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,
aimee
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:

Advertisements

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

An Android app to send prayers to Jerusalem

I have just finished a two-week project building an Android app called @TheKotel – Prayers to Jerusalem.

Now, anyone who knows me even slightly might think this is a bit weird, and believe me, i had a long conversation with myself about it before deciding to take on the work. These are the reasons that i did.

  1. I think it’s a nice idea. Putting thoughts into words and feeling that you’ve offloaded them somewhere is sometimes all people need to feel better.
  2. I saw a video of Alon printing the prayers and cutting them up and taking them to the wall. It made a personal connection for me.
  3. There’s already a successful iPhone app with over 10,000 downloads, so i saw this is definitely something that people want, which is all good publicity for me.
  4. Alon raised money from the people who already use the iPhone app to pay for the development of the Android app.
  5. I saw it as an opportunity to learn a bit more about Android development, try out PhoneGap and Sencha Touch (which i dropped when i found i wasn’t happy with the quality).
  6. I had saved up enough money in the back that i could offer this more-or-less as a gift, not expecting much money for it but instead doing it for reputation and for another Android app in my portfolio.

The concept is very simple. You type your prayer on a piece of paper (or pray out loud with Android’s speech-to-text feature) and press “Amen” and the prayer gets sent to Alon in Israel.

Combined with all the prayers that get sent via twitter and the iPhone app, Alon prints out thousands at a time, cuts them into little slips, rolls them up tight and takes them to the Western-Wall, or The Kotel, the remains of the Second Temple in Jerusalem.

The app is free, and the service is totally free, but donations are gratefully accepted. There is also a Connect screen giving options to share the app with friends and feel connected to the Western-Wall and Jerusalem. We also included some background information about the Wall and how the service got started, as well as some personal messages from a few supporters who helped to raise funds.

Best of all, there’s the gallery where you can see where the prayers are going. I really like this image of Alon putting the prayers in the Wall.

I am very pleased with the final result. It’s nice and fast, good native Android experience, and i think people are going to love it! I enjoyed coming back to Android development, say what you want about Java, but i like it!

If you can bear to listen to me talk about this anymore, Alon asked me to record a video in my “enchanting” British accent, heheh! :)

Device graphics were generated with Device frame generator and released under CC BY 3.0 license.

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.

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! :)

The things i believe now

TL;DR

Do i believe anything anymore? Yes i do. I believe in the wonders of science, and it makes me happy!

Preamble – my spiritual history

My supernatural and spiritual beliefs have gone through many phases. I was brought up Christian and i believed unquestioningly. The idea that my parents could be wrong was unfathomable to me.

In my late teens i read “Conversations With God” by Neale Donald Walsch and turned to more esoteric beliefs, ideas like: we’re all equal with God, we are creating our own reality as we go along, there is no absolute right or wrong, only that which serves us and that which does not. I ceased to believe in the devil and hell.

On holiday in Budapest in 2007 i came across the book “The Whole Shebang” by Timothy Ferris. I began reading it in the bookshop and i was drawn in straight away. Although quite an old book, it gave me a glimpse of the wonders of the universe, and a taste for science. I borrowed many scientific books from the library and i really enjoyed learning the things we can know about our world and this universe.

My opinions on God at this point were mostly agnostic. I didn’t feel any real need to contemplate anything spiritual when i had so much of a scientific nature to think about. I wouldn’t say i disbelieved in God at that time.

However, on two occasions i felt myself craving the kind of unquestioning belief in God that i had during my childhood. I suppose i missed the feeling that God was a friend whom i could trust. I thought that i had drifted away from God and it was my responsibility to go back. I tried returning to church, but on both times i very quickly found that my ideas had changed so much, i could no longer blindly accept what i was being told by the church.

On the second attempt, which lasted about two months, something finally pushed me over the edge. I was standing at the front and someone was praying for me to receive the Holy Spirit. I really wanted to be able to give up rational thought and just entrust myself to God … but nothing was happening. The longer this went on, the more embarrassing it became. I remember that something suddenly just clicked. I thought to myself, “I don’t think there is a Holy Spirit!” and immediately all these spiritual beliefs just tumbled down like a house of cards. I walked out effectively an atheist.

The first thing i did was read “The God Delusion” by Richard Dawkins. I needed to understand how my parents could believe something so strongly, if it wasn’t true. Dawkins explained to me the evolutionary advantage to believing what you are told, the power of group reinforcement, the self-delusion of only noticing things that support your beliefs while ignoring things that don’t. I learnt not to pity my parents for believing what they do, but i was no longer under the hold of their convincing influence. I was free to think for myself.

For a while i was a militant atheist. I think i rebelled quite hard against organised religion. Since then i have mellowed out a bit. I currently consider myself a humanist: i am more concerned with human welfare than i am with anything supernatural.

