Fight the offensive buses. Fight them.

So yesterday a bus driver turned up to work, saw a heathen message on the side of a bus, and had a strop. With arms folded, stamping his foot and scowling1 he threw all of his toys out of the pram and refused to work any more. His employers have been very understanding, probably because they’re scared witless of getting sued. As has been pointed out, I’m sure they’d have been just as accommodating towards a Labour supporter who refused to drive under Tory adverts. Obviously, this dude is an easy target: who the hell thinks bus drivers endorse adverts on their bus? He’s clearly not thinking straight / taking the mickey. It’s pretty funny, but even more entertaining are yesterday’s Early Day Motions.

EDMs are – as far as I can tell – pointless ranty things that MPs sign to placate crazy constituents. I don’t know how many are serious, but I only seem to hear about dumb ones – a couple of years ago there was one condemning Channel 4 for changing the time of Countdown. I think they can do something if you get more than x number of MP signatures, but this never happens for the bonkers stuff.

Obviously, there’s an EDM relating to the atheist buses. Two, in fact. Here’s the second, as reported by mediawatchwatch:

Offensive advertisements on public transport
That this House notes that posters with the slogan `There’s Probably No God. Now Stop Worrying and Enjoy Your Life’, appear on 800 buses in England, Scotland and Wales, as well as on the London Underground; notes that this causes concern to Christian and Muslim people, many of whom feel embarrassed and uncomfortable travelling on public transport displaying such advertisements and would not wish to endorse the advertisements by using that public transport; regrets that the British Humanist Association backs the campaign; and calls on Ministers responsible for public transport and advertising media to investigate this matter and to seek to remove these religiously offensive and morally unhelpful advertisements.

I like the implication that only Christian and Muslim people are clever enough to feel “embarrassed and uncomfortable”. Hindus? Buddhists? Scientologists? Who gives a crap. Christians and Muslims are obviously the persecuted minority.

It’s particularly amusing that this provides no hint of any justification. The adverts generate the aforementioned uncomfortableness and embarrasment, and also cause ‘concern’. By the end they’re ‘religiously offensive’, which I assume means the same as ‘offensive’, and ‘morally unhelpful’, which is just weird. There’s no hint of a reason for any of this – the concern-causing-nature of the adverts is in itself enough to warrant the complaint. Which is odd, because you don’t Just Get Concerned – there’s usually some cause. It’s almost like they’re too embarrassed to say what it is.

It’s also great that some MPs think using public transport constitutes an endorsement of its advertising. I assume they don’t watch ITV. And never buy newspapers.

So that’s all a bit embarrassing, given that it comes from the people in charge of the country. But here’s the first EDM, which imho is even better:

No God Advertising
That this House notes the recent advertising campaign based on London buses, There’s Probably No God, the brainchild of the British Humanist Association; also notes the fact that the rationale behind it is that people can be less careful about their lifestyle choices and general approach to life’s consequences by discounting the likelihood of a Creator and an afterlife; and recommends to Christian groups considering alternative advertising approaches to There’s Probably No God to counter it with the simple addition of But What If There Is.

I love that somebody somewhere has a brain so utterly devoid of reason that they see ‘now stop worrying and enjoy your life’ and interpret it as ‘care less about consequences’. Anyway, I’ve fully taken into account the likelihood of a Creator and an afterlife. It’s pretty small. It’s down there with the homeopaths, dallying with the psychics and the spoon-benders. Done. Sorted.

But What If There Is? Yes, what if there is? Equally, what if a space pretzel with a wand of bees breaks into your house tonight? How will you defend yourself against its mighty juice? Don’t tell me there are no space pretzels. YOU DON’T KNOW. I’m gonna put up a sign.

  1. I imagine []

Atheist Buses launched

Atheist Bus in the wildI am extremely pleased to hear that the Atheist Bus Campaign has been a massive success. It raised over £135,000, from an original target of £5,500. Excellent. 800 buses were launched today: 200 in London, with the remaining ones spread out over England, Scotland and Wales.

