God bless America

There’s so much to love in this story (emphasis added):

A federal appeals court has upheld Georgia’s ban on bringing guns into places of worship, the Religion News Service reports. The Rev. Jonathan Wilkins, a Baptist pastor, and the gun-rights group GeorgiaCarry.org had argued that church members should have the right to carry guns into worship services to protect the congregation, but the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled July 20 that a Georgia law adopted in 2010 does not violate the Thomaston congregation’s First and Second Amendment rights. “A place of worship’s right, rooted in the common law, to forbid possession of firearms on its property is entirely consistent with the Second Amendment,” the court ruled, adding that wanting a weapon for self-defense is a “personal preference, motivated by a secular purpose.” Jerry Henry, executive director of GeorgiaCarry.org, said his organization and Rev. Wilkins were considering an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. “We think they’ve got it wrong again,” he said. “The church’s First Amendment right prevails over the state right to tell them what they can and cannot do.”

 

It’s a Church of two halves

The issue of women bishops continues to divide, irritate and enrage people, both Christians and non-Christians. The Church of England has, in its own inimitable style, decided not to decide until later in the year. Luckily, the Church of the Dead Dad is on hand with a solution:

The Church of England should create a brand new church that allows only women bishops. This church, which we might call the Church of Wengland, will allow men in all other clerical roles but they will be forbidden from being bishops in this new church. In all other aspects, the new church will be identical to the existing Church of England.

Of course, there will be quite a bit of administration necessary to create the new structure, as well as some tough choices over how to find suitable venues for worship and how the Church of Wengland might be funded in its early years. I’m not exactly proposing a schism, but it would be reasonable to expect there to be some transfer of existing worshippers from the current Church of England to the new church. Given that the Church of Wengland will expect its funding to be separate from the Church of England, this could create some divisions. However, I do not consider these insurmountable.

Having created the new church, all criticisms of the Church of England’s position on women bishops would be instantly illegitimate. It could be pointed out that women can be bishops, just in the Church of Wengland, not the Church of England.

OK, some of you might be protesting. “But the Church of Wengland isn’t the real church; the Church of England is”.

To which, I respond: so why are we so tolerant of the England national football team? The England national football team is, for some reason, spared the incessant criticism the Church of England faces. Why? Football is, in many ways, in a far worse and intolerable state than the Church. Unlike the Church, football is totally dominated by men at all stages, including management, coaching and ground staff.

We will, I am sure, see women bishops in the Church of England within the next ten years. At what point might we see a woman football player playing in the England football team? Why is that prospect so remote? Why aren’t the same people who want women bishops demanding women strikers?

One can only conclude that criticism of the Church of England is motivated more by rabid atheism than by genuine concern over gender equality.

Zombie autocorrect

It was a slow day at work on Friday, and an idiot colleague had used he word “entails” in a presentation. So I hacked into his computer and added the following to his autocorrect:

  • Bid → Bit
  • Brian → Brain
  • Cuts → Guts
  • Entails → Entrails
  • Gone → Gore
  • Undid → Undead

It won’t take over every document, for sure. But I take a quiet pleasure in knowing that, like every great zombie apocalypse, ultimately it will consume one of his important reports from the inside-out. Hopefully when he least expects it.

A very funny spam e-mail

Anti-Terrorist and Monetary Crimes Division
Fbi Headquarters In Washington, D.C.
Federal Bureau Of Investigation
J. Edgar Hoover Building
935 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW Washington, D.C. 20535-0001 Website: www.fbi.gov

Attention:

This is the final warning you are going to receive from me do you get me? I hope you understand how many times this message has been sent to you?.

We have warned you so many times and you have decided to ignore our e-mails or because you believe we have not been instructed to get you arrested, and today if you fail to respond back to us with the payment then, we would first send a letter to the mayor of the city where you reside and direct them to close your bank account until you have been jailed and all your properties will be confiscated by the fbi. We would also send a letter to the company/agency that you are working for so that they could get you fired until we are through with our investigations because a suspect is not suppose to be working for the government or any private organization.