All of this is a prelude for what i really want to write about. Most people will have figured out that i no longer believe in God, and i have put aside all my supernatural beliefs, having become skeptical about anything that requires discarding rational thinking. I’ve not written about this in such detail before because i’ve had no need to. I try not to interfere with other people’s beliefs unless i can see that it has the potential to directly harm somebody. My dad and my stepmum are still firm Christian believers. My mum is mostly interested in new-age spirituality.

Getting to the point

This morning i received an email from my mum. It was something about the process of life, death, returning to the glory of Oneness, emerging as a new individual. My mum’s question: “this is reincarnation … do you believe this ? ( Or indeed do you believe anything any more !!)”

I was quite hurt by the question, do i believe in anything anymore? This is my response that i would have written in an email, but i decided it needed to be shared more widely than just with my mum.

What i believe now

I have come to believe in many wonderful things. Things that i knew very little about before i started reading and educating myself in science. Beautiful fascinating processes that can be explored, tested and verified. Things like evolution, natural selection, quantum physics, cosmology, the big bang, deep space, the fundamental forces of the universe.

Most importantly of all, i believe in the scientific method. It starts with producing a theory to explain the things we see … but unlike mythology and religion, it doesn’t stop there. It goes on to make predictions using the theory. Experiments are performed to test the predictions. Those experiments are repeated and verified by many people, and not just those with a particular interest in showing the theory to be correct. Any contradictions are welcomed and celebrated because it means the theory can be refined to become more accurate. This process never stops, and our knowledge about what is real gets more and more accurate over time.

Specifically on the question of reincarnation

I don’t specifically disbelieve in reincarnation, but i find it unlikely. You can make nice stories about it, which may be comforting to some people, but for me there is little point in dwelling on the theory since it makes no predictions that can be tested and verified by experiment. I prefer to spend my time finding out as much as i can about things that we know to be true.

Science has led me to believe that the most likely thing that will happen when i die is that i simply cease to exist. My body will decay and my consciousness will end there. Occam’s Razor tells us that given two possible theories, the simpler one is likely to be correct. I am not at all saddened by this conclusion, because there was no emotion or wishful thinking that got me there. It only makes me all the more eager to enjoy this one life that i know i have.

Of course i recognise that people like to believe their loved ones live on, and they may receive comfort from believing they are still in communication. I don’t really see anything wrong with that. I think of it more as recalling the memories of what those people were like, rather than their souls actually being present. Since there is no discernible difference in experience, it doesn’t really matter what you believe is going on.

Whew, nearly there …!

My journey of belief has shifted so dramatically in my lifetime so far. I would be foolish to assume that i have arrived at my final understanding. I accept that my beliefs will continue to adapt, but i suppose that from here on they will only change when presented with evidence that causes them to be reassessed. So, for example, if anyone can provide me with firm evidence for reincarnation, i will gladly accept it to be true and update my beliefs accordingly.

I am happy in my current understandings. I actually find that scientific knowledge is far more reassuring to me than any spiritual hypothesis ever was.

If anyone is unconvinced of the comfort that believing in science can bring, i recommend this wonderful video by Phil Hellenes: This Remarkable Thing.

Memories of BiCon 2010

London Docklands from the University of East London

BiCon 2010, the 28th annual bisexual conference/convention took place from August 26th – 30th at the University of East London, Docklands campus. It was combined with the 10th International Conference on Bisexuality, and the first international Bisexual Research Conference. About 450 people attended, from 28 countries!

I got up ridiculously early on Thursday 26th August in order to take the coach from Winchester to London leaving at 06:30. The journey was smooth and I was at UEL by 10am, in time to check in and drop off my suitcase in my accommodation.

The research conference was utterly brilliant, full credit to Meg Barker and Christina Richards for running it. Most of the talks were of exceptional quality, and i feel i learnt a lot. I enjoyed hearing about Helen Bowes-Catton’s research into how people perceive and visualise bisexual spaces. Kaye McLelland spoke about bisexuality in the works of Shakespeare, and i marvelled at how well my English teachers at school managed to hide it all from us!

Robyn Ochs at BiCon 2010

I was thoroughly inspired by a keynote talk from Robyn Ochs, a public speaker, writer, and long-standing bisexual activist. Robyn spoke of the importance of the impact that we make when we create space for people to be comfortably bisexual. I was touched by Robyn’s description of the reward when somebody tells us that we make a difference for them. I felt so proud at that moment that I helped to found Bi Wessex in Winchester: proud that people come along and gain something from the group, and that some of the members were there at BiCon.


Miguel Obradors Campos speaks at BiCon 2010

On Friday i bought Robyn’s book, Getting Bi: Voices of Bisexuals Around the World and attended the workshop where we heard from ten of the people who contributed to the book. They stood up and told us something about themselves and read an excerpt from the book. It gave such meaning to hear them speak personally, and when i reach their stories in the book, i will remember them. Their contributions will be particularly meaningful for me. I asked several of the contributors to write in my book, which they gladly did.