There are also 1000 Tube cards, with quotations from Douglas Adams, Albert Einstein, Emily Dickinson and Katharine Hepburn. Lovely.

There’s been a bit of infighting over the slogan, what with us atheists being contrary by nature. I still like it. There’s also been some deeply entertaining commentary on us arrogant humanists pushing our agenda and being – wait for it – just as bad as those we’re complaining about and (you knew this was coming) isn’t it ironic. To which I think the best reply was served up on BoingBoing:

lets convert this to muffins. because its nicer to talk about muffins than gods.

Say there was a prevailing belief that there was a supreme muffin that would punish you for not believing in it despite the fact that around the world there were other religions with supreme croissants supreme cupcakes, etc.

The muffinites put up billboards and television advertising, and little pamplets, and had people on the street telling you that there really was eternal punishment in a magical oven if you didn’t accept the muffin as the one true path to salvation.

Not only that but they try to legislate certain beliefs to try to ensure the safety of the souls of the people who don’t believe what they do (only out of concern mind you, when you get to heaven through their efforts, you’ll be with the muffin)

one day someone puts up a sign that says “there probably isn’t a muffin.”

Lets criticize this arrogant and obnoxious sign.

The buses are all a-twitter, and photos are coming in from around the country. Similar buses are also doing the rounds in Barcelona and Washington D.C., and there’ll be some in Italy next month. Australia’s outdoor advertising company sadly rejected them, which is pretty miserable. Hopefully they’ll relent.

I like it. I like it a lot. I must ride one.

Eight Lessons and Carols for Godless People

This evening I headed to the Bloomsbury Theatre for Robin Ince’s Eight Lessons and Carols for Godless People. He arranged it in response to incessantly mental claims of an atheist ‘war on Christmas’, and his impressive lineup of comedians and musicians provided three hours of secular entertainment. It was excellent. Really, really great, and surprisingly life-affirming.

I have to spend all tomorrow writing and reading logical-fallacy-filled art theories in the uni library, so I’ll write up my thoughts on tonight while they’re still fresh. Sorry if it’s not terribly coherent.

The evening was bookended by Carl Sagan, and (half) the audience laughed at an uncertainty principle joke. It was obviously not your usual event, and, for me, it was like going home. I just felt comfortable. This was mainly due to the makeup of the audience, who were probably all secular freethinkers. This was fantastic, as lots could go unsaid. There were, as you’d expect, plenty of cracks about religion, but the type of audience meant there was no need for ‘of course, we don’t actually think all Christians are morons, and that was a bit of hyperbole for comic effect, and we understand the social and psychological pressures that lead people to have a deep attachment to their religious faith, although we don’t think that’s an excuse etc. etc.’. Instead you could just say ‘anyone who thinks God tinkers with financial matters but ignores the Rwandan genocide is clearly fucking crazy’. Because everyone understood.

At the risk of sounding like an awful snob, the whole thing was sophisticated. Not in an aren’t-we-clever way, just that nobody pandered or was condescending. It was just…mature. And rational. And elitist, in that the people on stage often knew a lot, and weren’t afraid to show it. Great stuff.

Robin Ince compered the evening, and made me laugh a lot. His contempt for Stephen Green (the despicable homophobic head of Christian Voice) was palpable, although sadly the man himself didn’t turn up.

Richard Dawkins read his gerin oil essay, which works surprisingly well out-loud, as well as an extract from Unweaving the Rainbow. I assumed he’d get the loudest round of applause of the night, but that wasn’t actually the case…

Ricky Gervais was as good as you’d hope, and is apparently touring with his long-promised ‘Science’ show next year. I’ll have to get tickets for that.