Your id which we have in our database will been sent to all the crimes agencies in America for them to inset you in their website as an internet fraudsters and to warn people from having any deals with you. This would have been solved all this while if you had gotten the certificate signed, endorsed and stamped as you where instructed in the e-mail below.

This is the federal bureau of investigation (fbi) am writing in response to the e-mail you sent to us and am using this medium to
inform you that there is no more time left to waste because you have been given from the 3rd of January. As stated earlier to have the document endorsed, signed and stamped without failure and you must adhere to this directives to avoid you blaming yourself at last when we must have arrested and jailed you for life and all your
properties confiscated.

You failed to comply with our directives and that was the reason why we didn’t hear from you on the 3rd as our director has already been notified about you get the process completed yesterday and right now the warrant of arrest has been signed against you and it will be carried out in the next 48hours as strictly signed by the fbi director. We have investigated and found out that you didn’t have any idea when the fraudulent deal was committed with your information’s/identity and right now if you id is placed on our website as a wanted person, i believe you know that it will be a shame to you and your entire family because after then it will be announce in all the local channels that you are wanted by the fbi.

As a good Christian and a honest man,I decided to see how i could be of help to you because i would not be happy to see you end up in jail and all your properties confiscated all because your information’s was used to carry out a fraudulent transactions, i called the efcc Nigeria and they directed me to a private attorney who could help you get the process done in Nigeria and he stated that he will endorse, sign and stamp the document at the sum of $98.00 usd only and i believe this process is cheaper for you.

You need to do everything possible within today and tomorrow to get this process done because our director has called to inform me that the warrant of arrest has been signed against you and once it has been approved, then the arrest will be carried out, and from our investigations we learnt that you were the person that forwarded your identity to one impostor/fraudsters in Nigeria when he had a deal with you about the transfer of some illegal funds into your bank account which is valued at the sum of $10.500,000.00 usd.

I pleaded on your behalf so that this agency could give you till 7/7/2012 so that you could get this process done because i learnt that you were sent several e-mail without getting a response from you, please bear it in mind that this is the only way that i can be able to help you at this moment or you would have to face the law and its consequences once it has befall on you. You would make the payment through western union money transfer with the below details.

NAME: DURU VINCE
ADDRESS: LAGOS NIGERIA
TEXT QUESTION:FOR
ANSWER: YOU
AMOUNT: $98
MTCN Num:

Send the payment details to me which are senders name and address, mtcn number, text question and answer used and the amount sent. Make sure that you didn’t hesitate making the payment down to the agency by today so that they could have the certificate endorsed, signed and stamped immediately without any further delay. After all this process has been carried out, then we would have to proceed to the bank for the transfer of your compensation funds which is valued at the sum of $10.500,000.00 usd which was suppose to have been transferred to you all this while.

Note that all the crimes agencies have been contacted on this regards and we shall trace and arrest you if you disregard this instructions. You are given a grace today to make the payment for the document after which your failure to do that will attract a maximum arrest and finally you will be appearing in court for act of terrorism,money laundering and drug trafficking charges, so be warned not to try any thing funny because you are been watched.

THANKS FOR YOUR CO-OPERATION.

ROBERT MUELLER

WASHINGTON DC
Anti-Terrorist and Monetary Crimes Division
Fbi Headquarters In Washington, D.C.
Federal Bureau Of Investigation
J. Edgar Hoover Building
935 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW Washington, D.C.
20535-0001 Website: www.fbi.gov

Iron man

My parents married in the late 1960s. There were certain societal norms at the time which, in hindsight, look archaic and inappropriate by today’s standards. One of these was, as a newly married wife, my mother ironed all of the Dead Dad’s shirts every week. In fact, she would launder all his shirts, iron them, hang them on hangers and return them to his wardrobe every week.

I never got the full story from either of them, but at some point in the early 1970s they had a row about her ironing. Perhaps he didn’t quite like the way she was ironing creases into the arms, or maybe he objected to the way she buttoned the collar to the clothes hanger. Or it might have been something as trivial as her having left the ironing board out in the kitchen when he wanted to use the space for something else. But, as a result of that row, for the remaining 35+ years of their marriage, she never ironed anything for him ever again, right up until the day he died. And not even then.