Sexual orientation self-definitions

I enjoyed hearing Heidi Bruins Green and Dr. Nicholas Payne speak about the results of a workplace survey on bisexuality. It was very interesting to hear the results analysed and validated from a mathematical perspective. Their results showed that bisexuality is not a phase on the way to something else, but a valid destination point, as are many other sexual orientations. They had some interesting data to show that happiness at work is directly correlated with LGBT support groups in the workplace, and anti-discrimination policies that include sexual orientation, gender identity and expression.

Saturday’s discussion about words and phrases for bisexuality in other languages was intriguing. I shared my Esperanto knowledge about the etymology of the word ambaŭseksema and the positive phrase borrowed from shipping terminology navigi per vaporo aŭ velo (to navigate by steam or sail). We learned phrases, both positive and negative in German, Dutch, Danish, Spanish, Italian, Sri Lankan, Welsh and Hebrew. Everybody contributed something, and the results will be published … somewhere.

Knitting a bi pride bracelet

I knitted a bi pride bracelet in the amazing craft room, and then on saturday afternoon i took some time out to visit Central London. I went to Covent Garden to visit the new Apple store (the biggest in the world) and enjoyed spending time by myself.

Saturday evening was the BiCon ceilidh which i enjoyed immensely. When it comes to dancing, i really like being told what to do! :) I made a new friend that night, somebody who i feel could become a very good friend. We danced together a lot and had some lovely conversations. Later on the music became too loud but i joined the Corridor Club upstairs where it was quieter and i enjoyed chatting to more people. We were actually the last to leave because we didn’t realise when the music had stopped and everyone downstairs had left!

Sunday was the disastrous “Bisexuality in Science-Fiction & The Future” workshop. It was marred by the speaker being late, a church group being in the room we were supposed to use, the laptop being broken, the projector refusing to work, and the speaker’s corny sense of humour which did not go down particularly well at 10am. I gave up and left after about ten minutes of technology fail, and went and joined the church, which i actually really enjoyed! Those who stayed said it only got worse, and by half way through several of them had started their own alternative science-fiction workshop out in the atrium!

The highlight of Sunday was “Smutty Storytelling” which was very well attended, and the storytellers did not disappoint! The stories were well written, and delivered with humour and enthusiasm! There were cheers and a standing ovation by the end! I sat with my new-found friend and mentioned that I had “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo” on DVD, which we watched later that evening.

Monday morning seemed to go quite slowly. Things were winding down but there were still a few workshops left. I went to one on sensual play, which was well facilitated, and led to discussions of how we might turn the results into an amusing website! Later i went to have my photo taken professionally, so that hopefully i will appear again on the front cover of Bi Community News and maybe in other publications about bisexuality.

Latimer "the buck" and a lion from BiCon 2008 share a hug

Before i knew it, it was closing plenary. Awards and thanks were given, we celebrated the success of this BiCon, and met the team of BiCon 2011 which will be in Leicester from September 1st – 4th. Registration is already open!

The bi community is amazing. So totally inclusive and unquestioning. I am so happy that i went, I am sad that it’s over, but writing this is my therapy: recording my happy memories and celebrating the joys of the last few days.

Thanks so very much to the BiCon 2010 organising team – you did an incredible job!

File under: notes to self

Note to self: Not everything has do be done as quickly as is humanly possible!

I tend to want to type as fast as i possibly can, all the time, and code as fast as my brain can do it. Learning Vim has been an excellent exercise in slowing down a bit, thinking of the best way to achieve the effect that i need, in as few keystrokes as possible. I am really loving Vim now. Been using it for about 3 weeks and have no intention of going back to TextMate now. The best thing was when i did some coding at home at the weekend and was just so happy to have the exact same coding environment to work with at home.

Another lesson in slowing down is when coding with someone else. I tend to find my brain goes much faster than i can form words to explain what’s going through my head. It can be a frustrating experience at times. But today i made the effort to slow down, take the time to ensure that my colleague was still following my train of thought, rather than rushing ahead at full speed. It actually was quite a calming thing to do, like an exercise in mindfulness.

I have mentally renamed the toilet as the prayer room. Turns out it’s a great place to say a quick prayer, assess how i’m feeling, recenter myself, pray for peace and mental inspiration, wish blessings upon my colleagues … I have been wanting to be more aware of God in my everyday life, and this is a great way to do it.

I’m feeling great at the moment – really happy! People say that God makes a positive difference in their lives. Whether a divine being is really at work in my personal daily activities, or whether it’s my enhanced state of mind that comes from focus and prayer, i don’t know and i don’t really care. I just know that it’s working out well for me at the moment! :)