Stewart Lee was very impressive, as you’d expect from the writer of Jerry Springer: The Opera. I mentioned recently that he tries to make his comedy situational, rather than language-based, and that was certainly the style of this evening. His comedy partner Richard Herring was a highlight of the second half of the show, and his image of heaven as full of your parental ejaculate’s 600 million losing sperm, to whom you have to justify your life, is surprisingly evocative.

Chris Addison is apparently in a BBC sitcom called Lab Rats, which I’ll certainly be checking out. His manic performance was great in that he explained lots about the development of language, which you wouldn’t think is an inherently funny topic, but he proved otherwise. His line about a remote tribe that communicates with clicks and whistles always being surrounded by unexpected horses reduced me to a giggling wreck. I think I remember him from HIGNFY, now I think about it.

I’ll have to investigate Natalie Haynes, too, as her re-telling of a radio debate with a grumpy my-baby-trumps-all mother was a thing of beauty.

Ben Goldacre is a force to be reckoned with. He speaks as well as he writes, which if you’ve read his articles1 you’ll know is very well indeed. His was the only not-so-cheerful talk, but his savaging of the woo community’s response to AIDS denialism was a thing to behold. It wasn’t a direct call to action, but it was lucid, logical, and angry. I suspect everyone in the room found themselves wanting to get involved in that particular battle. I certainly felt guilty that I haven’t tried to do more, and tried (vainly, so far) to think of ways my photographic or computing skills could help. I’m sure he wouldn’t be keen if I said he was a hero, but he’s increasingly a superstar of the skeptical community, as he a) knows his stuff b) does something about it. All while working as a doctor.

But the unexpected highlight of the evening was a final nine-minute beat poem (forgive me if the terminology is wrong) by someone whose name I can’t remember, and doesn’t seem to be written down anywhere. He was barefoot and awesome in his reading of a poem about battling a dinner party woo-meister. The rhymes were unforced, the story witty, the theme uplifting and the musical timing to his backing track impeccable. I must find more of this guy’s work, as I liked everything about it. If only I knew his name. I think he got the loudest applause of the night, and deservedly so.

I don’t have a list of the performers, so I’m undoubtedly forgetting and omitting some excellent people. I’ll probably remember them all while trying to get to sleep. Everybody was entertaining, although I admit one or two of the musical acts passed me by, and at least once I felt like I was missing something big – Peter Buckley Hill? But that’s just personal taste, and is only a minor quibble.

Robin Ince says he hopes to produce similar shows year-round. I think he called it a ‘rationality ramadan’. If they’re as optimistic, entertaining and balls-out-standing-up-for-what-we-believe-in as this one, sign me up. What a wonderful thing.

  1. or book, which I recommend unreservedly and shamefully haven’t written up on here yet []

Off to the Godless bonanza

I’m off to 8 Lessons and Carols for Godless People tonight. I’ve been looking forward to it for months.

Organised by [Ricky Gervais’] touring sidekick Robin Ince, the line-up includes both men, along with Chris Addison, Phill Jupitus, Stewart Lee, Dara O’Briain and Mark Thomas. The bill is bolstered by leading lights from the world of science – including arch atheist Richard Dawkins – and music from, among others, Jarvis Cocker.

“I want these evenings to be like fractured versions of the Royal Institution Christmas lectures,” says Ince, “fun, entertaining and informative.”

His motivation is as benign as it is pro-rationalist. “I wanted to do events around Christmas for people who don’t have any belief, to show that they’re not bitter, Scrooge-like characters. Everyone is going to be approaching the evening from a passionate scientific perspective rather than from a bashing-the-Bible slant.”

 The Telegraph, being the Telegraph, felt it necessary to include a bit of muppetry:

There will even be carol-singing, he promises. “Who doesn’t like singing a carol? I mean, if you sing Robbie Williams’s Angels you don’t have to believe in angels, do you? Most singers sing lots of songs that have no truth in them whatsoever.” It’s that kind of casually derogatory remark that may do much to stir the antipathy of those with religious beliefs.