I don’t want to take sides in this dispute. I can’t, because I don’t know what led up to it, what caused that particular flashpoint, and what was said afterwards. But I do reflect that it can’t be healthy to let a spat like this fester for that length of time. Can you identify any arguments like the Live Mum’s and the Dead Dad’s? And are you happy to let them carry on for a third of a century? Or will you do something to resolve it?

Giles Fraser at Westminster Skeptics: a rambling review

Tonight I went to WestSkep, at which Canon Dr Giles Fraser was speaking on “Being suspicious about the Skeptics“. Now my regular readers, yes both of you, will have noted that I prequelled this event in an earlier blog post. In the event, Dr Fraser turned out to be more interesting than I could have anticipated. He’s a very impressive speaker and, despite the audience really wanting to give him a bloody nose at times, he skipped through the questions with the ease of a prize fighter.

A full, nuanced review is beyond my capabilities, even when sober, so here is a collection of random observations and interesting (to me, at least) comments that I collected from the evening. Please note my careful use of scepticism as distinct from skepticism. I mean them to refer to two totally different concepts. Fraser underlined that he understood scepticism well, but was less clear on skepticism, not least because he had never attended an event.

Fraser’s talk started with scepticism proper, ie Descartes. Descartes wanted to know how he knew that he wasn’t a brain in a vat under the supervision of a bad demon. His response was that he knew that he existed because he had thoughts: cogito ergo sum. Fraser observed that Descartes then proved the existence of God in three different ways, all of which ultimately are flawed. Hume was the next great sceptic. Fraser said that Hume found it hard to reconcile his own scepticism with the fact that, on occasion, he liked to go out drinking with his friends and play backgammon with them. Clearly scepticism has its bounds! He then moved on to Cavell, who famously observed that scepticism means you turn those closest to you into strangers.

Fraser then asked us to consider Othello, as a demonstration that there are limits to the situations to which the scientific method can be applied. Othello wanted to know whether Desdemona loved him, and looked for evidence. Unfortunately the best evidence, as with a scientific theory, is that she doesn’t. Othello searched high and low for evidence of her infidelity. And, of course, thanks to Iago’s treachery, he finds it in abundance. Fraser aimed to demonstrate that, in some cases, the evidence based method can be used to control and possess others. In such situations, it is bad.

There were then lots of questions. I won’t attempt to cover them all, but some of the more interesting observations or discussions that followed included:

  • There was a discussion about whether religion or atheism was the better default position. Does religion presume more than atheism or is it vice-versa? Fraser answered that, personally, he uses religion as a receptacle for things he doesn’t know about rather than using it to answer questions or gain knowledge.
  • Someone asked about an ultra-sceptical approach to the world. Does Descartes mean that we need to assume lots of things? Is the concept that there are other people in the pub listening to the talk an assumption, or is it reasonable knowledge? Fraser was unconvinced that such a position can reasonably be considered an assumption.
  • Someone asked whether Othello should have been more sceptical. Wouldn’t that have revealed the plot against him? Here I wish that Fraser had lived up to his talk’s title and been more suspicious. It’s easy for us to laugh at Othello’s lack of scientific method, because we’ve read the whole play and know the terrible conclusion. How do skeptics know that they themselves are truly being sceptical enough when approaching questions about the world?
  • Dr Evan Harris, the self-styled patron saint of the evidence-based method as a means to control others, asked some pointed questions about whether it’s appropriate for religion to be taught in schools.  Amusingly, Fraser agreed with him, noting that religion is taught so badly that it often becomes a “machine for the production of atheists”.
  • David Allen Green asked whether someone who believes in the Christian God is, by definition, an atheist to all the other Gods people believe in. Doesn’t this make Christianity some sort of rounding error in a true atheistic position? Fraser reminded him that this was an early Roman attack on Christianity. It was suggested that Fraser doesn’t believe in the God of the Bible, which Fraser emphatically rejected.
  • Someone asked whether there were some situations in which it would be appropriate to seek evidence for love. However the questioner failed to entirely make his point, coming across as someone who was trying to force the evidence based method into a situation where it didn’t really make sense. Fraser wasn’t trying to define a set of circumstances where EBM is never appropriate, but simply to show that there are some situations where it doesn’t work. Therefore we need to always be suspicious of it. Related to this was a question that sought to get Fraser to define some of his terms better so that there could be a debate on common ground. But Fraser wasn’t having any of it. Defining terms is the sort of whiny crap first year philosophy students like to get up to… usually the sort of first year students who fail to make it into the second year due to their lack of academic rigour.
  • Crispian Jago highlighted the apostle Thomas, who had behaved skeptically in demanding to see Jesus’s wounds and – in Jago’s view – been treated badly by the Church for it. Fraser scoffed at the very idea, noting that Thomas was a saint, quite possibly the highest honour the church can bestow.
  • The strangest question of the night belonged to a young lady who, as well as talking about duck sex, suggested that it was inappropriate to take children to church because it tends to want to instil absolute truths and might constrain their inquisitive minds. As the parent of two young children, both of whom go to Sunday School, I can only presume she has no children of their own. Their Sunday School has never demanded that they accept Bible teachings without question and they ask me thousands of questions every day, just like almost every child does.

