like numpties. In fact it just points out that they specialise in different fields. You could construct a similar table constrained to experience in biology, and Burgess would look like the biggest n00b of them all.

Apparently Dawkins always criticised imperfect design but never suggests a better design. This was mentioned in reference to the human blind spot, something i happen to know a bit about, so i called Burgess out on it later.

In his latest book, The Greatest Show On Earth, Dawkins is more angry than he’s ever been.

Dawkins is trying to make everybody see the world in a very black way.

There were a few off-hand comments about atheists being angry, offensive, arrogant bullies. It was not specifically spelled out, but young ears in particular would have heard a character portrayal that will stick with them.

Right after those comments, we got a perfect example of Burgess being offensive, arrogant, and a bully!

I had a student come to me and say he thought he had designed a perpetual motion machine. I said to him, “You are a fresher! You have only been here for one week. You have unconscious ignorance. You don’t even know what your ignorances are. Come back to me in your final year and then we’ll see if you have designed a perpetual motion machine!”

I don’t think this was a one-off occurrence of belittling students. I can’t remember the specifics, but there was a definite “This is what i tell my students” to do with unconscious ignorance, and after a few years they might get conscious ignorance, followed by unconscious knowledge and maybe finally conscious knowledge.

I think you know where Richard Dawkins fits into that!

Sniggers from the audience. In case we didn’t get it, Burgess spelled it out.

Richard Dawkins doesn’t even know what he is ignorant of.

We were coming to the end and the pace picked up with ever more absurd statements.

I could find a billion arguments that prove God exists but they would be ignored because they are not the evidence science is looking for.

It got more religious in theme. Burgess started going on about The Curse, that we live in cursed times. Everything bad was blamed on this Curse, including sore throats (Burgess had a sore throat last night).

We came back to the original scare tactics, clearly Burgess’ real passion: Judgement Day. Again we were told that there would be no excuses on the day of judgement. You can’t stand before God and say you ignored all the evidence of creation.

People have to remember that they will be in trouble on the day of reckoning. We have a duty to inform our friends and neighbours.

And don’t worry if you don’t understand anything about logic or reasoning, or science at all:

The way you argue can be more important than what you’re saying. It’s a spiritual argument. God works in people’s hearts.

The questions

Due to Burgess’ cursed throat, there was only opportunity for three questions. I put my hand up straight away and talked about the human eye and the blind spot. Burgess had said that Dawkins never provides a better design, but i suggested that the octopus eye was an example of a better design. Their light receptors are in front of the nerves, whereas ours are behind. We have this gap where the nerves go through the retina to the brain, giving us this blind spot so our brain basically has to hallucinate to make up the picture. This can be shown with a few optical illusions. Octopuses, and all cephalopods, don’t have this design flaw. So my question: “Do you think God prefers octopuses to humans?”

Burgess said that octopuses are very different and have different requirements for vision. “I stand in front of you now looking in the audience and i’m not aware of any blind spot” (No, because our brains are pretty awesome at inventing what it thinks might be in the blind spot – see these blind spot tests and map your blind spot.)

Burgess ended the answer by stating that we can’t always understand why God designed something in a certain way, but it is always perfect.

Jon, another infiltrator, picked up the question and pushed Burgess a little further on the design of octopus eyes. A teenager in front of me whispered “Oooh, i hate him! He was here last time!”

Burgess allowed for one last question. And it was Clio, another infiltrator! Actually, i don’t think the Christians there had any questions; maybe they were just there to pick up creationist arguments to tell to their evolutionist friends.

Clio is a medical doctor and was successfully able to push back and forth with Burgess. I was delighted that Clio brought up the laryngeal nerve which i only learned about yesterday, and found fascinating. It provides a good indication that we evolved from something like a fish.

In fish, this nerve goes straight down from the brain, past the heart to the gills. In all mammals, the laryngeal nerve still exists, still loops round the heart, and comes back up the neck to the larynx (voice box). It enables us to talk and swallow. In giraffes, this nerve travels 4 metres from the brain, down the neck to the heart, then comes back up again to a point 2 inches from where it started. An intelligent designer would presumably have chosen the optimum 2 inches route rather than 4 metres. In designing you have the opportunity of starting from scratch. Evolution makes more sense for gradually stretching this nerve over the course of millennia.

Burgess had no answer to this, which is a shame because some people have made good points about this nerve also branching off to other organs, and suggesting that maybe the brain needs to know about what the stomach is doing in order to decide how to control the larynx. But Burgess, not being a biologist, merely made reference to “some people” who thought the laryngeal nerve was poorly designed but later realised it was perfectly designed after all! :D

After a few more questions from Clio about sickle-cell anaemia it all came back to simply blaming every bad thing on The Curse … and praising God for everything good! Whoopee! :D

Having sussed that some people in the audience were not christians, the host came back on stage and encouraged us to read our Bibles “and if you haven’t got one we’ll give you one!” :)

The infiltrator chats

The best part came at the end, where we talked to the people there. I firstly went to challenge Stuart Burgess on the billion proofs of God’s existence that would supposedly be ignored. I think that if there were even one undeniable proof that God exists, everyone would want to know about it. I’d certainly change my mind straight away if someone had indisputable evidence.

Burgess disagreed. “People don’t want to know” … “Essentially there are a billion proofs all around us and people just ignore them”. I tried to press my point even harder – “Because there are alternative explanations. I’m talking about something that provided absolute proof with no other explanation”. Burgess still thought that people would just ignore it.

I later got chatting with a group of people who admitted to having doubts, but just chose to trust God in all of it. I encouraged them to think in terms of knowledge vs belief: “You don’t know for a fact that God exists, but you believe God exists. I don’t know for a fact that God does not exist, but i don’t believe in God.”

We had a very nice conversation, very respectful of each other. It basically came to this: we had the same doubts and the same questions. They chose to go to their bibles, and i chose to go to science. I said i like things that can make predictions, that you can experiment and test, and multiple people can come to the same conclusions from the evidence.

Somebody told me there are no contradictions in the bible. I got the Skeptics Annotated Bible up on my tablet PC and turned to just the short list of contradictions in the bible. I can respect their faith and beliefs, but if they tell me the bible has no contradictions, i will tell them that it does. We just looked at the first question: the grandfather of Jesus. They looked it up on their Blackberry and said “Oh yeah! I never noticed that!” and then said something about the genealogy of Jesus being important. I suggested that maybe Matthew elaborated a little to put Jesus in the right family to match the prophecies.

I hope i showed that there are questions to be asked, and that atheists are not all angry, arrogant, offensive, bullying.

I was actually thanked for coming: so often it’s all one-sided and they found it interesting to have another point of view to consider. I know i would have loved it if something like that had happened when i was young and brainwashed, and having doubts. It would have been really good for me to see that someone can come to alternative explanations and be happy about it. That’s really the reason we were there.

The end

Now i have written far too much! But i hope if some skeptics find this blog post in the future they will be prepared for an evening with Stuart Burgess. I have no reason to suspect that the content matter will change much: it seems Burgess has been rehashing this stuff about the knee joint for the last twelve years and will continue to do so for a lot longer yet.

Now bring on the comments! Let’s see if i get an army of arrogant offensive bullying christians! :)