My heart bleeds. Seriously, outside of Stephen Green and the various Archbishops, are any Christians that sensitive?

But by holding this rationalist jamboree so close to Christmas, are they not guilty of provocation?

Hmmm, good point. It is a bit militant of us, holding a stage show and all. I wouldn’t want to provoke the Church of England’s uncontrollable urge to feel victimised.

(wait, can you use ‘bonanza’ like that? I’m confused. Oh, never mind.)

God Trumps

I used to play Top Trumps at junior school. I mainly stuck to the deck of superheroes (shocking, I know), in which Captain America won every time, which is clearly ridiculous.

Much more sensible are New Humanist’s God Trumps cards:

New Humanist God Trumps - Humanist New Humanist God Trumps - Humanist

Sounds about right. They’ve a selection representing all the major belief systems. Agnostics are, as ever, a bit crap. And one card trumps all by making everything NOT FUNNY.

You wouldn’t want to be miserable

Clearly the Guardian website has an editor with a sense of humour. There’s no other way this article on annoying atheists could have been published:

Far from relaxing and enjoying life, most atheists I have encountered are gloomy blighters with a depressing and nihilistic message that there is no purpose to life so where’s the point of anything? They so often fall into the category defined by GK Chesterton: “Those that do not have the faith/Will not have the fun.”

I’ve never really understood why ‘there not being a purpose to life’ would imply there being no point to anything. I also like the argumentative tactic of quoting someone else talking bollocks in the hope nobody notices. But I only quoted the above to show the context of her next line:

You only have to attend one of their dreary humanist funerals to see that – I am never going to another of those, just to be made miserable.

I don’t think there’s anything to say to that. Via B&W.

The Atheist Bus

This morning a Comment is Free post (of all things) launched a campaign to counter religious advertising on London buses. Quite brilliantly, it’s already raised enough to buy space for an advert on 30 buses, which will say:

There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.

Love it. It’s in response to adverts for the Alpha Course, which linked to a website telling of the tremendous suffering that will come to unbelievers. That kind of thing really pisses me off. The Alpha Course isn’t on the fringes of UK Christianity – it’s everywhere. If it were all flowers and bunnies, it might be polite to let it go by. But it’s not, and I’d say it’s rude not to counter it. 

I’m looking forward to the whinings over this one. Not from the religious lobby – though that could be entertaining – but there’ll be claims of militancy and why are you being so aggressive and this isn’t the best way to do things and blah superior blah. Fun times.

The CoE reverend vs. the militant preaching of homosexuality

So there’s this priest who thinks gay men should have “sodomy can seriously damage your health” tattooed on their backsides. Having written this charming statement on his blog, he’s now claiming it was ‘satire’. I am at a loss as to what he’s satirising, though, and can only assume it’s himself. However, it’s nice to see the Church of England condemning him for being obviously out of his mind. Because God in fact likes gay people, he’s just very homophobic and doesn’t want them near him in heaven. Or whatever. I forget. Anyhow, everyone’s pointing and laughing at the old crazy dude, and that’s a good thing.

This kind of comment is barely surprising, to be honest – old bonkers homophobes in the CoE, who’d have thought – but the dude’s clarifying remarks have a new line of bigotry that’s worth noting:

I certainly have nothing against homosexuals. Many of my dear friends have been and are of that persuasion.

Have been. It’s a choice, you see. Also: points for the brazen non sequitur.

What I have got against them…

See, in my mind this is incompatible with ‘I certainly have nothing against homosexuals’, but that’s me.

What I have got against them is the militant preaching of homosexuality

And thus we witness the death of the word ‘militant’.