Overall it was an interesting discussion, and Fraser acquitted himself well. As with other SITP discussions, I found the debate didn’t answer the title of the talk, which was a bit frustrating. I’d have liked him to turn the focus on skepticism a bit more. Skepticism, for me, is ultimately deficient because it fails to recognise that it is a view of the world that operates on a reduced instruction set (ie the EBM). This fundamental axiom of skepticism is never justified, yet it is used to exclude other ways of arranging the world such as religion.

Furthermore, skepticism is an inadequate way of resolving real problems in the world. OK, so EBM tells us that vaccination doesn’t cause autism. But does that, in itself, justify the mass-vaccination of billions of people against their will? No, skepticism cannot help us answer questions of this sort. Raised this evening was the issue of eugenics, which can be easily justified on scientific grounds but is intolerable under even the most basic ethical frameworks. Another example might be global warming, where it makes sense to avoid it, but not at any cost. To answer these questions, we need to recognise that they are typically resolved in the social, political and emotional arenas. They cannot be answered using science alone. It would have been provocative, for sure, but Dr Fraser didn’t really do enough this evening to explain why we should be suspicious of the skeptics.

Other reflections on tonight’s talk: serious and not-so-serious.

Marabou storks and autism

Marabou stork nightmares is a terrifying book by Irvine Welsh. It tells the story of Roy Strang, who has constructed a fantasy world around Marabou storks, in order to protect himself from the horror of the appalling things he has done. In the end, it isn’t enough and his past catches up with him. The woman he raped finds him, and then castrates and murders him.

Earlier today, I was chatting to an American friend of mine, S, whom I know through online gaming. I’ve known her for nearly eight years. In that time, S fell in love with a Swede, moved to live with him there and has had a son. She loves her boy, with all the passion and feeling that really only a mother can. That’s plain to see. Her son has severe autism and learning difficulties. He suffers from several allergies, including wheat and dairy. And, because S knows and loves her son, she can pinpoint the precise day that he went from being an “ordinary” boy to the child he is today.

It’s the day that he went to get his vaccinations.

Now, I’m aware that the finest scientific minds in the country, if not the world, have tested the vaccines-autism link and have been unable to find anything. I respect the scientific method. However, I also respect S’s opinion. Reconciling the two isn’t easy. However, the scientific method at its best can only say “we have currently discovered no evidence that there is a link between vaccination and autism”. Empiricism will always be susceptible to as-yet-unperceived causal links that, because we don’t know about them, we simply don’t think to test. We may not even know how to test them.

So you must believe me when I say that there is little that makes me angrier than people glibly claiming that S is in any way irrational or is undertaking quackery when she expresses her view that it’s at least reasonable to suspect the vaccinations as a contributory factor. You have lost your basic humanity if you argue this way. Skepticism doesn’t permit you to abandon your responsibilities towards other people. And if I catch a skeptic abusing S or any other grieving mother, you will find your scientific method protecting you about as much as the marabou storks saved Roy Strang. There’s a lot more to life than science, and that wider world demands that you treat your fellow, irrational unscientific brothers and sisters with a little basic respect.