To be fair, it was on the way out already. ‘Militant religious fundamentalists’ blow up abortion clinics, while ‘militant atheists’ write books. I would suggest this is not very equivalent, but the entire media would seem to disagree. This is because it lets them off the hook. They really want to report on ‘religion vs. atheism’, but really really don’t want to write about the issues. So they use the standard relativist trick of crying hypocrisy: look, these militant atheists are just as bad as those they’re criticising, isn’t it ironic. It’s the perfect solution: you get to sit in judgment without actually judging anything.

But the Reverend Peter Mullen has gone further and stripped the word of all sense. I’m intigued as to what ‘militant preaching of homosexuality’ would involve, actually, but even excusing the scything of the English language: what the hell is he even talking about? Preaching of homosexuality? That’s happening? Having redefined ‘militant’, maybe he’s doing the same for ‘preaching’ – perhaps it now means ‘anything that brings homosexuality to my attention’. Because I really can’t see any other explanation.

I’m off for some militant sleepytimes now. And before that, some militant toast.

RIP Cracker

The cracker is no more. It’s gone to heaven, or it’s still alive, or whatever. The post is only a few hours old, and there are already over 1000 comments.

I’ve seen plenty of comments over P.Z.’s cracker controversy, with lots of generally sensible people adopting disapproving tones. I think Rebecca Watson gets it right (as ever):

A percentage of the omgrude crowd is upset because they do not think PZ’s words help further the skeptical movement because he won’t convince any of the hardcore group that they are crazy. I agree that he probably won’t convince many true believers, but I disagree that he doesn’t help rational people. Just about any time someone dares to point out the absurdity of irrational thinking, he does a great service to many other rational thinkers who were too scared or unsure to say so themselves.

Did Trey Parker and Matt Stone convince any true believers when they called John Edward the Biggest Douche in the Universe? Probably not many, but I bet they influenced a lot of young people who might have been on the fence. There’s no one right way to communicate skepticism, and for every Trey & Matt we need a Carl Sagan. For every PZ, we need a Julia Sweeney or a Hemant. If one isn’t to your taste, you’re free to ignore him, but it’s short-sighted to claim that person is hindering the “skeptical movement” just because he’s not your bag.

I’d only add that it was the church who initially tried to impose their fantasies on the real world. That the real world pointed and laughed is only to be expected.

Maybe, just maybe, this will put an end to the whole thing. Heck, even Jesus has had enough.

An Atheism Meme

I’ve been tagged by the ever-readable Scribbles.

Q1) How would you define atheism?

The provisional conclusion that there is no compelling evidence for the existence of spiritual overlords.

I still use the term ‘atheist’ as it’s pretty easy to explain what I mean, which I’d have to do for ‘freethinker’, ‘nontheist’ etc. anyway. Don’t get me started on ‘agnostic’, though (the director’s cut of Donnie Darko defines an agnostic as ‘someone who believes that there can be no proof of the existence of God, but does not deny the possibility that God exists’. WTF.).

Q2) Was your upbringing religious? If so, what tradition?

Not really. I wasn’t Christened, and I can’t recall my parents ever making outright claims one way or another. But when I was a kid my (not all that religious) grandmother inexplicably bought me ‘the Bible in 365 easy stories’, or something, and I made my parents read it every night. I recently asked what they thought of that, and they said they didn’t anticipate how violent it would be. I remember the artwork more than the stories, but some of the old testament stuff stuck. I’ve yet to re-examine the battle-watching dude who had to hold his arms aloft to prevent the mass slaughter of all his people, but even at 10 that was a bit weird. But I bought into anything that seemed mysterious, so I was Generically Christian until probably 14-15ish. By then I’d begun to realise the assembly-guest vicars sometimes came out with total rubbish, and I remember calling myself an agnostic (argh) in a discussion with über-Christian RE teacher1 at about that age.

Q3) How would you describe ‘intelligent design’, using only one word.


Q4) What scientific endeavour really excites you?