Stories about parental relationships

The Day of the Dead Dad rapidly approaches. And, to get you in the mood, I have two stories for you about the nature of parental relationships.

For some time, I’ve been listening to a variety of podcasts. Some are non-fiction, such as the excellent Freakonomics podcast, Melvyn Bragg’s In Our Time and NPR’s Planet Money. But all work and no play makes Fr Adam a dull boy, so I mix it up with some fiction. And one of the fiction podcasts I listen to is Escape Pod, which serves up science fiction stories.

Now, to be honest, Escape Pod is a bit hit and miss. Their stories are narrated rather than enacted. In other words, it’s a person reading a story rather than a piece of radio theatre. That makes listening more difficult, as you have to listen to every word in case it is salient. It can also stray a little bit into science fantasy for my liking. And some of the stories are very long. One recently was over 90 minutes, which is a pretty long time investment.

However, when Escape Pod gets it right, it gets it right. And two recent stories knocked me off my feet. Curiously, they both deal with the relationship between generations.

The Paper Menagerie describes a Chinese immigrant to the US who is particularly skilled with origami. But her son finds her Chinese ways embarrassing and begs her to be more American. The story charts his path towards realising how foolish he was.

And The Homecoming is about an estranged son who seeks reconciliation with his parents. Mur Lafferty, who created Escape Pod and hosts this episode, said that Mike Resnick, the author of the story, tends to make her cry and did so again with this story. I don’t regard myself as nearly so sentimental. There was no way he was going to make me cry. But, at the end of the story, I found myself wandering up Kingsway bawling my eyes out.

Neither is particularly long, and if you don’t fancy listening to the podcasts, you can read the stories in full on the website instead.

Skeptical atheism, religion and politeness

It’s long been a concern of mine about the skeptics movement that some skeptics find themselves unable to behave civilly when confronted with religious people. So it’s with some interest that I see that David Allen Green has published a civility and inclusion policy that seeks to address the very real problem that some skeptics seem to believe themselves so infused with their quasi-religious fervour that, quite literally, anything goes. Even the essential moral obligation to treat fellow human beings with dignity.

I coin the term ‘skeptical atheism’ as the form of atheism which aggressively seeks to put down religion, often in disparaging, rude terms, rather than the mere expression of personal disbelief in God. God is often a great comfort to people at critical points of their lives. To deny that, even in kind terms, would be improper. To do so in the strident, carping tones of the skeptical atheist is totally unacceptable.

From a personal point of view, I ended up at religion as a result of the study of science. I found that there were simply too many questions that science was unable to answer. This is inevitable given its narrow instruction set, which insists that experiments must be reproducible. Science also tends to be more comfortable with theories and hypotheses that support the existing literature rather than contradict it, even when the possibility must always exist that the existing literature is flawed. Therefore science doesn’t build in a linear fashion, but lurches forward in a series of catastrophic revolutions.

Demand for reproducibility and an absence of wonder in the scientific literature means that religion is excluded almost by definition. Unfortunately, skeptical thought falsely treats the lack of need for religion as proof that it doesn’t exist. But we know that this line of reasoning must be false, due to the nature of knowledge acquisition itself. Descartes acknowledged that, from first principles, the only thing you can know is that, because you think, you exist. Beyond that, you’re having to take things on faith. You must trust that your eyes aren’t deceiving you, that your memory isn’t flawed or being tampered with, and that scientific laws and constants don’t vary. Worse than that, so much of the body of scientific knowledge is built upon experiments that most skeptics have never observed and – indeed – don’t actually understand. Ultimately their argument becomes that they trust [insert your favourite celebrity skeptic here] more than they trust a religious leader. While you could construct some arguments from first principles as to why this might be desirable, it’s certainly not qualitatively different, as skeptical atheists seem to believe.

Some of these issues may get aired on Monday June 25, when Canon Dr Giles Fraser, formerly of St Paul’s Cathedral and now of St Mary Newington, presents at Westminster Skeptics on the subject “Being suspicious about the Skeptics.” I urge you all to attend. And it will be a very significant and potentially serious test of Green’s civility policy. It’s only a few weeks old; let’s hope it can have a long and happy life.