My favourites have always been astronomy and cosmology. I mean, stars are only ever point sources no matter how big your telescope, but by analysing their light we can figure out their chemical composition. The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter took a picture of the Pheonix Lander parachuting to the ground2. The light from the Big Bang is still bouncing around, making up 3% of the static on an untuned tv screen, and we can use this to figure out the conditions in the first microseconds after the Big Bang. It’s just nuts. And brilliant.

But the older I get, the more I’m impressed by the basics. Just the easy little physics equations, and that they actually work. I get regular holy-shit flashes about natural selection, too.

It seems like most things, the more I think about them the more they descend into grey-area mess. Politics, photography, the day-to-day running of my life, whatever. But science is the inverse: the deeper I look, the more detailed and clearer things get, and it’s both a lifeline and a joy. So I’m rather a fan of the endeavour as a whole 🙂

Q5) If you could change one thing about the ‘atheist community’ what would it be?

Erm. I don’t think the ‘atheist community’ share anything but a disbelief in deities, really. The Internet forums suffer from the usual problem of online communities, though, and I’d like to kick out the mental atheists who forget religious people are human too.

Q6) If your child came up to you and said ‘I’m joining the clergy’, what would be your first response?

Which one? Why that one? Will it make you happy? Can I be a guest speaker?

Q7) What’s your favourite theist argument, and how do you refute it?

I quite like the ontological argument, which essentially says:

Imagine the most perfect being you can. Got it? Well, that one’s just in your head. A really perfect being would actually exist, because existing is more perfect than not existing. Therefore god exists.

This one’s quite good as it’s obviously completely bloody stupid, but it’s actually quite difficult to put your finger on why. People have, of course, and it’s fun wrapping your brain in knots trying to keep up.

The ontological argument doesn’t come up much in the cafeteria, though. Pascal’s Wager is better: if you die and god does exist you’re screwed, but if he doesn’t there’s no experience of any kind, so play the odds. That’s always entertaining, as I reject it for the same reason I don’t erect shrines to my toaster.

Other than that, there’s the moment when someone looks at you with pity in their eyes and says ‘Jesus’. As if that proves shit.

Q8) What’s your most ‘controversial’ (as far as general attitudes amongst atheists goes?) viewpoint?

I suppose thinking the Iraq War was at least a tricky decision is pretty controversial. And I’m a total relativist on the arts. But these don’t really count – they’re counter to the general opinion of commenters on atheist forums, but only in as much as they’re common to everyone.

As regards general attitudes amongst atheists, I can’t think of much…I take the Dawkins / P.Z. Myers approach that critical thinking + scientific knowledge will inevitably erode religious belief, and that saying the two are compatible is duplicitous. That one does at least split the scientists in the atheist community.

I also harbour some suspicions about the arguments over the best ways to change people’s minds. There are endless arguments over the merits of meet-them-halfway versus stand-up-for-what-you-believe-in, and I’m not sure there’s evidence for any of it yet. Although I haven’t yet read Carol Tavris’ book, so I might be talking rubbish.

Q9) Of the ‘Four Horsemen’ (Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens and Harris) who is your favourite and why?

Dawkins, for reasons that will be terribly tedious to anyone who’s read this blog for a while. The Blind Watchmaker literally changed my life – I haven’t looked at the world the same way since – and I’m thankful to and admire the guy such that I have to be careful not to let biases get in the way of critical thinking. A couple of years ago I got him to sign my original TBW, and I think it’s time to read it again.

Q10) If you could convince one theistic person to abandon their beliefs, who would it be?

Ahmadinejad. And Katie Holmes, because she seems so nice.

Also: Russell Brand. He’s not specifically religious, but goes in for all sorts of spiritual mumbo-jumbo. It’s a shame, as the guy would be such a force for rationality.

Pass it on

I’m setting you free, little meme. Run, run like the wind.

  1. “on Christmas morning I want you all to get up and shout, as loud as you can, ‘HAPPY BIRTHDAY JESUS!'” []
  2. I so want a poster of that photo []